Bleak House: Chapter 17
Summary of Chapter XVII: Esther’s Narrative
Esther contemplates Richard Carstone’s declining fortune, blaming first his classical education in which he was allowed to slip by without learning good habits, and secondly, the Chancery suit that “imparted to his nature something of the careless spirit of a gamester” (p. 173). The Badgers visit Esther and Ada one day and mention that Richard is not really suited to the profession of medicine. When Esther mentions it to Richard, he admits he is bored with medicine and prefers the law. That way he can keep an eye on the case. Mr. Jarndyce is not happy but allows Richard to be a clerk with Mr. Kenge.
Esther finds Mr. Jarndyce awake late in the night and knows he is worrying. He seems to be worrying about her and tells her what he knows of her origins. Her aunt had written to him about her case, and he had watched over her, but he does not know who her parents are. Esther says she could never have had a better father than Mr. Jarndyce. He appears troubled by this.
The next day, Mr. Allan Woodcourt comes to bid them good by. Due to financial difficulties he has to become a ship’s doctor and will be gone for a long time. His mother is with him and carries on about their Welsh pedigree and how her son will marry well. After he leaves, she receives a bouquet of flowers from Mr. Woodcourt.
Commentary on Chapter XVII
Esther is the typical Victorian heroine, who above all must be humble and not assume too much. Esther has also been brought up to have no self-esteem, and she seems not to understand the love others have for her. We have to read between the lines of her over-modest narrative chapters, as she is too innocent to pull together all the implications. Her account is direct and pointed when it comes to describing other people but is vague regarding herself.
We are led to understand in this chapter that she has two suitors besides Mr. Guppy. Allan Woodcourt is obviously interested in her but too poor to marry. He does not ask Esther to wait, but they both feel something for each other. She is happy to receive his bouquet.
Mr. Jarndyce is upset when Esther refers to him as a father, for he seems to feel a stronger affection for her. He is twice her age, and it seems he would not stand in the way of a younger suitor, but he constantly tells her of her great value, and no doubt wants her to marry someone deserving. He has made Esther his companion and confidante.
He tries to bring up her background because this would be an important point in terms of marriage. From the clear signals of Woodcourt’s mother, she will not want her son to marry someone beneath the family. Esther is illegitimate, a social handicap in these times. She knows she might have trouble marrying.