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London: Dickens' Jurisdictions

Dickens' Jurisdictions: Bleak House and the Social and Legal Worlds of 19th-Century London

  • London, ENGLAND: May 31 - June 21, 2014 (3 weeks)
  • TRAVL-UG 9125 | 4 credits | Instructor: Sara Murphy (NYU Gallatin)
  • LEVEL: Undergraduate, NYU and non-NYU students
  • TOPICS: Literature, culture and society, gender, urban studies, and more

close up portrait of Charles Dickens' face

Dickens' extraordinary novel, Bleak House (1852-53), is a "big book." A virtual omnibus of mid-Victorian society, it encompasses a wide range of themes, locations, issues, and characters, attending to questions wealth and poverty, children and parents, legacies both material and abstract, the place of women, illness and health, crime and punishment, tradition and reform—all against the background of the rapidly growing, foggy, filthy, apparently disconnected city that is 19th-century London. Often it is said that this novel is "about the law," and this is true in a number of ways, most evidently through the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a central driver of Dickens' sprawling story. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a Chancery case, concerning a will; but Dickens also takes us into the broader world of legal London, giving us some of the most memorable lawyer characters in 19th-century fiction.

In this course, we focus intently on a slow and careful reading of Bleak House, supplemented by readings and field trips designed to help us understand 19th-century London and the Victorians. While locating the course in London will still not let us experience at first-hand Dickens' world, we can bring what might seem like very distant and strange locations closer through museum visits, walking tours, and other outside-the-classroom experiences that permit us to reflect on the city, which is in effect a character in the novel. Reflecting on the differences between contemporary London and its Victorian antecedent, we reflect on the ways in which history leaves its trace on the material world and the way in which literary works represent urban experience and historical change. Our reading of Bleak House will draw our attention to the ways in which the world that it seeks to represent is a vanished one; but it also may call us to realize the ways in which some of the fundamental questions it poses and the forms in which it poses them are, after all, quite close to us.

We will frame our investigation with the idea of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction literally means "the saying of the law," but it usually refers to the expertise or command of a particular court. This command can be territorial or it can deal with specific kinds of matters, as in the case of the Chancery, an institution with medieval origins that was supposed to supplement the rigor of the law with "equity." Bleak House, we might argue, locates itself at a critical moment in the development of a legal system, when common and customary law institutions and practices are coming under pressure from a rapidly developing modern society. But we might broaden this idea of jurisdiction—as Dickens does in his novel—to think about space, place, and time, affect and desire, and the " jurisdiction" of literature. Who gets to "say the law" where and with what authority? What is the space of the law? And what is the space of the literary? And how does the space of 19th-century London shape Dickens' fiction? We can also read this novel as a broader moral appeal for equity in its less institutional sense: in this novel, Dickens might be asking "who are we? and how can we live together justly?"

Gallatin students: This course fulfills 4 units of the Interdisciplinary Seminar as well as the Humanities requirement.


  • Undergraduate students of all NYU and non-NYU schools
  • Must have completed at least one full-time college semester before the course begins
  • Minimum 3.0 GPA, good academic & disciplinary standing
  • Must be matriculated at a college or university during the Summer 2014 term


  • Tuition, 4 credits: $3225
  • Deposit (applied to program costs, non-refundable): $400
  • Program Fee: $450
  • Housing Fee: $1500
  • NYU Registration & Services Fee: usually $300-500, based on past semesters

Program fee includes mandatory excursions, some meals, and mandatory international health insurance, which is provided for the program duration.

Other Major Costs to Consider:

  • Round-trip airfare (students purchase their own tickets and are responsible for their own accommodation for travel beyond the program dates); students will be notified when to book flights
  • Fees for passport; fees for travel visa, if required
  • Most meals and local transportation

Financial Aid

The Gallatin Dean's Scholarship is available for this program. See our Financial Aid for Study Away page for details on eligibility and additional opportunities.

Important Travel Details

Housing: Students are required to reside in accommodations arranged by NYU Gallatin.

Travel Documents: All program participants are required to have a valid passport, and certain participants might need a travel visa. These documents should be obtained well in advance of the program start date.