Study Guide

Bleak House

by Charles Dickens

Bleak House Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The suit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is a standing joke in the Court of Chancery. Beginning with a dispute as to how the trusts under a Jarndyce will are to be administered, the suit drags on, year after year, generation after generation, without settlement. The heirs, or would-be heirs, of suits such as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce spend their lives waiting. Some, like Tom Jarndyce, blow out their brains. Others, like tiny Miss Flite, visit the court in daily expectation of some judgment that will settle the disputed estate and bring her the wealth of which she dreams.

Among those involved in the Jarndyce suit are John Jarndyce, grandnephew of Tom Jarndyce, who shot himself in a coffeehouse, and his two cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. John Jarndyce is the owner of Bleak House in Hertfordshire, a country place by no means as dreary as its name. His two young cousins live with him. He provides Esther Summerson as a companion for Ada. Esther suffered an unhappy childhood under the care of Miss Barbary, her stern godmother, and a servant, Mrs. Rachel. The two told the girl that her mother is a wicked woman who deserted her. Miss Barbary is now dead, and John Jarndyce is Esther’s benefactor. Upon arriving in London on her way to Bleak House, Esther finds an ardent admirer in William Guppy, a clerk in the office of Kenge and Carboy, John Jarndyce’s solicitors.

It is Guppy who first notices Esther’s resemblance to Lady Dedlock, who is also tenuously connected to the Jarndyce suit. Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock divide their time between their London home, where Lady Dedlock reigns over society, and Chesney Wold, their country estate in Lincolnshire. One day, when Lord Dedlock’s solicitor, Tulkinghorn, is in the Dedlocks’ London home, Lady Dedlock swoons at the sight of the handwriting on a legal document. Immediately suspicious, the lawyer traces the handwriting to its source, the stationer Mr. Snagsby, who can tell him only that the paper was copied by a man named Nemo, a lodger in the house of the junk dealer Mr. Krook. When Mr. Tulkinghorn goes there, he finds Nemo dead of an overdose of opium. He is convinced that Nemo is not the dead man’s real name, but he can learn nothing of the man’s identity or connections.

Allan Woodcourt, a young surgeon called to minister to the dead Nemo, requests an inquest. One of the witnesses called is Jo, a crossing sweeper Nemo befriended. A short time later, Jo is found with two half crowns on his person. He explains that they were given to him by a lady he guided to the gate of the churchyard where Nemo is buried. Jo is arrested, and as a result of the cross-examination that follows, Mr. Guppy questions the wife of an oily preacher named Chadband and finds that the firm of Kenge and Carboy once had charge of a young lady with whose aunt Mrs....

(The entire section is 1161 words.)

Bleak House Chapter Summaries

Chapters 1-4 Summary

On a fog-enshrouded day in November, the Lord Chancellor sits in the Court of Chancery hearing another presentation on the interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which involves a contested series of wills from several generations past. An old woman sits in the chamber, as she does every day, following the arguments of the cases brought before the court. The Lord Chancellor begs Mr. Tangle, leading expert on Jarndyce and Jarndyce, to save his information for later because he must deal with two wards of the court, involved in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, who are seeking to be placed with their distant cousin.

Lady Dedlock has come up to London from her country estate in Lincolnshire because the rainy weather there has caused her to feel “bored to death.” She and her husband, Sir Leicester (who is twenty years her senior and married her for love rather than position, of which she had none), are on their way to Paris. Mr. Tulkinghorn, Sir Leicester’s attorney, comes to present news about Jarndyce and Jarndyce, on which Lady Dedlock has a distant claim. Lady Dedlock listens to Mr. Tulkinghorn read from the proceedings but begs him to skip as much of the legal jargon as possible. She notices the handwriting on the legal papers and asks Mr. Tulkinghorn if it is called a “legal hand.” Mr. Tulkinghorn informs her that it is merely the handwriting of the scribe who was hired to make the copies. He notices that Lady Dedlock suddenly looks faint. She excuses herself and goes to her bed chamber. Sir Leicester is concerned because he has never before seen his wife swoon.

Esther Summerson presents her own story as that of an orphan reared by her godmother, Miss Barbary. Esther has no friends except her doll, though she attends school with other girls. On her birthday, Esther asks her godmother about her mother. Miss Barbary tells Esther that her mother is her disgrace, and she is her mother’s disgrace. When Esther is...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Chapters 5-7 Summary

The following morning, Esther and Caddy Jellyby go for a walk with Ada and Richard. Caddy complains of Mr. Quayle, who joins Mrs. Jellyby in her obsessions with Africa. The young people encounter the old woman they had met at court the previous day. She invites them to her lodgings located about Krook’s Rag and Bottle Warehouse (also of Marine Supplies). Mr. Krook buys several different kinds of objects but never seems to sell anything. He has a cat, Lady Jane, who eyes Esther in a disturbing manner. Mr. Krook explains how Tom Jarndyce had shot himself in a nearby pub. Esther notices some legal papers with handwriting similar to that on the correspondence she received from Mr. Kenge. The old woman shows her collection of birds in cages; she explains that she plans to let them all free once she has received her judgment from Chancery. In the midst of all this talk of the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Ada and Richard vow to one another never to let the suit disturb their friendship even though they are technically enemies. They return to the Jellybys’, then Esther, Ada, and Richard soon leave to continue to Bleak House. On the way, the three young people are given letters from Mr. Jarndyce; he welcomes them to Bleak House.

Mr. Jarndyce kindly meets Esther, Ada, and Richard when they arrive. He gives the impression that he will leave the room if he is thanked. Esther is given the household keys, which signifies her new level of responsibility for Ada as well as the rest of the “family.” Mr. Skimpole, a friend of Mr. Jarndyce’s, joins them for dinner. He is completely irresponsible when it comes to money; he claims to be a “mere child”—and so it proves after dinner when he is arrested for debt. He appeals to Richard and Esther’s charity, who pay off his debt. When Mr. Jarndyce discovers this decision, he is quite displeased. He warns them never to do so again.

Mrs. Rouncewell has been housekeeper at Chesney Wold, the estate of the Dedlocks, for more than fifty years. She is now a widow, and she has two sons: one went off to be a soldier and the other became involved in metalworks and has a son named Watt. Watt visits Chesney Wold and takes notice of Rosa, the young maid. Mr. Guppy and a lawyer friend arrive at Chesney Wold. They request a tour of the house. Mrs. Rouncewell tells them the story of the Ghost Walk, which the spirit of a former Lady Dedlock haunts.

Chapters 8-10 Summary

Mr. Jarndyce takes Esther into his study, which he calls his “Growlery,” and tells her that the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is now less about the will itself and more about costs. He asks her to determine from Richard what the young man’s plans are in life. Esther feels unequal to all the new responsibility given her, but she takes it up with grace. Mrs. Pardiggle, a local humanitarian, takes Esther and Ada on one of her tours of goodwill. At a brick maker’s hovel, Esther observes the squalor, violence, and poverty of the poor. A woman, who has obviously been beaten, is holding a small baby. When Ada bends down to see it, she discovers that it is dead. Esther takes charge of the baby’s body because the family does not seem too concerned about it. The father rejects Mrs. Pardiggle’s attempts at charity, stating that it is ineffectual in their destitute circumstances. The girls return to Bleak House, and Richard comforts Ada, who is still upset about the dead baby.

Esther notices that Richard and Ada are falling in love. When Richard expresses an interest in becoming a sailor, Mr. Jarndyce writes to Sir Leicester Dedlock (who is a distant relation to Richard by way of Lady Dedlock), who promises assistance. Esther notices at this time that Richard is quite careless about money. This will prove a problem in the future.

Mr. Jarndyce receives a letter from an old school friend, Lawrence Boythorn, who is planning a visit to Bleak House. Mr. Jarndyce greets his arrival with joy. Boythorn informs him that he is involved in a legal case with his neighbor, Sir Leicester Dedlock, who is cutting off the road to Boythorn’s estate on the grounds that Sir Leicester owns the right of way. Esther asks Mr. Jarndyce if Mr. Boythorn has ever been married, and Mr. Jarndyce replies that he almost was at one time. The next day, Mr. Guppy arrives and hints at a proposal of marriage to Esther, who states that this would be impossible. He tells her that his feelings for her will remain the same. After he leaves, Esther laughs about it but then finds herself crying.

In London, Mr. Tulkinghorn visits the home of Mr. Snagsby, who hires out the copying of legal papers. Mr. Tulkinghorn asks him who copied the document he had shown to Lady Dedlock that so upset her. Mr. Snagsby tells him that it was hired out to a law writer named Nemo (which is Latin for “no one”), who lives above Mr. Krook’s shop. Mr. Tulkinghorn goes to Mr. Krook’s and asks to see Nemo. When he goes up to Nemo’s room, he finds it filled with the smoke of opium; Nemo is unresponsive on the bed.

Chapters 11-13 Summary

Mr. Krook comes at Mr. Tulkinghorn’s call to Nemo’s room. He discovers that Nemo is dead; he has Miss Flite, another lodger (and the mad old woman from Chancery) fetch a doctor, who gives the final verdict. Mr. Krook goes to look at Nemo’s portmanteau (a kind of luggage), as does Mr. Tulkinghorn. A young surgeon appears and says that Nemo died of an overdose of opium, though he cannot say if it was intentional. Mr. Snagsby is called for to give what information he can, but he can only relate that Mrs. Snagsby was the one who hired him. At the inquest, Jo the street sweeper is questioned about Nemo, but he can give no definite information. He can only say that Nemo was often kind to him and gave him money occasionally—if he...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Chapters 14-16 Summary

Richard leaves to begin his career as a surgeon, although he fully expects to become rich when the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is settled. Esther, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce go to London. They attempt to visit Mrs. Jellyby, but she is never at home. Esther joins Caddy on a trip to her new dancing master; Caddy decided she needed refinement after she had met Esther. She tells Esther that she is secretly engaged to Prince Turveydrop, her dancing teacher. Esther is concerned about the secrecy of their relationship but likes Prince when she meets him. Caddy and Esther join Ada and Mr. Jarndyce on a visit to Miss Flite, who is thrilled to see the young ward in Jarndyce and Jarndyce once again. The dark surgeon, Mr. Woodcourt, is also...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Chapters 17-19 Summary

While Esther is in London, Richard comes to visit her frequently. She feels uneasy about him, and her feeling is confirmed when Mr. and Mrs. Badger tell her they do not feel Richard is suited to the medical profession. The following day, Richard confesses that he has lost interest in becoming a surgeon; now he is leaning toward the law as a career. Both Esther and Ada are surprised at this. Mr. Jarndyce says Richard should talk to Mr. Kenge, but he is troubled at Richard’s lack of commitment.

One night, Esther has difficulty falling asleep, so she busies herself with sewing and goes downstairs to get her thread. She finds Mr. Jarndyce also restless. He tells her some more of her childhood. He says that Miss Barberry,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Chapters 20-22 Summary

In the office of Kenge and Carboy, Mr. Guppy feels jealous of Richard, who has established himself in Mr. Kenge’s rooms. In fact, Mr. Guppy is paranoid of everyone. Another clerk by the name of Young Smallweed (called “Chick”) is only fifteen but knows the ways of the world. A man named Jobling comes to see Mr. Guppy, and they go out to dinner with Smallweed. It is evident that Smallweed is well known and respected. Jobling complains of his job situation, and Mr. Guppy tells him of Mr. Krook, who might be able to rent Nemo’s old chambers to him. They go to see Mr. Krook, who is (as always) not quite sober. Mr. Jobling agrees to take the room. Mr. Guppy introduces Mr. Jobling to the Snagbys, who offer him a position. Mr....

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Chapters 23-25 Summary

Esther sees Lady Dedlock only at church for the remainder of her visit; she believes her presence upsets Lady Dedlock in some way. Hortense offers her services as a maid to Esther, since she has left Lady Dedlock, but Esther says she keeps no maid. Richard visits often but is still clearly obsessed with Jarndyce and Jarndyce. He is not interested in pursuing a career in law after all and has decided to join the army.

Back in London, Esther visits Caddy Jellyby and goes with her to break the news of her engagement to Prince. At first Mr. Jellyby feigns dismay, but then he eagerly embraces the news once he learns that the young couple will make him their first priority. When Caddy tells her mother, she is upset at Mrs....

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Chapters 26-29 Summary

Mr. George and his servant, Phil, discuss their pasts. Phil had dreamt of living in the country, and Mr. George informs him that he was born there. Phil asks Mr. George if his mother is living; Mr. George replies that she is not and quickly changes the subject. Grandfather Smallweed arrives to remind Mr. George that he owes him money. The conversation turns to Captain Hawdon, whom Smallweed believes is not dead. He tells Mr. George that some lawyer has been asking for samples of Hawdon’s handwriting. Smallweed says that he possesses only Hawdon’s signature and asks Mr. George if he has more samples. Mr. George replies that, if he had, he would not give it to Smallweed. At Smallweed’s suggestion, Mr. George thinks about going...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Chapters 30-32 Summary

Mrs. Woodcourt, the mother of the physician who was a friend of Mr. Jarndyce’s, comes to visit. She makes Esther a confidante, much to Esther’s annoyance. Mrs. Woodcourt expounds on her family history and states that her son must marry someone of good family to carry on the noble line unsullied. Esther is annoyed, but it is important that Mrs. Woodcourt like her despite her lack of good family background.

Caddy Jellyby also comes to visit. She tells Esther that she is to be married in a month but knows nothing about housekeeping. Esther gives her some lessons and then returns to London to attend the ceremony. Mrs. Jellyby remains indifferent; she thinks the idea of Caddy’s being married is ridiculous. Esther helps...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Chapters 33-35 Summary

Mr. Weevle and Mr. Guppy meet at the local tavern, where a crowd has formed. They admit that they have been conspiring together but do not mention the letters they were to retrieve from Mr. Krook. Mr. Snagsby is present, too; he is startled to see Mrs. Snagsby glaring at him. The Smallweed family arrives and surprises everyone by announcing that Mr. Krook was Mrs. Snagsby’s only brother, and they have come to take possession of the property. Mr. Tulkinghorn, the Snagsbys’ lawyer, will take charge of the arrangements.

Mr. Guppy now has the unpleasant task of telling Lady Dedlock that he does not have the letters. When he arrives at her townhouse, she is on her way out to dinner but still receives him. She seems...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Chapters 36-38 Summary

At Mr. Boythorn’s invitation, Esther and Charley relocate to his country estate next to Chesney Wold. Esther braces herself and looks in the mirror to see the extent of the scarring on her face. She knows that she was never beautiful, but she sees that whatever attractiveness she had is gone. She thinks of Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers, which she kept and dried. Although she feels his love could not remain due to her change of appearance, she decides to keep them anyway in memory of what might have been.

Esther and Charley take frequent walks around the grounds. One day she meets Lady Dedlock, who expresses her concern over Esther’s illness. Suddenly Lady Dedlock breaks into tears and throws herself at Esther’s...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Chapters 39-42 Summary

Mr. Vholes assures Richard that they are making progress in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Richard feels discouraged as he leaves Mr. Vholes’s office. Mr. Weevle and Mr. Guppy see him as he exits; they note that Richard is in increasingly heavy debt because of the lawsuit. Mr. Guppy tells Mr. Weevle that he is no longer interested in finding the letters Mr. Krook took from Nemo, but he wonders if they might still be someplace in Nemo’s room. They go to the shop and meet Grandfather Smallwood, who frequently inspects the property. They look through the room but find nothing. Mr. Tulkinghorn arrives and congratulates Mr. Guppy in associating with “grand ladies.” Mr. Guppy feels embarrassed and says nothing until Mr. Tulkinghorn...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Chapters 43-46 Summary

Esther, who avoids talking about Lady Dedlock, discusses Richard with Ada and Mr. Jarndyce. They believe that Richard is totally lost to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Esther tells Mr. Jarndyce that Mr. Skimpole has been encouraging Richard. Mr. Jarndyce and the ladies go to visit Mr. Skimpole in his lodgings, where they meet his wife and daughters. He explains that he cannot stop encouraging Richard because he knows nothing about the lawsuit. That evening, Sir Leicester visits Bleak House to apologize that Mr. Skimpole was not allowed to view the artwork. He explains that Mr. Boythorn’s guests are unwelcome because he is having a disagreement with Mr. Boythorn.

Esther can no longer keep her secret to herself. She...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Chapters 47-49 Summary

Allan Woodcourt takes Jo to Mr. Krook’s, but he finds that Miss Flite has moved to Mrs. Blinder’s. He decides to take Jo to Mr. George, who is willing to take him in even though Jo is ill and is the cause of Esther’s illness and disfigurement. Mr. Woodcourt tells Mr. George that it was Mr. Bucket, at Mr. Tulkinghorn’s command, who took Jo after he left Bleak House. Mr. Woodcourt visits Mr. Snagsby, who tells the doctor that someone told him something about Jo that he is not supposed to share. He agrees to visit Jo at Mr. George’s. Jo asks Mr. Snagsby to write out his account so that no one will think he intended to hurt anyone. Mr. Woodcourt stays by Jo’s side and assures him that he will be buried by Nemo, who was so...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Chapters 50-53 Summary

Esther receives a note from Caddy Jellyby that she is ill and wishes Esther to nurse her. Esther goes back and forth to London, despite Mr. Jarndyce’s misgivings, and takes care of Caddy and her little baby, who is named Esther. There is something odd about little Esther, who never seems to notice sounds. Mr. Jarndyce eventually proposes that the Bleak House family move to their place in London so Esther will not have to travel so much. He also suggests that Mr. Woodcourt check on Caddy; he does so and brings Caddy back to health. Esther feels badly that she has been neglecting Ada (who recently turned twenty-one). One night Ada breaks down in tears, fearful about something she will not share with Esther. That night, Esther...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Chapters 54-56 Summary

Mr. Bucket comes to see Sir Leicester. He informs him that Mr. Tulkinghorn’s murderer was not Mr. George—it was a woman. He informs Sir Leicester that Lady Dedlock felt distrustful of Mr. Tulkinghorn because he knew her secret. Mr. Tulkinghorn also knew that Lady Dedlock had visited Nemo’s (Captain Hawdon’s) grave dressed in her maid’s (Hortense’s) clothes. As Sir Leicester tries to digest this, Grandfather Smallweed, Mrs. Snagsby, and the Chadbands arrive. Grandfather Smallweed confesses to seizing the letters from Mr. Krook. The letters were signed “Honoria,” Lady Dedlock’s first name. Mrs. Chadband says that she raised Lady Dedlock’s daughter, whom Lady Dedlock believed was dead. Mr. Bucket calls in Hortense,...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Chapters 57-59 Summary

Esther travels with Mr. Bucket in search of Lady Dedlock, following the meager trail she left. Mr. Bucket asks if there is anyone with whom Lady Dedlock may have spoken, and the only person Esther can think of is Mr. Boythorn. They stop by the waterside, where sailors are examining the body of a drowning victim. Esther fears the worst, but it is not Lady Dedlock. They travel to Saint Albans, through which Mr. Bucket says Lady Dedlock traveled the previous evening. Heading toward Bleak House, Mr. Bucket tells Esther that it was indeed he who took Jo because the boy had been talking too much about the dark lady visiting the cemetery (this is now known to have been Lady Dedlock). He says Skimpole told him of Jo’s whereabouts. Esther...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapters 60-63 Summary

After her search for Lady Dedlock, Esther becomes ill but not seriously. Mr. Jarndyce proposes that they stay in London so Esther can see Ada more often. He asks her casually if she likes Mrs. Woodcourt. Esther replies that she does, but she feels inward misgivings. She learns that Mr. Woodcourt will not be going overseas again but will take a post in Yorkshire, in the north of England.

Esther sees Ada daily but thinks Richard is getting worse. Mr. Vholes continues to prey upon him. She meets Miss Flite, who tells her that she has made Richard her executor because he has been at Chancery so much. Miss Flite confesses that she does not like Mr. Vholes. At dinner, Mr. Vholes tells Esther that he thinks Richard’s...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

Chapters 64-67 Summary

Mr. Jarndyce gives Esther two hundred pounds to prepare for their wedding. He then leaves for Yorkshire in the north of England on business, but he soon writes to Esther and asks her to join him. At her arrival, Mr. Jarndyce tells her that he has wished to express his gratitude to and admiration for Mr. Woodcourt by buying him a home. There has been no adequate housekeeper to prepare the house, so Mr. Jarndyce sent for Esther. When he takes her to the house, it is revealed that he has named it Bleak House—and Esther is to be its mistress. He tells her that, though he always intended to marry her since she was made his ward, he knows she is really in love with Woodcourt. He now returns to his place as her guardian and father...

(The entire section is 490 words.)