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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What is the meaning of the title of Chapter 32 in Bleak House?

The title of Chapter 32 is "The Appointed Time." This has a double meaning: The first appointment referred to in the title is a business meeting. William Guppy and Tony Jobling, in his false identity as Mr. Weevle, have arranged to meet with Krook in his shop at midnight. Krook, whose nickname is "the Lord Chancellor," has a shop full of documents, including the letters he stole from Nemo's old suitcase. Tony has seen them, and says they were written by a woman. It is these letters Guppy has promised to take to Lady Honoria Dedlock. The second appointment has not been arranged in advance. It is Krook's death, and the title alludes to a Bible verse, Job 7:1: "Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth? are not his days also like the days of an hireling?" Krook's "appointed time" is over, and he dies (of spontaneous combustion). It is Guppy who finds what's left of Krook, but he can't find the letters, which thwarts his plans, whatever they might have been.

Why does Grandfather Smallweed suddenly call in Mr. George's loan in Chapter 34 of Bleak House?

The narrator never explains why the old moneylender, Grandfather Smallweed, suddenly demands Mr. George repay the principal on his loan, but it is likely Mr. George guesses why. Normally, it is Smallweed who would arrange the terms for the repayment of any loans he makes; moreover, as Mr. Tulkinghorn says, that type of business is not in his "course of practice." So it is strange that Smallweed tells Mr. George to see him about it. But Mr. George is clever. He realizes Tulkinghorn is the instigator of this entire situation—even though the lawyer has affected an air of carelessness about George's decision—and realizes he will have to let the lawyer have a sample of Captain Hawdon's handwriting. In return, he is able to return his loan payments to the original setup and even arranges for Matthew Bagnet's liability to be minimized. Mr. Tulkinghorn has forced Mr. George to give him what he wants—and he doesn't even have to pay for it.

In Bleak House, how does smallpox function as a metaphor?

Smallpox can be seen as a metaphor touching on two of Dickens's themes in Bleak House: Dickens uses his descriptions of the terrible conditions in Tom-all-Alone's and other poor areas to criticize how English society treated its poor and working classes in the mid-19th century. He describes the sewage, the overfilled burial grounds, and other features of those areas as unbearable living conditions and also as the source of contagion. For him, society is only as healthy as its lowest classes. This is illustrated by the metaphoric spread of smallpox. Jo contracts it in Tom-all-Alone's and takes it with him into the countryside and right into Bleak House. If it weren't for Esther Summerson's quick thinking, it would have continued to spread to upper-class people such as Ada Clare and John Jarndyce in the same way that neglect of the poor contaminates the souls of the wealthy. Similarly, smallpox serves as a metaphor for Chancery. Both spread contagion in London and beyond to hurt, scar, and even kill people. John Jarndyce, although he has tried to avoid the effects of Chancery after seeing it kill his uncle, Tom Jarndyce, is still hurt by it; he is emotionally fragile as shown by his sensitivity to the "east wind." John has tried to quarantine Richard Carstone and Ada Clare from the influence of Chancery, but, unlike Esther shielding Ada from smallpox, he has failed. Richard, as he demonstrates through his focus on the Jarndyce case in Chapter 36, has contracted the Chancery disease, and it is likely he will pass it along to Ada.

In Chapter 37 of Bleak House, how do Mr. Vholes's name and physical description inform readers' understanding of his character?

The first thing readers learn about Mr. Vholes is his name. Coupled with his physical description, Vholes's name implies a very malevolent character at odds with his perfectly pleasant manners and conversation. A vole is a kind of rodent. Rats are also rodents, and all rodents chew at things, often until they destroy them. On top of that, Vholes looks like a vampire. He is pale, and his lips look cold. He's tall and thin, dresses all in black, and seems "lifeless." He doesn't even have the energy to move quickly or speak audibly. As Richard Carstone and Mr. Vholes ride away, Esther Summerson notices Richard is "all flush and fire and laughter" while Vholes looks at Richard "as if he were looking at his prey and charming it." There is also something vampire-like in the way Vholes targets Richard in advance and gets Harold Skimpole to introduce them. Vholes needs money to provide for his three daughters and his aged father; he makes no secret of this. Richard is no doubt one of many clients whose purses he hopes to empty.

In Chapter 38 of Bleak House, how does Dickens characterize Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop's marriage?

Even after they are married, Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop remain blissfully ignorant of how Prince's father uses them. When she visits, though, Esther Summerson is very aware of it. He has the best rooms, while the young couple have "two corner rooms over the Mews." Mews are stables, so Caddy and Prince would always have the smell of horses to contend with as well as the noise of the horses, stable boys, and customers coming and going at all times of the day and night. Mr. Turveydrop also gets the best food and comforts, while his son and daughter-in-law have "what they [can] get." A good example of this is chocolate. In the 19th century, chocolate was expensive and considered a luxury. Certainly it's nothing the Jellybys could have afforded. But clearly Mr. Turveydrop considers it indispensable to his lifestyle and "deportment." Caddy prepares it for him in the morning, and one of the dancing apprentices takes it up to him—just as if he were a serving boy. In contrast, the apprentices are extra work for Caddy and Prince, who spend time with them each morning teaching them to dance. Mr. Turveydrop uses Peepy Jellyby similarly, having him fetch his newspaper and run other errands. But Caddy interprets this differently; she sees it as keeping Peepy entertained. Mr. Turveydrop also keeps Mr. Jellyby entertained with self-flattering stories about the Prince Regent. Esther sees the hypocrisy in all this but doesn't want to disillusion Caddy or Prince, who, despite working hard from dawn to dusk, are happy.

What is the effect of Mr. Tulkinghorn's entrance in Chapter 40 of Bleak House?

By Chapter 40 in Bleak House, readers are well aware of the threat Mr. Tulkinghorn poses to Lady Honoria Dedlock. Not only is he full of secrets and so hard to read that she cannot be sure what he knows, but he always seems to turn up at just the wrong moment, such as at the end of William Guppy's visit in Chapter 33. Dickens builds up readers' expectations prior to Tulkinghorn's entrance. The buildup begins with Volumnia Dedlock, who has been hoping to see the lawyer. When she asks Sir Leicester Dedlock about him, two people react: Lady Dedlock, who begins listening to the conversation, and a nameless cousin, who thinks Tulkinghorn has some news about the election. In fact, the footman says, he is in the dining room right now. Volumnia is relieved, having been afraid the absence of the "original," "stolid," and "inconstant" Mr. Tulkinghorn meant "he was dead." Dickens implies Lady Dedlock wishes he were. Almost immediately, a shot rings out, which Lady Dedlock explains is the shooting of a rat. This is a lovely metaphor for Tulkinghorn, but—unfortunately for Lady Dedlock—the lawyer enters immediately. This long discussion of the lawyer interspersed with her ladyship's muted reactions reminds readers of the relationship between the two characters. This was necessary in the initial publication because serialization meant sections of the novel were read with long spaces of time between them. But there are two climaxes to this buildup. The first is the gunshot. It is likely Dickens wants readers to think Tulkinghorn has been shot, especially after the mention of his death. But in he walks, as if Lady Dedlock's rat had returned to life. Still, the discussion of his death and the gunshot foreshadow the sneaky lawyer's fate as readers will learn in eight more chapters.

In Bleak House, what is Mr. Tulkinghorn's opinion of women?

Until Chapter 41 readers never get inside Mr. Tulkinghorn's head. What they know comes only from the narrator's observations of the old lawyer. Tulkinghorn is a single man who lives alone in his chambers. He does not become close to any of his clients, but keeps his ears open and learns their secrets. In Chapter 41 Tulkinghorn is satisfied because he has let Lady Honoria Dedlock know that he shares her secret. Now she comes to his room and, during their discussion, in which he is unusually straightforward, readers learn he considers Lady Dedlock irrelevant. His "sole consideration in this unhappy case is Sir Leicester." After all, Sir Leicester Dedlock is his client, and Tulkinghorn lives off his share of his clients' business. As a married woman, Lady Dedlock has no property, so she has no monetary value to the lawyer. He does, however, find her strength worth noting—even if he does not actually admire it. In Chapter 42 Tulkinghorn is confronted by a very different woman, though also a proud one—Hortense, Lady Dedlock's former lady's maid. Hortense has no monetary or strategic value to Mr. Tulkinghorn; he has already received all the information she can give him. She is angry because he has not come through with the recommendation for a new position he promised her. She is trying to blackmail him through embarrassment by haunting his offices and Mr. Snagsby's shop. Tulkinghorn has an answer for that—he will have her thrown in prison. He tells her so coldly and bluntly. Since he has nothing to gain from Hortense, it is likely he shows her his true nature. He does treat Mr. Snagsby with courtesy, though, and takes care to warn her off Snagsby as well. Perhaps the lawyer's true opinion of women is revealed by what he says to himself just before Hortense arrives: "These women were created to give trouble the whole earth over. The mistress not being enough to deal with, here's the maid now! But I will be short with this jade at least!" Apparently Tulkinghorn considers Lady Dedlock a "jade" as well.

In Bleak House, how are John Jarndyce and Mr. Vholes "unmatched," as Esther Summerson calls them in Chapter 45?

When Esther Summerson first sees her guardian sitting across from Mr. Vholes, she is struck by their physical differences. John Jarndyce is "open" and "broad and upright" and has "a rich ringing voice"; Mr. Vholes is "close" and "narrow and stooping" and speaks in "a cold-blooded, gasping, fish-like manner." But the two men's physical differences are superficial indicators of character differences. Jarndyce's character is open and honest. He's just what he appears. He's unfailingly generous without hope of being repaid, and his generosity extends to almost everyone, whether family, friend, or stranger. Mr. Vholes, in contrast, plays his cards close to his chest. He can be helpful, but it's a generosity with strict limits. He has extended credit to Richard, for instance, but expects to be repaid. By his own (often repeated) account, he is truly generous only toward his family. He supports his father and daughters and hopes to leave his daughters provided for in his will. But that could be more social obligation than anything else. Readers also know Vholes does not spend money on vacations but spends the court recess in his office. Moreover, to meet his family obligations, he has to make sure he gets money from others. He doesn't do this thorough out-and-out theft, of course, but uses the slow processes of the law to make sure he gets all the income he can.

What is the "will" referred to in the title of Chapter 47 of Bleak House?

The title of Chapter 47 is "Jo's Will." This cannot be interpreted literally, as Jo does not actually make a will in the traditional sense. After all, he has nothing to leave and no one to leave it to. There are two possible wills, however: Jo asks Mr. Snagsby to write a document for him after his death: a letter to Allan Woodcourt in very large writing apologizing for infecting Esther Summerson with smallpox. Of course, no one blames Jo for doing that; Allan Woodcourt had only been upset because the boy left in the night without a word to anyone, and that misunderstanding has been cleared up. But Jo has always been ready to accept blame for things; after all, people have been making him feel guilty just for trying to stay alive for as long as he can remember. So he feels he must apologize. Jo also gives Allan verbal instructions about what to do with his body after he dies. He wants to be buried with Nemo, who was also kind to him. It is interesting that both the people Jo has formed a lasting relationship with are connected to Esther—Allan, the recipient of his written apology, is her future husband; and Nemo, whom Jo wants to be near after death, is Captain Hawdon, her biological father.

What does Dickens say about Christianity in Chapter 47 of Bleak House?

For someone in his last moments of life, Jo is very talkative at the end of Chapter 47. He and Allan Woodcourt have a long conversation about Christianity. Allan asks if Jo knows any prayers, but Jo says no. His only experience of praying has been watching Mr. Chadband and others like him pray. He says Chadband "sounded as if he wos a-speakin to hisself, and not to me." Of course, Jo couldn't know praying is speaking to God; in fact, no one had ever discussed the concept of God with him. But Jo's saying that Chadband's praying was focused on Chadband is very perceptive. Chadband is a hypocrite who uses prayers and sermons to glorify himself and not God. Jo remembers hearing other people like Chadband in Tom-all-Alone's: "they all mostly sed as the t'other 'wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded to be a-talking to theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t'others, and not a-talkin to us." These people, who likely call themselves Christian, are a lot like politicians—focused on their competition and not on the people they're supposed to be helping. The first time Jo hears a real prayer, it's his doctor and friend who speaks the words. But the words are not Woodcourt's; they are the words of Jesus in the New Testament. The prayer is the Lord's Prayer, which directly addresses God and which prays for all people through the use of the first person plural. It is a humble prayer. The topics are simple, and if Jo had heard them, he would have understood the requests in the prayer for "our daily bread," forgiveness, and deliverance from "evil." These concerns reflect the basic Christianity that Dickens believed in but couldn't find in hypocrites like Mr. Chadband.

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