Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Chapter 1 of Bleak House, how does Dickens use language to illustrate the poor communication in the Court of Chancery?

Dickens uses language in three ways in Chapter 1 to illustrate the court's poor communication: He begins the chapter with a long series of incomplete sentences, such as "London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather." This incompleteness mimics the language of Chancery and how it hides meaning behind a sort of shorthand of legal expressions that might be hard to understand for people who are not in the legal profession. The barrister who does most of the talking in Chapter 1 is Mr. Tangle, an excellent example of the lack of clear communication in the court. When the Chancellor says he will consider the petition for the two young people to live with their uncle, Mr. Tangle rises to say, "Begludship's pardon—dead," meaning "I beg Your Lordship's pardon, but the uncle is dead." Similarly, when the Chancellor mentions the grandfather, Mr. Tangle tells him the grandfather has been "victim of rash action—brains"; this may indicate the grandfather has committed suicide or perhaps been murdered. Mr. Tangle's expression is amusing wordplay at the same time it exemplifies ineffective communication. Mr. Tangle's name itself is another way in which Dickens indicates the messiness of court communication. His statements are a tangle of words the listener might interpret in several ways. When asked, for example, whether he has nearly finished, Mr. Tangle responds, "Mlud, no—variety of points—feel it my duty tsubmit—ludship." He runs some words together and leaves others out entirely, resulting in a messy tangle of ideas.

How do the two leave-takings Esther Summerson must undergo in Chapter 3 of Bleak House affect her?

When her godmother dies, everything changes for Esther Summerson. First she learns from Conversation Kenge that her godmother was actually her aunt but had kept that hidden from her. This adds to Esther's confusion and to her feelings of rejection and inadequacy. Then she finds out that, on his previous visit two years before, her aunt had refused an offer for Esther to leave her solitary life with her aunt and the unfriendly housekeeper, Mrs. Rachael. Now, though, Mrs. Rachael seems glad for Esther to leave. She shows no sadness at all at their parting, and goes back into what is now her house before Esther's things have even been stowed in the carriage. Like Miss Barbary, Mrs. Rachael does not see Esther as a person but as an embarrassment and a product of a very great sin. Readers are likely to see this as an example of social bias and to condemn it as cruel. Esther herself, though, is in tears at having lost her aunt, being treated so coldly by the only other constant in her life (Mrs. Rachael), and leaving the only home she has known. It is a miserable parting that makes 13-year-old Esther feel less secure than ever. Six years later, however, her leave-taking from Greenleaf is very different. Esther arrived at Greenleaf with a few belongings but no baggage—no one knew anything about her. The two Miss Donnys, the boarders, and the staff all judged her on her own merits, and they quickly came to love her dearly. They are all sad to see her go, but genuinely wish her happiness. They shower her with gifts and ask for notes from her to remember her by. Over the six years at Greenleaf, Esther has come to realize she is both capable and lovable, and this parting only strengthens her self-esteem.

In Bleak House, how is Krook like the Lord Chancellor and his shop like the Court of Chancery?

Readers first encounter Krook and his shop in Chapter 5, when Miss Flite introduces him by saying, "He is called among the neighbours the Lord Chancellor. His shop is called the Court of Chancery." Krook himself explains why. First, in what seems like a non sequitur, he handles Ada Clare's hair and talks about his three sacks of hair. This is a reference to the Lord Chancellor's woolsack—his traditional seat in Britain's House of Lords since the 14th century. In the House of Lords, in front of the Chancellor's woolsack are two more, on which the High Court Judges sit. Krook also has three sacks, though his are full of hair. But it is Krook's hoarding that has led him to be called "the Lord Chancellor." Just as Krook collects people's cast-offs and hoards them, the Chancellor collects what people leave to others and keeps those inheritances tied up in Chancery. Krook even has stacks and stacks of legal documents that, being illiterate, he cannot read; similarly, the barristers drag stacks of documents into Chancery each day and there is no time for them to be read. Even with the best will in the world, the Chancellor would not be able to read all the documents in the many cases stuck in Chancery. Finally, just as Chancery contains the documents that would settle so many cases, Krook's shop contains the answer to central mysteries in Bleak House, such as Lady Honoria Dedlock's letters to Captain Hawdon, as readers learn in Chapter 32, and the most recent Jarndyce will (Chapter 62).

In Bleak House, why does John Jarndyce often express concern that "the wind is in the east"?

Mother Goose's nursery rhymes were first published in England in the late 18th century and soon became very popular. Since he was approaching 60 when Bleak House was published in 1852, it is easy to assume John Jarndyce would have read them as a child. One Mother Goose rhyme began with these lines: "When the wind is in the east,/'Tis neither good for man nor beast." It is likely Dickens is alluding to this rhyme when he describes John Jarndyce's assertions about the east wind whenever he becomes agitated. This occurs three times in Chapter 6, when Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone spend their first evening at Bleak House: When he asks them their impression of Mrs. Jellyby, Jarndyce is distressed to hear how she neglects her children. "She means well," he says and then adds, "The wind's in the east." Richard, taking this literally, says the wind is in the north. But Jarndyce says he knows because he gets "an uncomfortable sensation." His discomfort eases when he learns Esther took good care of the Jellyby children, and he says Richard was right about the wind after all. The second time he perceives an east wind occurs when Jarndyce tells his three guests that Harold Skimpole has many children but neglects them. The third mention of the east wind also relates to Skimpole, who has inveigled Richard and Esther into paying his debt. Jarndyce feels the wind shift as soon as he learns this. He seems to be accusing Skimpole of intentionally taking advantage of others when he says Skimpole has "squeeze[d] you like a couple of ... oranges." When Esther, to cheer him, reminds him Skimpole is a child in spirit, he calms down because a child cannot have "designs or plans, or knowledge of consequences." He checks the weather vane and finds the wind is blowing from the south.

To what extent does John Jarndyce's description of Esther Summerson in Chapter 8 of Bleak House reflect the Victorian ideal woman?

In Victorian England the ideal woman—at least for the middle class—was summed up in the phrase "the angel in the house." The woman's place was in the home, and femininity was all about domesticity, family life, and motherhood. Esther Summerson is ideally suited to this role since she is modest and nurturing but also intelligent and capable. However a woman in Esther's situation, who needed to work to support herself, was unlikely to marry and have children. Therefore taking on the role of both a companion to a younger girl and a housekeeper in a large house might be seen as allowing her to fulfill the "angel in the house" role. John Jarndyce, who has been overseeing Esther's life for years, knows what she suffered as a child and what she achieved at Greenleaf. He knows she can provide the support a Victorian man looks for in his "angel of the house"—someone who can ease the pressures that assail men in the working world. Therefore, he tells her she is "clever enough to be the good little woman of our lives here" and quotes the version he knows of a popular nursery rhyme: Little old woman, and whither so high? To sweep the cobwebs out of the sky. Strangely, after this, Esther is called by many nicknames, all somehow designed to lock her into the role of a wise older caregiver: "Old Woman, and Little Old Woman, and Cobweb" from the nursery rhyme "Mrs. Shipton," an allusion to a legendary 15th-century English prophet and witch, Mother Shipton "Mother Hubbard," the nursery rhyme woman whose "cupboard was bare" "Dame Durden," a character from a popular folk song who has a variety of "servant maids and men" who are always kissing one another (but not her) All these characters are apparently childless, even Mother Shipton, who married. John Jarndyce seems to instigate this use of nicknames out of affection, but the result is ambiguous and possibly hurtful, though Esther doesn't seem resentful. The implication of age and childlessness certainly diverges from the Victorian "angel of the house" image.

In Chapter 8 of Bleak House, in what ways does Mrs. Pardiggle embody the themes of help versus philanthropy and social criticism?

Mrs. Pardiggle is a bustling do-gooder who has political ambitions without political power. She uses everything, including her sons, to advance her goals. From birth, when each of the boys was given the name of an English hero or saint, her sons must be dragged along on each of her missions and to each of her committees; they are given pocket money only to be forced to donate it to one of her causes. Her children are not heroic or saintly, but rather miserable and angry. However, Mrs. Pardiggle doesn't think about her boys beyond how she can use them to boost her image. Dickens uses her to explore the difference between philanthropy and truly helping others. Mrs. Pardiggle is not depicted as someone who puts her causes above herself. This is in contrast with Mrs. Jellyby, whose commitment to her African cause is so intense that she neglects her house, her family, and herself. Mrs. Pardiggle, however, is dressed in the height of impractical fashion. Her hooped skirts sweep aside everything in their path, even knocking over "little chairs" and "a little round table at a considerable distance with [Esther's] work basket on it" in the Bleak House sitting room. Unlike Mrs. Jellyby's philanthropy, Mrs. Pardiggle's is ostentatious and hypocritical. Mrs. Pardiggle is also a loud, pushy woman who cannot see beyond her own experience. Confronted with the extreme poverty of the St. Albans brickmakers, she sees only her preference for cleanliness. Esther comments that she criticizes "the untidy habits of the people (though [Esther] doubt[s] ... the best of us could have been tidy in such a place)." Mrs. Pardiggle has left a book with one of the families even though no one in the family can read. Again her philanthropy is ostentatious and self-serving. She doesn't even show concern for the dying baby in its mother's arms. Ada Clare and Esther, however, are greatly distraught by the conditions in the brickmakers' hovels. Dickens's depiction of the conditions these families live in and the two young women's reactions to them help develop the theme of social criticism.

How does Charles Dickens use foreshadowing in Chapter 8 of Bleak House?

Foreshadowing is a literary device writers use to hint at something that will happen later in the story. When Esther Summerson visits the St. Albans brickmakers in Chapter 8, there are two notable instances of foreshadowing: The first is a very subtle instance of foreshadowing but relates to the deeper meaning of later events. After Jenny's baby dies, Liz comes into the hovel to comfort her friend. Esther first describes Liz as "an ugly woman, very poorly clothed [who] also had upon her face and arms the marks of ill usage. She had no kind of grace about her." The women cling to each other, with Liz repeating her friend's name. Looking at them, Esther amends what she said, speaking of "the grace of sympathy" and saying "when she condoled with the woman, and her own tears fell, she wanted no beauty." Later on, Esther will be disfigured by smallpox scars, but those who know her will see beyond the scarring and find her beautiful because of her character just as she finds Liz beautiful in Chapter 8. The second instance is more obvious but also more superficial. At the end of the chapter, Esther, who is meant to be writing years after the events of Bleak House, lifts the handkerchief she placed over Jenny's dead baby to look at the child. Nothing happens at the time that parallels future events, but Esther the narrator says, "how little I thought in whose unquiet bosom that handkerchief would come to lie after covering the motionless and peaceful breast!" This foreshadows the moment when she sees her handkerchief again in the hands of Lady Honoria Dedlock, who is Esther's birth mother and the sister of Miss Barbary, who raised Esther.

How does Dickens use authorial intrusion in Chapter 10 of Bleak House?

The term authorial intrusion refers to the practice of the writer inserting his or her own voice into the narrative, usually using the first person in the midst of a third-person narration to state his or her opinion directly to readers. It was a common practice in 19th-century fiction, and Dickens was a frequent practitioner. In Bleak House, authorial intrusion does not occur as often as in other Dickens novels, but it is noticeable in Chapter 10 when he writes, "diving through law and equity, and through that kindred mystery, the street mud, which is made of nobody knows what and collects about us nobody knows whence or how—we only knowing in general that when there is too much of it we find it necessary to shovel it away." Here, Dickens returns to the metaphor of street mud representing the legal system in general and Chancery in particular, which symbolizes how it dirties and drags at everyone. Dickens himself speaks to readers when he talks about the mystery of its origins and the need to "shovel it away." Like many social critics of his time, Dickens was strongly in favor of doing away with Chancery. This actually occurred two decades after the publication of Bleak House, when the Judicature Act of 1873 fused the courts of equity and the royal courts into one system.

In Chapter 12 of Bleak House, what criticism does Dickens express through reporting the conversations of Sir Leicester Dedlock's guests Lord Boodle and William Buffy?

Sir Leicester Dedlock is very involved in the background of the politics of the land, using his influence to support candidates for Parliament and always ready to discuss the unfortunate political situation of the day. So he invites the most important politicians to his party. Lord Boodle is a Tory Member of Parliament (MP) who has held government office and finds fault with how things are going in government. In Chapter 12 Lord Boodle complains to Sir Leicester that things are not how they used to be. He seems to think the government may be overthrown and believes it would be difficult for the queen to form a new government because it would be impossible to choose someone to head up the new ministry (government department). Certain persons have to be given these jobs, and, because of who is or isn't able to work with whom, there would be no position for Noodle. William Buffy, in contrast, is a Whig. He doesn't look for a return to the good old days, but sees the ruin of government in wrong appointments, alliances, and advisers. Dickens's choice of names indicates what he thinks of this sort of network. The idea of the "oodle" names does not originate with Dickens. Doodle, Foodle, and Noodle are all courtiers in Henry Fielding's sociopolitical satire The Tragedy of Tragedies, and the allusion adds to the effect of the paragraph. The name Noodle, moreover, refers to a fool, and the name Poodle to a lapdog. In general all the "oodle" names sound foolish, as do the "uffy" names, like Huffy and Puffy. The choice of names makes the topic seem foolish. The narrator comments that everyone at the Dedlocks' party agrees Boodle and Buffy and the people related to each of them are the most important people in government and must stay that way forever. If nothing changes, of course, they will remain in the deadlock both are complaining about. And that seems to be what they all want—for nothing to change.

How does Dickens criticize Victorian public school education in Chapter 13 of Bleak House?

Chapter 13 is narrated by Esther Summerson, who recounts how she and John Jarndyce try to get Richard Carstone to decide what profession he wants to enter. He has long liked the idea of joining the navy, but when Esther and Jarndyce ask whether it is "an ordinary boyish inclination or a strong impulse," Richard replies he cannot "make out." Jarndyce ascribes some of Richard's indecision to having grown up uncertain as to his fate because of the long-lasting Chancery proceedings surrounding his inheritance. But Esther believes his education—eight years at one of the best schools—should have "counteracted those influences or directed his character." Esther, despite her constant protests that she does not know much, may be inexperienced in the ways of the world but has a clear and incisive mind, so readers tend to trust her judgment on such things. She thinks his school spent too much time having Richard study the classics and not enough time trying to figure out what Richard's talents are and how he could profitably and usefully apply those talents in the real world. This is not the first time in Bleak House that education has been shown to be useless. Jarndyce's friend Harold Skimpole was educated to be a physician. However his temperament was not suited to the rigorous attention to detail that profession would require, and he was quickly fired from his first position. Clearly Dickens believes the best schools in the country are letting the country down by not educating people to make the most of their abilities.

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