Among the many orphans of a society that refuses to take paternal care of its weak and helpless, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare could be called the novel’s protagonists. But their tragic love pales in significance beside the fate of the beautiful and haughty Lady Dedlock, whose mysterious secret threatens to shake the aristocracy out of its irresponsible stupor.
Along with almost everyone else in the novel, Lady Dedlock is caught up in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a infamously protracted case in the Court of Chancery which provokes some of Dickens’ most brilliant satire. But he is doing more than urging the reform of legal institutions. Chancery symbolizes an entire social system. Linking the novel’s extraordinary array of comic and grotesque characters, it also links Lady Dedlock to her illegitimate daughter, Esther Summerson, the housekeeper of an eccentric philanthropist named Jarndyce. When the villainous lawyer, who tries to blackmail Lady Dedlock, is murdered, the truth comes out, despite the efforts of Inspector Bucket, the English novel’s first detective hero.
Experimental in form, the novel is narrated from two alternating and very different points of view. One narrator is an anonymous observer, while the other is Esther, so humbly virtuous that she cannot understand the impersonal forces that are destroying her friends and are nearly fatal to her. The central symbol of those forces is the London fog, emanating from the Court of...
(The entire section is 497 words.)