Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 19–21 | Summary



Chapter 19

The courts are closed for their annual summer break, and the lawyers and judges are off enjoying the four-month vacation. London is suffering a heat wave. Mrs. Snagsby has invited Mr. Chadband and his wife to tea with herself and Mr. Snagsby, and Guster has been busy getting ready for their visit. The Chadbands arrive late. As he enters, Mr. Chadband wishes peace upon the house and its occupants and is about to continue to discuss the topic of peace when Guster interrupts to say Mr. Chadband has underpaid a cabbie by eight pence, and Chadband says to his wife, "Rachael, pay the eightpence!" After some sermonizing Chadband sits down and begins consuming large amounts of food. Guster again interrupts; this time Mr. Snagsby is wanted in the shop.

A police constable has brought Jo into the shop and complains to Snagsby that the boy refuses to "move on"; Jo claims he has done nothing but move on "since [he] was born." He wants to know where he should move to. The constable says he'll have to take the boy into custody if he won't move on. Snagsby takes Jo's side, also asking where. The diners hear the commotion and come into the shop as well. The constable has brought Jo to Snagsbys because Jo says Snagsby knows him. Snagsby tells him about Jo's role in the inquest into Nemo's death. Just then William Guppy arrives; he overheard the "row" between Jo and the constable and volunteers that he knows Snagsby. The constable has found two half-crown coins on Jo, which he finds suspicious. Jo explains that a woman in a veil gave him a sovereign for showing her around, but much of it has been stolen from him. The constable assumes Jo's lying, but offers not to jail him if Mr. Snagsby "will ... engage for his moving on." Against his wife's wishes, Snagsby agrees and tells Jo he must move on. The constable wants him to go at least five miles away, pointing westward, and then leaves.

The others are all curious about Jo's story of how he got the sovereign. Mr. Guppy begins to interrogate him and is soon invited upstairs for a cup of tea. Jo is brought as far as the doorway to the drawing room, where Guppy questions him. Eventually he decides the boy may be telling the truth and mentions he works at Kenge and Carboy's. This prompts Mrs. Chadband to say she knows that firm and has known them since before she married Mr. Chadband. Mr. Guppy then cross-examines her and learns she was once "left in charge of a child named Esther Summerson, who was put out in life by Messrs. Kenge and Carboy." Guppy is "excited" to learn this and is about to shake Mrs. Chadband's hand when her husband rises and blesses the house. He asks Jo to "stand forth" and tells the boy he's "a pearl, ... a diamond, ... a gem, ... a jewel"; after a great deal of sermonizing, he comes to his point—he wants Jo to come to him every day "to hear discourses." Jo, who wants only to get away, nods. Guppy gives him a penny, Mr. Snagsby "loads him with some broken meats from the table," and Guster sees him out. Jo goes to Blackfriars Bridge, where he sits down and eats his supper.

Chapter 20

Richard Carstone has begun working at Kenge and Carboy's, and he and William Guppy are the only people in the office during the long summer holiday. Guppy resents Richard's presence and suspects Richard is trying to do him out of his position there. Therefore Guppy is busy cooking up ways of foiling Richard's nonexistent plans. Richard spends his time in Kenge's office studying the Jarndyce case; this pleases Guppy, who knows it's useless. Today Mr. Guppy has a visitor. It's his friend and admirer Bart Smallweed. Bart—also called Young Smallweed, Chick Weed, and just Small—is nearly 15, but already "an old limb of the law." He's short and always wears a very tall hat. In general he tries to look, talk, and act like Mr. Guppy. Their friend Tony Jobling appears outside the window. Jobling is hungry, having been fired from his law clerk's job some time back. Guppy tosses him half a crown and invites him to have dinner with them. Jobling just needs to wait half an hour for Richard to leave; in the meantime, he sits on the stairs and reads. After Richard goes, Smallweed ushers Jobling inside. Jobling asks Guppy how "she" is, which Guppy "resents as a liberty."

The three young men go to a cheap local dining-house. Jobling recalls his trip to Lincolnshire with Guppy and their visit to Chesney Wold. At that time he still thought his fortunes would improve; now he's seriously thinking of enlisting. Since getting fired by Kenge and Carboy's, it's been all downhill. Guppy suggests he become a legal copyist for Snagsby and take a room at Krook's. He could even change his name. Guppy also expresses curiosity about Krook, whom he characterizes as "so deep, so sly, and secret" and "reported to be immensely rich." Guppy suggests Tony investigate him, offering his friend as much as £5 to do so, which is very gratefully accepted. In passing, he mentions the last lodger in Krook's room died there, but Jobling says he doesn't mind.

Guppy pays for their meal. Then he and Jobling leave and go to Krook's, where they find him passed out drunk. He awakes and accuses them of finishing his gin while he was sleeping. Guppy goes and has the bottle refilled with a better quality of gin, which meets with Krook's approval. Calling Tony "Mr. Weevle," Guppy arranges for Tony to have Nemo's old room, which has been cleaned and better furnished. Mr. Weevle is to move in the next day. The two young men go on to Snagsby's, where it is arranged for Weevle to work as a law-writer, before returning to Kenge and Carboy's to deliver news of their success to Smallweed. He moves in as arranged and soon makes the room his own by decorating it with "Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty" pinups of fashionable women. Weevle is a follower of fashion. Soon he is chatting regularly with Mr. Krook. In fact, Mrs. Piper remarks to Mrs. Perkins, "don't you be surprised ... if that young man comes in at last for old Krook's money!"

Chapter 21

Bart Smallweed lives in a house in Mount Pleasant—a very unpleasant part of London—with his twin sister and their grandparents. The most childlike member of the family is Grandmother Smallweed, who is senile. Grandfather Smallweed, in contrast, is sharp-witted but losing the use of his limbs. He continues the family business of lending small amounts of money at high interest rates and expresses his bad temper by throwing a cushion at his wife. The older Smallweeds are tended to by Judy Smallweed, Bart's twin sister, who calms down her grandmother when she gets upset and "shakes up" her grandfather when he starts to slide down in his chair. Like Bart, Judy skipped childhood; she never played or laughed with other children. Unlike him, though, she has no friends. She takes out her ill temper on Charley Neckett, who cleans for the Smallweeds. When Bart arrives it turns out he has eaten with William Guppy. His grandfather approves. Bart should "live at [Guppy's] expense as much as" possible—and Bart's father, who died 15 years ago, would say the same. Bart seems less than convinced; Judy collects the tea the family hasn't drunk and the crusts of bread left uneaten to give Charley to eat. Grandfather continues, reminiscing that Bart's father was also Grandfather's business partner; Bart and Judy will inherit the money they made when Grandfather is gone. They should add to it but live off their incomes from the law (Bart) and making artificial flowers (Judy).

A visitor arrives. It is Mr. George, a powerful man of 50 with the bearing of a cavalryman. He chats with the old man about his and his wife's health and how the old man spends his days. Then the conversation turns to business. He pays the interest on a loan and smokes a pipe of tobacco provided by Smallweed. The moneylender also suggests he approach a friend to pay off his debt or vouch for him so he can borrow some more capital. But Mr. George says he can't and, moreover, he won't. The conversation turns to Captain Hawdon, a friend of Mr. George's from their time in the army. Mr. George feels he was taken in by Grandfather Smallwood and his often-mentioned "friend in the city." They advertised that Hawdon could "hear of something to his advantage" when they were actually looking for the man in order to have him arrested for debt. The old man still gets angry just thinking about it and wishes the Captain had killed himself when he had "a pistol to his head." Mr. George is sure, though, that his former friend drowned at sea, either "intentionally or accidentally." Mr. George leaves and goes to the theater. Afterward, he returns to his business, George's Shooting Gallery, where he finds his helper, Phil, engaged in target practice. Phil is another ex-military man who bears the scars of severe injury. George tells him to "shut up shop." He does. Then, the two men lay their mattresses on the floor of the gallery and go to bed.


In Chapter 19 Mr. Chadband appears for the first time, but readers have met his wife before. She is Mrs. Rachael, who inherited everything from Esther's aunt after Miss Barbary died (Chapter 2), and she hasn't changed much. She's still stern and silent. In that, she's the opposite of her husband. Mr. Chadband is a large man who enjoys preaching. No matter what's said to him or what happens, he replies with a sort of impromptu sermon. When he has to pay extra to the cabbie, he expounds on how much more the fare might have been and exhorts everyone to "be joyful, joyful! O let us be joyful!" When he sees the food laid out on the table, he gives a two-paragraph sermon on why humans need to eat. The only time he isn't talking, it appears, is when he's eating, which he does in great quantities.

As a crossing sweeper, Jo is dependent on the beat policemen allowing him to stay at his post. They can choose at their discretion to decide whether he is performing a useful function or loitering. In Chapter 19 the constable has decided Jo is loitering, which is a crime, and has therefore asked him to "move on." For most of his short life, Jo has been asked to move on. Dickens, who knows Jo will not live long, often employs authorial intrusion to speak directly to Jo, as he does in Chapter 19, saying moving on is "the be-all and the end-all of [Jo's] strange existence." Dickens knew street children seldom survived. In 1840, the average life expectancy of working-class laborers was just 22, and a third of all children were dead before they reached 5.

Mr. Guppy's investigation into Esther Summerson unexpectedly hits pay dirt in Chapter 19 with his introduction to Mrs. Chadband. Without even knowing it, he has also received information about Lady Dedlock and her investigation into Nemo. His own observation of the portrait at Chesney Wold is a hint something may tie the two women together. As his questioning of Jo and of Mrs. Chadband shows, he is a meticulous investigator, examining all possibilities and eliminating the irrelevant ones until he reaches the truth. It's clear that, even when he can't be stalking Esther, who is not in London right now, he's still chasing down whatever facts he can find about her.

In Chapter 20 readers see another side of Mr. Guppy. He seems quite human as he tosses Tony Jobling half a crown and then invites him to dinner. He even helps him get better-paying work. He also hopes Tony can help him learn more about Krook, but this is not his primary motivation. His suffering over Esther seems real. He avoids the topic with his friends and won't even go to the theater with them because "there are chords in the human mind which would render it a hollow mockery." It's hard not to feel sorry for him. He has had advice from the world-wise teenager Bart Smallweed, and readers cannot know to what extent his stalking may have come as a result of Smallweed's influence. This, of course, does nothing to lessen and cannot excuse the unpalatable legalese with which he tries to woo Esther or the discomfort his stalking creates for her.

Chapter 21 introduces several new characters. Readers meet Bart Smallweed's twin sister, Judy, and his grandparents, who were once, like Bart and everyone else in his family, small people with a great aptitude for arithmetic—an aptitude that made them rich in the moneylending business. But Grandmother Smallweed has lost the use of her mind to senility and her husband has lost the use of his body; his legs, arms, and ears are all failing him. She is prone to cackle and mutter about money; he is prone to call her names and throw a cushion at her. Since Bart is out working in the law, the care of the grandparents has fallen to Judy, who takes out her resentment on the girl who cleans for them, the long-suffering Charley Neckett.

Into this heated environment comes another new character, Mr. George. Mr. George has a brusque, military way about him. He tends to view life in a straightforward manner, putting neither a negative nor a positive spin on it, as can be seen in his responses. When asked "How de do," he replies, "Middling," and when asked, "How does the world use you," he says, "Pretty much as usual. Like football." Since football is kicked one way and then another, it sounds like life is not all good, but not all bad. Mr. George seems to have a caring nature and might have made a good medical man. He asks whether Grandfather Smallweed rubs his legs to increase the circulation; he straightens Grandmother Smallweed's hair and cap and scolds her husband for calling her "a brimstone chatterer." His anger at the old man's abuse of his senile wife is even more evident as he "shakes out" Grandfather Smallweed much more roughly than necessary, which unnerves the old man. Mr. George is also a clever man. He has managed to work into his contract that, when he makes his interest payment every other month, Mr. Smallweed is to give him a pipe of tobacco to smoke. Mr. George explains he did this for the satisfaction of getting something for his money on each visit. But maybe he's making up for the character flaws of his youth. When Grandfather Smallweed asks him if he was an "excellent son," Mr. George reddens and admits he wasn't. He wanted to be, he thinks, but wasn't. Readers learn, though, that he is a reliable and trustworthy friend to former comrades in arms like the Captain Hawdon mentioned in the conversation with Smallweed or his worker at the shooting gallery, Phil Squod. He also helps and defends people who can't help themselves, like Grandmother Smallweed. From his misty-eyed response to the ending of the play he saw at the theater, it is clear he has a very soft heart indeed.

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