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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


After Allan Woodcourt returns to England in Bleak House, what are some clues John Jarndyce will relinquish his claim on Esther Summerson?

The clues that John Jarndyce will bow out and let Esther Summerson marry Allan Woodcourt are subtle, but noticeable. It is natural that an engaged couple should address each other by their first names; however, Jarndyce does not discourage Esther from calling him "guardian," and she continues to do so after their engagement. Similarly he continues to use the nicknames everyone in the family uses for her, rather than her first name. (In Chapters 62 and 64, he calls Esther "my love" several times, but his manner is not romantic as he does so.) In addition he never changes his manner toward her; it remains platonic and often paternal. He also spends a great deal of time with Allan and never lets on to Allan that he and Esther are engaged. He encourages Esther to spend time with Allan without his being present; for instance, he suggests Allan attend Caddy when Esther is nursing her daily (Chapter 50). After Allan declares his love and Esther says she is promised to Jarndyce, the clues come thick and fast. For instance Esther remarks there is "a high happiness" on Jarndyce's face that makes her think "he has been doing some great kindness this morning" (Chapter 62). When they talk about what Esther supposes to be their engagement, Jarndyce talks only about "giv[ing] Bleak House its mistress"—not about a wedding date. Yet in Chapter 64 he gives Esther money for a trousseau and wedding dress, just as a father might. Esther says she makes her preparations quietly at least in part because Jarndyce is "so quiet himself." When Esther arrives in Yorkshire, where Jarndyce has been "on Mr. Woodcourt's business," she sees from his face that Jarndyce has "been doing some other great kindness." The most important clue, of course, is that he has copied her garden design, decorated the cottage according to her tastes, and called it Bleak House so she could be its mistress without breaking her word.

From indications in Bleak House, what is likely to happen to the Dedlock estate and fortune after Sir Leicester Dedlock's eventual death?

In Chapter 66 the narrator says that "in the course of her bird-like hopping about and pecking at papers"—in other words, while snooping—Volumnia Dedlock has found "a memorandum concerning herself in the event of 'anything happening' to" Sir Leicester Dedlock, and she considers this "handsome compensation" for having to read tiresome texts to him for hours on end. But given what readers have learned about Chancery, Volumnia is highly unlikely to see a penny of any bequest. Sir Leicester will die without a direct male heir. Many cousins have been mentioned in Bleak House, but not one seems to be the designated heir to the family title, lands, and fortune, and there is likely to be a great deal of squabbling over these things. Therefore it can be expected to land in Chancery Court and run the same course as the Jarndyce inheritance. That is, it will line the pockets of lawyers, judges, and court officials and maybe never reach any of the potential heirs at all, including Volumnia, who might end up just like Miss Flite—if she doesn't marry her general, that is.

What is the effect of the ending of Esther Summerson's narrative in Bleak House?

In Chapter 67 Esther Summerson returns to a question about herself that has been with her from her first appearance in Chapter 3: is she lovable? Her aunt raised her to believe she was not. She was not lovable because she was illegitimate; she was the bodily representation of her mother's shame. Of course she had also ruined her aunt's life because her aunt had given up her own happiness to raise Esther. Miss Barbary took out her resentment on Esther, making it clear "it would have been far better ... that [Esther] had never been born." Esther grew up with no sense of being attractive or lovable. When she arrives at Greenleaf school, she is constantly amazed and happy that the people there love her. Throughout Bleak House, she comments with amazement that people love her as much as they do. When she is scarred by smallpox, she expects they will stop loving her. When they continue to do so, she sees that as a sort of test of her lovability and becomes a bit more self-confident. At the end of the last chapter, she realizes Allan Woodcourt could not have loved her more even if she still had her "old looks—such as they were." When he says she is "prettier than ... ever," she says she doesn't need to be pretty because the people she loves are all so beautiful. But the last few words imply she is willing to admit she might be as pretty as Allan says. Esther's ability to see herself accurately is not complete, but her self-image is far less damaged than it was when the novel began.

How are the three proposals Esther Summerson receives in Chapters 9, 44, and 61 of Bleak House indicative of the men who make them?

William Guppy is the first to propose (Chapter 9) in a comic situation that's embarrassing for Esther Summerson and for him. He is a young law clerk, ambitious and already confident in his abilities where the law is concerned but completely inexperienced in matters of the heart. Guppy has fallen in love with Esther's beauty. (When she becomes scarred, he rescinds his proposal.) His inexperience shows in his nervousness and his reliance on legalese. His worry about the legal ramifications of proposals is evident in his constant qualifications, for example, that the conversation should be "without prejudice." That he is ambitious and tenacious is clear in his refusal to accept her requests for him to "conclude." That he is self-centered is also clear, for he talks about himself the whole time and not about Esther. The second person to propose is John Jarndyce, who writes Esther a letter (Chapter 44). This is in keeping with his dislike of displays of emotion, such as gratitude. In order to avoid being very emotional in the letter, he doesn't mention feelings and proposes indirectly, speaking of making Esther "mistress of Bleak House" rather than his wife. The letter allows him to avoid confrontation. Esther will be able to say no in writing if she chooses, and both of them can continue as if the letters had never existed. He is protecting himself and her, just as he does by keeping himself and others away from the Chancery case. The third proposal comes from the man Esther loves, Allan Woodcourt (Chapter 61). He is straightforward and says how much he loves Esther for her many good qualities, including her selflessness. This is a shared quality between the two of them, as readers have seen throughout Bleak House. Allan must be confused because, as readers learn later, he had already spoken to Jarndyce about his intentions and Jarndyce had consented to his speaking to Esther. Indeed Jarndyce had made sure they would be alone. Still, Allan accepts Esther's refusal without expressing any negative emotions toward Jarndyce for what must feel like a cruel game.

What are some elements of Gothic literature evident in Dickens's Bleak House?

Gothic fiction had become popular during the second half of the 18th century. Gothic stories involved dark, scary settings such as old castles and graveyards, evil characters such as vampires and ghosts, murder and mysterious deaths, and, of course, damsels in distress. In Chapter 1, when the fog pervades the streets of London and the narrator tells readers "at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery," Dickens creates a scary setting and an evil monster. Other settings, characters, and situations in Bleak House are also reminiscent of Gothic literature, for instance: Chesney Wold with its shadowy corners, its mausoleum full of dead Dedlocks, and its dark, rainy woods the Ghost Walk with its echoing footstep signalling impending doom the burial ground in Tom-all-Alone's, especially Lady Honoria Dedlock's late-night visit in Chapter 16 when she herself is veiled and mysterious the banshee eyes looking down on Nemo as he lies dead on his bed in Chapter 10 the vampire-like Mr. Vholes, and the way Esther sees his shadow, not the man himself, enter the house in Chapter 45

In what ways can Esther Summerson be considered both a reliable and an unreliable narrator in Bleak House?

Esther Summerson appears to be fairly reliable. Other characters, especially John Jarndyce, say she is perceptive and has good insight into the people she meets. She was also present for most of the events she describes; only a few are hearsay. But her report of events may be prejudiced by two main factors: her personality and her knowledge of events. She lacks confidence in her own judgment, especially at the beginning of her narrative, which sometimes blinds her to the true nature of the people she meets, such as in her first meeting with Harold Skimpole. At that time, she accepts Jarndyce's (and Skimpole's own) claim that he is "a child" and innocent of any intentional wrongdoing. She even helps pay his debt so he won't be arrested (Chapter 6). But Esther quickly learns to be less accepting of others' self-representation, and in Chapter 9 she already expresses concerns about Richard Carstone's judgment, particularly where money is concerned. Still, throughout Bleak House, Esther continues to misrepresent herself, playing down her best qualities. Other characters may point them out, but she often demurs, which has prompted complaints on the part of some critics. That she is writing her narrative seven years after the events take place creates a greater problem. She knows what will happen. This may or may not affect her interpretation of events as she narrates them. Does this affect how she describes her reaction to seeing Lady Honoria Dedlock for the first time at church (Chapter 18)? She talks about "the rapid beating at [her] heart" and being "fluttered and troubled." Did this really happen, or is her description affected by having learned later that Lady Dedlock was her mother, which she didn't know that day in church?

What common threads bind together the more than 100 characters and the wide-ranging plot events of Bleak House?

With few exceptions, Dickens manages to link almost all the characters together through the main story lines (Chancery, the Lady Honoria Dedlock mystery, and Esther Summerson's life story) and important themes. In fact many minor characters become involved in several important story lines and with several main characters. Mr. Chadband and Tony Jobling can serve as examples: Mr. Chadband turns up in only a few scenes in the 67 chapters. His primary involvement is with Mrs. Snagsby, who has joined his congregation. His actions contribute to two major themes—help versus philanthropy and Christianity—through his self-glorification and hypocrisy. Despite appearing so seldom, he is related to Esther's life through his wife, who once worked for the woman who raised Esther. (In fact at one point, Mrs. Chadband speaks with Esther in court.) Mr. Chadband is also closely concerned with the mystery surrounding Lady Dedlock through his attempt to convert Jo, during which he learns about the veiled lady. He is called in to provide information to Mr. Tulkinghorn and ultimately stoops so low as to try to blackmail the Dedlocks. Tony Jobling, who goes by the name Weevle for part of the narrative, is a friend of William Guppy's. Tony worked for Kenge and Carboy's, tying him to Chancery. He then goes undercover at Guppy's request to investigate Nemo so Guppy can learn more about Esther Summerson. His investigation leads him to discover the existence of some letters that turn out to have been written by Lady Dedlock to Captain Hawdon in her youth. Tony also goes with Guppy to support him in his second proposal to Esther. The only characters who do not connect with main story lines are Sir Leicester Dedlock's politician friends, who relate only to him and his political interests. However they relate closely to the important theme of social criticism.

How is Esther Summerson in Bleak House like and unlike Oliver in Oliver Twist?

Both Esther Summerson and Oliver were illegitimate children of parents who loved each other deeply. Both had brutal upbringings in which they were taught to work hard and to be aware of how unworthy of love they were. Despite this, both are cheerful and kind to others, and both have a strong sense of right and wrong. Both are taken in by older men who make sure they are well educated and who provide loving homes for them. Both have some experience of the English legal system, though Esther's experience involves the equity courts, and Oliver's the criminal courts. But that is where the similarities end. Esther is a woman when the main action of Bleak House begins. Oliver is a child. Esther was raised in middle-class surroundings; Oliver was raised in a workhouse. Esther is not technically an orphan; as an adult, she almost meets her father and does meet her mother. Oliver's mother died in childbirth; his father was also dead. Esther remains in middle- and upper-middle-class homes; Oliver finds himself taken in by thieves who continue to pursue him for some time until they are caught, thanks to the efforts of his benefactor. Yet Dickens's basic idea is the same in both cases—a person who is naturally good will be good no matter what his or her upbringing.

In what ways can John Jarndyce, the owner of Bleak House, be considered a good man?

John Jarndyce can be a kind and generous man, but he cannot relate emotionally to other people and uses money to meet his emotional needs. Jarndyce gives money to those who ask him for it, such as Mrs. Pardiggle and Mrs. Jellyby. He finds their causes worthwhile but never leaves the house to learn about how they pursue those causes; this means he never realizes they don't actually do any good. He learns about Esther because he is approached about taking care of a girl who will be in need if her current guardian dies. Jarndyce also spends a great deal on his supposed friend Harold Skimpole. Skimpole is not really a friend but an entertaining sponger. Essentially, Jarndyce buys company so he won't be lonely. Because he avoids any emotional turmoil, Jarndyce refuses to meet Esther for many years after Miss Barbary's death. He takes a look at her secretly as she is on her way to school but doesn't actually meet her for another six years, when she is nearly 20. Yet, oddly, he has conceived the idea of marrying her one day—presumably so she can care for him in his old age. Then he brings her into his house to be a companion to Ada Clare and, Esther learns on the first evening, to manage the household. She assumes her duties after just one night of sleep. Soon he invites her into his growlery to offer advice on all manner of topics, especially related to dealing with others' emotions. With a youthful "family" around him, Jarndyce begins to get out more. Through Esther he meets people who really need help, such as the Neckett children. He helps the Neckett children, but again it is as if he is buying them. He even sends Charley to Esther to say she is a gift for Esther. Later, Esther herself becomes a gift from Jarndyce to Allan. Again, to avoid having to confront an emotional situation directly, he acts in secret. By giving her to Allan and by buying a cottage for them, Jarndyce buys himself a family.

In Bleak House, how does Dickens characterize the very poor?

The poorest characters in Bleak House are Nemo, Jo, and the brickmakers' families. (Readers get to know Liz and Jenny best.) Guster was at least as poor; in fact, she was so desperate that she lived in a workhouse until the Snagsbys took her in as their servant. These are people accustomed to having nothing, but they help one another as much as they can. As Jo tells the coroner, Nemo gave Jo money and food whenever he had any; Jo mourns him and sweeps the step of the burial ground where his body has been buried (Chapter 11). When Liz needs medicine, Jo goes to get it for her (Chapter 22). When Jo arrives in St. Albans sick, Jenny sends for Esther Summerson to help him (Chapter 31). According to Guster, she stated the situation clearly to Lady Honoria Dedlock; Lady Dedlock had given her a letter to deliver to Esther and guaranteed "it was no harm," and Guster agreed to do so. Then Lady Dedlock apologized for having nothing to give Guster, who said she "was poor [her]self and consequently wanted nothing" (Chapter 59). Many people in Bleak House are out for what they can get, but not the poorest of the poor; they are always willing to help one another and expect nothing in return.

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