Bleak House

Bleak House

by

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House: Chapter 31 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One evening, when Esther has finished Charley’s lessons for the night, Charley asks her if she knows a brickmaker’s wife named Jenny. Esther says that she does and asks Charley what she knows of her. Charley says that Jenny and Liz have returned to London and that she met Jenny outside a physician’s house. She was there to buy medicine for an orphan boy who is ill. Esther is worried and decides to go and visit the brickmaker’s wife and see if she can help.
Esther sincerely wishes to help Jenny and Liz any way that she can, even though she’s only met them briefly. She does not think of herself, and the risk that this journey might pose to her health, but only about their needs.
Themes
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
It is a wet, blustery night and already dark when Charley and Esther set out to Jenny’s. As Esther walks there, she has the surreal feeling that she has undergone a transformation. The little house is just as dingy and foul as she remembers, and Jo lies ill in the corner, where Jenny tends to him. Esther approaches and speaks to Jenny and Jo starts up in horror when he sees her. He cries out that Esther has come to take him to the cemetery, and he doesn’t want to go.
Esther’s feeling is a presentiment as, later, she catches the illness from Jo (which is smallpox) and her appearance is transformed by the scars it leaves on her face. Jo thinks that Esther is Lady Dedlock, who asked Jo to show her Captain Hawdon’s grave, once again emphasizing the resemblance between the two women.
Themes
Social Mobility, Class, and Lineage Theme Icon
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
Haunting, Guilt, and Destiny Theme Icon
Identity and Appearance Theme Icon
Jenny tries to calm Jo and tells him that this lady is a friend. Jo admits that Esther is not the lady that he fears, but that she looks like her. Charley, who is used to caring for her brother and sister, immediately begins to tend to Jo in a very experienced manner. Jo complains that he feels hot then cold and that his body aches. Jenny says that she found Jo in town that morning and that she knew him from when she lived in London before. Jo complains deliriously that he is going on a journey and has been “moved on” again.
Jo has noticed the physical similarity between Esther and Lady Dedlock and this has led him to confuse the two women. Jo clearly has a very high and dangerous fever. In his delirium, he references the police officer who tried to get him to “move on” even though Jo had nowhere else to go.
Themes
Social Mobility, Class, and Lineage Theme Icon
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
Haunting, Guilt, and Destiny Theme Icon
Identity and Appearance Theme Icon
Jenny tells Esther that Liz has gone out to see if anyone will take Jo in; he cannot stay with her because of her violent husband. Liz returns and says she has had no luck finding a place for Jo in “the proper refuge.” She has also seen Jenny’s husband on his way home and warns them as soon as she arrives. Rather than turn Jo out on the street, Esther and Charley lead him away with them. He seems afraid of Esther though and is reluctant to follow her.
Jenny has tried to find a spot for Jo in a workhouse, which were set up to be homeless shelters and hospitals for the poor. However, although workhouses were designed with social aims in mind, they were horribly inefficient and corrupt and did not drastically improve quality of life for those who were sent to them. Jo is delirious and still associates Esther with his mysterious encounter with Lady Dedlock and the cemetery.
Themes
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
Haunting, Guilt, and Destiny Theme Icon
Identity and Appearance Theme Icon
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Esther keeps her distance, but beckons Jo towards Mr. Jarndyce’s house so that he will not lie down to die in the street. He follows them as though in a daze and does not seem frightened. When they arrive back at Mr. Jarndyce’s, they find that Mr. Skimpole is there. Esther calls him and Mr. Jarndyce in to see Jo and Mr. Skimpole emphatically states that they should throw Jo out immediately, for fear of contagion.
Esther is selfless and does not worry too much about the possibility that she will catch the disease; she is primarily concerned about helping Jo. Mr. Skimpole, however, is very selfish and immediately thinks of himself. He is prepared to let Jo die so that he will be safe.
Themes
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
Haunting, Guilt, and Destiny Theme Icon
Identity and Appearance Theme Icon
Mr. Jarndyce complains resentfully that if Jo were a prisoner, he would have a bed for the night and be treated for his sickness, and Mr. Skimpole says that he should be a prisoner then, as this would be more poetic. Mr. Skimpole then launches into a philosophical debate, but Esther reminds them that Jo needs immediate care. Mr. Jarndyce says that Jo can sleep in the loft above the stable, and that they will send for the authorities in the morning.
Mr. Jarndyce is angry because he perceives that prisoners are treated with more care than poor and sick people in Victorian London. This is likely true because, although workhouses existed to house the poor, they were often crowded and turned people away, as is the case with Jo. Mr. Jarndyce suggests that the Victorian establishment spends more money on keeping prisoners than it does on helping the poor.
Themes
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
Identity and Appearance Theme Icon
Mr. Skimpole seems bemused by this decision and Mr. Jarndyce asks him what he would suggest. Mr. Skimpole casually reels off a homemade remedy for fever. Jo is sent to the loft and Mr. Skimpole entertains them for the rest of the evening with songs about a “peasant boy.” Esther wakes early the next morning when she hears noise outside her window. She leans out and sees the servants milling around. They tell her that Jo disappeared during the night.
It is ironic that Mr. Skimpole knows a fever remedy because it suggests that, even though he is perhaps the only one who could help Jo, he would still be unwilling to. This supports the idea that Mr. Skimpole will always let other people come to his aid, but that he’s reticent to do the same for others. His approach to Jo is sentimental and romantic (as seen through his songs) and does not account for the fact that Jo is a real person who is suffering.
Themes
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
Identity and Appearance Theme Icon
They search for Jo but can find no trace of him. A few nights later, Charley feels cold and tells Esther that she thinks she has a fever. Esther immediately locks herself and Charley in the room and refuses to let Ada in. She nurses Charley for several weeks until, eventually, the girl recovers. Esther falls ill, however, and Charley is horrified when she realizes that she has passed the fever on to her. She then nurses Esther in her turn, and Ada is only allowed to communicate with them through the window in the garden. As Esther’s illness progresses, she loses her sight and hovers close to death. Charley stays by her side and begs Esther not to die.
Esther, again, does not spare a thought for herself but risks her health to take care of Charley. She is fiercely protective of Ada’s health, however, and will not let her into the room in case she is infected. Esther is always willing to sacrifice herself and risk her life for others and she is a virtuous heroine in this sense.
Themes
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
Identity and Appearance Theme Icon