Bleak House

Bleak House Summary and Analysis of Chapters 30-32


Mrs. Woodcourt comes to stay at Bleak House for three weeks. Esther has a troubling encounter with her: she is rather insulted, though she pretends not to be, by the old lady's insinuation that Mr. Woodcourt pays attention to girls that he's not really interested in for marriage (i.e. Esther). This is insulting to both Woodcourt and to Esther, and Esther hopes that it isn't true.

Esther helps Caddy with her trouseau, and helps dress her mother appropriately for Caddy's wedding to Prince. Mr. Jellyby has made it through his bankruptcy as well as could be done, and is back at the office to "begin the world anew." The Jellyby family has survived.

The happy day arrives for the young Caddy and Prince. They marry in church, and Ada and Esther attend as bridesmaids. The two are off to the seaside for a short week-long honeymoon, which must seem to the overworked pair like an enternity of happiness. There is general rejoicing at their union. The parents of the pair are not changed, but all seem at least accepting of the marriage. Esther and Jarndyce hope and expect that the two will find happiness in marriage.

Chapter 31 opens back at Bleak House. Esther has been teaching Charley reading and writing, and, though she tries gamely, Charley is not particularly good with the pen.

Charley tells Esther that the brickmaker's wife, Jenny, is back in St Alban's, and that she has a sick orphan boy with her. The city officials will not help him. Esther and Charley go immediately to help, and see Jo in a state of delirium. He seems to recognize Esther, and think that she is the veiled lady. Charley carefully tends him, and Esther and Charley manage to get Jo to come with him. He tries to leave them and to go lie down by the warm bricks by the kiln, but they persuade him to come with them to a loft on the Jarndyce property.

Mr. Skimpole, who once was a trained doctor, tells Jarndyce that Jo has a terribly contagious disease, probably smallpox. Charley nurses the boy, but he soon runs away, though not before spreading the disease to Charley. She is nursed faithfully back to health by Esther, and Ada and the rest of the household are kept strictly away to avoid contagion. Just when Charley is getting better, Esther falls seriously ill with the same disease, and goes temporarily blind.

Back in London, in Chapter 32, Mr. Snagsby is still hounded by the suspicions of his wife. Mr. Weevle (Jobling) and he meet, and they enter Krook's shop together, which has more than the usual fetid odor about it -- in fact this time it is so offensive that Mr. Snagsby leaves.

Weevle and Guppy meet later, and go up to his room. At the appointed hour of midnight they are to meet Krook, who would bring the letters written by Captain Hawdon. After admiring some of the engravings of British Beauties, including a likeness of Lady Dedlock, that Weevle has, they go down to meet Krook. They find a singularly offensive odor an a strange black soot. They eventually discover the remains of Krook, who has apparently died of spontaneous combustion.


The old and strange Mrs. Woodcourt, with her long tales in Welsh, give us a look at some of the prejudices of the English toward the Welsh in Victorian times. Mr. Woodcourt, though of this line, does not seem to be very Welsh other than his dark complexion, but his mother is immersed in the history and her imagined royal lineage. This contrast between the Welshness of the mother and the Engishness of the son makes the son attractive to Esther, though she may worry that she would have an enemy of a mother-in-law if she married Woodcourt. But that possibility seems remote, since not only does Mrs. Woodcourt imply that Woodcourt has trifled with Esther, but also she predicts that Esther will marry someone rich, respectable and older (Jarndyce, though he is not named). This troubles Esther.

Some of the disarray of the Jellyby and Turveydrop households has been assuaged by the marriage of young Caddy and Prince. The older characters haven't changed, but they've accepted that their children will be married and they endeavor, as best they can, to make them happy. The pathetic and comic are juxtaposed here, with the wild untended Jellyby children wreaking havoc and the old Mr. Turveydrop being so insufferably dignified. The wedding is a foreshadowing of the happy end for Woodcourt and Esther.

Another episode of melodrama is the illnesses of Jo, Esther, and Charley. The mission of mercy which brings the contagion to Bleak House is only visited on Esther and Charley, so the reader is saved from reproaching Esther for her kindness to Jo. Jo inexplicably runs away, making it impossible for Esther to understand his role in the secret of her parentage being slowly found out. The appearance of the two brickmakers' abused wives in this episode only adds to the tragedy.

The disease itself is one of the most obvious metaphors in the book for the illness of poverty that afflicts the English "body." Jo, the lowest of the low, contracts the disease and, untrained to trust anyone, fails to receive proper treatment. He spreads the illness up the social ladder, from the low-class but well-intentioned Charley and then on to Esther. In like way, Dickens suggests, the economic and social problems rife in England affect all of society, not only those who "have" the disease -- that is, not only the very poor. The whole body politic is infected in attempting, ineffectually, to treat the disease of poverty.

The completely fantastic and unbelievable ending of Krook was probably accepted by many of the readers of the time -- although Dickens was plagued by skeptics enough that he provided Bleak House with a "scientific" preface defending the existence of spontaneous combustion for the three-volume edition of the work. The social criticism implied by Krook's combustion is sharp and apt -- the (nicknamed) "Lord Chancellor" is consumed in his own internal fire, and dies in a way unlike the rest of humanity, for the legal system is such a far remove from real human life that it renders its adherents into something less than human.