Bleak House – Chapters 16–20

Summary: Chapter 16, “Tom-all-Alone’s”
The narrator tells us that Sir Leicester has the gout
in his legs, a malady all the men in his family have suffered from.
The narrator ponders what connection there could be between Lady
Dedlock and Sir Leicester, their homes, the young Jo, and many other
Jo lives in a place called Tom-all-Alone’s, where houses
collapse. Tom Jarndyce may have once lived here, but Jo doesn’t
know for sure.
The narrator tries to imagine what it’s like to be Jo,
not really belonging anywhere and not knowing anything. Jo moves
through the town, observing people and animals trying to get enough
money to go back to Tom-all-Alone’s.
Mr. Tulkinghorn sits in his office doing work. On the
street below, a woman walks by. The narrator implies she is on some
secret errand. Determinedly, she seeks out Jo, who asks her for
money. She ignores him and crosses the street, then beckons him
over. She asks if she has read about the dead lodger in the newspaper
because of the court case regarding him. She tries to get Jo to
acknowledge that the dead man looks like him. Jo asks if she knew
the dead man, and she grows defensive. The woman asks Jo to show
her all the places he knows of relating to the death, including
where the man was buried. He is to walk far ahead of her and not
speak to her.
Jo leads the woman to Cook’s Court, Krook’s shop, and
the burial ground. She gives him some a gold coin and hurries away.
The narrator tells us that Lady Dedlock goes to a dinner
and several parties, while Sir Leicester stays home. Mrs. Rouncewell,
the housekeeper, observes that the footsteps on the Ghost’s Walk
are louder than they have ever been.
Summary: Chapter 17, “Esther’s Narrative”
Esther says that Richard visits London frequently. Esther
loves Richard but regrets that he seems unable to concentrate and
lacks ambition. Mr. and Mrs. Badger arrive one day and tell Esther
that Richard is a fine young man, but Mrs. Badger confesses that
she thinks he has chosen his profession badly. He is not passionate enough
about it. Mr. Badger agrees.
When Richard arrives the next day, he confirms that he
isn’t that interested in medicine, but that it’s good enough. He
says each day is too much like the one before, which Esther points
out is how life generally is. She and Ada encourage him to change
direction. Richard says he might like to work with Mr. Kenge and
study law. Mr. Jarndyce supports the decision, although he seems
troubled when he looks at Ada.
Esther says she has trouble sleeping, but she is evasive
about why. She tries to talk herself out of her low spirits and
go to sleep, but she can’t. She begins doing some embroidery and
goes downstairs to find some silk. She comes across Mr. Jarndyce,
who is still awake and looks troubled. He tells her she should know
more about her history. He tells her that he got a letter describing
a young orphan whom the writer had been raising. The writer feared
that if she died, the child would be alone, and so she wrote to
ask Mr. Jarndyce if he would serve as guardian if that should happen.
He wrote back saying yes. He had to agree never to see the writer
but to send a confidential agent, so Mr. Jarndyce appointed Mr.
Kenge. The writer said she was the child’s aunt. Mr. Jarndyce says
he is so happy to have taken on this child—Esther. Esther replies
gratefully that he is like a father to her, a comment that seems
to bother him. Esther doesn’t understand his reaction.
The next day, Mr. Woodcourt arrives for a brief visit
before going away on a long trip to China and India. Esther tells
us that he isn’t rich and is seven years older than she is, although
she says these details are irrelevant. She says everyone is sorry
that he’s leaving.
He brings his mother to dinner. Mrs. Woodcourt is confident
that he will meet some English ladies in India and that birth and
lineage are of utmost importance. Esther wonders idly what Mrs.
Woodcourt would think of her own birth.
After they leave, Caddy (Miss Jellyby) arrives with a
small bouquet of flowers. Esther assumes they are from Prince Turveydrop because
they look like flowers from a lover. Caddy reveals that they were
actually left behind at Miss Flite’s by someone for Esther. She hints
that this person was very good to Miss Flite and was going away
on a trip. Later, Ada laughs and teases Esther about the flowers
being from a lover. Esther doesn’t reveal who they are all referring
Summary: Chapter 18, “Lady Dedlock”
Esther, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce are back at Bleak House,
and Richard goes to work for Mr. Kenge. Mr. Jarndyce finds lodging
for Richard in London, and Richard spends money wildly.
Esther, Ada, Mr. Jarndyce, and Mr. Skimpole go to visit
Mr. Boythorn, who lives in Lincolnshire. Mr. Boythorn leads them
to his house but must take an inconvenient route because he has
sworn not to set foot on Sir Leicester’s property, Chesney Wold,
which is right next to his own. However, he tells the guests that
they may explore Sir Leicester’s park. Esther says that Chesney
Wold appears beautiful and peaceful.
In the village, Mr. Boythorn greets a young man who he
explains is Mrs. Rouncewell’s grandson, and who is in love with
a young girl staying with Lady Dedlock.
Mr. Boythorn’s house is pretty and comfortable, although
Mr. Boythorn has put up several signs threatening trespassers, namely Sir
Leicester. The day after they arrive, the group explores the park. In
a church, they see several pretty young women, including the woman
Mr. Boythorn had commented on. She is standing with the housekeeper.
Near her is a Frenchwoman, who is glaring at her.
Esther glances around the church, and a woman catches
Esther’s eye. Esther has a violent reaction. She has a feeling that
is similar to the feelings she had at her godmother’s house, when
she would play with her doll and look at herself in the mirror.
In fact, the woman’s face is like a mirror in which Esther sees
old memories. But Esther knows she has never seen this woman before.
She figures out that this woman is Lady Dedlock. Esther is incredibly
A week later, Mr. Jarndyce, Ada, and Esther are walking
in the park when it begins raining. They take shelter in a groundskeeper’s lodge.
Someone asks if it is dangerous. Ada thinks Esther has spoken, but
it is Lady Dedlock, who is also in the lodge. Esther has another
violent reaction to the voice because it makes her think of herself.
Lady Dedlock introduces herself to Mr. Jarndyce and Ada.
Mr. Jarndyce introduces Esther as his ward, and Lady Dedlock hastily turns
away. Lady Dedlock asks Mr. Jarndyce if he knew her sister when
they were abroad, and he says that he did. Lady Dedlock says she
and her sister have gone their separate ways.
A carriage arrives for Lady Dedlock, carrying the pretty
young girl and the Frenchwoman. Lady Dedlock had requested only
the young girl, but the Frenchwoman had come as well. There is no room
in the carriage for the Frenchwoman after Lady Dedlock gets in,
so she walks after it in the rain, barefoot.
Summary: Chapter 19, “Moving On”
The narrator describes a long vacation in Chancery Lane.
It is summertime, and many courts are out of session. Everyone goes
on vacation. Mr. Snagsby, the law-stationer, relaxes, and he and
Mrs. Snagsby invite Mr. and Mrs. Chadband over. Mr. Chadband has
the habit of making grand lectures instead of speaking normally.
He lectures everyone tirelessly.
Guster tells Mr. Snagsby there is someone in the shop
to see him. It is a police constable holding a young boy by the
arm. The constable tells Mr. Snagsby that the boy won’t leave the
area as he had been asked to. The boy, Jo, says he has nowhere to
go. The constable says Jo claims to know Mr. Snagsby, which Mr.
Snagsby says he does, from the inquest regarding the dead man. He
doesn’t reveal that he gave Jo a half-crown to keep quiet. At that
moment, Mr. Guppy enters the room, and the constable says that Mr.
Guppy said that Mr. Snagsby is respectable. Mr. Guppy had seen the
confusion outside and was looking into it.
Jo tells everyone about a lady who gave him money to show
her where the dead man was buried. Mr. Guppy is interested in Jo’s story
about the lady and starts asking him questions. Mrs. Snagsby invites
him upstairs, and Jo follows. Mr. Guppy continues to ask him questions.
Mrs. Chadband reveals that she has known Kenge and Carboy’s office
for years, because of a situation concerning a child. She explains
that she was left in charge of a child named Esther Summerson. Mr.
Guppy tells her that he met Esther in London.
Mr. Chadband compliments Jo and talks on and on about
his lot in life. Jo finally escapes.
Summary: Chapter 20, “A New Lodger”
The narrator says that the long summer vacation continues.
Mr. Guppy is restless. He and Richard work together in Kenge and
Carboy’s office, although Mr. Guppy is jealous that Richard is staying
in Kenge’s room. Mr. Guppy suspects everyone of being out to get
him. He is glad that Richard spends so much time reading papers
about Jarndyce and Jarndyce, since he knows only failure can come
from it. Another young man is in the office as well, Young Smallweed (also
called Chick), who works as a clerk. Although he is only fifteen he
seems unusually wise.
One day a man named Jobling arrives and goes to dinner
with Mr. Guppy and Smallweed. Everyone at the restaurant respects Smallweed.
Mr. Jobling eats copiously. They talk about Jobling’s professional
problems. Jobling considers enlisting, but Mr. Guppy suggests he
try to get work from Mr. Snagsby. Mr. Guppy hints around at his
connection to the Snagsbys—namely, what happened when he was last
at their home—but he refuses to clarify. Mr. Guppy also says that
he has been giving money to Miss Flite, and that he knows about
Mr. Krook’s lodging house. He says Mr. Krook could rent Mr. Jobling
a room. Mr. Guppy reveals that he thinks Mr. Krook is very wealthy.
Mr. Guppy tells Jobling that Krook’s last lodger died, but Jobling
doesn’t mind.
Mr. Guppy and Mr. Jobling visit Krook, who is asleep.
Startled, Krook tries to hit Mr. Guppy, and then he wakes up fully.
Krook shows Jobling the room. Later, Mr. Guppy introduces Jobling
to the Snagsbys, who agree to give him work.
Jobling moves into his new room. In town, women gossip
about him and speculate that he has come for Krook’s money.
Analysis: Chapters 16–20
Although Dickens has introduced many storylines in the
first fifteen chapters of Bleak House, he doesn’t
begin to weave those storylines together until chapter 16.
Near the beginning of the chapter, the narrator says, “What connexion
can there have been between many people . . . who . . . have . . .
been very curiously brought together!” Indeed, characters and plots
that so far have seemed independent now begin to come together,
and characters are revealed to be related to one another in unexpected
ways. For example, we learn that Lady Dedlock knows of Jo and is
strangely interested in learning what happened to Krook’s dead lodger.
Her appearance in Jo’s hardscrabble world is surprising, and her
intense reaction to the lodger’s burial place is mysterious. Dickens
never explicitly tells us that the woman in those scenes is Lady
Dedlock, but context clues suggest that this is the case. We also
learn that the Snagsby’s friend Mrs. Chadband was Esther’s old guardian, Rachael.
Perhaps most important, we begin to see a connection between Esther
and Lady Dedlock. The first clues arise when Esther visits Mr. Boythorn’s
home, which is next to Chesney Wold, and spots Lady Dedlock at church.
When their eyes meet, Esther is stunned—she thinks she recognizes
Lady Dedlock somehow, but she is certain she has never met her before.
During this same visit, Lady Dedlock alludes to a time in the past
when Mr. Jarndyce was well acquainted with her sister. These clues,
suggestions, and interconnections add richness and intrigue to the
world of Bleak House.
Richard’s struggle to find a vocation suggests the importance
of passion in building a fulfilling life. Richard idly follows whatever path
is suggested to him, never thinking very deeply about what he truly
wants to do. He is happy enough in his medical studies, but the Badgers
tell Esther that he is not committed enough to his work and suggest
that medicine is not a “ruling passion” for him. Richard’s blasé
acceptance of it suggests a lack of engagement with his life and an
absence of ambition. Esther places so much importance on the idea
of finding what one is passionate about that she encourages Richard
to change fields. The idea of passion is not, however, equal to
the idea of excitement. Richard, true to his indecisive, wayward nature,
wants to find a career that is not so “monotonous,” but Esther points
out that life itself is quite monotonous. Mr. Jarndyce agrees that
Richard should change paths, but the concerned look he gives Ada
suggests that he is worried about Richard’s restlessness and inability
to commit himself completely to one single undertaking.
Esther is a strong, confident narrator when she is talking
about other people, but she falters and stutters when she touches
on matters that are very personal to her. Her descriptions are usually
vivid and detailed, and her voice is smooth and mature, but at times
her storytelling breaks down entirely. For example, she tells us
in chapter 17 that she was low-spirited and
having trouble sleeping, but when she tries to explain why, she
blurts out, “I don’t know why. At least, I don’t think I know why.
At least, perhaps I do, but I don’t think it matters.” This barely
coherent babbling suggests that Esther does, indeed, know the root
of her troubles but is unwilling to disclose it. This makes sense
when we find out that Mr. Woodcourt is arriving the next day to
say goodbye, as he leaves for a very long journey. When she describes
the dinner, she stops frequently to correct her narration. “I believe—at
least I know—that he was not rich,” she says, and “I think—I mean,
he told us—that he has been in practice three or four years.” It
is as though she is making an effort to be as accurate as possible
in her narration, while at the same time covering up any possible
hint of how she really feels about these aspects of Mr. Woodcourt’s
character. Her stumblings suggest that there is more to the story
than she is revealing.