Bleak House: Chapter 16

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Summary of Chapter XVI: Tom-All-Alone’s

 

Sir Leicester is in bed with the gout, in pain, but content that he has the aristocratic family disease. Lady Dedlock has made a trip to London for a round of parties.

 

The narrative suddenly switches to the London slum, called Tom-All-Alone’s, asking what connection could there between the Dedlock life and the life of Jo, the boy who sweeps the crossings?

 

The slum life is described in animal terms, the people like oxen or dogs. Jo’s phrase, “I don’t know nothink” (p. 167) describes his incomprehension of the world of the wealthy and why he seems to have no right to live.

 

Meanwhile, Mr. Tulkinghorn signs a warrant for the arrest of Gridley. As he looks out his window, a woman in black passes. The mysterious woman in a black veil finds Jo and pays him to show her where Mr. Nemo lived, died, and is buried. He shows her the pauper’s shallow graveyard where rats are busy on the remains. She asks if it is consecrated or blessed ground. Jo doesn’t know.

 

Sir Leicester is fidgety in Chesney Wold, for the step is heard on Ghost’s Walk.

 

Commentary on Chapter XVI

 

The chapter has switched to the third-person and is able to leap from the Dedlocks to the slums, asking a key question the novel raises: what is the connection of these two worlds? The English live as though there are “two nations,” and the narrator bears this out with the contrast of the Dedlocks and Jo’s life in the slums. The narrator goes inside Jo’s innocent but dark mind as he tries to puzzle out what the symbols are of a language he can’t read, what it means to be “hustled, and jostled, and moved on” as though “I have no business here,” and yet “I am here somehow too, and everybody overlooked me until I became the creature that I am!” (p. 168).

 

The mysterious woman will prove to be Lady Dedlock in disguise trying to find out about Mr. Nemo. She is so disgusted by Jo she won’t let him near her. She wants to know if Nemo is in blessed ground, and Jo answers, “It ain’t done it much good if it is” (p. 172).

 

The step heard on Ghost’s Walk is the ghost of an earlier Lady Dedlock who is heard  when calamity or disgrace is coming to the family. Sir Leicester pretends it is the rain he hears on the terrace. Probably he thinks it means his own death. It means more than that and involves the mystery of the current Lady Dedlock.

 

 

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