Bleak House: summary

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All quotations taken from Charles Dickens, Bleak House, edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1956.

Author’s Preface

Dickens briefly defends two points raised against the novel: the validity of the charges against the Court of Chancery, and the evidence for death by Spontaneous Combustion.

Summary of Chapter I: In Chancery

The story opens in London in a dreary November fog in the 1840s or 1850s. The air is full of dirty soot. The fog seems to be thickest at the Court of Chancery where proceedings go on, day after day, without any outcome, for it is mired in procedures, while those who come for relief are forgotten in the snares of the legal system. We get fleeting portraits of nameless people—an old mad woman, there every day, waiting for some judgment, a ruined suitor from Shropshire, a prisoner who must always go back to prison because there is no time for him.

The court is listening to Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, which has become a professional joke for its long standing. It is not a joke to the people involved, many of whom have been born into and died during this suit, their lives on hold, while thousands of pounds of costs have been eaten up. It is so complicated that no one agrees on any details. Today’s court business concerns two young people in the suit, who want to live with their cousin. The Lord High Chancellor says he will see them in his chamber, and meanwhile, the incomprehensible and mountainous paperwork of the suit goes on, and court is adjourned.

Commentary on Chapter I

Dickens opens the novel with his famous description of the metaphorical fog and rain that have engulfed English society in the mid-nineteenth century. The fog is thickest at the Court of Chancery in London where the famous lawsuit Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce has continued for generations, ruining the lives of many waiting for the outcome. This chapter is a satirical look at a day in court with a lawyer called Tangle addressing the Chancellor as “Mlud,” a contraction for “My Lord” that sounds like the mud in the street.  The law, which should be clarifying lives, muddies them up, and the only winners are the lawyers “tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities” (p. 2). The Court of Chancery, says the narrator, “gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right” (p. 2) making the law a weapon or blight used by the rich. It does not create justice for the average person. We see a few nameless ghosts haunting the court that will become known characters, such as the two young people, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, who are pleading to be wards of their cousin, John Jarndyce. The man from Shropshire is Gridley. The madwoman is Miss Flite. They are nameless now because in court there are no personal lives: “no one cares” (p. 3).

Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce has to do with an ancient disputed inheritance and now the case drags on “perennially hopeless,” eaten up in fees (p. 3). One of the casualties was Tom Jarndyce who “in despair blew his brains out” in Chancery Lane, waiting for the outcome (p. 3). We will hear the back story as we go, for there are many mysteries to be unfolded about all the characters who are somehow connected in the network of this case. Dickens says “This is the Court of Chancery; which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire” (p. 2), showing that somehow every English citizen is affected by this corrupt court. In the “Author’s Preface” Dickens defends his portrait of Chancery as “substantially true” and names a current case of twenty years’ duration. The law is portrayed as an evil net than enmeshes lives in despair and poverty.

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