Bleak House

Charles Dickens

Bleak House

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House Summary

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Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House follows a fictional court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce which Dickens uses to satirize the English legal system. The novel, originally published in serial form between 1852 and 1853, is narrated by both an omniscient narrator and one of the main characters, Esther Summerson, whose life is greatly impacted by the conflicting wills that are the focal point of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. The novel has a large cast of characters and a number of subplots, which contributes to the book's significant length – it typically runs one thousand pages long.

As the novel begins, the Court of Chancery building is swathed in thick London fog – this fog becomes symbolic throughout the case of Dickens's criticism of the convoluted court system, which he believes is deceptive, crooked, and so bureaucratic is has become essentially useless. The novel's large cast of characters are all impacted by the actions of the Court of Chancery, whose inability to settle the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case involving two conflicting wills has become so drawn out that the beneficiaries have waited for generations to find out whether they will become rich or die poor on the lowly streets of London. The various characters respond differently to the case's length – some commit suicide and others allow it to consume their lives, visiting the court every day in apprehension of finding out if they will receive their fortune.

Esther Summerson, the narrator of Bleak House begins her story with a tale of her childhood. It was a lonely one in which Esther interacted primarily with her aunt, Miss Barbery, who happens to be the sister of her mother, Lady Dedlock. Esther believes that Miss Barbery is a kind benefactor taking care of her after she was abandoned by her wicked mother; Lady Dedlock believes her daughter is dead. After the death of Miss Barbery, Esther moves into Bleak House, a country estate run by a relative, John Jarndyce, who has taken Esther in to provide a governess and companion for his new ward, Ada Clare, and her cousin Richard Carstone. John Jarndyce convinced Esther that her mother had abandoned her, though this was not the case. Upon arriving at Bleak House, Esther finds an admirer, William Guppy, who becomes pivotal to the plot due to his position as a clerk in John Jarndyce's solicitor's office.

William Guppy becomes suspicious when he notices that Esther and Lady Dedlock have similar appearances. One of the Dedlocks’ solicitors, Tulkinghorn, shows Lady Dedlock a legal document that causes her to faint in her London apartment – according to her, she recognizes the handwriting on the form. Tulkinghorn investigates, tracking the handwriting to Nemo, whom he finds dead from an opium overdose on the floor of his flat. Tulkinghorn is sure that Nemo is not the man's real name, but can find no documents to prove his true identity.

Lady Dedlock investigates the death of Nemo by disguising herself as her maid, Hortense. Tulkinghorn is suspicious of Lady Dedlock's secrets, worrying they could ruin his employer's (her husband, Sir Leicester) reputation. Tulkinghorn spies on Lady Dedlock and hires someone to run Jo, a poor street-sweeper and the only person able to identify Nemo, out of town.

Lady Dedlock and Esther have a few interactions in the cemetery before Lady Dedlock discovers the connection between herself and her daughter. However, by the time Lady Dedlock makes the discovery, Esther has been severely disfigured by smallpox that she likely got from nursing the street-sweeper Jo. Lady Dedlock finally tells Esther about their relationship, but she warns Esther that they cannot ever reveal their connection to anyone.

Meanwhile, Esther has pledged herself to her employer, John Jarndyce, whose wards, Ada and Richard, have fallen in love and are planning to swing the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case in their own favor in order to gain the inheritance. Esther has a brief romance with Woodcourt, who loves her despite her disfigurement, but is forced to marry John Jarndyce, instead. Drama ensues when the maid Hortense and Tulkinghorn discover Lady Dedlock's secret. After discovering the truth, Tulkinghorn fires Hortense as his spy; in revenge, she murders him, blaming Lady Dedlock who has fled the scene in fear of being discovered. Lady Dedlock is framed for the murder of Tulkinghorn; her husband, Sir Leicester hires Esther to help him find Lady Dedlock and prove that she is innocent. Soon, Sir Leicester discovers Hortense's guilt, but Lady Dedlock has no idea that her husband has forgiven her. Esther and Inspector Bucket, the lead detective on the case, find Lady Dedlock in the cemetery, dead of exposure and illness, lying beside the grave of her ex-lover Captain Hawdon, who is known to the group as Nemo. Captain Hawdon, it is revealed, is also Esther's real father.

The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case finally comes to a close when a new will surfaces, giving the bulk of the inheritance to Richard and Ada. However, the couple soon realizes that the case has gone on so long that the legal fees have eaten up the vast majority of the money. Richard collapses in the courtroom upon hearing the news and is diagnosed with late-stage tuberculosis. Richard dies, and John Jarndyce breaks off his engagement with Esther to marry Ada and raise her and Richard's child. Subsequently, Esther marries her former lover Woodcourt, and the two happily raise a family on the Jarndyce estate.

Bleak House, often considered one of Dickens's most successful novels, is cited as a primary factor in the reform of the English legal system in 1870.

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