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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Themes


Help versus Philanthropy

Victorian England saw an increase in philanthropic activities when the middle class and upper middle class expanded and women, in particular, found themselves with more free time on their hands. Many of them filled that time by doing good works for those less fortunate than themselves. There were organizations to help just about any group—the poor, veterans, the disabled, the mentally ill, prisoners; even variety performers and cab drivers. Many were tied to organized religion, especially evangelical churches. Still other organizations focused on bringing civilization to outposts of the Empire. By the 1850s, when Dickens was writing Bleak House, there was a lot of controversy about the effectiveness of these many philanthropic organizations. As a famous author by the time he was writing Bleak House, Dickens was deluged by requests from organizations wanting donations or other assistance.

In Bleak House, Dickens approaches this theme from two perspectives:

  • Are the philanthropists really helping the target group? Do they even care about the poor, for instance, or is their goal to appear important and godly?
  • In their devotion to their cause, are the philanthropists ignoring those closest to them and causing misery in their own families?


The mysteries in Bleak House center on the question of identity. Who is Esther Summerson? Who is her mother? Who is Nemo, whose name means "nobody"? Who is Mr. George? But the issue goes beyond factual identity to the characters' perception of themselves. Mr. George conceives of himself as an irresponsible rover, but he can always be trusted and opens his door to anyone in need. Richard cannot determine what profession he wants to enter and keeps changing from one to another. Harold Skimpole creates a false identity of a light-hearted, childlike being with no concept of money, yet he is actually a calculating and self-centered freeloader who contentedly steals from others.

Law versus Justice

Perhaps the most prominent theme in Bleak House is the injustice of the Chancery Court system. Dickens often refers to the long vacations, the confusing language of the various legal documents, the vast number of documents involved in cases like Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and the many judges, officials, lawyers, clerks, and copyists engaged in the process. Mr. Gridley—the man from Shropshire—loses everything to Chancery even though no one contested his father's will; in the end, his health is ruined, too, and he dies while being pursued for debt. The Jarndyce case ends when court and legal costs have completely eaten up the fortune involved. But before this happens, decades pass, there are several suicides, and still other lives are ruined. The theme of justice continued to be a recurring theme for Dickens, who returned to it in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, among other works.

Love and Marriage

Dickens himself knew the stresses that could destroy a marriage, and he explores both good and bad marriages in Bleak House at the various levels of society. Jenny and Liz are the wives of abusive brickmakers who drink a lot, perhaps because there's so little work because bricks are now being produced industrially. Mrs. Jellyby neglects her family and her household, paying no attention when her husband loses his job and goes bankrupt. In contrast, the Bagnets admire and respect each other, creating a stable home in which both they and their children are clean and happy. Even the Dedlocks' marriage has redeeming aspects despite Lady Dedlock's secrets and personal suffering; Sir Leicester adores her, and she is deeply grateful to him. Ada and Richard's marriage is blighted by his obsession with the Jarndyce case, whereas Esther and Allan have a very successful marriage founded on shared love and a common commitment to helping others.

Social Criticism

Three aspects of mid-19th-century English society receive particular attention in Bleak House:

  • Class inequality: In London, the slums are unsanitary and breed disease and misery. The poor everywhere lack education. They can't read or write; as Jo would put it, they know "nothink." Life expectancy is low, and a majority of babies do not survive infancy. At the same time, the wealthy live in huge houses and busy themselves with gossip.
  • Child neglect: The neglect may be societal, as with Jo, a boy in Tom-all-Alone's who sweeps street crossings, and Guster, a workhouse girl and the Snagbys' servant; it may also be parental, as in the case of the Jellybys and Pardiggles, who ignore their children or force them to participate in their philanthropic causes.
  • Ineffectual government: Parliament and the various ministries are an old boys' network where the same ineffective leaders drift in and out of power. They are more concerned with getting jobs for their relatives than with bettering conditions for their people. The various politicians who gather at Chesney Wold from time to time exemplify this issue.

Questions for Themes

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Objectives A large percentage of the writing we do in the workplace involves writing routine, neutral, and/or goodwill messages. Routine and neutral messages cover a wide range of topics, from the ord
Which empire claimed England before the Germanic tribes settled there?
how can i solve the first reaction question im confused i need help. Arnett (2002): Strategic Reading Worksheet Reaction Questions: I want you to REACT to the claim, using the questions to help you. I
I am writing a thesis for the last big assessment of my Gr 12 English course. I am still developing it, but I need help creating a really good thesis statement. So far my rough thesis is something lik
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