Study Guide

Bleak House Chapter 4

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 4

Telescopic Philanthropy

  • (Still Esther narrating.)
  • Kenge tells the gang that since Jarndyce's place (called Bleak House) is far away, they'll be spending the night at Mrs. Jellyby's. When no one seems to know who she is, Kenge explains that she is a super-awesome philanthropist who is devoted to all sorts of causes. The cause of the moment is Africa.
  • When they get to the Jellyby house there is a commotion over the youngest Jellyby, who's gotten his head stuck in a railing. The other kids are concerned and the neighborhood tradesmen are trying to help. Pretty much everyone is involved except Mrs. Jellyby herself.
  • Esther directs the freeing of the kid and goes inside.
  • OK everyone, we're about to get to one of the novel's big themes, which is expressed here in the form of a chapter-long joke.
  • The Jellyby house is the dirtiest, messiest, most ridiculously upside-down piece of disgustingness ever, complete with totally neglected and endangered children and a completely silent and almost invisible husband. It makes Ada, who is a delicate flower, cry to have to stay there.
  • Meanwhile Mrs. Jellyby is totally chillaxing, dressed in ill-fitting clothes and spending all of her time writing letters about totally impractical and ridiculous-sounding schemes to help Africans in the colony of Borrioboola-Gha (a made-up name, obviously).
  • So – get it? She's trying to help people who are really far away but has no concern for her own domestic problems. She acts like she's more important than her husband, who has no control over her. Chicks, man! Also, do-gooders, man.
  • The person who takes down her dictation is her eldest daughter, Caddy Jellyby. She looks angry and unhappy to Esther.
  • Finally, it's dinnertime. Mrs. Jellyby announces that she has no idea where the hot water, kettle, or water jug are, and that the boiler is broken, so her guests can't wash up before eating.
  • (At this point, Shmoop started wondering why exactly Kenge brought Esther and Ada to this hellhole. Is this some kind of payback or punishment?)
  • Esther and Ada try to freshen up as well as they can and discover that the doors of their bedrooms don't work. Esther ends up telling fairy tales to the Jellyby kids while getting ready.
  • The food is gross and totally uncooked, although Esther is generous enough to say that if someone had actually prepared it, it would probably have been yummy. (She always tries to say something nice.)
  • There is a very silent, passive man sitting at the table who eventually turns out to be Mr. Jellyby. He is really a nonentity.
  • Mrs. Jellyby spends dinner drinking coffee, rifling through papers, and sending Caddy off to write letters.
  • Esther tells some more stories to the kids and puts them to bed.
  • Then Esther asks Ada to explain why Mrs. Jellyby is supposed to be this amazing person when her kids and her house are falling to pieces. It sounds really snide when we write this, but in the novel Esther is genuinely confused. She's all naïve and innocent and sweet, so everything she says is totally non-sarcastic.
  • Ada laughs at her. Ada has a little bit of that beautiful-girl-gets-to-be-a-jerk quality.
  • Late at night Caddy comes to see Esther and busts out with some super-angry ranting. Basically she says: 1) I know the house is a disgusting mess, 2) I wish our family were more normal (i.e., I wish our mom mommed it up more), and 3) I wish you could teach me about stuff like you're going to teach Ada. Then Caddy starts crying and falls asleep in Esther's lap.
  • Esther falls asleep too, and dreams about turning into Ada, then her school friends, then the mad woman at the courthouse, then no one.

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