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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 7–9 | Summary



Chapter 7

At the opening of Chapter 7 Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife, Lady Honoria Dedlock, are still in Paris, and at Chesney Wold, their Lincolnshire estate. Mrs. Rouncewell, the Dedlocks' housekeeper, has been working for the Leicester family for 50 years and has a high regard for the dignity and importance of the family. She expected her two sons to also enter service with the family, but the younger one was a wild boy; he joined the army, and she hasn't seen him since. The older son had an aptitude for engineering, and, at Sir Leicester's urging, Mrs. Rouncewell sent him north into more industrial areas. Today his son, Watt Rouncewell, is visiting Mrs. Rouncewell. He reminds his grandmother of her younger son, George. Their conversation is interrupted by Rosa, an extremely beautiful but shy young maid, who announces two young men have arrived who want to see the house. They are lawyers who came to the area on business; one is Mr. William Guppy, and he mentioned Mr. Tulkinghorn. Hearing Tulkinghorn's name, Mrs. Rouncewell grants permission.

The two young lawyers are tired and pay little attention during the tour—until Guppy sees a portrait of Lady Dedlock over the mantel in the long drawing room. He is sure he has seen the woman before, saying how "curious" it is "how well [he knows] that picture." At the end of the tour Rosa points out "the terrace below ... [which] is called, from an old story in the family, the Ghost's Walk." Guppy wonders if it has anything to do with a picture. Watt asks Rosa to tell the story, but she doesn't know it. Mrs. Rouncewell says it is "almost forgotten" and isn't told to visitors; she assures Mr. Guppy it has nothing to do with a picture.

The two young men drive away, and Mrs. Rouncewell tells the story of the Ghost's Walk to Watt and Rosa. In the days of Charles I, she tells them, Sir Morbury Dedlock was a royalist, but his wife was on the side of his enemies. She used to listen at the door when her husband met with other royalists. She interrupts herself to ask if Watt hears footstep on the terrace. He says he hears the rain and an echo sounding "very like a halting step." Then Mrs. Rouncewell resumes. One night Sir Morbury found his wife about to lame his horse to prevent his riding with the king. They struggled, and she injured her hip. Afterward, despite great pain, she walked on the terrace daily until one day she fell and couldn't get up. Sir Morbury tried to help her, but she pushed him away, saying, "I will die here where I have walked. And I will walk here, though I am in my grave ... until the pride of this house is humbled. And when calamity or when disgrace is coming to it, let the Dedlocks listen for my step!" Mrs. Rouncewell asks Watt to start a musical clock playing, and then asks Rosa if she can hear the step on the terrace. Rosa can. "So my Lady says," replies Mrs. Rouncewell. "My Lady, who is afraid of nothing, admits that when [the ghostly footstep] is there, it must be heard. You cannot shut it out."

Chapter 8

At the beginning of Chapter 8, Esther Summerson learns about her new duties at Bleak House. Harold Skimpole amuses them at breakfast by discussing honey and bees, expressing his dislike of having the "busy bee" held up "as a model to him." After breakfast Mr. Jarndyce calls Esther into his "growlery"—"in part a little library of books and papers and in part quite a little museum of his boots and shoes and hatboxes." He explains the room is his "refuge" when he is "deceived or disappointed in—the wind, and it's easterly."

Mr. Jarndyce explains the Jarndyce case to Esther. It began, he says, with "a certain Jarndyce [who] in an evil hour, made a great fortune, and made a great will." He goes on to explain how all the heirs must be represented by counsel and must receive copies of all the paperwork, which none of them actually wants. The case has been going on for generations, and the fortune is being eaten up by costs. Tom Jarndyce was his great uncle, Bleak House was his, and John Jarndyce inherited it. The house used to be called the Peaks, but Tom Jarndyce renamed it Bleak House and shut himself up in it to study the case papers and try to bring the case to an end. Bleak House is not part of the Jarndyce case, but there is a property in London which is; that property is now in ruins.

Ada keeps calling Mr. Jarndyce "sir," and he says she should call him "guardian." Then he asks her advice about what profession Richard should train for; she suggests asking Richard, and he wants her to do so. He then asks Esther if she wants to ask him anything, but she says no—she knows if there were something she should know, he would tell her without her having to ask. From then on, Esther feels completely at ease with Mr. Jarndyce.

Esther and Ada begin doing much of Mr. Jarndyce's correspondence and find mostly it is from people collecting money for causes. A frequent letter-writer is Mrs. Pardiggle, and Esther notices "the wind always change[s] when Mrs. Pardiggle [becomes] the subject of conversation." One day, Mrs. Pardiggle and her five sons—aged 5 through 12—come to visit. Only Ada and Esther are at home. Mrs. Pardiggle's children seem "absolutely ferocious with discontent." Mrs. Pardiggle claims she is different from Mrs. Jellyby in that she involves all her boys in her good works; they go with her to all her committee meetings and donate their pocket money to her causes. Esther observes the boys are not at all happy about doing so. Eventually, Mrs. Pardiggle comes to her point. She wants Esther and Ada to join her in her rounds and takes them to visit a nearby brickmaker. On the way the Pardiggle boys pinch Esther and step on her toes while demanding money because their pocket money is always stolen from them. She is glad when they arrive at a "cluster of wretched hovels," one of which is the brickmaker's. Inside are four people, including "a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby" and "a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated," and a dog. The man resentfully tells Mrs. Pardiggle about their lives. They drink and wash in dirty water, and they're glad several of their babies have died because they're better off dead; also, he'll never go to church, gets drunk as much as he can, and gave his wife her black eye. Mrs. Pardiggle's tone as she replies is "calculated ... to increase his antagonism." Then she "pull[s] out a good book as if it were a constable's staff and [takes] the whole family into ... religious custody." Then she says she'll be back and sweeps out, taking her children with her. Esther and Ada don't follow her; instead, they ask the woman if the baby is sick. Just then, it dies. Ada bursts into tears and takes the mother's hand; the mother, Jenny, cries, too. Esther cleans the child's body and covers it with her handkerchief. Suddenly a woman rushes in and hugs Jenny. While the two cling together, Esther and Ada leave. The woman is still there when they return later that evening, accompanied by Richard—even though she's afraid her husband will beat her if he finds her there.

Chapter 9

Esther Summerson watches Richard Carstone and Ada Clare falling in love but is careful not to show she knows. In the meantime she is trying to figure out what profession Richard might enter, but he doesn't take the matter seriously. John Jarndyce has written Sir Leicester Dedlock—whose wife is a distant relative of Richard's—for help in placing the young man. Esther begins to fear Richard is not prudent with money.

At breakfast one morning Mr. Jarndyce receives a letter from his old school chum Lawrence Boythorn, who will be arriving that day for a visit. They are all sitting quietly when the front door is suddenly thrown open and someone calls out, "We have been misdirected, Jarndyce, by a most abandoned ruffian, who told us to [go] right instead of ... left ... I would have had that fellow shot without the least remorse!" Boythorn has an infectious laugh that resounds throughout the house. In person, he is not only a vigorous and upright man, but "a true gentleman." Boythorn has brought his canary with him. The bird is very tame and flies around the room before landing on Boythorn's head, where he sits while eating bits of bread from Boythorn's fingers. Mr. Jarndyce and his friend discuss Chancery, and Boythorn is for blowing it "to atoms with ten thousand hundredweight of gunpowder." Boythorn, it turns out, is also involved in a Chancery suit—he and Sir Leicester, who are neighbors, are in a dispute over a right-of-way and are suing each other for trespass. Later, Esther asks Mr. Jarndyce whether Mr. Boythorn has ever been married. "He was all but married once. Long ago," her guardian tells her, but the lady "died to him," and he has never been the same.

The next day Guppy arrives to see Mr. Boythorn. He seems highly interested in Esther. Lunch is prepared for him to eat before heading back to London, and Esther stays to make sure he has everything he needs. He's nervous and asks Esther for "a minute's private conversation." Guppy tells her his salary and salary history, explains his mother would make a good mother-in-law, describes his lodgings, and finally declares he adores her. He kneels, but Esther insists he get up and sit at the table again. Guppy tells her how clever he is and that he could "advance [her] interests" and "fortunes" if only she would allow it. Esther asks him to leave, but he tells her he only came to see Boythorn in order to see her. Esther thanks him for his feelings but hopes he "will now go away as if [he] had never been so exceedingly foolish." Before leaving, Guppy says to contact him if she should ever change her mind.


After several chapters narrated by Esther, the omniscient narrator returns in Chapter 7 to take readers to the Dedlocks' country estate, Chesney Wold. It's gray and rainy and haunted—very much in keeping with the Gothic literary genre.

Chapter 7 serves three purposes in the narrative. The first is to introduce the Rouncewells and the mystery of the whereabouts of Mrs. Rouncewell's younger son, which will be solved in the course of the novel. All readers learn in Chapter 7 is that he "went for a soldier"; the army was known to be a safe haven for sons who brought shame on their families, so this fact provided the contemporary audience with further insight into his character.

The chapter's second purpose is to move along the story of Guppy, who will begin to make connections concerning another Bleak House mystery. Here, the only object of interest he sees in the entire place is the portrait of Lady Dedlock. He is sure he has seen it before, and asks whether a copy has been made. He even ponders whether he might have dreamed of it. One thing is clear, though; he is certain he has seen Lady Dedlock's face before.

The third purpose of Chapter 7 is to provide further insight into the Dedlocks. Readers learn Sir Leicester is a bit of a conspiracy freak; he suggested Mrs. Rouncewell send away her older son because he felt the boy's engineering talents meant he would follow in the footsteps of Wat Tyler, who led the 1381 Peasants Revolt, in which the peasants demanded an end to the heavy taxes levied on them and to serfdom in general. Sir Leicester feared the industrial leanings of the elder Rouncewell son indicated his leanings toward Chartism, a mid-19th-century movement particularly popular among factory workers. Chartists demanded, among other things, that all men be given the vote and that people no longer be required to own property in order to serve as Members of Parliament. Readers also learn Lady Dedlock is superstitious about the Chesney Wold ghost—if the dying woman's words are to be believed, hearing her step means "calamity" or "disgrace" is coming. Although Mrs. Rouncewell says "disgrace never comes to Chesney Wold," readers might ask themselves whether it is possible to be so sure of that, especially now that Guppy's curiosity has been aroused.

In Chapter 8 readers get a hint of how John Jarndyce first became aware of Esther's situation: he "hear[d] of a good little orphan girl without a protector." Clearly he did not hear of her from her aunt, as her aunt would not place Esther in his care. Perhaps it was Mrs. Rachael who contacted him (lying about her origins), or perhaps it was a lawyer who knew of the case. What is clear is Jarndyce himself has no personal connection to Esther and approached her because of his compulsive generosity to anyone in need.

Chapter 8 also provides more insight into Jarndyce. He is well aware of his weaknesses and looks to Esther to take on some of the duties he finds difficult, such as talking to Richard about what profession he might choose. He also looks to her to calm him down when he feels the wind shifting to the east. He knows he tends to get upset when he is "deceived or disappointed" and, until now, has simply hidden away in his "growlery" till the mood passed. Now he finds relief in Esther's steadfast cheerfulness. Despite giving the impression that he cannot deal with unpleasant situations, he has done so very effectively. After his great uncle's suicide, he arranged to have Bleak House repaired and then turned it into a cozy and welcoming place. Readers also learn he has inherited the house and very likely more beyond the inheritance that is tied up in Chancery—although Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther he believes any money will be absorbed by the costs of the case, if it is ever resolved.

Richard is 19, and it is time he chooses a profession. In Victorian England, there are four main professions that middle and upper class young men can study for: the law (solicitors, barristers, judges), the church (vicars, with the hope of promotion to bishop and archbishop), medicine (physicians and surgeons), and engineering (mechanical and civil engineer or, for the less well-off, construction supervisor). As readers know, Harold Skimpole studied to become a physician but cannot bring himself to hold down any sort of job.

In Chapter 8 Dickens explores the lives of women in various roles and classes. Ada and Esther, though of different classes, are both educated women who live in a large house. Each in her way has led a sheltered existence. Until they experience London in Chapters 3 through 5, they have not been confronted with poverty or the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which began in 1760. In this chapter they meet two other kinds of women, both of whom are products of the new social system that has evolved over the 90 years. Mrs. Pardiggle is a woman who sets out to change society and improve the role of women in society. She is a member of many committees that are socially and politically active. Early English feminism developed out of such philanthropic work. Esther and Ada are also confronted with the suffering of the working poor when they visit the brick-making community. This is the other side of the Industrial Revolution, which drove traditional crafts out of the market. Brick making had been mechanized in the 18th century, and, even though they were in great demand in Victorian England, mechanization meant bricks could be produced cheaply, so traditional brickmakers could no longer earn enough to support their families. Women in these families suffered from their living conditions (poor housing, lack of clean water, lack of income) as well as from the low morale of their husbands, who frequently sought comfort in drinking and were prone to taking out their unhappiness on their wives.

Chapter 9 is all about love. First Esther watches, enchanted, as Ada and Richard fall in love. Then she meets Mr. Boythorn, recognizes his romantic nature, and learns from her guardian that he lost the love of his life. Finally Guppy pledges his undying love for Esther—a love she does not want to know about but which upsets her in some fundamental way.

This chapter also begins to explore Richard's character, and Esther mentions Richard's "carelessness," particularly in connection with money. Readers may also notice that, when asked what profession might interest him, he makes jokes rather than answering the question. Comparing him with Esther, who is only a few months older than Richard, is revealing. She has been working for several years already, having taught the younger girls while at Greenleaf. And she took up her duties at Bleak House the morning after her arrival. Richard, in contrast, has not done an apprenticeship, started a university course, or even seriously considered how he might support himself. He may be generous, but he is impractical. His "light-hearted" nature may well result from an unwillingness to face reality.

Mr. Boythorn is a delightful character whose noisy exaggerations mask a gentle spirit. Dickens chooses a delicate canary to indicate his gentleness. As Esther points out, despite his boisterousness and his loud threats against Chancery, the little bird is content to sit calmly on his head or hop about the table taking crumbs from his big fingers. Mr. Boythorn talks about what a fine bird this one's mother was, too, so he has clearly owned the bird since it hatched. This long-term relationship indicates Boythorn's capacity for commitment—the same capacity keeps Boythorn tied to his first love. Esther does not mention who that might be, but Boythorn's intense dislike of Sir Leicester and his great admiration for Lady Dedlock provides a clue.

William Guppy is well named. A guppy is a small fish, and Guppy is a small fish in the big pond of Chancery. He is a lowly law clerk who acts subservient, but is not. For instance, when Esther "beg[s him] to conclude," he says he will: "As I love and honor, so likewise I obey." These words are from The Book of Common Prayer and are spoken by the bride in the Solemnization of Matrimony. He does not obey Esther's request, though; he keeps trying to persuade her. In general Guppy is constantly trying to increase his fortunes, his knowledge, and his influence. He has the makings of a Tulkinghorn, whose name he dropped to get access to Chesney Wold in Chapter 7. But Guppy has met his match in Esther, who is uncommonly perceptive about others' characters, as Mr. Jarndyce has pointed out several times. She also knows her own mind, and she knows she is not interested in Guppy. For his part, Guppy may believe he loves Esther, but it will later become clear his feelings for her are only skin deep.

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