Bleak House: Chapter 3

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Summary of Chapter III: A Progress

 

The narration now switches to the first person, being the early life story of a main character, Esther Summerson, who begins, “I know I am not clever” (p. 11). Esther is an orphan brought up by her strict and cold godmother (actually, aunt), Miss Barbary in Windsor. Esther is a shy and quiet girl who has “a noticing way” about her (p.11). She sees things but doesn’t necessarily know how to put them together, for Esther is the soul of innocence. Though she tries to be good, her godmother scolds her for being a disgrace: “Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers” (p.13). She is told she is “degraded” and she must be submissive, for she bears “a life begun with a shadow on it” (p. 13). She is never told about her parents but kept apart from others, even the other children. She is never allowed to celebrate her birthday, and this causes her great distress. Only her doll is her friend, the one she tells secrets to.

 

She tries hard to please and be no trouble, but neither her godmother nor Mrs. Rachel, the housekeeper, is friendly to her. This is hard since she is affectionate by nature. She decides very early to be industrious “and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself” (p. 14). When she is fourteen, her aunt dies, and Mr. Kenge, of Kenge and Carboy in London comes to tell her that her Miss Barbary was her aunt. He brings up the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but Esther is ignorant of it. Kenge explains that Mr. John Jarndyce wants to pay for her education and that he is her guardian now. Esther buries her one friend, her doll, and takes the coach to Greenleaf at Reading, the school run by Miss Donny. In the coach she meets an unidentified man (her guardian, Mr. Jarndyce) who tries to cheer her when she cries with some sweets, but she says they are too rich for her, so he throws them out the window.

 

At school, Esther claims not to understand why the other students love her or why she is given responsibility for teaching the others. She spends six years at school and afterwards she is taken to London by a clerk from Kenge and Carboy to the Lord Chancellor’s chamber. There she meets Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, the two young wards in the Jarndyce case. She is to be the companion of Ada Clare, who is younger, but so beautiful and sweet that they become instantly like sisters. The Chancellor approves of Ada and Richard becoming wards of John Jarndyce of Bleak House in Hertfordshire. Esther is approved as companion. They meet the mad old woman in court who greets them as the Jarndyce wards, saying she too, was once a Jarndyce ward. Now she comes to court every day waiting for “the Day of Judgment.”

 

Commentary on Chapter III

 

Dickens interlaces Esther’s first-person narrative throughout the other third-person narrative chapters to get various points of view. The dramatic irony created by Esther’s astute but innocent perspective on the evil landscape of Chancery justice is juxtaposed with the grotesque underworld characters described in the other chapters. In typical Dickens fashion, he creates a mystery and develops separate threads in the beginning that will be interwoven as the narrative unfolds. All the threads and characters are connected to the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

 

Esther is one of Dickens’s almost too good Victorian heroines, completely self-effacing, but adored by all around her. She is humble, good, kind, and motherly, as we see her moving through all sorts of dark landscapes emitting order and light around her. Esther knows nothing of her parents or connection with the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. She seems to be an illegitimate child, bound up with the past mystery of the case. The man in the carriage is her shy guardian, John Jarndyce, a very good man who tries to create justice out of the Jarndyce wreck, taking back the power to the family that was given away to the court. The old mad woman in court (Miss Flite) becomes a sort of prophetess warning the young people of their doom in being involved in the Chancery suit. She too was once a Jarndyce ward, she explains, before she went mad. She likes to see these new wards, for they still have youth and beauty and hope. She herself comes to court every day, waiting for the “Day of Judgment.”

 

Kenge, and earlier, Tulkinghorn, are among the many satirical portraits of lawyers and clerks and other people connected with the whole legal machinery. Kenge, for instance, is called “Conversation Kenge” because he likes to hear himself talk. Although many scenes occur in different houses outside London, London is the main hub of the story because it is the location of the Court of Chancery, the center of the spider web drawing all the characters together.

 

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