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Bleak House is a novel by English Victorian author Charles Dickens, published between 1852-1853. The expansive narrative covers many plots, including the first-person account of the life of Esther Summerson and an ongoing court case concerning a large inheritance thrown into chaos by the existence of contradictory wills. Bleak House has been adapted for the theater, radio, film, and television (most recently in 2005) and is considered among Dickens’ greatest novels. This guide uses an eBook copy of the 2009 Rowland Classics edition.
Content Warning: The source material contains references to alcoholism, drug use, racist stereotypes, domestic abuse and violence, and suicide.
The Court of Chancery is a special part of the British legal system that handles unique cases. In London in the early 19th century, the court has been occupied by Jarndyce and Jarndyce for some time. The case concerns an inheritance about which there are competing wills and many possible beneficiaries. Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been dragging on for so long that few people can even remember the exact cause or details of the case, though a fortune is at stake.
Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife, Honoria Dedlock, live at Chesney Wold. Lady Dedlock is a beneficiary of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and during a meeting with a lawyer, she identifies the handwriting on one of the wills. She nearly faints. The lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, tracks down the signee as a recently deceased legal writer named Nemo. The only person who seems to know anything about him is a young street sweeper named Jo.
Esther Summerson retells the story of her childhood. She was raised by the austere Miss Barbary, who frequently insulted Esther’s dead mother. When Miss Barbary died, Esther was taken under the guardianship of a man named John Jarndyce, although she did not live with him; instead, he sent her to school, and she became a teacher. When she is roughly 20, Jarndyce summons her to his home, Bleak House, where he has also taken custody of Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, beneficiaries in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. When Richard and Ada fall in love, Jarndyce insists that Richard find a profession before they marry. Richard flits between professions. During a brief interest in medicine, he meets a doctor named Woodcourt and introduces him to Esther. Richard does not settle on medicine as a career and continues to search, even as Jarndyce warns him not to wait for money from the outcome of the will dispute.
Lady Dedlock adopts a disguise to investigate Nemo. Jo takes her to Nemo’s burial site, where she is observed by Mr. Tulkinghorn, who suspects that she has a secret. Esther meets Lady Dedlock at church and then at Chesney Wold. Lady Dedlock discovers that Esther is her daughter, conceived with Captain Hawdon (the real name of Nemo) before she met Sir Leicester. Miss Barbary was Lady Dedlock’s sister. Meanwhile, Esther contracts a disease from Jo. Only when she has recovered does she learn the truth about Lady Dedlock. However, her mother warns her that they can never publicly acknowledge their relationship.
By this time, Richard is lobbying for Jarndyce and Jarndyce to be concluded so he can collect an inheritance. The process drains him of his resources and health, but he secretly marries Ada, who eventually becomes pregnant. Esther, whose illness left her with facial scarring, all but abandons her love for Woodcourt, who had been working as a ship’s surgeon and recently survived a wreck.
Tulkinghorn reveals to Lady Dedlock that he knows her secret. When Tulkinghorn is fatally shot soon afterward, Lady Dedlock becomes a suspect. In actuality, her former maid, Hortense, is the murderer. However, believing she might face murder charges in addition to the shame of exposure, Lady Dedlock flees Chesney Wold. Sir Leicester is overwhelmed by events and suffers a stroke. Though he struggles to talk, he forgives his wife and commissions a police officer named Inspector Bucket to track down Lady Dedlock. Since she does not know that she has been forgiven, Lady Dedlock wanders the countryside. Bucket recruits Esther to help the search, and they find Lady Dedlock dead at Nemo’s grave.
Jarndyce and Jarndyce progresses due to the discovery of another, later will, which makes all previous wills redundant and leaves the vast majority of the fortune to Ada and Richard. Meanwhile, Woodcourt has revealed that he loves Esther despite her scars. However, Esther cannot marry Woodcourt, as she has agreed to marry Jarndyce. Suspecting that Esther is in love with Woodcourt, Jarndyce calls off their engagement, allowing her to accept Woodcourt’s proposal.
Esther and Woodcourt visit Chancery to meet Richard. When they arrive, they discover that Jarndyce and Jarndyce has finished on an unexpected note: The years-long cost of litigation has consumed the entire estate. As such, there is practically nothing left for the beneficiaries. Richard is overcome; Woodcourt diagnoses him with a serious case of tuberculosis. Before he dies, Richard reaches out to Jarndyce with an apology. Jarndyce accepts the apology and agrees to take Ada and her child into his care. Ada names the baby boy Richard, after his father.
Esther and Woodcourt marry. They move into a house that was a gift from Jarndyce, also named Bleak House. There, they raise two daughters.
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