Michael J. Cummings...©
is November in London. Under heavy fog and chimney smoke, the carriages
and pedestrians slog through thick mud on a busy street. Nowhere is the
haze denser, and the mire thicker, than in the vicinity of the High Court
of Chancery, a court of equity. There, hundreds of cases languish in the
bog of a corrupt legal system while devious lawyers swell their moneybags
with fees. Because of its profiteering and unethical practices, the court
system bankrupts individuals and undermines the commonweal.
most famous Chancery case is Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, which clogs the docket
for years–so long, in fact, that the original litigants are dead and no
one fully understands all the intricacies of the case. The lawsuit brings
together three innocent young people at an estate called Bleak House, located
in Hertfordshire near St. Albans, about twenty miles north of London. Bleak
House was passed down to kindly John Jarndyce, a well-to-do bachelor and
a descendant of one of the original litigants. Although named in Jarndyce
vs Jarndyce, he pays little attention to the case, realizing that only
the grasping lawyers and venal court officials stand to benefit from it.
of the young people is a pleasant and sensible twenty-year-old named Esther
Summerson, who was reared by Miss Barbary, her godmother. Miss Barbary,
in anticipation of her death, had contacted John Jarndyce to ask him to
accept Esther as his ward after Miss Barbary’s demise; Jarndyce agreed
to do so.
Miss Barbary dies, Esther attends a boarding school for six years, then
is welcomed to Bleak House by John Jarndyce. She is to act as a companion
for Ada Clare, who, along with her distant cousin Richard Carstone, arrives
at Bleak House at the same time as Esther. Ada and Richard, relatives of
John Jarndyce, are orphans involved in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce. Richard expects
to receive a handsome inheritance when the case is settled. The three young
people get along wonderfully. Richard and Ada, a beautiful teenager with
a sweet disposition, are attracted to each other.
in the upper reaches of society, Lady Honoria Dedlock and her doting husband,
Sir Leicester Dedlock, are also involved in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce. But–having
wealth and social standing, as wells as homes in Lincolnshire and London–Lady
Dedlock, an attractive woman of middle age, pays little heed to the case.
It is a problem of another kind that occupies her mind: Decades before,
she bore a child after an affair with a certain Captain Hawdon. Her sister,
fearing the illegitimate birth would disgrace the family name, told Lady
Dedlock the baby was born dead, then reared the child herself with the
help of her servant. When Lady Dedlock learned that Hawdon was believed
lost at sea, she saw no reason to tell Sir Leicester about the affair or
the “dead" child, so she kept them a secret. (The reader learns later that
Lady Dedlock’s sister is Miss Barbary and that the child is Esther Summerson.)
Upsets Lady Dedlock
Dedlock’s life with Sir Leicester, who is about 20 years older than she,
is uneventful–and the affair and the child a distant memory–until Mr. Tulkinghorn,
Sir Leicester’s attorney, stops by one day with a recent legal document,
an affidavit, for the Dedlocks to review. It involves a routine matter
in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce. When Lady Dedlock glances at the document, she
recognizes the handwriting of the law writer (a clerk with a legible hand
who writes out legal papers and notices) who prepared the document and
asks Tulkinghorn the copyist’s name. Tulkinghorn, surprised at her interest
in so trivial a matter, asks her why she wants to know. She dodges the
question and then, feeling faint, retires to her bedroom.
cause of her sudden illness is the handwriting; it is Hawdon’s. Apparently,
he is still alive. The possibility now exists that her scandalous past
could become her embarrassing present. Tulkinghorn–an unscrupulous lawyer
ever ready to fatten his purse, legally or illegally–smells a secret, and
he conducts an investigation in hopes of uncovering that secret and blackmailing
impoverished, has been living under the name of Nemo (Latin for no one)
in the garret of a rag-and-bottle shop near the High Court of Chancery.
It is owned and operated by a man named Krook, who, though illiterate,
has collected all manner curiosities in his shop, including miscellaneous
legal papers. In its disarray, the shop resembles a miniature High Court
of Chancery. Also living above Krook’s shop is Miss Flite, an old woman
with caged birds–including larks, linnets, and goldfinches–who goes a bit
daft awaiting the outcome of a case in the High Court of Chancery.
his investigation, Tulkinghorn tracks the handwriting on the affidavit–through
Mr. Snagsby, a law stationer who hired Hawdon as a copyist–to the mysterious
Nemo and learns his address. However, when Tulkinghorn visits Nemo's garret
at Krook's, he and Krook discover him dead from an opium overdose.
an inquest into Nemo’s death, a poor and sickly street waif named Jo, who
earns a few coins by sweeping a path for pedestrians across dirty London
streets, testifies that he was acquainted with Nemo. Nemo treated him kindly,
he says, and sometimes gave him money. Later, Tulkinghorn presses the boy
for more information.
Lady Dedlock reads in a newspaper the account of the inquest into the death
of the copyist Nemo–the man she knows to be Hawdon–she contacts Jo and
pays him to take her to his burial place, a pauper’s grave recently covered
and Ada Fall in Love
awaiting the outcome of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, Richard and Ada fall in love,
and he pursues various careers, studying medicine and law and receiving
training for the army under a certain Mr. George, a former soldier, who
tutors Richard in the use of pistols and swords. But Richard doesn’t take
any of these careers seriously because he believes a settlement from Jarndyce
vs Jarndyce is imminent and will provide him all the income he needs. When
Ada turns 21, Richard marries her against the wishes of John Jarndyce,
who well knows that Rick–as Jarndyce calls him–is not ready for marriage
because of his immaturity and his failure to establish himself in a respectable
profession. Richard and Ada keep the marriage a secret. Afterward, Richard
spends much of his time–and what little money he has–pursuing the court
William Guppy, a law clerk who had visited Bleak House on a legal matter
of concern to John Jarndyce, has become enamored of Esther, although she
has expressed no interest in him. Through an investigation of his own,
including a visit to Krook’s that produces papers and a sketch linking
Esther and Lady Dedlock, he discovers that Esther is Lady Dedlock’s daughter
by Captain Hawdon (Nemo) and so informs Lady Dedlock. The puzzle pieces
come together: Miss Barbary, Lady Dedlock’s sister–Esther's aunt (identified
earlier in the novel as Esther’s godmother)–had reared Esther in secret
after telling Lady Dedlock that her child had been born dead. Lady Dedlock
thinks Guppy wants blackmail money, but he says he only wants Lady Dedlock’s
help in wooing Esther.
all these events are unfolding, Esther develops smallpox when she comes
in contact with Jo, who dies of the disease. Even though she thinks her
marred looks make her unworthy, her physician, Allan Woodcourt, falls in
love with her–and she with him. It so happens, though, that John Jarndyce
also loves her and asks for her hand. She accepts out of a sense of duty,
for he has treated her only with utmost benevolence and generosity.
Tulkinghorn’s investigation has led him to the same discovery made by Guppy–that
Esther is Lady Dedlock’s daughter–thanks to help from Lady Dedlock’s maid,
Hortense, who loathes Lady Dedlock and was fired from her service. After
Tulkinghorn threatens to reveal what he knows, he is found murdered. An
investigation by Inspector Bucket identifies Hortense as the killer; she
was seen throwing the murder weapon, a pistol, into a lake. She had turned
against Tulkinghorn after he refused to help her find a new job and warned
that he would have her imprisoned if she bothered him again.
part of the police investigation, Bucket–in full possession of all the
information surrounding the case–informs Sir Leicester of his wife’s scandalous
past, and he suffers what appears to be a stroke. Distraught and full of
guilt, Lady Dedlock runs off. It is winter now, and snow has fallen. She
traipses through it aimlessly. Still able to function, Sir Leicester–who
forgives his wife–hires Bucket to track her down. Bucket enlists Esther,
and together they eventually find her, dead from shock and exposure, at
the gates of the cemetery where Hawdon is buried.
also claims Krook and Richard Carstone. Krook goes out in a “blaze of glory,"
spontaneous combustion. Carstone–fretting over Jarndyce vs Jarndyce as
he awaits an inheritance that never comes–lapses into ill health and wastes
away. Ironically, the court does reach a decision at the time of Richard’s
death, but no one receives even tuppence. Nothing is left; legal and court
fees have taken everything. However, Ada and Richard’s marriage did produce
a child, and John Jarndyce keeps Ada and the child at Bleak House. When
Jarndyce discovers that Esther loves Woodcourt, he withdraws his suit for
her hand. Esther and Woodcourt marry, and she has two daughters.
The time is the middle of
the 19th Century, when Queen Victoria sat on the English throne. The action
takes place in bustling London under blankets of fog, smoke, and soot;
in the the county of Hertfordshire, site of Bleak House; and in the county
Lincolnshire, site of the Dedlocks' country estate, Chesney Wold.
Well-liked, easygoing, level-headed young woman whose life is intertwined
with the lives of the other characters. Believed to be an orphan, she is
raised by her godmother. John Jarndyce, owner of Bleak House, takes her
in to serve as a companion to another young woman (see Ada Clare, below),
and Esther becomes Jarndyce's ward. She narrates part of the novel in first-person
point of view.
Orphaned young man with an engaging manner who is a litigant in Jarndyce
vs Jarndyce, a famous legal case that has languished in the courts for
years. Because he is immature, he allows his headstrong passions to get
the better of him. Expecting to receive a handsome settlement from Jarndyce
vs Jarndyce, he neglects to establish himself in a respectable career and
begins to suffer health problems as he awaits a settlement in the court
Ada Clare: Beautiful
and sweet young woman who loves Richard Carstone. Like Richard, she is
an orphan involved in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce.
John Jarndyce: Owner
of Bleak House and the guardian of Esther, Richard, and Ada. He is kindly,
generous, and wise and does his best to look out for the interests of his
Lady Dedlock: Wealthy
aristocrat who harbors a scandalous secret–that she bore a child out of
wedlock. She was told by her sister that the child was born dead. However,
the child, Esther Summerson, is very much alive is is now a young lady.
Although she is middle-aged, Lady Dedlock remains attractive, with an elegant
figure. She enjoys all the amenities of a privileged woman, including the
latest fashions, jewelry, attendance at the opera, and maids to fulfill
Sir Leicester Dedlock:
Lady Dedlock’s doting husband, a baronet, who is 20 years older than she.
lawyer who seeks to benefit from others’ misfortune. He discovers Lady
Dedlock's secret and seeks to capitalize on it.
Miss Barbary: Lady
Dedlock's sister and godmother and guardian to Esther during the latter's
childhood. Miss Barbary is severe and strict and goes to church three times
Jo: Sickly boy who
earns a few coins by sweeping a path for pedestrians across dirty London
streets. He has information crucial to many characters.
Krook: Owner of a
rag-and-bottle shop that holds the key to Lady Dedlock’s secret. Krook
deals in all types of objects. His collection of bottles alone includes,
the narrator says, blacking bottles, medicine bottles, ginger-beer and
soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, and ink bottles. In its
disarray, the shop resembles the High Court of Chancery, which is nearby.
Captain Hawdon (Nemo):Lodger
in a room above Krook's shop. Believed lost at sea, he is the linked to
Lady Dedlock and Esther and befriends Jo. Hawdon uses an assumed name,
Mr. Kenge: Solicitor
for John Jarndyce. Kenge handles the legal affairs that enable Esther Summerson
to stay at Bleak House as Jarndyce's ward.
Physician who loves Esther Summerson.
William Guppy: Law
clerk who woos Esther Summerson and ferrets out information about Lady
Hortense: Lady Dedlock’s
Detective who investigates a murder and reveals crucial information.
Mr. George: Former
soldier who trains Richard Carstone after Richard considers pursuing a
Mrs. Jellyby: Self-styled
philanthropist who takes up the cause of African natives but neglects her
own children and the condition of her home. Esther Summerson, Richard Carstone,
and Ada Clare stay with her for an evening before traveling on to Bleak
Mr. Jellyby: Mrs.
Jellyby's husband. He is a mere fixture in the Jellyby home, saying nothing
and doing nothing.
Miss Flite: Eccentric
woman who goes mad awaiting the outcome of a court case.
Mrs. Rachael: Servant
to Miss Barbary. (Esther asks about her origins by she doesn't say anything.)
Miss Donny and
Her Twin Sister, also Miss Donny: Maids at Greenleaf School, where
Esther Summerson learns how to be a governess.
Mr. Snagsby: Law
stationer (one who writes out legal documents). He provides Tulkinghorn
information about Nemo (Captain Hawdon).
Elderly housekeeper at the Dedlocks' Lincolnshire home, Chesney Wold.
The novel contains many minor
characters, including lawyers, litigants, businessmen, servants, laborers,
a debt collector, and acquaintances or relatives of the main characters,
of Work and Publication Dates
Bleak House is a novel
of social criticism and satire–with a dash of mystery, murder, and romance–written
in serial form in 20 installments between 1852 and 1853. Although it is
mainly a gloomy and somber book, with some characteristics of the Gothic
novel, Bleak House is not without humor, which flows from a catalogue
of eccentric characters. Because one of the subplots of the novel involves
a murder and a subsequent investigation, Bleak House has also been
characterized as one of the English language's first detective novels,
behind Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published
in 1841. The detective in Bleak House, Inspector Bucket, gave later
mystery writers a model to imitate.
and Point of View
The novel has a labyrinthine
but well structured plot that skillfully interweaves several storylines
into a unified whole. All of the characters are connected in some way with
a lawsuit, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, which drags on endlessly in the High
Court of Chancery. The story has two narrators, one writing in the present
tense in omniscient third-person point of view and the other, protagonist
Esther Summerson, writing in the past tense in first-person point of view.
Bleak House concerns
itself more with presenting a picture of injustice and corruption than
with painting well-rounded portraits of people. Nevertheless, Dickens succeeds
in creating many memorable, larger-than-life characters that we can smell,
hear, sympathize with, or laugh at. However, Esther Summerson, the first-person
narrator, generally seems too even-tempered and goody-goody—and too changeless
and unaffected by events—to be believable.
Theme 1 The legal
system of Victorian England ruins lives. The slow-moving, corrupt legal
system undermines social welfare, sends people to early graves, and fails
to address injustice effectively.
Theme 2 All that
glitters is not gold. The characters whom readers most admire in this
novel are the characters least concerned about personal fortune. Unfortunately,
other characters do not share their view. Even Richard Carstone, a good
person at heart, stakes his whole future on the settlement he expects to
receive from the Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce lawsuit.
3 Children suffer abuse in Victorian England. This theme centers
on little Jo, an orphan who subsists on a few coins he makes by clearing
pathways for pedestrians on muddy streets. His death deeply moved readers
of the novel when it appeared in serialized form between 1852 and 1853.
Dickens well knew that the death of a child was an effective way to highlight
social injustice in Victorian England.
Theme 4 Private
citizens are more humane than the courts. John Jarndyce generously
opens his home to Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone. Captain
Hawdon (Nemo), though impoverished himself, gives coins to Little Jo and
treats him kindly.
Theme 5 Fear of
prevent a scandal, Lady Dedlock's sister tells her that her illegitimate
child was born dead. Later, Lady Dedlock herself hides from her husband
the fact that she bore a child to another man.
Theme 6 London
is appallingly filthy. Dickens crusaded for reforms to clean up London.
In Bleak House, he presents London as it was in his time: smoky,
muddy, greasy. Some citizens in London and its environs had to drink contaminated
a Guide to the Complete Works...................................................
By the Author
of This Web Site
of All the Plays and Narrative Poems | Themes | Imagery | Historical Background
Theatre | Drama Terms | Essays | Analysis of the Sonnets | and Much More
The Fog, Chimney Smoke, and
Muddy Streets: The corruption in the legal system.
Disease and Death: The
effects of the corrupt legal system.
Jarndyce vs Jarndyce:
A court case representing how one part of society feeds on another part
Krook's Rag-and-Bottle Shop:
The sorry condition of the High Court of Chancery.
Little Jo, Street Waif:
The abused children of 19th Century England.
Bleak House: (1) Originally
the gloom and depression engendered by injustice; (2) later an ironic symbol
of hope, survival, and goodness. In a broader sense, the real Bleak House
in the novel is English society.
Bird Cages: The legal
system in 19th Century England. Miss Flite keeps a variety of birds in
cages in her living quarters above Krook's shop. Like her birds, Miss Flite
is in a cage because of an unresolved case in the High Court of Chancery.
She becomes mentally unbalanced awaiting the outcome of the case.
Frequent coincidences used
as plot contrivances to link one part of the story with another. However,
given the fact that so many characters are involved in the same legal proceeding,
Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, and that coincidences so often occur as turning points
in the real world, these coincidences do not seem to mar the overall effect
of the novel .
Questions and Essay Topics
Which character in the novel
is the most admirable?
Which character is the most
Who is the most memorable character,
good or bad?
According to the Bible, "the
love of money is the root of all evil." To what extent is this axiom borne
out in Bleak House?
How did the England of Charles
Dickens treat its poorest citizens and its orphans? Did the government
provide them any support? Did the upper classes maintain any private programs
Did poor children receive a
government-subsidized education at schools? What were schools like?
How widespread was child labor?
Did England eventually reform
the court system described in Bleak House?
Write an essay that evaluates
the personality of Richard Carstone. In the essay, present a thesis centering
on a personality trait that may have played a role in his tragic ending.
Research the life of Charles
Dickens. Then discuss in an essay the extent to which his own experiences
helped him when he wrote Bleak House.