In London, the Lord High Chancellor sits in Lincoln’s Inn Hall in the High Court of Chancery. It is November and very foggy. Several counsels and solicitors are looking through the paperwork of a court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has gone on for generations. An old woman who appears to be crazy sits at the side of the room. She may be a party in the lawsuit. The case is so old that no one really remembers what it is about anymore, and it has corrupted countless people. A man named Mr. Tangle knows more about the case than anyone else. The chancellor determines to send two young people, a girl and a boy, to live with their uncle.
The narrator points out the triviality and evil in the world of fashion, although there are good people in it as well. Lady Dedlock has come home with her husband, Sir Leicester Dedlock. He loves Lady Dedlock, but she is cold and distant. The Dedlocks’ lawyer and legal advisor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, visits them and updates them on the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Lady Dedlock asks him who copied the documents, claiming that she likes the handwriting. Tulkinghorn says he’ll find out. Lady Dedlock feels ill and retreats to her room.
Esther Summerson takes over as a first-person narrator. She claims to be unintelligent. She remembers a doll she had when she was a child that she felt was the only person she could talk to. Esther’s godmother, Miss Barbary, raised Esther, and Esther believes that she was fully virtuous but distant and strict. She says her birthday was always the saddest day of the year. On one birthday, Esther demanded to know what happened to her mother, and her godmother revealed that Esther was her mother’s “disgrace” and that her mother was a disgrace as well. As a result, the distance between Esther and her godmother grows wider. One day, a stranger comes to the house and looks Esther over. Then he leaves.
Two years later, when Esther is fourteen, her godmother dies suddenly. The stranger reappears and introduces himself as Kenge. He reveals that Esther’s godmother was actually her aunt. He asks her if she’s ever heard of a lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which she has not. Kenge says that as part of the lawsuit, Esther will live with Mr. Jarndyce. She will be educated and comfortable, but she must not ever leave the grounds without informing Mr. Jarndyce. Esther says goodbye to the housekeeper, Mrs. Rachael, who shows no emotion. Esther buries her beloved doll in the garden.
Kenge takes her away in the coach, then drops her off near Reading. A maid, Miss Donny, leads her to a carriage and they go to an estate called Greenleaf, as arranged by Esther’s new guardian, Mr. Jarndyce. Esther spends six years at Greenleaf. One day, she receives a letter from Kenge, saying she will be placed in a new home in five days.
Esther leaves Greenleaf sadly but talks herself out of crying. At Kenge’s office, she meets a young girl named Ada Clare, and Ada’s cousin, Richard Carstone. All three young people are to be taken to Bleak House, where Mr. Jarndyce lives. Esther has been chosen as Ada’s companion. Ada and Richard are somehow related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, but Esther isn’t.
Outside, a mad old woman approaches the three young people and claims that a judgment concerning the Jarndyce case will come soon.
Kenge tells Esther, Ada, and Richard that they will spend the night at the Jellybys’ house and says goodbye, leaving them to Mr. Guppy, the driver. At the Jellybys’, a child has his head stuck in a railing, and Esther helps him. Many dirty children are swarming through the house when Mrs. Jellyby introduces herself. Esther observes an older child, pale and quiet, sitting at a writing desk. Mrs. Jellyby tells them about her charity work in Africa and ignores her children. Caddy, the girl at the writing desk, is writing out a letter that Mrs. Jellyby dictates.
The Jellybys’ house is in utter disarray, and there is no hot water or heat. Dinner is chaotic. Priscilla, the cook, is drunk. A man named Mr. Quayle discusses Africa with Mrs. Jellyby, while Mr. Jellyby sits silently.
That night, Caddy appears at Esther’s door and professes her unhappiness at home. She says she wishes the whole family were dead.
Esther goes walking with Miss Jellyby after washing one of the children, Peepy. Miss Jellyby complains about Mr. Quayle. Richard and Ada join them. The old lady they’d seen days ago appears in front of them. She leads them to her house nearby and stops at a shop below, where a sign says “Krook, Rag and Bottle Warehouse” and “Krook, Dealer in Marine Stores.” There are many signs requesting things to be bought; nothing seems to be sold. Dirty bottles fill the windows. Esther recognizes the handwriting on some of the law books scattered around as being the same as papers from Kenge. An old man opens the door and greets them, saying they should come into the shop. The old woman identifies the man as her landlord, Krook. He seems insane. He knows a lot about the Jarndyce case and tells them how Tom Jarndyce shot himself. In the old woman’s room, she shows them her birdcages. She tells them that the other lodger is a law writer. Esther, Ada, Richard, and Miss Jellyby soon leave.
Soon, Esther, Ada, and Richard leave the Jellybys’ and continue on toward Bleak House.
Fog, which appears throughout the beginning of Bleak House, both sets the mood of the novel and highlights the muddled state of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Fog literally covers London when the third-person narrator sets the scene on the first page of the novel. “Fog everywhere,” he says simply. The narrator provides three paragraphs of gloomy, evocative description before introducing us to the Lord High Chancellor and the disaster that is the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Much as London is covered in fog, our own understanding of what, exactly, this case entails is unclear. The narrator doesn’t tell us exactly who is involved in the case or exactly what issue the case addresses. Indeed, the narrator acknowledges that “no man alive knows what it means”—the fogginess of the case is chronic. The gloomy aspects of fog are also connected to this case, and the narrator tells us that “no man’s nature has been made better” by the doings. This pervasive image sets the tone of the narrative to come and adds to the already gloomy atmosphere the novel’s title suggests.
In chapter 3, Esther Summerson replaces the third-person narrator, a shift that has the effect of pulling us deeper into the story. Although Esther claims to have difficulty in telling her story and asserts right away that she isn’t very clever, her voice is clear and unhesitating as she tells us about herself and how she became involved in the Jarndyce case. Esther comes across as slightly self-pitying in her descriptions of her strict, emotionally distant godmother and her unhappy birthdays, but her self-deprecation and constant denial of her own intelligence are manipulative gestures that both endear us to her and give her an excuse in case we don’t like the story. In other words, she is so insistent that she is not clever and is so doubtful of her ability to tell the story correctly that she has a lot of leeway to tell the story according to her own very subjective view. If things turn out to be different from the way she describes them, she can claim she warned us of her fallibility from the start. Also, even though Esther claims to be unimportant to the story, she clearly relishes talking about herself.
In the space of just five chapters (out of a novel of sixty-seven), Dickens manages to introduce us to a host of lively, vivid characters. For example, in chapter 2 we meet Mr. Tulkinghorn, who Dickens describes as “old school . . . generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young.” The chaotic Jellybys appear in chapter 4, when Dickens introduces the unforgettable Mrs. Jellyby, who is more concerned with writing letters about Africa than she is with her filthy, unhappy children. One of Dickens’s greatest skills is his ability to draw such striking portraits with so few details in so little space. Dickens dismisses his characters and moves on to new ones after a few lines, paragraphs, or pages, giving the effect of a rollicking, speeding story that can stop for no one, not even the most interesting, quirky people that cross his protagonists’ paths.