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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 37–38 | Summary



Chapter 37

Esther Summerson considers the conditions of her birth Lady Dedlock's secret and not her own, so she decides she will not tell John Jarndyce except if there's a "great emergency." It's hard to keep the secret when Ada Clare asks about the Dedlocks. But Esther just says she and Charley Neckett happened to speak with Lady Dedlock in the woods; Charley then tells them Lady Dedlock left the following day.

A week later Charley passes Esther a message that Esther is "wanted at the Dedlock Arms." When she gets there, Richard Carstone is waiting for her. She is grateful when he doesn't react to her smallpox scars. When Esther mentions Jarndyce, she can tell from the tone of Richard's reply that he's still angry with her guardian. When asked, Richard says he likes being in the army "well enough" but is already thinking about getting out. Right now, he's on leave and hopes to see Ada. He learned where she is from Harold Skimpole, whom he has brought with him to Chesney Wold. Esther worries that Skimpole—with his "airy dispensing with all principle and purpose"—is a bad influence on Richard.

Esther brings Richard back to the house to see Ada; it is clear she still "love[s] him dearly." But Esther is not so sure Richard loves Ada as much. She suspects the Jarndyce case overshadows everything else for him. He arranges to meet with Esther the next morning for "an unreserved conversation." In the morning, he's a little late. As Richard and Esther walk in the Chesney Wold grounds, he tells her he cannot rest until the Jarndyce case is settled. She reminds him Mr. Jarndyce told him not to count on it, and Richard says she is "blind": Jarndyce is "an interested party," and he may want Richard to remain ignorant of the case because it suits him to do so. Richard suggests Jarndyce only pretends to be indifferent to the case so other suitors will "become lax about their interests." Richard has written to Jarndyce to say they should "be at issue openly [rather] than covertly." Esther says Jarndyce has already told her about the letter "without an offended or angry word." Richard "soften[s]" somewhat toward Jarndyce but tells her he will "devote" himself to the case and "make it the object of [his] life." He says that, when the case is over, he and Jarndyce may get back to "natural relations." He wants Esther to explain all this to Ada and tell her he will be looking after her interests, too. Also, as long as she remains a ward of the court, he won't ask her to marry him again. Esther asks if Richard is in debt again. He is and is relying on the inheritance to get him out of debt.

Over breakfast Esther tells Ada what Richard has said and her own fears for him. Ada is saddened but more optimistic than Esther. She writes him a letter expressing her own faith in "cousin John" and begs Richard "to desist" in working on the case if it is for her sake. She also writes he is "free" to "find some one [he] will love much better than [his] first fancy," and she knows that person would rather be with him poor but happy than rich but anxious and obsessed with the case. The letter does not change Richard's mind, though. But he and Skimpole visit again, and the four go for a walk. While Richard and Ada walk ahead, Esther asks Skimpole not to encourage Richard. But Skimpole is unconcerned; he cannot take responsibility for anything or anyone, he says. Suddenly Richard recognizes someone and hurries to meet him. It is Mr. Vholes, Richard's "friend and legal advisor." Vholes had gotten Skimpole out of a debt and then paid Skimpole £5 to introduce him to Richard, Skimpole tells Esther. Vholes came to tell Richard the Jarndyce case is scheduled to be discussed tomorrow. Richard goes to collect his belongings from the pub, leaving Vholes with Esther and Ada. Vholes habitually speaks in a low voice and has a "lifeless manner." While walking back to the house, they learn he is the widowed father of three daughters and supports his own father as well, which makes it "indispensable that the mill should be always going." Richard soon arrives with a gig to drive them to meet the coach, and he and Vholes ride off together. Ada tells Esther she will always love Richard and "think of him at all times—never of her own delights." As Esther recalls these words, she imagines she sees Ada on the shore at the end of her journey.

Chapter 38

Esther Summerson has some business to attend to in London relating to the letter given her by Lady Honoria Dedlock. As a "pretext" for going up to the city, she visits Caddy Jellyby. Caddy, she learns, is happy in her marriage. Mr. Jellyby visits daily, but—although they are "good friends"—Mrs. Jellyby keeps away, as if she might be contaminated by the absurdity of Caddy's marrying a "dancing-master." Because Prince Turveydrop is so overworked, Caddy is teaching dancing and learning how to play piano and violin as well. Caddy and Prince have four apprentices—three boys and a girl—whom Caddy teaches to dance while Prince plays the accompaniment. Mr. Turveydrop, Caddy says, chats with Mr. Jellyby about the Prince Regent, which her father likes. What's more, Mr. Turveydrop keeps Peepy Jellyby amused with "little errands."

Esther's business involves William Guppy, and she takes Caddy with her to his house. Mrs. Guppy shows them into the sitting room, where Mr. Guppy is reading. They are expecting Esther since she wrote in advance. Esther asks to speak with Guppy alone. When Caddy and Mrs. Guppy have left, she raises her veil. Guppy turns red. He finds it hard to speak and backs away. He reminds her that she turned down his proposal and, resorting to legalese, hopes she will confirm that, which she does. Esther reminds Guppy he had been going to "make discoveries" about her and asks him not to do so. Guppy looks "glad to be able to do something" for Esther and "most ashamed and very earnest." He swears he'll "act according to [Esther's] wish! [He'll] never go another step in opposition to it." Even after Caddy and Esther leave, Guppy runs after them several times to get Caddy to witness Esther's agreement that any engagement is out of the question and to ensure it's clear Esther "may rely upon [him] in every respect save and except the tender passion only."


As predicted by Miss Flite, Richard is falling under the influence of Chancery. Already, Esther sees it has destroyed his relationship with Mr. Jarndyce. Despite Jarndyce's unfailing affection and support for Richard, Richard has come to see him as an adversary in the case rather than as a friend and cousin. Even though he has no money of his own, Richard feels he must hire his own lawyer because he can't trust Jarndyce's lawyer, Conversation Kenge, to represent his interests fairly. Like Mr. Gridley and Miss Flite, Richard also wants to attend Chancery whenever the Jarndyce case is scheduled to be discussed. Mr. Vholes tells Esther bluntly Richard's presence will make no difference, but Richard wants to attend, so Vholes keeps him informed about the case. Richard, who is on leave from his army posting to Ireland, has only a limited time, but he chooses to spend it in court rather than with Ada. Esther sees he is no longer as in love with her as he was; his feelings are being taken over by his obsession with Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Sadly, despite Mr. Jarndyce's attempts to keep it from happening, Richard is becoming like Gridley and Miss Flite, and Esther fears it will turn out badly for him.

Esther makes two interesting observations about Skimpole. One is that he is diverting, which is what makes his company attractive to both Jarndyce and Richard. But Jarndyce is a mature person with a clear understanding of what the Jarndyce case can do to a person. He allows Skimpole to divert him but never lets the Jarndyce obsession overwhelm him. Richard is young and headstrong and convinced he can change what others haven't. He takes comfort in Skimpole, but doesn't see he is allowing the case to cloud his judgment in every way. Esther also realizes Skimpole uses being "a child" to avoid taking any responsibility—whether financial or emotional—and it is useless to ask him to do so. He will always put his own needs before those of others. In fact, in exchange for £5, Skimpole has been instrumental in Richard becoming more involved in the case by introducing him to a lawyer, Mr. Vholes.

When Mr. Guppy sees Esther's scarred face in Chapter 38, he fails the test. He immediately makes her confirm she turned down his proposal of marriage. This is not necessarily because he is a thoroughly superficial person. It is also because he never knew Esther. They have met on only a very few occasions and always professionally. Until he made his proposal, they had never even had a personal conversation. He was in love with her looks, not with her.

In Chapter 38 readers learn something more about the contents of Lady Dedlock's letter to Esther. This is how Esther knew she should approach Mr. Guppy. Unfortunately Esther is unaware Mr. Tulkinghorn has already drawn a connection between Guppy and Lady Dedlock. She wants to ensure Guppy can't make trouble for her mother, but this may already be unavoidable.

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