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Campus Classics

June-July 2009

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Gage McWeeny chose the Penguin Classics edition of Bleak House by Charles Dickens for his class.

On the first day of my nineteenth-century British novel course, I like to bring in all the novels we'll be reading that term and stack them on the desk as a way to remind students, and me, of what we're getting into. Given the realist novel's maximalist aesthetic, its conviction that it might just be able to tell the story of not only anything or anyone, but everything and every one, the stack tends to tower, to teeter even. My Penguin edition of Charles Dickens's Bleak House, which runs to over a thousand pages, is Exhibit A in the extraordinary moxie of the British realist novel's aspirations and its Big Tent policy of social inclusiveness, which means scores of characters.

On the blank end-page of my edition, I draw a sort of family tree of the characters each time I read the book as a way of marking the nearly innumerable interconnections among them, and I always share this with my students to show them that even the most ardent and compulsive readers of Dickens develop techniques for keeping track of storylines and characters. But it's not all just about the Mega-book and its bulk. There's also the Megalosaurus in the opening paragraph of the novel, a figure thrown up to us by Victorian London's Mesozoic mud, a city so foggy, Dickens tells us, it seems "gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun." The grimness of the scene becomes exquisite through Dickens's breathtakingly inventive language, casting the utterly modern streets of London as both the terra incognita of the age of dinosaurs and the end-of-days scenario of solar extinction.

There's just so much happening in the first two paragraphs of this book that we usually spend our entire first session getting a feel for the rhythm and workings of Dickens's prose, seeing how his images can shape-shift across the span of a single sentence, how astonishing and strange London becomes in the pages of Bleak House. It's a sort of teacherly sublime each time I do Bleak House, I have to admit, diving into this massive book with students, experiencing alternating states of absorption and bafflement together as the plot takes ever more turns, and admiring the acuity of Dickens's vision of modernity.

Gage McWeeny
Assistant Professor of English
Williams College
Course: The Nineteenth-Century British Novel