Bleak House – Chapters 21–25

Summary: Chapter 21, “The Smallweed Family”
The narrator describes the home of Mr. Smallweed, whose
first name is Bart. There have been no true children in the Smallweed family
for several generations—all of the children act like adults. Only
Mr. Smallweed’s grandmother acts childlike because she is so old.
His grandfather is old too, and even though his body is falling apart,
his mind is active. The grandfather’s father was obsessed with money,
which he wound up losing. The family motto is to “go out early and
marry late,” and the grandfather became a clerk in a scrivener’s
office when he was twelve. His son is the father of Bart and his twin
sister, Judy. There is no amusement in the Smallweed home. Grandfather
Smallweed sits in a chair, a drawer under which is reported to hold
a large fortune. He and Grandmother Smallweed bicker endlessly.
Judy has never played with toys, and she doesn’t know
how to laugh. Bart also never engaged in childish pastimes. Judy
calls for the maid, Charley, and reprimands her for no reason. Bart
comes home, and Grandfather Smallweed praises him for having someone else
pay for lunch. The two grandparents, Judy, and Bart have tea. Grandfather
Smallweed discusses Bart and Judy’s parents, who died a long time
ago.
Judy is slated to enter the flower business, and Bart
is supposed to go into law with the money Grandfather Smallweed
has saved. Both twins are impatient for their grandfather to die.
Judy calls Charley and gives her some tea, then quickly sends her
back to work.
George arrives at the Smallweed home. He asks Grandfather Smallweed
for a pipe, referring to an agreement they have—a pipe out of two
months’ interest. He gives Grandfather Smallweed the money, then
he smokes the pipe. He asks if Grandfather Smallweed just sits there
all day. Grandfather Smallweed says he hates reading.
The two men discuss Grandfather Smallweed’s friend in
the city, who lent George some money. Grandfather Smallweed says
he knows this friend will be hard on George if the money is not
repaid. He then swears at Grandmother Smallweed and asks George
to shake him out of it. George does so.
Grandfather Smallweed asks if George has relatives who
can help him pay off the loan, but he says he doesn’t want to do
that. Grandfather Smallweed says he regrets that George was not
willing to be “made.” Judy enters the room, and George seems fascinated by
her. The two men then talk about a business opportunity from long
ago that George never engaged in. George discusses Captain Hawdon,
who never repaid money he owed to Grandfather Smallweed, wound up
poor, and was perhaps intentionally drowned.
George leaves the Smallweed home and goes to the theatre.
He then goes to George’s Shooting Gallery, &c. A little man
wearing a green baize apron and cap is asleep on the floor. George
calls his name—Phil—and wakes him up. Phil is lame, is missing one
eyebrow, and has hands that are bruised and scarred. He shoots a
couple of rounds, then goes to bed.
Summary: Chapter 22, “Mr. Bucket”
Mr. Tulkinghorn relaxes with a glass of wine in his office.
He thinks about a friend, much like him, who hanged himself. Mr.
Snagsby is there as well, without his wife knowing. He tells Mr.
Tulkinghorn what Jo said to the guests at his house recently. Mr.
Snagsby then spots another man in the room, whom Mr. Tulkinghorn
introduces as Mr. Bucket. He is a detective. He asks Mr. Snagsby
to take him to Jo and assures him Jo will not be harmed. Mr. Bucket
suggests that the dead lodger was perhaps entitled to some property,
which he suspects the woman Jo encountered may be after.
Bucket asks Snagsby if he knows of a man named Gridley,
who lost his temper, threatened some people, and has a warrant out
for his arrest. In Tom-all-Alone’s, they find where Jo is staying.
Jo has gone out, but the men talk to a few people in the home. There
are men lying unconscious on the floor, and a woman named Liz says they
are hers and Jenny’s husbands. Liz is holding a child. Jenny says she
had a child too, but it died.
Jo appears with some medicine he had gotten for the woman. Then
he, Bucket, and Snagsby go to Mr. Tulkinghorn’s. Jo shouts that
he sees the woman, there in the room. A figure wearing a flowing
scarf and robe is standing there. But when the figure shows her hand,
Jo says it is not the lady, whose hand was whiter, smaller, and adorned
with different rings. The figure speaks, and Jo says it’s not the
voice he remembers. Bucket gives Jo some money and dismisses him.
The woman takes off her scarf. It is Mademoiselle Hortense, the
French maid of Lady Dedlock. She reminds Mr. Tulkinghorn that he
promised to help her find a job, and she leaves.
Bucket asserts that the lady Jo saw must have been wearing
the Frenchwoman’s clothes. Snagsby leaves. When he gets home, he finds
Mrs. Snagsby in bed. She had sent Guster to the police station to
report that Mr. Snagsby was missing.
Summary: Chapter 23, “Esther’s Narrative”
Esther says they left Mr. Boythorn’s after six weeks.
They hadn’t seen Lady Dedlock again, except at church. Esther has
an idea that her presence is as vexing to Lady Dedlock as Lady Dedlock’s
is to her. Esther recounts an incident that occurred before she
left Mr. Boythorn’s house. One day, the Frenchwoman sends for Esther.
She says how wonderful Esther is and tells her that she has quit
her post as Lady Dedlock’s servant. She asks Esther to hire her
as a maid. Esther says she keeps no maid, and the matter is closed.
Richard visits Bleak House regularly, but Esther worries
that he is too fixated on the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. During
one visit, Esther asks if he feels settled, and Richard admits that
he doesn’t because he’s in debt. He worries that he is hurting Ada
by being so adrift. He’s no longer interested in law and plans to
enlist in the army.
Esther meets up with Caddy Jellyby, who tells her that
Prince Turveydrop respects her deeply. Caddy asks Esther to accompany her
and Prince when they tell their parents of their engagement. At the
Turveydrops, the elder Mr. Turveydrop accepts their news and graciously
tells them that he will live with them and that they will provide
him with his usual comforts. At the Jellybys’ home, Caddy tries
to tell Mrs. Jellyby her news, but Mrs. Jellyby is opening mail and
pays little attention to her. She says she would be upset by the news
if she wasn’t so busy.
That night, Charley arrives at Bleak House. Mr. Jarndyce
has hired her to be Esther’s maid. Esther and Charley are very happy.
Summary: Chapter 24, “An Appeal Case”
Richard tells Mr. Jarndyce he’s planning to enlist in
the army, and Mr. Jarndyce calls Richard, Ada, and Esther together
for a discussion. Richard admits that he’s in debt, but he feels
confident that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit will serve as his
security. Mr. Jarndyce explodes in anger and says that it’s better
to die than get involved with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit. He
tells Richard and Ada that they must dissolve their romantic relationship
and go back to being just cousins because Richard is leaving for
a post in Ireland. If they will be together in the future, then
it will happen in the future. The two reluctantly agree. Esther
says that this is the beginning of an estrangement between Richard
and Mr. Jarndyce.
Richard, Mr. Jarndyce, and Ada go to London. George, a
former cavalry soldier, visits them at their lodging. He says Richard
could be a good swordsman if he would put his mind to it. George
glances repeatedly at Esther and asks if he knows her from somewhere. Esther
says no.
George tells them about his students, including one Chancery suitor
named Gridley who erupted in such violent practice shooting that
George asked him to leave. Esther and Mr. Jarndyce are surprised
by the coincidence. Gridley is in hiding, and George says he doesn’t
know where.
The morning before Richard’s departure, he and Esther
go to the court to hear some of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case.
The lord chancellor and many solicitors are gathered there. Bags
and piles of papers are brought in, but the case is cut short and
the papers must be brought back out again. Before Esther and Richard
leave, a woman approaches Esther and introduces herself—it is Mrs. Rachael,
from her godmother’s house, now Mrs. Chadband. The two exchange
brief pleasantries and part. George then approaches them and tells
them that Gridley is hiding at his place. He says Gridley wants
to see Miss Flite and asks Esther to get her.
At the door to George’s Shooting Gallery, they encounter
an old man who says he is a physician, here to see Gridley. George
lets him in, and the man instantly turns brusque, saying his name
is Bucket and has a warrant against Gridley. Bucket says he spotted
Gridley from the roof through the skylight.
They all go in to Gridley’s room with Miss Flite. Gridley
is surrounded by writings. Miss Flite sits beside him and holds
his hand. Gridley says the tie between him and Miss Flite is the
only tie the Jarndyce case hasn’t broken. Bucket tries to console
Gridley, but Gridley is despondent. Bucket is worried that Gridley
is giving in to despair. Then Miss Flite screams—Gridley has died.
Summary: Chapter 25, “Mrs. Snagsby Sees It All”
The narrator says that Mr. Snagsby is unsettled by the
role he has played in the affair with Bucket, Jo, and Mr. Tulkinghorn.
He doesn’t know what is going on and feels like he is “party to
some dangerous secret.” He is edgy and gets nervous when anyone
comes to the shop looking for him.
Mrs. Snagsby knows Mr. Snagsby has a secret, and she searches his
letters, pockets, ledger, and safe while he’s sleeping. She listens
at doors and watches at windows. She is constantly alert. She incorrectly
pieces together the random bits of things she learns and hears.
Mr. Chadband has run into Jo on the street and asked him
to come to Cook’s Court to be improved. Mrs. Snagsby decides that she
will watch Jo and someone else very closely—nothing will get by her.
When the group arrives at the house, including the Chadbands, Jo,
Guster, and the apprentices, Mrs. Snagsby watches Jo carefully. She
thinks he looks right at Snagsby when he enters the room and thinks
that Snagsby is sending a signal when he coughs. She jumps to the
conclusion that Jo is Mr. Snagsby’s son.
Mr. Chadband orates relentlessly about Jo’s lot in life
and the need for improvement. Mr. Chadband likes to fixate on one
person in his audience to give his lectures more effect, and tonight
he focuses on Mr. Snagsby. Mrs. Snagsby is convinced that Chadband’s glances
are weighted with meaning, and she reacts strongly and audibly to
his words, eventually sobbing and giving way to spasms. She has
to be carried upstairs. Jo finally gets to go home. Before he leaves
the house, Mr. Snagsby slips Jo a half-crown and says it was right
for Jo to say nothing about seeing him with a lady the other night.
The narrator says that Mrs. Snagsby will be with Mr. Snagsby like
his own shadow.
Analysis: Chapters 21–25
Suicide appears in both chapter 21 and
chapter 22 and, coupled with the reputed
suicide of Tom Jarndyce that was discussed earlier in the novel,
forms a dismal motif. In chapter 21, George
discusses with Grandfather Smallweed an attempted suicide of a seemingly successful
man and then his eventual death by not-quite-accidental drowning.
George is using the story as a kind of justification for why he
never let himself be “made” by another person. In chapter 22, Mr.
Tulkinghorn remembers a friend much like himself who hanged himself
when he decided life was too monotonous. Although neither George
nor Mr. Tulkinghorn are themselves contemplating suicide, their
invocations of it suggest that they are well aware of what can happen
when seekers do not find what they are searching for, or when life
loses its meaning. Echoes of Richard’s complaint—that his work is
too monotonous—are evident in the complaint of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s
unfortunate friend, adding to the suggestion that a life without
passion and deep engagement ultimately becomes unbearable.
Worlds collide violently in chapter 22,
creating a sense of building tension, intrigue, and mystery in the
story. The two women caring for a sick baby during Mrs. Pardiggle’s
charity visit reappear in this chapter, this time meeting with Mr.
Bucket and Mr. Snagsby. Jenny reveals that her baby died, but now
her friend, Liz, has a baby of her own. Lady Dedlock’s French maid,
Mademoiselle Hortense, surprisingly appears in Mr. Tulkinghorn’s
office, adding to the not-so-mysterious mystery of who the woman
is that Jo took to the dead lodger’s grave. And Jo, who is becoming
an integral figure in the novel, seems to be the one common denominator
among these different worlds, leading characters to one another
and serving as the link between them. Although Jo makes the same
claim again and again that he doesn’t know anything, the fact that
he seems to know everyone suggests that he’s aware of much more
than he lets on.
Mr. Jarndyce’s outburst regarding Richard’s fixation on
the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit in chapter 24 adds
a significantly darker note to the already disturbing case. Richard
has always casually referred to his certainty that the lawsuit will
provide for him and Ada in the future, but Mr. Jarndyce and Esther
usually dismiss his claims wearily. This time, however, Mr. Jarndyce
cries that it is “better to borrow, better to beg, better to die”
than look to the lawsuit to provide. The extremity of his claim,
and his unusual show of passion, shocks Richard, Ada, and Esther.
The lawsuit, with its tedious, endless proceedings, usually seems
like a hum in the background in the story, a strange mystery that
no one is in too much hurry to unravel. At this moment, however,
the true danger and darkness of the suit break the surface. When
Mr. Jarndyce orders Richard and Ada to dissolve their romantic relationship,
in a way he may be trying to protect Ada from Richard’s fervor over
the suit.