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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 10–12 | Summary



Chapter 10

Readers learn in Chapter 10 that Mr. Snagsby came into his ownership of the law stationer's shop several decades ago by marrying the boss's niece. He is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man, and Mrs. Snagsby is just the opposite. She can frequently be heard throughout the neighborhood berating their servant, a workhouse girl known as Guster who suffers from epileptic seizures. Guster is happy and grateful, though, and feels like she's living in the lap of luxury. Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby have a good working partnership; he understands the business, and she takes care of everything else, including financial matters. The neighbors all remark on how badly henpecked Mr. Snagsby is.

Mr. Tulkinghorn is at his chambers (where he both works and lives, which was common for London lawyers in the 19th century), working on his legal documents. He leaves and goes to Snagsby's, where he asks, with a great show of casualness, who copied a particular document. Mr. Snagsby tells him the man's name is Nemo. Tulkinghorn points out "Nemo is Latin for no one." Snagsby says Nemo lives at "a rag and bottle shop" and points the place out, assuring Tulkinghorn that Nemo never sleeps and will work all night if necessary.

Mr. Tulkinghorn waits until Mr. Snagsby has returned home, and then enters Krook's shop and asks to see "the person who does the copying." Mr. Krook gives him a candle and sends him up to the second floor. As Tulkinghorn climbs the stairs, Krook calls after him, "They say he has sold himself to the Enemy, but you and I know better—he don't buy." Tulkinghorn knocks on Nemo's door, but no one answers. As he opens it, his candle goes out. The room is small and "nearly black with soot." A fire is burning low in the grate. In its weak light, he sees a few pieces of furniture and an old suitcase. A dirty, unshaven man is lying on a bed. The lawyer can taste opium in the air. He calls out "Hallo, my friend!" and thinks the man is awake; his eyes appear to be open. Then the candle goes out, and the only eyes he sees are "the gaunt eyes in the shutters staring down upon the bed."

Chapter 11

In Chapter 11 Krook and Mr. Tulkinghorn enter Nemo's room and realize Nemo is dead. Krook sends Tulkinghorn to call for Miss Flite, who lives upstairs and, while the lawyer is out of the room, briefly goes over to Nemo's old suitcase. Miss Flite goes to fetch a doctor. Two arrive—an old Scottish man and "a dark young surgeon." The older doctor says Nemo "wull have been dead aboot three hours" and leaves. The younger man says he knew Nemo and confirms he's dead; he died from an overdose of opium, the surgeon says, which he took regularly. The young man had the impression Nemo had suffered "a fall in life," but Krook cannot confirm this. He can say only Nemo has lodged with him for 18 months and made his living as a law-writer. At Mr. Tulkinghorn's suggestion, Miss Flite goes to fetch Snagsby. When Snagsby arrives, he suggests sending for the beadle (a parish official who deals with petty crime). He says his wife met Nemo first, and, though she doesn't like many people, she liked him. She also mistook his name and called him Nimrod. Because Krook cannot read, Tulkinghorn suggests Snagsby search the room for any information about Nemo. He says he'll wait in case a witness is ever necessary to testify "that all was fair and right." Nothing is found, and Miss Flite goes to fetch the beadle. Everyone leaves the room, and Mr. Tulkinghorn goes home.

The beadle—an unpopular official closely associated with the workhouse—arrives, goes in, and comes out again. He then goes door to door looking for witnesses who can appear at the coroner's inquest the next day. The beadle returns later to summon a coroner's jury. The next morning, the coroner's court draws a crowd to the pub where it will be held. The coroner swears in the jury, and then the coroner, the jury, the beadle, and several reporters go to view the body. When they return to the pub, Mr. Tulkinghorn has arrived. Anastasia Piper is sworn in and testifies "the plaintive" was "reported to have sold himself," and he never spoke to anyone but "the boy that sweeps the crossing." The boy is not in court, and the beadle goes to fetch him. The boy's name is Jo, only Jo. He has no parents or friends, has never been to school, and doesn't know what "home" means. He "knows it's wicked to tell a lie" although he "can't exactly say what'll be done to him ... if he tells a lie to the gentlemen here." The coroner says they can't accept his testimony: "You have heard the boy. 'Can't exactly say' won't do, you know." There are no further witnesses, and the jury finds the death was accidental.

After court Jo tells the coroner and Mr. Tulkinghorn that the first time Nemo talked to him, they realized neither of them had any friends. Nemo gave him money for supper and a room for the night. After that, whenever he had money, he gave some to Jo. As Jo is leaving, Mr. Snagsby gives him half a crown and asks him not to tell Mrs. Snagsby. Meanwhile, Nemo's body lies in his room awaiting burial, and Mr. Snagsby's description of the inquest sends Guster into a series of seizures. The day after the inquest, the beadle brings a group of paupers from the workhouse to carry away the body, which is buried in a small and overcrowded burial ground. Later that night Jo comes, looks through the gate toward Nemo's grave, and "softly sweeps the step and makes the archway clean."

Chapter 12

In Chapter 12 Sir Leicester Dedlock and Lady Honoria Dedlock are returning from Paris and planning a party at Chesney Wold for the fashionable elite. Lady Dedlock has been bored and depressed in Paris and is eager to leave. As they ride off in their carriage, Sir Leicester tells his wife he has had a letter from Mr. Tulkinghorn regarding the right-of-way, and the lawyer included a message for her saying he has seen "the person who copied the affidavit in the Chancery suit, which so powerfully stimulated her curiosity." Lady Dedlock asks him to stop the carriage so she can walk for a while. On the crossing to England, Sir Leicester is seasick. At Chesney Wold, Mrs. Rouncewell greets them and introduces Rosa. Lady Dedlock shows an interest in the new maid, remarking on how pretty she is, asking her age, and patting the girl on the cheek. That evening Rosa is full of praise for Lady Dedlock, calling her "so affable, so graceful, so beautiful, so elegant." The attention paid to Rosa, however, seems to have annoyed Lady Dedlock's maid, Hortense—a 32-year-old French woman who has the look of a feral cat about her.

For a week or two in January, Chesney Wold is full of fashionable guests. During the day they hunt and wander the neighborhood; at night they fill the long drawing-room. On Sunday they fill the little church. These modern dandies would like to turn back the clock, some to the social structure and others to the aristocratic fashions of earlier times. Several politicians are among the guests, and they are quick to explain what is wrong with the government. The only person missing from the party is Mr. Tulkinghorn, whom Lady Dedlock enquires about each evening.

Finally, late one afternoon, Mr. Tulkinghorn arrives, and his hosts escort him indoors. He has been held up working on the right-of-way dispute with Lawrence Boythorn. Tulkinghorn wonders whether Sir Leicester "will give up ... any minor point"; he won't. Lady Dedlock expresses surprise that Mr. Tulkinghorn remembered her interest in the writing on the legal document, saying she herself had forgotten it. Mr. Tulkinghorn tells how he found the writer dead and reports on the inquest. No one knew the man's real name, he says, and there were no papers in his old suitcase. Throughout this conversation, Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn "have looked very steadily at one another." Afterward, and for the rest of the party, it is impossible to see what each is thinking about the other; "all this is hidden, for the time, in their own hearts."


By the time he wrote Bleak House, Dickens was well known as a critic of the workhouse system. During the Industrial Revolution, the cities swelled with people seeking work in factories; as a result, poverty increased. Those who couldn't find employment tried anything they could to earn a few pennies—selling newspapers, carrying packages for passersby, scavenging, or begging. A good example of this is Jo, whom readers meet in Chapter 11; he sweeps crossings for a living. The truly destitute, however, relied on the state. The state's charity was laid out in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which established workhouses. Workhouses fed and housed the poor in exchange for work—in much the same way as prisoners might be required to do hard labor. Workhouse inmates might have to break up granite rocks or pick apart old rope. In exchange they got a pittance as wages, somewhere to sleep, a limited amount of clothing, and a few chunks of bread. So little food was provided that some starved to death. (One of Dickens's best-known scenes—Oliver Twist asking for more gruel—dramatized the cruelty of these institutions.) The purpose of this mistreatment was to make life in a workhouse so unpleasant that no one would apply. Guster, having lived in a workhouse as a child, is understandably enchanted by her surroundings. She has a room of her own, only light work to do (in comparison with the jobs given workhouse inmates), and plenty to eat; she has even saved some money.

Readers will connect Mr. Tulkinghorn's interest in the law-writer with the document he read from when he visited the Dedlocks in Chapter 2—the document in which Lady Dedlock expressed interest. Her interest made him suspicious. Now he has decided to find out who the copyist is to see if there is some connection between that person and Lady Dedlock. This brings him to Mr. Snagsby, whose job it is in this time long before the age of photocopiers and computers to arrange for the copying of legal documents. According to Mr. Snagsby's files, the copyist's name is Nemo. As Mr. Tulkinghorn notes, Nemo means "no one" in Latin. Therefore, he reasons, it can't be the man's real name. So he decides to pay Nemo a visit.

In this chapter several symbols of death appear. First, Mr. Snagsby sees a crow flying overhead—a crow that flies next to Mr. Tulkinghorn's. By the time Tulkinghorn arrives at Snagsby's shop, it is late and the night is dark; darkness can also be a symbol of death. Then, at Krook's shop, Krook tells Tulkinghorn that people say Nemo "has sold himself to the Enemy"; this echoes what Miss Flite said in Chapter 5—that "the children in the lanes here, say he has sold himself to the devil." Neither Krook nor Miss Flite believes this—Krook because the devil "don't buy" and Miss Flite because Nemo has no money to show for the sale. Although this is not a direct symbol of death, it is a reminder of Nemo's mortality. When Tulkinghorn reaches Nemo's room, his own candle is blown out as he opens the door, and he finds the fire in the room has burned to embers and the candle is guttering; these are also symbols of death. Finally, when the candle has been extinguished, Tulkinghorn is in darkness "with the gaunt [Banshee] eyes in the shutters staring down upon the bed"; a banshee is the Irish spirit who appears and wails when someone in the family is about to die. This is the most potent symbol of death. It seems likely that, despite his open eyes, Nemo is dead. Tulkinghorn will have to investigate further to find the answer he seeks.

The end of this chapter, in which Tulkinghorn is left in the dark with the suspicion dawning on both him and the reader that Nemo might be dead, constitutes a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger is a technique that awakens readers' curiosity by leaving them in suspense. In Bleak House Dickens doesn't use as many cliffhangers as he does in others of his novels, but Chapter 10 was the end of a section in the serialization of the novel, and Dickens uses a cliffhanger to make sure readers buy the next section.

Readers meet Allan Woodcourt for the first time in this chapter but don't yet learn his name. He is the "dark young surgeon" who knew Nemo. He will later become an important character. A surgeon was considered a lesser profession than a physician. Physicians were educated at universities or, like the Scottish "medical man" in this chapter, at a Scottish medical school. Physicians generally acted as internists, diagnosing and treating internal disorders. In contrast, surgeons treated injuries and illnesses. They were considered craftsmen rather than professionals and ranked well below physicians on the social scale.

Much of this chapter is devoted to looking for clues to Nemo's identity, but nothing much is learned about him. Mrs. Snagsby apparently always calls Nemo "Nimrod"; this is an allusion to Genesis. The biblical Nimrod was a great hunter and warrior and became a king. Scholars see similarities between him and Gilgamesh, the hero of the ancient Mesopotamian epic. The only witness at Nemo's inquest, Mrs. Piper, repeats the rumor that he has sold his soul to the devil—and seems to believe it. The inquest can't hear from Jo, who is the person who knew Nemo best. Still, Jo would not have had much to say; he could have attested to Nemo's generosity, but could not have provided his legal identity. After all he couldn't even provide his own. In this way, Nemo and Jo have something in common. They're both nobodies and come from a class of hungry and largely homeless nobodies who are generally ignored by society. Dickens frequently creates characters who are reviled by their social "betters" but revealed to be more caring and generous than those who revile them. These are the people he wishes the state and philanthropists such as Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle would truly help.

There is more pointed social criticism in this chapter as well. For example the coroner's refusal to accept Jo as a witness recalls the story of George Ruby, also a crossing sweeper, which Dickens had reported as a journalist. When called to testify at a trial for assault, Ruby was handed a Bible to swear on but just looked at it in bewilderment. The judge said he could not "take the evidence of a creature who knew nothing whatever of the obligation to tell the truth." This was one of several cases Dickens wrote about in which children's evidence was refused on these grounds. Another instance of Dickens's social criticism is his scathing description of the overcrowded, "pestiferous and obscene" cemetery where Nemo's body is buried not six feet under but only "a foot or two down." Through authorial intrusion (a literary device in which the author speaks directly to the reader, usually using the first person), he says such practices, while condoned by "our dear brothers and sisters who hang about official back-stairs," communicate disease to the living and provide "a shameful testimony to future ages how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together."

The gathering of "the fashionable intelligence" in Chapter 12 provides a chance for Dickens to indulge in social and political criticism of the aristocracy. He talks of dandies during the late Georgian period, when the Prince Regent (George IV) dressed in the height of fashion and promoted a dandyism of dress and culture. But Dickens talks of a new type of dandy—dandies who cling to the past because they have nothing of their own that makes them superior to others. They wear outdated fashions and proclaim their belief that England would be better off if it could return to a time when everyone knew his or her place.

Chapter 12 returns to the mystery surrounding Lady Dedlock and the legal copyist's handwriting. The more bored she seems, the greater her internal agitation. Sometimes, though, her composure slips. In the carriage on the way home from Paris, for instance, when she hears Mr. Tulkinghorn has found the copyist, she is so upset she has to get out and walk. At the party, she waits anxiously for Mr. Tulkinghorn to join them, but her anxiety shows only in her nightly question to her maid: "Is Mr. Tulkinghorn come?" As soon as he arrives, she asks about his message, claiming to have forgotten about the matter until he mentioned it. But Tulkinghorn is not fooled. Who could be, when she insists about hearing the story despite her husband's displeasure at the topic of death and possible suicide? The narrator's comments in the final paragraph indicate Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn are suspicious of each other. She wonders what he might know, and he wonders what he should know. The last few words of the chapter hint that all will eventually be revealed.

In Chapter 9 readers learned what Mr. Boythorn thinks of Sir Leicester. In Chapter 12 Sir Leicester's feelings about Boythorn are revealed. And they're equally disapproving. He says Boythorn, whom readers know is a very considerate gentleman, has an "ill-regulated mind" and is "an extremely dangerous person." Boythorn is clearly a thorn in Sir Leicester's side. Nevertheless, when asked if he will make some minor concession in the dispute to move things along, Sir Leicester refuses and makes a capital offense of Boythorn's obstinacy. If this is simply an issue of a right-of-way where their two large properties meet, it seems strange that the men cannot just let their lawyers settle it. But neither will give an inch; they are deadlocked. (Keeping things as they are—stuck in disagreement—is apparently a specialty of Sir Leicester's, as indicated by his name.) But maybe they're fighting over something altogether different.

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