Bleak House – Plot Overview

Esther Summerson describes her childhood and says she
is leaving for the home of a new guardian, Mr. Jarndyce, along with
Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. On the way to the home, called Bleak
House, they stop overnight at the Jellybys’ chaotic home. When they
finally reach Bleak House, they meet Mr. Jarndyce and settle in.
They meet Mr. Skimpole, a man who acts like a child.
The narrator describes a ghost that lurks around Chesney
Wold, the home of Lady and Sir Leicester Dedlock.
Esther meets the overbearing charity worker Mrs. Pardiggle, who
introduces her to a poor brickmaker’s wife named Jenny, whose baby
is ill. Esther says she is sure that Ada and Richard are falling
in love. She meets Mr. Boythorn, as well as Mr. Guppy, who proposes
marriage. Esther refuses him.
At Chesney Wold, Tulkinghorn shows the Dedlocks some Jarndyce
documents, and Lady Dedlock recognizes the handwriting. Tulkinghorn
says he’ll find out who did it. He asks Mr. Snagsby, the law-stationer,
who says a man named Nemo wrote the documents. Tulkinghorn visits
Nemo, who lives above a shop run by a man named Krook, and finds
him dead. At the coroner’s investigation, a street urchin named
Jo is questioned and says that Nemo was nice to him. Later, Tulkinghorn
tells Lady Dedlock what he’s learned.
Richard struggles to find a suitable career, eventually
deciding to pursue medicine. But he is more interested in the Jarndyce
and Jarndyce lawsuit, which he believes will make him rich. Neither Esther
nor the narrator ever fully explains the lawsuit, because nobody
remembers what originally prompted the parties to begin the suit.
In London, Esther meets a young girl named Charlotte who
is caring for her two young siblings. A lodger who lives in the
same building, Mr. Gridley, helps care for the children as well.
A mysterious lady approaches Jo and asks him to show her
where Nemo is buried.
Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther some details about her background.
He reveals that the woman who raised Esther was her aunt. The next day,
a doctor named Mr. Woodcourt visits before leaving on a trip to China
and India. An unidentified person leaves a bouquet of flowers for
Richard begins working in the law. Esther, Ada, and others
visit Mr. Boythorn, who lives near Chesney Wold. There, Esther meets Lady
Dedlock for the first time and feels a strange connection to her. Lady
Dedlock has a French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense, who is jealous
that Lady Dedlock has a new young protégée named Rosa.
A man named Mr. Jobling, a friend of Mr. Guppy’s, moves
into Nemo’s old room above Krook’s shop.
Two men, George and Grandfather Smallweed, talk about
some money that George owes Smallweed. They reach an agreement,
and George leaves.
Tulkinghorn introduces Bucket and Snagsby, and Snagsby
introduces Bucket to Jo. Bucket figures out that the woman Jo led
to the burial ground was disguised in Mademoiselle Hortense’s clothes. Mademoiselle
Hortense soon quits her post at Chesney Wold.
Caddy Jellyby tells Esther she is engaged to Prince Turveydrop. Charley
Neckett becomes Esther’s maid. Mr. Jarndyce warns Ada and Richard
to end their romantic relationship since Richard is joining the
army. Gridley dies.
Smallweed visits George and says that Captain Hawdon,
a man he thought was dead, is actually alive, and that a lawyer
was asking about some handwriting of his. He asks George if he has
any handwriting to offer. George visits Tulkinghorn, who explains
that George will be rewarded if he gives up some of Hawdon’s handwriting.
George refuses.
Guppy visits Lady Dedlock in London and tells her he thinks there
is a connection between her and Esther. He says that Esther’s former
guardian was someone named Miss Barbary and that Esther’s real name
was Esther Hawdon. He says that Nemo was actually named Hawdon,
and that he left some letters, which Guppy will get. When Guppy
leaves, Lady Dedlock cries: Esther is her daughter, who her sister
claimed had died at birth.
Charley and Esther visit Jenny and find Jo lying on the
floor. He is sick, and Esther takes him back to Bleak House, putting
him up in the stable. In the morning, he has disappeared. Charley
gets very ill. Then Esther gets extremely ill.
Guppy and his friend Jobling want to get Hawdon’s letters
from Krook. But when they go down to Krook’s shop, they find that
he has spontaneously combusted. Later, Grandfather Smallweed arrives
to take care of Krook’s property. Guppy eventually tells Lady Dedlock
the letters were destroyed.
Smallweed demands payment from George and the Bagnets,
on whose behalf he borrowed the money. Desperate, he tells Tulkinghorn
he’ll turn over the Hawdon’s handwriting if he’ll leave the Bagnets
Esther recovers slowly. Miss Flite visits her, telling
her that a mysterious woman visited Jenny’s cottage, asking about
Esther and taking away a handkerchief Esther had left. She also
tells Esther that Mr. Woodcourt has returned. Esther goes to Mr.
Boythorn’s house to recover fully. She looks in a mirror for the
first time and sees that her face is terribly scarred from the smallpox.
While there, Lady Dedlock confronts her and tells her she’s Esther’s
mother. She orders Esther to never speak to her again, since this
must remain a secret.
Richard pursues the Jarndyce lawsuit more earnestly, aided
by a lawyer named Vholes. He no longer speaks to Mr. Jarndyce, who doesn’t
want anything to do with the suit.
Esther visits Guppy and instructs him to stop investigating
Tulkinghorn visits Chesney Wold and hints that he knows
Lady Dedlock’s secret. She confronts him and says she will leave
Chesney Wold immediately because she knows her secret will destroy
Rosa’s marriage prospects. Tulkinghorn convinces her to stay, since
fleeing will make her secret known too fast. When Tulkinghorn is
back home, he is visited by Mademoiselle Hortense, who demands he help
her find a job. He threatens to arrest her if she keeps harassing him.
Esther tells Mr. Jarndyce about Lady Dedlock. He reveals
that Boythorn was once in love with Miss Barbary, who left him when she
decided to raise Esther in secret. Mr. Jarndyce gives Esther a letter
that asks her to marry him. Esther accepts.
Esther tries to convince Richard to abandon the Jarndyce
suit. While she is visiting him, he tells her he has left the army
and devoted himself entirely to the lawsuit. Esther sees Mr. Woodcourt on
the street. She asks Mr. Woodcourt to befriend Richard in London,
and he agrees.
In London, Woodcourt runs into Jo on the street and gives
him some food. He discovers that Jo once stayed with Esther. Jo
tells him that a man forced him to leave and that he’s now scared
of running into him. Woodcourt helps Jo find a hiding place at George’s
Shooting Gallery. Jo soon dies.
Lady Dedlock dismisses Rosa with no explanation in order
to protect her. Tulkinghorn is enraged and says he’ll reveal the
secret. That night, Tulkinghorn is shot through the heart. The next
day, Bucket arrests George for the murder.
Ada reveals to Esther that she and Richard have been secretly married.
Bucket investigates Tulkinghorn’s murder. He receives
a few letters that say only “Lady Dedlock.” He confronts Sir Leicester
and tells him what he knows about Lady Dedlock’s past. Instead of arresting
Lady Dedlock, however, he arrests Mademoiselle Hortense, who killed
Tulkinghorn and tried to frame Lady Dedlock.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Rouncewell, the housekeeper at Chesney Wold,
finds out that George is her long-lost son. She begs Lady Dedlock
to do anything she can to help him. Guppy arrives and tells Lady
Dedlock that the letters were actually not destroyed. Lady Dedlock
writes a note to Sir Leicester, saying she didn’t murder Tulkinghorn,
and then she flees.
Sir Leicester collapses from a stroke. Mrs. Rouncewell
gives him Lady Dedlock’s letter, and he orders Bucket to find her,
saying he forgives her for everything. Bucket asks Esther to join
him, and they set out in search of Lady Dedlock in the middle of
the night. While Sir Leicester waits at home, unable to speak clearly,
Esther and Bucket search. Eventually Bucket figures out where to
find her. They finally find Lady Dedlock at the gate of the burial
ground where Hawdon is buried. She is dead.
Richard is sick and still obsessed with Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Ada
is pregnant and hopes the baby will distract Richard from his obsession
with the lawsuit. After visiting Richard one night, Woodcourt walks
Esther home and confesses he still loves her as he once did. She
tells him she is engaged to Mr. Jarndyce.
Smallweed finds a Jarndyce will among Krook’s property
and gives it to Vholes.
George moves to Chesney Wold, where he helps tend to Sir Leicester.
Esther begins to plan the wedding. Mr. Jarndyce goes to
Yorkshire on business and then sends for her. When she arrives,
she finds out that Mr. Jarndyce has bought a house for Woodcourt
out of gratitude. He shows her the house, which is decorated in
Esther’s style, and tells her that he’s named the house Bleak House.
Then he reveals that he knows she loves Woodcourt and that they
should be married. He says he will always be her guardian. Woodcourt appears,
and he and Esther reunite.
The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case is finally dismissed. No
one gets any money since the inheritance had been used up to pay
the legal fees. Richard dies.
Esther says she and Woodcourt have two daughters and that
Ada had a son. She is very happy.