Analysis of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House

Dickens’s ninth novel, published in monthly parts in 1852–53, with illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne, issued in one volume in 1853. Often characterized as the first of the late novels, Bleak House describes England as a bleak house, devastated by an irresponsible and self-serving legal system, symbolically represented by the Lord Chancellor ensconced in foggy glory in the Court of Chancery. Dickens uses two narrators, a thirdperson narrator who reports on the public life in the worlds of law and fashion and a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, a young woman who tells her personal history. By this double narration, he is able to connect and contrast Esther’s domestic story with broad public concerns. Esther’s narrative traces her discovery of her identity as the illegitimate child of Lady Dedlock. Abandoned in infancy and raised by an abusive aunt, Esther is a self-denying, unassertive young woman, grateful for any recognition she receives from the patriarchal society around her. Her situation encapsulates that of the larger society, in which traditions of aristocratic privilege deny human needs and desires and patriarchal institutions like the courts make orphans of society’s children, enable slums and disease to flourish, and suppress individual autonomy by a “philanthropy” that makes dependents of its recipients.


Part 1 (March 1852)

(1) A foggy November afternoon. At the heart of the fog, the Court of Chancery is entangled in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, a dispute over a will that has dragged on for several generations. (2) Lady Dedlock is bored to death during the rainy season at Chesney Wold, her place in Lincolnshire, so she and her husband, Sir Leicester Dedlock, a baronet 20 years her senior, come up to London. There they consult with Mr. Tulkinghorn, the family lawyer. When he shows them some inconsequential documents pertaining to the Jarndyce case, she asks who copied them, faints, and is taken to her room.

(3) Esther Summerson begins the story of her life by telling of her lonely and oppressed childhood, raised by Miss Barbary, a “godmother” who tells her that she is her mother’s “disgrace” and that it would have been far better had she never been born. After her godmother’s death, she is sent to Greenleaf School for six years before being summoned to London by John Jarndyce, the primary living representative of the Jarndyce family, to become a companion to Ada Clare, one of two wards in the Jarndyce case assigned to the care of Jarndyce by the Court of Chancery. As Esther leaves the court with Ada and the other ward, Richard Carstone, the three young people meet a little madwoman, obsessed with the judgments of the court, who greets them as representatives of “youth, hope, and beauty.” (4) Then, Mr. Guppy, a law clerk, conducts them to the house of Mrs. Jellyby, a friend of Jarndyce, where they are to spend the night. The house is in complete disorder: The children are neglected, there is no hot water, stair carpets are loose, dinner is served almost raw. Mrs. Jellyby devotes all of her time and attention to an African mission in Borrioboola-Gha. Her daughter Caddy, who acts as her secretary, complains of the “disgraceful house” and falls asleep with her head in Esther’s lap.

Part 2 (April 1852)

(5) The next morning Esther, Ada, and Richard again meet the little madwoman, Miss Flite. She takes them to her room on the top floor of Krook’s Rag and Bottle Warehouse, where she shows them the caged birds, with names like Youth, Hope, and Beauty, that she plans to set free when the court decides her case. She leads them past the dark door of another lodger, a law writer called Nemo, and introduces them to her landlord, the junk-dealer Krook, who has earned the nickname “Lord Chancellor” because he collects legal documents and papers among the items in his shop. Although he cannot read, he spells out letter by letter J-a-r-n-dy-c-e and B-l-e-a-k H-o-u-s-e, words he has learned from his documents.

(6) Then the three young people set out for Bleak House in ST. ALBANS, the home of their guardian. When they arrive, Jarndyce suggests that they meet as old friends even though they have not met before. He shows them their rooms in the irregular house and surprises Esther by giving her the household keys. They also meet a guest in the house, Harold Skimpole, an artist, composer, and doctor who does not work and claims to have no understanding of money. He sponges from Jarndyce and prevails on Esther and Richard to pay a debt to keep him from being arrested. When Jarndyce finds out that they have given him money, he makes them promise never to do so again.

(7) Mrs. Rouncewell, the housekeeper at Chesney Wold, presides there while the Dedlocks are away. The weather remains wet in Lincolnshire. When Guppy tours the house, he is struck by a portrait of the current Lady Dedlock, who seems strangely familiar to him. He also wants to hear the story of the Ghost’s Walk, but Mrs. Rouncewell waits until he leaves before she tells the story to her grandson Watt and the pretty young servant Rosa. The story explains the sound of footsteps on the terrace, the footsteps of a Lady Dedlock of the 17th century who was crippled by her Cavalier husband when she opposed him and aided the Roundheads. She vowed to walk the terrace until the pride of the house was humbled.

Part 3 (May 1852)

(8) At breakfast Skimpole delightfully develops his “philosophy” that drones should be honored over those who are as busy as bees. Jarndyce shows them the Growlery, a room where he retreats when he is out of humor. He talks of the blight of Chancery and urges Richard to choose a profession. One of Jarndyce’s acquaintances, Mrs. Pardiggle, a local “philanthropist,” recruits Esther and Ada to accompany her to a nearby brickmaker’s house. On the way the Pardiggle children complain to Esther that their allowances are taken by their mother for charity. They intrude into the brickmaker’s house and discover that an infant child has died. Esther covers the little corpse with her handkerchief. (9) Lawrence Boythorn, an old schoolfellow, visits Jarndyce, filling Bleak House with boisterous superlatives and irrepressible hyperbole. Mr. Guppy also comes to Bleak House. He proposes to Esther, suggesting that he can act on her behalf. She rejects him, but she both laughs and cries over the proposal.

(10) Tulkinghorn asks Snagsby, the stationer who provides copying services for the legal community, who copied the affidavit that Lady Dedlock saw. Together they go to Krook’s, and he leads them up to Nemo’s room. There is a smell of opium in the darkness and Nemo does not respond to Krook’s “Hallo.”

Part 4 (June 1852)

(11) They find Nemo dead. While Krook is out of the room, Tulkinghorn removes some papers from Nemo’s portmanteau. At the inquest the next day at Sol’s Arms, no significant additions are made to the story; the one witness who knew Nemo, Jo, a poor crossing sweeper, is not allowed to testify. Nemo is buried in a pauper’s cemetery. Jo sweeps the step into the burial ground. (12) In January Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock return to Chesney Wold. The weather has cleared. Lady Dedlock arouses the jealousy of Hortense, her French maid, by complimenting the beauty of a local servant girl, Rosa. Tulkinghorn tells Lady Dedlock of Nemo’s death. Assuming her characteristic manner, she apparently listens to the story only to divert herself from the tedium of Chesney Wold.

(13) After vaguely considering the navy, the army, and the law, Richard chooses medicine and goes to study with Mr. Bayham Badger. Ada confesses to Esther that she and Richard love each other.

Part 5 (July 1852)

(14) Caddy tells Esther that she is secretly engaged to a dancing master, and Esther goes with her to the academy, where they meet the hardworking Prince Turveydrop and his idle and parasitic father, a latter-day dandy who considers himself the model of deportment. At Miss Flite’s, where Caddy has been learning household skills, they meet Jarndyce, Krook, and Allan Woodcourt, the young physician in attendance at Nemo’s death. Esther is chilled when she passes the dark room where Nemo died. (15) Skimpole tells Esther and Jarndyce of the death of Neckett, the bill collector, who “has been arrested by the great Bailiff,” and they seek out Neckett’s orphaned children. They find the two younger ones, Tom and Emma, locked in a tenement room in Bell Yard while Charley, the oldest, is out doing laundry. The neighbors, Mrs. Blinder and Mr. Gridley, keep an eye on the children and tell of their admiration for Charley.

(16) Sir Leicester remains alone in Lincolnshire. In London, Jo, the illiterate crossing sweeper, who was a friend of the dead copywriter Nemo, wonders at his darkened world. He lives in Tom-AllAlone’s, a slum blighted because it is caught up in a Chancery suit, and he is surprised when a woman, dressed as a servant, seeks him out and has him guide her to Snagsby’s, Krook’s, and the cemetery where Nemo is buried. She gives the boy a golden sovereign before she disappears.

Part 6 (August 1852)

(17) Richard is not committed to medicine. He suggests that the law would be a more engaging pursuit, and Jarndyce agrees to the change, but that evening Esther finds her guardian in the Growlery. There he tells her the little he knows of her personal history. Meanwhile, Allan Woodcourt, a physician devoted to his profession, announces that he is going to the East as a medical man. Caddy brings Esther some flowers that Woodcourt left at Miss Flite’s. (18) In midsummer, while visiting Boythorn in Lincolnshire, Esther is disturbed by seeing Lady Dedlock’s face, which calls up memories of childhood and a haunting sense that she has seen her before. When they meet in a garden house at Chesney Wold, Lady Dedlock’s voice also unsettles Esther.

(19) Taking tea at Snagsby’s, Guppy learns that the Reverend Chadband’s wife was formerly Miss Rachel, servant to Esther’s godmother. When Jo is brought to Snagsby by a constable who has arrested him for not “moving on,” Jo tells them of the lady who gave him a sovereign.

Part 7 (September 1852)

(20) Guppy continues to pursue the mysteries surrounding Nemo’s death. He convinces his friend Tony Jobling to take Nemo’s room at Krook’s, so that he can spy on Krook and gather information about Nemo. (21) Nearby, Trooper George, a former soldier, runs a shooting gallery. He has borrowed the money for the business from Grandfather Smallweed, a small-time money-lender, and each month George manages to pay enough interest to renew the loan for the principal amount. (22) Tulkinghorn is also pursuing the Nemo mystery. When Snagsby tells him Jo’s story of the lady who gave him a sovereign, the lawyer sends Snagsby and detective Bucket to Tom-All-Alone’s to find the boy. When they bring Jo back, there is a veiled lady in Tulkinghorn’s rooms. At first Jo thinks it is the woman he guided through the streets, but when she removes her gloves he sees that her hands are not so delicate nor her rings so precious as those on the woman who gave him the sovereign. This woman is Hortense, Lady Dedlock’s former maid. Tulkinghorn and Bucket are pleased to have established that Jo’s woman was a lady disguised as Hortense.

Part 8 (October 1852)

(23) Hortense offers herself to Esther as a maid, but Esther turns her down. Richard reveals that he is bored with the law and in debt. Caddy asks Esther to go with her when she informs Mr. Turveydrop and her mother of her engagement. Turveydrop agrees to the marriage when Caddy and Prince promise to take care of him. Mrs. Jellyby, continuing her mission work in spite of her husband’s bankruptcy, refuses to take Caddy seriously. Esther is surprised to learn that Mr. Jarndyce has hired Charley as her maid. (24) Richard moves from the law to the army. Jarndyce asks Ada and Richard to break off their engagement because they are too young and unsettled. Richard complies resentfully. To prepare for his new profession, Richard takes fencing and shooting lessons from Trooper George at the shooting gallery where Gridley, the man from Shropshire, now ill and a fugitive from the law, is hiding. Just as Bucket comes to arrest him, Gridley dies.

(25) Mrs. Snagsby has convinced herself that Jo is her husband’s son. At an oration by Chadband hinting at this connection, Jo falls asleep. Snagsby quietly gives the boy a half-crown and commends him for saying nothing about the lady with a sovereign.

Part 9 (November 1852)

(26) Grandfather Smallweed asks George for a sample of the handwriting of Captain Hawdon, George’s former officer in the army. Smallweed is acting on behalf of Tulkinghorn, and George, reluctant to give it to him until he knows why it is wanted, agrees to go with Smallweed to see Tulkinghorn. (27) The lawyer will not reveal why he wants the writing. George feels vaguely threatened, so he consults with his old army comrade, Mat Bagnet, whose wife advises him to stay out of things he does not understand. George refuses to turn over the writing. (28) Meanwhile, Rouncewell the Ironmaster, the elder son of Mrs. Rouncewell, proposes to remove Rosa from Chesney Wold and educate her to be a fit wife for his son Watt. Sir Leicester is scandalized to learn that Rouncewell does not value Rosa’s training as a servant at Chesney Wold; he knows that “the whole framework of society” has cracked. (29) Guppy tells Lady Dedlock that he has linked her portrait with Esther’s face and her story with those of Miss Barbary and Captain Hawdon, that Hawdon was the real name of Nemo the dead law writer, that Esther is his daughter, and that Lady Dedlock herself was the lady who gave Jo the sovereign. He offers to obtain a sheaf of Hawdon’s letters for her. After he leaves, she falls on her knees, crying, “O my child!”

Part 10 (December 1852)

(30) Esther serves as Caddy’s bridesmaid. On the wedding day, Jarndyce, in good spirits, ignores the differences between Mrs. Jellyby’s philanthropic friends, each obsessed with her particular mission, and Turveydrop, who thinks the Jellybys lack deportment. (31) Over Skimpole’s objection, Esther and Charley take in Jo, who is sick with fever, but by the next morning Jo has mysteriously disappeared. Charley comes down with the fever and Esther cares for her, but when Charley recovers, Esther contracts the disease. The fever is so bad that Esther goes blind.

(32) Guppy and Jobling wait in Nemo’s old rooms for an appointment with Krook at midnight, when he will turn over Nemo’s letters to them. They are bothered by an oppressiveness in the air and by oily soot collecting on the windowsills and walls. When the clock strikes 12, they go downstairs and find the cat snarling at a spot on the floor. That is all that remains of Krook, who has died from spontaneous combustion.

Part 11 (January 1853)

(33) Cook’s Court can talk of nothing else but the strange events at Krook’s. The Smallweeds claim the building as the property of Mrs. Smallweed, Krook’s sister. Guppy tells Lady Dedlock that he does not have the letters, that they were probably destroyed. (34) Smallweed demands that George pay the principal of his loan, but George does not have the money, and Mat Bagnet, his cosigner, is threatened. Tulkinghorn agrees to restore matters to their old footing for a sample of Hawdon’s writing. George gives in.

(35) After several weeks, Esther awakens from her illness and gradually recovers her sight. She notices that the mirrors in her rooms are gone and realizes that this means that she is scarred by the disease and has lost her “old face.” Miss Flite visits and tells of Woodcourt’s heroism in saving the survivors of a shipwreck. Esther admits that she used to think Woodcourt loved her, but now she is grateful that she is disfigured and will not have that to worry about anymore.

Part 12 (February 1853)

(36) At Boythorn’s house, where she goes to recuperate, Esther finds a mirror in her room with a curtain pulled across it. After Charley has gone to bed, Esther pulls back the curtain, looks in the mirror, and tearfully accepts her changed face. On one of her daily walks in the park at Chesney Wold, Esther is confronted by Lady Dedlock, who reveals that she is Esther’s mother and, kneeling before her, asks her forgiveness. Esther is unsettled; walking on the Ghost’s Walk and hearing the ghost’s hollow footsteps, she thinks she is the calamity in the Chesney Wold legend. Gradually she comes to accept her birth and to believe that she was intended to live. (37) Esther asks Skimpole to discourage Richard’s obsession with the Jarndyce case, his distrust of Mr. Jarndyce, and his reliance on his new attorney Vholes. Skimpole says he is incapable of such “responsibility.” (38) Esther asks Guppy to abandon his pursuit of her personal history. Guppy, disconcerted by her changed appearance, agrees to do so, and makes her swear that she turned down his original proposal and that she understands that it cannot be renewed.

Part 13 (March 1853)

(39) Tulkinghorn asks Guppy about his business with Lady Dedlock, but Guppy tells him nothing. (40) At Chesney Wold, where the Dedlocks have gathered, Tulkinghorn tells the story of an ironmaster who forbade his daughter to associate with a great lady when he learned that the great lady had suppressed a secret affair and a child she had borne out of wedlock many years before. Lady Dedlock leaves the room. (41) Later she confirms Tulkinghorn’s story and tells him of her plan to flee. He threatens her with immediate exposure unless she remains at Chesney Wold and keeps her secret unrevealed. That night Tulkinghorn sleeps unaware of the distraught figure pacing on the Ghost’s Walk. (42) When Tulkinghorn returns to the city, Snagsby complains that Mademoiselle Hortense has been lingering near his house and raising Mrs. Snagsby’s suspicions. Tulkinghorn threatens to have her thrown in prison if she persists. Hortense demands his aid in securing a new position and leaves threatening revenge.

Part 14 (April 1853)

(43) Esther worries that she will inadvertently reveal her mother’s secret. When Sir Leicester Dedlock calls and invites her to visit Chesney Wold, she is disconcerted. She seeks advice from Mr. Jarndyce, telling him that Lady Dedlock is her mother. (43) Jarndyce agrees that she must avoid further meetings with Sir Leicester. Then he asks her to send Charley “this night a week” for a letter from him. The letter turns out to be a proposal asking her to be “mistress of Bleak House.” He assures her that nothing will change in his feelings for her, whatever she decides. Esther thinks that devoting her life to Jarndyce’s happiness “was to thank him poorly,” yet she cries over her good fortune. Then she burns Woodcourt’s dried roses. After several days she agrees to be mistress of Bleak House. (45) Esther goes down to Deal, where Richard has sold his commission and is preparing to leave the army. While she is there, Allan Woodcourt returns from India. Esther asks him to be a friend and adviser to Richard.

(46) Back in London, in Tom-All-Alone’s, Woodcourt comes upon the sickly Jo. The boy tells him that he was taken from Bleak House by Bucket, who put him in a hospital and then gave him some money and told him to “move on” and stay away from London. He has returned to TomAll-Alone’s to die.

Part 15 (May 1853)

(47) Woodcourt takes the sick boy to George’s shooting gallery. There the boy dies as he repeats the Lord’s Prayer after Woodcourt. (48) Lady Dedlock turns Rosa over to Rouncewell. Tulkinghorn takes this act as a breach of their agreement, but he will not tell her when he plans to inform Sir Leicester of her secret. That night a shot rings out, and in the morning the people who come to clean Tulkinghorn’s rooms discover his body. (49) The next day Bucket appears at Mrs. Bagnet’s birthday dinner. He charms the family with his stories and songs and leaves with George, who is white and drawn. On their way home, Bucket arrests George for Tulkinghorn’s murder.

Part 16 (June 1853)

(50) After the birth of Caddy’s sickly baby, Esther nurses Caddy through an illness. Prince, Mr. Turveydrop, and Woodcourt are frequent visitors to the sickroom. Esther tells Caddy and Ada of her agreement to marry Jarndyce. After Caddy’s recovery, Esther returns home and feels a “shade” between herself and Ada. (51) Ada confesses to Esther that she and Richard have married. (52) Esther is now alone in Jarndyce’s house. Woodcourt, who serves as both Caddy’s and Richard’s doctor, tells her of their conditions. When he tells her of George’s arrest, they visit the trooper in prison and offer to help him, but he so distrusts lawyers that he refuses any legal aid. Mrs. Bagnet decides to seek out George’s mother, whom she believes is still alive and living in Lincolnshire.

(53) Bucket investigates the murder. He observes those attending Tulkinghorn’s funeral, studies anonymous letters implicating Lady Dedlock, and learns from Sir Leicester’s footman that Lady Dedlock went out walking on the night of the murder.

Part 17 (July 1853)

(54) Bucket reveals the true story of Lady Dedlock to Sir Leicester, advising him to buy Captain Hawdon’s letters, now in Grandfather Smallweed’s possession. Then he apprehends Hortense and charges her with Tulkinghorn’s murder. (55) When Mrs. Bagnet finds George’s mother, she turns out to be Mrs. Rouncewell. George has been estranged from his family ever since he ran away from home as a young man. When Mrs. Rouncewell reveals herself to her son, George falls on his knees, asks her forgiveness, and says he is innocent. She asks Lady Dedlock to do anything she can for her son. Guppy tells Lady Dedlock that Hawdon’s letters have been found and that Sir Leicester has heard her story. Lady Dedlock writes to Sir Leicester, telling him that she followed Tulkinghorn on the evening of the murder, but that she is innocent of the crime. (56) Sir Leicester collapses on the floor of the library suffering from a stroke. When he learns of Lady Dedlock’s disappearance, he summons Bucket and, by writing on a slate, asks the detective to find his wife and forgive her. Bucket hires horses and a carriage, and, at one in the morning, comes to Esther’s house to secure her aid in the search.

Part 18 (August 1853)

(57) Bucket and Esther go to a police station where the detective files a description of Lady Dedlock, then to a place by the river where suicides are recovered, and then to the north, picking up a trail that leads to the brickmaker’s houses outside St. Albans. There Bucket learns that Jenny, the brickmaker’s wife, and Lady Dedlock have gone off in opposite directions. They follow Lady Dedlock’s trail to the north, but they lose it about evening. Then Bucket heads back toward London, to follow Jenny’s trail.

(58) Meanwhile, Sir Leicester, attended by George, awaits his wife’s return.

(59) At three in the morning, Esther and Bucket reach the outskirts of London. They go on to Chancery Lane, where they learn from Snagsby’s servant that she has directed a ragged woman to the graveyard where Nemo is buried. There they find Lady Dedlock, dressed in Jenny’s clothes, dead on the pavement before the cemetery gate.

Part 19–20 (September 1853)

(60) After Lady Dedlock’s death, Esther settles in London to be near Ada and Richard. They worry about Richard’s declining health. Ada tells Esther that she is pregnant and that she hopes Richard’s child will draw him away from his destructive obsession with the Jarndyce case. (61) Esther asks Skimpole to stop seeing Richard. He agrees, seeing no point in making himself part of Richard’s unhappy poverty. One evening, Woodcourt, as he accompanies Esther home from Richard’s, reveals his love and admiration for her, but Esther turns down his proposal because she is not free to love him. With tears in her eyes, she watches him leave. (62) Esther tells Jarndyce to set the time when she will become mistress of Bleak House. Meanwhile, Grandfather Smallweed has found a Jarndyce will later than any other, which reduces John Jarndyce’s interest in favor of Richard’s and Ada’s.

(63) George visits his brother the ironmaster in the iron district, is welcomed as an honored guest, and is invited to stay there. But George returns to settle at Chesney Wold.

(64) Jarndyce plans to go to Yorkshire to see about Woodcourt’s new position there as a physician to the poor. He asks Esther to accompany him. There he shows her a house for Woodcourt furnished like Bleak House, and he tells her that his proposal was a mistake. Both he and Woodcourt encourage her to marry Allan and to live in the new Bleak House. She is very happy. Back in London, Guppy renews his proposal and is again refused. (65) Allan and Esther set out for Chancery on the day the Jarndyce will is to be decided. They are late for the session, and when they arrive, the proceedings are already over. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is decided. The new will is valid, but all the money has been absorbed in legal costs. Richard, weak, his mouth full of blood, talks of the dream’s being over, of beginning in the world. He reconciles with Jarndyce. But he will begin in the next world. As he dies, Miss Flite releases her birds.

(66) Chesney Wold is quiet. Sir Leicester, accompanied by George, can be seen riding by Lady Dedlock’s grave and stopping in quiet respect. The house is dark and vacant.

(67) Seven years later, Esther lives a settled life with Allan and her two daughters in Yorkshire, where they are visited by Caddy, by Ada and her son Richard, and by Jarndyce, for whom they have added a growlery to their house.


Bleak House, along with Copperfield and Expectations, is one of the books most often described as Dickens’s best novel. A volumninous body of criticism attests to its academic popularity. Published in 1852–53, Bleak House is often considered the first of the late novels, coming just after the autobiographical Copperfield, which divides Dickens’s career. Though there are some comic characters and humorous scenes, it is a dark novel that presents England as diseased and apocalyptically warns of a coming day of judgment. Like the other late novels, it is focused around a central theme and dominant symbol, the fog that represents the pervasive influence of the Court of Chancery in all aspects of British life. Dickens began this social critique with a contemporary scandal: In 1850, the Times published a series of articles exposing the court, with its endless delays, repetitive proceedings, and interminable cases. They cited several cases that had gone on for years and, like Jarndyce, ended by exhausting all the resources in court costs. Dickens began with this scandal and turned it into a story, symbolically anatomizing the condition of England in 1852.

The most notable technical feature in Dickens’s conception is the use of two contrasting narrations, a third-person narration marked by the usual Dickensian hyperbole and rhetorical effects and a first-person narration by Esther Summerson. Critics have debated at length about why Dickens used this narrative strategy and just how successful it is, particularly in telling Esther’s story.

The third-person narration that opens the novel is a generalizing, present tense, highly rhetorical voice with a panoramic view of the world. In the famous description of the fog that begins the first chapter, the narrator links London’s present fogginess to Noah’s flood, suggesting that it is far more than a weather condition, and then to the Court of Chancery, where the foggy wigs of the judges and lawyers symbolize the pervasive confusion that they bring to the condition of England. Then, in the second chapter, he moves to Lincolnshire and finds that the “waters are out” there as well. Satirical, symbolic, authoritative, these opening chapters present a public view; they are highly stylized reportage of the worlds of Chancery and fashion by a very capable reporter, sure of his effects. The voice is clearly male.

Esther Summerson’s voice is just as clearly female. Her narration, which begins in chapter 3, is hesitant, self-deprecating, personal, an account related in the past tense of her life and of the narrow world she inhabits. From her opening sentence—“I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever” (3)—she counters the assurance and objectivity of the male narrator. Philip Collins (1990) has pointed out that Esther’s style and language still have many characteristic Dickensian traits, but many readers have nonetheless found her a tiresome bore. Esther is too passive, too deferential to others, too repressed, too coy; she conceals or withholds her feelings about her mother and about Alan Woodcourt, and she dutifully accepts the role of “little woman.” Commentators disagree on whether Dickens was celebrating Esther as a feminine ideal or using her to show the oppressiveness of patriarchal institutions.

Esther has much in common with Dickens’s other “orphan” heroes. Like Oliver Twist, she bears a name that does not indicate her parentage, and her godmother oppresses her psychologically much as Oliver is oppressed by parish authorities. Like David Copperfield, Esther has a host of nicknames, indicative of her uncertainty about her identity and her willingness to accept the identities others give her. Her situation as a woman exaggerates the identity crisis faced by these Dickensian orphans, for the opportunities available to her are fewer than those available to David or Pip. Yet for all her reticence, Esther is not totally passive. She does, for example, resist Mr. Guppy’s attempts to claim her and her story.

Esther’s “progress” is like that of the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), a popular novel published just a few years before Bleak House, which described the stages in Jane’s life, from orphanhood through an abusive childhood in the care of an aunt to a position as governess and ultimately a marriage to her master. Like Jane, Esther passes through a series of symbolic bleak houses. She begins in the house of a cruel aunt who tells her, “It would have been far better . . . that you had never been born” (3) and teaches her to use “submission, self-denial, [and] diligent work” as ways to compensate for her guilty presence. After a respite at Greenleaf—a marked contrast to Jane’s unhappy Lowood School—Esther is called to be the housekeeper at Bleak House, where she will also be tempted to marry the master of the house. On the way there, she stays at the house of Mrs. Jellyby, whose “telescopic philanthropy” leads to her preoccupation with Africa and to her neglect of her own children. Mrs. Jellyby represents the bleak house of imperial England, engaged around the world but out of touch with the problems at home. Krook’s rooming house is another emblem of such waste and neglect. In his rag and bottle shop, he hoards the detritus of legal London that surrounds him, and his apartments house the victims of Chancery, little Miss Flite and the dying law writer Nemo.

In sharp contrast to the poverty and decay in the urban slums is Chesney Wold, the opulent country estate of Sir Leicester Dedlock, but it too has been wasted by the flood that has fogged in London. The floodgates have been opened, Sir Leicester repeatedly complains, and the waters are out in Lincolnshire. Lady Dedlock, “bored to death,” acts out the devastation that has been wrought on the landed aristocracy, and the legend of the Ghost’s Walk foretells the judgment that will fall upon the house.

Removed from the neglect and decay in London, the actual Bleak House seems far from bleak. Located in ST. ALBANS, an old settlement well away from the city, it provides a refuge in its irregular rooms and gardens where its owner, John Jarndyce, has withdrawn to escape the city and the Jarndyce case. But the devastation of Chancery reaches St. Albans; Jarndyce’s attempt to escape to the country proves as illusory as Skimpole’s charade as an irresponsible child. Jarndyce must have the Growlery to retreat to when the east wind blows, for the ills of London appear at Bleak House as Skimpole’s parasitism, Mrs. Pardiggle’s oppressive philanthropy, the sufferings of the brickmakers, and the smallpox that Jo, the diseased child of urban neglect, brings from Tom-All-Alone’s to the suburbs.

The bleakness that afflicts all of these houses is in various ways connected to the law and the system of injustice that serves itself but ignores the human effects of its operations. The law is represented by the Lord Chancellor, the interminable Jarndyce suit, and the many lawyers in the novel, especially Tulkinghorn, whose house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the bleak house of the law: “Formerly a house of state . . . it is let off in sets of chambers now; and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. . . . Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. . . . Everything that can have a lock has got one; no key is visible” (10). The significance of Tulkinghorn is indicated by the ominous figure of Allegory painted on the ceiling of his rooms. Locked up and secretive as an oyster, dressed in rusty black like an agent of fate, his motives for acting are never clear. He seems not to serve the best interests of his clients but rather to seek power for its own sake. His machinations are part of a legal system that simply serves itself, and in doing so wreaks havoc on society. Allegorically, all of England is a bleak house devastated by the law.

The other metaphor that underlies the novel is disease. Here Dickens follows the lead of Thomas Carlyle, who coined the phrase “Condition of England” in his essay Chartism (1839) to describe the social turmoil of the times as a form of disease. In Bleak House the infection of Chancery is seen in the Jarndyce case (its name suggestively close to jaundice); in Tom Jarndyce, who has blown his brains out before the beginning of the story; and in Richard Carstone, who catches the disease and slowly wastes away and dies. These cases are echoed in the stories of other Chancery suitors: Gridley, the Man from Shropshire, and Miss Flite, for example.

The disease metaphor has its most bizarre expression in the figure of Krook, the illiterate rag and bottle merchant, who acts an underworld parody of the Lord Chancellor. He compulsively collects legal documents and papers, but, unable to understand their contents, he can make no use of them. His papers cannot aid the cause of justice; they are simply instruments of the law. Like the gin that courses through Krook’s bloodstream, this narcissistic, self-gratifying use of law is ultimately self-destructive. In Krook’s improbable death by spontaneous combustion, an episode that drew much adverse criticism, there is a warning for the established legal system: When the law becomes totally absorbed with itself and its own procedures, it will destroy itself. Dickens defended his use of spontaneous combustion on scientific grounds, citing cases and scientific studies that confirmed the possibility, but his real defense would argue on symbolic grounds. Krook’s explosion is a small version of legal England ending in fire. Dickens concluded the preface to the novel by remarking that he had “purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things.” In Krook’s improbable death, this romantic focus explodes into magical realism.

The disease metaphor is most fully developed in Jo, the illiterate crossing sweeper. He is the product of Tom-All-Alone’s, the slum in the heart of London created by Chancery, for the money that would repair and maintain the houses there is tied up in the Jarndyce case. The child is as neglected as the buildings. In a society with no public education, Jo is allowed “to know nothink,” to be less educated than a dog who has at least been trained to herd sheep. This neglected child, forced by the law to “move on,” carries the fever from the festering slum to St. Albans. There Esther is exposed, and her illness brings her identity story to its crisis, precipitating the action that leads to Lady Dedlock’s death.

Lady Dedlock’s death is only the last in a series of deaths that litter the stage of the novel with bodies. From Tom Jarndyce’s suicide, which occurs before the action of the story, the novel records the deaths of Miss Barbary, Jenny’s baby, Captain Hawdon, Krook, Neckett, Gridley, Tulkinghorn, Jo, and Richard Carstone. All of them are, in some way or other, victims of Chancery.

A constitutional society grounded in the law that neglects its citizens is like an irresponsible parent who neglects or abuses his children. Jo and Esther—and numerous other children in the novel—represent these victims of neglect. The law is not the only bad parent. Dickens also blames religion: the cruel Calvinism that engenders the psychological abuse inflicted by Esther’s aunt, the hypocritical Evangelism of the Chadbands that concentrates on converting street children like Jo rather than feeding their hunger, the “telescopic philanthropy” of those like Mrs. Jellyby who are so obsessed with missionary work in Africa that they neglect the children of England. Dickens also blames “Fashion”: the class system that leads Lady Dedlock to suppress her past relationship with Captain Hawdon and “abandon” her child and the dandyism that turns Turveydrop into an imitator of the idle aristocracy and into a parasite who exploits his son. Finally, Dickens blames the artists who, like Skimpole, celebrate beauty and pretend to be children in order to avoid taking responsibility for the ugliness around them.

Faced with such systemic ills—with a national bleak house—Jarndyce’s philanthropy seems trivial and ineffective. Indeed, Jarndyce cannot save Richard from Chancery nor Jo from smallpox. His kindness to Skimpole may, in fact, hasten Jo’s illness and death. Although he is more enlightened and less self-interested than Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, Jarndyce’s philanthropy does not represent the solution to bleakness. His strategy is one of retreat and withdrawal; he is basically passive. In spite of his kindness, he is allied with the old order. He can preserve Bleak House, even build a replica of it, but he cannot create a new order.

Jarndyce’s inability to change things may account for the unfinished ending of the novel. It breaks off, mid-sentence, in Esther’s narrative. She is again revealing her sense of inferiority—or her coyness—and seems not to have been changed at all psychologically by the events of the novel. The scars of parental abandonment are so lasting and the wounds of her childhood are so deep that she will carry them forever, in spite of a happy marriage and loving family. There is ample textual support for this despairing conclusion.

Yet there are also some reasons for hope in the final chapters of the novel. If a self-serving legal system, an obsolete aristocracy, and a narrow and repressive religion collude to deny possibilities for change and growth, there are a few characters in Bleak House who are not blinded by self-interest or enfeebled by the past. One such character is Rouncewell the Ironmaster, one of the new captains of industry. He is not intimidated by Sir Leicester’s title and position: He challenges the Dedlock candidate in the election and wins, and he removes Rosa from Chesney Wold to better educate her for a useful place in society. Inspector Bucket is also one of the new class, a professional who takes pride in his work and who carries out his duties for his client; he is one of the new Metropolitan Police who represent a new way of administering the law. Finally, Allan Woodcourt, much more than the romantic hero of the novel, is a doctor who serves his patients and ministers to the poor. If anyone can heal the diseased condition of England, it will be such a man.


Badger, Bayham

Doctor with whom Richard Carstone studies medicine. A cousin of Kenge, John Jarndyce’s solicitor, Dr. Badger is “a pink, fresh-faced, crisp-looking gentleman, with a weak voice, light hair, and surprised eyes: some years younger . . . than Mrs. Bayham Badger. He admired her exceedingly, but principally, and to begin with, on the curious ground . . . of her having had three husbands” (13). He is perhaps most notable as Mrs. Bayham Badger’s third husband.

Badger, Laura (Mrs. Bayham)

Bayham Badger’s wife: “She was surrounded in the drawing room by various objects, indicative of her painting a little, playing the piano a little, playing the guitar a little, playing the harp a little, singing a little, working a little, reading a little, writing poetry a little, and botanising a little. She was a lady of about fifty, I should think, youthfully dressed, and of a very fine complexion” (13). In conversation she repeatedly refers to the professional accomplishments of her first two husbands, Captain Swosser of the Royal Navy and Professor Dingo, a naturalist.

The Badgers provide comic relief in the novel, but Mrs. Badger’s obsession with the professions of her husbands also draws attention to Richard Carstone’s lack of commitment to his medical studies.

Bagnet, Matthew (“Lignum Vitae”)

Formerartilleryman, bassoon player, and proprietor of a small musical instrument shop at Elephant and Castle. An army friend of George Rouncewell, he acts as guarantor of George’s loan from Grandfather Smallweed. “An ex-artilleryman, tall and upright, with shaggy eyebrows, and whiskers like the fibres of a cocoa-nut, not a hair upon his head, and a torrid complexion. His voice, short, deep, and resonant, is not at all unlike the tones of the instrument to which he is devoted. Indeed, there may be generally observed in him an unbending, unyielding, brass-bound air, as if he were himself the bassoon of the human orchestra” (27). Although his nickname from his army days is Lignum Vitae, after a South American hardwood, suggestive of his “extreme hardness and toughness,” Bagnet is a gentle family man who defers to his wife in all family decisions. He tells George, “It’s my old girl that advises. She has the head. But I never own to it before her. Discipline must be maintained” (27). Their mutual accommodations to this fiction maintain this happy family. When George is unable to repay the loan, Smallweed threatens the meager finances of the Bagnet family and Mrs. Bagnet acts to rescue the family and George. The Bagnets have three children, Woolwich, Quebec, and Malta, named for the military bases where they were born.

Bagnet, Mrs. (“the Old Girl”)

“A strong, busy, active, honest-faced woman, . . . so economically dressed (though substantially), that the only article of ornament of which she stands possessed appears to be her wedding-ring; around which her finger has grown to be so large since it was put on, that it will never come off again until it shall mingle with Mrs. Bagnet’s dust” (27). She is also recognized by her grey cloak and the umbrella she always carries. Dona Budd (“Langage Couples in Bleak House,” Nineteenth Century Literature, 1994) suggests that the umbrella serves as a kind of scepter, indicating Mrs. Bagnet’s assumption of the masculine role in the family. She manages the Bagnet household and makes all the important decisions in her husband’s life. When George Rouncewell is arrested for the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn, she goes to Lincolnshire to find Mrs. Rouncewell and reunites George with his mother from whom he has long been separated (52).

Barbary, Miss

Lady Dedlock’s stern and cruel sister who lives at WIindsor, Berkshire; the “godmother” who raises Esther Summerson. “She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been . . . like an angel—but she never smiled” (3). She tells Esther that “It would have been far better . . . that you had never been born!”

Bell Yard

A narrow lane off Fleet Street where Mrs. Blinder cares for the Neckett children (15).

Bleak House

Two houses in St . Al bans have been suggested as the likely originals of Dickens’s Bleak House. Fort House in Broadstairs, Kent, the building where Dickens spent many holidays, has been renamed Bleak House, but it has no connection with the house in the novel.

Blinder, Mrs.

The kindly woman in Bell Yard who cares for the Neckett children after their father’s death (15).

Blowers, Mr.

An eminent attorney involved in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (1).

Bogsby, James

George Landlord of Sol’s Arms (33).


Weevle’s nickname for Krook (32).

Boodle, Lord

One of Sir Leicester Dedlock’s guests at Chesney Wold, a man of “considerable reputation within his party,” who laments the politics of the time. He tells Dedlock that the choices for a new government “would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle—supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then, giving the Home Department and the Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows? That the country is shipwrecked, lost, and gone to pieces” (12). This catalog satirizes the do-nothing aristocrats and politicians who maintain the political and social status quo.


African village that is the focus of Mrs. Jellyby’s missionary activities (4).

Boythorn, Lawrence

The impetuous and boisterous friend of John Jarndyce, who speaks with a “vigorous healthy voice,” spilling out a “very fury of . . . superlatives, which seem . . . to go off like blank cannons and hurt nothing. . . . He was not only a very handsome gentleman . . . with a massive grey head, a fine composure of face when silent, a figure that might have become corpulent but for his being so continually in earnest that he gave it no rest, and a chin that might have subsided into a double chin but for the vehement emphasis which it was constantly required to assist; but he was such a true gentleman in his manner, so chivalrously polite, his face was lighted by a smile of so much sweetness and tenderness, and it seemed so plain that he had nothing to hide, but showed himself exactly as he was” (9). His boisterousness is belied by the pet canary he carries upon his shoulder. He maintains an ongoing litigation over property lines with his neighbor, Sir Leicester Dedlock. He offers his house to Esther Summerson for her recuperation from smallpox (36). In his passionate commitment to principle, Graham Storey (1987) points out, he is the opposite of Harold Skimpole.

Boythorn was, according to Dickens, “a most exact portrait” of the poet WAalter Savage Landor, Doris Alexander (1991) concludes that Dickens toned down Landor’s eccentricities in the portrayal of Boythorn.


Police detective employed by Tulkinghorn to discover Gridley’s whereabouts and to inquire into Lady Dedlock’s interest in Hawdon’s grave. “With his attentive face, and his hat and stick in his hands, and his hands behind him, [he is] a composed and quiet listener. He is a stoutlybuilt, steady-looking, sharp-eyed man in black, of about the middle-age” (22). He sizes up those he is questioning or investigating and discovers their interests, using flattery to learn what they might otherwise withhold. After Tulkinghorn’s murder, he and his wife work together to solve the crime. Although he initially arrests George for the crime (49), he uses the arrest as a ruse in his scheme to trick Hortense into a confession (54). He is also employed by Sir Leicester Dedlock to follow Lady Dedlock when she runs from Chesney Wold (57).

Although Dickens denied it, Bucket was probably based on Inspector Field of the Metropolitan Police.

Bucket, Mrs.

Bucket’s wife, “a lady of natural detective genius” (53). She keeps tabs on Hortense when the French maid is under suspicion and living as a lodger in the Bucket household.

Buffy, the Rt. Hon. William, M.P.

The initial figure in one of Dickens’s catalogs satirizing political Dandyism, Buffy is a political ally of Sir Leicester Dedlock. He contends that “the shipwreck of the country—about which there is no doubt . . . is attributable to Cuffy. If you had done with Cuffy what you ought to have done, when he first came into Parliament, and had prevented him going over to Duffy, you would have got him into alliance with Fuffy” (12).

Carstone, Richard

Ward of the Court of Chancery, committed by the court to the charge of John Jarndyce, “a handsome youth, with an ingenuous face, and a most engaging laugh. . . . He was very young” (3). He falls in love with his cousin and fellow ward, Ada Clare. He is kind, trusting, and generous, but also naive and feckless. Jarndyce tries to give direction for his life by encouraging him to enter a profession. Richard tries medicine (13), the law (17), and the Army (24), but he is unable to settle on anything because of his unhealthy preoccupation with the Jarndyce case. Finally he falls into the clutches of the lawyer Vholes, who feeds his obsession with the suit (37). He becomes suspicious and, estranged from Jarndyce, he wastes away. Richard secretly marries Ada (51), but she cannot restore him to health. When the Jarndyce suit ends with all proceeds absorbed in court costs, Richard dies, leaving Ada and his unborn child to the care of Jarndyce (65). Obsessed with the law suit like Gridley, Miss Flite, and Tom Jarndyce, Richard is the most developed portrait of a victim of Chancery.

Chadband, Mrs. (Mrs. Rachael)

Esther Summerson’s childhood nurse, then known as Mrs. Rachael, “a stern, severe-looking, silent woman” (19).

Chadband, the Reverend

Mr. Unctuous dissenting clergyman admired by Mrs. Snagsby, he is the model of cant and hypocrisy: “a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system” (19). He speaks in a homiletic style, asking empty rhetorical questions, exploiting vapid biblical allusions, with a pulpit dialect that transforms “truth” into “terewth.” He “never speaks without first putting up his great hand, as delivering a token to his hearers that he is going to edify them” (19). His wife, “a stern, severe-looking, silent woman” (19), turns out to be Mrs. Rachael, Esther Summerson’s childhood nurse. Chadband sermonizes Jo on “Terewth” (25). He joins with the Smallweeds in an attempt to blackmail Sir Leicester Dedlock and is thwarted by Bucket (54).

Dennis Walder (1981) suggests that the Reverend Edward Irving was the original for Chadband, but Doris Alexander (1991) identifies a strong physical resemblance between the preacher and the poet John Kenyon.


Nickname of Charlotte Neckett.

Chesney Wold

The Dedlocks’ house in Lincolnshire (2), where Lady Dedlock’s portrait attracts Guppy’s attention (7) and where the legend of the Ghost’s Walk haunts Lady Dedlock. Dickens based Chesney Wold on Rockingham Cast l e in Northamptonshire.

Clare, Miss Ada

Ward in the Court of Chancery who is committed by the court to the guardianship of John Jarndyce, “a beautiful girl! With such rich golden hair, such soft blue eyes, such a bright, innocent, trusting face!” (3). Jarndyce chooses Esther Summerson, who refers to Ada as “my beauty,” to be her companion. Although Ada is in love with her cousin and fellow ward, Richard Carstone, she is also worried about his restless and suspicious behavior. She secretly marries him shortly before his death (51) and is left with an infant son, Richard, to be cared for by Jarndyce (67).

By repeatedly referring to Ada as “my beauty,” Esther calls attention to Ada’s role as the figure on whom Esther projects her own physical attractiveness and sexual desires. Alexander Welsh (2000) analyzes her role in these terms as a projection of Esther’s repressed self-image.


Skimpole’s name for Neckett, derived from Neckett’s employment as an agent for Coavinses’ Sponging House (6).

Dedlock, Lady Honoria

The proud, beautiful, and cold wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock. Twenty years younger than her husband, “she has beauty still, and, if it be not in its heyday, it is not yet in its autumn. She has a fine face—originally of a character that would be rather called very pretty than handsome, but improved into classicality by the acquired expression of her fashionable state” (2). A celebrated beauty, she conceals her humble origins and her guilt about her past behind a facade of cold condescension, repeatedly protesting that she is “bored to death.” Her celebrity and her melodramatic pose draw the curious attentions of several investigators who seek to discover Lady Dedlock’s secret. Tulkinghorn wants to discover the reason for her repressed interest in Nemo’s handwriting (2), Guppy tries to unravel the physical resemblance between Esther Summerson and Lady Dedlock’s portrait, and Bucket investigates her involvement in Tulkinghorn’s murder. Tulkinghorn learns of her relationship with Captain Hawdon and of their illegitimate daughter, Esther Summerson. Lady Dedlock reveals herself to Esther and pledges her to secrecy (36), but she runs from Chesney Wold when Sir Leicester learns of her past (56). Disguised as a poor brickmaker’s wife, she makes her way to London pursued by Bucket and Esther. They find her dead by the gate to the graveyard where Hawdon is buried (59).

Lady Dedlock’s story follows that of the conventional Victorian melodrama of the fallen woman; the novel could easily have been entitled “Lady Dedlock’s Secret.” Telling it, however, through the two contrasting narrators shifts the interest from the conventional exposé to the psychological implications, both for Lady Dedlock and for those around her. Repressing her secret has frozen her into a state of self-conscious spiritual paralysis, a condition analyzed by J. HILLIS MILLER (1958). She is as deadlocked psychologically as her husband is socially. Seeing her story through the eyes of Esther, who for different reasons represses the truth of her identity, also underscores the degree to which her story is constructed by the men who investigate her, especially Tulkinghorn, Guppy, and Bucket. As her inclusion in the “Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty” indicates, she is a construct of the male gaze. Only Esther, who scrupulously avoids similar attention, has intimations of Lady Dedlock’s inner life, knowledge that she is bound to keep secret. Although Esther’s narration, in a limited way, defamiliarizes the conventional story, it does not save Lady Dedlock from the inevitable punishment for her sins, a punishment that extends to others, especially Sir Leicester and Tulkinghorn, whose involvement in her story brings suffering and death.

Dedlock, Sir Leicester

Baronet, patriarch of the Lincolnshire Dedlocks and present owner of their landed estate, Chesney Wold. “His family is as old as the hills and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks. . . . He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, highspirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man. Sir Leicester is twenty years, full measure, older than my Lady. He will never see sixty-five again, nor perhaps sixty-six, nor yet sixty-seven. He has a twist of gout now and then, and walks a little stiffly. He is of a worthy presence, with his light grey hair and whiskers, his fine shirt-frill, his pure white waistcoat, and his blue coat with bright buttons always buttoned” (2). At the top of the social scale in the novel, Sir Leicester represents the idle landed aristocracy. He is deadlocked in the past and is totally alienated from his present society, a condition described in the novel as Dandyism (12).  This failure to live in the present is most evident in his interactions with Rouncewell the Ironmaster, who is very much a man of his time (28). Sir Leicester’s increasing irrelevance is evident when his candidate loses the election to Rouncewell, and it culminates in his stroke and paralysis when he learns of Lady Dedlock’s past. He transcends this largely satiric role at the end of the novel when, loyal to his wife, he offers forgiveness and seeks to save her, prompting the narrator, as Graham Storey (1987) points out, to a rare accolade: “His noble earnestness, his fidelity, his gallant shielding of her, his generous conquest of his own wrong and his own pride for her sake, are simply honorable, manly, and true” (58).

Dedlock, Volumnia

Sir Leicester’s cousin, a proud and poor spinster, “a young lady (of sixty) . . . retired to Bath; where she lives slenderly on an annual present from Sir Leicester, and whence she makes occasional resurrections in the country houses of her cousins” (28). After Lady Dedlock’s death, she becomes mistress of Chesney Wold.

Dingo, Professor

Famous scientist who was the second husband of Mrs. Bayham Badger (13).

Divinities of Albion, or Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty

Tony Jobling’s prize possession, a collection of copper-plate pictures “representing ladies of title and fashion in every variety of smirk that art, combined with capital, is capable of producing.” It includes a picture of Lady Dedlock (20).

Donny, Misses

Twin sisters who operate Greenleaf School near Reading, where Esther Summerson was a pupil (3).

Elephant and Castle

The district in south London where the Bagnets live (27). Its name comes from the famous public house at its center where the roads to Kent and Surrey come together.

Flite, Miss

“A little mad old woman in a squeezed bonnet” (3) who is obsessed by the Court of Chancery, even though her family has been ruined by it. She believes that a judgment in her case is imminent, a conclusion she confuses with the Last Judgment, describing both events in apocalyptic terms. She befriends Ada, Richard, and Esther (whom she calls Fitz-Jarndyce) and invites them to her lodgings on the top floor of Krook’s house (5). There she keeps a cage of birds named Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach, to which she adds the Wards of Jarndyce. When the Jarndyce case is settled, she sets the birds free (65).

One of the victims of Chancery, along with Tom Jarndyce, Gridley, and Richard Carstone, Miss Flite has been driven to madness by her obsession with the court. Appropriately she lives in the house of Krook, the symbolic counter to the Lord Chancellor, her name associating her with the caged birds who catalog the social ills caused by the court. Her confusion over the court’s judgment and the biblical Day of Judgment extends her significance beyond social satire to the philosophic theme of living in expectation, a theme Dickens developed in many of his novels, especially Great Expectations.

George, Trooper

Nickname of George Rouncewell.

Ghost’s Walk, the

The terrace at Chesney Wold where ghostly footsteps are sometimes heard. Legend has it that they are those of the Lady Dedlock from the 17th century whose sympathy for the Puritan cause made her a traitor to King Charles and the Dedlocks (7).


The school near Reading where Esther Summerson is educated under the tutelage of the Misses Donny (3).

Gridley (“The Man from Shropshire”)

Another of the victims of the Court of Chancerywhose angry and violent efforts to gain a hearing of his grievances have led to his repeated imprisonment for contempt of court over a period of 25 years. “A tall sallow man with a careworn head, . . . a combative look; and a chafing, irritable manner” (15), he hides out and dies at George’s Shooting Gallery, a place of refuge in the novel, while trying to escape arrest (27).

Growlery, the

John Jarndyce’s den at Bleak House to which he escapes when the “east wind” has blown him out of humor.

Grubble, W.

Landlord of the Dedlock Arms, “a pleasant-looking, stoutish, middle-aged man, who never seemed to consider himself cosily dressed for his own fireside without his hat and top-boots, but who never wore a coat except at church” (37).

Guppy, Mrs.

William Guppy’s protective and doting mother, “an old lady in a large cap, with rather a red nose and rather an unsteady eye, but smiling all over. Her close little sitting-room was prepared for a visit; and there was a portrait of her son in it” (38). After Esther refuses her son for the last time, Mrs. Guppy refuses to leave Jarndyce’s house, indignantly inquiring, “Ain’t my son good enough for you?” (64).

Guppy, William

Cockney clerk for Kenge and Carboy, “a young gentleman who had inked himself by accident” (3), Guppy is a brash and vulgar young man who proposes to Esther Summerson and is refused (9). Struck by the likeness between Esther and Lady Dedlock’s portrait (7), he investigates Esther’s identity and learns Lady Dedlock’s secret (29), but Krook’s surprising death destroys the corroborating documents that he has arranged to buy (32). After Esther’s illness, he formally withdraws his proposal (38), only to renew it later and to be refused again (64). A wonderfully comic figure, Guppy speaks in a mixture of urban slang and legal jargon.


One of Mrs. Pardiggle’s missionary friends, “a flabby gentleman, with a moist surface, and eyes so much too small for his moon of a face, that they seemed to have been originally made for somebody else” (15).


Mrs. Snagsby’s maid, “a lean young woman from a workhouse by some supposed to have been christened Augusta) . . . really aged three or four and twenty, but looking around ten years older” (10). She is subject to fits.

Hawdon, Captain (“Nemo”)

Retired military officer who, using the alias Nemo (Latin for “nobody”), works as a law writer and lives in abject poverty on the middle floor of Krook’s house. He is found dead there, probably from an opium overdose (10). His death is mourned only by Woodcourt, the doctor who attended him, and Jo, a ragged crossing sweeper he has befriended. Tulkinghorn and Guppy, suspicious of his identity, discover his secret, that he was Lady Dedlock’s lover before her marriage and the father of Esther Summerson. Their investigations lead to the harassment of Trooper George and provoke Lady Dedlock’s flight, which ends with her death by the gate of the cemetery in the heart of Tom-All-Alone’s, where Hawdon is buried.


Turveydrop likes to dine at a restaurant in this street off Pal l Mal l in London’s West End. George’s Shooting Gallery is nearby. Hortense Lady Dedlock’s passionate French maid, “a large-eyed brown woman with black hair: who would be handsome, but for a certain feline mouth, and general uncomfortable tightness of face, rendering the jaws too eager, and the skull too prominent. There is something indefinably keen and wan about her anatomy; and she has a watchful way of looking out of the corners of her eyes without turning her head, which could be pleasantly dispensed with—especially when she is in an ill-humour and near knives” (12). She becomes insanely jealous when she is supplanted by Rosa. She aids Tulkinghorn’s investigation into Lady Dedlock’s connection with Hawdon, but when he does not reward her appropriately, she murders him (48). Bucket and his wife pursue and arrest her (54). She is loosely based on Mrs. Mar ia Manning, the notorious murderess whose execution Dickens witnessed in 1849. Her passionate vengefulness foreshadows that of Dickens’s other French villainess, Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities.

Jarndyce, John

Present owner of Bleak House and court-appointed guardian to Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, an “upright, hearty and robust” man, “nearer sixty than fifty,” who has “a handsome, lively, quick face” (6). Even though he is the principal figure in the Jarndyce case, he avoids any involvement with it and advises others to do the same, advice that would have been useful to his great-uncle, Tom Jarndyce, who “in despair blew his brains out at a Coffee House in Chancery Lane” (1). Although he recognizes the destructiveness of the court, he is not so clear-sighted about the shortcomings of those he helps, especially Harold Skimpole. He is unsuccessful in preventing Richard’s entanglement in the case. When such things put him out of humor, he says “the wind’s in the east” and retreats to a den in Bleak House he calls his Growlery. He devotes his life to the practice of private philanthropy. He adopts Esther Summerson, sending her to school and then engaging her as a companion to Ada (3). He later proposes marriage to her (44); she accepts out of gratitude and obligation, but when he realizes that she really loves Allan Woodcourt, Jarndyce arranges their marriage, providing a new Bleak House for them in YORKSHIRE (64).

Jarndyce is one of many benevolent gentlemen in Dickens’s novels, but his kindness is more conflicted than that of Mr. Brownlow (Oliver Twist) or the Cheerybles (Nicholas Nickleby). Rather than confront the evils of society, Jarndyce is often driven to retreat into his Growlery. He fails in his attempts to save Richard from ruin and is unable to see the destructive side of Skimpole. His relation to Esther is also more complex than the fatherly affection of the earlier philanthropists and includes an erotic, if repressed, attraction that prompts his quixotic proposal and his diffidence in “courting” her. He hides his inner life from others, a secrecy not probed in Esther’s reticent narrative. Finally, in a novel that attacks false philanthropy, Jarndyce also seems reticent to carry out wholeheartedly his role as a representative of positive philanthropy.

Jarndyce and Jarndyce

The lawsuit at the center of Bleak House that has been winding on interminably in the Court of Chancer y for several generations. John Jarndyce avoids a destructive obsession with the case, but his great-uncle Tom, Richard Carstone, and others are ruined by it. When it is finally settled at the end of the novel, all proceeds from the will have been used up in legal costs. Dickens based the case on actual cases in Chancery that prompted a movement for court reform at the time the novel was being written.

Jellyby, Caroline (Caddy)

Mrs. Jellyby’s eldest daughter, “a jaded and unhealthy-looking, though by no means plain girl” (4), who slaves as her mother’s secretary and whose ink-stained hands attest to her drudgery. Caddy resents her mother’s neglect in not instructing her in domestic skills or personal grooming, and she resents her mother’s exploitation of her. “I wish Africa was dead” (4), she confesses to Esther. Caddy escapes her chaotic home by taking dancing lessons and by marrying Prince Turveydrop, the dance instructor (30). When Prince goes lame, she takes over his duties at the academy. They have one child, a deaf and dumb daughter, Esther.

Welsh (2000) analyzes Caddy’s role in the novel as a rival to Esther; Caddy makes her own way out of childhood neglect and struggles to survive, yet she is treated condescendingly in Esther’s narrative.

Jellyby, Mr.

Mrs. Jellyby’s husband, “a mild bald gentleman in spectacles” who sits “in a corner with his head against the wall, as if he were subject to low spirits” (4). His low spirits and bankruptcy seem to be caused by Mrs. Jellyby’s neglect. Jellyby, Mrs. “A pretty, very diminuitive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off, as if . . . she could see nothing nearer than Africa” (4). Her “mission” is an educational project for “the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger” (4). This “telescopic philanthropy” causes her to overlook problems at home and to neglect her family and her household, and this negligence is evident in the constant state of chaos in her home. When the African scheme fails, she takes up “the rights of women to sit in Parliament” (67).

Mrs. Jellyby’s African project was based on a failed Evangelical missionary effort that Dickens had discussed in “The Niger Expedition” (1848). Mrs. Jellyby’s character was based on Caroline Chisholm, a woman devoted to aiding emigrants to Australia but neglectful of her own family. The satire of feminism in Mrs. Jellyby and Miss Wisk so offended John Stuart Mill, who would write the feminist classic The Subjection of Women (1869), that he said Bleak House was “much the worst” of Dickens’s novels and condemned “the vulgar impudence of this thing to ridicule the rights of women.”

Jellyby, Peepy

Caddy’s younger brother. His mother’s neglect is evident in his clothing, which is “either too large for him or too small,” and in his frequent scrapes and accidents, such as getting his head caught in the railing in front of his house (4).


Wife of the violent brickmaker who abuses her. When Esther first visits her house, accompanying Mrs. Pardiggle (8), Jenny has a black eye and is “nursing a poor little gasping baby” who dies during their visit. Esther covers the infant with her handkerchief, an incident recalling Esther’s burial of her doll and her own childhood. Lady Dedlock later secures the handkerchief. On her final flight from Chesney Wold, Lady Dedlock exchanges clothes with Jenny (57–59).

Jo (“Toughy”)

The poor, illiterate crossing sweeper and street urchin at the bottom of the social scale in the novel, “very muddy, very hoarse, very ragged. . . . Name, Jo. Nothing else that he knows on. . . . No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school” (11). Befriended by Nemo, he testifies at the inquest into the law writer’s death (11). He lives on the streets of Tom-All-Alone’s, suggesting that his utter homelessness and ignorance are the human side of the urban slums created by Chancery. He guides Lady Dedlock to the cemetery where Hawdon is buried (16); carries the smallpox to St. Albans, after he is told to “move on,” where it infects Charley and Esther (31); and dies at George’s Shooting Gallery attended by Woodcourt (47).

Jo’s story is told in a series of famous set pieces: his answers at the inquest into Nemo’s death, drawn from an actual case of a crossing sweeper named George Ruby at the Guildhall in January 1850; his breakfast on the steps of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts at which Jo’s illiteracy is contrasted to the knowledge of a dog who has been trained to herd sheep (16); his incomprehension as he is sermonized by the hypocritical Chadband (19); and his death repeating the Lord’s Prayer following Woodcourt’s instruction (47).

The testimony of George Ruby was published in the Examiner (January 12, 1850) and later reprinted in Household Words (“Household Narrative,” January 1850).

Jobling, Tony (“Weevle”)

Guppy’s friend who “has the faded appearance of a gentleman in embarrassed circumstances; even his light whiskers droop with something of a shabby air” (20). He takes Nemo’s rooms after the law writer’s death, using the alias “Weevle,” in order to keep an eye on Krook for Guppy (20). At the appointed hour when Guppy is supposed to get Hawdon’s papers from Krook, Tony and Guppy discover the old man’s extraordinary disappearance by spontaneous combustion (32). Tony also goes along when Guppy renews his proposal to Esther (64).

Kenge (“Conversation Kenge”)

Mr. Jarndyce’s solicitor with the firm of Kenge and Carboy: “a portly, important-looking gentleman, dressed all in black, with a white cravat, large gold watch seals, a pair of gold eyeglasses, and a large seal ring upon his little finger. . . . He appeared to enjoy beyond everything the sound of his own voice” (3). He handles Jarndyce’s adoption of Esther Summerson and takes Richard as an assistant when he briefly considers entering the law. Kenge ties the greatness of Britain to her legal system and counters Jarndyce’s cynicism about the law with inflated chauvinistic rhetoric: “We are a great country, Mr. Jarndyce, we are a very great country. This is a great system, Mr. Jarndyce, and would you wish a great country to have a little system? Now, really, really!” (62).

Krook (“Lord Chancellor”)

A drunken and illiterate rag and bone dealer, who amasses miscellaneous artifacts and papers in much the same way as the Court of Chancery collects documents, earning him the nickname Lord Chancellor. “An old man in spectacles and a hairy cap. He was short, cadaverous, and withered; with his head sunk edgeways between his shoulders, and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth, as if he were on fire within” (5). With his ominous cat, Lady Jane, he presides over an establishment that is a kind of “counter Chancery.” Nemo (Captain Hawdon) occupies rooms on the middle floor of Krook’s house and Miss Flite the top floor. After Nemo’s death, Jobling takes his rooms (20). On the night Krook is to give some of Nemo’s papers to Guppy, the old man spontaneously combusts, taking the documents with him (32). When Krook is discovered to have been Mrs. Smallweed’s brother, the Smallweeds take over his effects and discover the missing Jarndyce will among his papers (33).

Krook’s controversial role in the novel, especially his death, was criticized by many Victorian readers, most notably George Henry Lewes, who challenged it as unrealistic and unscientific. Although Dickens cited cases of spontaneous combustion in his preface to the novel, his intent was clearly symbolic. He used the episode as a way of suggesting the fate of Chancery and any institution that so blighted the nation and destroyed those who sought redress in the law.

Le Cat, Claude Nicolas (1700–1768)

Renowned French surgeon cited by Dickens in the preface to Bleak House as the source for a report of a recent case of spontaneous combustion.


County about 125 miles north of London where Chesney Wold, country seat of the Dedlocks, is located.


Brickmaker’s wife and friend of Jenny. “An ugly woman . . . [who] had no kind of grace about her, but the grace of sympathy; but when she condoled with the woman, and her own tears fell, she wanted no beauty” (8).

Lord Chancellor

Head of the British judicial system, appointed by the prime minister and a member of his cabinet, and the presiding judge in the Court of Chancery He is “at the very heart of the fog” in the opening chapter of Bleak House and is the judge who appoints Jarndyce as guardian over Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (3).

Melvilleson, Miss M.

“Noted syren” who sings at the Sol’s Arms; “she has been married a year and a half, . . . and . . . her baby is clandestinely conveyed to the Sol’s Arms every night to receive its natural nourishment during the entertainments” (32).


The Dedlocks’ footman (16).


The beadle who makes arrangements for the inquest into Hawdon’s death (11). Peter Ackroyd(1990) identifies his original as Looney, a beadle in charge of Salisbury Square.

Morgan ap Kerrig

Mrs. Woodcourt’s eminent Welsh ancestor; “He appeared to have passed his life always getting up into mountains, and fighting somebody; and a Bard whose name sounded like Crumlinwallinwer had sung his praises, in a piece which was called, as nearly as I could catch it, Mewlinnwillinwodd” (17).

Mount Pleasant

“Ill-favored and ill-savoured neighborhood” in east London where the Smallweeds live (21).

Neckett (“Coavinses”)

Sheriff’s officer who arrests debtors and brings them to Coavinses sponging house (earning him the name “Coavinses” from Skimpole). Esther and Richard stop him from arresting Skimpole by paying Skimpole’s debt (6). He dies, leaving three children; Charlotte (age 13) and two younger children, Emma and Tom. Neckett,

Charlotte (“Charley”)

Neckett’s daughter who, after her father’s death, provides for herself and her two younger siblings by doing laundry. At 13 she appears “a very little girl, childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face—pretty-faced too—wearing a womanly sort of bonnet much too large for her, and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron” (15). Jarndyce provides for the orphaned children, employing Charley as Esther’s maid. After Esther nurses Charley through the smallpox, Charley returns the care and nurses Esther through the illness (31–35, 37). By the end of the story Charley has married a miller.

Charley serves as a kind of double to Esther, repeating the qualities of self-denial, dutifulness, and hard work that earn Esther such nicknames as Dame Durden, Mother Hubbard, and Little Old Woman.


The alias Captain Hawdon uses when in London working as a law writer.

Old Square

The section of Lincol n’s Inn where the offices of Kenge and Carboy are located (20).

Old Street

Road The street in east London, now simply Old Street, where Mrs. Guppy lives “in an independent though unassuming manner” (9).

Pardiggle, Mrs.

Philanthropic associate of Mrs. Jellyby; “she was a formidable style of lady, with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room. And she really did, for she knocked down little chairs with her skirts” (8). With her intrusive manner, she barges in where she is not wanted to distribute religious tracts rather than aid or comfort.

In Mrs. Pardiggle, Dickens attacked another form of false philanthropy, that of the Tractarians or Puseyites (after the Reverend Edward Pusey), a High Church movement that sought to restore Catholic doctrines to the Anglican church. Pardiggle, O. A. Mrs. Pardiggle’s husband, “an obstinate-looking man with a large waistcoat and stubbly hair, who was always talking in a loud bass voice about his mite, or Mrs. Pardiggle’s mite, or their five boys’ mites” (30).

Pardiggle children

The Pardiggles’ five sons, Egbert, Oswald, Francis, Felix, and Alfred, “weazened and shrivelled” and “ferocious with discontent” (8), are resentful pawns in their mother’s philanthropy. Each has his allowance subscribed to various charitable enterprises. Their names are taken from saints of the early Christian church. Peaks, the Former name of Bleak House (8). Peffer Snagsby’s deceased partner in the law stationer’s business (10).

Perkins, Mrs.

Resident of the neighborhood around Sol’s Arms who, with her neighbor Mrs. Piper, takes a keen interest in the mysterious events at Krook’s house.

Piper, Mrs.

Anastasia Mrs. Perkins’s friend and Krook’s neighbor who testifies at the inquest into Nemo’s death: “a good deal to say, chiefly in parentheses, and without punctuation, but not much to tell” (11).


Waitress at the restaurant—“of a class known among its freqenters by the denomination Slap-Bang”—who serves Guppy, Jobling, and Chick Smallweed when they go out to dinner. She is “a bouncing young female of forty . . . supposed to have made some impression on the susceptible Smallweed” (20).


A block of run-down houses in Somer s Town where the Dickens family lived 1827. Harold Skimpole lives here (43). Pouch, Mrs. Joe A widow that Trooper George might once have married. “Joe Pouch’s widow might have done me good—there was something in her—and something of her—but I couldn’t make up my mind to it” (27).


The Jellyby’s maid who “drinks—she’s always drinking” (4).


A philanthropic associate of Mrs. Jellyby, “a loquacious young man . . . with large shining knobs for temples, and hair all brushed to the back of his head” (4). He praises the missions of Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, and others, for his “great power seemed to be his power of indiscriminate admiration” (15). He hopes to marry Caddy Jellyby, but he ultimately settles for Miss Wisk.

Queen Square

Bloomsbury. Jarndyce finds “a neat little furnished lodging in a quiet old house” for Richard Carstone here (18).

Rachael, Mrs.

The name of Esther Summerson’s stern nurse who cares for Esther after Miss Barbary dies. She later reappears as the wife of the Reverend Mr. Chadband.


Greenleaf, the school run by the Misses Donny that Esther Summerson attends, is located near this town in Berkshire (3).

Rolls Yard

A spot in Symond’s Inn off Chancer y Lane where Mr. Snagsby “loved to lounge about of a Sunday afternoon” (10).


“Dark-eyed, dark-haired, shy village beauty” who assists Mrs. Rouncewell, shows visitors around Chesney Wold, and attracts the attentions of Watt Rouncewell. When Lady Dedlock chooses Rosa for her personal maid, she arouses the jealous anger of Hortense (12). After Tulkinghorn uncovers the truth about Lady Dedlock’s past, she sends Rosa away to the care of Rouncewell the Ironmaster (48). To correct her “feudal” training at Chesney Wold, he has her reeducated in Germany. She marries Watt (63).

Rouncewell, George (“Trooper George”)

Mrs. Rouncewell’s younger son who has run away to the army and cut himself off from his family. “He is a swarthy brown man of fifty; well-made, and goodlooking; with crisp dark hair, bright eyes, and a broad chest. His sinewy and powerful hands, as sunburnt as his face, have evidently been used to a pretty rough life. What is curious about him is, that he sits forward on his chair as if he were, from long habit, allowing space for some dress or accoutrements that he has altogether laid aside. . . . Altogether, one might guess Mr. George to have been a trooper once upon a time” (21). After leaving the army he opened a shooting gallery and martial arts academy near Leicester Square, borrowing money from Grandfather Smallweed to start the business. Tulkinghorn and Grandfather Smallweed pressure the Trooper to turn over to them a sample of the writing of Captain Hawdon, George’s officer in the army (34). George reluctantly does so after they threaten the Bagnets, who have cosigned for the loan. Bucket arrests George for Tulkinghorn’s murder (49), but the Bagnets help clear his name and reunite him with his mother (56). He returns to Chesney Wold and becomes Sir Leicester’s attendant (63).

Beneath his stiff and military manner, George possesses a simple integrity, a sense of honor, responsibility, and loyalty to his friends and associates. His shooting gallery, in spite of its military character, is a place of refuge where Phil Squod, his assistant, finds affection and where both Gridley and Jo come to die.

Rouncewell the Ironmaster, Mr.

Mrs. Rouncewell’s elder son, who has moved away and become an ironmaster; he “would have been provided for at Chesney Wold, and would have been made steward in good season; but he took . . . to constructing steam-engines” (7). “He is a little over fifty perhaps, of a good figure, like his mother; and has a clear voice, a broad forehead from which his dark hair has retired, and a shrewd, though open face. He is a responsible-looking gentleman dressed in black, portly enough, but strong and active. Has a perfectly natural and easy air, and is not in the least embarrassed by the great presence [Sir Leicester] into which he comes” (27). He is not intimidated by the Dedlocks or their conservative, aristocratic traditions. He runs for Parliament representing the interests of the new industrial class and defeats Sir Leicester’s candidate (28). He is skeptical at first of Rosa’s suitability as a wife for his son Watt, because of her upbringing at Chesney Wold; he agrees to their union after she has been “re-educated” in Germany.

Rouncewell, Mrs.

Housekeeper at Chesney Wold, “a fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat. . . . It is the next difficult thing to an impossibility to imagine Chesney Wold without Mrs. Rouncewell, but she has only been here fifty years” (7). Mrs. Rouncewell is as much a defining figure of the old-fashioned way of life at Chesney Wold as Sir Leicester Dedlock is. After she is reunited with her vagabond son George, he continues the family connection to this way of life by becoming Sir Leicester’s attendant.

The Rouncewell family represents the changes that the Industrial Revolution brought to Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Mrs. Rouncewell was probably drawn from Dickens’s grandmother, Elizabeth Ball Dickens.

Rouncewell, Watt

The ironmaster’s son, “out of his apprenticeship, and home from a journey in far countries, whither he was sent to enlarge his knowledge and complete his preparations for the venture of this life” (7). He falls in love with Rosa and ultimately marries her.

Watt is named for the inventor of the steam engine, James Watt (1736–1819).

Skimpole, Harold

Friend of John Jarndyce, who, though trained as a physician, practices as a dilettante dabbling in art and music while pretending to be an irresponsible “child.” “He was a little bright creature, with a rather large head; but a delicate face, and a sweet voice, and there was a perfect charm in him. All he said was so free from effort and spontaneous, and was said with such captivating gaiety, that it was fascinating to hear him talk” (6). He takes no responsibility for his finances and sponges from Jarndyce and others, establishing a kind of symbiotic relationship with his benefactors. “I don’t feel any vulgar gratitude to you,” he tells them, “I almost feel as if you ought to be grateful to me, for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity” (6). He justifies his parasitic way of life with his “Drone philosophy”(8), which describes the drone, living on the honey produced by the busy bees, as a necessary counterpart to them. Esther and Richard loan him money to prevent his arrest by Neckett (6). He accepts a bribe from Bucket to disclose the whereabouts of young Jo (31). Vholes gives him five pounds to introduce him to Richard Carstone (57). Later, Jarndyce asks him not to accept money from Richard Carstone (61). Skimpole responds by describing Jarndyce in his memoirs as “the Incarnation of Selfishness” (61). Skimpole has several children and grandchildren, including three daughters, Arethusa, Laura, and Kitty, whom he characterizes as his Beauty daughter, Sentiment daughter, and Comedy daughter (43).

Although Skimpole claims to possess the innocence and openness of a child, he turns out to be more secretive and knowing than he pretends. He colludes with Bucket to “move on” the feverish Jo; he callously ignores the suffering of his wife and children, and his final condemnation of Jarndyce reveals a selfishness that belies his innocent philosophy. His relationship with Jarndyce, who is largely blind to Skimpole’s faults, adds an important dimension to the novel’s critique of philanthropy, suggesting that philanthropy calls for collusion between the philanthropists and their clients. Alexander Welsh (2000) provides a thoughtful analysis of the relation between Skimpole and Jarndyce.

Skimple was so closely drawn from the writer Leigh Hunt that Dickens boasted, “I suppose [Skimpole] is the most exact portrait that was ever printed in words! . . . It is an absolute reproduction of the real man.” Many of Dickens’s contemporaries immediately recognized the portrait.

Skimpole, Mrs.

Harold’s wife “had once been a beauty, but was now a delicate high-nosed invalid, suffering under a complication of disorders” (43).


Proprietor of a bookshop and lending library that caters to a fashionable clientele (2).

Smallweed, Bartholomew (Bart, “Small,” “Chick Weed”)

Joshua Smallweed’s grandson, twin of Judy, and one of Guppy’s circle of friends. “Whether Young Smallweed (metaphorically called Small and eke Chick Weed, as it were jocularly to express a fledgling,) was ever a boy, is much doubted in Lincoln’s Inn. He is now something under fifteen, and an old limb of the law. . . . He is a town-made article, of small stature and weazen features; but may be perceived from a considerable distance by means of his very tall hat. To become a Guppy is the object of his ambition” (20). Bart is less admiring of his idol after Guppy becomes secretive about his investigations into Nemo’s identity.

Smallweed, Grandmother

Joshua’s senile wife who angers her husband by incoherently referring to his money, so that he throws pillows at her and berates her as “a brimstone idiot” and “an old pig” (21). Smallweed, Joshua (Grandfather Smallweed) Crippled usurer to whom Trooper George owes money: “the name of this old pagan’s God was Compound Interest. He lived for it, married it, died of it” (21). Confined to a chair, under which he keeps his money box, he passes the time berating his wife and throwing cushions at her when she mentions money. Grandfather Smallweed uses George’s obligation to him to extract from the trooper a sample of Captain Hawdon’s writing for Tulkinghorn (34). After the death of Krook, his brother-in-law, he discovers some papers among Krook’s possessions and tries to blackmail Sir Leicester with them, but Bucket foils this scheme (62). He also finds a Jarndyce will that Bucket secures for Jarndyce.

Doris Alexander (1991) suggests that Grandfather Smallweed bears certain resemblances to the poet Samuel Rogers as an old man and Grandmother Smallweed recalls Rogers’s wife.

Smallweed, Judy

Bart’s twin sister, who keeps house in the Smallweed establishment and reiterates the characteristics of the family. “Judy never owned a doll, never heard of Cinderella, never played at any game. She once or twice fell into children’s company when she was about ten years old, but the children couldn’t get along with Judy, and Judy couldn’t get on with them. She seemed like an animal of another species” (21).


Law stationer who hires Nemo to do occasional work for him as a law writer; “a mild, bald, timid man, with a shining head, . . . he tends to meekness and obesity” (10). He harbors a vague sense of guilt and an anxiety that he is somehow involved in mysteries that he does not understand. He befriends Jo and supplies him with odd half crowns (25).

Snagsby, Mrs.

Sarah Snagsby’s wife, a zealous follower of the Reverend Chadband. Her sour temperament, made up of internal “pints of vinegar and lemon-juice” (10), is expressed loudly as she berates her husband whom she suspects of fathering Jo, the poor crossing sweeper, and of a clandestine relationship with Hortense, Lady Dedlock’s French maid. She spies on her husband until Bucket finally informs her that her suspicions are groundless (59).

Summerson, Esther (“Dame Durden,” “Mother Shipton”)

Narrator of the first-person sections of Bleak House. Raised by her aunt, Miss Barbary, as an orphan and told “It would have been far better . . . that you had never been born” (3), Esther is shy and self-deprecating: “I know I am not clever. I always knew that. . . . I had always a rather noticing way—not a quick way. O no!—a silent way of noticing what passed before me, and thinking I should like to understand it better. I have not by any means a quick understanding” (3). After her aunt’s death, John Jarndyce sends her to Greenleaf School and then appoints her as his housekeeper at Bleak House in ST. ALBANS and as companion to Ada Clare (6). He praises Esther’s industry, thoughtfulness, and maturity, addressing her with nicknames like “Mother Shipton,” “Dame Durden,” and “Mother Hubbard” that emphasize her role as a sexless housekeeper. He encourages her to learn about her parentage, in spite of Esther’s reluctance to do so. In the course of the story, Esther discovers that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock and Captain Hawdon (36). Though Esther is pretty enough to be recognized by Guppy as Lady Dedlock’s daughter, she deprecates her own beauty and is pleased when her face, scarred by smallpox, loses its beauty and her resemblance to her mother is disguised. She refuses Guppy’s proposal (9) and secretly loves Woodcourt, but she accepts Jarndyce’s proposal that she become mistress of Bleak House out of gratitude to him (44). He recognizes her love for Woodcourt, however, and releases her to the doctor, providing a new Bleak House for them in Yorkshire (64).

Esther’s dual role as both narrator and character has complicated reactions to her. She is praised as narrator for her quick observation and her sound judgments of other characters. She sees through Skimpole’s pose, for example, even when Jarndyce does not. She is placed in a difficult position, however, for the openness and self-revelation called for in a narrator goes against the grain of her natural self-denigrating reticence. David Copperfield, as a man, may be expected to write his way to becoming the hero of his own story; Victorian women were expected to be far less assertive. Esther’s protestations that she is not clever and her embarrassment at writing about herself emerge from her attempt to reconcile the conflict between her role as narrator and the expectations placed on Victorian women. Her “coyness” is also magnified by the demands of the narrative, so that even though she is writing in the past tense about events that happened several years earlier, she withholds information to enhance the suspense and give more immediacy to the events she describes. Though some commentators find evidence of Dickens’s language and inventiveness in her account, her style is still much plainer than the verbal pyrotechnics employed in the third-person narration.

The character Esther’s female reticence is increased by her status as an orphan of unknown parentage. She is the child of “no one” and she has been told repeatedly that it would have been better had she never been born. She buries her self-assertiveness with her doll and represses any interest in discovering her parentage. She is comfortable only in a role serving others, as Dame Durden or the Little Old Woman. She projects her self-consciousness onto others, her beauty and sexuality onto Ada, for example, and her anger and resentment onto Caddy. The illness she contracts from Jo and Charley, two of her “outcast” doubles, forces her to confront her self-image, symbolized in the mirrors, and enables her to acknowledge her parentage and her passion.

Nearly every commentator on the novel discusses Esther and her significance. Among extended discussions of her character and psychology Lawrence Frank(1984), J. Hillis Miller (1958), and HIilary Schor(1999) are particularly noteworthy.

Swills, Little

Comic singer at the harmonic meetings at the Sol’s Arms; “a chubby little man in a large shirt collar, with a moist eye, and an inflamed nose” (11).

Swosser, Captain, R. N.

Mrs. Bayham Badger’s first husband, a naval officer (13).

Symond’s Inn

“A little, pale, wall-eyed, woebegone inn. . . . It looks as if Symond were a sparing man in his way, and constructed an inn of old building materials, which took kindly to the dry rot and dirt and all things decaying and dismal, and perpetuated Symond’s memory with congenial shabbiness” (39). Vholes maintains his offices in this nondescript office building in Chancery Lane. Tangle Lawyer who “knows more of Jarndyce and Jarndyce than anybody, . . . supposed to have never read anything else since he left school” (1).

Thavies Inn

One of the Inns of Chancer y near Holborn Circus. The Jellybys’ house is located here (4).


“A black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their possession, took to letting them out in lodgings” (16). Jo the crossing sweeper inhabits this slum created because the property is tied up in a Cour t of Chancer y suit. Several locations in St . Gil es, Dr ur y Lane, and Bloomsbury have been suggested as the original. The name was taken from the house of a recluse outside Chat ham, known to Dickens as a child.


Lawyer to the Dedlocks and other important families: “the old gentleman is rusty to look at, but is reputed to have made good thrift out of aristocratic marriage settlements and aristocratic wills, and to be very rich. . . . He is of what is called the old school, . . . and wears knee breeches tied with ribbons, and gaiters and stockings. One peculiarity of his black clothes . . . is that they never shine. Mute, close, irresponsive to any gleaming light, his dress is like himself” (2). Secretive himself, and a keeper of secrets, Tulkinghorn pursues the mystery of Lady Dedlock’s past, seeking Nemo’s documents (11) and information from Jo and Hortense (22) and Trooper George (34) before confronting Lady Dedlock (40–41). Shortly after he returns to London from Chesney Wold, he is found murdered (48). Although George is detained for the crime, Hortense, disgruntled by Tulkinghorn’s high-handed treatment of her, proves to be his killer (54).

Tulkinghorn represents the darkness at the heart of Bleak House. A night creature who resembles a crow, he moves silently between London and Chesney Wold. He reveals nothing of himself and expresses no feelings toward anyone. He is mechanical and misogynistic, storing secrets in locked boxes in his office. He collects secrets, particularly those of women, as a way to power, a power that turns people into objects and brings death. The allegorical painting on the ceiling of his rooms, which points to his death, points more broadly to the killing effects of the law that have made all of Britain a bleak house.

Turveydrop, Mr.

Proprietor of a dancing academy and a latter-day Regency dandy who models himself on the Prince Regent: “a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. . . . He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and stopped down, as much as he could possibly bear. . . . He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of Deportment” (14). Vain and indolent, his vocation is his performance as a dandy; he depends on his son to maintain the family income. Turveydrop consents to Prince’s marriage to Caddy Jellyby when the couple agree to continue supporting him (23).

Bleak-House-LitChart Guide

Bleak House Course Hero Guide


Bleak House has probably generated more criticism than any other Dickens novel, an indication of its importance on academic reading lists. Several collections of criticism, edited by Jacob Korg (Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Bleak House, 1968), A. E. Dyson (1969), Harold Bloom (Bleak House: Modern Critical Interpretations, 1987), Eliott Gilbert (Critical Essays on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, 1989), and Jeremy Tambling (Bleak House: Charles Dickens, New Casebooks, 1998), bring together many of the more important articles on the novel published over the last half century. Volume 19 of Dickens Studies Annual (1990) contains five articles on Bleak House, including one by Philip Collins, “Some Narrative Devices in Bleak House,” that addresses key critical issues in the novel. The Norton Critical Edition of the novel, edited by George Ford and Sylvere Monod (1977), includes some critical articles as well as useful background materials. There are also several books that discuss Bleak House at length: Robert Newsom’s Dickens on the Romantic Side of Familiar Things: Bleak House and the Novel Tradition (1977) analyzes the mixture of romantic and realistic elements in the novel as a way of describing Dickens’s work more broadly and his relation to the central tradition of the novel. Graham Storey (1987) and Norman Page (1990) survey backgrounds and the critical issues in the novel. Alexander Welsh (2000) provides an extended discussion of character relationships.
Source: Davis, P. (2007). Critical companion to Charles Dickens. New York: Facts On File.

Categories: Literature

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: