Esther Summerson, the narrator and protagonist of Bleak House, is relentlessly modest and frequently disparages her own intelligence, but she proves to be a confident narrator who never misses the opportunity to relate others’ compliments of her. When we first meet Esther, she is a hesitant narrator who feels she won’t be able to properly relay the story because she isn’t “clever.” However, far from proceeding meekly, she launches into detailed storytelling, setting scenes and describing characters easily. She generally refrains from editorializing about her own behavior, but when she does something good—such as when she successfully cares for the Jellyby children before she even reaches Bleak House—she includes others’ praise of her in her narration. As her narrative gains breadth and depth, her confidence as a narrator grows. She deliberately withholds information or delays including it to give her story coherence and dramatic effect, often commenting on her storytelling by telling us that something isn’t important or that she’ll tell us more about it later on. And even though she is for the most part a reliable narrator (a narrator we can trust to accurately tell the story), she is less reliable when relaying information about her romantic life. For example, she hints at her feelings for Mr. Woodcourt, but she never addresses them until much later in the novel.
Esther nurtures everyone around her, and her first instinct is to be motherly, perhaps because she has never had a caring mother figure of her own. Mr. Jarndyce takes her in to be a companion to Ada, but Esther cares for Mr. Jarndyce and Richard just as much as she does for Ada. Many others, including young Caddy and Peepy Jellby, Charley, and Jo also receive Esther’s devotion. Ironically, Esther, for all her caring and tenderness, is the unwitting cause of great unhappiness. Because of Esther’s illegitimate birth, Lady Dedlock was forever estranged from her sister, Miss Barbary, and was forced to carry a painful secret. Because Miss Barbary chose to raise Esther secretly, she was forced to separate from Mr. Boythorn, who never recovered from his broken heart. Because other unhappinesses, such as Sir Leicester’s tragic fate, radiate from these secrets, we could argue that Esther is indirectly responsible for these as well. Although no one could possibly say that these difficulties are Esther’s fault, her indirect connection to them gives her relentless nurturing greater depth: in a way, she nurtures as penance for others’ sins.
John Jarndyce is a good-hearted man who, for all his kindness, has a difficult time expressing his emotions. Whenever he is agitated or suspects that unpleasant news is on the horizon, he complains that the wind is coming from the east rather than acknowledging the issue directly. As Esther, Ada, and Richard catch on to his use of the phrase, the east wind becomes a kind of shorthand for anything that is upsetting or unpleasant. Mr. Jarndyce is likewise unable to acknowledge gratitude, immediately telling Esther, Ada, and Richard after first meeting them that he’ll run away if they try to thank him. When Esther does thank him for taking her in, she does so timidly, and Mr. Jarndyce quickly changes the subject. All this is not to say that Mr. Jarndyce ignores or overlooks problems when they arise. When he does need to gripe, he uses the “Growlery” at Bleak House for just this purpose. One exception to his generally suppressed feelings is his stance on the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. On this, he holds forth willingly, making no attempt to hide his hatred of it or his firm decision to have nothing to do with it.
Mr. Jarndyce is a trustworthy, devoted guardian to Esther, Ada, and Richard and has a large circle of friends, but in many ways he is lonely, repaid for his devotion by being left alone at Bleak House. Mr. Jarndyce wants only the best for Ada and Richard, but his initial support of the match weakens as Richard becomes obsessed with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit. The two marry secretly, however, and Ada moves out. Mr. Jarndyce proposes to Esther in a letter, revealing that he had always planned to make her the “mistress of Bleak House,” but he ultimately gives her up so that she can find greater romantic happiness with Mr. Woodcourt. At the end of the novel, the house he buys for Esther and Mr. Woodcourt, which he names Bleak House, is a richer, livelier home than the original Bleak House. Even though Mr. Jarndyce is no longer alone at the end of the novel—widowed Ada and her child move back in—the house has lost some of the warmth it once had, especially with the sadness Ada brings with her.
Lady Dedlock wears a cold, haughty mask because she has a secret to hide: a great passion that led to an illegitimate child and heartbreak. Until we discover this secret, Lady Dedlock seems to be little more than an unpleasant member of high society, bored with absolutely everything and unwilling to be bothered by anyone, including her husband, Sir Leicester. Lady Dedlock seems not to care about or have any interest in the world around her. When we discover her secret, however, we know all this to be false. Far from being disengaged from the world because of snobbery, Lady Dedlock keeps the world at arm’s length out of fear and pain: fear that her secret will be revealed and bring the whole Dedlock family tumbling down, and pain from events from her past. Regal, stone-cold Lady Dedlock, watched and talked about by the public as though she is greater than life, has a very human, very messy past that throbs beneath her unshakeable exterior.
When Lady Dedlock finds that her past is catching up with her, she begins acting in a way that seems shockingly inappropriate for a woman of the Dedlock name. For example, she disguises herself and asks Jo, a street urchin, to show her the burial ground of the dead lodger, who we eventually learn was her former lover. When Esther is sick, Lady Dedlock disguises herself again and tries to find out information about her by going to the brickmaker’s cottage. And when she fears her secret is about to come out, she leaves her jewels and money behind and flees, eventually dying on the street. Lady Dedlock, who seems at first to have no passion, ultimately shows herself to be so passionate that she will die to protect those she loves.