John Jarndyce is a wealthy man who lives in Bleak House. His main goal in life is to do good for others, which leads him to do a lot of charity work, to take the orphaned Richard, Ada, and Esther to live as his wards, and to ignore as much as possible the Jarndyce lawsuit.
Jarndyce is the guy right in the middle of the novel's preoccupation with the issue of charity. He himself gives a lot of money away, of course, for various things: taking in Ada, Richard, and Esther; enabling Skimpole; setting up the Neckett children; buying Woodcourt a house; and giving a lot of handouts to the many random poor people in the novel. And on top of that, he's a generally helpful person, using his social status and whatever influence he has to help out Gridley, Mr. George, and others who need some kind of non-monetary assistance.
So that's just his own activities. Next, Jarndyce is our link to Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, the two women who represent terrible, horrible, just short of criminal ways to be philanthropic – either totally deserting the needs of home for the needs of those far away, or making charity into a stick to beat other people with.
Not enough connections? Well, Jarndyce is also friends with the guy on the opposite end of the giving spectrum – Skimpole – whose life is just all about going around with his hand out. Many other minor characters have their own relationships with giving, of course, but Jarndyce is the hub of this theme as far as the major characters are concerned.
Just making a list of his connections should bring up many of the questions that surround this character. He's clearly a good guy, right? Esther certainly worships him, and he's really insistent on not being thanked for his generosity. The reader is obviously meant to side with him in pretty much every situation. Why, then, is he unable to see through the heavy-duty horse hockey of Skimpole, allowing him and his family to live as parasites? Why does he keep enabling the work of the neglectful and idiotic Mrs. Jellyby and her African failures?
Shmoop will go out on a limb here and suggest one explanation: however good one person's intentions are, they will always necessarily be random and incomplete. In other words, no one person can do everything, or see the full picture. For every orphan someone like Jarndyce rescues, there will always be ten more who don't survive. Imagine that Esther had never stumbled on the Necketts – what would have happened to Charley, Tom, and Emma? Shmoop thinks Dickens might be making a larger point about the dangers of a state that doesn't provide any kind of social-support programs for its poorest and weakest citizens, like the welfare, social security, and unemployment insurance we have today.
OK, now let's totally spin around 180 degrees and discuss another complex situation Jarndyce is caught smack in the middle of. That would be the whole is-he-Esther's-father-figure-or-her-would-be-boyfriend branch of ickiness that the novel kind of dances around and never really stops long enough to deal with.
Shmoop will handle this thing one tiny gross piece at time, starting with actual plot points. First of all, eww to the revelation that ever since she was a little girl, Jarndyce has had some desire to make Esther his wife. Second of all, double-yuck to the fact that the power dynamic between Esther and Jarndyce is crazily unbalanced – after all, she is totally financially and socially dependent on him and his good will – and not only that, she feels overwhelmingly indebted to him and is the kind of person who wants to express gratitude without thinking about her own feelings. Now, Shmoop is no expert, but these are not the makings of a healthy marriage.
There are some clues that the novel is kind of creeped out by this situation too. How can we be sure? Well, we can't, but here are some things to think about. Esther refers to Jarndyce as her "Guardian." That's a pretty loaded word, with at least two different connotations: someone who's like a dad, offering protection from bad things, but also someone who a jailer or prison guard. Notice, though, that it doesn't suggest "hot-guy-I'm-totally-into" (unlike Woodcourt, who gets a lot of praise for his attractiveness).
On the other hand, Jarndyce's pet names for Esther – Dame Durden, Old Woman, Mother Hubbard – stress agelessness and refer to a woman who past her sexual prime. Dude, she's 20, so maybe "old woman" is a little off – even in Dickensian England, before Sex and the City and cougars.
Maybe to make their would-be marriage seem a little less exploitative we're meant to focus more on the ways in which it would make a sort of social sense (he's good at protecting the little guy! she's good at housework!), and less on the romantic and sexual aspects of happily-ever-after.