Study Guide

Bleak House Chapter 21

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 21

The Smallweed Family

  • (Still the third-person narrator.)
  • OK, so Young Smallweed actually has a first name – Bart.
  • Other members of the Smallweed family are Bart's grandmother, Mrs. Smallweed, who is very old, half-crazy and half-senile; Bart's grandfather, Mr. Smallweed, who is paralyzed from the waist down and is a greedy, grubby, cheapskate moneylender who hates everyone; and Judy, Bart's twin sister, who is also 15 going on 40, really hideous and nasty, and has never learned how to laugh.
  • Every time Mr. Smallweed says a number, Mrs. Smallweed starts crazily yelling about money. Then Mr. Smallweed throws a cushion at her to make her stop yelling, which makes him fall over. Then Judy needs to plump him back up to a sitting position, like a pillow.
  • Sounds like the coolest family, right? Also, apparently all of them were raised on the same no-fairy-tales, no-imagination educational model that Mr. Gradgrind favors in Dickens's Hard Times.
  • Charley Neckett, the recently orphaned girl who "goes out to work," does housework for them in exchange for pay and a little bit of food. They scheme about how to get her to eat less food, and Judy domineers over her.
  • Bart comes home from lunch with Jobling and Guppy, and Mr. Smallweed compliments him for not paying for his part of lunch.
  • Mr. Smallweed has a visitor, Mr. George, who is a large man who obviously used to be in the army based on the way he carries himself.
  • The next time Mr. Smallweed throws the cushion at his wife, Mr. George intervenes. Smallweed laughs and asks if she reminds him of his own mother.
  • Mr. George reveals that he actually has not been a good son, and that his solution has been to stay away from his family altogether.
  • In any case, he is there to extend his debts for two months and pay the interest on them. Smallweed is clearly a little scared of him, but not so scared that he can't indirectly threaten him with being "sold up" if his payments are ever late.
  • Talk to me, Shmoop. Well, back in the 19th century, credit was not as easily available as it is now – no credit cards, no easy mortgages, no nothing. If a person ever had to pay more than they had on hand, they'd have to take out a loan. And talk about predatory lending – there was no oversight on moneylenders, so they could charge whatever interest they wanted and they could also sell debts to other moneylenders. Presumably a nicer and more gentle lender would sell hard-to-collect debts to someone who would be less delicate – a leg-breaker, if you will. Imagine if your credit card company was suddenly able to transfer your debt to the mob, who then came after you to collect. So here Mr. George has borrowed from Smallweed and makes regular payments on the loan every two months. As long as he can scrape enough money together to make the payment, he's OK. But if he's ever late or doesn't have enough to pay, Smallweed will sell his debts to someone else.
  • Anyhow.
  • Smallweed tells Mr. George that his situation is of his own making. Basically, it's all because Mr. George wouldn't help Smallweed find an old army buddy of his – Captain Hawdon.
  • Turns out Smallweed placed a false advertisement in the papers, asking Hawdon to come forward to "hear something to his advantage" (21.130), when he really wanted to track Hawdon down because of some outstanding debts.
  • Mr. George sneers that he wouldn't rat out a friend. Plus, he adds, Hawdon is dead.
  • Then Mr. George leaves, hangs around the city a little bit, then goes back to his place. Turns out he runs a kind of old-timey gym and shooting range, where he teaches boxing, archery, riflery, and fencing.
  • There's no one taking lessons, though; the only person there is his assistant Phil. Phil has a bad leg, but quick, strong, and hard-working.
  • After a quick chat, they go to sleep.

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