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Bleak House

Charles Dickens

Chapters 56–60

Chapters 51–55

Chapters 61–67

Summary: Chapter 56, “Pursuit”

The narrator says that Volumnia finds Sir Leicester sprawled on the floor of the library. She screams, causing a commotion and bringing servants running to help. Sir Leicester is much weaker and quieter than he was before. He can barely speak and writes notes to communicate. When he asks about Lady Dedlock, the doctors say she has gone out and doesn’t yet know Sir Leicester is sick. They let Mrs. Rouncewell give Sir Leicester the letter from Lady Dedlock. Sir Leicester requests Bucket. He tells Bucket that he fully forgives Lady Dedlock and asks him to find her immediately. Before Bucket leaves, he reassures Mrs. Rouncewell that George will be fine and that her immediate concern must be attending to Sir Leicester.

Bucket first inspects Lady Dedlock’s chambers. In a drawer, he finds a white handkerchief with Esther’s name on it. He rushes to George, who tells him Esther’s address. When he reaches Esther’s home, he shows the letter to Mr. Jarndyce and says he fears Lady Dedlock is going to kill herself. Bucket says he needs Esther to go with him on his search, and Mr. Jarndyce gets her. The narrator ruminates on where Lady Dedlock is and then says there is a figure wearing shabby clothes fleeing near the brick kilns.

Summary: Chapter 57, “Esther’s Narrative”

Esther tells us that when Mr. Jarndyce wakes her up, she immediately prepares to go with Bucket. Bucket reads her the letter, and they set off. Bucket asks her a few questions about her relationship with Lady Dedlock and if there is anyone Lady Dedlock may have confided in. Esther says perhaps Mr. Boythorn. Bucket stops in a police station and quietly gives instructions to a few men. They continue on their journey. Bucket stops by the water and speaks to some policemen and sailors, then he inspects what Esther suspects is a person who drowned. They make several other stops as they go on and eventually head toward Saint Albans. After another stop, where Bucket gets Esther a cup of tea, he says he’s been told that Lady Dedlock passed through there that evening. They head toward Bleak House. Bucket tells Esther that he took Jo away when she’d been sheltering him in the stable to protect Lady Dedlock since Jo had been telling too many people about the lady he led to the burial ground.

At Bleak House, Bucket asks if Skimpole always stays in the same room when he visits. He tells Esther that Skimpole had showed him where to find Jo after Bucket had given him some money for the information. Esther feels betrayed by Skimpole, and Bucket warns her to watch out for people like Skimpole. None of the servants at Bleak House has seen Lady Dedlock.

Bucket and Esther head toward the brickmaker’s cottage. There, Esther finds out that Jenny, Liz, and their husbands live together in a single cottage. Jenny is not there, but they speak to the others. Bucket asserts that he knows a lady had been there the night before; Jenny’s husband is defensive and unresponsive. Esther suspects that Liz wants to talk to her alone, but there is no way for her to do this. Esther asks where Jenny is, but before Liz can answer, her husband kicks her. Jenny’s husband says she went to London last night. Esther asks if Jenny was home when the lady visited. Liz asks her husband if she can answer, but her husband threatens her. Jenny’s husband says Jenny was home, and that the lady asked for Esther’s handkerchief. Then he says that the lady went one way and Jenny went the other. He says he isn’t sure what time it was, since they don’t have a watch. Esther asks how the lady looked, and Liz said she didn’t look well. They leave the cottage.

Outside, Bucket tells Esther he’s sure Lady Dedlock gave them her watch, since it was strange for Jenny’s husband to mention a watch. He wonders what they gave Lady Dedlock in return and says that if Liz had been alone she probably would have told them more. Bucket speculates that Lady Dedlock may have sent Jenny to London to see Esther, but they continue on straight ahead.

It’s snowing, and the snow slows their journey. Bucket seems to lose some of his confidence and eventually admits that he has lost the trail. At an inn, Esther faints and is then cared for by the landlady and her daughters. Later, when they stop again to change horses, Bucket realizes something and says he finally understands. He excitedly orders the driver to return to London, which shocks Esther. He says he is going to follow Jenny. Esther protests that they shouldn’t abandon Lady Dedlock, but Bucket tells her not to worry.

Summary: Chapter 58, “A Wintry Day and Night”

The narrator says that at the Dedlock town house, people are told that Lady Dedlock has gone to Lincolnshire, but rumors abound about where she really is and what has happened between her and Sir Leicester. Sir Leicester is still bedridden. In the morning, he instructs Mrs. Rouncewell to have Lady Dedlock’s rooms prepared for her. Mrs. Rouncewell admits to George that she thinks Lady Dedlock will not be returning to Chesney Wold or anywhere else. She says that Lady Dedlock told her yesterday that the footsteps on the Ghost’s Walk had “almost walked her down.”

The narrator describes the abandoned appearance of Lady Dedlock’s rooms. Mrs. Rouncewell and George help the servants light fires and prepare for her return. Volumnia sits with Sir Leicester. When Mrs. Rouncewell returns, Volumnia praises George, and Mrs. Rouncewell explains to Sir Leicester that George is her long-lost son. Sir Leicester seems hopeful at the news and asks to see George immediately.

George appears and helps arrange Sir Leicester more comfortably in his bed. Sir Leicester tells George he is unwell, that he has had an attack that “deadens” and “confuses” (most likely a stroke). He tells everyone in the room—Volumnia, Mrs. Rouncewell, and George—that if he gets worse and becomes unable to communicate, then they should make it known that his feelings for Lady Dedlock have not changed whatsoever and that he harbors no anger toward her. After his speech he lays back. George stays with him.

The narrator says that the day is coming to an end, but that Sir Leicester is unwilling to admit it. Mrs. Rouncewell convinces him to rest. He maintains his hopes by thinking that her rooms are prepared for her arrival. Eventually, everyone goes to bed, except for Mrs. Rouncewell and George. Volumnia can’t sleep, worrying that if Sir Leicester dies she will have no income. George runs into her as he walks around the house and convinces her to go to bed.

The morning comes.

Summary: Chapter 59, “Esther’s Narrative”

Esther tells us that she and Bucket reach London around three in the morning. Esther still fears they’ve abandoned Lady Dedlock, but Bucket assures her he has reasons for coming back. As they travel through the winding London streets, Bucket occasionally stops and meets with others. Finally he says he’s tracked the woman down and that they need to walk for a bit. As they walk down Chancery Lane, they cross paths with Mr. Woodcourt, and he joins them. Woodcourt says he has been with Richard, who is not well.

They arrive at Mr. Snagsby’s and hear a girl sobbing. Bucket says it’s the Snagsbys’ servant, Guster, and that he needs information from her. He asks Woodcourt to try to calm her down so that Bucket can get a letter he needs. Mr. Snagsby lets them in and introduces them to Mrs. Snagsby. Woodcourt and Snagsby go to see Guster. Bucket chastises Mrs. Snagsby for being so jealous and suspicious. Woodcourt returns with the letter, and Bucket asks Esther whose writing it is. She says it’s Lady Dedlock’s. The letter says she went to the cottage and got help from Jenny, and that her only purpose is to die.

Esther asks Guster how she got the letter. Guster says she had been running errands when a woman stopped her, asking the way to the burial ground. Guster says it was the burial ground in which Krook’s lodger was buried. The lady gave Guster a letter and instructed her to send it.

They leave the Snagsbys’ house and rush to the burial ground. Esther is numb and confused. At the gate to the burial ground, she sees a woman on the ground, who she thinks is Jenny. She starts to run toward her, but Bucket stops her, telling her that he suspects Lady Dedlock and Jenny traded clothes and that Jenny walked only a short distance before turning around and going home. The purpose was to deceive. Esther doesn’t understand what all this means. She goes to the woman and sees that it is Lady Dedlock, dead.

Summary: Chapter 60, “Perspective”

Esther says that she doesn’t want to discuss her sadness too much and that she will move on in her story. She says that she becomes briefly sick in London and that Mrs. Woodcourt stays with them for a while. Mr. Jarndyce suggests they stay in London so that Esther can be closer to Ada. Esther asks if he sees Woodcourt, and Mr. Jarndyce says he sees him every day. Mr. Jarndyce wants to stay in London so that he can get news of Richard more easily, since Richard won’t speak to him. Mr. Jarndyce asks Esther if she likes Mrs. Woodcourt, and Esther answers that she does. Mr. Jarndyce asks if she has any objections to Mrs. Woodcourt’s staying with them, and even though Esther says she doesn’t, she is unsettled without really knowing why. Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther that Mr. Woodcourt will probably not be leaving the country and may instead take up a position in Yorkshire.

Esther visits Ada every day. She sometimes sees Richard, and he is much changed. Esther understands that Vholes is taking all of Richard’s money. She suspects Ada doesn’t understand that Richard is destroying himself. During one visit, Miss Flite is just leaving when Esther arrives. Miss Flite says she doesn’t like Vholes and that she has made Richard the executor of her estate, since he is at Chancery so much. She had planned to appoint Gridley, but he had died. Vholes joins Esther, Ada, and Richard for dinner. When Richard and Ada are out of the room, Vholes tells Esther he thinks Richard and Ada’s marriage was unwise and that Richard and his interests are doing very poorly. When Vholes leaves after dinner, Richard overpraises him, which makes Esther think that he has actually begun to doubt Vholes.

Mr. Woodcourt arrives, and he and Richard go for a walk. Ada tells Esther that when she married Richard, she knew what she was getting into but hoped she could change him. She says that she has been determined not to make him any unhappier than he already was. She also reveals that she’s pregnant. She has hoped that the baby will save Richard, but now she is afraid that Richard will die before the baby is born.

Analysis: Chapters 56–60

Lady Dedlock is Sir Leicester’s greatest weakness, and the revelation of her secret personal history is enough to nearly destroy him. Bombastic, influential Sir Leicester collapses when he learns Lady Dedlock’s secret, losing his ability to move and speak after suffering what appears to be a stroke. Suddenly bedridden, he is dependent on his subordinates to care for him and understand him. Although there are many tragedies in Bleak House, Jo’s death among them, the fall of Sir Leicester may be the most affecting. We may see it as a tragedy caused by love: Lady Dedlock hid her secret to protect Sir Leicester and then fled to escape the wrath she expected, while Sir Leicester forgives her easily and fully despite her transgressions. He never has the chance to prove the depth of his devotion, nor does Lady Dedlock ever have the opportunity to see it. Their partnership has never been an obviously warm one, thanks in part to Lady Dedlock’s carefully maintained haughtiness, but the tragic fall of Sir Leicester shows that there was passion in their marriage after all.

Esther and Bucket’s frantic nighttime pursuit of Lady Dedlock ratchets up the suspense of the novel, and Dickens skillfully raises the tension by switching between his two narrators more frequently than usual. The third-person narrator narrates chapter 56, describing Sir Leicester’s sad state and then following Bucket as he calls for Esther in the middle of the night. Esther takes over the narration in chapter 57, and she leads us on their fast, feverish journey. The chapter ends in a rush, with Bucket making the unexpected decision to return to London. The third-person narrator takes over again in chapter 58, removing us from the nighttime journey and taking us back to Sir Leicester, who is waiting earnestly in his bed for news. In chapter 59, we’re back out in the cold with Esther as the search continues and finally ends. This quick back-and-forth, which jerks us in and out of the action of the search, increases the suspense of the journey and raises the stakes. Esther is not the only one frantic to find Lady Dedlock; Sir Leicester, who has prepared Lady Dedlock’s rooms and lit the fires, is perhaps even more desperate than she is. Dickens’s use of two narrators in these chapters is perhaps more affecting than at any other point in the novel.

Esther demonstrates a remarkable control over her narrative in chapters 59 and 60, proving once again that she is an agile storyteller and a confident guide through this sordid, bulky tale. Although she is narrating Bleak House from a point seven years in the future, she withholds information and feigns ignorance when doing so increases the dramatic effect. We’ve seen her do this with her feelings for Woodcourt, which increased the poignancy of Mr. Jarndyce’s proposal. In this section, when Esther, Bucket, and Woodcourt finally find the woman they’ve been pursuing, who Esther believes is Jenny, she tells us she doesn’t understand what Bucket is getting at when he explains that Jenny and Lady Dedlock switched clothes. When Esther sees that the woman is actually Lady Dedlock’s body, we share her shock. She has successfully drawn us into her own disoriented confusion to make the story more intriguing.

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