Charles Dickens spent a tortured childhood with his spendthrift father ruining the family finances and moving the entire family to the debtors’ prison. When Dickens was only twelve, his mother sent him out to work in a blacking factory. This episode left an indelible mark on his mind. Dickens hated the period; he always wrote against the sweat shops which employed young children and women under terrible conditions.
Relevance of the Title
Bleak House is of course named after the residence of Jarndyce that but half the residences mentioned in the book are bleak and cheerless. There are suicides, family secrets and ghosts making life miserable for those living there. The law cases that drag on beyond people’s life time with layers of complications add bitterness and despondency.
The Search for Love
The search for love drives the characters in Bleak House. The search sometimes brings more heartbreak; sometimes, it ends in happiness. Esther is busy caring for those she comes in contact with her; she is also searching for love. She has been abandoned by her mother to whom Esther was born, following an affair that she had before marriage. She falls in love with Mr. Woodcourt but does not openly declare it. She very nearly marries Mr. Jarndyce; it is when he realizes where her passions lie elsewhere that he pulls out. Lady Dedlock does not care for the daughter she has but goes on a desperate search for the man who was her lover. Then there are Richard and Ada who love each other but Ada loses Richard when he dies prematurely.
Throughout the novel, Esther mothers several characters. That is ironic as she has not received maternal love herself. There are other characters too who take others under their wings and nurture them. Esther also gets love from characters who are not related to her like Mrs. Woodcourt and Charley.
Esther Summerson is the protagonist and narrator of the novel. She is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock who presumes that her daughter is dead. Due to her nurturing ways, she is the favorite of many. Esther takes many under her wing though she lacks a mother’s love herself. It is by nursing Jo, the homeless boy that she contracts smallpox that disfigures her permanently. Jarndyce in whose house Esther works as housekeeper while caring for her cousins Richard and Ada proposes marriage to her. She accepts the proposal but her feelings are engaged elsewhere. It is Mr. Woodcourt whom she loves; fortunately for her, he returns her love and marries her.
Lady Dedlock is a mass of contradictions. At the beginning, she appears to be a haughty and cold member of the aristocracy who has no warmth for anyone, including her husband. But as events unfold and she finds out that the daughter she presumed dead is alive, she is shaken to the core. Events reopen the past that she keeps hidden inside her. At first, she tries to keep identities hidden but when she realizes that the truth is about to be revealed, she abandons her home and sets out to be close to her dead lover’s grave.
Mr. Jarndyce is the benefactor who takes in Esther, Ada and Richard who were cousins to each other. He is good natured and generous. However, he hated being thanked. He does not like his kindness acknowledged by his wards. Though he approves of Richard and Ada getting married, he is not happy with the Richard’s wavering interests. He thinks Richard’s obsessive interest in Jarndyce Vs Jarndyce can lead only to unhappiness and tragedy. His prophecy comes true when Richard loses all his money and health.
Bleak Hose has Esther Summerson as its protagonist and narrator. She is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock and Hawdon who had an affair before she marries Sir Leicester Dedlock. She presumes the daughter is dead but in reality, she is being raised by Miss Barnaby who is Lady Dedlock’s sister.
When Miss Barnaby dies, Esther is taken in by Jarndyce along with her cousins, Richard and Ada. Jarndyce is a kind benefactor; he is modest to a fault. Richard and Ada seem to be on the way to falling in love. While Jarndyce has nothing against the match, Richard’s lack of focus disturbs him. He wants Richard to take up some profession seriously before thinking of marriage. Mr. Jarndyce despises the legal case of Jarndyce Vs Jarndyce that has dragged on for decades. There are several versions of the will; Lady Dedlock, Richard, Ada and Mr. Jarndyce himself are named as beneficiaries in different versions.
Mr. Tulkinghorn is the solicitor to the Dedlocks. While he is reading out a copy of the will which mentions Lady Dedlock as one of the benefactors, she sees the handwriting on it and recognizes it. She is so agitated that she faints; Tulkinghorn notices her agitation and decides to investigate it. He finds out that it was written by a pauper who was referred to as ‘Nemo’ by the few who knew him. Nemo has died recently. The only person who knew him to some extent is Jo, a homeless boy.
Lady Dedlock tries to find out more about the person who has copied the will. She is disguised as her maid, Hortense. She goes to meet Jo and discovers where Nemo is buried. It is clear by now that nemo was her old lover, Hawdon whom she still loves.
Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock finds out that Esther is her daughter. Though both are happy at that, Lady Dedlock does not want anyone to know about it. By now Esther has had small pox that has left her face scarred. Despite that, Jarndyce, her guardian proposes to her and Esther accepts the proposal. It is Mr. Woodcourt, whom she had met a while ago, that she really loves but she feels there is no hope of marrying him.
Hortense and Tulkinghorn discover the truth about Lady Dedlock’s past. She leaves home leaving behind a letter for her husband. Sir Leicester is so devastated, he suffers a stroke. Hortense feels betrayed by Tulkinghorn and shoots him dead. Lady Dedlock is suspected of the murder but later exonerated when it becomes clear that the murder was Hortense’s work.
Mr. Woodcourt returns to England and seeks out Esther. Jarndyce realizes Esther feelings for Mr. Woodcourt and arranges for their marriage. Lady Dedlock is discovered lying dead next to Hawdon’s grave.