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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 35–36 | Summary



Chapter 35

Esther Summerson is delirious for days, imagining she is "labor[ing] up colossal staircases" even though she is vaguely aware she's in her bed and Charley Neckett is beside her. Then she becomes so weak that she is completely calm and doesn't mind if she dies. The turning point comes when she sees light and realizes she will be able to see again. One day Esther asks where the mirror is, and Charley goes into the other room and cries. Esther realizes she has been badly scarred. When she's well—though still weak—John Jarndyce visits her; he treats her with even greater affection than before. She realizes the scarring means nothing to him, which comforts her. Jarndyce tells Esther that Richard Carstone has been writing to him because he could not write to Esther, but he "wrote coldly, haughtily, distantly, resentfully." Richard is suspicious of Jarndyce because the Jarndyce case pits them against each other. Jarndyce understands this "is not his fault" but the case's fault—Richard has been drawn in by the lure of Jarndyce just as others have before him.

Esther decides to go to Lawrence Boythorn's house for a short visit to get stronger and get used to the change in her appearance. Before she leaves, though, Jarndyce arranges a visit from Miss Flite, who had walked the 20 miles from London to see her when she was still very ill. Miss Flite, with Charley's help to keep the story straight, tells Esther that Jenny had just stopped them to tell them a veiled woman had come to her cottage to ask about Esther's health and had taken Esther's handkerchief, which Jenny had kept with her dead baby's things, "as a little keepsake." Esther thinks it might have been Caddy since she knows Caddy has been there often to check on her. Miss Flite also tells Esther about her family; her father, her brother, and her sister all died while waiting for their case to be settled in Chancery. After that she began going to court herself and found she couldn't stay away. She blames "the influence of the mace and seal" and warns Esther she has seen the same influence at work in Richard. Miss Flite has one final piece of news: Allan Woodcourt has been shipwrecked, but he survived and "saved many lives." She has brought Esther a newspaper article about it.

Esther is grateful that, although she had sometimes thought Mr. Woodcourt was in love with her, he never told her; if they had pledged their love to each other, she would have had to write him now to break it off because of her scars.

Chapter 36

Esther Summerson and Charley Neckett stay at Lawrence Boythorn's house. There, after sending Charley to bed, Esther looks in a mirror for the first time since her illness. What little beauty she may have had is gone, she thinks, but she won't let herself feel bitter. She decides anything between her and Allan Woodcourt is "irrevocably past and gone" but keeps the flowers he'd given her, which she had dried and pressed.

One day Esther visits one of her favorite spots, where she is sitting on a bench enjoying the view of Chesney Wold Hall, when Lady Honoria Dedlock joins her. Lady Dedlock approaches with "outstretched hands" and an expression on her face Esther "had pined for and dreamed of [as] a little child" but never seen. Lady Dedlock sits beside her, and in her hand is the handkerchief Esther had left at Jenny's. Esther's heart beats wildly. Lady Dedlock hugs her and, weeping, falls "on her knees" and cries, "Oh, my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! Oh, try to forgive me!" Esther begs her to get up, says she forgave her long ago, and says her "heart overflow[s] with love for her." Lady Dedlock says she was "frantic" when Esther was ill; she had just learned her child was alive. But for Esther's sake, this is the only time they can speak. She has written Esther a letter and gives it to her, telling her to destroy it after reading it. Lady Dedlock fears her husband's lawyer, but she must go her "dark road" alone. Still, she gives her permission for Esther to tell John Jarndyce—as long as she doesn't tell Lady Dedlock she has done so. The two women stay together a little longer; then Lady Dedlock walks back into the woods.

For an hour Esther sits there; finally she feels calm enough to go back to the house, where she goes to her room and reads the letter. Esther was thought to have died at birth, but Lady Dedlock's sister saw she was alive. She never told Lady Dedlock, choosing instead to raise the child in secret. When Lady Dedlock first saw Esther at church, she thought her child would have looked like Esther. There is more in the letter, but Esther will reveal it later. After reading the letter, she burns it and is left feeling she brings a "load of trouble for others." That evening, she takes a walk near the Dedlocks' house and while passing under the Ghost's Walk she hears her own footsteps; it occurs to her she is the one who will "bring calamity upon the stately house" and her footsteps are the ones "haunting it." She hurries back to Boythorn's house and her room. Two letters are waiting for her: one from Ada Clare, who is arriving the next day, and one from John Jarndyce. The tone of the letters cheers Esther, and she realizes the circumstances of her birth are not her fault.

The next afternoon Esther walks out to meet Ada's coach but changes her mind and rushes home, worrying about the effect her scars will have on her "sweet girl." When Charley calls out that Ada is there, Esther hides in her room, where Ada finds her. But Ada looks at her just like always—"all love, all fondness, all affection. Nothing else."


Esther is only a few years older than Ada, but she is much more mature. Her refusal to see Ada is what prevents Ada from becoming ill and prevents the disease from spreading throughout the household. Despite being aware of this, Ada is overcome by her emotions and begs to see Esther anyway. She lacks Esther's imagination and foresight—a foresight Esther maintains in spite of the blindness the disease has caused. Fortunately, Esther recovers her health and her sight.

Esther learns, though, that the very thing she feared would happen to Charley has happened to herself: she is left badly scarred by the disease. However, Esther is not vain. In fact, she was never aware of her own beauty. Now, her main concern about the scarring is that it will upset the people she loves and change their feelings toward her. This doesn't happen. The fact that they continue to feel the same may indicate the scarring isn't as bad as Esther thinks it is. But later events will show her physical beauty really has been lessened. So, why are Charley, Mr. Jarndyce, and Ada unaffected by Esther's scars? It is because their love for her is real; when they look at Esther, they see her inner self—not a surface beauty that is only skin deep. This becomes a useful test for readers to use when gauging the true emotions of characters with regard to Esther. In Chapter 36 Lady Dedlock passes this test. When she approaches Esther she is concerned for her health but—like Charley, Jarndyce, and Ada—she is unfazed by the change in her appearance.

In Chapter 35 Esther and readers learn some important information about and from Miss Flite. She talks about her family and how they have all died as a result of the Chancery case. She has survived only because she allows herself to be somewhat mad. In a way she's like John Jarndyce and his reaction to the east wind; it's worse for Miss Flite, though, because she exposes herself to Chancery every day. Still, Miss Flite is sane enough to recognize the warning signs in Richard and to alert Esther; in this, she is also like Mr. Jarndyce.

Miss Flite also has news about Allan Woodcourt. He is being praised as a hero. This is guaranteed to make Esther love him more, but she also thinks he deserves an unscarred wife. As usual, what matters to her is the happiness of others and not her own happiness.

Dickens is sneaky about revealing what Lady Dedlock wrote in her letter to Esther. No doubt she says things that would give away answers Dickens doesn't want to provide yet. If the third-person narrator were in charge of this chapter, no explanation would be needed here, but because Esther is the narrator, Dickens is forced to offer some excuse for not letting readers know what she learns when she learns it.

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