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Bleak House - Life, Work and EthicsBleak House - Life, Work and Ethics


Bleak House (1852-3)

Written by the English novelist, Charles Dickens (1812-70), pictured right below, as an attack on the English legal system.


Fun facts

  • First published as a monthly serial (March 1852 to September 1853).
  • One of the first murder mysteries. Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics
  • BBC TV has adapted it twice in 1985 and 2005.


Key characters

Esther (Summerson), orphan and housekeeper at Bleak House.

John Jarndyce, owner of Bleak House and guardian of Esther, Ada (Clare) and Richard (Cardstone).

Lady Dedlock,married to Sir Leicester Dedlock, a rich landowner.

Mr Tulkinghorn, an evil lawyer.

Allan Woodcourt, Jarndyce’s doctor and friend.

 Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

The story

Esther, Ada and Richard are looked after by their guardian, John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson, pictured right in the 2005 BBC adaptation), in his home, Bleak House.

Ada and Richard’s possible inheritance is being resolved by a years long case in the Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

A lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn, shows one of its documents to his client, a rich landowner, Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife, Lady Dedlock, who recognizes its handwriting.

Intrigued, Tulkinghorn then discovers that the writer was a man called Nemo whom he finds dead. He tells Lady Dedlock about him and one of his acquaintances, a young street urchin, Joe.

Helped by police Inspector Bucket, Tulkinghorn continues his investigations

Tulkinghorn offers Nemo’s friend,, George Rouncewell, money for some of his handwriting. He refuses, despite owing money to a nasty moneylender, Grandfather Smallweed.

Meanwhile Esther refuses an offer of marriage from a lawyer’s clerk, Mr Guppy.Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

Richard decides to be a doctor and then a lawyer. But he is more interested in the Jarndyce case, because he thinks it will make him rich.

In London, Esther befriends a poor orphan girl, Charlotte, who is looking after her two young siblings. Esther falls in love with a young doctor, Mr Woodcourt, after being told by Jarndyce that she was brought up by her aunt.

A mysterious lady (later revealed to be a disguised Lady Dedlock) approaches Joe and asks him to show her where Nemo is buried.

Esther meets Lady Dedlock and her French maid, Madamoiselle Hortense. She quits after another maid, Rosa, becomes the favourite of Lady Dedlock who is told by Guppy that Esther’s and Nemo’s real surname is Hawdon. She realizes that Esther is her daughter.

Esther finds Joe with smallpox, nurses him at Bleak House and catches it herself, badly scarring her face.

Lady Dedlock tells Esther she is her mother, but she must tell no one and never see her again.

Meanwhile Smallweed demands payment from Rouncewell and Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet, who borrowed money on Rouncewell's behalf.

Desperate, Rouncewell tells Tulkinghorn he will give him Nemo’s (Hawdon’s) handwriting, if the Bagnets are left alone.

Richard falls out with Jarndyce after he criticizes him for his obsession with the case.

Tulkinghorn visits Lady Dedlock, tells her he knows her secret and stops her from running away. He is then visited by Madamoiselle Hortense, whom he uses to spy on Lady Dedlock, but he refuses to find her another job.

Jarndyce asks Esther to marry him, and she accepts. She then sees Mr Woodcourt again who helps Joe but Joe sadly dies soon after.Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

Tulkinghorn is shot dead. Bucket arrests Rouncewell for the murder but later discovers that Madamoiselle Hortense did it to try to frame Lady Dedlock who flees in disgrace.

But Lady Dedlock's husband (pictured together in the 1985 BBC adaptation) is prepared to forgive her everything on hearing the truth of her past.

Inspector Bucket and Esther search for her, finding her dead at the gate of the burial ground where Hawdon (Nemo) is buried.

Richard secretly marries Ada (Carey Mulligan, pictured right below in the 2005 adaptation) who becomes pregnant, but he is sick from his continued obsession with the Jarndyce case. Woodcourt tells Esther he is still in love with her, and Jarndyce selflessly gives her up so that they can marry.Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case is finally settled. But nobody gets a penny because all the inheritance has been used up in legal fees.

Richard dies distraught, but Ada has their son. Esther and Woodcourt are happily married with two daughters.


Lessons for life, work and ethics

 Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

1. Life is difficult

Lady Dedlock (Gill Anderson, pictured right in the 2005 BBC adaptation)  is tortured by her past secret affair with Captain Hawdon, because its revelation would ruin her reputation and hurt her husband.

Her illegitimate daughter, Esther, has never known a loving mother, a love that Lady Dedlock cannot give.

Joe and Charlotte also show how devastating poverty is.


2. The law can be unjust

The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case goes on for years, making lawyers rich but its beneficiaries (Ada and Richard) penniless.

It ruins Richard and many others who are seduced by the illusory hope of money.

An old lady, Miss Flite has a long interest in the case and her remarkable collection of caged birds represents its victims. She frees them after the case is finally resolved.

 Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

3. Love is selfless and forgiving

Esther (Anna Maxwell Martin, pictured right in the 2005 BBC adaptation)  is always extremely kind, even risking smallpox to nurse Joe.

Jarndyce also gives up Esther, so that she can marry Allan Woodcourt.

Lady Dedlock protects her husband from her shameful past, unaware that he is prepared to forgive her.


4. Count your blessings

Richard's obsession with the case blinds him to his blessings, particularly:

  • the love of a lovely wife.
  • their baby.
  • good friends like Esther and Jarndyce.

 Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

5. Listen to good advice

Richard (Patrick Kennedy, pictured right in the 2005 adaptation) disastrously ignores Jarndyce’s good advice about losing his obsession with the case.


6. Money isn’t everything

Richard’s lust for money ruins him

George Rouncewell refuses to betray Nemo for money, even though he is in debt.

 Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

7. Some people are bad

Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance in the BBC 2005 adaptation, pictured right)  is a horrible man who destroys good people like:

  • George Rouncewell.
  • Lady Dedlock (by threatening to reveal her secret about Captain Hawdon).

An acquaintance of John Jarndyce, Harold Skimpole, is nearly as bad.

Without remorse, he harms people for money as in his:

  • betrayal of Joe.
  • introduction of Richard to the bloodsucking lawyer, Vholes.

 Bleak House - Life, Work and Ethics

8. Friendship and kindness make you happy

Esther and Woodcourt (pictured right in the 2005 adaptation) are happily married because they are best friends.

He is not deterred by her facial scars, because he can see the beauty of her character.

She is kind to him and other people, and so they are kind to her.


Key quotes on law and justice

The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.

Injustice breeds injustice.


Key quote on success

If you had the abilities of all the great men, past and present, you could do nothing well without sincerely meaning it and setting about it, Mr. Jarndyce (to Richard). 


Key quote on relationships

Duty is duty and friendship is friendship. I never want the two to clash if I can help it, Mr. Bucket (to George Rouncewell)

 It is a great thing to win love, Esther (to Allan Woodcourt).


Key quote on empowerment

Responsibility is a thing that has always been above me - or below me, Harold Skimpole.


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com


A big thank you to...

The BBC for the pictures. 

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