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Esther, Richard, and Ada leave the city and head deep
into the country. The wagon stops, and the driver comes around to
talk to them. In his hat are three notes, one for each child. The
notes are from Richard and Ada’s cousin, John Jarndyce, and contain
a message welcoming each child to his home. Richard and Ada have
the impression that their cousin is chronically unable to accept
thanks and that he will go to great lengths to avoid having people
express gratitude. The three are excited and nervous to meet him.
Bleak House sits atop a hill and finally comes into view.
Mr. Jarndyce greets the trio enthusiastically and takes them all
inside. Esther recognizes him as a man she had seen in a stagecoach
many years ago. Mr. Jarndyce encourages them to say what they really think
about Mrs. Jellyby, then worries that the wind is in the east. Ada
extols Esther’s behavior, telling Mr. Jarndyce that she cared for the
children and made herself useful. Mr. Jarndyce asks Richard about
the wind and is relieved that it is coming from the north, not the
Esther describes Bleak House, which is made up of a complex warren
of rooms that one can easily get lost in. She, Ada, and Richard
like the house.
Mr. Jarndyce announces a visitor for dinner, who he claims
is a child but not a real child. He says that this person has many
children but doesn’t look after them because he himself is a child.
He then notes that the wind seems to be stirring up.
Mr. Jarndyce gives Esther two bunches of keys for the
housekeeping. Esther is pleased that he trusts her so much.
Harold Skimpole, the childlike man, arrives. He describes
himself and says that he has no idea about time or money and has
therefore never made much of himself. He just wants to live freely. Everyone
is enchanted by him. Richard and Ada sing together by the piano,
and Mr. Skimpole greatly admires Ada’s beauty. Esther thinks Mr.
Jarndyce gives her a look suggesting that he hopes Richard and Ada’s
relationship will grow deeper someday.
Richard and Mr. Skimpole go off together and eventually
Richard sends for Esther. He tells her that Mr. Skimpole has been arrested
for debt and needs money. She and Richard gather the sum he needs
and give it to him so that he doesn’t have to go to jail or to Coavinses,
a poorhouse. Later, Mr. Jarndyce is horrified that they have given
him money and says that Mr. Skimpole relies on everyone to keep
him out of debt. He then complains of the wind. Then he relaxes
and claims that Mr. Skimpole’s irresponsibility is just part of his
childishness and must be excused. Everyone goes to bed.
The narrator returns while Esther sleeps. He says it is
raining on the Ghost Walk by a house called Chesney Wold in Lincolnshire.
Sir Leicester is not there; both he and the lady are in Paris. The
housekeeper, Mrs. Rouncewell, has been there more than fifty years.
Mrs. Rouncewell had two sons. One became a soldier and
never came home. The other became an engineer of sorts, which Mrs. Rouncewell
sees as a failing. However, his wife gave a grandson, Watt, who
visits her at Chesney Wold.
Watt asks Mrs. Rouncewell to tell him about a young girl
that he has seen at the house, and Mrs. Rouncewell tells him it
is Rosa, a widow’s daughter. She is a maid and lives with Mrs. Rouncewell. Rosa
enters the room and tells Mrs. Rouncewell two men had come by, one
of whom gave her a card for Mrs. Rouncewell. Watt reads the card,
which says “Mr. Guppy.” Rosa says that he and the other man were
from London and had heard about Chesney Wold. Mr. Guppy said he
was not from Mr. Tulkinghorn’s office but that Mr. Tulkinghorn knows
Mrs. Rouncewell invites the men in and they look around
the house. She tells them that a portrait over the fireplace is
of Lady Dedlock. Mr. Guppy recognizes her and is stunned. He admires
a terrace, and Mrs. Rouncewell tells him it is called the Ghost’s
Walk, after an old family story. The men leave.
Mrs. Rouncewell then tells the story to Watt and Rosa.
She believes the family deserves a ghost. The story goes as follows:
Sir Morbury Dedlock’s wife betrayed the family by giving information to
King Charles’s enemies. She eavesdropped on conversations between
her husband and the king’s allies. She and Sir Morbury were not
suited for each other. Sir Morbury’s relative killed her favorite
brother in the civil wars, and now she hates Sir Morbury’s family
and the king’s cause. She often hurt the horses when Sir Morbury
and other men were to ride out for the cause. One night, Sir Morbury
caught her, grabbed her, and in the process her hip was hurt and
she began to waste away. Every day she tried to walk on the terrace,
and one day she collapsed. She declared that she would die where
she had walked and would haunt the terrace until the house’s pride
was destroyed. Mrs. Rouncewell says that footsteps are always heard
but that disgrace has never come to the house.
Esther narrates once again. She gets dressed and does
her housework. At breakfast, Skimpole discusses the irrationality
of considering the bee a model of virtue. He cheers everyone. Esther
returns to her work and then joins Mr. Jarndyce in a room he calls
the Growlery, where he goes when he is in a bad mood or when the
wind is blowing from the east. Esther is overcome with emotion and kisses
his hand in gratitude for everything he’s done for her, but he quickly
stops her effusiveness. He tells her the Chancery business with
the Jarndyce case is about a will and costs. The longer it goes on,
the more costs there are. The money the will was to have distributed
has now been spent on the lawsuit. He says that Tom Jarndyce, the
man who shot himself, was his uncle. Bleak House used to belong
to Tom, who had called it the Peaks. He says that there is some
property in London that is also part of the suit.
Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther that he trusts her discretion
and says he believes she is clever enough. He compares her to an
old woman in a rhyme, and Esther gets the nickname “Old Woman.”
He then asks Esther’s advice for what Richard should do in the future.
He suggests that Esther talk to him about it. She once again thanks
Esther describes the bustling life at Bleak House. She
answers all of Mr. Jarndyce’s letters for him, many of which are
from people asking him for money. One woman who is consumed by charity work
is Mrs. Pardiggle. Mr. Jarndyce always complains of the wind when
talking about Mrs. Pardiggle. One day, she visits with her five sons
and brags about how the boys donate great sums of their allowances
to charity. The sullen boys say nothing. Mrs. Pardiggle praises Mrs.
Jellyby’s work with Africa and says her boys have contributed to
the cause. She explains that her boys go everywhere with her.
Mrs. Pardiggle says she loves hard work and never gets
tired. She commences to make her rounds, asking Esther and Ada to
go with her. Esther says she has housework and that she is not clever
enough, but Mrs. Pardiggle insists. On their way to a brickmaker’s
house, the boys tell Esther how miserable they are and tell her
that their mother forces them to give away their money. When they
reach the brickmaker’s house, Mrs. Pardiggle brashly enters into
a very unpleasant scene involving a woman with a black eye nursing
a baby and other people who’re openly hostile to Mrs. Pardiggle.
She sits down anyway and reads to them from the Bible. Esther and
Ada are uncomfortable.
When Mrs. Pardiggle finally leaves, Esther and Ada stay
behind to see if the baby is sick. The nursing woman cries uncontrollably. Another
woman enters, calling for Jenny and approaches the crying woman.
She too looks as though she has been beaten. Esther and Ada leave.
Later that night, they return with Richard with some provisions
for the family. Jenny’s friend meets them at the door, terrified that
her husband will catch her away from home. Ada cries over the baby,
they leave their provisions, and then they depart.
Esther expresses astonishment that she is still writing
about herself. She says that Richard is very fond of Ada and that
they are falling in love. Esther hides their secret. Richard thinks
of becoming a sailor. Mr. Jarndyce writes to a relative named Sir
Leicester Dedlock to see if he can advance Richard’s career, but
Sir Dedlock confesses that he can be of no help. Richard is not
bothered by this news.
Esther observes that Richard is quite careless, although
he believes himself to be very cautious. She explains herself by
telling us that when Mr. Jarndyce repaid the money she and Richard
had loaned Skimpole, Richard spent the money quickly and considers
it to be profit since he had assumed the money was gone forever.
One morning, Mr. Jarndyce gets a letter from an old classmate named
Lawrence Boythorn. Jarndyce describes him as loud, impetuous, and
hearty, with incredibly strong lungs and a tendency to speak in
extremes. When Boythorn visits Bleak House, he proves himself to
speak always in superlatives and to have a house-shaking laugh.
Everyone likes him. At dinner, Boythorn introduces his small pet
bird, who sits on his head. Boythorn tells Jarndyce he should be more
forceful in settling the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit.
Boythorn describes a trespassing suit he is involved in
with his neighbor, Sir Leicester. He hates the whole family, although
his anger is mitigated by his laugh and the bird sitting on his
Later in the evening, Esther asks Jarndyce if Boythorn
had ever been married, and, hearing that he hasn’t, asserts that
Boythorn looks so kind that surely he wanted to have been. Jarndyce
says she is right, and that a woman broke his heart. Now he is alone
except for the bird.
In the morning, Kenge and Carboy’s clerk, Mr. Guppy, arrives
to see Boythorn. Esther is happy to see him and tells him that she
will serve him lunch when he has finished his meeting. He asks if
she will be there, and she says yes. At lunch, Mr. Guppy reveals
that he is in love with her and wants to marry her. Esther is horrified
and refuses him. He tells her that his feelings will never change
and that she should contact him if she changes her mind. Once he
is gone, Esther cries.
The narrator takes over. He introduces Mr. Snagsby, Law-Stationer, who
deals with legal documents at his firm, Peffer and Snagsbywith. Peffer
is never seen in court anymore and may be insane. A niece lived
with Peffer in the law-stationering office, a woman Snagsby eventually
The Snagsbys live with a young woman named Guster, a charity case
prone to throwing hysterical fits. Mrs. Snagsby takes care of all aspects
of the business, and many men consider her to be the model wife.
A crow flies across the sky toward Lincoln’s Inn, where
we find Mr. Tulkinghorn’s home. Inside, everything is locked up.
This is both his house and his office. He goes out and walks to
the Snagsby’s house, where he meets with Mr. Snagsby. He tells Snagsby
that some of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce documents he copied lately
had very nice writing. He asks Snagsby who wrote them, and Snagsby answers
that they were written by a man named Nemo. He takes Mr. Tulkinghorn
to Krook’s shop where Nemo lives. Mr. Tulkinghorn thanks Snagsby
for showing him and says he will come back another time.
Tulkinghorn, however, doubles back and goes into the shop. Krook
gives him a candle and tells him where to find Nemo. Tulkinghorn
knocks on the door, opens it, and his candle goes out. The room
smells terrible and is a mess. A man is lying on the bed. Tulkinghorn
greets him loudly, but the man doesn’t wake up.
When Esther, Richard, and Ada arrive at Bleak House, they
have many chances to form first impressions of places and people.
They first see Bleak House in the distance, on a hill. As they head
quickly toward it, the house appears to disappear in the trees.
The house’s initial elusiveness suggests that seeing it completely—that
is, understanding the house, its inhabitants, and what goes on within
its walls—will prove difficult once the trio finally makes it their
home. Their first impression of Mr. Jarndyce is formed in the chaos
of their arrival, although his instant effusiveness and affection
set them all at ease. Esther’s description of the house, its many
rooms, and the abundance of mismatched furniture suggests an overload
of first impressions. As the house is confusing and mazelike, so
too are Esther’s first impressions, although Mr. Jarndyce is so
welcoming that the impressions are in no way negative. Despite its
name, Bleak House proves to be unintimidating and warm.
Even though Esther frequently claims to be modest and
uncomfortable with talking so much about herself, she clearly relishes
the chance to do so and never misses an opportunity to mention her own
good deeds and the praise others give her. When Mr. Jarndyce asks
about their stay with the Jellybys in chapter 6,
for example, Ada breathlessly tells him how wonderful Esther was
with the children—details that Esther recounts in their entirety.
When Mr. Jarndyce confides in Esther in the Growlery in chapter 8,
he compliments her cleverness, discretion, and good advice, accolades
that Esther vehemently denies but includes in her narrative nonetheless. In
chapter 9, Esther goes so far as to claim,
“I try to think about myself as little as possible,” a claim that
seems blatantly at odds with her narration so far. Esther’s overabundance
of self-denigration suggests that she actually holds the opposite
view of herself.
Mr. Skimpole and Mr. Boythorn, two vibrant characters
Esther meets at Bleak House, are pleasant company but suggest that
contradictions are inherent in every person. Skimpole has created
a childlike image for himself, which allows him to avoid all responsibility
and the consequences of his actions. He also sees himself as beneficent,
although he always takes, never gives. For example, he depends on
others to pay his debts for him, then believes that those people
should be the grateful ones because he has given them the opportunity
to be generous. Esther is confused by his twisted logic, calling
it a “perplexing and extraordinary contradiction.” However, she
blames her confusion on her lack of cleverness. Mr. Boythorn exhibits
contradictions in a less manipulative way, as his broken heart and
the small pet bird that rest on his head belie his loud voice, explosive
anger, and hyperbolic way of speaking. Esther herself reveals her
own internal contradictions in her profession of modesty but clearly
enjoys her own narration and inclusion in the tale.
The story of the Ghost’s Walk in chapter 7 is
the first supernatural element in Bleak House and
adds a layer of dark intrigue to the story. Since Bleak
House was originally published as a serial, it makes sense
for Dickens to include such a mystery, since it would surely compel
readers to look forward to the next installment. Indeed, the second
installment of the serial ends after chapter 7. Similarly,
Mr. Guppy’s out-of-the-blue marriage proposal in chapter 9 seems
intended to add a bit of romance and melodrama to the tale. Mr.
Guppy’s affection seems so surprising that it’s difficult to understand
why Dickens would have included such a scene. On the other hand,
the image of Esther sobbing to herself after Mr. Guppy leaves provides
a touching, emotional moment with our heroine.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bleak House!