Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 32–34 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 32

It is night. In the Inns of Court only a few people are still at work. The cool, humid air carries the unpleasant odors of neighboring areas. Tony Jobling—or Mr. Weevle, as he is known here—is restless. Mr. Snagsby is also uneasy, troubled by his secret, and is again walking past Krook's shop, where he greets Mr. Weevle. Both comment on a certain greasiness in the air and speculate the pub is cooking chops past their sell-by date. They agree it's a "tainting sort of weather." The conversation turns to Mr. Weevle's room and its previous occupant, Nemo. Snagsby finds it "curious" that Nemo lived there and was one of his writers and the same is true of Weevle. They agree there "seems a fate in it." Snagsby heads home to his "little woman," and Mrs. Snagsby, disguised with a headscarf, follows him.

Weevle has been waiting for William Guppy, who finally arrives. Tony is to see Krook at midnight to pick up a "bundle of letters." Krook told him it is his birthday, and the old man has been drinking all day. When Tony helped him shut up his shop at night, Krook showed Tony he had the letters stashed in his cap. Tony reports on his progress in teaching Krook to read: Krook can "make all the letters" and recognize them, but can't "put them together." Recently, he wrote down some letters and asked Tony what they spelled; they spelled "Hawdon." Tony has seen the papers the name came from and says they were written by a woman. At that moment Guppy notices greasy soot on his sleeve and on the table. Tony mentions the pub chops, and they return to their conversation. Krook told him, Tony says, about stealing the letters from Nemo's suitcase and agreed to let Tony take them to his room to read so he could tell Krook what was in them. As they talk, the bells of the city strike 11. Tony is particularly uneasy about "plotting about a dead man in the room where he died." Guppy says they may be doing the dead man "a service." They open the window, sit on the sill, and continue talking. Krook claims to have "papers of importance" he originally bought as "waste-paper" and has wanted to learn to read them for some 25 years. Suddenly Guppy notices that where he has touched the sill, his hand is covered in a "thick, yellow liquor"—something oily that feels awful and smells worse. They discover the stuff is dripping down the bricks. By the time Guppy has scrubbed it off his hands, it is midnight.

Tony goes downstairs but immediately comes back empty-handed and terrified. Krook didn't answer the door, so he opened it himself. The burning smell was in the shop; so was the soot and the oil, but Krook wasn't there. Together the two men enter the shop. Everything is where Tony last saw it, and Krook was standing "where that crumbled black thing is upon the floor." Lady Jane, Krook's cat, is standing by the black thing, snarling. The men look more closely at the thing on the floor and realize it is Krook.

Chapter 33

After the discovery of Krook's remains, no one in Cursitor Street gets any sleep, which makes for very good business at the Sol's Arms. The beadle alerts two members of the press, who hurry over and interview everyone they can. Miss Flite has been given a room at the Sol's Arms, and William Guppy and Tony Jobling are given drinks on the house.

In the morning people in the neighborhood, including Mr. Snagsby, hear the news and flock to the pub. As Snagsby is greeting William Guppy and Mr. Weevle (Tony Jobling), he's surprised to see Mrs. Snagsby come in. Her manner is "accusing" and "rigid." Snagsby is upset by his wife's attitude and is afraid she suspects him of "spontaneously combusting" Krook. Since Snagsby himself doesn't know what he's involved in, he can't say for certain he isn't "implicated." Mrs. Snagsby takes her husband home, where he will be "safer."

Tony and Guppy take a walk in Lincoln's Inn Fields and discuss the "facts" of the case to prepare for the inquest. Guppy points out there is no need to tell anything more than the details directly related to their discovery of Krook's remains. Tony agrees. Then Guppy tries to persuade Tony to continue living in his room above Krook's shop so he can search his belongings and "find out what he really had got stored up there." The two men see a cab drive up. Their friend Bart Smallweed is sitting next to the driver, and inside are his sister and grandparents. Grandfather Smallweed shouts a greeting to Mr. Guppy and asks if the two men will carry him to the Sol's Arms. They do, and Bart and Judy Smallweed bring Grandmother Smallweed as well. Once seated in the pub parlor, the elder Smallweed thanks Mr. Guppy and Tony for "discovering the ashes of Mrs. Smallweed's brother." Krook, who was 76, he says, would have nothing to do with the family, but since they expect he left no will, old Mr. Smallweed has come to "look after the property." Smallweed's solicitor is Mr. Tulkinghorn, and he has already taken matters in hand.

Many "men of science and philosophy" arrive to view the scene and discuss the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion. Finally the coroner arrives and holds his inquest, again at the Sol's Arms. Mr. Guppy gives his evidence and is "moved on like a private individual," but not before he sees Mr. Smallweed padlock the door to Krook's shop. "With a sinking heart" he goes to see Lady Honoria Dedlock and tells her he doesn't have the letters and thinks they have "been destroyed with the person" he was to have gotten them from. Lady Dedlock dismisses him, saying they will not meet again. But, as he's leaving the room, Mr. Tulkinghorn arrives. The old lawyer sees Guppy, and "for an instant ... suspicion, eager and sharp," is in his eyes. Guppy and Mr. Tulkinghorn exchange greetings, and Mr. Tulkinghorn helps Lady Dedlock into her carriage.

Chapter 34

At the shooting gallery, Mr. George is musing over the meaning of a letter. He reads it to Phil Squod. It is a reminder from Grandfather Smallweed that the remaining principal (over £94) on his loan is due the following day. Mr. George says he's already paid "half again" as much, what with interest and all, and the loan has always been extended. They agree it sounds like there will be no extension this time. Phil has an idea, though—just declare bankruptcy. Mr. George is appalled; Matthew Bagnet stood surety for him and would be ruined if he did that. Just then, the Bagnets arrive. George looks so guilty that Mrs. Bagnet quickly guesses what's wrong and begins to get teary-eyed with concern for her family. George reads the letter to them and says he has just received it. George says he would sell everything he has—and himself as well—if he thought that would settle the debt. But he wouldn't get enough. Mrs. Bagnet says she knows he's a good man, if "a little flighty," and they should all "forget and forgive." George and Matthew head to Grandfather Smallweed's; their "primary object is to save and hold harmless Mr. Bagnet," who did not benefit from the loan. On the way, Matthew tells George again how much he admires his wife, saying he wouldn't trade her for any riches. He never tells her, though, as "discipline must be maintained."

At the Smallweeds', George introduces Mr. Bagnet and asks the meaning of the letter. George says he's ready to keep the loan going as before. Grandfather Smallweed takes a vicious pleasure in the whole discussion and tells Mr. George he and his friend can take the matter up with Smallweed's lawyer. He wants nothing more to do with Mr. George's "pipe-smokings and swaggerings."

George and Matthew go directly to Mr. Tulkinghorn's, but the lawyer won't see them. They wait anyway. More than an hour later, Mr. Tulkinghorn's client leaves his office; it's Mrs. Rouncewell. She notices the two men, though can see only Matthew's face, as George is turned away. Mrs. Rouncewell says her "heart warms" to see military men as she once had a handsome son "who went for a soldier." Finally, Mr. Tulkinghorn agrees to see them. Coldly Tulkinghorn says they must pay the money or "be sued for it." Mr. George asks for "a private word" with Tulkinghorn and offers to show Tulkinghorn Captain Hawdon's handwriting as long as he can "bring [the Bagnets] through this matter." It is agreed Mr. George will leave the handwriting sample with Mr. Tulkinghorn for several days, and the loan will be returned to "its old footing" and, furthermore, Bagnet will "never be troubled" until Mr. George's "means [have been] exhausted." They draw up a contract to this effect, and Mr. George turns over the sample—the last "letter of instructions" he received from his captain.

That evening Mr. George has dinner with the Bagnets, but he is "not good company." Mrs. Bagnet hopes it was nothing she said earlier and assures him she had confidence in him the whole time. George thanks her and calls Woolwich over. He tells the boy to treat his mother well so, when he's a man, he'll know he "never marked a sorrowful line in her face." Then he hurriedly goes out to smoke his pipe in the street.

Analysis

Near the beginning of Chapter 32, the narrator describes the "tainting sort of weather"; it's "sinking to the spirits" and gives Weevle "the horrors." The air is thick and greasy; it smells of someone's cooking meat that has gone bad. Weather is often a symbol of something, and generally the air in poorer areas is connected with contagion, but here it turns out to relate to Krook's spontaneous combustion. This isn't discovered for several hours, though.

The very last thing Tony knows that Krook did was sing to himself. Tony could hear it through the floorboards. The song he hears Krook singing, which Tony says is "the only song [Krook] knows," foreshadows the old man's death. It's "about Bibo, and old Charon, and Bibo being drunk when he died." It is a song written in the mid-18th century about a drunkard who dies and his conversation with Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology who takes the dead across the Rivers Styx and Acheron to the underworld.

In Chapter 32 readers again see the likable side of William Guppy. With Tony, who is a friend rather than someone he wants to impress—whether a powerful person or Esther—he is relaxed and open. He even makes jokes. But it's clear he's still pining for Esther and is perfectly happy to pressure Tony to help him get what he needs to further his plot—whatever it may be—with Lady Dedlock. It's clear Krook died shortly after Tony saw him reading the letters by the fire; his coat and cap are still on the chair where Tony saw him put them. Since the greasy soot and stinky oil that have contaminated the building and the immediate area came from Krook's spontaneous combustion, by the time the two men find him, he has already been dead for several hours. Moreover, Tony thinks he was holding the letters when it happened, so William concludes they probably burned with him. Guppy knows he must tell Lady Dedlock; when he does in Chapter 33, he is honest and straightforward, with none of his usual confusing legalese and no nervous fidgeting. Again, this makes him likable and even admirable.

But Mr. Guppy is still watching Lady Dedlock carefully and sees no relief in her face when she hears the letters have been destroyed. Because readers now know she is nothing like the bored, chilly image she projects, they know she is probably deeply disappointed not to recover the letters memorializing her relationship with Hawdon.

Readers might think Mr. George is feeling depressed at the end of Chapter 34 because he has been maneuvered into giving Tulkinghorn the sample of Captain Hawdon's handwriting. But this turns out not to be the case. His comments to the Bagnets' son, Woolwich, indicate instead that he is thinking about his mother and the pain he caused her in his youth. But what has brought this on? Perhaps it was the meeting with Mrs. Rouncewell, who seems to be a client of Tulkinghorn's; she spoke to Bagnet about her son who joined the army, calling him "good in his bold way." Apparently that son caused his mother pain. Although Mr. George seemed not to be paying attention while Mrs. Rouncewell was talking, his change in mood begins after the encounter with her. As soon as she leaves, Matthew encourages George to "cheer up." Readers can't help but wonder what he did to his mother and, if he was listening when Mrs. Rouncewell talked, why he kept his back to her. After all, he is usually very polite.

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