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 expenses.
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 them together.
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.