Bleak House

by Charles Dickens
872 pages, General Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

A dark story that combines satire, suspense, and romance among brilliant characters; some violence.


The lawsuit 'Jarndyce and Jarndyce' has been dragging on in the Chancery courts for generations, the butt of lawyers' jokes, the ruination of all who become entangled in its web. It enmeshes people in all walks of life: the beautiful and haunted Lady Dedlock; cruel, cold Mr. Tulkinghorn, the Dedlocks' solicitor; Mr. John Jarndyce, who shuns the lawsuit, and his young cousins Ada and Richard; and lastly, the sweet, selfless Esther Summerson whose birth is surrounded in mystery. The lawsuit draws these characters, and more, together with threads of romance, murder, and suspense, and threatens to destroy them all. Will there be any justice in the end?


In most places, good and evil are very starkly, almost allegorically, laid out. There are a number of marked villains: Tulkinghorn, utterly merciless; the shopkeeper Krook, who truly fits his name; the twisted, conniving, money-grubbing Smallweed family; and the sly solicitor Mr. Vholes. There is no two ways of looking at these characters, for they are thoroughly evil.

Mr. Skimpole, a man who eschews all responsibility in life and exists by sponging off friends, is not altogether despised by the characters. However, his lifestyle is revealed in contrast to the hard-working narrator, Esther Summerson, and clearly is not condoned.

A character's backstory involves an illicit love affair and an illegitimate child. The character is haunted by this shame and expresses regret (not differentiated from repentance). The good characters are gracious, loving, and understanding toward this person, but the reader gets the general feeling that the action is not being excused.

The good characters shine, again, in a nearly allegorical fashion. Esther tops this list, for she is modest, hard-working, and selfless; Dickens' philosophy comes into play here, however, and good works are seen as the means of attaining Heaven. John Jarndyce is both wise and benevolent, and the physician Alan Woodcourt matches Esther in his kindness toward others. A character marries a dangerously foolish man in the hopes of returning him to his senses - a mark of the character's love, but hardly a wise decision.

Spiritual Content

Dickens openly mocks the hypocrisy of much of the Church in the characters of Reverend Chadband and his wife, supercilious and disgusting characters. A woman attempts to evangelize a destitute brickmaker's family through militant, invasive, unhelpful means; another woman neglects her husband and large family due to an obsession with helping African natives. Both actions are satirized, not condoned.

Heaven is mentioned a number of times. As above-mentioned, good works are seen as that which ensures a person entrance into bliss. At the Dedlocks' home, there is frequent talk of the ghost that has supposedly haunted the place for generations.


A character frequently talks about how other people should be beaten, shot, hanged, or somehow eliminated from the human race, but he is in fact a cheerful, large-hearted man who would clearly never follow through with these threats. He does fire split peas at trespassers and chase them off his property with water hoses, but that it the extent of his violence.

A man is shot to death. A drunkard beats his wife; her bruises are seen. A character dies from a drug overdose, and it is never revealed whether it was accidental or suicidal. A boy dies of an illness; several characters waste away as they wait for Chancery to make a judgment. In perhaps the darkest and most eerie chapter of the book, 'The Appointed Time,' a man spontaneously combusts and the scene is described in disturbing detail. While not always violent, the book is often dark in its portrayal of London and the injustices of the law.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Mr. Guppy, a lawyer's clerk, and his friends drink a great deal of alcohol. A brickmaker admits to being a drunkard and to beating his wife. A man dies from an overdose of opium, used at that time as a pain-reliever and sedative. Wine and other alcoholic beverages are consumed in moderate quantities.

Sexual Content

A major plot point revolves are a love affair and the characters' illegitimate child, but this is handled very discretely. A woman wrongly suspects her husband of having fathered an illegitimate child, but she is eventually set right. There are a number of romances, all clean. Mrs. Jellyby, the woman obsessed with missions to Africa, dresses in a slovenly and somewhat indecent fashion.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Grandfather Smallweed frequently takes the Lord's name in vain, as do other characters, less often. "D*mn" and "d*mned" are both used at times.


Highly celebrated among Dickens' fans, "Bleak House" is a tightly woven and suspenseful story with some of the most memorable characters in literary history - Esther Summerson, John Jarndyce, pitiable Lady Dedlock and ludicrously eccentric Mr. Guppy are all worth recalling. Weaving together a typically massive cast, Dickens manages to satirize the court system and English law while also telling a classic tale of love, dedication, selflessness, and resilience. It is by no means a light read, and many scenes are full of gloom and depression; the story begins in a literal fog, and that fog continues figuratively through to the end. However, Dickens' ironic humor and wit brighten most of these sections, and the story's conclusion is filled with hope and joy: despite its title, it does not end on a truly bleak note. A few parts do drag, and the reader must be reconciled to wordiness and the occasional tedious bit of prose. Skipping ahead is not recommended, for each character and thread is critical to the wrapping up of the tale.

Fun Score: 4
Values Score: 3.5
Written for Age: adult

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