Bleak House

Bleak House

by

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bart Smallweed lives with his elderly grandparents in a spot called Mount Pleasant. Mrs. Smallweed is mad and unable to care for herself, and Mr. Smallweed is paralyzed from the waist down. Mr. Smallweed is the son of an accountant who was totally obsessed with money and who never thought of anything else. He sent his son out to work very young and stamped all interest in childish pleasures out of the boy. This tradition was continued with the following generations until there is nothing whimsical or childlike about anyone in the family.
The name of the house is ironic because the Smallweeds are a deeply unpleasant family. The family has always lent out money and collected debts and interest, and Mr. Smallweed and his grandchildren have inherited this fervor for money from a long line of people in this trade. Child labor has a negative effect on members of the Smallweed family, as it makes them grow up too soon and crushes all childish hopes and dreams out of them. With this, Dickens seems to be making a larger narrative comment about the dangers of child labor in the Victorian era.
Themes
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In the drab little apartment, the elderly Smallweeds sit opposite each other in front of the fire. Mr. Smallweed keeps his equity documents and bills of wealth under his chair, near a cushion which he often throws at his wife to silence her. Bart’s sister, Judy, sets the table behind them. She says that Bart will be home in “ten minutes” and Mrs. Smallweed suddenly begins to shout about “ten-pound notes” until Mr. Smallweed throws the pillow at her.
Mr. Smallweed is completely obsessed with money and, like Krook, jealously guards his wealth, which is represented by his legal documents. He is cruel to his wife and snappish with his grandchildren. Mrs. Smallweed has lost her mind, but the content of her outbursts (seen here with her shouts about “ten-pound notes”) suggests that she, too, has been obsessed with money in her lifetime and that now it plays out in her madness.
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The force of this throw knocks Mr. Smallweed back in his chair, and Judy lifts him up by the collar and shakes him until he is righted. Judy is very like her relatives and is shrunken and mirthless. As a child, she never played with dolls or other children, and she almost never laughs. Neither Judy nor Bart know any fairy tales. As Judy serves tea, Mr. Smallweed asks who the serving girl is, and Judy says that her name is Charley. Mr. Smallweed complains that she eats too much, and Judy snaps at Charley to be thorough in her work.
Judy has also been affected by her repressive and unchildlike childhood, in which she has been encouraged to care only about money. Neither Judy nor Bart have had an age-appropriate childhood education based in childish things, like fairy tales. Readers may recall that Charley is the eldest daughter of Neckett, the debt collector who passed away, and the older sister of Tom and Emma.
Themes
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Bart arrives home and tells them where he has been, and Mr. Smallweed praises him for dining at his friend’s expense, rather than spending his own money. Bart sits down to tea and Mr. Smallweed begins to talk of his son, who died when Bart and Judy were younger. It takes him some time to finish his story, however, because he often breaks off to swear at Mrs. Smallweed. He concludes by telling them that they will inherit the family fortune and that Judy may use her share of this to run her florist shop.
Mr. Smallweed is an extremely greedy, mean-spirited man. He encourages his children to mirror his behavior and to take advantage of others for their own gain.
Themes
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When they have finished tea, Judy calls in Charley and allows her to eat the table scraps. A man named George arrives and asks to see Mr. Smallweed. He is tall and sturdy and has the look of an ex-military man. George takes a seat by the fire and sits up very straight. He asks Mr. Smallweed to honor their agreement and make him a pipe to smoke before he pays his monthly interest on his debt. Judy reluctantly gets his pipe and she and Bart leave the room.
George is a very dignified man and does not like to be treated unfairly. Although Mr. Smallweed is taking advantage of him by charging him excess interest on a debt, George demands a pipe as some small recompense in return for the extra interest, which Mr. Smallweed has legally trapped him into paying. Mr. Smallweed deeply resents even this small act of fairness.
Themes
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George wonders aloud what Mr. Smallweed does all day and suggests that, as soon as he is slightly late with a payment, Mr. Smallweed will call in the full amount. Mr. Smallweed simpers that he wouldn’t dream of it, but that he has no control over the man from the city who gave him the money to lend to George. George pretends to believe this but really, he is skeptical of the old man’s motives. Charley brings George his drink, and he thinks she is far too pretty to belong to the family.
George does not trust Mr. Smallweed and feels that the old man waits for an opportunity to catch him out. The novel implies that Mr. Smallweed is a coward and pretends that he is not the one who calls in the debts. He avoids responsibility instead and pretends that he works for a man in the city, who is very sinister and threatening. As Mr. Smallweed cannot physically defend himself, he uses this apparition to bully his clients.
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George asks what the man in the city will do to him—and, under his breath, asks if the man’s name starts with a D. George shakes Mr. Smallweed himself when he throws the cushion at Mrs. Smallweed, who has begun shouting again. George says that he likes to take a pipe from Mr. Smallweed in return for his money and Mr. Smallweed agrees he is a “prudent” man. Mr. Smallweed asks if George has any relatives who are willing to pay his debt and George says that he would never ask that of them.
George implies that the man in the city is really the devil, because he thinks Mr. Smallweed is a diabolical and greedy old man who has sold his soul. Meanwhile, Mr. Smallweed hopes that George has wealthy relatives so that he can exploit them for extra money by increasing George’s debt.
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Mr. Smallweed says that, if George had found “the Captain,” his fortune would have been made. George says that, although he would have liked this at the time, now he is pleased that he was not successful. Mr. Smallweed asks him why, and George says that Mr. Smallweed lied to him; he told him that Captain Hawdon was about to receive a large inheritance, when, really, he was deeply in debt. Mr. Smallweed protests that he did not know this, and that Captain Hawdon’s wealthy relatives might have bailed him out.
Mr. Smallweed suggests that he would have paid George handsomely for bringing a man named Captain Hawdon to him. However, George is happy that he did not succeed because Mr. Smallweed tricked him; he told George to bring him Captain Hawdon so that Mr. Smallweed could bestow an inheritance on him, however, in reality Mr. Smallweed wanted to have Captain Hawdon arrested for debt.
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Mr. Smallweed feels that Captain Hawdon has tricked him, and he grows angry as he thinks about this. George says that he was often with Captain Hawdon when the Captain was ready to kill himself, and Mr. Smallweed says that George should have let him. George then says that, by the time he was asked to track Captain Hawdon down, the man was already dead, but Mr. Smallweed doubts this.
Although Mr. Smallweed tried to trick Captain Hawdon, he feels that Captain Hawdon has evaded him on purpose, even though the Captain did not know of Mr. Smallweed’s plans. Captain Hawdon was heavily in debt to Mr. Smallweed and considered himself a ruined man.
Themes
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George gets up to leave, teasing Mr. Smallweed as he goes about the possibility of his missing a payment. Mr. Smallweed plays along but pulls an ugly face at George’s back when he shuts the door. George wanders home past several theaters and arrives at a building called “George’s Shooting Gallery,” which is a large hall set out for several types of combat practice. It is deserted, however, and the only person inside is George’s attendant, Phil, who lies asleep upon the floor.
George despises Mr. Smallweed (and it seems that the feeling is mutual), but he is an honorable man and continues to pay his debt, which he is legally bound to pay. The passage suggests that George has gone into debt to start his business, the shooting gallery, but its emptiness suggests that it has not been as successful as he had hoped.
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George wakes Phil and tells him to close the gallery for the night. Phil jumps up obediently and sets about this. He is a little man whose face is burnt on one side and who is partially lame from an accident. He gets around by dragging himself along the wall and this leaves a greasy mark on the gallery wall. George pulls out two mattresses, and he and Phil lie down for the night. As they go to sleep, George asks Phil where he was found, and Phil says that he used to live in a gutter.
Phil and George are both down and outs, but Phil comes from a much harder life. In hiring Phil and giving him a place to sleep, George shows that he’s attuned to the man’s immediate needs—unlike the novel’s philanthropists, who don’t seem to do anything useful for the people they claim to help.
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