Bleak House: Chapter 4

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Summary of Chapter IV: Telescopic Philanthropy

 

Mr. Kenge tells the young people they will stay the night with Mrs. Jellyby, a very great philanthropist who devotes herself to the African subject. When Richard asks what Mr. Jellyby does, Kenge says, “he is the husband of Mrs. Jellyby” (p. 26). Kenge tells Guppy, the clerk, to take the young people to the Jellybys. When they arrive, one of the Jellyby children has his head caught in a railing, and Esther helps him get free. Another child is tumbling downstairs. The entire house is in chaos and the seven children uncared for. Mrs. Jellyby is busy dictating letters on the African question to her eldest daughter, Caddy.

 

Caddy shows Ada and Esther to their rooms to wash for dinner. Everything in the house is cold and dirty, and the guests try to find what they need on their own. Esther gathers the children and tells them a story as she dresses, and they begin to love her.

 

Dinner is a disaster; the food is half-cooked. Mr. Jellyby is neglected and silent while a guest, Mr. Quale, another philanthropist, praises Mrs. Jellyby’s work. Ada and Esther retire to their rooms and talk of Mr. Jarndyce, neither of whom has met him. He is apparently a noble man who is to be trusted. Caddy Jellyby joins them, saying, “I wish Africa was dead!” (p. 33). She and the other children and the husband are miserable with neglect while the mother lavishes all her attention on Africa.

 

Commentary on Chapter IV

 

This is one of Dickens’s great satires on English philanthropy, which likes to interfere in other countries while neglecting the misery of its own. Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Quale discuss “The Brotherhood of Humanity” as philosophy, but the mother ignores the needs of her family. The natives of Borrioboola-Gha are to be given an English education, but Caddy complains that she must take dictation all day and never is sent to school herself. Esther is the mother they miss, and the children take to her.

 

The orphans Ada and Esther discuss their benefactor, Mr. Jarndyce, and it comes out that he desires to “heal some of the wounds made by the miserable Chancery suit” (p. 31) by gathering together all these Chancery orphans under his protection. Ada also praises Esther for being kind and good to the Jellyby children. Esther is not used to praise and love and finds it difficult to accept, as does the shy Mr. Jarndyce. She is only a year older than Ada but will soon be the mother figure in the new household at Bleak House.

 

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