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Bleak House

Charles Dickens

Chapters 16–20

Chapters 11–15

Chapters 21–25

Summary: Chapter 16, “Tom-all-Alone’s”

The narrator tells us that Sir Leicester has the gout in his legs, a malady all the men in his family have suffered from. The narrator ponders what connection there could be between Lady Dedlock and Sir Leicester, their homes, the young Jo, and many other people.

Jo lives in a place called Tom-all-Alone’s, where houses collapse. Tom Jarndyce may have once lived here, but Jo doesn’t know for sure.

The narrator tries to imagine what it’s like to be Jo, not really belonging anywhere and not knowing anything. Jo moves through the town, observing people and animals trying to get enough money to go back to Tom-all-Alone’s.

Mr. Tulkinghorn sits in his office doing work. On the street below, a woman walks by. The narrator implies she is on some secret errand. Determinedly, she seeks out Jo, who asks her for money. She ignores him and crosses the street, then beckons him over. She asks if she has read about the dead lodger in the newspaper because of the court case regarding him. She tries to get Jo to acknowledge that the dead man looks like him. Jo asks if she knew the dead man, and she grows defensive. The woman asks Jo to show her all the places he knows of relating to the death, including where the man was buried. He is to walk far ahead of her and not speak to her.

Jo leads the woman to Cook’s Court, Krook’s shop, and the burial ground. She gives him some a gold coin and hurries away.

The narrator tells us that Lady Dedlock goes to a dinner and several parties, while Sir Leicester stays home. Mrs. Rouncewell, the housekeeper, observes that the footsteps on the Ghost’s Walk are louder than they have ever been.

Summary: Chapter 17, “Esther’s Narrative”

Esther says that Richard visits London frequently. Esther loves Richard but regrets that he seems unable to concentrate and lacks ambition. Mr. and Mrs. Badger arrive one day and tell Esther that Richard is a fine young man, but Mrs. Badger confesses that she thinks he has chosen his profession badly. He is not passionate enough about it. Mr. Badger agrees.

When Richard arrives the next day, he confirms that he isn’t that interested in medicine, but that it’s good enough. He says each day is too much like the one before, which Esther points out is how life generally is. She and Ada encourage him to change direction. Richard says he might like to work with Mr. Kenge and study law. Mr. Jarndyce supports the decision, although he seems troubled when he looks at Ada.

Esther says she has trouble sleeping, but she is evasive about why. She tries to talk herself out of her low spirits and go to sleep, but she can’t. She begins doing some embroidery and goes downstairs to find some silk. She comes across Mr. Jarndyce, who is still awake and looks troubled. He tells her she should know more about her history. He tells her that he got a letter describing a young orphan whom the writer had been raising. The writer feared that if she died, the child would be alone, and so she wrote to ask Mr. Jarndyce if he would serve as guardian if that should happen. He wrote back saying yes. He had to agree never to see the writer but to send a confidential agent, so Mr. Jarndyce appointed Mr. Kenge. The writer said she was the child’s aunt. Mr. Jarndyce says he is so happy to have taken on this child—Esther. Esther replies gratefully that he is like a father to her, a comment that seems to bother him. Esther doesn’t understand his reaction.

The next day, Mr. Woodcourt arrives for a brief visit before going away on a long trip to China and India. Esther tells us that he isn’t rich and is seven years older than she is, although she says these details are irrelevant. She says everyone is sorry that he’s leaving.

He brings his mother to dinner. Mrs. Woodcourt is confident that he will meet some English ladies in India and that birth and lineage are of utmost importance. Esther wonders idly what Mrs. Woodcourt would think of her own birth.

After they leave, Caddy (Miss Jellyby) arrives with a small bouquet of flowers. Esther assumes they are from Prince Turveydrop because they look like flowers from a lover. Caddy reveals that they were actually left behind at Miss Flite’s by someone for Esther. She hints that this person was very good to Miss Flite and was going away on a trip. Later, Ada laughs and teases Esther about the flowers being from a lover. Esther doesn’t reveal who they are all referring to.

Summary: Chapter 18, “Lady Dedlock”

Esther, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce are back at Bleak House, and Richard goes to work for Mr. Kenge. Mr. Jarndyce finds lodging for Richard in London, and Richard spends money wildly.

Esther, Ada, Mr. Jarndyce, and Mr. Skimpole go to visit Mr. Boythorn, who lives in Lincolnshire. Mr. Boythorn leads them to his house but must take an inconvenient route because he has sworn not to set foot on Sir Leicester’s property, Chesney Wold, which is right next to his own. However, he tells the guests that they may explore Sir Leicester’s park. Esther says that Chesney Wold appears beautiful and peaceful.

In the village, Mr. Boythorn greets a young man who he explains is Mrs. Rouncewell’s grandson, and who is in love with a young girl staying with Lady Dedlock.

Mr. Boythorn’s house is pretty and comfortable, although Mr. Boythorn has put up several signs threatening trespassers, namely Sir Leicester. The day after they arrive, the group explores the park. In a church, they see several pretty young women, including the woman Mr. Boythorn had commented on. She is standing with the housekeeper. Near her is a Frenchwoman, who is glaring at her.

Esther glances around the church, and a woman catches Esther’s eye. Esther has a violent reaction. She has a feeling that is similar to the feelings she had at her godmother’s house, when she would play with her doll and look at herself in the mirror. In fact, the woman’s face is like a mirror in which Esther sees old memories. But Esther knows she has never seen this woman before. She figures out that this woman is Lady Dedlock. Esther is incredibly agitated.

A week later, Mr. Jarndyce, Ada, and Esther are walking in the park when it begins raining. They take shelter in a groundskeeper’s lodge. Someone asks if it is dangerous. Ada thinks Esther has spoken, but it is Lady Dedlock, who is also in the lodge. Esther has another violent reaction to the voice because it makes her think of herself.

Lady Dedlock introduces herself to Mr. Jarndyce and Ada. Mr. Jarndyce introduces Esther as his ward, and Lady Dedlock hastily turns away. Lady Dedlock asks Mr. Jarndyce if he knew her sister when they were abroad, and he says that he did. Lady Dedlock says she and her sister have gone their separate ways.

A carriage arrives for Lady Dedlock, carrying the pretty young girl and the Frenchwoman. Lady Dedlock had requested only the young girl, but the Frenchwoman had come as well. There is no room in the carriage for the Frenchwoman after Lady Dedlock gets in, so she walks after it in the rain, barefoot.

Summary: Chapter 19, “Moving On”

The narrator describes a long vacation in Chancery Lane. It is summertime, and many courts are out of session. Everyone goes on vacation. Mr. Snagsby, the law-stationer, relaxes, and he and Mrs. Snagsby invite Mr. and Mrs. Chadband over. Mr. Chadband has the habit of making grand lectures instead of speaking normally. He lectures everyone tirelessly.

Guster tells Mr. Snagsby there is someone in the shop to see him. It is a police constable holding a young boy by the arm. The constable tells Mr. Snagsby that the boy won’t leave the area as he had been asked to. The boy, Jo, says he has nowhere to go. The constable says Jo claims to know Mr. Snagsby, which Mr. Snagsby says he does, from the inquest regarding the dead man. He doesn’t reveal that he gave Jo a half-crown to keep quiet. At that moment, Mr. Guppy enters the room, and the constable says that Mr. Guppy said that Mr. Snagsby is respectable. Mr. Guppy had seen the confusion outside and was looking into it.

Jo tells everyone about a lady who gave him money to show her where the dead man was buried. Mr. Guppy is interested in Jo’s story about the lady and starts asking him questions. Mrs. Snagsby invites him upstairs, and Jo follows. Mr. Guppy continues to ask him questions. Mrs. Chadband reveals that she has known Kenge and Carboy’s office for years, because of a situation concerning a child. She explains that she was left in charge of a child named Esther Summerson. Mr. Guppy tells her that he met Esther in London.

Mr. Chadband compliments Jo and talks on and on about his lot in life. Jo finally escapes.

Summary: Chapter 20, “A New Lodger”

The narrator says that the long summer vacation continues. Mr. Guppy is restless. He and Richard work together in Kenge and Carboy’s office, although Mr. Guppy is jealous that Richard is staying in Kenge’s room. Mr. Guppy suspects everyone of being out to get him. He is glad that Richard spends so much time reading papers about Jarndyce and Jarndyce, since he knows only failure can come from it. Another young man is in the office as well, Young Smallweed (also called Chick), who works as a clerk. Although he is only fifteen he seems unusually wise.

One day a man named Jobling arrives and goes to dinner with Mr. Guppy and Smallweed. Everyone at the restaurant respects Smallweed. Mr. Jobling eats copiously. They talk about Jobling’s professional problems. Jobling considers enlisting, but Mr. Guppy suggests he try to get work from Mr. Snagsby. Mr. Guppy hints around at his connection to the Snagsbys—namely, what happened when he was last at their home—but he refuses to clarify. Mr. Guppy also says that he has been giving money to Miss Flite, and that he knows about Mr. Krook’s lodging house. He says Mr. Krook could rent Mr. Jobling a room. Mr. Guppy reveals that he thinks Mr. Krook is very wealthy. Mr. Guppy tells Jobling that Krook’s last lodger died, but Jobling doesn’t mind.

Mr. Guppy and Mr. Jobling visit Krook, who is asleep. Startled, Krook tries to hit Mr. Guppy, and then he wakes up fully. Krook shows Jobling the room. Later, Mr. Guppy introduces Jobling to the Snagsbys, who agree to give him work.

Jobling moves into his new room. In town, women gossip about him and speculate that he has come for Krook’s money.

Analysis: Chapters 16–20

Although Dickens has introduced many storylines in the first fifteen chapters of Bleak House, he doesn’t begin to weave those storylines together until chapter 16. Near the beginning of the chapter, the narrator says, “What connexion can there have been between many people . . . who . . . have . . . been very curiously brought together!” Indeed, characters and plots that so far have seemed independent now begin to come together, and characters are revealed to be related to one another in unexpected ways. For example, we learn that Lady Dedlock knows of Jo and is strangely interested in learning what happened to Krook’s dead lodger. Her appearance in Jo’s hardscrabble world is surprising, and her intense reaction to the lodger’s burial place is mysterious. Dickens never explicitly tells us that the woman in those scenes is Lady Dedlock, but context clues suggest that this is the case. We also learn that the Snagsby’s friend Mrs. Chadband was Esther’s old guardian, Rachael. Perhaps most important, we begin to see a connection between Esther and Lady Dedlock. The first clues arise when Esther visits Mr. Boythorn’s home, which is next to Chesney Wold, and spots Lady Dedlock at church. When their eyes meet, Esther is stunned—she thinks she recognizes Lady Dedlock somehow, but she is certain she has never met her before. During this same visit, Lady Dedlock alludes to a time in the past when Mr. Jarndyce was well acquainted with her sister. These clues, suggestions, and interconnections add richness and intrigue to the world of Bleak House.

Richard’s struggle to find a vocation suggests the importance of passion in building a fulfilling life. Richard idly follows whatever path is suggested to him, never thinking very deeply about what he truly wants to do. He is happy enough in his medical studies, but the Badgers tell Esther that he is not committed enough to his work and suggest that medicine is not a “ruling passion” for him. Richard’s blasé acceptance of it suggests a lack of engagement with his life and an absence of ambition. Esther places so much importance on the idea of finding what one is passionate about that she encourages Richard to change fields. The idea of passion is not, however, equal to the idea of excitement. Richard, true to his indecisive, wayward nature, wants to find a career that is not so “monotonous,” but Esther points out that life itself is quite monotonous. Mr. Jarndyce agrees that Richard should change paths, but the concerned look he gives Ada suggests that he is worried about Richard’s restlessness and inability to commit himself completely to one single undertaking.

Esther is a strong, confident narrator when she is talking about other people, but she falters and stutters when she touches on matters that are very personal to her. Her descriptions are usually vivid and detailed, and her voice is smooth and mature, but at times her storytelling breaks down entirely. For example, she tells us in chapter 17 that she was low-spirited and having trouble sleeping, but when she tries to explain why, she blurts out, “I don’t know why. At least, I don’t think I know why. At least, perhaps I do, but I don’t think it matters.” This barely coherent babbling suggests that Esther does, indeed, know the root of her troubles but is unwilling to disclose it. This makes sense when we find out that Mr. Woodcourt is arriving the next day to say goodbye, as he leaves for a very long journey. When she describes the dinner, she stops frequently to correct her narration. “I believe—at least I know—that he was not rich,” she says, and “I think—I mean, he told us—that he has been in practice three or four years.” It is as though she is making an effort to be as accurate as possible in her narration, while at the same time covering up any possible hint of how she really feels about these aspects of Mr. Woodcourt’s character. Her stumblings suggest that there is more to the story than she is revealing.

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