Study Guide

Bleak House Chapter 1

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 1

In Chancery

  • Right away the gloves come off with the third-person narrator. It's November in London, cold and miserable, and there's chimney soot all over the place.
  • To top it all off, it's super foggy – foggy for real, as in bad weather outside, and foggy metaphorically, as in the Court of Chancery is full of idiotic and needlessly complicated lawsuits.
  • Court of whoswhatsit, you say? No worries, Shmoop has your back: In Victorian times, there were a whole bunch of different courts for different lawsuits, kind of like we have one type of court for criminal cases and another for civil cases. The Chancery Court dealt with noncriminal stuff, mostly having to do with inheritance issues and wills. These cases could drag on forever – the one that Jarndyce is based on went on for 70-some years. You won't be surprised to learn that Dickens was totally not a fan of that the system.
  • The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce involves some sort of inheritance and estate business. It's so confusing that no one knows what it's actually about, and it's been going on so long that the original people involved are all dead and now it's their children and grandchildren. No one thinks it will ever be resolved.
  • The court is a huge, impersonal, totally uncaring bureaucracy. There are a bazillion different kinds of lawyers and clerks, and a Judge (called Lord Chancellor) who really couldn't care less about anything and basically just tries to do as little as possible.
  • Today in the court there is also a crazy old woman who is a frequent visitor and whom "no one knows for certain, because no one cares" (1.7). There's also a guy from far-away Shropshire yelling to get the Lord Chancellor's attention.
  • Finally the day's session is done and the Lord Chancellor goes to his chambers to talk to two young people there who are wards of the court and parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. They need the court's permission to go to live with their cousin.

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