Posted by: SJ | September 17, 2014

not a large world: music for Dickens’s “Bleak House”

bleak house - not a large world

“It is not a large world … There is much good in it; there are many good and true people in it; it has its appointed place. But the evil of it is, that it is a world wrapped up in too much jeweler’s cotton and fine wool, and cannot hear the rushing of the larger worlds, and cannot see them as they circle round the sun.” (Dickens20)

listen on 8tracks

I had to do a deal of driving this weekend, and maybe because I’ve been steeping myself in Bleak House, lots of songs struck me as particularly relevant to Dickens’s novel. As a disclaimer, I haven’t yet finished the novel (page 770!) so the songs may not address all the crucial themes and events of Bleak House. Regardless, I hope you enjoy this mix – it took me a while to compile and organize, and I think that it offers diverse and interesting outlooks on the issues Dickens explored.  — Sarah Jane

|DISCLAIMER: none of these songs belong to me, nor do I claim any rights to them|

  1. Fog Bound | Klaus Badelt
  2. Any Other World | Mika
  3. The Way It Goes | Gillian Welch
  4. The Business of Things | Dar Williams
  5. Photograph | Def Leppard
  6. These Streets | Bastille
  7. Blue Lips | Regina Spektor
  8. Lost In My Mind | The Head And The Heart
  9. Birds | Deas Vail
  10. Better | Regina Spektor
  11. Reflection | Lea Solanga
  12. Caribbean Blue | Enya
  13. The Age of Miracles | Mary Chapin Carpenter

the music and the novel; explanations behind each track

Fog Bound | | “Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.” (Dickens 14)

Any Other World | it’s all in the hands / of a bitter bitter man […] take a bow, play the part / of a lonely lonely heart (Mika) |
Any Other World brings us out of the fog of London and into the fog of the Chancery Court. The Lord Chancellor (a bitter, bitter man) rules the world of Chancery along with a cohort of legal attendants, who stage and direct the events of their world at a whim.

The Way It Goessee the brightest ones of all / early in October, fall […] while the dark ones go to bed / with good whiskey in their heads (Gillian Welch) | “If I [Liz] work for him [Liz’s baby] ever so much, and ever so hard, there’s no one to help me; and if he should be turned bad, ‘spite of all I could do, and the time should come when I should sit by him in his sleep, made hard and changed, an’t it likely I should think of him as he lies in my lap now, and wish he had died as Jenny’s child died!” (Dickens 361) | While Chancery Court churns through legal absurdities, the townspeople, suitors, and anyone remotely connected to the place powerlessly attempt to live their lives. The Way It Goes calls attention to the plight of women and children especially, who often have nothing but death to look forward to.

The Business of Thingseveryone nods along / I have done nothing wrong / and it feels like a crime (Dar Williams) | “Something is wrong, somewhere, but what something, what may come of it, to whom, when, and from which unthought of and unheard of quarter, is the puzzle of his life.” (Dickens 406) | This song emphasizes the inhumanity of oppressive systems, which condemn people for nothing. Mr. Snagsby’s plight comes to mind, for example: the man feels unaccountably guilty for his unknowing participation in suspicious doings. The repetition of the word “cold” is particularly relevant to the plight of the poor in Bleak House: people like Jo, Charley, Tom, and Emma are neglected and criminalized such that they’re likely to starve or freeze to death.

PhotographI see your face every time I dream / on every page, every magazine […] you got some sorta hold on me / you’re all wrapped up in mystery (Def Leppard) | “‘It’s unaccountable to me,’ [Mr. Guppy] says, still staring at the portrait, ‘ how well I know that picture! I’m dashed!’ adds Mr. Guppy, looking round, ‘if I don’t think I must have had a dream of that picture, you know!'” (Dickens 111) | This regrettably catchy song summarizes creepy, shallow Mr Guppy quite well, I think. It also expounds on the resonance of portraits in the mind, while suggesting their more crass uses as marketing or porn, regardless of the portrait’s subject’s intent.

These Streets | in my mind it’s like you haunt them / and passing through, I think I see you / in the shapes of other women (Bastille) | This song captures the themes of likeness, mistaken identity, and the almost supernatural power of images which run throughout the novel.

Blue Lips | the pictures in his mind awoke / and began to breed / they started off beneath the knowledge tree / and they chopped it down to make a picket fence / and marching along the railroad tracks / they smiled real wide for the camera lenses (Regina Spektor) | Blue Lips takes us from images to their effect on the beholder. The pictures in Mr. Guppy’s mind cause him to investigate their power with catastrophic effect, as he initiates and propagates the investigation into Lady Dedlock’s past. Portraits are almost a disease, which breeds within the mind. This song brings to mind Chancery Court’s destructive business and the practice of law in general — it “started off beneath the knowledge tree,” but that knowledge became fuel for personal property and fame.

Lost In My Mind | are your hands gettin’ filled? / Won’t you tell me, my brother? / ‘Cause there are stars up above / We can start moving forward (The Head And The Heart) | “Pray, pray, dear Richard, for my sake, and for your own, and in a natural repugnance for that source of trouble … pray, pray, let it go for ever.” (Dickens 602) | I imagine this song as one of the many conversations between Esther, Mr. Jarndyce, Ada, and Richard, as they beg Richard to give up his fruitless obsession with the case, which has infected his mind. I also like that Lost In My Mind uses astral imagery to symbolize the future and possibility, which Bleak House also examines.

Caribbean Blueif all you told was turned to gold / if all you dreamed was new / imagine sky high above / in Caribbean blue […] Eurus, Afer Ventus, Boreas, Zephryus, Africus (Enya) | “But it can’t last for ever. We shall come on for a final hearing, and get judgement in our favor; and then you and Ada shall see what I can really be!” (Dickens 371) | I read Caribbean Blue as Richard’s response to his family and friends’ concern: aggressive optimism. At the end of this song, Enya lists the Anemoi – the four Greek Wind gods – beginning with Eurus, the East wind, which Richard awakens in Mr. Jarndyce, leading to their estrangement.

Betterif I kiss you where it’s sore / will you feel better, better, better / will you feel anything at all? (Regina Spektor) | I was greatly moved by Esther’s behavior during her illness, particularly her painful decision to keep Ada safe and healthy at all costs, prioritizing her friend’s life over their present happiness and comfort. Although Better isn’t obviously connected to the novel, I find its touching account of female friendship extremely evocative of Esther and Ada’s love for each other, and Ada’s frustration and inability to help her friend during Esther’s illness.

Reflectionwho is that girl I see / staring straight back at me / why is my reflection someone I don’t know? (Lea Solana) | Alright, you knew it was coming. I just couldn’t resist something from the Mulan soundtrack. 🙂 This song furthers the themes of separation established by the previous three tracks, which spoke to familial estrangement. Here, Reflection deals with separation of the self — internal versus external image and how Esther must reconcile them after her disfiguring illness.

Birdswe are just figurines / with a theology / we don’t understand […] when I’m just one fighting indifference / does it matter what I say? (Deas Vail) This and the last song provide insight into the novel as a whole. The characters are tools of Chancery and of each other, with limited autonomy and power. Like Miss Flite’s birds, they must await Chancery’s decision to gain their freedom. Or, is it possible to change your fate? (yes, I’m very tempted to put a song from Brave in here!) When faced with the overwhelming might of the system, is individual effort completely futile?

The Age of Miracles | it seems we’re just standing still / one day we’ll get up that hill in the age of miracles / is one on the way? (Mary Chapin Carpenter) | The Age of Miracles poses a sort of answer to the previous song’s question: maybe. In Chancery’s unproductive but constant motion there is a sort of hope, but that hope depends on “the age of miracles” arriving. However, the very end of this song promises that “there’s one on the way.”

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin Group (2003). Print.

cover art: original image from “Lonely Cities” by Zachary Johnson. edits by me.

all songs and lyrics belong to their respective writers and artists.


  1. I love the idea of a playlist that moves through the novel and explores its central problems in another medium. Wonderful!

  2. I really enjoyed listening to this playlist. I’ve heard some of the songs before, like the Regina Spektor ones, Bastille’s “These Streets”, and (of course) “Reflection”. So I already really liked a good part of the list. Reading your explanations while each song was playing was really powerful and the way you connected the song lyrics with important themes in the book was really creative! I especially liked how you related the theme of likeness and mistaken identity with “These Streets”.The lyrics you pointed out from that song really speak to the way Jo thought Hortense and Esther were the woman (Lady Dedham) who paid him to show her around.

    I have to thank you for introducing me to some new music, too. I can’t stop listening to the song “Birds” and the rest of Deas Vail’s songs are also pretty good. I didn’t think “Carribbean Blue” would be a type of song I’d like, but the more I listened to it, the more I wanted to keep listening to it. Not only were the connections you made really interesting, but you gave some great music recommendations!

  3. Really cool idea, SJ : ) Loved the songs. They really motivate me to study.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: