Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 57–59 | Summary



Chapter 57

In Chapter 57 when John Jarndyce explains why Mr. Bucket needs her, Esther Summerson is "thrown into ... a tumult of alarm, and hurry and distress." When she joins the detective, he shows her the letter Lady Honoria Dedlock left for her husband. At Bucket's prompting, Esther says she can't think of anyone her ladyship would confide in. After some thought, however, she suggests Mr. Boythorn. Bucket has the carriage drive on, and soon they come to the police station. There he gives a description of the missing woman, and it is copied and distributed. Esther finds Mr. Bucket "kind and gentle" and feels "a confidence in his sagacity."

When they drive on from the station, it is in a hired carriage. Their first stop is by the river. Something has been pulled from the river, but it is not what Esther feared, and they continue their journey. Bucket stops the carriage frequently to go into any pubs still open or to talk to toll-takers. A few miles before they reach St. Albans, he gives Esther a cup of tea and tells her Lady Dedlock is "on ahead." It's 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., and she "passed through ... on foot" about 8:00 or 9:00 the night before. He asks the driver to "try a gallop." Mr. Bucket asks Esther if she remembers taking Jo along this road one night. She wonders how he knows about this, and he explains he was the man she passed on the road. He had followed Jo to try to keep him from telling everyone about the woman in the veil. Esther realizes he is making conversation to distract her from her mother's plight. They arrive at Bleak House, where, despite the early hour, the smoke is rising from the chimney. Bucket turns the conversation to Harold Skimpole. Skimpole was the one who told him where to find Jo—and all for a £5 note. Esther considers this "treacherous" and "passing the usual bounds of his childish innocence." Bucket warns her that people who say they know nothing of money are only after yours, and people who say, "in worldly matters I'm a child," are just trying to avoid being held responsible. They ring the bell and ask whether anyone has been at the house, but no one has. Bucket says they will go to the brickmakers' cottages next.

Liz, Jenny, and their families are now sharing a house near the kilns. Esther and Bucket find them eating breakfast, though Jenny is missing. Grudgingly, her husband tells Esther the lady (meaning Lady Dedlock) rested on the stool Esther's sitting on for an hour or two. Then she and Jenny left. He says Jenny went to London, and the lady "went right away nor'ard by the high road." Liz's husband allows her to tell Esther the lady looked "pale and exhausted," and "her voice was hoarse." As Esther and Bucket leave, Liz's eyes meet Bucket's. As they continue north, it begins snowing hard, and progress is slow. Again, the detective chats with everyone they meet. When they change horses, he learns "she came on" there. He adds, "There's not a doubt of the dress by this time, and the dress has been seen here."

But by the next time they change horses, there have been no sightings for a while, and so it continues. They go north for several more stages, but there's no word of the woman they're seeking. Finally Bucket decides to turn around and "follow the other." Esther is "in an agony"; she wants to go on by herself to look for her mother. Bucket understands but asks, "Would I put you wrong, do you think?" He wants her to "rely upon [him] for standing by [her], no less than by Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet." Finally she agrees, and they rush back toward London.

Chapter 58

Meanwhile in London the Dedlock household are saying Lady Honoria Dedlock has gone down to Lincolnshire. But the fashionable rumor mill is already talking about a Dedlock divorce. Her disappearance is even being talked of in Parliament.

At the Dedlocks' London house, Sir Leicester Dedlock has had his bed moved near the window so he can watch the "driving snow and sleet ... throughout the whole wintry day." Mrs. Rouncewell spends a lot of time with him but can say only there's no news yet from Mr. Bucket. When Mrs. Rouncewell leaves the sickroom, Mr. George is waiting to comfort his mother. She is certain Lady Dedlock will never return, certain the Chesney Wold ghost has "walked her down." She worries about who will tell Sir Leicester. George finds her ladyship's rooms feel cold and deserted and fears his mother might be right—Lady Dedlock is not coming back. While Mrs. Rouncewell is away, Volumnia Dedlock takes her turn at Sir Leicester's bedside, but she does not know what's going on, so she can't really talk with him. Still, it keeps Volumnia from going out and gossiping about the family. Now she compliments Mrs. Rouncewell on the "soldierly" bearing of her son. Hearing this agitates Sir Leicester, so Mrs. Rouncewell explains it is her younger son Volumnia is referring to; George has come home and is downstairs right now. Sir Leicester wants to see him immediately.

Soon George comes in. Sir Leicester is glad to see him and wonders why he doesn't want people to know his true identity. George admits he did "his duty under discipline." Sir Leicester says he "had a sudden and bad attack" that has numbed his body and confused his speech. Remarkably clearly, he says he and his wife had "a slight misunderstanding" and his wife "found it necessary to make a journey" from which he expects her to return soon. Now he wishes to make a statement while he can that all three of them can witness—he is "on unaltered terms with her" emotionally and materially. From then on, George stays with Sir Leicester alongside his mother.

It gets dark, and Sir Leicester gets more and more upset as time passes, wondering why Mr. Bucket does not return. Eventually everyone goes to bed except George and Mrs. Rouncewell, who stay with Sir Leicester. George patrols the house every half-hour. Volumnia, who cannot sleep for worry about the health of Sir Leicester and the annual support he pays her, finally allows herself to be talked into going back to bed at 4:00 a.m. When George returns from each round, Sir Leicester asks him if there is news, but there never is. At dawn, George extinguishes the candles and opens the curtains so Sir Leicester can resume his watch.

Chapter 59

In Chapter 59 Esther Summerson and Mr. Bucket return to the outskirts of London at about 3:00 a.m. Mr. Bucket has only recently begun to make inquiries again. At Islington they leave their carriage and get a cab. Esther has been fretting about following Jenny rather than her mother but trusts the detective's instincts. Bucket praises Esther for being "as mild as she's game, and as game as she's mild," which makes her "a queen" to his mind. As they ride through the city, they "seek out the narrowest and worst streets," stopping for him to consult fellow police officers and various informants. After one such consultation, he asks Esther if she will "walk a little way." They enter Chancery Lane. The clocks strike 5:30.

Suddenly Esther hears her name. It's Allan Woodcourt, who has already heard from John Jarndyce about her late night journey. He puts his cloak around Esther and asks to go with them. Allan has been with Richard since 10:00 the previous evening; Richard had been feeling "depressed and faint," but is now sleeping.

Mr. Bucket tells Woodcourt they are going to Mr. Snagsby's. When they get there, they hear Guster crying. Apparently she's been having seizures all night, as Bucket's fellow police officer tells them. Bucket and the other officer go into the stationer's. Soon Bucket returns to ask Esther to come sit by the fire and Woodcourt to look after Guster. Guster, he says, has a letter Bucket wants. Inside, Mr. Snagsby shows them to Guster's room, asking his wife "to wave ... hostilities for one single moment." Mrs. Snagsby looks "astonished" and stares at Esther. Bucket sends Mr. Snagsby to help Woodcourt with Guster; he then settles Esther by the fire, taking off her wet shoes and setting them to dry. Then he turns to Mrs. Snagsby and begins to explain her mistake to her. He tells her Esther is the young lady being discussed last time he talked to her. Esther doesn't know what he means, but Mrs. Snagsby seems to. He says Jo, Nemo, and Mr. Snagsby were all "mixed up in the same business, and no other" and that Mrs. Snagsby has been running "her ... head against a wall." But that's not all. Someone "in a wretched state" has come there tonight, spoken with Guster, and given Guster a paper. Mrs. Snagsby hid, watched them, and afterward "pounce[d] upon that maid-servant ... with such severity that ... she goes off and keeps off, when a life may be hanging upon that girl's words." Woodcourt comes in with a paper for Bucket. Bucket sends Mrs. Snagsby to help bring Guster around.

Bucket shows Esther the paper. She identifies the handwriting as Lady Honoria Dedlock's. It's a letter to Esther, and she reads it to the detective. The first section was written at the cottage. She came there to get a final look at "the dear one" and "to elude pursuit." She says she "bought" the men's help but Jenny helped for Esther's sake. The next section was written later and says exposure and exhaustion will save her from committing suicide. The last section says she hopes to remain unidentified so she will "disgrace [Sir Leicester] least"; she is trying to reach a place that "has been often in my mind." Bucket sends Esther to find out more from Guster. Guster says she was coming back from an errand when a "common-looking person" asked her for directions. The woman looked "so wretched, that [Mr. Snagsby would] have given her half a crown." She wanted to know where "the poor burying ground" was. Hearing this, Mr. Bucket looks alarmed. Then the stranger asked Guster to send a letter for her. The woman went in the direction Guster had indicated, and Mrs. Snagsby grabbed Guster and scared her.

Bucket, Esther, and Woodcourt set out through the predawn streets. When they get to the burial ground, Esther sees Jenny lying on the step in front of the gate and starts to run toward her. The men hold her back, and the detective tells her "they changed clothes at the cottage" and the woman who continued north "went on a certain way ... to deceive and then turned ... and went home." She can't grasp what he's saying. She wants to go to Jenny and find out where her mother went. The men decide Esther has "a higher right" to touch the woman than they do. She goes to her and looks at her face. It's her mother, and she's "cold and dead."


Until now, readers have wondered about whether Bucket is a compassionate person doing a sometimes unpleasant job or a cold-hearted cop who pretends to be friendly and understanding. It's often hard not to like the detective, but he also appears to trick people a lot, which makes it hard to trust him. In Chapter 57 Esther, with her incisive understanding of others' characters, gives us a reliable reading. He is "kind and gentle" and wise. But she also notices how "agreeable and merry" he is when he's looking for information and how "watchful" and businesslike he is when he returns to the carriage.

Chapter 58 sees Sir Leicester reunited with George Rouncewell, who—just as with Mrs. Rouncewell—was always his favorite of the two Rouncewell boys. From the moment they meet again, George is helpful and compassionate with Sir Leicester, seeming to know intuitively what he needs. As with Phil Squod, Mr. Gridley, and Jo, George immediately sees what is needed and provides it. When Sir Leicester learns George has tried to remain undiscovered, he protests, just as any reader might: why? He does not find George's explanation very satisfactory. A sterling army career is nothing to be ashamed of. Although George is the same man in Chapter 58 as he is throughout Bleak House, Sir Leicester is not. The Sir Leicester of this chapter is the one who loves Lady Dedlock—a simple, straightforward man whose concern is for others and not for himself. His concern for George is that George recognize what is good in himself, not accept the prejudices of society where soldiering is concerned. It is an interesting position for someone who is normally such a staunch supporter of tradition and the status quo.

In Chapter 59 Esther meets Mr. Snagsby and records her first impression of him. Until now, readers have seen him through the eyes of the third-person narrator with his critical tongue-in-cheek descriptions of Snagsby's idiosyncrasies—for example, how he has a distinctive cough to communicate his reactions to a variety of situations and how he plunks down a half crown whenever he feels sympathy or pity for someone. Here, though, Esther describes him as "a scared, sorrowful-looking little man ... who seemed to have a naturally polite manner and spoke meekly." Mr. Bucket also provides a clear description of Snagsby's most obvious qualities when he says to him, "You're a man of urbanity and suavity, you know, and you've got the sort of heart that can feel for another." These verbal sketches of the stationer are in keeping with the man as readers have experienced him in Snagsby's interactions with others, especially Jo.

Snagsby's present sad and frightened demeanor might well be rectified after this visit since the detective explains bluntly to Mrs. Snagsby not only where she has been mistaken about her husband and what's going on but also how her jealousy has caused extra suffering for Guster and may have cost someone else her life. Esther comments on the powerful sincerity with which he says this. Readers can only hope Mrs. Snagsby takes it to heart.

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