Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 30–31 | Summary



Chapter 30

Mrs. Woodcourt writes with news of her son, Allan Woodcourt, and John Jarndyce invites her to come to Bleak House; she accepts and stays three weeks. She likes Esther particularly and is "extremely confidential," which makes Esther uncomfortable. She talks about Wales, which is her homeland, and the literature and history of Wales, calling this the "fortune" her son has inherited. "He may not have money," she says, "but he has ... family." This limits his "choice of a wife," she tells Esther. Allan's father was also from a sort of royalty—an old Scottish clan. She tells Esther that Allan has faults; one of these is "fickleness" where "young ladies" are concerned. Now Allan has "gone to seek his fortune and to find a wife," she says and asks Esther when Esther means "to seek [her] fortune and to find a husband." Then Mrs. Woodcourt predicts Esther will marry a rich older man. At night, Esther frets over what the woman has said and is relieved when the three weeks are over and Mrs. Woodcourt leaves.

The next visitor to Bleak House is Caddy Jellyby. Her wedding is the following month, and she wants Ada Clare and Esther to be her bridesmaids. Her father has given up everything; paid as much as he could to his creditors, who have declared themselves "satisfied"; and gotten a new job. Mr. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop have become "excellent friends." But, Caddy says, her father is sad she'll be leaving and is unhappy at home. Her mother, on the other hand, doesn't even seem to know Caddy's getting married. It is John Jarndyce who provides a wedding dress for Caddy; her father gives her £10, which is spent on fabrics and materials. Then Caddy, Esther, Ada, Charley Neckett, and "a milliner out of the town" make and mend clothes appropriate for a married woman's wardrobe. After three weeks at Bleak House, Esther and Caddy go up to London, where they prepare for the wedding. The biggest problem is to convince Mrs. Jellyby to take the matter seriously. She finds "something so inexpressibly absurd ... in the idea of Caddy being married." Esther manages to convince Mrs. Jellyby to let her work room be cleaned up and used for the wedding breakfast and to make one of her dresses presentable for the wedding. Mr. Jellyby tries to help with the cleaning but, faced with the enormity of the task, soon gives up. He spends most of his time sitting "with his head against the wall."

The night before the wedding is spent cleaning Mrs. Jellyby's workroom, and the morning of the wedding is spent preparing the wedding breakfast there. Ada has arrived with Mr. Jarndyce, and the wedding party includes the Pardiggle family, Mr. Quale, and Miss Wisk, who is the latest object of Mr. Quale's admiration. At the ceremony, Mr. Turveydrop behaves with the utmost deportment, Miss Wisk looks "disdainful," and Mrs. Jellyby is the "least concerned of all the company." Each member of the "ungenial company" can talk about only his or her own particular philanthropic interests. But Mr. Jarndyce keeps turning the conversation to "the honor of the occasion." As Caddy leaves, she wants to make sure her mother has forgiven her, and Mrs. Jellyby assures her they are "excellent friends." Mr. Turveydrop assures Prince and Caddy that, when they return from their honeymoon in a week, there will be a fire laid in their room and dinner waiting for them in his.

Chapter 31

Esther Summerson has been teaching Charley Neckett to read and write. One evening after she checks Charley's penmanship, Charley tells her she met Jenny. She and Liz have come back to St. Albans after "tramping high and low." They met "by the doctor's shop"; Jenny was getting medicine for a poor orphan boy who is staying with her. Esther and Charley go to Jenny's to "see what's the matter." As they stop at the garden gate to look at the sky, Esther has "an undefinable impression of myself as being something different from what I then was."

At Jenny's, a boy is shivering violently, and the room smells "unhealthy" and "peculiar." When the boy hears Esther's voice, he looks at her in "surprise and terror" and tells her he "won't go no more to the berryin' ground." Jenny assures him it's not the same lady, but he says she looks like her. Charley reassures him, too, and seems to accept it. The boy is Jo, and he is trying to move on to get away from Mrs. Snagsby and everyone, who are "all a-watching and a-driving of" him. Liz comes in. She has been trying to find someone to take Jo in, but with no luck. She and Jenny give him a few small coins, and Jo shuffles out. Esther and Charley leave, too, not wanting to make trouble for Jenny with her husband. They find Jo near the brick kiln. He's still afraid of Esther and asks Charley if she's not the other woman and not the foreigner, "is there three of 'em then?" Still he follows Esther home.

Harold Skimpole is visiting John Jarndyce, and both men examine the boy. Skimpole advises them to "turn him out" because he has "a very bad sort of fever." Jarndyce is appalled, but Skimpole sticks to his recommendation. He does so with such an amiable face that Esther says she will never forget it. Jarndyce says he can ensure Jo is admitted to "the proper place" in the morning and decides the boy should stay "in the wholesome loftroom by the stable" overnight. Skimpole says the medicine the boy has with him is the best thing for him and advises them to sprinkle vinegar in his room and to keep the boy warm and his room cool. Jo is put to bed, and his door is latched on the outside. In the morning, though, he's gone. They can't see how he got out, and nothing is missing. Jenny and Liz haven't seen him, and it rained in the night, so there are no footprints. The search goes on for at least five days.

Then Esther finds Charley shivering in Esther's room. She hears Ada Clare approaching and locks the door before Ada can come in. Twelve hours later, Charley is worse, and Esther puts her to bed and nurses her. She begs Ada to "come no nearer than the garden," and Ada complies. Esther allows only one servant to bring her things on the understanding that the woman will not go near Ada. Charley is sick a long time. Esther worries her pretty face will be scarred if she survives and worries what she will tell Charley's brother and sister if she does not. But she recovers completely, even "growing into her old childish likeness again." When she is well enough to get out of bed and take tea in the other room, Esther has chills and realizes she's caught the "contagion." She hides it from Ada when they talk through the window and asks Charley to keep her illness a secret as long as possible and, when Ada must know, not to let her in no matter what. She asks Charley to come and sit with her and touch her with her hand so she knows Charley's there. Esther has gone blind.


Mrs. Woodcourt claims to be like Welsh aristocracy; her husband, she says, was from an old Scottish clan, the MacCoorts. In a way, she thinks like Sir Leicester's cousins: it's wrong to marry outside your class. From the perspective of Esther the narrator—seven years after the events of Bleak House—she must know exactly what Mrs. Woodcourt is doing by "confiding" in her: she's trying to make sure Allan doesn't marry beneath him. But within the confines of the novel, she doesn't want to think it of Allan's mother. After all, Esther is trying to hide her feelings for Allan Woodcourt, even from herself. Mrs. Woodcourt is actually quite a horrible woman though. To prevent Esther from thinking she might have a future with Allan, Mrs. Woodcourt is willing to lie about how her son treats women, claiming he is fickle and leads them on. This is completely at odds with everything Esther has seen in the young surgeon, but she also realizes she hasn't known him long. To really twist the knife, Mrs. Woodcourt says her son is looking for a wife on his travels.

Esther gets ahead of herself when telling about Caddy's wedding. As soon as she starts listing the guests, she can't resist talking about their foibles. Readers might expect philanthropists would be united in their desire to help others, but only Mr. Quale seems to even notice what other philanthropists are up to. The rest of them are completely fixated on their own causes and oblivious not only to everyone around them but to the causes of others as well.

At the beginning of Chapter 31, Charley and Esther rush into the night to go to Jenny's. The weather has been stormy for days, while poor Jo has been getting sicker and sicker. Now the rain stops and the sky clears a bit. On one side of the sky is a "pale dead light both beautiful and awful," and on the other is the "lurid glare" of the city of London with its factories and coal fires. Esther perceives this as a moment of foreshadowing dividing her earlier life from her subsequent life. But it also traces Jo's journey from the "unearthly fire" of London and illness toward "somewheres" else: perhaps death, perhaps not. Readers will not find out what happens to Jo for another 15 chapters.

The disease Jo brought to Bleak House was smallpox, a virus that first causes a general feeling of illness, a high fever, aches and pains, and often vomiting. This is the phase Jo is in, and he is already somewhat contagious. The disease gets its name from the small red bumps (pox) that break out on the sick person's body and face in its second phase. Once this rash appears, the disease becomes increasingly contagious. Soon the lesions begin to leak, spreading the virus into the mouth and even the eyes. This explains Esther's blindness. Next, the rash swells and hardens, then breaks open, and eventually scabs over. The scabs begin falling off. When they're gone, the person is well and no longer contagious but often left scarred. Esther worries Charley will be scarred, but she isn't. Esther may not be as lucky. The incubation period for smallpox ranges from 7 to 17 days, so Jo probably caught the fever in Tom-all-Alone's and brought it with him to St. Albans.

Chapter 31 is heavy with social criticism, especially concerning the living conditions of the poor, which allowed epidemics to flourish. Earlier the narrator pointed out the filth of poor areas, the disease that spread from the burial ground where Nemo's body was taken, and especially the mud and stench infecting Tom-all-Alone's. In Chapter 22 Bucket and the constable discuss the fever houses and the high number of deaths in the slum. Now Jo seems unconcerned about dying if he stays outside near the kiln. "They dies everywheres," he says. Death seems normal to him. "They ... dies down in Tom-all-Alone's in heaps. They dies more than they lives, according to what I see." And Jo is not exaggerating. In the 1840s the average life expectancy of a worker or servant in London was only 22; professionals could expect to live to 45 on average. One in every three infants died, and three-quarters of all deaths were children under five. Disease was the number one cause of death, whether epidemics like scarlet fever, smallpox, and cholera—which were linked to the lack of good sanitation—or tuberculosis and other infections, especially lung infections that were exacerbated by the smoky cities.

Of course, it wasn't only the dirty conditions that killed people. Even though there were plenty of trained doctors and hospitals in cities like London, medical treatment was largely unavailable to the poor. As Mr. Jarndyce points out, "if [Jo] were a convicted prisoner, his hospital would be wide open to him, and he would be as well taken care of as any sick boy in the kingdom." Skimpole glibly retorts, "Why isn't he a prisoner?" He actually makes an astute case for Jo intentionally breaking the law in order to get the better treatment due him: "Society, which has taken upon itself the general arrangement of the whole system of spoons and professes to have a spoon for our young friend, does not produce that spoon; and our young friend, therefore, says 'You really must excuse me if I seize it.'" Victoria's reign saw vast changes in English society, and part of this came through a response to the social wrongs people saw and protested. (Not all philanthropy was foreign and ineffective.) By the end of the century, life expectancy had risen, reaching an average of 45 for men in England, but it wasn't until the medical advances of the 20th century (such as antibiotics and vaccinations) and the decline in infant mortality that life expectancy really soared.

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