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Bleak House

Charles Dickens
  • Study Guide

Chapters 56–60

Summary Chapters 56–60

Summary: Chapter 59, “Esther’s Narrative”

Esther tells us that she and Bucket reach London around three in the morning. Esther still fears they’ve abandoned Lady Dedlock, but Bucket assures her he has reasons for coming back. As they travel through the winding London streets, Bucket occasionally stops and meets with others. Finally he says he’s tracked the woman down and that they need to walk for a bit. As they walk down Chancery Lane, they cross paths with Mr. Woodcourt, and he joins them. Woodcourt says he has been with Richard, who is not well.

They arrive at Mr. Snagsby’s and hear a girl sobbing. Bucket says it’s the Snagsbys’ servant, Guster, and that he needs information from her. He asks Woodcourt to try to calm her down so that Bucket can get a letter he needs. Mr. Snagsby lets them in and introduces them to Mrs. Snagsby. Woodcourt and Snagsby go to see Guster. Bucket chastises Mrs. Snagsby for being so jealous and suspicious. Woodcourt returns with the letter, and Bucket asks Esther whose writing it is. She says it’s Lady Dedlock’s. The letter says she went to the cottage and got help from Jenny, and that her only purpose is to die.

Esther asks Guster how she got the letter. Guster says she had been running errands when a woman stopped her, asking the way to the burial ground. Guster says it was the burial ground in which Krook’s lodger was buried. The lady gave Guster a letter and instructed her to send it.

They leave the Snagsbys’ house and rush to the burial ground. Esther is numb and confused. At the gate to the burial ground, she sees a woman on the ground, who she thinks is Jenny. She starts to run toward her, but Bucket stops her, telling her that he suspects Lady Dedlock and Jenny traded clothes and that Jenny walked only a short distance before turning around and going home. The purpose was to deceive. Esther doesn’t understand what all this means. She goes to the woman and sees that it is Lady Dedlock, dead.

Summary: Chapter 60, “Perspective”

Esther says that she doesn’t want to discuss her sadness too much and that she will move on in her story. She says that she becomes briefly sick in London and that Mrs. Woodcourt stays with them for a while. Mr. Jarndyce suggests they stay in London so that Esther can be closer to Ada. Esther asks if he sees Woodcourt, and Mr. Jarndyce says he sees him every day. Mr. Jarndyce wants to stay in London so that he can get news of Richard more easily, since Richard won’t speak to him. Mr. Jarndyce asks Esther if she likes Mrs. Woodcourt, and Esther answers that she does. Mr. Jarndyce asks if she has any objections to Mrs. Woodcourt’s staying with them, and even though Esther says she doesn’t, she is unsettled without really knowing why. Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther that Mr. Woodcourt will probably not be leaving the country and may instead take up a position in Yorkshire.

Esther visits Ada every day. She sometimes sees Richard, and he is much changed. Esther understands that Vholes is taking all of Richard’s money. She suspects Ada doesn’t understand that Richard is destroying himself. During one visit, Miss Flite is just leaving when Esther arrives. Miss Flite says she doesn’t like Vholes and that she has made Richard the executor of her estate, since he is at Chancery so much. She had planned to appoint Gridley, but he had died. Vholes joins Esther, Ada, and Richard for dinner. When Richard and Ada are out of the room, Vholes tells Esther he thinks Richard and Ada’s marriage was unwise and that Richard and his interests are doing very poorly. When Vholes leaves after dinner, Richard overpraises him, which makes Esther think that he has actually begun to doubt Vholes.

Mr. Woodcourt arrives, and he and Richard go for a walk. Ada tells Esther that when she married Richard, she knew what she was getting into but hoped she could change him. She says that she has been determined not to make him any unhappier than he already was. She also reveals that she’s pregnant. She has hoped that the baby will save Richard, but now she is afraid that Richard will die before the baby is born.

Analysis: Chapters 56–60

Lady Dedlock is Sir Leicester’s greatest weakness, and the revelation of her secret personal history is enough to nearly destroy him. Bombastic, influential Sir Leicester collapses when he learns Lady Dedlock’s secret, losing his ability to move and speak after suffering what appears to be a stroke. Suddenly bedridden, he is dependent on his subordinates to care for him and understand him. Although there are many tragedies in Bleak House, Jo’s death among them, the fall of Sir Leicester may be the most affecting. We may see it as a tragedy caused by love: Lady Dedlock hid her secret to protect Sir Leicester and then fled to escape the wrath she expected, while Sir Leicester forgives her easily and fully despite her transgressions. He never has the chance to prove the depth of his devotion, nor does Lady Dedlock ever have the opportunity to see it. Their partnership has never been an obviously warm one, thanks in part to Lady Dedlock’s carefully maintained haughtiness, but the tragic fall of Sir Leicester shows that there was passion in their marriage after all.

Esther and Bucket’s frantic nighttime pursuit of Lady Dedlock ratchets up the suspense of the novel, and Dickens skillfully raises the tension by switching between his two narrators more frequently than usual. The third-person narrator narrates chapter 56, describing Sir Leicester’s sad state and then following Bucket as he calls for Esther in the middle of the night. Esther takes over the narration in chapter 57, and she leads us on their fast, feverish journey. The chapter ends in a rush, with Bucket making the unexpected decision to return to London. The third-person narrator takes over again in chapter 58, removing us from the nighttime journey and taking us back to Sir Leicester, who is waiting earnestly in his bed for news. In chapter 59, we’re back out in the cold with Esther as the search continues and finally ends. This quick back-and-forth, which jerks us in and out of the action of the search, increases the suspense of the journey and raises the stakes. Esther is not the only one frantic to find Lady Dedlock; Sir Leicester, who has prepared Lady Dedlock’s rooms and lit the fires, is perhaps even more desperate than she is. Dickens’s use of two narrators in these chapters is perhaps more affecting than at any other point in the novel.

Esther demonstrates a remarkable control over her narrative in chapters 59 and 60, proving once again that she is an agile storyteller and a confident guide through this sordid, bulky tale. Although she is narrating Bleak House from a point seven years in the future, she withholds information and feigns ignorance when doing so increases the dramatic effect. We’ve seen her do this with her feelings for Woodcourt, which increased the poignancy of Mr. Jarndyce’s proposal. In this section, when Esther, Bucket, and Woodcourt finally find the woman they’ve been pursuing, who Esther believes is Jenny, she tells us she doesn’t understand what Bucket is getting at when he explains that Jenny and Lady Dedlock switched clothes. When Esther sees that the woman is actually Lady Dedlock’s body, we share her shock. She has successfully drawn us into her own disoriented confusion to make the story more intriguing.