The deeply related sensations of guilt and blame dominate the emotional life of most of the characters in Bleak House. Almost any situation calls forth feelings that fall somewhere in this category: the shamelessness of Skimpole causes empathetic embarrassment in Esther, the impossible situation of Lady Dedlock's youth creates unbearable guilt in her middle age, and the inculcated blame of Esther's childhood is reflected in the mortification she feels at the slightest bit of praise. The novel is a lesson in overcoming these crippling emotions – but given what we know about the repressive environment of real-life Victorians, this may be wishful thinking.
The feeling of guilt is so pervasive in this repressive society that even those who are not criminals constantly feel blameworthy. For some characters, the only way to cope with personal guilt is to investigate and police the behavior of others, becoming amateur spies and detectives.
In Bleak House, the process of growing up is strongly tied to a child's need to stop internalizing the shame of her parents' behavior. Only when Caddy can see her mother without seeing herself is she is able to move into maturity. Only when Esther can let go of Miss Barbary's guilt-inducing putdowns does she come into her own. Those who cannot escape their parents – like Richard, who is caught in the Jarndyce web, or Prince Turveydrop, who sacrifices himself for his father – can never truly become adults.