Bleak House - Study Guide Chapter 1-4 Summary & Analysis

This Study Guide consists of approximately 46 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Bleak House.
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Chapter 1-4 Summary

In a gloomy London atmosphere all appears blurred and disconnected. Fog and smoke pervades everything, being the beginning and the conclusion. The daunting November weather dampens spirits and frustrates travelers.

Fog mixed with chimney smoke and soot surrounds everything, concealing sunlight. Such fog is most severe near the Temple Bar in Lincoln's Inn Hall. It fails to discourage court proceedings, where the most famous case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, is the longest case ever, consumed by expenses. Its complexity deters reporters and confuses lawyers. The original litigant, Tom Jarndyce, committed suicide, but his descendants continue never ending proceedings. The most knowledgeable lawyer in the case is Mr. Tangle, who has devoted himself entirely to this case since leaving school. There are two wards mentioned present. Other litigants are Mr. Flite, awaiting a verdict and Mr. Gridley, a former litigant.

Chapter 2 unravels with Lady Dedlock escaping the constant rain of Lincolnshire with her husband, Sir Leicester, leaving her estate Chesney Wold for London. They meet their lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, a solicitor at the High Court of Chancery. He reports on the progress of their suit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce. He exercises power, gaining insight into the affairs of his clients. Mr. Tulkinghorn relates affidavits that are part of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. One such affidavit makes Lady Dedlock faint when she recognizes the handwriting. She wants to know who is the writer of this affidavit.

Esther Summerson begins her narrative in Chapter 3. She is an orphan, raised by her godmother, Ms. Barbary. Her upbringing was strict and rigid. She had no knowledge of her background or family. Her only friends were her godmother and their servant, Rachael.

Her godmother arranged for her schooling through Mr. Jarndyce's attorney, Conversation Kenge. Esther meets Mr. Kenge, who then appears when her godmother dies. Esther finds that her godmother was in fact her aunt but not in law. He tells her also about the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit as the greatest and the longest Chancery suit. Mr. Jarndyce is her guardian, who wants her to gain an education and become a governess to Ada. She stays in a boarding school run by Miss Donny at her house Greenleaf. When she finishes studying she travels to Kenge and Carboy. She meets Ada Clare and Richard Carstone in Chancery Court, also placed under the care of Mr. Jarndyce. She also meets Miss Flite.

In Chapter 4 Mr. Jarndyce arranges for Esther, Ada, and Richard to spend the night at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Jellyby. Mr. Guppy, who works for Mr. Kenge, drives them there. Mrs. Jellyby is a philanthropist, devoted to alleviating poverty in Africa. She becomes so preoccupied with this work that she neglects her own household. Dictating letters while conversing, she is oblivious to the chaos and disorder around. Her daughter, Caddy visits Esther at night, and complains about her miserable life, befriending her.

Chapter 1-4 Analysis

London's dreary weather resonates with the confusion of the legal system that ruins many lives, leaving everything unchanged and stale. Courts reside to keep the system, and make business. Judges are mostly concerned about technical aspects of cases rather than real issues.

The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is one of the most famous cases widely discussed and criticized. What is characteristic of such cases is their length, heavy documentation, and impractical nature. Dickens reveals fragments of the action just as fog shows only parts of what makes the whole. The wards of Jarndyce and Jarndyce are mentioned with no names because people do not matter, only their legal status.

Although distant, the world beyond affects us as even more than our immediate milieu. In the same way Lady Dedlock and her world differs from the reality beyond. Her world consists of travel between London and Paris, between her London and the country house in constant escape from boredom that can never be fully satisfied. She has won her life of luxury through sacrifice and self-control.

Dickens skillfully and sharply introduces the main features of two other characters describing their approach to life and the way they think. He probes deep inside their propensities that involve their attitude towards marriage. They are easily bored or vain, being unable to see beyond their world. Sir Leicester married for love. He is most concerned with preserving his integrity. Their lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn is most knowledgeable, informed, and influential, holding various secrets. He seems to hold all the cards and informs them about the course of their suit, in which he represents them.

Dickens presents through Esther Summerson the main point of view. She is one of the three main characters, the others being Ada and Richard. Her narrative is most revealing and objective despite appearing subjective. It is essentially Esther's story that is influenced by other people and events in her life. Although deprived of the knowledge of her family background, she ultimately discovers the truth about her past. The harsh upbringing contrasts with her warm-hearted nature as well as social restrictions meant to guard morality.

The Jellyby house portrays attitudes that can be misdirected. Concern about distant matters distracts from the most immediate problems that are more critical the well-being of the family. Esther, Ada, and Richard also learn about themselves and their approaches towards children and household. The longer Esther stays with Mrs. Jellyby the more she is appalled by her lack of concern about their own children although passionately involved in caring for the poor in Africa. Similar contradictions are present in other Dicken's characters. Dickens unveils that charity can be destructive if it doesn't begin at home.

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