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Bleak House
By Charles Dickens  (1812-1870)
A Study Guide
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Setting
Characters
Type of Work
Structure and Point of View
Characterization
Themes
Symbols
Possible Plot Flaw
Study Questions
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Biography
Complete Free Text
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.Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2003
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.......It 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. 
.......The 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. 
.......One 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.
.......After 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. 
.......Meanwhile, 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.)

Document Upsets Lady Dedlock

.......Lady 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.
.......The 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 Lady Dedlock.
.......Hawdon, 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. 
.......During 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. 
.......At 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. 
.......When 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 over. 

Richard and Ada Fall in Love

.......While 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 case.
.......Elsewhere, 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. 
.......While 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.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......As 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. 
.......Death 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.

Setting

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. 

Main Characters
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Esther Summerson: 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.
Richard Carstone: 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 case. 
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 wards.
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 her needs.
Sir Leicester Dedlock: Lady Dedlock’s doting husband, a baronet, who is 20 years older than she.
Tulkinghorn: Rapacious 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 every Sunday.
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, Nemo.
Mr. Kenge: Solicitor for John Jarndyce. Kenge handles the legal affairs that enable Esther Summerson to stay at Bleak House as Jarndyce's ward. 
Allan Woodcourt: Physician who loves Esther Summerson.
William Guppy: Law clerk who woos Esther Summerson and ferrets out information about Lady Dedlock’s secret.
Hortense: Lady Dedlock’s disgruntled maid.
Inspector Bucket: Detective who investigates a murder and reveals crucial information.
Mr. George: Former soldier who trains Richard Carstone after Richard considers pursuing a military career.
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 House.
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).
Mrs. Rouncewell: Elderly housekeeper at the Dedlocks' Lincolnshire home, Chesney Wold. 

Minor Characters

The novel contains many minor characters, including lawyers, litigants, businessmen, servants, laborers, a debt collector, and acquaintances or relatives of the main characters, 

Type 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.

Structure 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. 

Characterization

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.

Themes

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. 
Theme 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 disgrace To 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 water
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Symbols
  • 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 of society. 
  • 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. 
Possible Plot Flaw

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 .

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Which character in the novel is the most admirable? 
  • Which character is the most villainous? 
  • 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 for them? 
  • 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