Bleak House by Charles Dickens: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:03 ''Bleak House'' Overview
  • 0:49 Summary: Jarndyce & Summerson
  • 1:45 Summary: Lady Dedlock & Nemo
  • 3:17 Summary: Revelation & Ending
  • 5:01 Analysis
  • 5:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

'Bleak House' is a satirical story written by Charles Dickens. It tells the story of a number of people whose lives are consumed by a court case. Learn more about 'Bleak House' and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Bleak House Overview

Money often changes people's lives. If you inherited a substantial amount of money would it change yours? Would you work or quit your job? Would you feel entitled to various privileges because of your wealth? Would you behave differently? These and other issues are the subject of the English novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

Bleak House, like many of Dickens' writings, is about various social issues. This one is a satirical story about Dickens' view of the British judiciary system. Both Esther Summerson, one of the characters in the story, and a separate third-person narrator, tell the story. Esther speaks about the experiences of her life, and the third-person narrator speaks about the experiences of some of the people in the town.

Summary: Jarndyce & Summerson

Let's look at a summary of the tale. For several years, the people of a town in or near London have tried to resolve a civil court case called Jarndyce. The case has become a big deal because it involves an inheritance (the terms of the case are never fully explained).

John Jarndyce is a rich man who spends a lot of money on various charities. He is the distant cousin of Ada and Richard, two orphans who are involved with the civil case. Esther Summerson is a lonely girl who was raised in isolation by her aunt for most of her life.

Jarndyce takes Ada and Richard to live with him at his home known as Bleak House; he also takes in Esther Summerson to act as governess for Ada. Jarndyce wants Richard to find a job and start to have a career, but Richard only wants the civil case to be resolved so that he can become wealthy and not need a job. To please Jarndyce, Richard makes poor efforts to become a doctor, lawyer, and army officer.

Summary: Lady Dedlock & Nemo

Lady Dedlock, a lady from a rich and powerful family in the town, is also involved in the inheritance case. The family lawyer for the Dedlock family is Tulkinghorn. Tulkinghorn tries to protect the Dedlock family at all costs. While examining one of Tulkinghorn's legal papers, Lady Dedlock is drawn to (and grows suspicious of) the handwriting of one of the letters in the legal documents.

Tulkinghorn begins investigating this issue and discovers the letter was written by a man named Nemo. Before Tulkinghorn can talk to Nemo, Nemo dies (either purposely or accidentally by overdose). The only person who can provide information about Nemo is a street sweeper boy, Jo, who says Nemo was always a nice man. A woman in a veil (who turns out to be Lady Dedlock disguised as her former maid, Hortense) obtains information about Nemo's life from Jo.

Tulkinghorn is able to obtain another letter with Nemo's handwriting through blackmail. Jo then becomes useless to Tulkinghorn because he speaks too openly to others about his experiences with the veiled woman. Jo is sent away and becomes sick.

He is found and ends up in Jarndyce's house. He becomes afraid when he notices that Esther looks like the veiled woman, but does not know if he is delusional because of his illness (Jo had previously seen Esther but had not known who she was).

Eventually, Jo leaves the house, but not before Esther obtains whatever illness he had. After her illness, Esther is left with scars. Nevertheless, Jarndyce asks Esther to marry him, and Ada and Richard also get married. Shortly afterwards, Ada becomes pregnant.

Summary: Revelation & Ending

Lady Dedlock, obsessed with finding out Nemo's identity, discovers that Nemo was a man she'd previously been romantic with and with whom she'd had a baby out of wedlock. Lady Dedlock had believed their baby died, but through her investigation, she learns her baby (who turns out to be Esther) had not died but had been raised by her sister. Lady Dedlock confesses to Esther that she is her mother but does not want a relationship with her out of fear for her reputation.

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