Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Search for Love

Almost every character in Bleak House is searching for love, a search that proves to be equally rewarding and difficult. Esther quietly searches for love, even though she seems too busy taking care of others to think much about her own romantic situation. She refrains from focusing on her romantic feelings in her narrative, often revealing her feelings only through her stammering evasions of the subject. When she first meets Mr. Woodcourt, she barely mentions him or describes him, which is in stark contrast to the thorough treatment she gives everyone else who crosses her path. Only when her search for love is over, culminating in her marrying Mr. Woodcourt, does she devote explicit attention to it. Other characters carry on their searches more openly. Caddy Jellyby gleefully marries Prince Turveydrop, for example, and Rosa and Watt Rouncewell intend to marry.

The search for love is not successful for everyone, and it even ends with heartbreak for some. Mr. Guppy tries and fails to become engaged to Esther, making two ridiculous proposals that Esther roundly rejects. Esther accepts Mr. Jarndyce’s proposal, but he calls off his search for love when he acknowledges that the love between them is not the kind of love that will make Esther truly happy. Ada, although she finds true love with Richard, is eventually heartbroken when Richard dies. Sometimes the search for love is literal, and these searches never end well. For example, Lady Dedlock engages in a literal search for love when she tries to find out where her former lover is, and Sir Leicester endeavors to find Lady Dedlock when she disappears from Chesney Wold. Whether pleasing or tragic, the search for love always proves to be a force that changes characters dramatically.

The Importance and Danger of Passion

In Bleak House, passion is both important and dangerous, sometimes healthy and satisfying, sometimes harmful and destructive. Many characters recognize the importance of passion for a fulfilling life. For example, Mr. Jarndyce and Esther worry when Richard can’t find a career. Both hope he’ll settle on a career that he’ll feel passionate about, but Richard flits from one thing to the next, never finding anything truly compelling. Esther recognizes the importance of passion in love, which is why she cries as she decides to accept Mr. Jarndyce’s proposal—she loves him, but not in the passionate, romantic way she’s dreamed of loving someone. Even Mr. Jarndyce understands the importance of passion. Although he knows he and Esther could have a happy life together at Bleak House, he also knows their love is built on affection rather than passion. He releases her from her acceptance and settles her with Mr. Woodcourt, who he knows is Esther’s true love.

Although passion is a key element in a fulfilling life, it can be destructive when it is taken to an unhealthy level. Mrs. Jellyby, who is obsessed with her “mission” to help Africa, is criminally negligent of her family and has removed herself from them so much that she barely cares about Caddy’s engagement and wedding. Mrs. Pardiggle, the charity worker who forces her young sons to give up their money for her causes, is oblivious to her sons’ unhappiness and can’t see that she is an intolerable person. More sinister is the violent passion Richard feels for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. For the first time, he is excited about something, willing to devote himself wholeheartedly to it and make it his single goal. This passion was absent from all his previous pursuits, but it is not welcome or healthy here. Rather than enliven and satisfy him, it robs him of reason and moderation and, eventually, his life. Passion, though essential, can be dangerous when it becomes all consuming.

The Ambiguous Definition of “Mother”

Throughout Bleak House, the role of mother is filled by women who often are not “real” mothers at all. Charley, a child herself, cares for her two young siblings, all of them orphaned and struggling. Jenny and Liz, the brickmakers’ wives, care for each other’s children. Liz cares for Jenny’s child when it is sick, and after it dies, Jenny takes to calling Liz’s child her own. Lady Dedlock reveals a motherly side in her affection for Rosa. And Mrs. Rouncewell becomes a kind of mother figure to Sir Leicester when he becomes ill at the end of the novel.

Esther is undoubtedly the character who best knows the true flexibility of the title “mother.” Esther fills the role of mother for several people, including Ada, Richard, Caddy, and Charley. To a lesser extent, she mothers Jo, Jenny’s sick baby, and Peepy Jellyby—in other words, nearly every child who crosses her path. When Ada has her child after Richard dies, Esther is so involved in the child’s upbringing that the child says it has two mothers. Esther herself is raised by Miss Barbary and Mrs. Rachael, neither of whom is her “real” mother. Occasionally, other women tend to Esther, including Mrs. Woodcourt, the women at the inn she meets when she goes in search for Lady Dedlock, and, in a reversal of roles, Charley, who tends to Esther when Esther gets smallpox. Lady Dedlock, Esther’s real mother, is actually the least motherly figure in Esther’s life. Their interaction is fleeting, and though Esther finds comfort when Lady Dedlock hugs her, it is temporary at best. When Lady Dedlock disappears, Esther takes up the mothering role once again, frantically searching for Lady Dedlock in the middle of the night.