Elaine Auyoung: On Reading Bleak House

An 1853 illustration to Bleak House

by Elaine Auyoung

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

I want to call attention not so much to what seems newly radical about Bleak House but rather to how we can use a new critical approach to illuminate what reading Dickens has involved all along. Although major accounts of nineteenth-century fiction and especially of Bleak House have made powerful claims about what novels do to their readers, what readers actually do when they read Bleak House largely remains a black box on the periphery of literary studies. When J. Hillis Miller (2002: 18) describes his phenomenological experience of reading a novel, he says that the text “comes alive as a kind of internal theater that seems in a strange way independent of the words on the page.” Miller reaches for this naïve, metaphoric vocabulary because critics lack more precise methods for articulating how novelists direct readers to conceive of fictional persons, places, and incidents that are less like the sentences on the page and more like the perceptual world.

The Victorian psychologist Alexander Bain (1855: 590) offered an account of something like the phenomenon that Miller describes, distinguishing between retaining the exact words used to describe a landscape and retaining a mental conception of the landscape itself. In the past twenty-five years, contemporary psychologists of text comprehension have developed more elaborate versions of Bain’s idea. According to their prevailing model, readers seeking to comprehend a sentence from Bleak House (Dickens 1996: 406) about Mr. Snagsby “carving the first slice of the leg of mutton baked with potatoes” rely on the words on the page as a set of instructions or verbal cues (see Graesser, Millis, and Zwaan 1997). These cues prompt readers to retrieve their existing background knowledge, such as what a potato is or how to perform the act of carving, in order to form mental representations of what is described. In other words, Dickens provides verbal cues that exist in dynamic relation with the embodied, social, and affective knowledge that readers have acquired from their own everyday lives. From this perspective, literary experience seems less like practice or programming for real life than one of the payoffs of our quotidian labor as embodied beings moving through the world.

This is not to suggest that readers pause to imagine for themselves all the details of the Snagsby kitchen, but only that, as part of comprehending a text, readers necessarily come away with mental content that is more like the physical world than like the printed text. Of course, no two reading acts are ever exactly the same, which means that examining the processes that reading involves necessarily takes place at a certain level of abstraction. Knowing more about these processes, however, can actually help us understand how history influences the reading experience in a more sensitive way. For instance, the amount of background knowledge that many readers have about the Bible has changed dramatically since the Victorian period, but the fact that retrieving background knowledge plays a role in reading comprehension has not changed on the same time scale (see Elfenbein 2016).

One of the payoffs of understanding the reading process in a more intricate way is that it allows us to recover the phenomenological effects of specific novelistic techniques. For example, Bleak House permits readers to come to know some aspects of the implied fictional world in exceptionally durable ways. When readers claim that fictional persons or incidents in the novel seem “lifelike” or “feels real,” they are not confused about the novel’s ontological status; nor are they necessarily making a judgment about the plausibility or historical accuracy of the text. Rather, what can be sufficient for readers to claim that some aspect of Bleak House “feels real” is the unexpected ease with which they are able to respond to, remember, and reflect on the fictional world. In short, the seemingly naïve claim that a novel “feels real” is an aesthetic judgment that reflects the reader’s ability to retrieve information about the fictional persons and scenes that the text describes. Making this central but under-recognized component of realist aesthetics available to critical examination is just one of the critical payoffs of attending to the dynamic relationship between literary technique and the mental acts that novel readers are able to perform.


Bain, Alexander. 1855. The Senses and the Intellect. London: John W. Parker and Son.

Graesser, Arthur C., Keith K. Millis, and Rolf A. Zwaan. 1997. “Discourse Comprehension.”Annual Review of Psychology 48: 163-189.

Dickens, Charles. 1996. Bleak House. Ed. Nicola Bradbury. London: Penguin. (Orig. pub. 1852-1853)

Elfenbein, Andrew. 2016. The Gist of Reading (Department of English, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities).

Miller, J. Hillis. 2002. On Literature. London: Routledge.



Elaine Auyoung is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.  She recently completed a manuscript, “Reading for the World: The Experience of Realist Fiction.”


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