Summary of “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens, 1853
Bleak House is many things, but what it is not is an inferior novel. Dickens even into the 20th century was often considered a lightweight in the same way Felix Mendelssohn was considered lightweight. Fortunately better heads have prevailed, and this amazing novel now sits among the very best of the century and among the best of all time.
In reading Bleak House, the reader is advised to keep pushing ahead. There are places where the prose becomes dense, and it is best to jump ahead a few pages. One of the characteristics of the novel is that there are two narrators: Esther Summerson herself, and an authorial omniscience that sets the context and provides a sense of moral censure towards Chancery and other aspects of Victorian England.
Bleak House is the story of Esther Summerson through the first twenty years or so of her life. Esther, like Charlotte Bronte’s great heroine Jane Eyre, is an orphan. The heroic orphaned woman was a major theme in Victorian literature: Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch fame was an orphan; Charlotte Bronte’s other great novel Villette starred the orphaned Lucy Snowe; Henry James’ great Portrait of a Lady has as its protagonist the orphaned Isabel Archer; Even Willa Cather casts the central role of her O Pioneers! in the person of the orphan Alexandra Bergson.
Dickens’ vast tableau features many interesting characters in a plot that almost defies description. Nominally the story of the saintly Esther Summerson, it is also the tale of John Jarndyce, a wise, rich and deeply good man who is Esther’s guardian, and later intended husband. It is also the tale of London’s poor, working class, and impoverished landed gentry. It is the story of the breakdown of the old hierarchical order in England, of the social disaster that industrial development often was, and of the Byzantine process of legal transactions that often led to the ruin of both defendant and plaintiff. Some of the worst villains are rich lawyers, and some of the best characters are from the struggling middle-class as well as the landed aristocracy.
The main theme, like the cantus firmus of a Baroque chamber piece, is the spiritual and worldly progress of the delightful and beautiful Esther Summerson. She and two cousins are taken in by their rich relative John Jarndyce, and she plays a role in the redemption of a number of lives, including another orphaned girl Charlotte, or Charley; Caddy, the castoff daughter of an irresponsible mother Mrs. Jellyby; a little boy named Peepy; a crusty old man burned out trying to get his case heard by Chancery (if the novel has an overarching evil spirit, it is the unfeeling, unsensing High Court that grinds on slowly and exceeding finely, ruining life after life); a waif named Jo who figures as a kind of victim of a cruel system; and Esther’s own cousin, Richard, who was once a vivacious member of her original threesome. Richard weds Ada, the third member of the original trio of orphans, but he dissipates himself in a futile quest to win his inheritance at Chancery. His efforts and obsession exhausts him and finally kill him.
Esther, in trying to help Jo the waif, contracts smallpox and nearly dies. When she recovers, her appearance has changed due to the scarring of the disease. She seems to lose nothing of her charm and confidence, however, and the central men of her life find her even more beguiling.
Along the way we meet dozens of interesting types and persons: the “telescopic philanthropy” of Mrs. Jellyby, who spends all her time trying to help natives in Central Africa while neglecting her own family; the incorrigible selfishness of the entertaining and charming Harold Skimpole; the common heroism of George Rouncewell, a discharged trooper who can’t seem to find himself but who blesses everyone he crosses; Inspector Bucket of the London police, who helps Esther track down her tragic mother Lady Dedlock; and Allan Woodcourt, a somewhat unsuccessful doctor to whom Esther is finally married.
Somewhere near the middle of the novel, Esther and her mother, Lady Dedlock are reunited for a short time. Lady Dedlock had been deceived by a relative who informed the mother that her newborn daughter had died. Now, making the discovery that her daughter is alive, she is distraught and wishes her daughter to disown her. Esther is all forgiveness. “I looked at her, but I could not see her, I could not hear her, I could not draw my breath. The beating of my heart was so violent and wild that I felt as if my life were breaking from me. But when she caught me to her breast, kissed me, wept over me, compassionated me, and called me back to myself, when she fell down on her knees and cried to me, ‘O my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! O try to forgive me!’—when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all of my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God… I told her that my heart overflowed with love for her…I held my mother in my embrace, and she held me in hers; and among the still woods in the silence of the summer day, there seemed to be nothing but our two troubled minds that was not at peace.”
Her mother tells her that they will never meet again. Then she flees. Like a Greek tragic character, Lady Dedlock seems driven by some force of guilt and shame that not even the forgiveness and reassurance of Esther can still. She will eventually run out into the storm and perish at the grave of her lover and Esther’s true father.
Esther Summerson grows closer and closer to her guardian John Jarndyce, many years her senior. They plan to marry and she is meant to become Mistress of Bleak House, the Jarndyce estate. It is not stated where Mr. Jarndyce’s fortune comes from, but he is a generous as well as a circumspect philanthropist. When Allen Woodcourt appears after years at sea, however, Esther begins to doubt her love for Mr. Jarndyce. Finally, she and Allan confess their mutual love, but she tells Woodcourt that she is betrothed to Mr. Jarndyce and must be faithful to her commitment. Jarndyce is such a good man that she does not despair, but her real love is for Woodcourt.
As you read this difficult but magnificent novel, you will begin to construct your own ending, so I won’t spoil things by telling you how the book ends. Esther does end as the Mistress of Bleak House, but the turns and twists along the way are what make the book what it is, a ripping good yarn!
Near the end of the book is a chapter called “Beginning the World,” which is the telling of the death of Richard, whose young wife Ada is pregnant with their child. During the recent past, Richard and John Jarndyce, formerly close confidantes, had grown estranged when Richard’s obsession with winning his case colored his life and broke his health. Richard is on his death bed. “’It was a troubled dream,’ said Richard, clasping both my guardian’s hands eagerly. ‘Nothing more, Rick, nothing more,’ replied my guardian [John Jarndyce]. ‘And you, being a good man, can pass it as such, and forgive and pity the dreamer, and be lenient and encouraging when he wakes?’ ‘Indeed I can. What am I but another dreamer, Rick?’ ‘I will begin the world!’ said Richard, with a light in his eyes. A smile irradiated his face, as Ada bent to kiss him. He slowly laid his face down upon her bosom, drew his arms closer round her neck, and with one parting sob began the world. Not this world, O not this! The world that sets this right.”
I hope you make time in your busy lives for this moving, edifying, ennobling novel.