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Bleak House | Chapters 4–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 4

As Chapter 4 opens, Conversation Kenge tells Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone that they are to stay the night at Mrs. Jellyby's and travel on to Bleak House the following day. Mrs. Jellyby is a philanthropist who is "at present ... devoted to the subject of Africa, with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry—and the natives—and the happy settlement ... of our superabundant home population." The young man who brought Esther to Kenge and Carboy's, whose name is William Guppy, takes them to Mrs. Jellyby's, which is nearby.

When they arrive Esther and her companions are led into the house. The furniture is shabby and the house is not only untidy but dirty, too. An "unhealthy-looking though by no means plain girl" is sitting at a desk. This is Caddy Jellyby, Mrs. Jellyby's daughter, to whom Mrs. Jellyby has been dictating a letter. A little boy, Peepy Jellyby, comes in with a bandage on his head and scraped knees; he has fallen down the stairs. Esther picks him up, and soon he stops crying and falls asleep.

Caddy shows the guests to their rooms, which are bare and musty smelling. There's no hot water, and the locks and doorknobs for their rooms don't work properly. At dinner, Mrs. Jellyby reads them letters she has received about Africa and dictates several more letters to Caddy. A man joins them at dinner but says nothing and is not introduced; they later determine he must have been Mr. Jellyby. This is confirmed by another gentleman, Mr. Quale, a fellow philanthropist who arrives later in the evening to discuss Mrs. Jellyby's work for Africa. Mr. Quale tells Ada the Jellyby's marriage is a "union of mind and matter." Esther and Ada tell the children stories, and Esther carries Peepy to bed. Esther and Ada realize neither has ever seen John Jarndyce, though Ada's mother knew him. She told Ada about "the noble generosity of his character." Richard has seen Jarndyce once; apparently, he is "a bluff, rosy fellow."

Esther is still awake when Caddy Jellyby arrives at the door to say good night—and invites herself in. She tells Esther, "I wish Africa was dead!" She is ashamed of the state of the house, the children, and their unwashed, drunken servant. She says, "I wish we were all dead. It would be a great deal better for us." She winds up crying herself to sleep and stays all night. In the morning, Esther wakes to find Peepy looking at her, his teeth chattering in the cold.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 begins the next morning when Esther Summerson, Caddy Jellyby, and Ada Clare decide to take a walk despite the cold and the sooty fog. They run into Richard Carstone outside, and he accompanies them. After a short walk, the four find themselves outside the Court of Chancery, where they run into the crazy old woman, who again greets them with a curtsy. Caddy wonders who she is, and the old woman introduces herself as "a suitor" who has "the honor to attend court regularly. With my documents." She invites all four of the young people home with her, which is nearby. She guides them to a junk shop that sells rags, bottles, marine stores, bones, clothes, and even old law books. Esther observes "everything seem[s] to be bought and nothing to be sold there." She notices a sign in the window posted by a 45-year-old man looking for copying work "to execute with neatness and dispatch: Address to Nemo, care of Mr. Krook, within." It is written in the same handwriting as the legal documents she saw at Kenge and Carboy's.

A skinny old man asks if they have something to sell. The old woman, who has been fumbling with the lock on the building door, introduces the man as her "landlord, Krook," who "is called among the neighbors the Lord Chancellor." Krook laughs and tells them he has three sacks of hair. Mr. Krook says people call his shop Chancery because he has so much stuff and can't stand to part with any of it. He also goes to Chancery almost every day. The old woman introduces her guests as "the wards in Jarndyce." This takes Krook by surprise. He seems to know their names. Then he says Tom Jarndyce used to warn all the local shopkeepers "to keep out of Chancery." According to Krook, his experience with Chancery made Tom Jarndyce commit suicide; he blew his brains out in the pub in Chancery Lane.

The old woman has a large room at the top of the house; it's clean but bare. Esther sees no coal or ash in the fireplace, no clothes, and no food. The woman apologizes; she cannot offer them anything, explaining she "expect[s] a judgment shortly and shall then place my establishment on a superior footing." She draws aside a curtain; behind it are a lot of bird cages, some with birds in them—20 or more "larks, linnets, and goldfinches." The woman says she will free them when her case is decided, but several generations have already died in captivity. She expects these will do the same. She sometimes thinks, she says, she "may ... one day be found lying stark and senseless here, as [she has] found so many birds." Richard quietly leaves some money on the mantel as they all gather to look at the birds. On the way back downstairs, the woman tells them the other lodger is a law-writer the local children claim "has sold himself to the devil."

As the young people walk back to the Jellybys', Richard and Ada talk about how terrible it is that Chancery turns relatives against one another by making them fight over their settlements. They agree they will not let it divide them and begin calling each other by their first names. That afternoon Ada, Richard, and Esther depart on the next leg of their journey, leaving behind Caddy crying at their departure and the young Jellyby children tumbling around the street in their usual disorder.

Chapter 6

In Chapter 6 Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone ride through London, noticing the bustle of the city. Even its suburbs look like large towns to Esther. When they reach the countryside, all three are cheered by the green landscape. A wagon pulled by horses passes them. Their carriage stops, as does the wagon. The wagon-driver delivers each of them a note from John Jarndyce. Each note suggests that, in order to make their meeting more relaxed, they "meet as old friends and take the past for granted." Ada and Richard both remember hearing that he hates being thanked for his generous acts. At Bleak House John Jarndyce throws open the door and greets them affectionately and leads them "into a ruddy little room, all in a glow with a blazing fire." Esther judges him to be nearly 60; he has a handsome, lively face, silver hair, and an upright, robust bearing. Suddenly she realizes he was the stranger in the stagecoach, though she is careful not to speak this thought out loud in case he runs away to avoid acknowledgment. Jarndyce asks about Mrs. Jellyby. Esther says Mrs. Jellyby is "unmindful of their home"; the Jellyby children are "in a devil of a state," adds Richard. Mr. Jarndyce observes suddenly that "the wind's in the east"; he can tell because he gets "an uncomfortable sensation." He is clearly distraught over the condition of the Jellyby children but is comforted when Ada describes what good care Esther took of the children and decides the wind has "no east in it." He takes everyone to see the house.

The house is a maze of corridors, staircases, and cozy rooms with old, comfortable furniture and a pleasant jumble of decorations. Everything is bright and inviting. Mr. Jarndyce tells them they have half an hour until dinner and warns them there is someone else in the house—someone who is Mr. Jarndyce's age although for all practical purposes a child. His name is Harold Skimpole, and, although he has close to a dozen children, "he has never looked after them." Mr. Jarndyce feels the wind shifting to the east again.

Esther finds her luggage in her room and is soon dressed and ready. A maid arrives and gives her a basket containing two bundles of keys—one for "the housekeeping" and the other for "the cellars." Esther is flabbergasted at the "magnitude" of the trust placed in her.

Downstairs Esther and Ada find Richard in conversation with Mr. Skimpole, who says he was educated to be a doctor, but could never "prescribe with the requisite accuracy of detail" and so left the profession. He tried several others, too, but none worked out. He says he enjoys reading, making sketches, nature, and art—he is "a mere child" and wishes to be left to his pleasures. Mr. Skimpole is lively and charming, and says he does not feel guilty about his lifestyle because it allows generous people to enjoy "the luxury of generosity." Later, as Esther and Mr. Jarndyce are listening to Ada play piano, the maid comes to fetch Esther. Mr. Skimpole has been arrested for debt. Rather than ask Mr. Jarndyce to pay the debt for him, Mr. Skimpole suggests Richard and Ada sign over part of their inheritance. The debt collector says this isn't possible. Esther asks what will happen if the debt isn't paid, and the man tells her jail or Coavinses (a house where debtors stay before going to prison). Skimpole nicknames the man Coavinses. So Richard and Esther combine all the money they have to pay his debt. Afterward Mr. Skimpole is as light-hearted as ever, while Esther and Richard feel as if they had been arrested.

After Skimpole goes to bed, Richard and Esther are cornered by Mr. Jarndyce, who's upset they paid the debt. He explains Skimpole is always in debt and makes them promise never to give Mr. Skimpole money again.

Analysis

Mrs. Jellyby is the opposite of Esther in most ways. Although both are devoted to helping others, Mrs. Jellyby wants to help people she doesn't know (people in Africa or going to Africa), while Esther wants to help the people she meets. This leads to the odd situation in which Esther arrives as a guest and ends up tidying the rooms, laying a fire, and tending Mrs. Jellyby's children. All the while Mrs. Jellyby is busy reading and dictating letters about matters in Nigeria. She uses her daughter, Caddy, as a secretary but does not take care of Caddy, who is unkempt, dressed in tattered old clothes, and—beyond being able to write letters—largely uneducated. She doesn't even notice that Caddy hates her work and hates Africa. When Mrs. Jellyby's youngest boy, Peepy, turns up crying and battered from a fall down the stairs, Esther—not Mrs. Jellyby—picks him up and comforts him. It's not that Mrs. Jellyby dislikes her children; she simply doesn't notice them. By depicting life at the Jellybys', Dickens introduces the theme of help versus philanthropy.

It might surprise readers to learn Mrs. Jellyby is modeled on a woman Charles Dickens greatly respected, Caroline Chisholm, who devoted herself (very effectively) to helping emigrants to Australia. Chisholm founded the Family Colonization Loan Society to provide funding for people who wanted to relocate. However, despite the good work she did, Dickens saw Chisholm's philanthropy kept her away from her family and magnified this concern into his depiction of Mrs. Jellyby.

In their conversation before going to bed, Ada and Esther wonder about Mr. Jarndyce. He arranged for Richard, Ada, and Esther to come live with him. He paid for Esther's education at Greenleaf and is employing her now to act as Ada's companion. Apparently he also supports Mrs. Jellyby's philanthropic activities. It would appear Mr. Jarndyce manages to balance his philanthropic work; he helps others regardless of how near or far from him they are. Although readers can deduce this about him, they still have very little information about this generous man. Readers are not the only ones who don't know much about John Jarndyce. Richard is the only one of the three who can remember meeting him, but even he has met the man only once, five years ago. He described him to Ada as "a bluff, rosy fellow." Readers may connect this description to the nosy stranger Esther met in the stagecoach after leaving Windsor. Could that have been John Jarndyce? If so, why didn't he introduce himself?

It is unusual for an author to base an entire chapter on an encounter with a character he does not yet name, as Dickens does in Chapter 5. But that is what happens here. The mad old woman never introduces herself, possibly assuming that just as she knows the Jarndyce heirs by name, they must know her by name. But they do not. In Chapter 11 they will learn she is Miss Flite.

Framed in brief episodes of typical incidents in the Jellyby household, Chapter 5 provides a deeper insight into how Chancery affects the people who are unlucky enough to have a case before that court. Until now, Ada and Richard have known they are heirs in the case but have not considered what that means. When they visit the mad old woman's apartment, they see up close that Chancery ruins lives. First they learn that a principal heir, Tom Jarndyce, committed suicide rather than continue pointlessly attending hearings that would never lead to an outcome. Then they see the poverty in which the mad old woman lives. She has very little and keeps it all spotless. She would like to offer them chocolate, which was a luxury in Victorian England. In the mid-19th century, chocolate was known primarily as a drink. From the fact that the old woman was familiar with chocolate, readers can infer she was at some time fairly well off. Her courtesy, her ability to read (indicated by her familiarity with legal documents and her allusions to the Book of Revelation), and her embarrassment over not being able to offer her guests refreshment all support this inference.

Chapter 5 also introduces two important symbols related to Chancery: Krook's shop, which swallows up things and documentation just like Chancery, and the caged birds, which will probably die before the old woman's case is settled and they are freed, just as so many people die before Chancery passes judgment on their cases.

The woman's landlord, Krook, is a rag-and-bone man. Traditionally, a rag-and-bone man went door to door buying up old junk to resell to merchants. But Krook, who is fortunate enough to own a building and rent out a couple of rooms, doesn't rely on selling things to make his frugal living. This allows him to hoard. He even hoards stacks and stacks of legal documents despite not being able to read. In Chapter 5 readers get only a brief impression of Krook. He is an unattractive and somewhat unsavory character. It's hard to know whether his fondling of Ada's hair is admiration or something less pleasant. His exchange with Esther at the end of the chapter, spelling out the name Jarndyce letter by letter, also produces a shiver up the reader's spine; moreover it seems to indicate his stacks of documents might be relevant to the Jarndyce case. It's also somewhat unsettling that he named his cat after Lady Jane Grey, who became queen after the death of Henry VIII's son, Edward VI. She reigned for nine days. She was replaced by Henry VIII's first daughter, Mary Tudor, and convicted of treason. She was beheaded seven months after losing the throne.

In Chapter 6 readers learn that, despite its name, Bleak House is a bright, warm, and inviting place. The three young people immediately feel at home there, just as they immediately take to "Cousin John," who is every bit as welcoming as the house. He is an attractive man but has several flaws:

  • Jarndyce is an enabler. If anyone asks him for money, he gives it, even if it would be better for that person to be forced to learn responsibility, like Mr. Skimpole.
  • He is introverted and uses his money to insulate himself from the outside world. He buys entertainment by hosting Skimpole; he buys a family by moving Esther, Ada, and Richard into his home.
  • He avoids uncomfortable situations, including accepting gratitude and criticizing wrongdoing in others.

Later on Mr. Jarndyce will have to come to terms with these flaws, and it will prove to be a painful process.

Although she is as charmed by Skimpole as anyone else, Esther doesn't understand why he should be free of "the duties and accountabilities of life." He not only neglects others, but—though no one admits it in this chapter—uses them whenever it suits him. He may be a child, as he and others say, but he is like a child in much more than his supposedly innocent delight in the simple joys of life. He claims to enjoy nature, as he says to the debt collector (whose name, readers will later learn, is Mr. Neckett), but he also enjoys warm, comfortable surroundings and good food and drink; he also spends money to the extent that he is, according to Mr. Jarndyce, in trouble for debt every week. He himself says that, when he tried working in different professions, he failed because he stayed in bed rather than go to appointments. As a doctor, he couldn't be bothered to measure and prescribe medicines accurately; the fact that this could have killed his patients seems not to bother him. In this chapter, although they are both completely dependent on John Jarndyce, Skimpole assumes the young people will pay his debt this time. And they do. Richard has only the £10 given to him by the lawyer Kenge, and Esther has about £15 pounds she has scrimped together over several years. His utter reliance on them leads the two to give up all the money they have. Skimpole has mastered the fine art of sponging off others.

Skimpole tells the truth about his own actions, but creates a pretty fiction of his reasons. It is Skimpole himself who constantly says he is an innocent child. Similarly, he refuses to admit the truth about others. For instance, as he watches Ada playing piano, he says, "We will not call such a lovely young creature as that, who is a joy to all mankind, an orphan. She is the child of the universe." But, of course, she is an orphan, and readers know that not only her parents but also her uncle and her grandfather are dead. Mr. Jarndyce, whose generous nature is the only reason she has a home, comments, "The universe ... makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid." It's true the truth can upset John Jarndyce, but he does recognize it and does what he can to better the lives of others.

Dickens based the character of Harold Skimpole on his friend Leigh Hunt. Skimpole is a caricature, not an accurate depiction of Hunt, who was an influential journalist and poet. Still, Hunt had Skimpole's light sociability, his family was large and beautiful and as lazy as Skimpole's, and, like Skimpole, he was perpetually in debt.

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