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Esther, Charley, and Mr. Jarndyce go to Lincolnshire to
stay at Mr. Boythorn’s house. Esther cares for Mr. Boythorn’s bird
while she’s there. When she’s alone, she looks in a mirror for the
first time and sees her scarred face, barely recognizing herself.
She believes her beauty has entirely disappeared. Esther confesses
that she has secretly kept Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers. She decides
to keep them still, to remind herself of her former beauty.
Esther and Charley stay outdoors all day, to help restore
Esther’s health. They ride horses through town and stop to rest
at Esther’s favorite place in the woods. Though Chesney Wold is
very close, Esther says she never ventured close to it, for no good
reason. One day, Esther spots Lady Dedlock approaching in the woods.
Lady Dedlock approaches her and inquires about her health. Esther
is shocked to see Lady Dedlock holding her handkerchief, the one she’d
given to Jenny. Instantly understanding, Esther sends Charley away,
and Lady Dedlock cries and says she is Esther’s mother.
Lady Dedlock begs for Esther’s forgiveness and says that
she must continue to keep this secret for Sir Leicester’s sake.
Lady Dedlock is overcome with grief and guilt but says they can
never communicate again. Esther asks if the secret is safe, and
Lady Dedlock says that Tulkinghorn may reveal it soon. She tells
Esther to confide in Mr. Jarndyce if she wishes. Esther tells us
that Lady Dedlock gives her a letter but says that she’ll tell us
the contents of the letter another time.
Ada arrives at Lincolnshire and has no negative reaction
to Esther’s changed appearance.
Esther tells no one about Lady Dedlock. One day, Mr. Grubble,
the landlord of the public house Dedlock Arms, summons Esther. When she
arrives, she finds Richard there. He is on leave and has come to check
up on his interests in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Mr. Skimpole
is with him and is glad Richard’s involved with the suit. Esther
brings Richard to Ada, but she suspects Richard doesn’t love her
as he says he does.
The next day, Richard tells Esther more about his pursuit
of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. He says he and Mr. Jarndyce have parted ways
and that the suit is his one goal now. Ada writes Richard a letter
trying to dissuade him, but to no avail. Esther tries to convince Mr.
Skimpole not to support Richard’s goal, since it’s irresponsible, but
Mr. Skimpole says he can’t possibly be responsible. Later, when Richard
goes off to meet someone, Mr. Skimpole says he is going to meet
Mr. Vholes, his legal advisor. Skimpole admits that Vholes paid
him to be introduced to Richard.
Richard returns with Vholes and introduces him to everyone. Vholes
says he does everything for the sake of his three daughters and
his aging father. He and Richard depart so that Richard can attend
to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case the next day. Ada tells Esther
that she’ll love Richard even if the lawsuit ruins him.
Esther returns to Bleak House in full health and visits
London on the pretense of visiting Caddy. Caddy and Prince Turveydrop
live with Mr. Turveydrop, and Mr. Jellyby visits every evening.
Caddy is practicing to be a dancing instructor. There are also several
children in the house who are learning to dance. Esther attends
one of the dance practices.
Afterward, Esther and Caddy go to see Mr. Guppy, and Esther speaks
to him alone. Mr. Guppy is intent on reminding Esther that she refused
his proposal and that he will not renew it. Esther agrees readily
that the proposal is now defunct. Esther then reminds him that when
he made the proposal, he suggested that he could find out information
about her background. Esther asks him to cease all investigation
if he hasn’t already, and Mr. Guppy agrees to honor her wish.
The narrator describes Mr. Vholes and his small, dark
office in Symond’s Inn. Mr. Vholes claims to be a respectable man,
fully devoted to his clients and their affairs. Mr. Vholes wholeheartedly promotes
the idea that the backbone of English law is that it must make business
for itself. Yet he convinces Richard that they will make progress
in the suit. Richard trusts him completely.
Mr. Guppy and Mr. Weevle see Richard on the street, and
Mr. Guppy observes that Richard is now in debt because he wouldn’t stay
away from the suit. Mr. Guppy then tells Mr. Weevle that he no longer
wishes to find the letters from the now dead Krook. He asks Mr.
Weevle to tell him if there’s any chance the letters didn’t burn and
might be hidden in Krook’s shop.
Grandfather Smallweed has been coming to the shop every
day, searching through Krook’s belongings, but he never finds anything of
value. Mr. Guppy and Mr. Weevle go to the shop, chat briefly with Grandfather
Smallweed, then go upstairs to Mr. Weevle’s old lodging. Mr. Tulkinghorn
appears. He congratulates Guppy on being able to meet with grand
ladies. Guppy grows red and tells Tulkinghorn that he doesn’t have
to explain himself. Tulkinghorn leaves. Guppy admits to Weevle that
he’s been in communication with a member of the aristocracy, but
that this must end and be forgotten.
The narrator discusses the state of England, which is
in disarray. Mrs. Rouncewell suspects that the family may be needed,
and she prepares Chesney Wold accordingly. But the house seems dismal.
A groom tells Mrs. Rouncewell that Lady Dedlock is not well. She
and Sir Leicester and a large group of people go to Chesney Wold
the next day; people come and go from the house constantly for the
next several weeks. Each day, Volumnia asks Sir Leicester how the
country is doing, and Sir Leicester says “tolerably” and that people
are opposed to the government. He says that the party has incurred great
Volumnia observes that Tulkinghorn must be very busy,
but Sir Leicester says he doesn’t know of Tulkinghorn’s helping
any clients. A servant named Mercury says that Tulkinghorn has arrived
at Chesney Wold. He appears in the room and tells Sir Leicester
that he has lost the election. Tulkinghorn says that Mr. Rouncewell
was involved in this election and was running against Sir Leicester,
aided by his son, who is in love with Rosa. Sir Leicester is enraged.
He suggests that Lady Dedlock advise Rosa to stay away from the
boy. Tulkinghorn says that the boy will likely leave Rosa instead,
since the family has too much pride.
Tulkinghorn then tells a story: He has learned that a
man of similar social standing from the same town as Mr. Rouncewell
had a daughter that was favored by an aristocratic woman. This woman had
a secret: she had once been engaged to a captain and had an illegitimate
child. The captain died, but the woman’s secret was discovered because
she made an impudent mistake. Her husband was devastated, and the
townsman forbade his daughter from spending any more time with the
woman. He took his daughter away.
Throughout this tale, Lady Dedlock has sat very still.
Tulkinghorn asks her forgiveness for the painfulness of the story.
When Esther looks at herself in the mirror and sees her
scarred face for the first time, she reveals her vulnerability more
than at any other point in the novel. Never one to indulge in self-pity,
she plainly observes that even though she had never been beautiful,
what little beauty she had is now gone completely. The simplicity
of her statement—“It was all gone now”—is characteristic of Esther’s
clear, direct narrative style, but it also reveals how deeply she
feels the loss. No matter how fond others are of her, no amount
of affection, love, or respect can alter the fact that her face
has been ruined. Although she goes on once again to count her blessings
and get over her sadness determinedly, this plain statement suggests
that there is great pain beneath Esther’s relentless cheerfulness.
Her decision to keep Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers also suggests the depth
of her sadness. Although she claims to be fully content with her
lot in life, she keeps the flowers to remind her of how she used
to look. She may go on with her life uncomplainingly, but she does
not go on without a secret reserve of regret.
The revelatory confrontation between Lady Dedlock and
Esther brings a secret to the surface, but their brief encounter
focuses on the necessity of protecting that secret still further.
Esther divines Lady Dedlock’s secret as soon as she sees the handkerchief
and, like Lady Dedlock, is overcome with violent emotion. Their
happiness at finding each other is brief, and the overarching tone
of this encounter is fearful. Esther is unsettled to see Lady Dedlock
at her feet, asking her forgiveness. Lady Dedlock is newly consumed
by her own guilt, referring to the “dark road” she must follow and
declaring herself to be “wretched and dishonoring.” Lady Dedlock’s
fear of being discovered overshadows any happiness or relief she
may feel at finally revealing her secret. She has just connected
with the daughter she thought was dead, and yet she asserts that
they can never meet or talk again. She is almost looking over her
shoulder as they speak, and she and Esther conspire about who suspects
their relationship. Both vow to keep the secret at all costs, and
while they can’t pursue a public relationship, this secret binds
The narrator’s scathing portrayal of Mr. Vholes in chapter 38 indicts
the legal system as a self-perpetuating waste and lawyers as cannibals.
The narrator draws an analogy that directly connects Vholes and
his family to “cannibal chiefs” and says, “Make man-eating un-lawful,
and you starve the Vholeses!” The endless Jarndyce and Jarndyce
lawsuit is a dream job for Vholes, since the case will never end
and Vholes can extract money from Richard indefinitely. The narrator
is not subtle in his descriptions, leaving no question that Vholes
is immoral, untrustworthy, and dangerous. These views are underscored
by the narrator’s repetition of the statement, “Mr. Vholes is a
very respectable man.” The more we know about Vholes, the more sarcastic
this statement becomes. Because of men like Vholes, the legal system
has ceased to serve the people and instead serves only the scheming
lawyers who want to make themselves rich.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bleak House!