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Bleak House

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English Literature

You might have heard of Bleak House as an award-winning mini-series, or perhaps you have read the book. The novel was published in 1852 and won instant acclaim, despite its critics' accusations of sentimentality and lack of realism. Bleak House has been adapted for stage, film, radio, and TV. What is it about, though?

Charles Dickens' Bleak House: Summary

Dickens wrote Bleak House as a protest against the law courts of Chancery. There were other themes, but the plot is based on the principal theme of Chancery and its inefficiency.

Chancery was a court of law that oversaw cases of inheritance, wills, and disputed works. Cases could continue for months, even years, until the costs of the case effectively swallowed up the inheritance or estate. Bleak House is set during its peak of inefficiency.

The orphans Ada Clare and Richard Carston are wards of Chancery. This means they might end up waiting years for any sign of an inheritance. They are taken to live with their cousin Mr Jarndyce at his home, called Bleak House. Another orphaned ward, Esther Summerson, joins them.

Meanwhile, the lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn visits Lady Dedlock, who is distantly connected with the Jarndyce case. She is quite bored with everything until she spots some handwriting on one of the documents Tulkinghorn has brought. She then attempts to discover the identity of the writer.

Tulkinghorn employs Inspector Bucket to follow Lady Dedlock and discover her secret. Tulkinghorn is murdered, and Inspector Bucket begins investigating his death.

Ada, Richard, and Esther grow close at Bleak House. Richard tries out various vocations without committing to any of them. Richard believes he will come into a great inheritance, despite Jarnyce’s warnings that this is unlikely. Richard and Ada fall in love and marry.

Esther discovers that her godmother, who brought her up, was actually her aunt. She develops a friendship with Lady Dedlock, who takes a particular interest in her. Esther also meets Allan Woodcourt, a young surgeon who falls in love with her but has to travel abroad to India for work.

Esther discovers her real mother was Lady Dedlock. They are united at the cemetery where Esther’s father is buried. Lady Dedlock dies in Esther’s arms.

Richard Carstone becomes obsessed with the Chancery case. When it finally closes, there is nothing left of the inheritance, which has been swallowed up in costs. Richard collapses from ill health and despair and dies.

Esther is briefly engaged to John Jarndyce, but then Woodcourt returns. When Jarndyce discovers Esther and Allan’s feelings for one another, he releases Esther from her engagement. Esther and Allan marry.

Esther closes the narrative after seven years. Allan and Esther now live in the house John Jarndyce bequeathed to them. They have two daughters, and Ada and her son live with cousin John as her guardian at Bleak House.

Note: John Jandyce’s home Bleak House may be based on a real house in Broadstairs where Dickens would stay during the summer. Originally called Fort House, it overlooks the sea. However, Dickens relocated the building to Hertfordshire.

Bleak House: Characters

John Jarndyce: cheerful, benevolent, and a philanthropist. John Jarndyce is wise to the world and in particular the evils of Chancery. He is guardian to Ada, Richard, and Esther, and tries to help them as much as he can.

Ada Clare: bright, cheerful, and affectionate. Ada is vulnerable and quickly becomes like a younger sister to Esther. She has complete faith in Richard, whom she marries, although she does have her doubts and fears for his health. Richard’s increasing obsession with Chancery worries her, but she supports him.

Richard Carstone: pleasant, easy, and something of a dreamer. Richard tries several different occupations, convinced each time that this is it, only to lose interest and chase after something else. He is distracted mostly by dreams of coming into a great inheritance through the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, and so builds castles in the air. His health deteriorates as a result of his increasing obsession with the legalities of the case.

Esther Summerson: quiet, strictly brought up but with no idea of who her parents are. Esther is unassuming and keen to please and make herself useful. Her character is stronger and more resolute than Ada's or Richard’s. She bears up under misfortune and is both confidante and nurse to Ada and Richard.

Lady Dedlock seems impervious to the world, society, and even life. She also appears permanently bored. She is married to Sir Leicester Dedlock who is much older but wealthy, and who worships her. She has kept a secret from the world for nearly twenty years.

Hortense is Lady Dedlock’s French maid. She is secretive, vindictive, and ruthless. After Lady Dedlock takes a new attendant, Hortense is enraged and jealous:

She remained perfectly still until the carriage had turned into the drive, and then, without the least discomposure of countenance, slipped off her shoes, left them on the ground, and walked deliberately in the same direction through the wettest of the wet grass.

"Is that young woman mad?" said my guardian.

"Oh, no, sir!" said the keeper, who, with his wife, was looking after her. "Hortense is not one of that sort. She has as good a head-piece as the best. But she's mortal high and passionate—powerful high and passionate…’

(Ch. 18)

Hortense later disguises herself as Lady Dedlock in an attempt to frame her for the murder of Tulkinghorn.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is wealthy, quiet, and dull. He has all the unspoken arrogance of privilege. His devotion to Lady Dedlock is almost as much as his devotion to his position. After her death, Sir Leicester suffers a stroke and retires to his country home.

Jo the Roadsweeper: a minor character, Jo acts as a catalyst for Esther and her past. He remembers her father ‘him as wos wery good to me, wery good to me indeed, he wos.’ (Ch.47), and Lady Dedlock discovers from him where Esther’s father is buried. He is also a witness in the murder investigation. However, Dickens’ use of Jo is much broader than this. Jo also represents child poverty, a big problem in Victorian society.

Tulkinghorn: the Dedlocks' lawyer. Tulkinghorn is cold, secretive, and ambitious. He detests Lady Dedlock, and once he discovers she has a secret, he investigates to wield power over her.

Inspector Bucket: indefatigable Inspector Bucket is cordial with everyone, which is also how he gets information out of them. He has a way of wagging his forefinger:

When Mr. Bucket has a matter of this pressing interest under his consideration, the fat forefinger seems to rise, to the dignity of a familiar demon. He puts it to his ears, and it whispers information; he puts it to his lips, and it enjoins him to secrecy; he rubs it over his nose, and it sharpens his scent; he shakes it before a guilty man, and it charms him to his destruction. … when Mr. Bucket and that finger are in much conference, a terrible avenger will be heard of before long. (Ch. 53)

By piecing together his information, like a jigsaw puzzle, Bucket is finally able to uncover the murderer.

Bleak House: Analysis

Bleak House was the first of Dickens’ ‘dark’ novels: the optimism of Pickwick Papers (1836) and the sentiment of David Copperfield (1849) are replaced with gallows humour, irony, and biting social comment.

Dickens tackled several topics in Bleak House:

  • poverty and London slums
  • Chancery
  • political misgovernment

Another topic he addresses is something Dickens describes as ‘Telescopic Philanthropy’. This is seen in Mrs Jellyby, who is so engrossed in her charity work abroad that she is completely unaware of her own children’s welfare.

Some of the topics tackled in Bleak House, such as poverty and Chancery, had appeared in earlier novels, including Pickwick Papers (1836), Oliver Twist (1838), and A Christmas Carol (1843). For the first time, Dickens drew all of these themes together into one whole world. He then ‘anatomizes the whole of contemporary society’.¹

Peter Ackroyd has referred to Bleak House as ‘urban gothic.’² Bleak House does contain traces of gothic elements: old houses, family secrets, a ghost (the Ghost’s Walk at Chesney Wold), and in particular, the mystery of murder and identity - what is Lady Dedlock’s secret, who is Esther Summerson’s real mother, and who murdered the cold-hearted lawyer Tulkinghorn?

Bleak House is different from Dicken's earlier books in that it is his first venture into a detective mystery. The murder of Tulkinghorne is not entirely central to the plot, but does have an influence on it. Investigation into the murder is undertaken by Dickens’ detective, the indefatigable Inspector Bucket (who may have been based on real-life detective Field).

Charles Frederick Field was a member of Scotland Yard during the mid-19th century. After retirement, he became a private detective. He was a particular hero of Charles Dickens, who wrote about him (and other police officers) in Household Words. Field bears several similarities to Inspector Bucket and it is likely that Dickens based his character on Field.

Bleak House: Themes

There are many themes running through Bleak House. The first is the evils of Chancery, the reason why Dickens wrote Bleak House in the first place. As a young journalist Dickens had been very familiar with the Court of Chancery and its long, drawn-out cases:

This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, .. which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, … that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!"

(Ch.1)

To introduce the misery of Chancery, Dickens adopts fog as a metaphor for it:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.

(Ch. 1)

Dickens’ description of the fog serves two purposes: physical and symbolical. it is a physical part of the landscape of the polluted, damp, and muddy city. There is even a dinosaur mentioned to indicate how like a prehistoric swamp London is:

... it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill...

(Ch.1)

The fog is also used as a symbol of Chancery, of the legal fog that inhabits it, making it impossible to see clearly:

... at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery. Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

The confusion and incoherence inside Chancery are as dense as the fog outside and befuddles the brains of many who enter, Dickens seems to say.

Other themes central to Bleak House are poverty, the lives of the poor, and abandoned children.

Jo the road sweeper represents both the poverty of street children and a part of Dickens’ childhood. Dickens had been sent to work for his uncle as a child, and never forgot the humiliation and sense of abandonment. As a novelist, he was sometimes criticised for his apparently overly sentimental portrayal of children and the poor.

Dickens remained concerned throughout his life for the welfare of the underprivileged in society, and his writing always sought to reform. Jo’s death is used as an opportunity for Dickens to remind society that this was a part of everyday life in cities like London:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

(Ch. 47)

The Jellybys, although presented humorously, are another example of abandonment. Mrs Jellyby is so busy arranging charities for poor people in other continents, she has no eyes for her own children, who are growing up in a disorganised and uncomfortable home.

Esther has suffered in a similar way: she has been brought up by her aunt as ‘a child of sin’. Her real mother believed her dead at birth. Esther has been deprived of parents, partly through misfortune, but also through the jealousy of her aunt.

Literary Criticism of Bleak House

How was Bleak House received? In the Preface to Bleak House Dickens writes: ‘I believe I have never had as many readers as in this book.’ (Dickens, Bleak House, 1852)

While his readers continued to lap up every word, Dickens’ reviewers were less favourable. His critics attacked him for being sentimental and unrealistic. One possible reason for this response might be Dicken's inclusion of spontaneous combustion. Some of his readers felt this was too incredible, too implausible to work.

The claim that he was sentimental and unrealistic is probably based on the theme of neglected children and social castaways in the novel. This was always a favourite recurring topic in Dickens’ writing, based as much on his own personal experience as on his observation of society around him.

The public meanwhile ignored the critics, and monthly sales soared to between 34,000 and 42,000.

Spontaneous combustion is when an object catches fire without any apparent cause. Dickens applies this to a minor character in Bleak House, Mr Krook, who vanishes, leaving behind a pile of ashes. Although cases have been reported since the 17th century, there is little scientific evidence to suggest this is a truly spontaneous phenomenon.

Bleak House has been recognised as one of Dickens’ greatest works, although perhaps not his best-loved. It was written at a difficult and ‘bleak’ time of his life, and this seeps into the book, adding to its dark humour, atmosphere, mystery, and depth.

Bleak House: Literary Devices

Bleak House is a split narrative, divided between the omniscience of the author and the first-person perspective of Esther. Adopting two types of narrative allows for variety, and helps the author to add tension: every time the narrative switches to another, it creates a hook, or open question. The reader wants to know what happens next, and so reads on to find out.

The narrative is shared between Esther (in the first person) and the omniscient voice of the author. This allows the reader to experience Esther’s life up close, while also following the rest of the characters in the story. This kind of variety helps to maintain interest and hooks the reader’s imagination.

Voice

Dickens writes much of Bleak House in the present tense. This gives the text immediacy and allows the reader a close-up of events and characters. The present tense is only broken by Esther, whose first-person narrative is written in the past tense. This gives the reader a form of reassurance since Esther is writing a memory, so we are unlikely to lose her before the end. Esther’s first-person voice allows the reader another kind of close-up, thus experiencing the story through her eyes.

Gone up in Smoke

Mr Krook, also referred to ironically as the ‘Lord Chancellor’ is a minor character in the novel, the landlord to Esther’s father, who suddenly vanishes. His ashes are discovered in the back room of his rag and bottle shop:

Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is—is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here! And this from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him.

(Ch.32)

Mr Krook has died of spontaneous combustion, according to Dickens. This scene was considered implausible by his critics. However, its symbology is potent. Dickens uses the device of spontaneous combustion as a metaphor ‘for the threat of explosion which lurks beneath a decaying social fabric as well as for all the powerful and indeed ferocious energy of the period.’

(Ackroyd, Dickens, 2005)

Dickens saw the diseased society of his times as a volcano waiting to erupt. The injustices he saw around him at all levels of society, the poverty and desperation of the people, seemed ready to explode. He uses Krook as a symbol of the disease, the corruption in society, and relates it to Chancery again. For Dickens, Krook ‘has died the death of all lord chancellors in all courts and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done.’ (Ch.32)

Bleak House - Key Takeaways

  • Bleak House was published in 1853.
  • Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House as a protest against the lawcourts of Chancery.
  • Bleak House was Dickens' first detective mystery
  • Themes of Bleak House include the inefficient legal system, poor government, and poverty.
  • Bleak House was enormously popular when it was first published despite negative reviews.
  • Bleak House is about inefficient legal systems, inheritance, and social problems.

¹Graham Storey, Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1987

² Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 2005

³Clarie Tomalin, Charles Dickens: a life, 2011

Bleak House

Charles Dickens stayed at Fort House in Broadstairs, which has since been called Bleak House.

Bleak House is about inheritance and social problems.

Dickens set Bleak House in Hertfordshire and London.

Bleak House was Dickens’ first detective mystery novel.

Final Bleak House Quiz

Question

Did Charles Dickens live in Bleak House?

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Answer

Charles Dickens stayed at Fort House in Broadstairs, which has since been called Bleak House.

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Question

What is Bleak House by Charles Dickens about?

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Answer

Bleak House is about inheritance and social problems.

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Question

Where is Charles Dickens' Bleak House set?

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Answer

Dickens set Bleak House in Hertfordshire.

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Question

How was the novel Bleak House different from Charles Dickens earlier writings?

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Answer

Bleak House was Dickens’ first detective mystery novel.

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Question

Complete: Themes of Bleak House include the inefficient .. system, poor … and …

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Answer

Themes of Bleak House include the inefficient legal system, poor government, and poverty.

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Question

Dickens saw the diseased … of his times as a … waiting to …

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Answer

Dickens saw the diseased society of his times as a volcano waiting to erupt.

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Question

True or False? Tulkinghorme employs Inspector Bucket to follow Esther Summerson and discover her secret.

Show answer

Answer

False: Tulkinghorme employs Inspector Bucket to follow Lady Dedlock and discover her secret.

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Question

Mr Krook dies from

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Answer

poison.

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Question

Complete: Jo the road sweeper represents both the ... of street children and a part of Dickens’ .... 


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Answer

Jo the road sweeper represents both the poverty of street children and a part of Dickens’ childhood. 

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Question

Choose: Lady Dedlock is Esther Summerson's


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Answer

aunt.


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Question

True or False? Dickens wrote Bleak House as a protest against Chancery and its inefficiency.

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Answer

True.

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True or false? Bleak House was published in 1863.

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Answer

False: Bleak House was published in 1853.

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Question

Who is Esther Summerson?

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Answer

A ward of John Jarndyce and the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock.

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Question

Richard and Esther fall in love and marry.

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Answer

False: Richard and Ada fall in love and marry.

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Question

Who does Esther marry?

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Answer

Allan Woodcourt.

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