Summary: Chapter 1, “In Chancery”
In London, the Lord High Chancellor sits in Lincoln’s
Inn Hall in the High Court of Chancery. It is November and very
foggy. Several counsels and solicitors are looking through the paperwork
of a court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has gone on
for generations. An old woman who appears to be crazy sits at the
side of the room. She may be a party in the lawsuit. The case is
so old that no one really remembers what it is about anymore, and
it has corrupted countless people. A man named Mr. Tangle knows
more about the case than anyone else. The chancellor determines
to send two young people, a girl and a boy, to live with their uncle.
Summary: Chapter 2, “In Fashion”
The narrator points out the triviality and evil in the
world of fashion, although there are good people in it as well.
Lady Dedlock has come home with her husband, Sir Leicester Dedlock.
He loves Lady Dedlock, but she is cold and distant. The Dedlocks’
lawyer and legal advisor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, visits them and updates
them on the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Lady Dedlock asks him who
copied the documents, claiming that she likes the handwriting. Tulkinghorn says
he’ll find out. Lady Dedlock feels ill and retreats to her room.
Summary: Chapter 3, “A Progress”
Esther Summerson takes over as a first-person narrator.
She claims to be unintelligent. She remembers a doll she had when
she was a child that she felt was the only person she could talk
to. Esther’s godmother, Miss Barbary, raised Esther, and Esther
believes that she was fully virtuous but distant and strict. She
says her birthday was always the saddest day of the year. On one
birthday, Esther demanded to know what happened to her mother, and
her godmother revealed that Esther was her mother’s “disgrace” and
that her mother was a disgrace as well. As a result, the distance
between Esther and her godmother grows wider. One day, a stranger
comes to the house and looks Esther over. Then he leaves.
Two years later, when Esther is fourteen, her godmother
dies suddenly. The stranger reappears and introduces himself as
Kenge. He reveals that Esther’s godmother was actually her aunt.
He asks her if she’s ever heard of a lawsuit called Jarndyce and
Jarndyce, which she has not. Kenge says that as part of the lawsuit,
Esther will live with Mr. Jarndyce. She will be educated and comfortable,
but she must not ever leave the grounds without informing Mr. Jarndyce. Esther
says goodbye to the housekeeper, Mrs. Rachael, who shows no emotion.
Esther buries her beloved doll in the garden.
Kenge takes her away in the coach, then drops her off
near Reading. A maid, Miss Donny, leads her to a carriage and they
go to an estate called Greenleaf, as arranged by Esther’s new guardian,
Mr. Jarndyce. Esther spends six years at Greenleaf. One day, she
receives a letter from Kenge, saying she will be placed in a new
home in five days.
Esther leaves Greenleaf sadly but talks herself out of
crying. At Kenge’s office, she meets a young girl named Ada Clare,
and Ada’s cousin, Richard Carstone. All three young people are to
be taken to Bleak House, where Mr. Jarndyce lives. Esther has been
chosen as Ada’s companion. Ada and Richard are somehow related to
the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, but Esther isn’t.
Outside, a mad old woman approaches the three young people and
claims that a judgment concerning the Jarndyce case will come soon.
Summary: Chapter 4, “Telescopic Philanthropy”
Kenge tells Esther, Ada, and Richard that they will spend
the night at the Jellybys’ house and says goodbye, leaving them
to Mr. Guppy, the driver. At the Jellybys’, a child has his head
stuck in a railing, and Esther helps him. Many dirty children are
swarming through the house when Mrs. Jellyby introduces herself.
Esther observes an older child, pale and quiet, sitting at a writing
desk. Mrs. Jellyby tells them about her charity work in Africa and
ignores her children. Caddy, the girl at the writing desk, is writing
out a letter that Mrs. Jellyby dictates.
The Jellybys’ house is in utter disarray, and there is
no hot water or heat. Dinner is chaotic. Priscilla, the cook, is
drunk. A man named Mr. Quayle discusses Africa with Mrs. Jellyby,
while Mr. Jellyby sits silently.
That night, Caddy appears at Esther’s door and professes
her unhappiness at home. She says she wishes the whole family were dead.
Summary: Chapter 5, “A Morning Adventure”
Esther goes walking with Miss Jellyby after washing one
of the children, Peepy. Miss Jellyby complains about Mr. Quayle.
Richard and Ada join them. The old lady they’d seen days ago appears
in front of them. She leads them to her house nearby and stops at
a shop below, where a sign says “Krook, Rag and Bottle Warehouse”
and “Krook, Dealer in Marine Stores.” There are many signs requesting
things to be bought; nothing seems to be sold. Dirty bottles fill
the windows. Esther recognizes the handwriting on some of the law
books scattered around as being the same as papers from Kenge. An
old man opens the door and greets them, saying they should come
into the shop. The old woman identifies the man as her landlord,
Krook. He seems insane. He knows a lot about the Jarndyce case and
tells them how Tom Jarndyce shot himself. In the old woman’s room,
she shows them her birdcages. She tells them that the other lodger
is a law writer. Esther, Ada, Richard, and Miss Jellyby soon leave.
Soon, Esther, Ada, and Richard leave the Jellybys’ and
continue on toward Bleak House.
Analysis: Chapters 1–5
Fog, which appears throughout the beginning of Bleak
House, both sets the mood of the novel and highlights the
muddled state of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Fog literally
covers London when the third-person narrator sets the scene on the
first page of the novel. “Fog everywhere,” he says simply. The narrator
provides three paragraphs of gloomy, evocative description before
introducing us to the Lord High Chancellor and the disaster that
is the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Much as London is covered in
fog, our own understanding of what, exactly, this case entails is
unclear. The narrator doesn’t tell us exactly who is involved in
the case or exactly what issue the case addresses. Indeed, the narrator
acknowledges that “no man alive knows what it means”—the fogginess
of the case is chronic. The gloomy aspects of fog are also connected
to this case, and the narrator tells us that “no man’s nature has
been made better” by the doings. This pervasive image sets the tone
of the narrative to come and adds to the already gloomy atmosphere
the novel’s title suggests.
In chapter 3, Esther Summerson
replaces the third-person narrator, a shift that has the effect
of pulling us deeper into the story. Although Esther claims to have
difficulty in telling her story and asserts right away that she
isn’t very clever, her voice is clear and unhesitating as she tells
us about herself and how she became involved in the Jarndyce case.
Esther comes across as slightly self-pitying in her descriptions
of her strict, emotionally distant godmother and her unhappy birthdays,
but her self-deprecation and constant denial of her own intelligence
are manipulative gestures that both endear us to her and give her
an excuse in case we don’t like the story. In other words, she is
so insistent that she is not clever and is so doubtful of her ability
to tell the story correctly that she has a lot of leeway to tell
the story according to her own very subjective view. If things turn
out to be different from the way she describes them, she can claim
she warned us of her fallibility from the start. Also, even though
Esther claims to be unimportant to the story, she clearly relishes
talking about herself.
In the space of just five chapters (out of a novel of
sixty-seven), Dickens manages to introduce us to a host of lively,
vivid characters. For example, in chapter 2 we
meet Mr. Tulkinghorn, who Dickens describes as “old school . . .
generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young.”
The chaotic Jellybys appear in chapter 4,
when Dickens introduces the unforgettable Mrs. Jellyby, who is more
concerned with writing letters about Africa than she is with her
filthy, unhappy children. One of Dickens’s greatest skills is his
ability to draw such striking portraits with so few details in so
little space. Dickens dismisses his characters and moves on to new ones
after a few lines, paragraphs, or pages, giving the effect of a
rollicking, speeding story that can stop for no one, not even the
most interesting, quirky people that cross his protagonists’ paths.
Summary: Chapter 1, “In Chancery”