Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Plot Summary

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Summary

Bleak House is set mostly in London, especially in areas near the Inns of Court, where the Court of Chancery is located. Other important settings are Bleak House and the Chesney Wold estate in Lincolnshire.

The main character, Esther Summerson, narrates roughly half the chapters, and her life touches the lives of the majority of the other characters to a greater or lesser extent.

The plot revolves around three main storylines:

  1. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce inheritance case has been caught in Chancery for several decades already, but which finally concludes near the end of the novel. While not directly involved in the Jarndyce case, Esther Summerson is closely involved with three Jarndyce heirs.
  2. The secret past of Lady Honoria Dedlock inspires the mystery several characters, including Lady Dedlock herself, work to solve. The solution brings her and Esther together.
  3. The secret identity of Mr. George is less mysterious and much less fatal than Lady Dedlock's secret, and George does a great deal of good along the way. In the end, he is there to fill the emptiness left by Lady Dedlock.

There are also a number of minor storylines that have to do largely with Esther's many friendships and Sir Leicester Dedlock's colleagues and cousins.

Esther Summerson is raised by her godmother without affection or praise. Esther has always wondered about her mother: Who was she? What happened to her? When Esther is 13, her godmother dies, and a mysterious benefactor pays for her to go to boarding school. Six years later she is taken to London, where she meets Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Both are teenaged orphans, heirs in the Jarndyce case, and wards of the Chancery court; they are to live with their much older cousin, John Jarndyce, who is also Esther's benefactor and guardian. They meet outside the Chancellor's office. While there they talk with Miss Flite, a slightly nutty old lady who attends court every day with her documents, hoping for a settlement. After spending the night with a befuddled do-gooder, Mrs. Jellyby, and her neglected family, the three young people meet Miss Flite again and go to her flat, which is above a rag and bone shop run by an old illiterate alcoholic who hoards things, especially papers. His name is Krook. In the afternoon, the three are taken to Bleak House, near St. Albans, where they meet the generous and charming Mr. Jarndyce—another Jarndyce heir—and his light-hearted acquaintance Harold Skimpole, who makes his living by accepting hospitality and monetary gifts from friends and unintentional supporters. Esther is to act as Ada's companion and Jarndyce's ward and housekeeper. It doesn't take long for Esther and her guardian to become close friends, and she eventually learns that her supposed godmother was actually her aunt.

The Dedlocks bounce back and forth between their Lincolnshire estate—Chesney Wold—and their London mansion. Much of this movement results from Lady Dedlock's restlessness. Sir Leicester dotes on his beautiful younger wife and keeps himself busy with English political intrigue. He is a man of the old school, fond of tradition and guided by the notion that England would be worse off without a Dedlock to keep it on course. Unfortunately, it is a changing world, and the son of his own housekeeper, Mrs. Rouncewell, has become wealthy by using his engineering knowhow to achieve success in the iron-making industry. Now he also has become involved in politics. Lady Dedlock is not interested in politics; she wishes she had a daughter. Once she was in love with a man she hoped to marry. She became pregnant; the man was in the army and often away. Her baby daughter was born but, as far as she knows, died immediately. She never saw her lover again, and it was rumored he had died. One day she sees his handwriting on some legal documents pertaining to the Jarndyce case, in which she has a distant interest. Taken aback, she asks who copied the document. This awakens the curiosity of her husband's legal advisor, Mr. Tulkinghorn—an avid collector of aristocratic secrets.

Near the Inns of Court is a rather more ordinary part of town, Cook's Court, where Mr. Snagsby's law stationer's shop is located. Mr. Tulkinghorn comes to the shop one day to ask about one of his copyists—a man known as Nemo. Nemo, Mr. Snagsby says, lives in nearby Cursitor Street above Krook's rag and bone shop. When Tulkinghorn arrives, Nemo is lying dead in his room. The upstairs neighbor, who turns out to be Miss Flite, is sent to fetch a doctor and comes back with two, one of whom is Allan Woodcourt. Nemo has died of an opium overdose. At the inquest the next day, a crossing sweeper called Jo is asked for information about Nemo, but can say only that Nemo helped him whenever he could by giving him coins or food. Mr. Snagsby, the law stationer, takes over that role from then on, which arouses suspicion in his wife. Mr. Tulkinghorn mentions to Lady Dedlock that the person who transcribed that document she saw is dead. Lady Dedlock disguises herself as a servant and wears a veil. She goes to Cursitor Street, where she meets Jo. Jo shows her the stationer's shop, the building where Nemo lived, and the burial ground where he's buried.

Richard and Ada have fallen in love, but they are too young to marry. Because his inheritance cannot be counted on, Richard needs to train in a profession. But Richard protests that he will be rich and cannot make up his mind to be interested in medicine, the law, the army, or the clergy. Nevertheless, after some time, he decides to try medicine. After a few months he decides to try the law instead. Meanwhile, Esther and the others have been visiting Chesney Wold; there, Esther sees Lady Dedlock and feels uneasy. Richard goes to Mr. Jarndyce's lawyer's office and sits for weeks and months poring over the documents in the Jarndyce case. When he has read them all, he declares himself more interested in the army. His fencing tutor is Mr. George.

Mr. Tulkinghorn is still investigating Lady Dedlock's mysterious interest in the law copyist. He sets a particularly clever detective on the case—Mr. Bucket. Jo's encounter with the veiled woman becomes known, and Mr. Bucket gets Snagsby to help him locate and interrogate Jo.

Jo has been told to "move on" and turns up near Bleak House with a high fever. Esther takes him in, but the next day he's gone. Esther becomes ill with smallpox and is left with scarring on her face. She goes to stay with Mr. Jarndyce's friend Lawrence Boythorn at Chesney Wold to recuperate. While out walking, she meets Lady Dedlock who reveals she is Esther's mother. Richard is on leave and arrives at Chesney Wold with his new lawyer; Esther doesn't like him. Back at Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce writes Esther a letter proposing marriage, and she accepts, quelling her feelings for Allan Woodcourt now that she has been disfigured by smallpox.

Richard has now lost interest in the army, too. All he wants to do is follow the Jarndyce case. He has begun to lose weight, as Esther discovers when she visits him in Deal. He seems distracted, and Esther is worried. Mr. Woodcourt, who has gone to sea as a ship's doctor, arrives in Deal while Esther is there and promises to keep tabs on Richard in London. Richard and Ada secretly marry.

Allan Woodcourt happens to find Jo in Tom-all-Alone's and takes him to Mr. George's shooting gallery to protect him from the police, but Jo dies. With Mr. Bucket's help, Tulkinghorn has figured out Lady Dedlock's secret, and he threatens to tell her husband. The next day, he is found dead in his office, shot through the heart. Mr. George is arrested for the murder. While he's in prison, he receives a visit from his mother, who is Mrs. Rouncewell, Sir Leicester's housekeeper. Mr. Bucket visits Sir Leicester and tells him Lady Dedlock's secret; then the detective arrests Hortense. Sir Leicester has a stroke. Lady Dedlock, afraid she will be arrested for murdering Tulkinghorn and wanting to spare her husband's pride when the scandal about her past becomes known, decides to kill herself. She runs away, and Mr. Bucket and Esther pursue her. But before they find her, she dies at the gate of the burial ground where Nemo was buried. Mr. George is freed and reunited with Sir Leicester; George accompanies him back to Chesney Wold, where he remains to look after his old friend and be close to his mother.

The Jarndyce case finally ends; the costs have eaten up the entire inheritance. Richard dies, leaving Ada pregnant. Mr. Jarndyce, realizing that Esther and Allan love each other, has bought them a cottage, which he calls Bleak House. Then he arranges their marriage. Ada has a son named Richard, and Allan and Esther have two daughters; they live happily as a family.

Bleak House Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Esther, Ada, and Richard move in with John Jarndyce.

Rising Action

2 Nemo dies, and Krook steals some letters from him.

3 Disguised, Lady Dedlock has Jo take her to Nemo's grave.

4 Guppy tells Lady Dedlock Esther is Hawdon's daughter.

5 Lady Dedlock tells Esther she's Esther's mother.

6 Tulkinghorn tells Lady Dedlock he knows about Hawdon.

7 He threatens to tell Sir Leicester and is later murdered.

8 Bucket investigates and arrests Hortense for the murder.

9 Lady Dedlock leaves a note and runs into the night.

10 Sir Leicester is found in the library after a stroke.

Climax

11 Bucket and Esther find Lady Dedlock's body.

Falling Action

12 Jarndyce secretly arranges for Allan and Esther to marry.

13 Costs have used up the Jarndyce money, and Richard dies.

14 George moves to Chesney Wold to take care of Sir Leicester.

Resolution

15 Esther, Allan, Ada, and Jarndyce are an extended family.

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