Bleak House

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1852-53) is one of the most complicated novels of the nineteenth century. In an amazing feat of narrative planning, all of the novel's several dozen characters turn out to be somehow integral to the plot. Bleak House features two narrators: on the one hand, the protagonist, Esther Summerson, who is emotionally damaged, determinedly cheerful, and devoted to duty; on the other, an anonymous narrator, who is near-omniscient (he sees all but rarely has access to anyone's thoughts), satirical, and frequently appalled by the human race. While both halves of the novel are bleak--appropriately enough--Esther is ultimately optimistic about human nature in a way that her counterpart most decidedly is not. In its satirical moments, the novel crusades against the Court of Chancery's labyrinthine red tape and Victorian philanthropists' self-serving hypocrisy.

Given that most of Bleak House's readers need a flowchart to keep everything straight, it's impossible to do justice to the novel with a brief summary. But here are some basics:

  • Esther Summerson believes herself to be an orphan, raised out of duty by the icy Miss Barbary. As the novel unfolds, however, Esther discovers that Miss Barbary was her aunt--and that her mother remains alive. In the meantime, her kind guardian, John Jarndyce, has her appointed as a companion to the lovely young Ada Clare...although he has something else in mind for Esther's future.
  • Lady Honoria Dedlock, married to the much older Sir Leicester Dedlock, is a woman with a secret. More than one person sets out to discover and exploit that secret, including the comical clerk Mr. Guppy and the terrifying lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn.
  • Mr. Tulkinghorn's interest in Lady Dedlock leads him to a most unfortunate end. Or does it? Enter Inspector Bucket, a police detective who goes everywhere, sees everything, and, while he's at it, practically changes shape.
  • John Jarndyce, the master of Bleak House, is one of the latest players in the long-running lawsuit Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Not that he pays much attention to it or cares about the outcome. Nobody, in fact, really knows what Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is all about...
  • ...but that doesn't stop Richard Carstone from anticipating a life of wealth and ease after his side wins the suit. Richard, another one of Jarndyce's wards, somehow never manages to find a career that suits him. While he's waiting on the suit, he romances Ada.

For obvious reasons, Bleak House resists adaptation--there have been only six film and TV (and at least one radio) versions since 1920--but the BBC's 2005 miniseries was a critical and ratings success (largely thanks to an All-Star Cast including such luminaries as Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance).


Tropes used in Bleak House include:


  • Adaptation Distillation: The 2005 miniseries, which removed many of the numerous side characters and condensed the story (even an eight-hour adaptation has to trim for a 800-plus page novel!), whilst maintaining the original motives and storylines and the aesthetics of the novel.
  • Amoral Attorney: Tulkinghorn and Vholes.
    • Vholes, who preys on Richard's desire to win the lawsuit, also qualifies as an Ambulance Chaser.
  • Asshole Victim: Nobody can work up much grief for Tulkinghorn.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted--Esther's face is terribly scarred by a bout of smallpox.
    • Possibly unaverted by the ending, which is ambiguous about whether or not the scars have really vanished.
  • Blackmail: Guppy tries, anyway.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Inspector Bucket and Mrs. Bucket jointly bamboozle the culprit.
  • Cats Are Mean: Krook's cat Lady Jane, who is also a Right-Hand-Cat of sorts.
  • Clear My Name: Mr. George chooses the wrong time to quarrel with Tulkinghorn.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Arguably, the entire plot.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Miss Flite (actually a bird lady).
  • Decoy Trial: Inspector Bucket arrests Mr. George in order to deceive Hortense. See Bluffing the Murderer.
  • Driven to Madness: Miss Flite. Mr. Gridley, the Man from Shropshire, is conscious that he's verging on this.
  • Driven to Suicide: Tom Jarndyce. Possibly Nemo.
  • Friend to All Children: Esther (even to the bratty ones). She especially likes being confided in by them.
  • Henpecked Husband: Messrs. Jellyby, Snagsby, and Pardiggle. Mr. Bayham Badger is a strangely complacent variant.
  • Jerkass: Tulkinghorn and Mr. Smallweed top the list.
  • Kissing Cousins : Richard and Ada.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: And how!
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Esther's mother turns out to be Lady Dedlock.
  • Man Child: Skimpole is an especially manipulative version.
  • May-December Romance: John Jarndyce proposes to Esther and she accepts, but she marries Woodcourt in the end.
  • Meaningful Name / Punny Name: Dedlock, Smallweed, Guppy, Krook
    • Not to mention Bleak House.
  • Mysterious Parent: Lady Dedlock.
  • Never Learned to Read: Krook and Jo.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: There are at least three examples:
    • Inspector Bucket is an idealized version of Inspector Charles Field.
    • Skimpole, by contrast, is a rather nasty take on the radical journalist, essayist, and poet Leigh Hunt.
    • Boythorn is the poet Walter Savage Landor (after whom Dickens also named one of his children).
  • Ominous Fog: Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city....
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Averted in Esther's case, but not so for poor Jo.
  • Parental Abandonment: Averted-- Lady Dedlock's sister told her that the baby died after birth.
  • Parental Obliviousness: Although Mrs. Jellyby is the novel's prime example, Mrs. Pardiggle isn't exactly attuned to her children's feelings.
  • Parental Substitute: John Jarndyce, although he's none too pleased that Esther persists in thinking of him as a father.
  • The Plot Reaper: Thanks to Moral Guardians, there's no way for Lady Dedlock to remain alive once it's revealed that she had a child out of wedlock.
  • Present Tense Narrative: The third-person narrator, that is. Esther narrates in past tense.
  • Proper Lady: Esther Summerson, although part of her self-effacing nature is due to her emotionally damaging upbringing.
  • Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Esther and Ada, bordering on Les Yay. Honestly, they kiss on the mouth and call each other by pet names.
  • Secret Relationship: Richard and Ada; Lady Dedlock and Nemo.
  • Society Is to Blame: For Jo, in particular.
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion: The fate of Krook. This is possibly the Ur Example of this trope appearing in fiction, though "true stories" were already said to have existed at the time, and Dickens was known to have strongly believed that this was possible.
  • Stealth Hi Bye: Snagsby's first encounter with Inspector Bucket.
  • The Summation: Inspector Bucket's explanation of how the murder was committed.
  • Switching POV: Between Esther, in first person, and a third-person omniscient.
  • Truth in Television: Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is based on Jennens vs. Jennens (1798-1915!).
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: More than two lines, in fact, and they all intersect.
  • Will: Lots of wills, and nobody--including the lawyers involved--can remember exactly what the lawsuit was originally about.
  • Victorian Novel Disease: It's not at all clear what kills Lady Dedlock--besides The Plot Reaper, of course.
  • Yandere: Lady Dedlock's maid, Hortense, takes it badly when Lady Dedlock compliments one of the new housemaids.
  • You ALL Share My Story: Every character turns out to play some important role in the plot.