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Esther Summerson, the narrator and protagonist of Bleak
House, is relentlessly modest and frequently disparages
her own intelligence, but she proves to be a confident narrator
who never misses the opportunity to relate others’ compliments of
her. When we first meet Esther, she is a hesitant narrator who feels
she won’t be able to properly relay the story because she isn’t
“clever.” However, far from proceeding meekly, she launches into
detailed storytelling, setting scenes and describing characters
easily. She generally refrains from editorializing about her own
behavior, but when she does something good—such as when she successfully
cares for the Jellyby children before she even reaches Bleak House—she
includes others’ praise of her in her narration. As her narrative
gains breadth and depth, her confidence as a narrator grows. She
deliberately withholds information or delays including it to give
her story coherence and dramatic effect, often commenting on her
storytelling by telling us that something isn’t important or that
she’ll tell us more about it later on. And even though she is for
the most part a reliable narrator (a narrator we can trust to accurately
tell the story), she is less reliable when relaying information
about her romantic life. For example, she hints at her feelings
for Mr. Woodcourt, but she never addresses them until much later
in the novel.
Esther nurtures everyone around her, and her first instinct
is to be motherly, perhaps because she has never had a caring mother
figure of her own. Mr. Jarndyce takes her in to be a companion to
Ada, but Esther cares for Mr. Jarndyce and Richard just as much
as she does for Ada. Many others, including young Caddy and Peepy
Jellby, Charley, and Jo also receive Esther’s devotion. Ironically,
Esther, for all her caring and tenderness, is the unwitting cause
of great unhappiness. Because of Esther’s illegitimate birth, Lady
Dedlock was forever estranged from her sister, Miss Barbary, and
was forced to carry a painful secret. Because Miss Barbary chose
to raise Esther secretly, she was forced to separate from Mr. Boythorn,
who never recovered from his broken heart. Because other unhappinesses,
such as Sir Leicester’s tragic fate, radiate from these secrets,
we could argue that Esther is indirectly responsible for these as
well. Although no one could possibly say that these difficulties
are Esther’s fault, her indirect connection to them gives her relentless
nurturing greater depth: in a way, she nurtures as penance for others’
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bleak House!