Bleak House

Bleak House Summary and Analysis of Chapters 36-38


Esther and Charley visit Boythorn's house while he is London. Mr. Jarndyce accompanies them to make sure they arrive safely, then he goes back to Bleak House to be with Ada until they are both to go back to Boythorn. Esther is made most comfortable there, and is waited on carefully by the housekeeper. Boythorn has left a cheerful note, and charged Esther with the care of his bird, which is a great compliment.

Esther and Charley go about on long daily walks in the fine weather. One day Esther is sitting contemplating the Ghost's Walk, and sees a lady coming near her. She doesn't realize who she is until Lady Dedlock is within speaking distance. Lady Dedlock comes to Esther, and tells Esther to send Charley back home.

Lady Dedlock pours out her heart, and tells Esther that she is her daughter. There is a touching scene where the two women embrace and weep. Esther is told about how Lady Dedlock was nearly frantic during her illness, and how she was not abandoned as a child. Lady Dedlock didn't abandon her -- she was told by her elder sister that the child was still born, or died soon after birth. Esther cannot believe that she is being held, finally, by her mother, but her happiness soon turns to sorrow. Lady Dedlock, not for herself but for the honor of her husband, will try to keep the secret. If she cannot she will try to minimize the damage. She asks Esther to not tell anyone, but allows her to tell Mr. Jarndyce.

Lady Dedlock says this can be their only meeting, and Esther strangely agrees. She seems to think only of duty and avoiding scandal for the Dedlocks, not for her own needs. Her mother leaves her, and she goes back to Boythorn's and tries to avoid revealing her secret to Charley. She reads and burns the note her mother sends her detailing the circumstances of her birth, and her feelings for Esther. Esther is tormented by desires that she were never born, but the next day she receives letters from Jarndyce and Ada that renew her hope and happiness. Ada arrives, and is unchanged in her love of Esther even with her scarred face, and the girls are joyfully reunited.

In Chapter 37, while the party is still at Mr. Boythorn's, Charley tells Esther that she's wanted at the Dedlock Arms. Mr. Skimpole and Richard (who has become estranged from Mr. Jarndyce) are staying there, and have become fast friends. Esther is upset and worried that Skimpole will be a bad influence on Richard.

Richard is on leave from the army, and is working on the Jarndyce suit. He walks back to the house with Esther, and meets Ada, and there is no diminishing of the love between them. Richard's interest in Chancery verges on obsession, and Esther is critical of Richard, particularly of his hostility to Mr. Jarndyce, who has only been generous and kind, to a fault, to Richard.

Mr. Skimpole, in his sponging way, has his expenses paid by Richard, and has introduced him to the highly unscrupulous lawyer Mr. Vholes. We later learn that Vholes paid Skimpole to introduce him, as Richard is ripe pickings for a lawyer who is willing to pursue a fruitless suit in Chancery and deceive his client.

Esther goes to London, on the pretext of seeing Caddy and Prince Turveydrop. She visits with them, and sees their happy, if laborious life under the oppression of Mr. Turveydrop. Caddy's father, Mr. Jellyby, has taken to coming to their house every evening, and Caddy and her husband and father seem quite happy.

Esther has a specific mission -- to warn Guppy off the trail of her parentage, in an attempt to save the her mother's reputation. The interview with Guppy is made humorous by his surprise at her changed appearance, but she assures him that she has no desire to marry him, and agrees that there was never any agreement between them. For his part, Guppy agrees to drop his investigations into her past. Guppy's mother, a vulgar person, sniggers at Esther's face. Guppy, however, endeavors to be as polite as possible, and seems truly to struggle with the fact that he no longer can love her because of her scarred face.


The highly melodramatic Chapter 36 marks the mid-point, plotwise, of the novel. All the events afterward turn on this revelation, and Esther's reaction to it has struck many readers as strange and unreal. It does seem a little bit overwrought from our perspective, to have Esther thinking more of the reputation of the Dedlocks than her own need for her mother, but England of the 1850s was a very different world, and illegitimate children and their parents were not accepted into any kind of good society. There was no choice, essentially, for Lady Dedlock after she married Sir Leicester -- keeping his reputation intact depended, and continues to depend completely, on her keeping her secret.

Lady Dedlock's softening and her tenderness to her daughter are a welcome contrast to Esther's cold and unloved childhood. We learn that the villain -- though she thought she was doing good -- of the story is Esther's aunt, Lady Dedlock's sister, who essentially stole the child (who was not expected to live) and raised her in secrecy, for some reason concealing the life even from the child's own mother. This kind of puritanical mania and martyr-like selfishness is abhorrent to Dickens, and Lady Dedlock, so long criticized, shows up favorably against the conduct of her sister.

The reunion of Esther and Ada is touching, also, and surprisingly brief. That Ada would love her all the same even with her scarred face no one doubts but Esther, who, while having a strangely large amount of self-confidence, is almost unfailingly self-abnegating.

Richard's self-destructive tendencies have reached a very low point, in linking himself with Skimpole and Vholes. He grows further separated from the sane world of Jarndyce, Esther, and Ada, though he claims he still loves Ada, and Ada obviously still loves him.

The domestic interlude at the Turveydrops shows that, while the Jellyby and Turveydrop households are still under the evil influence of old Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby, some alleviation of sorrow of Caddy, Prince, and Mr. Jellyby has been the consequence of the marriage.

The episode of Esther facing down Guppy and his mother shows her own very highly developed sense of personal courage, and also, perhaps, her gentle disdain of Guppy. She is not shy to be seen as ugly in his eyes, perhaps because she never desired his regard in anyway. She makes it clear to him that he is not to continue in the search for her parentage. Esther is doing everything that she can to shield her mother.