Bleak House: Chapter 34

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Summary of Chapter XXXIV: A Turn of the Screw

 

Mr. George and his assistant at the gallery, Phil Squod, try to decipher a letter from Smallweed, George’s creditor. The promissory note which George and Matthew Bagnet have co-signed for a hundred pounds is due. George is surprised because this note has been renewed many times. Phil calls Smallweed “a screw and a wice (vice)” (p. 359). The Bagnets come to visit George at the gallery, and he breaks the bad news to them.

 

Mrs. Bagnet is worried about the money for the family as well as her husband having to go to jail for debt. George and Bagnet decide to go to Smallweed to beg more time. Smallweed is nasty and triumphant that he has destroyed another victim. He sends them to “his friend in the city,” Mr. Tulkinghorn.

 

Tulkinghorn treats them badly and only agrees to a new deal when George produces the letter he wants from Nemo (Hawdon). The new agreement lets the Bagnets out of the contract, which is renewed. George dines at the Bagnets to regain his composure.

 

Commentary on Chapter XXXIV

 

Phil Squod calls Smallweed “a snake in his twistings, and a lobster in his claws” (p. 359). This seems a fair assessment when Smallweed is not only harsh but triumphant in pressing for payment: “I’ll smash you. I’ll crumble you. I’ll powder you. Go to the devil!” (p. 365). He is not only out to make money but to use his power to destroy others. Tulkinghorn makes use of the situation to get what he wants from George, and indeed, it seems likely that Tulkinghorn used Smallweed to get to George for the letter, without having to get his own hands dirty.

 

It is made clear that the lovable George and Mr. Bagnet are, despite their soldierly appearance, “simple and unaccustomed children” (p. 363) in the coils of Smallweed and Tulkinghorn. George is endearing in his simple manly way of marching off to confront things with full trust that they can be worked out. There is no negotiation with Smallweed and Tulkinghorn except on their own terms.

 

One strange coincidence is that in Tulkinghorn’s office, Mrs. Rouncewell leaves and speaks aloud to the lawyer while George, her son, has his back turned. He thinks he hears something familiar but his attention is engrossed, and so mother and son just miss each other. Dickens builds up this drama between the two, both of whom, separated for thirty or more years, have longed for reunion. George feels ashamed of his youthful behavior, and councils the young Bagnet boy to appreciate his mother.

 

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