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’ sins.