The narrator describes the home of Mr. Smallweed, whose first name is Bart. There have been no true children in the Smallweed family for several generations—all of the children act like adults. Only Mr. Smallweed’s grandmother acts childlike because she is so old. His grandfather is old too, and even though his body is falling apart, his mind is active. The grandfather’s father was obsessed with money, which he wound up losing. The family motto is to “go out early and marry late,” and the grandfather became a clerk in a scrivener’s office when he was twelve. His son is the father of Bart and his twin sister, Judy. There is no amusement in the Smallweed home. Grandfather Smallweed sits in a chair, a drawer under which is reported to hold a large fortune. He and Grandmother Smallweed bicker endlessly.
Judy has never played with toys, and she doesn’t know how to laugh. Bart also never engaged in childish pastimes. Judy calls for the maid, Charley, and reprimands her for no reason. Bart comes home, and Grandfather Smallweed praises him for having someone else pay for lunch. The two grandparents, Judy, and Bart have tea. Grandfather Smallweed discusses Bart and Judy’s parents, who died a long time ago.
Judy is slated to enter the flower business, and Bart is supposed to go into law with the money Grandfather Smallweed has saved. Both twins are impatient for their grandfather to die. Judy calls Charley and gives her some tea, then quickly sends her back to work.
George arrives at the Smallweed home. He asks Grandfather Smallweed for a pipe, referring to an agreement they have—a pipe out of two months’ interest. He gives Grandfather Smallweed the money, then he smokes the pipe. He asks if Grandfather Smallweed just sits there all day. Grandfather Smallweed says he hates reading.
The two men discuss Grandfather Smallweed’s friend in the city, who lent George some money. Grandfather Smallweed says he knows this friend will be hard on George if the money is not repaid. He then swears at Grandmother Smallweed and asks George to shake him out of it. George does so.
Grandfather Smallweed asks if George has relatives who can help him pay off the loan, but he says he doesn’t want to do that. Grandfather Smallweed says he regrets that George was not willing to be “made.” Judy enters the room, and George seems fascinated by her. The two men then talk about a business opportunity from long ago that George never engaged in. George discusses Captain Hawdon, who never repaid money he owed to Grandfather Smallweed, wound up poor, and was perhaps intentionally drowned.
George leaves the Smallweed home and goes to the theatre. He then goes to George’s Shooting Gallery, &c. A little man wearing a green baize apron and cap is asleep on the floor. George calls his name—Phil—and wakes him up. Phil is lame, is missing one eyebrow, and has hands that are bruised and scarred. He shoots a couple of rounds, then goes to bed.
Mr. Tulkinghorn relaxes with a glass of wine in his office. He thinks about a friend, much like him, who hanged himself. Mr. Snagsby is there as well, without his wife knowing. He tells Mr. Tulkinghorn what Jo said to the guests at his house recently. Mr. Snagsby then spots another man in the room, whom Mr. Tulkinghorn introduces as Mr. Bucket. He is a detective. He asks Mr. Snagsby to take him to Jo and assures him Jo will not be harmed. Mr. Bucket suggests that the dead lodger was perhaps entitled to some property, which he suspects the woman Jo encountered may be after.
Bucket asks Snagsby if he knows of a man named Gridley, who lost his temper, threatened some people, and has a warrant out for his arrest. In Tom-all-Alone’s, they find where Jo is staying. Jo has gone out, but the men talk to a few people in the home. There are men lying unconscious on the floor, and a woman named Liz says they are hers and Jenny’s husbands. Liz is holding a child. Jenny says she had a child too, but it died.
Jo appears with some medicine he had gotten for the woman. Then he, Bucket, and Snagsby go to Mr. Tulkinghorn’s. Jo shouts that he sees the woman, there in the room. A figure wearing a flowing scarf and robe is standing there. But when the figure shows her hand, Jo says it is not the lady, whose hand was whiter, smaller, and adorned with different rings. The figure speaks, and Jo says it’s not the voice he remembers. Bucket gives Jo some money and dismisses him. The woman takes off her scarf. It is Mademoiselle Hortense, the French maid of Lady Dedlock. She reminds Mr. Tulkinghorn that he promised to help her find a job, and she leaves.
Bucket asserts that the lady Jo saw must have been wearing the Frenchwoman’s clothes. Snagsby leaves. When he gets home, he finds Mrs. Snagsby in bed. She had sent Guster to the police station to report that Mr. Snagsby was missing.
Esther says they left Mr. Boythorn’s after six weeks. They hadn’t seen Lady Dedlock again, except at church. Esther has an idea that her presence is as vexing to Lady Dedlock as Lady Dedlock’s is to her. Esther recounts an incident that occurred before she left Mr. Boythorn’s house. One day, the Frenchwoman sends for Esther. She says how wonderful Esther is and tells her that she has quit her post as Lady Dedlock’s servant. She asks Esther to hire her as a maid. Esther says she keeps no maid, and the matter is closed.
Richard visits Bleak House regularly, but Esther worries that he is too fixated on the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. During one visit, Esther asks if he feels settled, and Richard admits that he doesn’t because he’s in debt. He worries that he is hurting Ada by being so adrift. He’s no longer interested in law and plans to enlist in the army.
Esther meets up with Caddy Jellyby, who tells her that Prince Turveydrop respects her deeply. Caddy asks Esther to accompany her and Prince when they tell their parents of their engagement. At the Turveydrops, the elder Mr. Turveydrop accepts their news and graciously tells them that he will live with them and that they will provide him with his usual comforts. At the Jellybys’ home, Caddy tries to tell Mrs. Jellyby her news, but Mrs. Jellyby is opening mail and pays little attention to her. She says she would be upset by the news if she wasn’t so busy.
That night, Charley arrives at Bleak House. Mr. Jarndyce has hired her to be Esther’s maid. Esther and Charley are very happy.
Richard tells Mr. Jarndyce he’s planning to enlist in the army, and Mr. Jarndyce calls Richard, Ada, and Esther together for a discussion. Richard admits that he’s in debt, but he feels confident that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit will serve as his security. Mr. Jarndyce explodes in anger and says that it’s better to die than get involved with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit. He tells Richard and Ada that they must dissolve their romantic relationship and go back to being just cousins because Richard is leaving for a post in Ireland. If they will be together in the future, then it will happen in the future. The two reluctantly agree. Esther says that this is the beginning of an estrangement between Richard and Mr. Jarndyce.
Richard, Mr. Jarndyce, and Ada go to London. George, a former cavalry soldier, visits them at their lodging. He says Richard could be a good swordsman if he would put his mind to it. George glances repeatedly at Esther and asks if he knows her from somewhere. Esther says no.
George tells them about his students, including one Chancery suitor named Gridley who erupted in such violent practice shooting that George asked him to leave. Esther and Mr. Jarndyce are surprised by the coincidence. Gridley is in hiding, and George says he doesn’t know where.
The morning before Richard’s departure, he and Esther go to the court to hear some of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. The lord chancellor and many solicitors are gathered there. Bags and piles of papers are brought in, but the case is cut short and the papers must be brought back out again. Before Esther and Richard leave, a woman approaches Esther and introduces herself—it is Mrs. Rachael, from her godmother’s house, now Mrs. Chadband. The two exchange brief pleasantries and part. George then approaches them and tells them that Gridley is hiding at his place. He says Gridley wants to see Miss Flite and asks Esther to get her.
At the door to George’s Shooting Gallery, they encounter an old man who says he is a physician, here to see Gridley. George lets him in, and the man instantly turns brusque, saying his name is Bucket and has a warrant against Gridley. Bucket says he spotted Gridley from the roof through the skylight.
They all go in to Gridley’s room with Miss Flite. Gridley is surrounded by writings. Miss Flite sits beside him and holds his hand. Gridley says the tie between him and Miss Flite is the only tie the Jarndyce case hasn’t broken. Bucket tries to console Gridley, but Gridley is despondent. Bucket is worried that Gridley is giving in to despair. Then Miss Flite screams—Gridley has died.
The narrator says that Mr. Snagsby is unsettled by the role he has played in the affair with Bucket, Jo, and Mr. Tulkinghorn. He doesn’t know what is going on and feels like he is “party to some dangerous secret.” He is edgy and gets nervous when anyone comes to the shop looking for him.
Mrs. Snagsby knows Mr. Snagsby has a secret, and she searches his letters, pockets, ledger, and safe while he’s sleeping. She listens at doors and watches at windows. She is constantly alert. She incorrectly pieces together the random bits of things she learns and hears.
Mr. Chadband has run into Jo on the street and asked him to come to Cook’s Court to be improved. Mrs. Snagsby decides that she will watch Jo and someone else very closely—nothing will get by her. When the group arrives at the house, including the Chadbands, Jo, Guster, and the apprentices, Mrs. Snagsby watches Jo carefully. She thinks he looks right at Snagsby when he enters the room and thinks that Snagsby is sending a signal when he coughs. She jumps to the conclusion that Jo is Mr. Snagsby’s son.
Mr. Chadband orates relentlessly about Jo’s lot in life and the need for improvement. Mr. Chadband likes to fixate on one person in his audience to give his lectures more effect, and tonight he focuses on Mr. Snagsby. Mrs. Snagsby is convinced that Chadband’s glances are weighted with meaning, and she reacts strongly and audibly to his words, eventually sobbing and giving way to spasms. She has to be carried upstairs. Jo finally gets to go home. Before he leaves the house, Mr. Snagsby slips Jo a half-crown and says it was right for Jo to say nothing about seeing him with a lady the other night. The narrator says that Mrs. Snagsby will be with Mr. Snagsby like his own shadow.
Suicide appears in both chapter 21 and chapter 22 and, coupled with the reputed suicide of Tom Jarndyce that was discussed earlier in the novel, forms a dismal motif. In chapter 21, George discusses with Grandfather Smallweed an attempted suicide of a seemingly successful man and then his eventual death by not-quite-accidental drowning. George is using the story as a kind of justification for why he never let himself be “made” by another person. In chapter 22, Mr. Tulkinghorn remembers a friend much like himself who hanged himself when he decided life was too monotonous. Although neither George nor Mr. Tulkinghorn are themselves contemplating suicide, their invocations of it suggest that they are well aware of what can happen when seekers do not find what they are searching for, or when life loses its meaning. Echoes of Richard’s complaint—that his work is too monotonous—are evident in the complaint of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s unfortunate friend, adding to the suggestion that a life without passion and deep engagement ultimately becomes unbearable.
Worlds collide violently in chapter 22, creating a sense of building tension, intrigue, and mystery in the story. The two women caring for a sick baby during Mrs. Pardiggle’s charity visit reappear in this chapter, this time meeting with Mr. Bucket and Mr. Snagsby. Jenny reveals that her baby died, but now her friend, Liz, has a baby of her own. Lady Dedlock’s French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense, surprisingly appears in Mr. Tulkinghorn’s office, adding to the not-so-mysterious mystery of who the woman is that Jo took to the dead lodger’s grave. And Jo, who is becoming an integral figure in the novel, seems to be the one common denominator among these different worlds, leading characters to one another and serving as the link between them. Although Jo makes the same claim again and again that he doesn’t know anything, the fact that he seems to know everyone suggests that he’s aware of much more than he lets on.
Mr. Jarndyce’s outburst regarding Richard’s fixation on the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit in chapter 24 adds a significantly darker note to the already disturbing case. Richard has always casually referred to his certainty that the lawsuit will provide for him and Ada in the future, but Mr. Jarndyce and Esther usually dismiss his claims wearily. This time, however, Mr. Jarndyce cries that it is “better to borrow, better to beg, better to die” than look to the lawsuit to provide. The extremity of his claim, and his unusual show of passion, shocks Richard, Ada, and Esther. The lawsuit, with its tedious, endless proceedings, usually seems like a hum in the background in the story, a strange mystery that no one is in too much hurry to unravel. At this moment, however, the true danger and darkness of the suit break the surface. When Mr. Jarndyce orders Richard and Ada to dissolve their romantic relationship, in a way he may be trying to protect Ada from Richard’s fervor over the suit.