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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 16–18 | Summary



Chapter 16

Sir Leicester Dedlock is laid up with gout, a family affliction. Lady Honoria Dedlock has gone up to town. She has been restless lately, flitting back and forth between London and Lincolnshire.

Jo lives in a "ruinous place" called Tom-all-Alone's. The houses are old and decaying but are still rented as lodgings. They are leaky and full of vermin and disease. Sometimes they collapse. The property is in Chancery, though no one knows where the name comes from. Jo can't read or write, though he wonders what the symbols mean. It is morning, and Jo is on his way to work as a crossing sweeper. A street band comes by and plays for a while. At dusk a woman wearing a veil and dressed as a servant, but with the manner and jewelry of a lady, asks Jo about Nemo. She wants to see "the place he wrote for, the place he died at, the place where you were taken to, and the place where he was buried." He shows her the places: Cook's Court, where the stationer's is; Krook's house, where Nemo lived; the pub where the inquest was held; and the crowded cemetery. The woman gives him a gold coin.

That night Lady Dedlock attends a series of social functions in London, and at Chesney Wold footsteps can be heard clearly on the Ghost Walk.

Chapter 17

While Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and John Jarndyce stayed in London, Richard Carstone visited them frequently. Esther realizes he has the abilities he needs to do well but has never learned to apply them. One day Bayham Badger and Mrs. Badger call when Jarndyce is out. They tell Esther and Ada that Richard is not really interested in becoming a surgeon but considers it "a tiresome pursuit." Before saying anything to Mr. Jarndyce, Ada and Esther ask Richard how it's going. It turns out he finds it "monotonous." After some discussion, they decide he must give up on medicine and try another profession. Richard says he has been thinking of taking up the law, which would allow him to follow the progress of their case as well. Richard goes to Mr. Jarndyce and tells him his decision. Jarndyce says they "can retreat with honor" but must take time before rushing into "the matter of the law." Despite his positive words, Esther notices his eyes look troubled.

Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther what little he knows of her past. Nine years ago he got a letter from a woman who had raised an orphan girl "in secrecy" and "blotted out all trace of her existence." The woman said if she died, the girl, who was 12, "would be left entirely friendless, nameless, and unknown." She wanted to know if Jarndyce would "finish what [she] had begun." The woman said she was living under an assumed name and was the girl's aunt. She refused to see Mr. Jarndyce himself but would see Conversation Kenge as his go-between. Esther says she "blesses the guardian who is a father to her," and Jarndyce momentarily looks troubled again. Esther remarks it would be "many and many a day" before she would understand why.

The next day Allan Woodcourt stops by. He is seven years older than Esther and has "no fortune or private means." So he has taken a job as a ship's surgeon and is about to leave for China and India; he'll be gone a long time. His mother comes with him on the visit. She is Welsh, she tells them, and from a "sort of royal family." She does not want Allan to "form an alliance" beneath "his pedigree." Mr. Woodcourt seems "distressed" by her comments and thanks Mr. Jarndyce for the "very happy hours" he has spent there. After kissing Ada's and Esther's hand, he leaves with his mother.

Still later Caddy Jellyby stops by. She gives Esther "an exquisite little nosegay," saying it was left at Miss Flite's by someone who "was hurrying away an hour ago to join a ship," and she believes he "left them on purpose."

Chapter 18

Having decided to give law a try, Richard Carstone cannot bring himself to give up on medicine, and his indecision lasts till midsummer. Until Richard makes up his mind and commits to working at Kenge and Carboy's, John Jarndyce rents him a furnished room by the month in a respectable area of London. Richard decides to stay in London and try to "unravel the mysteries of the fatal suit," so Ada Clare, Esther Summerson, Mr. Jarndyce, and Harold Skimpole go to stay with Lawrence Boythorn without him. Skimpole's landlord has taken possession of his furniture, which was not paid for and for which Mr. Jarndyce had countersigned. So it is Jarndyce who will have to pay for them, just as he must pay for Skimpole's refreshments on the way to Boythorn's.

Boythorn meets them with a carriage and apologizes because they must travel two miles out of the way to avoid crossing Sir Leicester Dedlock's land. From a hilltop they see Chesney Wold—"a picturesque old house in a fine park richly wooded." Esther and Ada find the view "serene." Passing through the village, Boythorn greets Watt Rouncewell, who is sitting outside the inn. Boythorn explains Watt "is in love with a pretty girl up at the house" whom Lady Honoria Dedlock "is going to keep about her." Watt wants to marry the girl but can't do so yet. Boythorn's house used to be the parsonage. The gardens are bursting with flowers, fruit, and vegetables. The disputed ground is nearby, and Boythorn keeps a "sentry" and a ferocious bull dog to guard it. He has posted signs, too, to warn off trespassers.

The next day, which is Sunday, they all walk to church together. The congregation includes locals as well as "a large muster of servants from the house." Esther can pick out the pretty maid, who is "blushingly conscious" of Watt's attention. She also sees a Frenchwoman who is "maliciously watchful of this pretty girl." As service begins, Esther finds herself looking into the eyes of Lady Dedlock, which "spring out of their languor" to lock with hers. Somehow Esther's heart starts pounding, and she is reminded of her childhood at Miss Barbary's. She is even more disturbed when the Frenchwoman's gaze falls on her as the woman looks around at everyone. After church Boythorn and Skimpole get into one of their many arguments, which Esther always expects to end in a "violent explosion" on Boythorn's part. But generally the visit is a happy one in pleasant surroundings. The following Saturday, though, Ada, Esther, and Mr. Jarndyce are caught out in a thunderstorm. They are sheltering in the keeper's lodge when someone speaks to them. Ada mistakes the voice for Esther's, but it isn't. Esther's heart begins pounding again, and she sees images of herself. It is Lady Dedlock, who greets Jarndyce. She asks after "the young gentleman" he "wrote to Sir Leicester about" and asks to be introduced to Ada and Esther. From their intermittent conversation, it is clear Jarndyce knew Lady Dedlock long ago and he knew her sister even better, but Lady Dedlock and her sister fell out and "went [their] several ways." The rain lets up, and a small carriage arrives bearing both the Frenchwoman and the pretty, young maid; Lady Dedlock ignores the Frenchwoman and has the girl put a shawl on her. Then she drives off with the girl, leaving the Frenchwoman to walk back to the house, which she chooses to do barefoot, leaving her shoes behind on the wet grass. The keeper tells Jarndyce that Hortense, the Frenchwoman, has been given "notice to leave" and is not happy about it.


Chapter 16 introduces Tom-all-Alone's, the slum that plays a large role in unravelling the novel's central mystery. Dickens considered a variety of titles for this novel before deciding on Bleak House. Among them were

  • Tom-all-Alone's
  • The Solitary House (that never knew happiness)
  • The Ruined House
  • The Ruined House That Got into Chancery and never got out
  • The East Wind

He decided to use Bleak House with no subtitle so readers could decide for themselves what it referred to. While Jarndyce's Bleak House itself is far from bleak, other houses are: Chesney Wold, the slum lodgings in Tom-all-Alone's or the brickmakers' community, the unhappy homes of many other characters (the Jellybys or Mr. Tulkinghorn, for example), and even Chancery itself. Dickens also wanted readers to think of the word house as a metaphor for the country as a whole; he considered England in many ways to be ruined and its situation bleak.

It's too bad Mr. Tulkinghorn doesn't look out his window; he might have recognized Lady Dedlock, despite her servant's dress, heading for Tom-all-Alone's. That would have provided another clue for his investigation. He doesn't see her, though, and she finds Jo and gets a tour of Nemo's life and death there. This confirms to readers what Tulkinghorn suspects; she has some deep connection to the man who was known as Nemo. Not only has she come to a slum in disguise but she has paid Jo a gold sovereign (a gold coin worth £1).

Esther's suspicions about Richard are shown to be accurate in Chapter 17. He finds studying medicine boring. However, he suggests another profession—the law—on his own and seems to have been thinking about it for a while. Mr. Jarndyce insists he not rush into it this time, but there are good reasons why it might be more interesting to him. After all, both Richard and Ada are involved in the Jarndyce inheritance, and Richard hopes he can look after and perhaps even influence the case. But even though it is his own choice to leave medicine and switch to law, it takes him several months, as readers learn in Chapter 18, to overcome his natural inertia and follow through on that decision.

But will the law really be the right profession for Richard? Readers might recall both Miss Flite and Mr. Gridley, while not lawyers, have made it their business to study their cases in detail—but to no avail. The lawyers themselves are not in business to resolve cases but to prolong them; that's how they make money. Richard, whatever his flaws, is a generous young man; it seems unlikely that dragging out legal proceedings at the expense of the parties involved in a case would appeal to his kind-hearted nature.

The mystery of Esther's birth is addressed in Chapter 17—although she does not learn much. She learns only how Mr. Jarndyce found out about her. At least one question is settled; if readers wondered if he had any personal tie to her, this makes clear he did not. But something in his relationship with Esther is troubling Jarndyce. In Chapter 13 he said Esther is "to be held in remembrance above all other people," and in this chapter he says she "repays [him] twenty-thousandfold, and twenty more to that, every hour in every day." But when Esther says he "is a father to her," Jarndyce again looks troubled. He is affectionate with all of his charges, but she is the one for whom he has a myriad of nicknames; she is the one he confides in; she is the one who cheers him up when an east wind is blowing. Readers would be justified in thinking, despite the age difference between them, Jarndyce's feelings for Esther might not be entirely fatherly.

Meanwhile, Esther is finding it harder to keep her feelings for Allan Woodcourt out of the narration, and there are indications he has feelings for her. First, although he doesn't know her well, he comes to say goodbye before leaving on his long voyage. Next he says what "very happy hours" he has spent there. Then he finds a way to kiss her hand when leaving. Finally he sends a nosegay of beautiful flowers by way of Caddy. Esther immediately recognizes them as the "sort of thing" a lover would give a girl and is nonplussed when she finds out they are for her from Mr. Woodcourt.

In Chapter 18 Esther sees Lady Dedlock for the first time and finds it deeply disturbing. She knows she has never seen the woman before, yet she looks familiar. She reminds Esther of her godmother although her godmother's face did not have the same "loftiness and haughtiness." Readers will remember William Guppy also had the impression he had seen Lady Dedlock before even though he knew he hadn't. When Esther and Lady Dedlock meet again while sheltering from the rain, Esther discovers Lady Dedlock's voice is also familiar. It turns out Jarndyce knows Lady Dedlock and her sister. Readers may wonder whether he knew them through Boythorn. In any case, Lady Dedlock is gracious and friendly—which may surprise readers after earlier encounters with her. After all, she was distant and haughty with Mr. Tulkinghorn, reserved with her husband, and disgusted by Jo. But despite her friendliness toward Jarndyce and Ada, she turns away from Esther after they are introduced and doesn't speak to her. Still she offers to send back her two-seater carriage for Ada and Esther, so she clearly feels more compassion for Esther, whom she doesn't know, than for Hortense, who is (still) in her employ.

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