Summary of Chapter XXXI: Nurse and Patient
Jenny, the bricklayer’s wife, leaves a message with Charley that if Esther would come to their cottage in St. Albans, there was an urgent need. Esther and Charley go out on a cold wet night to Jenny’s cottage, and Esther has a premonition of disaster. In the cottage they see the boy Jo on the floor shivering with illness. Jo seems to think that Esther is Lady Dedlock in her cloak and veil. Jenny says they found him on the street, and she cannot keep him in her cottage. They had tried to get him into some charitable institution or hospital, but officials kept putting them off.
Esther and Charley take Jo home “like some wounded animal that had been found in a ditch” (p. 329). Skimpole says he is not safe and should be thrown out. Mr. Jarndyce finds a loftroom by the stable to keep the boy overnight. In the morning, however, Jo is gone and though a search goes on for him for five days, no trace of him is found.
Charley comes down with the illness (smallpox), and as soon as Esther understands, she locks the two of them in and won’t let Ada in, for it is contagious. Esther explains to her guardian why she wants them to be secluded. Charley almost dies, and Esther is afraid she will be disfigured by the pox if she lives, but she pulls through and is not scarred. Then Esther falls ill and is nursed by Charley. For Esther, it is harder. She goes blind.
Commentary on Chapter XXXI
Dickens uses the incidence of the smallpox to show how all the classes are related. Disease cares nothing for class, though it may be bred in the slums. The slum people are hardest hit by disease and die in greater numbers, many in the street, as Jo was trying to do, because he was homeless. The rich try to isolate everything disagreeable in the poor section of town, but pestilence wings its way to the houses of anyone and everyone. Jo is thus a messenger of fate.
Smallpox was a particularly frightening plague in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries all over the world, eradicated only in the twentieth century. Over half of the victims died, and if one survived, there could be other complications, like pneumonia, blindness or scarring. It was highly contagious through airborne mucous droplets and began with a rash and high fever. The pustules formed, drained, and got scabs, leaving scars. Vaccination attempts began in the eighteenth century, and finally, in 1980, the World Health Organization declared the global elimination of smallpox.
The debate over Jo goes on at Bleak House, with Mr. Skimpole philosophizing on the assumption of the poor to be taken care of, and Mr. Jarndyce angry that the hospitals won’t take him. Meanwhile, Charley and Esther help Jo and are themselves stricken. Esther gets a premonition of her life changing just as they get close to London: “Towards London, a lurid glare overhung the whole dark waste” and she knows the moment she “had it” (p. 326). The cities and slums with their large populations and lack of fresh air were breeding grounds for disease.