Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Bleak House Study Guide." Course Hero. 7 Mar. 2017. Web. 4 Oct. 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, March 7). Bleak House Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved October 4, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "Bleak House Study Guide." March 7, 2017. Accessed October 4, 2023.


Course Hero, "Bleak House Study Guide," March 7, 2017, accessed October 4, 2023,

Bleak House | Chapters 39–42 | Summary



Chapter 39

Vholes and his client, Richard Carstone, have returned from court. Richard "looks the portrait of young despair" and complains, "Again nothing done!" Vholes counsels him to be patient and hopes to "impart" to Richard some of his "insensibility." He must remain, he explains, "cool and methodical." The vacation is about to begin, so for several months, nothing further can happen with the case. Vholes informs Richard he doesn't leave town for the vacation and will be available in his office. This cheers Richard, who places great trust in Vholes. Richard feels John Jarndyce is the "embodiment of the suit ... that every new delay and every new disappointment is only a new injury from John Jarndyce's hand." Vholes admits reluctantly that Jarndyce has not been "active" in the suit and Jarndyce's interests are "not identical with" Richard's. Vholes reminds him he will be charging for the typical costs not covered by "the taxed costs allowed out of the estate" and asks for a £20 deposit on account, which it is clear Richard cannot easily afford.

Richard leaves Vholes's office and walks up Chancery Lane and across Lincoln's Inn Fields, thinking how different he is to the boy he was when he first saw this place. He passes William Guppy and Mr. Weevle (Tony Jobling) without noticing them. Mr. Guppy says he's glad to be rid of Richard. Then he says Bart Smallweed has left Kenge and Carboy's to work with his grandfather, who is still sorting through the papers and rubbish at Krook's. He wants to see for himself, so he and Tony are going to Krook's to collect Tony's things. Guppy asks whether Tony thinks it at all possible the letters were not destroyed that night; Tony "shakes his head." Guppy tells him he would burn any papers that even resembled the ones in question.

Every morning Grandfather Smallweed, Mrs. Smallweed, Judy Smallweed, and Bart Smallweed arrive at the rage and bottle shop at 8:00 a.m. They stay until 9:00 p.m. "rummaging and searching, digging, delving, and diving among [Krook's] treasures." The neighbors speculate about what they're finding and sort through what they throw out. Everyone is curious when Mr. Guppy and Mr. Weevle turn up and knock on the door, but general opinion turns against them when they are "admitted." The room is even dirtier and messier than before, and the "traces of its dead inhabitant" make it "ghostly." Mr. Guppy is surprised to see Mr. Tulkinghorn there. The elder Mr. Smallweed says they haven't found much they can sell and allows Weevle to go upstairs to his former room. Weevle indicates to Guppy that he did not see any sign of the papers Krook was to hand over to them on the night he died, and they begin clearing the room. Tulkinghorn arrives and wants "a word" with Guppy, who, he says, is fortunate to have friends in high places. Guppy replies that, as long as he does his job, his friends are of no concern to anyone, including Tulkinghorn. Tulkinghorn comments to Tony that he seems to "take a strong interest in the fashionable great," and notes the portrait of Lady Honoria Dedlock is a "good likeness" but lacks "force of character." Then he wishes them "good day" and goes. Guppy admits to Tony that between himself and Lady Dedlock "there has been undisclosed communication and association" but he cannot say more; he asks him "to bury it without a word of inquiry."

Chapter 40

The British government is in a bit of a muddle. Knowing the Dedlock family will be needed, Mrs. Rouncewell has prepared the house at Chesney Wold. Thomas, a groom, mentions to her that Lady Honoria Dedlock has not been well since the last time she passed through; she "has kept her room a good deal."

The next evening, Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife arrive "with their largest retinue," as do the Dedlock cousins and various others. Bob Stables and other cousins canvass the area, and Volumnia Dedlock chats and dances with Sir Leicester's guests. Sir Leicester himself "moves among the company, a magnificent refrigerator." Sir Leicester controls two seats in parliament; he names his candidates, and they are elected. But the party in general has spent "hundreds of thousands of pounds" to ensure their victory, Sir Leicester tells Volumnia, who wonders whether Mr. Tulkinghorn's services have been required. Lady Dedlock, who comes down from her room only later in the day, is seated nearby and takes note when the lawyer's name is mentioned. Another cousin mentions he's heard Tulkinghorn had to go to "that iron place" to give his "legal opinion" about something; he thinks Tulkinghorn is likely to stop by with news. Mercury informs Sir Leicester that Mr. Tulkinghorn is already there and having dinner. The news delights Volumnia, who has missed him so much she "had almost made up [her] mind that he was dead." A shadow crosses Lady Dedlock's face, making it look as if she wished he were. A gunshot sounds. Volumnia cries, "What's that?" and Lady Dedlock answers, "A rat ... and they have shot him."

Mr. Tulkinghorn enters and gives Sir Leicester the bad news that his two candidates have been defeated three to one. The cousin says this is what comes of giving votes to the "mob." The lawyer also says Mr. Rouncewell, although he did not run himself, was "very active" and had "great influence" in the election. What's worse, he was "assisted ... by his son." Sir Leicester is horrified and sees this as the undoing of society. There is "cousinly indignation." Lady Dedlock assures Sir Leicester she has no intention of "parting with" Rosa. Mr. Tulkinghorn, however, remarks "these people are ... very proud" and are likely to "abandon" the girl themselves. He tells the story of a "wealthy and beautiful" woman who was once engaged to a captain in the army and, while she didn't marry him, she bore his child. This woman had taken in the daughter of a townsman. When the woman's story came out, the townsman took the girl from her "as if from reproach and disgrace."

Chapter 41

Alone in his room in one of the turrets, Mr. Tulkinghorn feels "satisfied." Rather than work, as he had planned, "he opens the French window and steps" onto the roof. He is pacing there when he gets a shock: Lady Dedlock is looking at him from outside his door.

Both enter his room. "There is a wild disturbance ... in her eyes." He can't tell if it's "fear or anger." They talk. He told her story to let her know he knew, but he has known for only a few days. No one else knows, but if they did, Rosa might suffer. Lady Dedlock wants to prevent that. Mr. Tulkinghorn finds it interesting that Lady Dedlock's "power and force ... are astonishing." She asks if there is anything he requires of her and offers to "write anything ... that [he] will dictate." Tulkinghorn says nothing is necessary. She tells him she will leave Chesney Wold tonight, taking nothing with her from this life. She is not even wearing her own dress. She asks him to let that be known. He tells her not to. She is about to defy him, but he threatens to raise the alarm immediately if she does. He explains he has not decided what to do next. His main concern is Sir Leicester, whose "reliance upon [her] is implicit" and who might be "driven out of his wits or laid upon a death-bed." If she runs away, he says, the Dedlock "family credit" would be ruined. He promises he "will take no step without forewarning" her. She agrees to his terms. After she leaves, he goes to sleep, but she stays up pacing and hearing the steps on the Ghost's Walk.

Chapter 42

Mr. Tulkinghorn is returning to his chambers in Lincoln's Inn Fields when he meets Mr. Snagsby in the hall. Mrs. Snagsby is a jealous woman, he explains, and Hortense came to the shop and threatened to keep calling on him until she was allowed in to see Mr. Tulkinghorn, whose clerk has been keeping her away. So far, Hortense has made good on that threat, by "hovering" around Cook's Court. Tulkinghorn tells Snagsby "This shall be stopped" and apologizes for Snagsby being "inconvenienced." If Hortense appears again, Snagsby is to send her to Tulkinghorn's. Tulkinghorn is determined to deal harshly with Hortense.

Tulkinghorn is about to go to the wine cellar when someone knocks at his door. It's Hortense. She is angry and seems about to spring at him; he recoils slightly, which makes her smile "contemptuously." She says he has treated her "mean and shabby" by "attrapp[ing]" her to get information. He says he paid her. She takes out the two sovereigns he gave her and throws them on the floor. Hortense says he used her hatred of Lady Honoria Dedlock to get information about Lady Dedlock. Now she wants him to find her a position or to employ her himself "to pursue her, to chase her, to disgrace and to dishonor her." She says it is what Tulkinghorn does. The lawyer will not "concede" her demands; he tells her to take her money and go. He threatens to have her put in prison if she pesters him or Mr. Snagsby again, describing how the police "carry troublesome people through the streets in an ignominious manner, strapped down on a board." She whispers that she will "prove" him to see if he dares. She leaves angrily, and Tulkinghorn fetches himself a bottle of wine to enjoy.


In Chapter 39 readers see Mr. Vholes at work. While he didn't force Richard to hire him and turn against John Jarndyce, he uses his influence to exploit Richard's fears about the Jarndyce case. As Richard says, if anyone—including Vholes—had told him when Jarndyce first took him in that his cousin would act against his interests, he would never have believed it. But in the meantime he has learned more about the case. Rather than study hard and learn the law, Richard has read the case papers and come to know the case much in the same way as a layman, such as Miss Flite, Mr. Gridley, or Tom Jarndyce. He knows enough to see the various heirs will inherit more or less, depending on which version of the will is accepted and how it's interpreted. So Richard knows just enough to make him vulnerable to Vholes. Vholes, who has a lot of people depending on him, needs to earn as much money as possible, so he plays on Richard's worries at the same time as his words say he remains neutral. For example, he states that John Jarndyce is "not active in" the case as if that were a tactic designed to injure Richard's chances. In fact, Jarndyce stays out for his own sanity. He wishes only for the case to be resolved. Richard once knew this but has contracted the madness associated with the Jarndyce case. Vholes knows this and makes use of it.

Once again, in Chapter 39 readers see Mr. Guppy's strength of character and discretion. He made a promise to Lady Dedlock and is doing his very best to fulfill it by trying to make sure her letters to Captain Hawdon have been destroyed. When approached on the subject by Mr. Tulkinghorn, Guppy absolutely refuses to explain his presence at the Dedlocks' London home. Tulkinghorn may know Guppy and Lady Dedlock share a secret, but he will never know what—at least not from Mr. Guppy.

Chapter 40 begins with the British government suffering under the Ministerial Crisis of 1851. No one party had enough votes to form a government, so at the end of February 1851, the prime minister, Lord Russell, resigned. Under pressure from Queen Victoria, he returned to office 10 days later. But the British government remained in a state of flux, with power shifts between the various parties and factions within them. In 1855 another ministerial crisis followed. There continued to be frequent changes in leadership, throughout the 1850s and 1860s until William Gladstone became prime minister in 1868. What caused this realignment of government? Parliament had passed a Reform Act in 1832. Among other changes, this act

  • got rid of some rotten boroughs (precincts that were represented but largely unpopulated, leaving the choice of MP to one family or even one person, just as was the case in Chesney Wold, where the Dedlocks had traditionally proposed a candidate who was then rubber-stamped by the small local population);
  • gave the vote to tenants and leaseholders paying a certain amount each year; and
  • gave more seats to growing cities, which meant more influence came into the hands of industrialists.

Sir Leicester speaks for many of the aristocracy, who saw their influence lessening, when he says, "upon my honor, upon my life, upon my reputation and principles, the floodgates of society are burst open, and the waters have ... obliterated the landmarks of the framework of the cohesion by which things are held together!"

In Chapter 40 the killing of a rat following so close on the mention of Mr. Tulkinghorn plants a seed of suspicion that the crafty old lawyer may not last out the novel. Several of the narrator's comments in Chapter 41 add to that impression. He says for instance, "the last great secret to the many secrets of the Tulkinghorn existence." Why would this great secret be the "last" if it does not mean he won't live much longer? Then at the end of chapter, the narrator remarks, "And truly when the stars go out and the wan day peeps into the turret-chamber, finding him at his oldest, he looks as if the digger and the spade were both commissioned and would soon be digging." This is a very clear reference to his grave. Readers have been forewarned.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Bleak House? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!