Study Guide

Bleak House Analysis

By Charles Dickens

  • Tone

    Third-person: Cynical, Outraged, Hard; First-person: Curious, Wide-Eyed, Empathetic, Soft

    The tones of the two narrators are complete opposites. The third-person narrator doesn't cut any slack to anyone, is quick to point fingers, and generally sounds like he hates the world he is forced to describe. Meanwhile, Esther tries as hard as possible to find the good in everyone – or at least to try to understand their point of view. Esther is naïve, which makes her sound constantly surprised, and she is naturally reasonably intelligent, which makes her curious to understand the world around her.

    The third person is always busting out with some political message, as in this passage about Jo's death:

    Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. (47.140)

    This is written in the style of someone testifying before Parliament (that's why he's addressing his Majesty the king, the lords of the House of the Lords, and the gentlemen of the House of Commons). Jo is the evidence, and we are all the defendants, being accused of the crime of not giving a red cent. And if that weren't enough, the passage switches by busting our chops not just about our civic duties, but about our religious obligations. If we have the ability to be compassionate, then why the heck aren't we out there doing something about the Jo-like miserables?

    Meanwhile, here's Esther describing Richard's death:

    A smile irradiated his face as she 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, oh, not this! The world that sets this right. (65.59)

    Even though there's plenty to get political about here – after all, it was the Chancery Court system that killed Richard, Esther stays pretty clear of that stuff. No, all we get here is feelings, feelings, feelings. Richard smiles, hugs, and cries. Ada kisses. Even when religion is brought in, it's not a stick to beat us with for being such awful people, but instead a carrot to give us hope that stuff will be better in the next life.

  • Genre

    Autobiography; Family Drama; Literary Fiction; Mystery


    Well, at least half of Bleak House is autobiography (the Esther half, obviously). Esther tells the story of her childhood, young adulthood, and eventual maturity. Looking back over her life, Esther figures out some stuff about why she is the way she is. And so, like every good autobiography, this one turns into a bit of a session with the shrink. (Why was she so insecure all the time? Oh, maybe it was because the psycho aunt who raised her told her nothing but how awful and horrible it was that she was born.) Also, by telling her story, Esther gets to relive – and hopefully get past – some shocking and nightmarish experiences. Like that time she found her mom dead on her dad's grave.

    Family Drama

    And speaking of mom and dad, where would this novel be without family connections? Sure, there is the whole main plot of Esther, Lady Dedlock, and Captain Hawdon – the family that didn't get a chance to be. But think about how many different kinds of families we meet, and how many styles of parenting and childrening (take that, English language!) we see.

    There are parents who nowadays would have their kids taken away by social services for neglect, like Mrs. Jellyby and Skimpole. There are parents who are child-raising superstars, like the Bagnets. There are parents who wish they still had their kids, like Mrs. Rouncewell, and there are kids who are really badly off because they are parentless, like Charley, Tom, and Emma Neckett. There are families sucked into and destroyed by the horrible morass of Chancery law, like the Jarndyces, the Flites, and the Gridleys. And there are large, improvised families created out of dysfunction and violence, like Jenny and Liz and their baby, or Jarndyce, Ada, Richard Jr., Esther, Woodcourt, and the little Woodcourts.

    Literary Fiction

    This is a "canonical text." This means that it's one of a small group of novels, poems, and pieces of drama that are almost universally acknowledged to be important pieces of literary art. What is interesting, though, is that at the time when it was published, it could have been considered "popular fiction" as well. It was certainly what we would now call a bestseller, and it appealed to pretty much every kind of reader – those who read just for plot, thrills, and chills; and those who thought about themes, characters, and Big Ideas.


    And of course, it would be hard to ignore the fact that Bleak House is also, on top of everything else, a mystery novel. Is a horrible crime committed? Tulkinghorn's murder. Are there multiple potential suspects? Mr. George, Lady Dedlock, Hortense. Is there a detective puzzling the whole thing out using clues and evidence? Inspector Bucket, at your service.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This title is really heavy, man. It's deep like the ocean, layered like a cake, and allusive like David Blaine. (Well, OK, David Blaine is actually all about illusions and not allusions, but work with us here.) Seriously though, which house in the novel wouldn't be called bleak? Of course, there's Mr. Jarndyce's place – which is actually called Bleak House. (Nice, right? That's what we're calling the next mansion we buy.) Its reputation is rehabilitated in the novel, though. Then there's Casa de Dedlock, a pretty bleak place too, what with the suicides and ghosts and horrible family secrets. There's Krook's Knasty Kraphole, where Nemo overdoses and Miss Flite and her birds lead their bleak existence. And of course, who could forget the lawyered-up Courthouse, with its totally bleak track record of actually getting any cases resolved, or doing much of anything besides creating more business for itself.

    In fact, this novel is so depressing that all of London ends up being a kind of unbelievably bleak home for a host of city-dwellers who can never leave it. And if you crack open the meaning of the word "bleak" (hopeless, comfortless, dreary, oppressive), you could think of all of England as bleak, in the grip of impenetrable and inhuman systems and institutions like the Court of Chancery.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    A couple things usually happen at the end of a novel. First of all, if we're reading something traditional, the good people are rewarded for all the nice things they did, and the bad people get lumps of coal in their stockings. (You know you're reading something that's trying to buck tradition if the bad people come out on top.) Also, if the plot has had a big upheaval of some sort, the traditional ending is the place where everything gets patted down and smoothed out again. (Again, if you're seeing an ending where everything is still in disarray, the novel is trying to stick it to the Man. The traditional-novel Man.)

    So with all that in mind, what do we have here? Well, we actually have a combination of both kinds of endings. On the one hand, we've got happy, happy, joy, joy: the love ending, with Esther and Woodcourt getting together and the bittersweet family unit ending of Ada, Richard Jr., and Jarndyce. We've also got the bad-guy-comeuppance: Skimpole is outed as a fraud, Tulkinghorn is killed, and Smallweed's days of blackmail are over. Next we have the fallen-woman-must-die scenario: Lady Dedlock and the big premarital-sex, out-of-wedlock-baby, suicide situation. Then we have the political-issue novel: the horrible Chancery lawsuit implodes on itself, taking all of the Jarndyce money with it. And finally, of course, we've got the awesome murder-mystery solution: it was Hortense! With the gun! In the study! And she would've gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for that pesky Bucket and those Wards in Jarndyce kids!

    So why have all of these kinds of endings? They do go together, of course, because the novel has a really tight plot that connects all these different stories in amazing ways. But also, all of these endings tell us something about the way Bleak House is built. It's a combination of stories, plots, and genres. It's a detective novel (one of the first ever!), a romance novel (kind of in the Jane Eyre, unattractive-female-lead mold), a political novel about the failed institution of Chancery Court (along the lines of political novels about factory life, like Gaskell's North and South), and a doomed-woman novel about how sex outside of marriage is the worst possible thing ever and can only lead to the woman's suicide (even if here we have a more sympathetic picture, what with Sir Dedlock's forgiveness and everything). Whew...that's quite a heap of genres!

    So what's the point of lumping so many different ways of telling a story all together in one book? Shmoop will throw out one suggestion: Dickens is always really interested in the many ways the various layers of society connect, intersect, and are isolated from one another (think of the way the highest person in the novel, Lady Dedlock, interacts with the lowest, Jo). Dickens is also fascinated by systems, institutions, and bureaucracies, and the way they serve both as connections between people and also to disconnect people from one another. (On the one hand, think of the Court of Chancery, which makes Richard angry at Jarndyce. On the other, think of the police searching for Lady Dedlock by making a kind of human web around the city.)

    All of these things are distinct, all have their own patterns and rhythms, but all are part of the same world. So it is with Bleak House: the novel is a multitude of people, a huge amalgam of many different kinds of stories, and so maybe it needs to accommodate a collection of genres and endings to capture all of that diversity too.

  • Setting

    Mid-Victorian London and Suburbs

    The plot of Bleak House only works in the context of its historical setting (the middle of the 19th century) and its geographical location (London and its 'burbs). So, first things first – let's rustle up what we know about Victorian England. The stereotype: straight-laced, repressed, overdressed people who were way not into the human body. The truth: see the stereotype. For our purposes, it's really important not to underestimate how big a deal sex and pregnancy outside marriage really was. It was a Really Big Deal that could plausibly ruin a woman's life.

    Also important for the plot is the fact that we're dealing with London, a ginormous, sprawling metropolis. Although nowadays we think of slums as a normal part of any big city, back then it was pretty new. So it was way more shocking that just a few streets away from the mansions of the super-rich were the collapsing tenements of the desperately poor. For anyone who needed a quick shorthand way of highlighting the inequalities of life (ahem, Dickens), London was the perfect setting for characters from wildly different economic classes to plausibly bump into each other.

    Chesney Wold (an aristocratic estate), Bleak House (a middle-class house), Tom-all-Alone's (a London slum)

    What's it like to be these characters? Short of describing a typical day ("First, Esther woke up. Then she washed her face. Then she walked to the door..." = boring!), a really handy tool is describing where they live. After all, so much of how we go about our daily lives depends on where we spend our days – our environment's logistics shape our actions to an enormous degree. And so we find quite a difference between the main places where the domestic action takes place.

    Chesney Wold is enormous, cavernous, cold, haunted, usually wrapped in dust-covers, and generally not particularly welcoming to human life. And so, at first glance, we find the Dedlocks to be themselves: locked into very formal and ritualized ways of behaving, tending to prefer isolation and elitism, and never expressing emotions or interest about anything.

    Then, there is the normative (check it out – that's actually a pretty good English-paper word meaning "most culturally appropriate" or "modeling or prescribing the way something ought to be") middle-class comfort of Bleak House. It's a comfortable place with enough room for everyone. It is also a sort of informal, ad hoc structure, with random layers having been added on without a master plan. And its inhabitants, in the best of times, match that style. Esther and Jarndyce roll with life's punches without too much freaking out, and their main goal in life is to provide comfort and protection to whomever they come across without too much fuss.

    Finally, we've got the surreal horror of Tom-all-Alone's, the forgotten slum that is literally covered with oozing garbage and excrement, and where buildings fall down every now and again without anyone from the outside caring all that much about the damage. Jo's life here is as difficult as can be imagined. Homelessness, dirt, disease – you name it, it's here. Even when Jo gets some money from the veiled woman, going to Tom-all-Alone's guarantees that most of it will be stolen or confiscated from him.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    Shmoop won't lie to you. This book definitely needs your full and undivided attention. And maybe even some prep work. First off, you've got the logistics of the thing. It's long. Really long. And not only that, it has a bazillion characters and a complex and twisty plot. But then again, the good thing about Dickens is that he was writing for everybody, so even missing a few details will still leave you with an excellent sense of the novel.

    Second, the language can be hard. Lots of big words, lots of long sentences, lots of layers of meaning. Bust out your favorite dictionary for this one, folks.

    Third, you have to adjust your point of view to the old-timey values that Dickens was working with. That means understanding that this is a world where having a baby outside of marriage is only a few steps higher on the morality scale than murder. And reputation is so important that it would make perfect sense for Lady Dedlock to try to kill herself rather than be exposed, or for Mr. George to refuse a lawyer for his murder rap.

    Finally, you've also got to get a good handle on the way the poor were treated back in Dickens's day. There's no welfare or any other government help. Being poor is a criminal offense, punishable with time in the "workhouse" – basically a sweatshop where poor people were worked to death. And children and adults count the same in terms of government intervention – i.e., not at all.

  • Writing Style

    Third-person: Didactic, Moralizing, Poetic; First-person: Matter-of-Fact, Reportage

    In most of his novels, Dickens uses a few repeated tricks and touches. Because his style is so easily identifiable, he's the kind of writer that's called a "stylist" – meaning that the style of his prose is really important to him and he enjoys playing with language in a way that many otherwise talented writers do not.

    In Bleak House, this playful and often poetic style is used only for the third-person narrator. To create contrast, Esther's voice is straightforward and normal, without the crazy flights of verbal fancy that are the Dickensian trademark. A good way to see the differences is to compare the two narrators describing the same thing. Let's go with the Jarndyce court case, shall we?

    Here's how the third-person narrator sees it:

    Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. [...] Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke. That is the only good that has ever come of it. It has been death to many, but it is a joke in the profession. [...] The last Lord Chancellor handled it neatly, when, correcting Mr. Blowers, the eminent silk gown who said that such a thing might happen when the sky rained potatoes, he observed, "or when we get through Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Mr. Blowers"--a pleasantry that particularly tickled the maces, bags, and purses. [...] How many people out of the suit Jarndyce and Jarndyce has stretched forth its unwholesome hand to spoil and corrupt would be a very wide question. From the master upon whose impaling files reams of dusty warrants in Jarndyce and Jarndyce have grimly writhed into many shapes, down to the copying-clerk in the Six Clerks' Office who has copied his tens of thousands of Chancery folio-pages under that eternal heading, no man's nature has been made better by it. (1.7-10)

    Here we see all the stylistic tricks Dickens typically has up his sleeve. There's the repetition of key words and phrases (a technique called "anaphora." Use this in your next English paper for an instant grade bump!): "innumerable children"/"innumerable young people"/"innumerable old people." There is the making of long lists: maces, bags, purses (all jokey references to the various kinds of lawyers involved). There are the self-defining names: the eminent Mr. Blowers is clearly a guy who blows a lot of hot air. And of course, let's not forget the hyperbole (exaggeration): the number of people involved with the suit is not just large, but actually uncountable; the lawsuit creates not just hostility, but epic feuds between families.

    What is the point of all of these tactics? Maybe it's a way to give the Jarndyce lawsuit a kind of magical, ominous, world-defining quality – to take it out of reality and put it in some kind of mythical realm.

    Meanwhile, here is Esther talking about the same thing:

    When we came to Westminster Hall we found that the day's business was begun. Worse than that, we found such an unusual crowd in the Court of Chancery that it was full to the door, and we could neither see nor hear what was passing within. It appeared to be something droll, for occasionally there was a laugh and a cry of "Silence!" It appeared to be something interesting, for every one was pushing and striving to get nearer. It appeared to be something that made the professional gentlemen very merry, for there were several young counsellors in wigs and whiskers on the outside of the crowd, and when one of them told the others about it, they put their hands in their pockets, and quite doubled themselves up with laughter, and went stamping about the pavement of the Hall. [...] The people came streaming out looking flushed and hot and bringing a quantity of bad air with them. [...] Presently great bundles of paper began to be carried out--bundles in bags, bundles too large to be got into any bags, immense masses of papers of all shapes and no shapes, which the bearers staggered under, and threw down for the time being, anyhow, on the Hall pavement, while they went back to bring out more. Even these clerks were laughing. We glanced at the papers, and seeing Jarndyce and Jarndyce everywhere, asked an official-looking person who was standing in the midst of them whether the cause was over. Yes, he said, it was all up with it at last, and burst out laughing too. (65.5-9)

    Wow, talk about deflation. The details are much the same: people are laughing at the ridiculousness of this lawsuit, there's a whole bunch of paperwork associated with it, and it's hard to imagine that Jarndyce and Jarndyce might actually come to an end. But check out the difference in delivery: no repetition, no funny lists – it's "just the facts ma'am." Esther doesn't exaggerate anything she sees – she just tells it like it is, noting whatever details pop out at her.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Ghost Walk

    If walkways could talk, this one would tell a story about a really angry Dedlock who cursed the family with...the sound of footsteps whenever something is going wrong. Um, yeah, that's not really all that scary a curse. But still, the curse comes true at last, and the walkway under the windows of Chesney Wold constantly sounds like someone is walking on it from the moment Lady Dedlock figures out that Esther is her child. A scary premonition of her death? Raindrops? You be the judge.

    Miss Flite's Birds

    How creeptastic is it that Miss Flite has a bunch of caged birds in her room that are only going to be released when Jarndyce and Jarndyce is over? Pretty creeptastic. Plus, when we find out that the birds are 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, and then when we learn that she added two more birds called the Wards in Jarndyce...well, that's the time to start slowly and carefully backing away. The bird names are a nice mix of pure nuttiness (we're guessing Spinach doesn't really have a deep meaning behind it) and insightfulness. In one way or another, many of those names really do represent something that's being kept imprisoned by the never-ending Jarndyce lawsuit. It's kind of a reverse Pandora's box: when Miss Flite finally releases the birds, it's a freedom and a release that's been long overdue.

    The East Wind

    The only clue we get that Jarndyce might actually be onto the horror that is Skimpole is when he complains about the wind being in the east. The general sense is that the east wind is somehow evil. (Fun brain snack: the east wind brings nothing but badness in The Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, and the Old Testament.) But for Jarndyce, references to the east wind tend to happen whenever he sees some kind of social ill that needs to be corrected. The orphaned Neckett kids? East wind. The Jellybys? East wind. And so on.

    The Painting in Tulkinghorn's Office

    Whenever you have a painting described at length in a novel, you know it's got to mean something. So when we find out that Tulkinghorn has a giant painting on the ceiling of his office of a guy pointing his finger down in an angry way – well, that sounds symbolic to us. Symbolic of what exactly? It's not clear in the novel. On the most basic level, the finger ends up pointing to the spot where Tulkinghorn will die. On a more metaphorical level, it might be a finger of accusation. (Tulkinghorn is one evil dude, so that's a safe guess.) Or maybe it's meant to be an indictment of the system that Tulkinghorn is a part of. But Shmoop's money is on the idea that this is an indirect representation of the third-person narrator.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient) and First Person (Central Narrator)

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    Remember how in Tulkinghorn's office, the ceiling is painted with an image of an angry, contemptuous-looking guy pointing his finger down at something? Well, the novel doesn't really explain what this is all about, but Shmoop is thinking it's a pretty good image to keep in mind when thinking about the third-person narrator. This disembodied voice always sounds like it's coming down to us from way up on high, looking out over the horrible, idiotic, pathetic, and evil people who inhabit the world of the novel.

    This narrator is judgmental, cynical, and always ready with a cruel dig at someone else's expense. The clincher – what really gives this third person its power – is that this voice narrates in the present tense. He is telling us the action at the very moment that it's happening, basically doing a newscast and an op-ed at the same time. Check out, for example, the third-person narrator's description of the Court of Chancery in the first chapter:

    On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be--as here they are--mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause [...] who made a fortune by it, ought to be--as are they not?--ranged in a line [...] (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar's red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters' reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. [...] This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man's acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart. (1.6)

    Here we've got it all. First, a straight-up description of what's actually happening – the members of the bar are talking, the solicitors are standing in a line, there are documents all over the tables.

    Over this bottom foundation of factual description, we have several layers of criticism. First, there is the repetition of several key phrases that create very long list-making sentences: "on such an afternoon," "ought to be – as here they are," "in every," and "which has its." Repeating these words followed by another item in the list gives the reader the feeling of a fist being pounded on a table, or a pointing finger jabbing down. The repetition also lets the narrator slip some nasty items into a seemingly fact-based list: here "mountains of costly nonsense" has the same weight as the technical names of the legal documents that come before the phrase.

    The next layer is comparison – of a highly unflattering sort. Some comparisons are through simile: the members of the bar are like actors ("players"), pretending to do serious business. Some is through a surreal slippage between the real and the metaphorical: legal mumbo jumbo is so slippery that the solicitors trip over it and so murky and muddy that they are in it knee-deep.

    The final layer is just direct condemnation: "you might look in vain for truth" in the words and actions of all these lawyers.

    Ester, the First Person Narrator

    It would be hard to imagine reading a novel entirely in that incredibly angry voice. It would be exhausting, not to mention really off-putting – and after all, Dickens did want to move his books off the bookstore shelves. So we get a little relief in the form of Esther. Her voice is soft, gentle, and all about feelings. Plus, she is writing in the past tense, from the point of view of someone looking back on things that are over, done, and dealt with. We can sense this in her voice, and even in the tensest moments there is a sense that everything will work out OK.

    Unlike the third-person narrator, Esther comes across as a real person, whose voice evolves and changes as time goes on. It might be a little unrealistic that a person writing a memoir would recreate her early, more innocent voice and then slowly transform it into a more mature one. But whatever – that's what we've got here.

    When we first meet Esther, her descriptions are really hedging her bets, and she doesn't trust herself or her own judgment about what's happening. Check out this section about Mrs. Jellyby:

    Mrs. Jellyby, whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces as the dear child's head recorded its passage with a bump on every stair--Richard afterwards said he counted seven [...] As if--I am quoting Richard again--they could see nothing nearer than Africa! [...] Mrs. Jellyby had very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it. The shawl in which she had been loosely muffled dropped onto her chair when she advanced to us; and as she turned to resume her seat, we could not help noticing that her dress didn't nearly meet up the back [...] what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking though by no means plain girl at the writing-table [...] I was so occupied with Peepy that I lost the letter in detail, though I derived such a general impression from it of the momentous importance of Africa, and the utter insignificance of all other places and things, that I felt quite ashamed to have thought so little about it. (4.23-42)

    Esther is generally OK with just telling us the facts... but only kind of. Look at how she hides behind the "we" anytime she has to describe something negative about the Jellyby house: "we could not help noticing," "what struck us." And it's not just that. Every aside that she makes turns out to be a quotation from Richard: "Richard afterwards said he counted seven" [steps that Peepy hits his head on], "I am quoting Richard again" about how Mrs. Jellyby looks off into the distance instead of seeing her kids. When it's time for Esther herself to bust out some kind of opinion, she tries as hard as possible not to say anything mean or critical. Mrs. Jellyby's neglect is instead a lack of "uneasiness." Her gross personal hygiene doesn't hide her "very good hair." Even her clearly idiotic and ridiculous Africa malarkey somehow makes Esther feel guilty and "ashamed" for not caring about it. That's some hardcore pathological niceness right there.

    Later, though, Esther starts to grow a spine and gets way less shy about telling us what's what. Here she is summing up things at the end of the novel:

    It is difficult to believe that Charley (round-eyed still, and not at all grammatical) is married to a miller in our neighbourhood. [...] I hope the miller will not spoil Charley; but he is very fond of her, and Charley is rather vain of such a match, for he is well to do and was in great request. [...] Tom, Charley's brother [...] is a good bashful fellow, always falling in love with somebody and being ashamed of it. [...] I am reminded here of Peepy and old Mr. Turveydrop. [...] Old Mr. Turveydrop, very apoplectic, still exhibits his deportment about town, still enjoys himself in the old manner, is still believed in the old way. He is constant in his patronage of Peepy and is understood to have bequeathed him a favourite French clock in his dressing-room--which is not his property. (67.8-10)

    Check out how much more relaxed and easygoing the voice is here. There is none of the hedging and hiding behind other people's ideas and words. Instead, Esther feels free to judge and even mock the people she's describing. Charley is vain about her marriage, Tom is a silly lovesick boy, and – on a darker note – Mr. Turveydrop is still the same old parasitic poser.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage and 'Fall' into the Other World

    Esther grows up completely sheltered and cut off from the rest of the world. To make things even more fun, her crazy psycho of an aunt raises her to believe that she's evil, wicked, and sinful. Fun times. So it's crazy and disorienting when she gets to the relatively normal and emotionally nurturing Bleak House and meets the kind, generous John Jarndyce.

    Initial Fascination or Dream Stage

    Esther thrives as Bleak House's housekeeper and does a lot of good for the people around her. But she has a lot of trouble accepting their praise and can't help but think of herself as really flawed and damaged (thanks, crazy godmother/aunt!). She is very unsure of herself as a person and doesn't seem to trust her observations and opinions of those around her.

    Frustration Stage

    Suddenly Esther realizes that the mystery of her birth is somehow tied in with the beautiful Lady Dedlock. Seeing her one day, Esther has a panic attack of epic proportions.

    Nightmare Stage

    A double nightmare, actually. First Esther catches some horrible disease, goes blind, almost dies, and ends up with deforming facial scars. Which would be enough for anyone, really. But no – she also discovers that Lady Dedlock is her mother and that if this fact were to get out, everyone's lives would be totally ruined. Which is scary, because there are at least three people who are actively trying to get to the bottom of the story.

    Thrilling Escape and Return

    Esther just barely survives a terrifying chase of her mother across the wintry countryside and through the London slums. After everything calms down, an emotionally healed, grown-up, capable, and self-assured Esther returns to the new and improved Bleak House II (Victorian Boogaloo) – the one Jarndyce built just for her and Woodcourt.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Lady Dedlock recognizes Nemo's handwriting; Esther becomes Jarndyce's ward.

    This is how the two main characters start off. One is on her way up, the other on her way down. Will they cross in the middle? Are they in any way connected?


    Tulkinghorn starts to turn up the heat by investigating Lady Dedlock's past; Esther begins to grow into womanhood.

    As soon as Tulkinghorn is on the case, Lady Dedlock is running scared, and we know something big is going to go down when the big secret is finally revealed. Meanwhile Esther starts to develop her adult self, becoming housekeeper at Bleak House, taking care of Ada, tending to the various unfortunates she encounters in London, and starting a tentative love affair with Woodcourt. The stories of both women parallel nicely here. Both are starting to confront whatever inner desires and feelings they have been hiding all this time. For Esther, it's her attraction to Woodcourt and a slowly growing sense that she is pretty awesome. For Lady Dedlock, it's her repressed maternal instincts, now directed at Rosa and her extreme guilt over her past.


    Lady Dedlock discovers that her daughter is actually still alive; Esther falls ill and loses her good looks to facial scarring.

    Just when she thought the past was safely buried, Lady Dedlock realizes that she actually has a grown-up daughter. Meanwhile, all of Esther's hopes about Woodcourt seem dashed, since she is no longer pretty. Both respond to the sudden shocks with some level of grace under pressure. Lady Dedlock throws caution to the wind and decides to do the right thing, telling Esther she is her mother. Esther sucks it up and decides to try to turn gratitude and duty into romantic love by marrying Jarndyce.


    The crap hits the fan. Tulkinghorn threatens Lady Dedlock and is murdered. Suspicion falls on her.

    Lady Dedlock cannot live with the weight of her guilt. She becomes depressed and suicidal when she thinks about the daughter she didn't raise (who was raised by her hateful sister instead), the fiancé she didn't marry (who ended up dying in abject poverty in some hellhole), and the husband she betrayed (who is about to be publicly humiliated when her past is made known to the world and she is accused of murder).


    Will Bucket and Esther find Lady Dedlock in time?

    The detective and the long-lost daughter set out on a crazy chase through the countryside, in extreme winter weather, with time constantly ticking away and not too many clues to go on. It's a nail-biter.


    No, they won't find Lady Dedlock in time. But Esther does get some closure.

    Lady Dedlock is already dead of exposure by the time they get to her. Oh, man. But on the other hand, now Esther no longer has to worry about everyone finding out her secret and ruining her mother's life. In other excellent news, Lady Dedlock was not the murderer after all. It's a win-win! Oh, right, except for the dead-of-exposure part.


    Reasonably mega-happy ending for all!

    Esther doesn't have to marry Jarndyce after all and ends up owning her womanhood as Woodcourt's wife, the mother of his children, and his medical assistant. Lady Dedlock's honor and reputation remain intact and she is buried beside Sir Dedlock with love in the family crypt. And sure, Richard dies and Ada is a single mom, but somehow that seems OK.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Esther comes to London with her past shrouded in mystery, but her future so bright she's gotta wear shades.

    Act II

    Tulkinghorn, Bucket, Guppy, and Smallweed start investigating the connections between Esther and Lady Dedlock.

    Act III

    Suicidal, Lady Dedlock runs off, knowing that her secret is about to be revealed. Esther and Bucket set off on an ultimately fruitless search to find her before she kills herself.