Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Quotes


The Court of Chancery ... has its decaying houses and its blighted lands ... its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard.

Narrator, Chapter 1

A central theme in Bleak House is the evil done by Chancery, the court of equity, which is hardly equitable. Because the victims of Chancery could do nothing to help themselves—Chancery was supposed to be helping them!—the term in Chancery came to be used in boxing to refer to a hold in which one man catches his opponent's head under one arm and beats it with his other fist.


[Chancery is] ... being roasted at a slow fire; it's being stung to death by single bees; it's being drowned by drops.

Tom Jarndyce, Chapter 5

Tom Jarndyce, John Jarndyce's uncle, was well known in and around Chancery Lane. One day, in the pub across the street from Krook's shop, he took out a gun and blew his brains out. This quotation explains why. Because Tom Jarndyce died before Bleak House begins, his words are quoted by Krook.


It is right to begin with the obligations of home ... and ... perhaps ... no other duties can possibly be substituted for them.

Esther Summerson, Chapter 6

When asked her honest impression of Mrs. Jellyby by John Jarndyce, Esther summarizes one of the beliefs she herself lives by. This contradiction between a false philanthropy and neglect of those close to home is one of the themes Dickens explores in the novel.


It's about a will and the trusts under a will—or it was once. It's about nothing but costs now ... All the rest ... has melted away.

John Jarndyce, Chapter 8

This is Mr. Jarndyce's explanation of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case for Esther. At this point, Mr. Jarndyce cannot know this, but he suspects it. This suspicion is one reason he refuses to be involved in the case in any way. He never goes to court, never discusses the case with his lawyer, and never reads any of the documents that are provided to him.


The best side of [poor] people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.

Esther Summerson, Chapter 8

The first time Esther visits the brickmakers' cottages near St. Albans, she witnesses the death of a baby in its mother's arms and is deeply saddened. Mrs. Pardiggle, who took Esther and Ada to the cottage, has already walked out, never noticing that the baby is dying. Esther realizes that society is largely blind to its poor—even those, like Mrs. Pardiggle, who claim to want to help the poor.


A person is never known till a person is proved.

Mrs. Blinder, Chapter 15

Mrs. Blinder, the Necketts' landlady, says this of Mr. Gridley while looking pointedly at Harold Skimpole. Mr. Gridley, despite his gruff ways and hot temper, is always good to "Coavinses'" orphaned children. In contrast, Mr. Skimpole seems friendly and entertaining, but really does not care at all about anyone but himself.


Live at his expense as much as you can, and take warning by his foolish example. That's the use of such a friend.

Grandfather Smallweed, Chapter 21

This is the moneylender Mr. Smallweed's advice to his grandson, Bart, on the value of Mr. Guppy's friendship. Mr. Guppy has just bought Bart's dinner. Bart never quite manages to live down to his grandfather's image, but this could easily be the motto embraced by Harold Skimpole.


Never give one lingering glance towards the horrible phantom that has haunted us so many years. Better to borrow, better to beg, better to die!

John Jarndyce, Chapter 24

Mr. Jarndyce utters this warning to Richard to not count on the Jarndyce case. When he says it, he doesn't know Richard has already borrowed and gotten himself into debt. The final words foretell Richard's death after the case ends.


It [is] not the custom in England to confer titles on men ... unless ... they consisted of the accumulation of some very large amount of money.

Esther Summerson, Chapter 35

Miss Flite thinks Allan Woodcourt should be given a title for saving people after his boat is shipwrecked. Esther agrees he deserves it, but is sure he won't get it. She reads the priorities of English society very accurately, at least in Dickens's opinion.


I was rendered motionless ... by a something in her face that I had pined for and dreamed of when I was a little child.

Esther Summerson, Chapter 36

After Esther's disfigurement by smallpox, Esther spends time recuperating at Lawrence Boythorn's cottage at Chesney Wold. One day while out walking, Esther and Lady Dedlock meet for the first time after Lady Dedlock learns Esther is her daughter. Lady Dedlock finally gets to share the maternal love she has had to keep locked away for decades, and Esther sees the love she had longed for so desperately as a child.


The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.

Narrator, Chapter 39

The narrator explains that this is the reason the law may seem hard to comprehend to those who are not in the business of law. The many details and difficulties to be dealt with make things take longer, which makes more business for lawyers and therefore more money.


We admire the people who possess the practical wisdom we want ... Live and let live ... Live upon your practical wisdom, and let us live upon you!

Harold Skimpole, Chapter 43

Harold Skimpole often philosophizes about why "children" like himself are necessary. This is one of the statements of his philosophy of life in which he shows it is a balance: some like to labor, and others use the fruits of that labor.


Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen ... Dead ... born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

Narrator, Chapter 47

Jo dies because the state and the people who could have helped him do not. The narrator speaks like a lawyer addressing the court but with heavy dramatic irony to remind readers of one of Dickens's themes in Bleak House: social criticism, especially of society's treatment of the poor.


The step on the Ghost's Walk ... has been many a day behind her, and now it will pass her and go on.

Mrs. Rouncewell, Chapter 58

Lady Dedlock has gone, leaving her suicide note for her husband, Sir Leicester, and Mrs. Rouncewell does not expect her back. For years Lady Dedlock has complained of hearing the fateful footsteps of the Dedlock family ghost on the Ghost's Walk—the steps that foretell death in the family. And now that foretelling is about to come true.


When all was still ... poor crazed Miss Flite came weeping to me and told me she had given her birds their liberty.

Esther Summerson, Chapter 65

Miss Flite said at the start of Bleak House that she had promised herself she would let her birds go when the Jarndyce case came to an end. Now, at the end of the novel, the case has ended with the entire inheritance in the pockets of the court and the lawyers. She has let the birds go, including her latest two—the Wards in Jarndyce. And that very day, Richard—one of the actual wards in Jarndyce—dies.

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