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Bleak House

Charles Dickens

Chapters 6–10

Chapters 1–5

Chapters 11–15

Summary: Chapter 6, “Quite at Home”

Esther, Richard, and Ada leave the city and head deep into the country. The wagon stops, and the driver comes around to talk to them. In his hat are three notes, one for each child. The notes are from Richard and Ada’s cousin, John Jarndyce, and contain a message welcoming each child to his home. Richard and Ada have the impression that their cousin is chronically unable to accept thanks and that he will go to great lengths to avoid having people express gratitude. The three are excited and nervous to meet him.

Bleak House sits atop a hill and finally comes into view. Mr. Jarndyce greets the trio enthusiastically and takes them all inside. Esther recognizes him as a man she had seen in a stagecoach many years ago. Mr. Jarndyce encourages them to say what they really think about Mrs. Jellyby, then worries that the wind is in the east. Ada extols Esther’s behavior, telling Mr. Jarndyce that she cared for the children and made herself useful. Mr. Jarndyce asks Richard about the wind and is relieved that it is coming from the north, not the east.

Esther describes Bleak House, which is made up of a complex warren of rooms that one can easily get lost in. She, Ada, and Richard like the house.

Mr. Jarndyce announces a visitor for dinner, who he claims is a child but not a real child. He says that this person has many children but doesn’t look after them because he himself is a child. He then notes that the wind seems to be stirring up.

Mr. Jarndyce gives Esther two bunches of keys for the housekeeping. Esther is pleased that he trusts her so much.

Harold Skimpole, the childlike man, arrives. He describes himself and says that he has no idea about time or money and has therefore never made much of himself. He just wants to live freely. Everyone is enchanted by him. Richard and Ada sing together by the piano, and Mr. Skimpole greatly admires Ada’s beauty. Esther thinks Mr. Jarndyce gives her a look suggesting that he hopes Richard and Ada’s relationship will grow deeper someday.

Richard and Mr. Skimpole go off together and eventually Richard sends for Esther. He tells her that Mr. Skimpole has been arrested for debt and needs money. She and Richard gather the sum he needs and give it to him so that he doesn’t have to go to jail or to Coavinses, a poorhouse. Later, Mr. Jarndyce is horrified that they have given him money and says that Mr. Skimpole relies on everyone to keep him out of debt. He then complains of the wind. Then he relaxes and claims that Mr. Skimpole’s irresponsibility is just part of his childishness and must be excused. Everyone goes to bed.

Summary: Chapter 7, “The Ghost’s Walk”

The narrator returns while Esther sleeps. He says it is raining on the Ghost Walk by a house called Chesney Wold in Lincolnshire. Sir Leicester is not there; both he and the lady are in Paris. The housekeeper, Mrs. Rouncewell, has been there more than fifty years.

Mrs. Rouncewell had two sons. One became a soldier and never came home. The other became an engineer of sorts, which Mrs. Rouncewell sees as a failing. However, his wife gave a grandson, Watt, who visits her at Chesney Wold.

Watt asks Mrs. Rouncewell to tell him about a young girl that he has seen at the house, and Mrs. Rouncewell tells him it is Rosa, a widow’s daughter. She is a maid and lives with Mrs. Rouncewell. Rosa enters the room and tells Mrs. Rouncewell two men had come by, one of whom gave her a card for Mrs. Rouncewell. Watt reads the card, which says “Mr. Guppy.” Rosa says that he and the other man were from London and had heard about Chesney Wold. Mr. Guppy said he was not from Mr. Tulkinghorn’s office but that Mr. Tulkinghorn knows him.

Mrs. Rouncewell invites the men in and they look around the house. She tells them that a portrait over the fireplace is of Lady Dedlock. Mr. Guppy recognizes her and is stunned. He admires a terrace, and Mrs. Rouncewell tells him it is called the Ghost’s Walk, after an old family story. The men leave.

Mrs. Rouncewell then tells the story to Watt and Rosa. She believes the family deserves a ghost. The story goes as follows: Sir Morbury Dedlock’s wife betrayed the family by giving information to King Charles’s enemies. She eavesdropped on conversations between her husband and the king’s allies. She and Sir Morbury were not suited for each other. Sir Morbury’s relative killed her favorite brother in the civil wars, and now she hates Sir Morbury’s family and the king’s cause. She often hurt the horses when Sir Morbury and other men were to ride out for the cause. One night, Sir Morbury caught her, grabbed her, and in the process her hip was hurt and she began to waste away. Every day she tried to walk on the terrace, and one day she collapsed. She declared that she would die where she had walked and would haunt the terrace until the house’s pride was destroyed. Mrs. Rouncewell says that footsteps are always heard but that disgrace has never come to the house.

Summary: Chapter 8, “Covering a Multitude of Sins”

Esther narrates once again. She gets dressed and does her housework. At breakfast, Skimpole discusses the irrationality of considering the bee a model of virtue. He cheers everyone. Esther returns to her work and then joins Mr. Jarndyce in a room he calls the Growlery, where he goes when he is in a bad mood or when the wind is blowing from the east. Esther is overcome with emotion and kisses his hand in gratitude for everything he’s done for her, but he quickly stops her effusiveness. He tells her the Chancery business with the Jarndyce case is about a will and costs. The longer it goes on, the more costs there are. The money the will was to have distributed has now been spent on the lawsuit. He says that Tom Jarndyce, the man who shot himself, was his uncle. Bleak House used to belong to Tom, who had called it the Peaks. He says that there is some property in London that is also part of the suit.

Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther that he trusts her discretion and says he believes she is clever enough. He compares her to an old woman in a rhyme, and Esther gets the nickname “Old Woman.” He then asks Esther’s advice for what Richard should do in the future. He suggests that Esther talk to him about it. She once again thanks him effusively.

Esther describes the bustling life at Bleak House. She answers all of Mr. Jarndyce’s letters for him, many of which are from people asking him for money. One woman who is consumed by charity work is Mrs. Pardiggle. Mr. Jarndyce always complains of the wind when talking about Mrs. Pardiggle. One day, she visits with her five sons and brags about how the boys donate great sums of their allowances to charity. The sullen boys say nothing. Mrs. Pardiggle praises Mrs. Jellyby’s work with Africa and says her boys have contributed to the cause. She explains that her boys go everywhere with her.

Mrs. Pardiggle says she loves hard work and never gets tired. She commences to make her rounds, asking Esther and Ada to go with her. Esther says she has housework and that she is not clever enough, but Mrs. Pardiggle insists. On their way to a brickmaker’s house, the boys tell Esther how miserable they are and tell her that their mother forces them to give away their money. When they reach the brickmaker’s house, Mrs. Pardiggle brashly enters into a very unpleasant scene involving a woman with a black eye nursing a baby and other people who’re openly hostile to Mrs. Pardiggle. She sits down anyway and reads to them from the Bible. Esther and Ada are uncomfortable.

When Mrs. Pardiggle finally leaves, Esther and Ada stay behind to see if the baby is sick. The nursing woman cries uncontrollably. Another woman enters, calling for Jenny and approaches the crying woman. She too looks as though she has been beaten. Esther and Ada leave. Later that night, they return with Richard with some provisions for the family. Jenny’s friend meets them at the door, terrified that her husband will catch her away from home. Ada cries over the baby, they leave their provisions, and then they depart.

Summary: Chapter 9, “Signs and Tokens”

Esther expresses astonishment that she is still writing about herself. She says that Richard is very fond of Ada and that they are falling in love. Esther hides their secret. Richard thinks of becoming a sailor. Mr. Jarndyce writes to a relative named Sir Leicester Dedlock to see if he can advance Richard’s career, but Sir Dedlock confesses that he can be of no help. Richard is not bothered by this news.

Esther observes that Richard is quite careless, although he believes himself to be very cautious. She explains herself by telling us that when Mr. Jarndyce repaid the money she and Richard had loaned Skimpole, Richard spent the money quickly and considers it to be profit since he had assumed the money was gone forever.

One morning, Mr. Jarndyce gets a letter from an old classmate named Lawrence Boythorn. Jarndyce describes him as loud, impetuous, and hearty, with incredibly strong lungs and a tendency to speak in extremes. When Boythorn visits Bleak House, he proves himself to speak always in superlatives and to have a house-shaking laugh. Everyone likes him. At dinner, Boythorn introduces his small pet bird, who sits on his head. Boythorn tells Jarndyce he should be more forceful in settling the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit.

Boythorn describes a trespassing suit he is involved in with his neighbor, Sir Leicester. He hates the whole family, although his anger is mitigated by his laugh and the bird sitting on his head.

Later in the evening, Esther asks Jarndyce if Boythorn had ever been married, and, hearing that he hasn’t, asserts that Boythorn looks so kind that surely he wanted to have been. Jarndyce says she is right, and that a woman broke his heart. Now he is alone except for the bird.

In the morning, Kenge and Carboy’s clerk, Mr. Guppy, arrives to see Boythorn. Esther is happy to see him and tells him that she will serve him lunch when he has finished his meeting. He asks if she will be there, and she says yes. At lunch, Mr. Guppy reveals that he is in love with her and wants to marry her. Esther is horrified and refuses him. He tells her that his feelings will never change and that she should contact him if she changes her mind. Once he is gone, Esther cries.

Summary: Chapter 10, “The Law-writer”

The narrator takes over. He introduces Mr. Snagsby, Law-Stationer, who deals with legal documents at his firm, Peffer and Snagsbywith. Peffer is never seen in court anymore and may be insane. A niece lived with Peffer in the law-stationering office, a woman Snagsby eventually married.

The Snagsbys live with a young woman named Guster, a charity case prone to throwing hysterical fits. Mrs. Snagsby takes care of all aspects of the business, and many men consider her to be the model wife.

A crow flies across the sky toward Lincoln’s Inn, where we find Mr. Tulkinghorn’s home. Inside, everything is locked up. This is both his house and his office. He goes out and walks to the Snagsby’s house, where he meets with Mr. Snagsby. He tells Snagsby that some of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce documents he copied lately had very nice writing. He asks Snagsby who wrote them, and Snagsby answers that they were written by a man named Nemo. He takes Mr. Tulkinghorn to Krook’s shop where Nemo lives. Mr. Tulkinghorn thanks Snagsby for showing him and says he will come back another time.

Tulkinghorn, however, doubles back and goes into the shop. Krook gives him a candle and tells him where to find Nemo. Tulkinghorn knocks on the door, opens it, and his candle goes out. The room smells terrible and is a mess. A man is lying on the bed. Tulkinghorn greets him loudly, but the man doesn’t wake up.

Analysis: Chapters 6–10

When Esther, Richard, and Ada arrive at Bleak House, they have many chances to form first impressions of places and people. They first see Bleak House in the distance, on a hill. As they head quickly toward it, the house appears to disappear in the trees. The house’s initial elusiveness suggests that seeing it completely—that is, understanding the house, its inhabitants, and what goes on within its walls—will prove difficult once the trio finally makes it their home. Their first impression of Mr. Jarndyce is formed in the chaos of their arrival, although his instant effusiveness and affection set them all at ease. Esther’s description of the house, its many rooms, and the abundance of mismatched furniture suggests an overload of first impressions. As the house is confusing and mazelike, so too are Esther’s first impressions, although Mr. Jarndyce is so welcoming that the impressions are in no way negative. Despite its name, Bleak House proves to be unintimidating and warm.

Even though Esther frequently claims to be modest and uncomfortable with talking so much about herself, she clearly relishes the chance to do so and never misses an opportunity to mention her own good deeds and the praise others give her. When Mr. Jarndyce asks about their stay with the Jellybys in chapter 6, for example, Ada breathlessly tells him how wonderful Esther was with the children—details that Esther recounts in their entirety. When Mr. Jarndyce confides in Esther in the Growlery in chapter 8, he compliments her cleverness, discretion, and good advice, accolades that Esther vehemently denies but includes in her narrative nonetheless. In chapter 9, Esther goes so far as to claim, “I try to think about myself as little as possible,” a claim that seems blatantly at odds with her narration so far. Esther’s overabundance of self-denigration suggests that she actually holds the opposite view of herself.

Mr. Skimpole and Mr. Boythorn, two vibrant characters Esther meets at Bleak House, are pleasant company but suggest that contradictions are inherent in every person. Skimpole has created a childlike image for himself, which allows him to avoid all responsibility and the consequences of his actions. He also sees himself as beneficent, although he always takes, never gives. For example, he depends on others to pay his debts for him, then believes that those people should be the grateful ones because he has given them the opportunity to be generous. Esther is confused by his twisted logic, calling it a “perplexing and extraordinary contradiction.” However, she blames her confusion on her lack of cleverness. Mr. Boythorn exhibits contradictions in a less manipulative way, as his broken heart and the small pet bird that rest on his head belie his loud voice, explosive anger, and hyperbolic way of speaking. Esther herself reveals her own internal contradictions in her profession of modesty but clearly enjoys her own narration and inclusion in the tale.

The story of the Ghost’s Walk in chapter 7 is the first supernatural element in Bleak House and adds a layer of dark intrigue to the story. Since Bleak House was originally published as a serial, it makes sense for Dickens to include such a mystery, since it would surely compel readers to look forward to the next installment. Indeed, the second installment of the serial ends after chapter 7. Similarly, Mr. Guppy’s out-of-the-blue marriage proposal in chapter 9 seems intended to add a bit of romance and melodrama to the tale. Mr. Guppy’s affection seems so surprising that it’s difficult to understand why Dickens would have included such a scene. On the other hand, the image of Esther sobbing to herself after Mr. Guppy leaves provides a touching, emotional moment with our heroine.

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