Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Bleak House, why does John Jarndyce never go to court?

When Krook and John Jarndyce meet in Chapter 14, Krook finds it odd he has never seen the other man before, "not even in court." Jarndyce says he never goes to court and "would sooner go—somewhere else." Readers might guess that by "somewhere else" he means Hades. As Tom Jarndyce's heir, John Jarndyce understands very well what too close attention to the goings-on in Chancery can do to a person. Krook, who also knew "old Squire Tom," makes an educated guess at Jarndyce's reasons for avoiding Chancery and says, "perhaps it is but nat'ral in a Jarndyce. The burnt child, sir!" Krook is alluding to the proverb "The burnt child dreads fire." Knowing Tom Jarndyce allowed Bleak House to fall into disrepair while he obsessed over the Jarndyce case and then killed himself in despair over it, John Jarndyce has been "burnt" and now "dreads" Chancery and anything to do with it. Immediately after this conversation, Krook lists the names of Miss Flite's birds. All the names are reminiscent of Chancery, and Jarndyce immediately feels an east wind blowing—a sure sign he is distraught over this further reminder of Chancery's characteristics and effects.

In Chapter 15 of Bleak House, why is Prince Turveydrop a good match for Caddy Jellyby?

As Esther Summrson learned in her first meeting with the eldest Jellyby daughter in Chapters 4 and 5, Caddy Jellyby is used as a secretary by her mother, who takes Caddy's services completely for granted and pays no attention to her in any other way. She is poorly housed, fed, and clothed; she has even been educated only to write because it is what her mother needs from her. Similar to Caddy, Prince Turveydrop exists only to provide for his father's needs. Prince was even named after his father's idol, the fashionable Prince Regent—although, of course, he is not named George, which was the Prince Regent's name. Dickens's choice of name pointedly ridicules Mr. Turveydrop's intended homage to the Prince Regent and shows his own ignorance. Just as Caddy works day and night to support her mother's current philanthropic interests, Prince works day and night to buy his father's ridiculously fancy clothing and fashionable meals. The two young people are a good match because both know how to work hard and how to put another's needs before their own, yet both need attention and appreciation for all their work. Each knows how to attend to the other's needs—Caddy is even learning wifely skills like cooking and cleaning from Miss Flite—and will appreciate what is done for them by the other.

How is Harold Skimpole depicted negatively in Chapter 18 of Bleak House?

Two main characteristics of Harold Skimpole are explored in Chapter 18: his inability to finish anything he begins and his self-centered lack of empathy for others. Esther Summerson describes how Skimpole begins sketches but doesn't complete them, plays fragments of tunes on the piano but never whole pieces, and sings bits of songs, but not entire ones. This is reminiscent of his inability to follow through on any profession. He studied medicine, for instance, but could not be bothered to pay attention to the details of the job. In a doctor, this refusal to attend to details could have proven fatal to patients. She also describes his assertion that explorers go to the North Pole to "employ [his] thoughts" while he lies on the grass at Chesney Wold. Similarly, while slaves in the United States probably "don't altogether like" their lives on plantations, they "people [his] landscape" and "give it a poetry"; he says he believes this may be "one of the pleasanter objects of their existence." This reminds readers of how he said in Chapter 15 that, since Mr. Neckett, the debt collector, had died, he could "never do violence to the sunshine any more"—a reference to Neckett's attempt to arrest Skimpole and deprive him of access to the sun. Skimpole sees others only in relation to his own desires and pleasures. He is incapable of more than a nodding acknowledgement of their own lives and concerns. For him, his comfort and pleasure is more important than the freedom or the life of another person. Esther wonders whether he ever thinks of his wife and children and perceptively concludes he seldom does. Certainly he is not concerned about what the loss of their furniture and their constantly precarious financial state might mean to his family.

What extended metaphor does Dickens use in Chapter 19 of Bleak House, and to what effect?

In the first paragraph of Chapter 19, Dickens introduces the metaphor of a ship, calling "Law and Equity" two "good ships" made of teakwood, fastened with iron, and lined underneath with copper; he also points out they are "by no means fast-sailing." This is reminiscent of Plato's famous metaphor of the "ship of state." However, as it is the summer recess, Dickens's two ships are not under sail at all. He returns to the metaphor several times, with the various offices, clerks, and cases "stranded," "at anchor," and lying "high and dry." However, Dickens repurposes the metaphor when he introduces Mr. Chadband, the nondenominational preacher who enjoys two things in life—eating and sermonizing—both in great quantities. This starts when he says Chadband likes to refer to himself "as a vessel"; this is a biblical reference, the idea being that man contains God's grace and is therefore like a drinking vessel. But Dickens says that, because of his use of this term, Chadband "is occasionally mistaken by strangers for a gentleman connected with navigation" and begins to refer to the preacher as a nautical vessel instead. He begins with this pun and extends the wordplay throughout the chapter. For instance, rather than say Mrs. Snagsby has recently joined Chadband's congregation, he says she has "recently taken a passage upward by the vessel, Chadband," making use of the common expression to take passage on a ship. Several times Dickens speaks of the preacher as a merchant ship in the "oil trade" and, during William Guppy's interrogation of Jo, says the vessel "gets aground and waits to be floated off."

In Chapter 23 of Bleak House, how alike are the series of friends and acquaintances Esther Summerson meets?

In Chapter 23 Esther Summerson is confronted with a series of people who refuse to recognize reality: The first is Richard Carstone, who continues to insist the Jarndyce case will be resolved and he and Ada Clare will inherit thousands. Also, he still can't settle in a profession and has incurred gambling debts. In financial matters, Richard is impractical and prefers to trust in Chancery to sort things out. This trust runs counter to everything he has seen at Kenge and Carboy's—as is borne out by the "worn" look on his face that Esther glimpses in Chapter 24. Next Esther Summerson goes with Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop to announce their engagement to Mr. Turveydrop. She recognizes the old "model of deportment" is interested only in making sure he is looked after and won't have to earn his own keep, but Caddy and Prince sincerely believe in his "sensitive" feelings and sense of propriety. Because his acceptance makes them happy, Esther can't bring herself to disillusion them. Finally Esther accompanies Caddy to see her mother, again to break the news of the engagement. Caddy, who has been worried about her father and her siblings since she first appeared in the novel, is never fooled where her mother is concerned. It is Mrs. Jellyby herself who cannot see the reality around her. For instance she says her husband, who is bankrupt and understandably despondent and possibly suicidal, "has been unfortunate in his affairs and is a little out of spirits." Despite the family's financial straits, she has hired a boy to take over Caddy's secretarial work and blames Caddy, who, she says, has no "sympathy with the destinies of the human race." She also says Prince is without these sympathies. Yet Caddy and Prince both expend all their energy trying to help those around them.

In Bleak House, how do the better-off conceive of the poor they try to help?

In Chapter 8 readers witness Mrs. Pardiggle's self-aggrandizing visit to the brickmakers' hovels, where she is so absorbed in delivering her ineffectual message that she doesn't notice a baby dying before her eyes. Instead, she reads religious tracts to them in a supposed effort to better their souls rather than their lives. It falls to Ada Clare and Esther Summerson to show true humanity by caring for the baby's corpse and crying with Jenny. But, of course, Mrs. Pardiggle is not really trying to help anyone; Esther and Ada are. They also treat Jenny as an equal, which is rare in Bleak House. In general, the poor are treated more like children who must not only be taken care of but be told what's right and wrong. Readers meet Jenny and Liz again in Tom-all-Alone's (Chapter 22); if anything, conditions here are worse—dirtier and more crowded. Mr. Bucket shows concern for Jenny and Liz and astutely recognizes their husbands' drinking is not helping their situation, but he also seems to think the two women don't know that. And although he's sympathetic with their situation, he also sets himself up as a judge of their morals; when Liz says Jenny's child is better off dead, he sternly calls such an attitude "unnatural." Later Bucket counts five shillings into Jo's hand while reminding him to be careful how he spends them and not "get into trouble"—again seeming paternal and judgmental. One of the most generous characters in Bleak House is Mr. Jarndyce, but he is also guilty of seeing the poor differently from others. When he hires Charley Neckett as Esther's maid, he has her tell Esther she's "a little present" from John Jarndyce, as if she were an object that had been purchased and wrapped with ribbon. Interestingly Esther herself thinks nothing of this. Perhaps even those with the very best intentions consider the poor to be something less than themselves.

How does Dickens use biblical allusions in Chapter 25 of Bleak House, and to what purpose?

Dickens was a strong critic of organized religion, especially Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism. He considered evangelical preachers (and their adherents), who were given to announcing their faith and goodness publicly, to be hypocrites. True Christian values, he believed, were demonstrated by deeds, not words. In Chapter 25, in which Mr. Chadband is addressing a small group of people about Jo in the Snagsbys' drawing room, Dickens uses biblical allusion in two ways. First he uses them to make Mr. Chadband look foolish. Chadband is an evangelical preacher and likes to make his long, declamatory speeches sound biblical. He does this through formal language and references to things that might be mentioned in the Bible, but also through occasional biblical allusions. However, he throws in the allusions entirely out of context. For instance, after Mr. Snagsby replies meekly that he doesn't know the answer to Mr. Chadband's questions, Chadband says, "I hear a voice ... is it a still small voice, my friends? I fear not, though I fain would hope so—" This alludes to 1 Kings, 19:12: "And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice." Since the "voice" in the biblical verse is the voice of God, Chadband misuses the reference entirely to relate it to Mr. Snagsby's words. In effect he shows his ignorance, which is the point Dickens is making. A few paragraphs later, Mr. Chadband refers to Mrs. Snagsby as "Sarah" when he says, "Sarah, rejoice with me, for I have seen an elephant!" The allusion is to Abraham's announcement of his wife's unexpected pregnancy, so combining it with the ridiculous idea of the eel being misrepresented as an elephant borders on sacrilege. Also, Abraham's wife, Sarah, is held up as the ideal dutiful spouse. Since Mrs. Snagsby henpecks her husband constantly, calling her "Sarah" is not only inappropriate but highly ironic. Dickens uses the irony of the allusion to emphasize Mrs. Snagsby's domineering and mistrustful treatment of her husband in this chapter, in which she begins her campaign of spying on him.

In Bleak House, how does Dickens use language to characterize Bob Stables?

Bob Stables is first mentioned in Chapter 2 of Bleak House, when the narrator is describing Lady Dedlock and mentions the comments of "the Honorable Bob Stables," who has said of her "the most is made ... of all her points" and "she is the best-groomed woman in the whole stud." Given his surname (Stables) and the phrases he uses to describe Lady Honoria Dedlock, it's clear Bob, one of Sir Leicester Dedlock's poor cousins, loves horses. Horses are described by their points, and a stud is a place where horses are bred. This interpretation is confirmed in Chapter 28, in which the narrator describes him as able to "make warm mashes with the skill of a veterinary surgeon"; a mash is a warm feed made from bran that used to be thought to prevent colic. Dickens is well known for creating names reflecting the profession or personality of the character. Other examples in Bleak House include Mr. Gusher, the enthusiastic philanthropic speaker; the Smallweeds, who are all small and scrawny; and Mr. Tangle, whose words never clearly state what he's talking about.

In what ways do Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop surprise Esther Summerson in Chapter 30 of Bleak House?

After their marriage and the wedding breakfast, Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop say goodbye to their parents and leave for a weeklong honeymoon. Caddy wants to be reconciled with her mother, who, when she first heard about Caddy's engagement, did nothing but complain that Caddy had left her in the lurch and that she'd had to hire a boy to do her secretarial work. She had even laughed at the idea of Caddy marrying. Esther Summerson was there. Now, though, as Caddy is leaving for her honeymoon, Mrs. Jellyby surprises Esther not only by forgiving Caddy but by saying she'd hired a boy and "there's an end of it"; moreover, she tells her daughter they are "excellent friends" and to go and "be very happy!" Esther, who had never seen Mrs. Jellyby think of anything but her African work, is surprised at the woman's display of love for her daughter. Mr. Turveydrop surprises her similarly. Until now he has always put his own comfort and "deportment" ahead of his son's interests. However, as they part, he not only doesn't complain about having to take care of himself for a week but says there will be "fires ... in their own room" and "dinner prepared in my apartment." He has anticipated the fact that they "will be strange in the upper part of the premises" and puts their needs before his own comfort. It is not only Esther who is surprised by these usually thoughtless people, but also her guardian and Ada Clare.

How does Dickens indicate Esther Summerson's blindness in the paragraphs leading up to the final statement in Chapter 31 of Bleak House?

Readers don't notice immediately, but several days into her illness, Esther Summerson stops mentioning what she sees. Instead, she talks about what she hears, what she remembers seeing, and what she can touch. The last time she mentions seeing someone, it is the doctor the night after confessing to Charley Neckett that she is ill. Then she talks about having "an indistinct remembrance of that night melting into day, and of day melting into night again." It is very likely indistinct because she cannot see clearly to distinguish between light and darkness. She says that "on the first morning" she manages to "get to the window and speak to" Ada Clare. This is not her first day of illness, though; she has already been ill for several days. It is her first day of blindness. The next morning, she hears Ada's voice and exclaims, "how dear now!" Ada's voice must now be dear since she cannot see her and cannot touch her, as that would mean passing the illness to Ada, and Esther refuses to do that. Esther has Charley talk to Ada. Then she asks the girl how Ada looks. Charley says she looks disappointed but beautiful as she looks up toward Esther's window. Esther the narrator writes, "With her blue clear eyes, God bless them, always loveliest when raised like that!" This is an image generalized from past experience; she recalls the image and dwells on it with an emotion indicating she does not expect to see it again. Readers first think Esther expects not to see it because she is likely to die. But then Esther asks Charley to touch her as she sits beside her. This is the last hint Dickens gives; in her next sentence, Esther tells Charley she's blind.

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