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Bleak House

Charles Dickens

Study Questions & Essay Topics

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Quiz

Study Questions

1. Discuss the role of women in Bleak House, particularly their roles within their marriages.

Women play a vibrant, active role in Bleak House and are often the dominant spouse in their marriages. First, there is Esther, our narrator, who claims to not be clever but is a respected source of advice and a close confidante for all those in her circle. She is our guide through the story, and she fulfills this role skillfully, manipulating the narrative for greater dramatic effect and taking on the responsibility of conveying events as accurately as possible. Ada, though young and naïve, demonstrates an unshakeable devotion to Richard. Although she seems oblivious to the foolhardiness of his pursuit of the Chancery suit, she is actually fully aware of the danger and has a mature understanding of her role as his supporter. Lady Dedlock, though seemingly vapid and haughty, actually harbors the secret of an entire past life, including a passionate love affair and a child, that she experienced before marrying Sir Leicester. The fact that she must keep this past life concealed—and does so quite successfully for many years—gives richness and depth to her character. Although her relentless, unfounded suspicions make her ridiculous, and although she is a nuisance to all, as well as a bane to Mr. Snagsby, Mrs. Snagsby demonstrates her own kind of feistiness.

Just as Ada proves to be a strong partner for Richard, other women, including Lady Dedlock, Mrs. Bagnet, and Mrs. Bucket, prove to be integral partners in their own marriages. Sir Leicester is weakened irreversibly when Lady Dedlock’s secret is revealed, although he is affected more by her disappearance than by the secret itself. Mrs. Bagnet is such a dominant force in her marriage that she serves as Mr. Bagnet’s voice; when he needs to speak, he constantly looks to her to do it for him. He tries to maintain “discipline” by not praising his wife to her face, but this is a perfunctory effort. If discipline is needed, Mrs. Bagnet is clearly the one who will administer it. Mrs. Bucket, although she has a more equal partnership with Inspector Bucket, proves to be a staunch assistant in Bucket’s investigations. She is the one who tracks Mademoiselle Hortense and collects the evidence that eventually bring Bucket’s case to a close. Although men are generally the ones who “take action,” they are clearly driven by the strong women who stand behind them. The exceptions to this claim are Jenny and Liz, who, although they prove to have minds of their own, are ultimately overpowered by their husbands’ reliance on the use of violence. They have the capacity to be strong partners, but the men linked with them don’t have the ability or desire to treat them as such.

2. How do the two narrators work together to tell the story of Bleak House?

Dickens provides two different perspectives and two different vantage points in time to lead us through the story of Bleak House. There are two narrators of Bleak House: a third-person narrator who tells the story in the present tense, and Esther, a first-person narrator, who tells the story in the past tense. Although each narrator tells a somewhat thorough tale, neither narrative is complete on its own, and the narrators rely on each other to flesh out events and characters and to fill in the blanks that the other leaves. Esther, for example, is concerned primarily with the principal people in her own life: Mr. Jarndyce, Ada, Richard, Caddy, Charley, Woodcourt, Skimpole, and Boythorn, among several others. These characters interact with and are greatly affected by characters Esther doesn’t know or know well, such as Tulkinghorn, Snagsby, Bucket, Lady Dedlock, and Sir Leicester. It is the third-person narrator’s duty to follow these characters and give us their stories, weaving together many disparate storylines and clues. We get the sense that there is a lot going on behind the scenes that Esther doesn’t know about, but she tells her part of the story as thoroughly as she can. It is not her job to know everything, and she relates only the parts of the story that directly affect her and her loved ones.

Telling the story from two different vantages points in time heightens the suspense, raises the intrigue, and pulls us more deeply into the tale. Esther’s narration is compelling, but she tells it from a point seven years in the future, when we know that the events she conveys are long over. Esther knows the whole story, with its twists and turns and surprises, and we have to rely on her to reveal information when—and if—she chooses. As a result, we have the sense that we’re being led. On the other hand, the present-tense sections told by the third-person narrator have an immediacy and urgency that Esther’s narrative lacks. In the chapters where the narrator takes over, Dickens plucks us from our safe point in the future and places us right into the story itself. The narrator leads us through events as they happen; there is little to conceal since, for the most part, we see what the narrator sees, when he sees it. We’re in the story, rather than beyond it. Together, Esther and the third-person narrator draw us in and out of the tale, from one point in time to another, creating a whole world that we’re both experiencing and reading about at the same time.

3. Describe the role of servants in the story of Bleak House.

Servants play a vital role in the events that take place in Bleak House, and they sometimes serve as catalysts for new turns of events to unfold. Young, quiet Rosa doesn’t say much for herself, but when she is dismissed from Chesney Wold, the tenuous agreement between Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock comes to an end. Lady Dedlock sends Rosa away coldly, but she is actually trying to protect her: if Rosa is still her protégée when her secret is revealed, Rosa’s chances for a good marriage will be destroyed. Tulkinghorn is enraged that Lady Dedlock would raise suspicions by dismissing Rosa, and he warns her that he will reveal her secret soon. Guster, the Snagsbys’ maid, who is given to having violent fits, plays a pivotal role as well because she’s the person to whom Lady Dedlock gives a letter as she flees. When Bucket, Woodcourt, and Esther procure this letter from Guster, they are able to find Lady Dedlock. Mrs. Chadband, meanwhile, whom Esther knows as “Mrs. Rachael,” was Esther’s caretaker as a child; Mrs. Rachael is one of Esther’s earliest memories. Her role in the novel is small, but her appearance in Snagsby’s shop suggests that the past is slowly edging into the present, and that Esther’s upbringing and childhood, so unknown to her, will soon be revealed. Mrs. Rouncewell, the devoted housekeeper at Chesney Wold, is more of a constant presence than any kind of agent of change, but she stays on at Chesney Wold with her son, George, even though the others have left, to make sure that Sir Leicester is not alone.

Mademoiselle Hortense plays the most significant role of any servant in the novel—she murders Mr. Tulkinghorn, then frames Lady Dedlock for the murder. Mademoiselle Hortense has a long list of grievances against Lady Dedlock, which are rooted primarily in jealousy. When Rosa arrives, Lady Dedlock pays more intimate attention to her than she ever paid to Mademoiselle Hortense, which enrages her. Away from Chesney Wold, Mademoiselle Hortense is given to complaining angrily about Lady Dedlock, and she is unable to hold her tongue when Tulkinghorn threatens to send her to prison. Mademoiselle Hortense, who has endured what she perceives as slights and injustices throughout her employment with Lady Dedlock, takes drastic steps to right these wrongs and get revenge. Even though Tulkinghorn would have revealed Lady Dedlock’s secret regardless of Mademoiselle Hortense’s actions, Mademoiselle Hortense’s bitter revenge took that revelation in a different, more violent direction.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Is Esther responsible for Mr. Boythorn’s unhappy life? Why or why not?

2. Choose three instances of foreshadowing in Esther’s narrative and explain the importance of each.

3. Does the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit serve as an allegory? Explain.

4. Explain the role of three characters who appear only briefly in the novel.

5. Lawyers and the law appear throughout Bleak House. Drawing from specific examples in the novel, evaluate Dickens’ view of the legal system of his time.

6. Throughout Bleak House, mothers and motherhood are common motifs. Various characters search and yearn for their mothers, and women often act as surrogate mothers when necessary. Explain the role of fathers and fatherhood in the novel.

7. What is the significance of the legend of the Ghost’s Walk? What role does it play in the novel?

8. How does Dickens develop character in Bleak House? Support your theories by referring to specific characters from the novel.

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