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Bleak House

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Bleak House is the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, published in 20 monthly parts between March 1852 and September 1853. The plot concerns a long-running legal dispute (Jarndyce and Jarndyce) which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. Dickens' assault on the flaws of the British judiciary system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk. His harsh characterization of the slow, arcane Chancery law process gave voice to widespread frustration with the system, helping to set the stage for its eventual reform in the 1870s.

Characters in Bleak House

As usual, Dickens drew upon many real people and places but was not constrained by the realities. The character Mrs. Jellyby, always involved in good causes but with a chaotic family, is based upon Caroline Chisholm. Many people saw the character of Harold Skimpole as a portrait of Leigh Hunt but this was always denied by Dickens. Mr Jarndyce's friend Mr Boythorn is based on the writer Walter Savage Landor. The novel also includes one of the first detectives to appear in English fiction, Mr Bucket. This character is probably based on Inspector Charles Frederick Field of the recently formed Detective Department at Scotland Yard.[1] Dickens wrote several journalistic pieces about the Inspector and the work of the detectives in Household Words.

Major characters

  • Esther Summerson — an orphan, the hero of the complex story. The discovery of her true identity provides for much of the drama in the book. It is later discovered that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock.
  • Richard Carstone — a ward of court in Jarndyce v Jarndyce. A fairly simple but inconstant character who falls under the malign spell of the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case. At the end of the book he dies, tormented by his inability to make any progress in the case at the cost of all his money.
  • Ada Clare — a ward of court in Jarndyce v Jarndyce. A good girl who falls in love with Richard Carstone. They later marry (in secret).
  • John Jarndyce — a party in Jarndyce, guardian of Richard, Ada and Esther, and owner of Bleak House. A good man who falls in love with Esther and proposes that they marry. She agrees but it becomes increasingly clear that the marriage would not suit her. He also realizes this but finds it very hard to give her up.
  • Harold Skimpole — a friend of Jarndyce and "in the habit of sponging his friends" (Nuttall); supposedly based on Leigh Hunt. A thoroughly despicable character, amoral, and without remorse.
  • Sir Leicester Dedlock — a crusty baronet, very much older than his wife and very "out of place" in the England of the 1830s.
  • Honoria, Lady Dedlock — the haughty mistress of Chesney Wold. Her past drives much of the plot as it turns out she had an affair with another man and gave birth to his child. She discovers the child's identity (it's Esther) and then she has to fend off the manipulations of Mr. Tulkinghorn. At the end, she dies, disgraced in her own mind, convinced her aristocratic husband could never forgive her moral failings.
  • Mr. Tulkinghorn — the Dedlock family lawyer. A scheming, manipulative monster of a man. He learns of Lady Dedlock's past and tries to blackmail her. He is murdered and the last part of the book turns into a murder investigation as several characters have good reason to want Tulkinghorn dead.
  • Nemo — a law writer. A mysterious man who dies early in the story. He is later revealed to have been a Captain in the British Army, the lover of Lady Dedlock, and the father of Esther.
  • Miss Flite — an elderly eccentric obsessed with Chancery. She is a party in Jarndyce v Jarndyce.
  • Mr. Guppy — a law clerk. He becomes very taken with Esther and plays a role in unearthing her true past. He proposes marriage to Esther, then withdraws the offer, then re-proposes. Esther politely refuses both his proposals.
  • Inspector Bucket — a detective. He is the key player in the murder investigation of Mr. Tulkinghorn and he does solve the case.
  • Mr. George — a former soldier. He is a trainer in the martial arts (swords and pistols mostly). Richard Carstone, before he joins the army, trains under him. Later we learn that Mr. George served under the command of "Nemo". He was the prime suspect in the death of Mr. Tulkinghorn and was arrested.
  • Caddy Jellyby — a friend of Esther.
  • Krook — a rag and bottle merchant and collector of papers. He dies from a case of Spontaneous human combustion, something that Dickens believed could, in fact, happen.
  • Jo — a young boy who tries to make a living as a crossing sweeper. He dies from a disease (smallpox?) which Esther also catches (and is nearly killed by).
  • Allan Woodcourt — a physician. A good man who likes Esther. She in turn likes him a great deal but feels unable to respond to his overtures because of her prior commitment to John Jarndyce. All is resolved happily at the end.
  • Grandfather Smallweed — a money lender. An evil man who enjoys inflicting emotional pain on other people. He drives Mr. George into bankruptcy (by calling in debts).

Minor characters

  • Mr Kenge — a lawyer of Kenge and Carboys
  • Mr Vholes — a lawyer
  • Mr Gridley — an involuntary party to a suit in Chancery (based on a real case, according to Dickens' preface)
  • Mr Snagsby — the proprietor of a law-stationery business
  • Mrs Snagsby — his wife
  • Guster — the Snagsbys' maidservant, prone to fits
  • Neckett — aka Coavinses — a debt collector
  • Charley — Coavinses' daughter
  • Tom — Coavinses' young son
  • Emma — Coavinses' baby daughter
  • Mrs Jellyby — Caddy's mother, a philanthropist with little regard to the notion of charity beginning at home
  • Mr Jellyby — Mrs Jellyby's husband
  • Peepy Jellyby — the Jellybys' young son
  • Prince Turveydrop — a dancing master
  • Old Mr Turveydrop — a master of deportment
  • Jenny — a brickmaker's wife
  • Rosa — a favourite of Lady Dedlock
  • Hortense — lady's maid to Lady Dedlock (based on murderess Maria Manning)[2]
  • Mrs Rouncewell — housekeeper to the Dedlocks at Chesney Wold
  • Mr Rouncewell — son of Mrs Rouncewell and a prosperous ironmaster
  • Watt Rouncewell — his son
  • Volumnia — a Dedlock cousin
  • Boythorn — an old friend of John Jarndyce and neighbour of Sir Leicester Dedlock; based on Walter Savage Landor
  • Miss Barbary — Esther's godmother and severe guardian in childhood
  • Mrs Rachael Chadband — a former servant of Miss Barbary
  • Mr Chadband — an oleaginous preacher, husband of Mrs Chadband
  • Mrs Smallweed — wife of Mr Smallweed senior
  • Young Mr (Bartholemew) Smallweed — grandson of the senior Smallweeds and friend of Mr Guppy
  • Judy Smallweed — granddaughter of the senior Smallweeds
  • Tony Jobling — aka Mr Weevle — a friend of Mr Guppy
  • Mrs Guppy — Mr Guppy's aged mother
  • Phil Squod — Mr George's assistant
  • Captain Hawdon — is the same person as Nemo. an officer under whom Mr George once served
  • Matthew Bagnet — military friend of Mr George and dealer in musical instruments
  • Mrs Bagnet — wife of Matthew Bagnet
  • Mrs Woodcourt — Allan Woodcourt's widowed mother

Analysis and criticism

In Bleak House Dickens experimented with the device of dual narrators: an unnamed third-person narrator and the orphan Esther take turns to tell the story. The style is also remarkable: a hypnotic opening of three paragraphs without a complete sentence. The scope is probably the broadest Dickens ever attempted, ranging from the filthy slums to the landed aristocracy, in a narrative that is in equal parts satire and comedy. One character, Krook, smells of brimstone and eventually dies of spontaneous human combustion, attributed to his evil nature.

Using spontaneous human combustion to dispose of Krook in the story was controversial. The nineteenth century was part of the age of reason, people during the nineteenth century considered scientific and medical endeavor highly admirable. Spontaneous human combustion is rejected by medical doctors and scientists and was also rejected by medical doctors and scientists during the nineteenth century. When the installment of Bleak House containing Krook's demise appeared, the literary critic George Henry Lewes criticized Dickens, saying that he had perpetuated a vulgar and unscientific superstition. Dickens vigorously defended the reality of spontaneous human combustion and cited many documented cases such as those of Mme. Millet of Rheims and of the Countess di Bandi, as well as his own memories of coroners' inquests that he had attended when he had been a journalist/reporter. In the preface of the book edition of Bleak House Dickens wrote:

"I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable Spontaneous Combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received."

Clearly these cases of human bodies being mysteriously consumed by fire will inevitably be joined by a case or cases that simply cannot be ignored by the medical and scientific community.

Ironically, Bleak House (the house not the novel) is not, in fact, bleak. The house is owned by one of Dickens' good characters, John Jarndyce and, in general, it represents a place of refuge from the other - often depressing - locales described in the story.

Some literature critics, including George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton, consider Bleak House to be the best novel that Charles Dickens wrote. To quote from Chesterton's Introduction from the 1960 reprint of the Everyman's Library edition: "'Bleak House' is not certainly Dickens's best book; but perhaps it is his best novel."

It is a measure of Dickens' talent that Nemo is never actually "seen" alive in the novel. He is always described by others or is presumed to be on the other side of something. The epitome of this is when Esther goes up a flight of stairs in Krook's house, passing the door of Nemo's room, with a heavy presumption that Nemo is on the other side of it.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The BBC has produced three television adaptations of Bleak House. The first version was broadcast in 1959 in eleven half-hour episodes;[3] the second, starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott, was broadcast as an eight-part series in 1985;[4] and the third was broadcast in fifteen episodes in 2005.[5] The last version starred Gillian Anderson, Anna Maxwell-Martin, and Charles Dance, among others.

Original publication

Like most Dickens novels, Bleak House was published in 19 monthly installments, each containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Phiz. Each cost one shilling, except for the last, which was a double issue and cost two.

See also

  • Detective fiction. Warning: this article includes a plot spoiler for Bleak House


  1. ^ Site of Dr Russell Potter, Rhode Island College Biography of Inspector Field
  2. ^ Dickens' London map
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  • Crafts, Hannah; Gates, Jr, Henry Louis (Ed), 2002. The Bondswoman's Narrative. Warner Books. ISBN 0-7628-7682-4

(5) Calkins, Carroll C. (Project Editor), 1982. Mysteries of the Unexplained. The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. Pleasantville, New York/Montreal.

External links

Online editions

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Bleak House
  • Bleak House, available freely at Project Gutenberg
  • Bleak House – complete book in HTML one page for each chapter.
  • Bleak House — HTML Searchable HTML version.
  • Bleak House — Easy to read HTML version.
  • Free Internet Cliffnotes on Bleak House.
  • Bleak House Annotated On-line Resources for Bleak House
  • Reprinted Pieces, available freely at Project Gutenberg "The Detective Police", "Three Detective Anecdotes", "On Duty with Inspector Field". Last piece first publ (June 1841) Household Words

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopaedia.

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