Bleak House

Bleak House

Bleak House Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Charles Dickens's Bleak House. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, a town in Hampshire, England, in 1912. His family moved to London and lived in various parts of the city throughout his early life. Dickens’s education was cut short when his father was sent to debtor’s prison. Dickens was 12 at the time, and while the rest of the family accompanied his father to jail, Dickens was sent to work in a blacking-warehouse. This experience of child labor stayed with him and became a prominent theme in many of his novels. When Dickens was 20, he embarked on a career in journalism. He was an extremely ambitious young man and quickly became successful for his political cartoons published in London periodicals. His first novel, The Pipwick Papers, was published in serial form soon after this initial success. Dickens’s decision to publish his novels in short installments over a long period of time—so that poor readers could purchase cheap periodicals instead of an expensive novel—became extremely popular among Victorian readers. Dickens gained a wide audience in Britain and America and traveled to the United States with his wife, Caroline Hogarth, in 1842. After his return to England, Dickens became the editor of a London newspaper and, after purchasing a house in Kent, wrote several more successful novels. He was a well-known public figure and extremely famous in the London social and literary scene. Dickens and Catherine had 10 children together, but Dickens left Catherine for Ellen Ternan in 1857, who was 18 years old at the time. Dickens and Ellen stayed together for the rest of his life. In his later years, Dickens arranged several very successful reading tours in various parts of the world, including America. He died after a series of strokes in 1870 and was interred in Rochester Cathedral.
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Historical Context of Bleak House

Bleak House is set in the mid-1800s and addresses several issues which would have been relevant and familiar to his Victorian audience. The novel’s philanthropist characters, like Mrs. Pardiggle and Mr. Quale, reflect the 19th-century vogue for social engagement in charitable causes and the fashion among middle-class people for social organization. Although Dickens is critical of these character’s efforts, the 19th century was a period of rapid social reform in which ideas such as social care for the poor and infirm were seriously considered and acted upon for the first time in modern history at a governmental level. The 19th century was also a period of colonial expansion in Britain; the Victorian establishment, ruled over by Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837, put a great deal of resources into establishing colonies abroad in places like India and Africa. Although this was considered a national enterprise, colonial expansion was not always popular among the general public, who felt that the tax spent on the Empire could be used more effectively at home. Dickens gives voice to this discontent through the figure of Mrs. Jellyby. Dickens also addresses social issues, such as the terrible living conditions of the industrial poor in the slums of London and the spread of disease through unsanitary burial practices and through the foul water of the Thames, which many poor people used for both bathing and drinking. Dickens also heavily criticizes the issue of child labor, which was yet to be abolished in Britain. Dickens’s observations about class in the novel reflect the changing social order, in which the wealthy upper classes were gradually replaced by wealthy industrialists, who had earned their money in manufacturing and trade, as the century progressed.

Other Books Related to Bleak House

Bleak House includes many of the themes and tropes which were popular in the 19th century. Dickens was heavily influenced by Scottish writer Walter Scott, whose novels included a large and varied host of characters and were written from numerous perspectives. Scott’s influence can be seen particularly in Bleak House, with its overlapping plots which describe the experience of characters from many different backgrounds. The use of houses to represent internal psychological states in Bleak House is a common feature of 18th-century Gothic novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. Bleak House is also similar to earlier 19th-century novels like Jane Eyre (1847), as it features a female protagonist who is downtrodden in early life, unaware of her real parentage, and who finds love at the novel’s end. Both works also contain realistic descriptions of poverty and its criticism of 19th-century social problems, such as the lack of social provision and education for the poor. Many of Dickens’s other novels, such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, deal with themes of social reform and criticize 19th-century institutions, such as the prison system and workhouses. These themes are also discussed in Victorian novels such as Middlemarch by George Eliot and Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskill. In its portrayal of the private investigator, Mr. Bucket, who uses methods of deduction to solve crime, Bleak House foreshadows later detective fiction, such as the Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. Dickens was also heavily influenced by fairy tale collections, such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and often used orphans as main characters. Dickens’s whimsical characters and coincidental plot twists also influenced modern children’s authors, such as J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series.
Key Facts about Bleak House
  • Full Title: Bleak House
  • When Written: 1852-1853
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 1852-1853
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: London and Kent
  • Climax: Mr. Tulkinghorn discovers that Lady Dedlock has had an illegitimate child before her marriage to Sir Leicester, but he is murdered by Lady Dedlock’s maid, Mademoiselle Hortense, before he can reveal the secret.
  • Antagonist: Mr. Tulkinghorn
  • Point of View: Third Person and First Person

Extra Credit for Bleak House

Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The fictional lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House is believed to be based on a real Chancery lawsuit known as Thellusson v Woodford, which had been disputed in court for over 60 years. At the time of Dickens’s writing, it was widely believed that the Chancery system was in need of reform and Dickens’s novel helped support this idea and spurred many social campaigners into action.

Serialization. Bleak House was published over the course of a year in a series of 20 installments. Dickens used this format for most of his novels and often adapted the novel as he went to suit his reader’s expectations. It was common for him to ask people for their views on his novels and to alter his plots drastically if he anticipated that the public response to them would be negative.