Bleak House

Charles Dickens
  • Study Guide

Chapters 1–5

Summary Chapters 1–5

Analysis: Chapters 1–5

Fog, which appears throughout the beginning of Bleak House, both sets the mood of the novel and highlights the muddled state of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Fog literally covers London when the third-person narrator sets the scene on the first page of the novel. “Fog everywhere,” he says simply. The narrator provides three paragraphs of gloomy, evocative description before introducing us to the Lord High Chancellor and the disaster that is the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Much as London is covered in fog, our own understanding of what, exactly, this case entails is unclear. The narrator doesn’t tell us exactly who is involved in the case or exactly what issue the case addresses. Indeed, the narrator acknowledges that “no man alive knows what it means”—the fogginess of the case is chronic. The gloomy aspects of fog are also connected to this case, and the narrator tells us that “no man’s nature has been made better” by the doings. This pervasive image sets the tone of the narrative to come and adds to the already gloomy atmosphere the novel’s title suggests.

In chapter 3, Esther Summerson replaces the third-person narrator, a shift that has the effect of pulling us deeper into the story. Although Esther claims to have difficulty in telling her story and asserts right away that she isn’t very clever, her voice is clear and unhesitating as she tells us about herself and how she became involved in the Jarndyce case. Esther comes across as slightly self-pitying in her descriptions of her strict, emotionally distant godmother and her unhappy birthdays, but her self-deprecation and constant denial of her own intelligence are manipulative gestures that both endear us to her and give her an excuse in case we don’t like the story. In other words, she is so insistent that she is not clever and is so doubtful of her ability to tell the story correctly that she has a lot of leeway to tell the story according to her own very subjective view. If things turn out to be different from the way she describes them, she can claim she warned us of her fallibility from the start. Also, even though Esther claims to be unimportant to the story, she clearly relishes talking about herself.

In the space of just five chapters (out of a novel of sixty-seven), Dickens manages to introduce us to a host of lively, vivid characters. For example, in chapter 2 we meet Mr. Tulkinghorn, who Dickens describes as “old school . . . generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young.” The chaotic Jellybys appear in chapter 4, when Dickens introduces the unforgettable Mrs. Jellyby, who is more concerned with writing letters about Africa than she is with her filthy, unhappy children. One of Dickens’s greatest skills is his ability to draw such striking portraits with so few details in so little space. Dickens dismisses his characters and moves on to new ones after a few lines, paragraphs, or pages, giving the effect of a rollicking, speeding story that can stop for no one, not even the most interesting, quirky people that cross his protagonists’ paths.