Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 13–15 | Summary



Chapter 13

Esther Summerson and John Jarndyce try to get Richard Carstone to decide which profession he would like to enter, but he can't decide. The only thing Richard can say with certainty is he doesn't want to go into the Church. When Jarndyce mentions "surgeon," Richard fixes on that option. Mr. Boythorn is emphatically in favor but turns the discussion into a rant against the Admiralty for their mistreatment of surgeons at sea. Conversation Kenge is also consulted, and he says he is sure Richard will apply himself just as he did to Latin verse. Kenge says he has a cousin "in the medical profession" who might "be deemed eligible" to train Richard, and it is arranged that Jarndyce and his charges will go up to London to meet him.

In London Esther, Richard, and Ada Clare take in the sights. One night they are at the theater when Esther notices William Guppy staring at her "with a carefully prepared expression of the deepest misery." After that, every time Esther goes to the theater, there's Guppy staring up at her. In fact, she sees him everywhere—even following their carriage when they are stuck in traffic and standing outside their lodgings at night. Her only "rest from him" comes during the day when he has to work. She frets over how to stop him from stalking her.

Kenge's medical cousin is Bayham Badger, and he agrees "to receive Richard into his house and to superintend his studies." The Badgers invite Jarndyce and his party to dinner, where they meet Mrs. Badger. Mr. Badger informs them his wife has had three husbands: a naval officer, who was Mrs. Badger's great love; a professor of botany; and Mr. Badger himself. Mr. Badger is very proud of his wife's former husbands and talks about them all evening. That night Ada and Richard confess to Esther that they are in love. Esther tells Jarndyce the following morning, and he meets with the young couple to say he had foreseen this as a possibility in the future and reminds them they are still young. He tells Richard "constancy in love is ... nothing, without constancy in every kind of effort." Jarndyce suggests Richard and Ada take a walk. After they leave, he reminds Esther that her life should not be "consumed in care for others." Esther recalls another guest at dinner that evening—a dark-complected young surgeon who she found "very sensible and agreeable."

Chapter 14

Chapter 14 begins with Richard Carstone moving in with the Badgers. The following day Caddy Jellyby arrives to visit Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and John Jarndyce; with her is Peepy Jellyby, who is dressed haphazardly. Caddy herself, though, looks quite pretty. Caddy gives her mother's latest circular to Mr. Jarndyce, who remarks on the "very trying" east wind. Caddy confides that her father is near bankruptcy, her mother doesn't care how things are in the house, and she has no time to help. She also confides that she is engaged to Prince Turveydrop, her dance instructor, who was named after the Prince Regent. She meets him secretly at Miss Flite's; she has been seeing the "poor thing" regularly since meeting her with Esther and Ada. She asks Esther to go with her to her dance lesson. Esther agrees and suggests they meet Ada and Mr. Jarndyce at Miss Flite's afterward.

Mr. Turveydrop is a small, timid young man. Esther also meets his father, who is "a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig"; his clothes are too tight and his accessories overdone. He is "a model of deportment." He stands and watches as his son "never rest[s] for a minute" but plays both violin and piano and helps any student who's having trouble. Yet it is the father who actually owns the dancing school; he inherited it from his wife, who supported him by teaching dancing. Esther learns this from an old woman sitting beside her who speaks quite spitefully about the elder Turveydrop. Mr. Turveydrop comes to sit with Esther and tells her about how famous he is and how Prince takes after Mrs. Turveydrop. When the lesson ends, Prince gets ready to teach somewhere else, and his father goes out to "show himself" about town.

Caddy and Esther set out for Lincoln's Inn. On the way Caddy explains Miss Flite has been teaching her to clean, shop, cook, and sew, and she finds she feels less resentful of her mother. As they go up to Miss Flite's room, they peer in the door of the vacant room; it gives Esther "a strange sensation of mournfulness and even dread." Miss Flite has been ill and introduces her doctor, Allan Woodcourt. She also explains that every Saturday she receives seven shillings, which she believes comes from the Chancellor as an advance on her settlement. Fitz-Jarndyce, as she calls Caddy, uses this money to do Miss Flite's shopping. Esther is sure the money is from Mr. Jarndyce. Krook comes to the door, wanting to meet Mr. Jarndyce. He tells Jarndyce he knew Tom Jarndyce. Then, although Miss Flite won't tell Krook the names of her birds, he lists them—a list which illustrates the progression of Miss Flite's madness. He insists on showing them his shop and watches Jarndyce closely the entire time. They find Krook is trying to teach himself to read and write; when asked why he doesn't get someone to teach him, he says he doesn't want to be "learned wrong." Jarndyce asks Mr. Woodcourt whether Krook is mad, as Miss Flite says, but the doctor thinks he is only mistrustful and drunk on cheap gin. Mr. Woodcourt is the same young surgeon they met at the Badgers', and Mr. Jarndyce invites him to dine with them that evening. Esther hints there is more to tell about the surgeon than she is presently revealing.

Chapter 15

In Chapter 15 readers discover that in London John Jarndyce is "constantly beset" by a range of philanthropists. Mr. Quale is among them, and Esther Summerson realizes he admires not just Mrs. Jellyby but also Mrs. Pardiggle and anyone else engaged in philanthropic pursuits. Mr. Jarndyce, who is beset by these people because of his "earnest desire to do ... good," is distraught by their loudness, vanity, and "self-laudation"; Esther observes "the wind was in the east for three whole weeks." Jarndyce finds relief in the simple candor of Harold Skimpole, who comes to visit. Esther is surprised to learn Lawrence Boythorn has invited Skimpole to visit at the same time Jarndyce, Esther, and Ada will be at Boythorn's. Skimpole also has other news. Coavinses has died; Skimpole learned this when the new debt collector came to take possession of his house—on his daughter's birthday. Coavinses, who had been a widower, left three orphaned children.

Jarndyce, Esther, Ada, and Skimpole go to "Coavinses' Castle" and learn the dead man's name was Neckett and he lived in Bell Yard. On the way upstairs to find the Neckett children, they meet Mr. Gridley standing in the doorway of his room. Esther looks past him and sees his room is strewn with papers. At the top of the stairs, they find two children—a boy of five or six holding an 18-month-old child—locked in a "poor room" with little furniture and no fire. Their older sister, Charley, arrives, covered in soap suds from doing laundry. She's small and out of breath; when asked her age, she says, "over thirteen." Her brother is Tom, and the baby is Emma. As they're talking with Charley, Mrs. Blinder, the landlady, comes in. She explains Mr. Neckett was a good, hardworking man who paid his rent on time but people resented him for his profession. Some are so resentful that they take it out on Charley by paying her less and making her work more for it. Mr. Gridley joins them, too, to check on the children. It turns out Mr. Gridley is another victim of Chancery and has "been dragged for five and twenty years over burning iron." He is more open when he learns Mr. Jarndyce's name, explaining he remains sane by getting angry; if he didn't, he would "become imbecile like the poor little mad woman that haunts the court." He describes his Chancery case, which also concerns a will; he is a farmer, and, even before the case had started, the costs "were three times the legacy." Talking about his case enrages him, but he calms down and takes the two younger children down to his room to play. The rest of them go downstairs with Charley, who runs off to work.


Chapter 13 delves further into Richard's character. Like his attitude toward money, his attitude toward his future is overly optimistic. He seems to think it will take care of itself. After flip-flopping about a possible career in the navy or the army, he says yes to the first suggestion Mr. Jarndyce makes—becoming a surgeon—and fixates on that notion. Why? There seems to be no particular reason, so perhaps it is only because he is sick of being pestered to make a reasoned decision about what he wants to do. Whatever the reason, he passively allows himself to be apprenticed to Mr. Badger, promising to apply himself. Esther and Mr. Jarndyce seem less than convinced of his dedication, however, so readers might expect his apprenticeship to founder.

Allan Woodcourt is not the only man interested in Esther. Guppy has proved to be a stalker, following Esther around London whenever he is not at work. This wears on Esther particularly because he goes out of the way to make himself appear lovelorn. He pursues her with the same determination he applies to furthering his career. Dickens describes how Guppy's attentions weigh on Esther—she cannot focus on the plays she sees, she can barely "move or speak" because she knows he's watching; she won't go near the window of her room at night, knowing he may be waiting beneath her window. Yet she doesn't tell Jarndyce because she is afraid Guppy might lose his job, she worries about the money he's spending on going to the theater, and she won't even move to the back of the box where he cannot see her because she does not want to disappoint Ada and Richard. Esther's early upbringing still shows; she truly believes her own needs and desires matter less than those of others.

Jarndyce recognizes that Esther always puts others before herself and says her "life [should not be] all consumed in care for others." This habit of putting herself last is further exemplified in Esther's narrative by the fact that she puts the events that are most important to her at the ends of Chapters 13 and 14—her first (Chapter 13) and second (Chapter 14) meetings with Allan Woodcourt. By treating them as afterthoughts, Esther, as narrator, may mean to play them down; yet Dickens uses this positioning to call attention to them. Similarly while Esther doesn't report what Ada says at the end of Chapter 14, readers can infer Ada is as aware of the attraction between Esther and the surgeon as Esther had been of the attraction between Ada and Richard.

Chapter 15 shows how strongly Mr. Jarndyce disapproves of how some people court admiration and recognition for their philanthropy. This is demonstrated by the "wind [being] in the east for three whole weeks" while he is "beset" by the philanthropists. Since Skimpole's unabashed self-centeredness is "a great relief" to Jarndyce and he positively enjoys Lawrence Boythorn's exaggerations, it can be inferred he detests hypocrisy. He is also conflicted by the philanthropists as he feels their professed goals are good ones; his problem is with their placing more emphasis on themselves than on the people they are trying to help. He has no such problem telling Skimpole what he thinks, however; when Skimpole says happily he has not paid his doctor or his butcher but "meant" the payment, Jarndyce easily takes the butcher's side: "But, suppose ... he had meant the meat ... instead of providing it?"

In Chapter 15 readers are also reminded of the dark side of Skimpole. He reports Coavinses has died, leaving three orphaned children. But he is happy about this because now the debt collector "will never do violence to the sunshine any more." Similarly, and perhaps even more disturbingly, he is completely calm about another debt collector taking possession of his own belongings.

In these chapters Dickens indulges in social criticism. Through Esther, he questions the values of an aristocratic education. He reminds readers of the self-serving nature of the philanthropy practiced by Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Mr. Gusher, and others like them. His affecting portrayal of the young Charley valiantly attempting to provide for her younger siblings shows the absence of government programs to help people in need. Through his caricature of Mr. Turveydrop, he mocks the idleness and focus on appearances and being seen in the right places that can characterize the fashionable aristocracy. He also tackles once again the inequity of the court of equity—Chancery—in several ways: the discussion between Krook and Jarndyce, Krook's recitation of the names of Flite's birds, and Mr. Gridley's story. Mr. Gridley, readers will remember, is the man from Shropshire who several times interrupts proceedings in Chancery at the end of Chapter 1.

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