Bleak House is the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, published in 20 monthly parts between March 1852 and September 1853. The plot concerns a long-running legal dispute (Jarndyce and Jarndyce) that has far-reaching consequences for all involved. Dickens' assault on the flaws of the British judiciary system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk. His harsh characterization of the slow, arcane Chancery law process gave voice to widespread frustration with the system, helping to set the stage for its eventual reform in the 1870s.
Analysis and criticism
In Bleak House Dickens experimented with the device of dual narrators: an unnamed third-person narrator and the orphan Esther take turns to tell the story. The style is also remarkable: a hypnotic opening of three paragraphs without a complete sentence. The scope is probably the broadest Dickens ever attempted, ranging from the filthy slums to the landed aristocracy, in a narrative that is in equal parts pathos and comedy. One character, Krook, smells of brimstone and eventually dies of spontaneous human combustion, attributed to his consumption of inordinate quantities of alcohol.
Ironically, Bleak House (the place not the novel) is not, in fact, bleak. The house is owned by one of Dickens's most warm-hearted characters, John Jarndyce and, in general, it represents a place of refuge from the other locales described in the story.
Characters in "Bleak House"
As usual, Dickens drew upon many real people and places but was not constrained by the realities. The character Mrs. Jellyby, always involved in good causes but with a chaotic family, is based upon Caroline Chisholm. Many people saw the character of Harold Skimpole as a portrait of Leigh Hunt but this was always denied by Dickens. Mr Jarndyce's friend Mr Boythorn is based on the writer Walter Savage Landor. The novel also includes one of the first detectives to appear in English fiction, Mr Bucket. This character is probably based on Inspector Charles Frederick Field of the recently formed Detective Department at Scotland Yard. Dickens wrote several journalistic pieces about the Inspector and the work of the detectives in his magazine Household Words.
- Esther Summerson — an orphan, the hero of the complex story. The discovery of her true identity provides for much of the drama in the book. It is later discovered that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock.
- Richard Carstone — a ward of court in Jarndyce v Jarndyce. A fairly simple but inconstant character who falls under the malign spell of the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case. At the end of the book he dies, tormented by his inability to make any progress in the case at the cost of all his money.
- Ada Clare — a ward of court in Jarndyce v Jarndyce. A good girl who falls in love with Richard Carstone. They later marry (in secret).
- John Jarndyce — a party in Jarndyce, guardian of Richard, Ada and Esther, and owner of Bleak House. A good man who falls in love with Esther and proposes that they marry. She agrees but it becomes increasingly clear that the marriage would not suit her. He also realizes this but finds it very hard to give her up.
- Harold Skimpole — a friend of Jarndyce and "in the habit of sponging his friends" (Nuttall); supposedly based on Leigh Hunt. A thoroughly despicable character, amoral, and without remorse.
- Sir Leicester Dedlock — a crusty baronet, very much older than his wife and very "out of place" in the England of the 1830s.
- Honoria, Lady Dedlock — the haughty mistress of Chesney Wold. Her past drives much of the plot as it turns out she had an affair with another man and gave birth to his child. She discovers the child's identity (it's Esther) and then she has to fend off the manipulations of Mr. Tulkinghorn. At the end, she dies, disgraced in her own mind, convinced her aristocratic husband could never forgive her moral failings.
- Mr. Tulkinghorn — the Dedlock family lawyer. A scheming, manipulative monster of a man. He learns of Lady Dedlock's past and tries to blackmail her. He is murdered and the last part of the book turns into a murder investigation as several characters have good reason to want Tulkinghorn dead.
- Nemo — a law writer. A mysterious man who dies early in the story. He is later revealed to be a Captain in the British Army, the lover of Lady Dedlock, and the father of Esther.
- Miss Flite — an elderly eccentric obsessed with Chancery. She is a party in Jarndyce v Jarndyce.
- Mr. Guppy — a law clerk. He becomes very taken with Esther and plays a role in unearthing her true past. He proposes marriage to Esther, then withdraws the offer, then re-proposes. Esther politely refuses both his proposals.
- Inspector Bucket — a detective. He is the key player in the murder investigation of Mr. Tulkinghorn and he eventually solves the case. He was almost certainly based in part on Charles Frederick Field, one of the first members of the Detective Division of Scotland Yard, who had been Dickens's informant in his short essay "On Duty With Inspector Field".
- Mr. George — a former soldier. He is a trainer in the martial arts (swords and pistols mostly). Richard Carstone, before he joins the army, trains under him. Later we learn that Mr. George served under the command of "Nemo". He was the prime suspect in the death of Mr. Tulkinghorn and was arrested.
- Caddy Jellyby — a friend of Esther.
- Krook — a rag and bottle merchant and collector of papers. He dies from a case of Spontaneous human combustion, something that Dickens believed could, in fact, happen.
- Jo — a young boy who tries to make a living as a crossing sweeper. He dies from a disease (smallpox?) which Esther also catches (and is nearly killed by).
- Allan Woodcourt — a physician. A good man who likes Esther. She in turn likes him a great deal but feels unable to respond to his overtures because of her prior commitment to John Jarndyce. All is resolved happily at the end.
- Grandfather Smallweed — a money lender. An evil man who enjoys inflicting emotional pain on other people. He drives Mr. George into bankruptcy (by calling in debts).
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
The BBC has adapted Bleak House on three occasions. The first version was broadcast in 1959 in eleven half-hour episodes; the second, starring Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock and Denholm Elliott as John Jarndyce, was broadcast as an eight-part series in 1985; and the third, starring Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, was broadcast in fifteen episodes in 2005.
Like most Dickens novels, Bleak House was published in 19 monthly instalments, each containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Phiz. Each cost one shilling, except for the last, which was a double issue and cost two.
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- Detective fiction. Warning: this article includes a plot spoiler for Bleak House