Plot summary (with spoilers): Bleak House is one of Charles Dickens’s longest novels, which is definitely saying something about the length of this tome! It is a sweeping epic that covers lots of events and involves many, many characters. As such, it is practically impossible to talk about everything in my customary five-paragraph summaries. I will inevitably leave some important things out, so I apologize in advance — and recommend that you go to SparkNotes.com or a similar site if you need a really detailed plot summary.
The main storyline is told from two different points of view: the first from an omniscient third-person narrator; the second from young Esther Summerson, an orphan of 19 when the action begins. The central theme of the book, the one that brings everyone together and yet is nevertheless relegated to the background is the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a lawsuit about a will that has been in chancery for decades. The suit is what initially compels John Jarndyce to take the role of guardian for Ada Clare, Richard Carstone, and Esther herself, and bring them to Bleak House to live. From there, other events of the story play out, including Richard and Ada’s love affair, and Richard’s ill-fated obsession with the chancery case.
Another major storyline involves Esther’s parentage. She was raised by a spinster named Miss Barbary, who claimed to have no connection to Esther at all, but in reality was the girl’s aunt — in the eyes of the law, at any rate. As the story s-l-o-w-l-y unfolds, it is revealed that Esther was actually the lovechild of Miss Barbary’s sister Lady Dedlock and her lover Captain Hawdon. Lady Dedlock, now married to Sir Leicester Dedlock, one of the richest men around, would surely come to ruin and bring Sir Leicester down with her if this secret were revealed. Unfortunately, the menacing lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn knows the secret, and is going to tell all very soon.
That brings about a third major storyline: the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn. Tulkinghorn is found shot through the heart in his apartment one morning, which brings Inspector Bucket, literature’s very first detective, on the scene. Inspector Bucket inserts himself into the lives of almost all the major players, and puts pressure on George Rouncewell, having the ex-soldier arrested for the crime. Lady Dedlock thinks that Inspector Bucket might be coming after her, too, so she flees Chesney Wold. But later it is revealed that Bucket knew all along that Lady Dedlock’s former maid Hortense was the murderer, and that he pretended to go after the others in order to get more evidence on the maid.
And finally, there are a few love stories in Bleak House besides Richard and Ada’s. These include Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop, and Esther and Mr. Jarndyce (at first), as well as Esther and Mr. Woodcourt. These romances don’t take up a significant number of pages considering the length of the whole, but they do serve to round out the story and provide a change of pace from the more serious aspects of the novel.
- Despite the length, Bleak House is a very readable book. Dickens does a relatively good job of keeping all the different storylines moving forward, so there were surprisingly few slow spots along the way.
- Almost all of the characters were memorable and interesting. Dickens is known for his memorable characters, of course, and this book is no exception. Esther, Lady Dedlock, and John Jarndyce with his “east wind” are the big ones that I will likely remember the longest, but Jo (movin’ on, and “I don’t know nothink”), Mr. Smallweed and his constant epithets towards his wife, Mrs. Jellyby’s attention to Africa, Smallpole’s utter carelessness about money, Mrs. Flite and her birds, Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion, Tulkinghorn, Bucket, and all the rest were a delight to read about.
- I’m so glad that Esther ended up with Woodcourt instead of Mr. Jarndyce. I started to suspect this would be the case well before Dickens actually revealed the truth, so I wasn’t kept in suspense for very long. But just the thought of Esther being married to that old man Jarndyce, nice as he was, creeped me out to no end. To go from father figure to lover/husband was just too big a leap, so I’m relieved that didn’t happen!
- At first, I was on the fence about the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case yielding absolutely nothing after all those years (because of the estate being completely consumed by the legal costs), but once I got used to the idea, I liked that Dickens ended the story that way. Plus, it seems logical that a court case that drags on for 50 years or whatever would cost a ton of money. Plus, I’m sure Dickens meant the outcome to be an ironical condemnation of how chancery cases usually work.
- Esther was a great main character. She was virtuous, to be sure, but she had some flaws that made her believable and likable. This was important, especially since the reader goes on this incredibly long journey with her.
- The length. I wasn’t exactly intimidated by how long this book was, but the length will make it impossible for me to read the story again in its entirety. There are just too many other books on my reading list for this to happen.
- The search for Lady Dedlock was one of the few parts that seemed to drag on interminably. I know Dickens was trying to build suspense by making the nighttime chase last so long, but that whole section failed to do anything for me. I got bored during it (especially as I was so near the end of the book by that point) and started skimming until they found Lady Dedlock dead on Captain Hawdon’s grave at the cemetery for poor folks.
I’ve read a lot of Dickens over the years, and think that Bleak House is one of his best novels. He does an amazing job of populating the complex story with wonderful characters and of tying everything (and everyone) together before the end. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.