Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


Who are the possible suspects who may have murdered Mr. Tulkinghorn in Chapter 48 of Bleak House, and what are their motives?

Mr. Tulkinghorn collects secrets about his "fashionable" clients and sometimes uses those secrets to coerce people's cooperation. When he is on the track of an especially intriguing secret, he does not care who he has to hurt to reach his goal. When he realizes Lady Honoria Dedlock has a secret, he begins to investigate. In doing so, he makes use of her former lady's maid, Hortense. He promises Hortense he will help her find new employment, but instead he gives her a little money and forgets about her. He also pulls Mr. Snagsby into his investigation just so he can identify Jo. Snagsby, who is a very honest and straightforward man, begins to suffer terrible guilt over keeping a secret (even though he doesn't know what the secret actually is), and his guilty demeanor puts a strain on his marriage. Finally he uses his client Grandfather Smallweed to put the squeeze on Mr. George by calling in his loan. When Mr. George cannot pay, only Tulkinghorn can help; he will help, though, only if Mr. George turns over the evidence Tulkinghorn wants from him (a sample of Captain Hawdon's handwriting). When Tulkinghorn has his evidence together, he threatens Lady Dedlock with exposure. Thus, the narrator has given the reader four suspects in Tulkinghorn's murder, each with a clear motive: the proud and fashionable Lady Dedlock; motive: to prevent him from telling her husband (and everyone else) about her love affair with Captain Hawdon the highly emotional Hortense; motive: to get revenge on him for leaving her penniless and jobless the nervous and guilt-ridden Mr. Snagsby; motive: to get revenge on him for making his life and marriage unbearable the honorable Mr. George; motive: to get revenge on Tulkinghorn for forcing Mr. George into betraying his former friend and commanding officer, and for being a generally dishonorable person Of course, Tulkinghorn has such evil intents that probably any number of people might have wanted him dead.

How does Matthew Bagnet feel about Mr. Bucket after Bucket arrests Mr. George in Bleak House, and how does Dickens make Matthew's feelings known?

As he does every year, in Chapter 49 Mr. George attends Mrs. Bagnet's birthday. This year he's followed there by Mr. Bucket. The detective pretends he's interested in a buying a violoncello for a friend and has by chance seen another friend, Mr. George, inside with the family. He ingratiates himself with the Bagnets, entertaining the children as well as the adults. All of them—even the perceptive Mrs. Bagnet—believe Bucket to be a close friend of Mr. George's. Matthew Bagnet likes him so much he invites him then and there to "the old girl's next birthday"; Mr. Bucket accepts and makes a note of the date. Matthew expects him back in the morning to look at a selection of violoncellos, so Matthew is pleased both personally and professionally. But the next day, it turns out Mr. Bucket arrested Mr. George almost as soon as they left the house after the party. In addition to concern for their friend, the Bagnets must feel Mr. Bucket betrayed and made a fool of them. Matthew Bagnet, who is not a person who likes to say things directly, expresses these feelings obliquely in Chapter 52. So when Mr. George tells Esther Summerson, John Jarndyce, and Allan Woodcourt that he was taken at the Bangets' house, Bagnet says, "with a second-hand violinceller ... of a good tone. For a friend. That money was no object too." Mr. Bucket's tricky means of buying his way into their company really bothers Matthew; he comes back to it again when they are all talking on the street outside the prison: "With a second-hand wiolinceller. And said he played the fife. When a boy." It is not only the ruse about the violoncello, but also Mr. Bucket's talk of playing the fife like Woolwich, the Bagnets' son, that helped Bucket connect with the son and win the affection of the parents. Matthew cannot get over how Bucket played them; he is still in shock. In contrast to her husband, Mrs. Bagnet has accepted what Bucket did and moved on. Now she is focused on helping Mr. George.

In Bleak House, how does Mr. Bucket get people to cooperate with him or give him information?

Mr. Bucket, the Scotland Yard detective, may be clever and devious, but he's also intuitive and congenial. When he wants to get something from someone, he establishes a rapport with that person. To do this, he first gets them to think he admires them and also has something in common with them. Then he gets the person to tell him something relating to their shared experience. When he senses the person has let down his or her defenses, he asks for the information or cooperation he was looking for. When readers first meet Mr. Bucket in Chapter 22, he is helping Mr. Tulkinghorn, who has brought in Mr. Snagsby. Bucket wants to find Jo and suspects Snagsby knows where the boy is. Bucket talks to Snagsby about his business, saying it's "a business of trust and requires a person to ... have ... his head screwed on tight"; then he says he once had an uncle in Snagsby's business. A few sentences later, he says he forgets what his uncle used to call a person he did business with—customer or client. Snagsby says he calls them customers. Bucket knows he has Snagsby now, and immediately asks Snagsby to go with him to Tom-all-Alone's to find Jo and never mention it to anyone. And, of course, Snagsby obliges. This pattern occurs again and again, such as in Chapter 53. Mr. Bucket has just met with Sir Leicester Dedlock in his London house and has come downstairs. He stands by the fire "admiring Mercury" and guesses the footman's height. He then begins complimenting Mercury's physique and wonders if he has ever sat for an artist. Mercury hasn't, so Bucket says he has a friend who is a prominent sculptor. He also asks whether Mercury's father was in service. He was not, but Bucket says his father was (and considered it "the most honorable part of his career") and so are his brother and brother-in-law. He intersperses questions about Lady Honoria Dedlock and Mercury's physique until he has the information he wants about Lady Dedlock's walk on the night of Tulkinghorn's murder.

How does Dickens use situational irony in Chapters 53, 54, and 55 of Bleak House?

In Chapters 53 and 54 situational irony plays a large role. Situational irony occurs when one thing is expected but something else happens. In these chapters Dickens creates the expectation that Lady Honoria Dedlock will be arrested by describing Mr. Bucket's activities but not his thoughts. For example, at the end of Chapter 53, the detective asks Mercury questions about Lady Dedlock, getting confirmation from him that she was out of the house alone at the time of Tulkinghorn's murder. In Chapter 54 he tells Sir Leicester Dedlock about the enmity between Lady Dedlock and the lawyer. This establishes her opportunity and motive. But instead of arresting Lady Dedlock, Bucket arrests Hortense. Readers learn Bucket's reasoning only after he has seized her. Chapter 55 features dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something a character or characters do not. In this chapter Lady Dedlock believes she will be arrested for murdering Tulkinghorn. She also believes her secret past has been revealed to Sir Leicester Dedlock by blackmailers. Believing these revelations will cause her husband to resent her, she leaves. Her suicide note apologizes to Sir Leicester and says goodbye. But in fact, Hortense has been arrested, the blackmailers will be bought off, and Sir Leicester is more concerned for her than for himself. What's more, he has had a stroke and may even be dead, as far as readers know at this point. Dickens uses readers' awareness of these things to heighten their compassion for Lady Dedlock.

In Chapters 55 through 59 of Bleak House, how does weather function as a symbol?

At the very end of Chapter 55, Lady Honoria Dedlock leaves the Dedlocks' London house intending to kill herself. The narrator says she "flutters away in the shrill frosty wind." John Jarndyce's frequent concerns about the east wind have made readers sensitive to the wind as a sign of impending trouble. But snow and sleet have more to do with the accuracy of the search for Lady Dedlock—like a game of hot and cold. At first Lady Dedlock has a long head start on Mr. Bucket and Esther Summerson, but they are in a carriage, and she is on foot, so they can close the time gap. As they head toward St. Albans and Lady Dedlock, they have only light snow to contend with. But the moment they set out northward, following the information given them by Jenny's husband—who told them Lady Dedlock was heading north and Jenny was heading to London—it starts snowing hard (Chapter 57). The farther they travel north, the worse it gets. It is a wet snow that muddies the road before freezing, so the horses slip and progress is slow. The sleet falls steadily and a mist develops, so they cannot see; at the same time, the reports of the woman dressed like Lady Dedlock cease, so Bucket's investigation is also blind. The moment they turn back toward London in the last paragraph of the chapter, the snow begins to thaw. They have lost too much time, though, and the continuing sleet throughout Chapter 59 confirms this.

In Chapter 58 of Bleak House, how does Mr. George embody the theme of identity?

Until Mr. George is reunited with his mother in Chapter 55, he hides his identity from everyone. He even keeps his back to his mother when they meet accidentally at Mr. Tulkinghorn's office in Chapter 34 so she will not recognize him. But once he sees Mrs. Rouncewell in his prison cell, he immediately falls at her feet and begs her forgiveness. But it is not his name that George has kept from himself; it's his true nature. His conception of his character is flawed. From an early age he has accepted the image strangers and acquaintances had of him—a difficult, uncontrollable boy who can't be relied on. But his mother always considered him a good boy, and in Chapter 58 Sir Leicester Dedlock agrees with her. Sir Leicester says George has "been a soldier ... and a faithful one"; he goes on to say George is "another self to" him. These comments mesh with what readers have observed of George as he offers help to people like Phil Squod, Jo, and Mr. Gridley; maintains a close, supportive friendship with the Bagnets for many years; and considers others' needs, such as Captain Hawdon's, before his own. George has been so convinced of the character flaws others attributed to him as a youth that he even convinced Mrs. Bagnet, who says of him in Chapter 49 that she thinks he's "in the roving way again." But this is something she expects based on his self-report, not something she has observed about him. Thus Mr. George embodies the twofold theme of identity: hiding his real name and parentage from others and his real character from himself.

In Chapter 59 of Bleak House, why does Mr. Bucket recommend Mrs. Snagsby go see Othello?

In Shakespeare's Othello, Iago plays on Othello's jealous nature; he creates a number of situations that convince the Moor his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful. Othello mistreats Desdemona, makes her miserable, and ultimately kills her. Then when it's too late, he learns she was never unfaithful at all and kills himself. Mr. Bucket sees Mrs. Snagsby's jealousy has caused her to misinterpret a number of situations, coming up with the false conclusion that Mr. Snagsby has been unfaithful and Jo was his son by someone else. When the detective sees Mrs. Snagsby looking on Esther with suspicion, he tells her to see Othello because of the parallels between the Moor and herself. With his warning, perhaps it will not be too late for the Snagsbys' marriage.

In Chapter 60 of Bleak House, what is the effect of Miss Flite's additions to her aviary?

Miss Flite's birds function as one of several symbols of Chancery in Bleak House; they relate to the effects of Chancery on its victims (what they lose and what they suffer) and the features of Chancery that cause those effects. What its victims lose: Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life What its victims suffer: Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death Features of Chancery: Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, Spinach (The names Gammon and Spinach are taken from the nursery rhyme "Froggie Would A-Wooing Go" and are a slang term meaning "nonsense.") Now Miss Flite has penned two more birds in her cages—"the Wards in Jarndyce." Ada Clare and Richard Carstone are the wards in Jarndyce, and referring to caged birds in this way is a metaphor for how the Chancery case has entrapped and imprisoned the young couple. Combined with the list of Chancery's effects on its victims and the changes readers have already seen in Richard, this addition to Miss Flite's aviary creates a sense of foreboding—things are likely to get worse for Richard and Ada.

In Chapter 62 of Bleak House, why does Conversation Kenge believe it necessary for Chancery to remain as it is?

Conversation Kenge makes his living by arguing cases in Chancery, so he has a personal interest in having it remain as it is. But that is not the argument he makes to John Jarndyce, whose refusal to engage with Chancery or the Jarndyce case in any way is very familiar to him. He says Jarndyce is just "echoing a popular prejudice." The argument Kenge makes is that the law is "a very prosperous community" and England is "a very great country." Chancery, in turn, "is a great system." He asks Jarndyce, "Would you wish a great country to have a little system?" Of course, this argument appeals to patriotism, not to reason. It also reminds readers of Dickens's criticism of England for its treatment of the poor. Clearly, Chancery is very much in line with a nation that ignores the most needy of its people. Chancery turns people into paupers, and then they disappear in the miserable, disease-ridden slums.

How does Richard Carstone's tuberculosis parallel Chancery's effects in Bleak House?

Until Chapter 65 readers are not told Richard Carstone is ill from a disease. His symptoms, such as pallor, weakness, and weight loss, are blamed entirely on his obsession with the Jarndyce case. But Allan Woodcourt is a doctor and must know the entire time that Richard has TB; Allan is also close to Esther Summerson and John Jarndyce and must have told them. Therefore Richard's illness is something Esther decides to leave out of her narrative. The first clue readers have that Richard has a physical illness comes when Allan tells Esther Richard tried to speak to the judge and couldn't because his mouth was full of blood. From that moment on, the young man is dying. It is almost as if his obsession with the Jarndyce case has been keeping him alive, as if when the case ended, he had no further reason to stay alive. In Chapter 1 of Bleak House, however, Dickens placed Chancery at the center of the damp fog that so often oppressed London. This fog, which was full of coal dust, was closely associated with lung diseases like tuberculosis. If he were to have any hope of getting well, Richard would have had to leave London. But he would not do that because it would have meant giving up on the case. Therefore, Richard's obsession actually did cause his death.

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