Study Guide

Bleak House Chapter 16

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 16


  • (Time to bunch up your face like something smells bad – the third-person narrator is back.)
  • Lady Dedlock is bored and restless. Sir Dedlock is bedridden with gout. Since this is an inherited joint disease, he's kind of into it, despite how painful it is. It's one more confirmation of how truly pure his noble blood is.
  • In any case, he's in Chesney Wold alone and miserable, and Lady Dedlock is out gallivanting around London in her bored way.
  • And now for something completely different – a little glimpse of what life is like for Jo the crossing sweep.
  • Jo lives in a place called Tom-all-Alone's, a condemned slum. Buildings are decaying, gross, and repugnant. The people who live there are also decaying, gross, and repugnant. Sometimes the buildings fall down and kill people, but no one does anything about it because the property the slum is on is part of a Chancery lawsuit over disputed ownership. No owner means no responsibility. No responsibility means tragedy.
  • Jo is illiterate, uneducated, and completely ignorant of most things he encounters. It's so super sad that, honestly, Shmoop is having some trouble mocking the situation.
  • The narrator, though, has no such problem. Every day Jo eats his breakfast on the steps of the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts" (16.13), and the irony is so thick here you can cut it with a knife. The society's members spend their days trying to convert people in far-away colonies to Christianity, while they ignore people like Jo who are living right under their noses. This is like Mrs. Jellyby times a million.
  • All day long Jo sweeps his crossing and eventually makes just barely enough to pay for his place in Tom-all-Alone's. Sometimes he hears music, responding to it with about the same level of animal enjoyment as a dog.
  • Whew.
  • Meanwhile, Tulkinghorn is working in his office. He's making legal trouble for Gridley and Boythorn.
  • Suddenly he sees a woman go past his window. She is veiled and dressed like a servant, but he can tell by her mannerisms that she is actually a lady. Very mysterious.
  • The woman goes and finds Jo. She figures out that he is the boy mentioned in the newspaper stories about the inquest. She offers him crazy money to take her to three places: 1) where the dead guy's work came from (aka Snagsby's), 2) where he used to live, and 3) where he was buried.
  • Jo is sort of slow and can't really understand what this person wants from him. He does know enough to call her "my lady," and she immediately says, "I am not a lady. I am a servant" (16.37).
  • He takes her around. She is sort of crazed and a little emotional. At one point she takes off her glove to give Jo money and he sees that her hand is very white (meaning she doesn't work) and covered with shiny rings.
  • She almost loses it when he shows her the cemetery and tells her they had to bury Nemo close to the surface and had to stomp on the body to get it into the shallow grave. Nice.

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