Beginning with ‘Bleak House’

Weinstein’s IRTC series looks at how Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Kafka saw the law.

Philip Weinstein will lead the first "Islanders Read the Classics" meeting with a discussion of "Bleak House." Photo courtesy of Phil Weinstein.

Literary master Philip Weinstein advises that we may come away from his fall series on classic works of fiction wondering, “What is law?”

Since many of us who watch the White House already wonder about that, and about the meaning of the Constitution, and even just what constitutes acceptable social behavior today, this six-part Islanders Read the Classics (IRTC) seminar he calls “Fictions of the Law” could be really helpful. 

The IRTC series is held at the Katharine Cornell Theater at 51 Spring St. in Vineyard Haven. The opening segment of “Fictions of the Law” takes place on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at 7 pm.

A former Swarthmore literary don, Weinstein seems to have an uncanny ability to pick a path to understanding classic works of fiction within the framework of current events. In this case, he’ll be using analysis of “Bleak House” (Charles Dickens), “Crime and Punishment” (Fyodor Dostoevsky), and “The Trial” (Franz Kafka) to provide current perspective on how the law works today.

We asked Weinstein whether this was one of those choices.

“Well, terrific question. The honest answer is no, but it is certainly an exciting and provocative way to see these three stories, and to understand what happened then in terms of the present. Many people’s anxieties are derived from the notion that law is basically the use of power, of the strong doing to the weak as they please,” he said. 

“People may come to the room with some thoughts. Certainly the series wouldn’t have had the resonance three years ago it does today. I don’t intend to teach about Trumpland, but the circumstance may be that reality, a grotesque mockery of what the scene should be, has caught up with the kookiness in these writers.” 

Weinstein is Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Emeritus at Swarthmore College. He has been offering literary seminars in cooperation with the Vineyard Haven Public Library since 2012. 

He says “Bleak House” describes the law as a carrier of injustice, with Dickens’ theme focused on the voices of the weak being heard. 

“It’s hard to fight back, and there is no revolution in Dickens. Dostoevsky read Dickens, and there is a revolution in ‘Crime and Punishment.’ Kafka came later and describes his protagonist being caught in the social and legal morass that makes him wonder if it is all a figment of his imagination,” he said. 

“I’m going to learn from this. I haven’t taught these books together. I’m hoping to make discoveries as we go.”

Weinstein’s own list of published work includes “Henry James and the Requirements of the Imagination” (1971), “The Semantics of Desire: Changing Models of Identity from Dickens to Joyce” (1984), “Faulkner’s Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns” (1992), “What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison” (1996), “Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction” (2005), “Becoming Faulkner” (2009), and “Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage” (2015). He is currently working on a book of essays entitled “Soul-Error.”


IRTC, sponsored by The MV Times, the Vineyard Haven Public Library, and Arts & Ideas magazine, begins at the Katharine Cornell Theater on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at 7 pm with a discussion of “Bleak House,” and continues on Oct. 2. “Crime and Punishment” will be discussed on Oct. 23 and Nov. 6, and the seminar concludes with a discussion of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” on Nov. 20 and Dec. 4. In order to allow the library to prepare class materials and communicate with students, participants are encouraged to sign up in advance at the library, or register online at