Lady Dedlock, the wife of aristocratic nobleman Sir Leicester Dedlock, is extremely bored in her fashionable London townhouse. She is considered a cold, haughty woman, but there is a rumor that she is not of noble birth and that Sir Leicester married her despite this. Her husband’s lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, arrives and reads to them from some legal documents. Midway through, Lady Dedlock turns pale and asks who wrote the paper. Mr. Tulkinghorn, a reserved, steely man, explains that an anonymous law writer penned the document. Mr. Tulkinghorn continues to read and Lady Dedlock, who says she feels faint, retires to her room.
Esther Summerson is an orphan girl who has been raised by her godmother, Miss Barbary, a hard, pious woman who seems to dislike Esther and keeps her away from other children. Esther longs to be loved and accepted and, one day, on her birthday, she begs her godmother to tell her something of her past. Miss Barbary bitterly tells Esther that she was “her mother’s disgrace.” Esther is distraught and does not understand what her Miss Barbary alludes to. Two years later, Miss Barbary has a stroke while Esther is reading to her from the Bible and dies not long after this. At her godmother’s funeral, Esther is approached by a man she has seen before at Miss Barbary’s house. This man is Mr. Kenge and he tells Esther that Miss Barbary was really her aunt, and that Esther is now to be sent to school under the care of her new guardian, a man named Mr. Jarndyce. Esther is amazed and incredibly grateful. She is very happy at school and is trained to be a governess.
After six years at school, Esther is told that she is to travel to London and become the companion of a young woman who is a ward of the court in a lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Esther arrives in London and finds herself directed to the court of Chancery by a clerk named Mr. Guppy. Here, she is introduced to her new companion, Ada Clare, and another ward of the court, and Ada’s cousin, Richard Carstone. The court of Chancery is a large, archaic institution which deals explicitly with disputes over property. Many of the cases, like Jarndyce and Jarndyce, have gone on for several generations and have torn families apart in this time. Esther is glad that she has not been born into this, as Richard and Ada have, and the three of them wait to be taken to a woman named Mrs. Jellyby’s house, where they will spend the night. Outside the court, they meet a mad old lady named Miss Flite who is very excited to meet the wards in Jarndyce.
Mrs. Jellyby’s house is extremely chaotic and filled with dirty and neglected children. Mrs. Jellyby is a philanthropist and is only interested in her charity work in Africa. Esther befriends Mrs. Jellyby’s eldest daughter, Caddy, and Esther, Richard, Caddy, and Ada all go out for a walk the next morning. They end up near the court and meet Miss Flite, who invites them home to see her lodgings. Miss Flite lives above a rag and bone shop owned by a man named Krook, whose shop is a jumble of old law papers which Krook himself cannot read, as he is illiterate. Miss Flite’s room is sparse, and in her window she keeps several birds in cages, which she says she will release when her Chancery suit is resolved. Another man lives in the house, a law writer known as Nemo. The next day, Richard, Esther, and Ada are driven to Bleak House and are warmly greeted by their guardian. Esther is given housekeeping duties and she begins to be very fond of her new companions.
Meanwhile, Mr. Tulkinghorn goes to Krook’s shop and asks for the writer named Nemo. Krook directs him to Nemo’s room, but when Mr. Tulkinghorn gets there, he discovers that the writer has died of an opium overdose. Mr. Tulkinghorn calls several people to search the room for any important legal documents. Mr. Tulkinghorn discovers that a poor boy named Jo, who sweeps the streets nearby, knew the writer a little and Jo is sent for at the inquest.
Not long after this, while Jo is out one evening, a mysterious veiled woman, dressed all in black, approaches him and offers him money to show her where Nemo is buried. Jo obeys the woman but is frightened of her. Some time later, Mr. Tulkinghorn summons Jo to his office, in the presence of a policeman called Mr. Bucket, and asks him to identify another veiled woman who wears a black dress. Jo is bewildered but insists that this is not the same woman because she does not wear rings.
Mr. Jarndyce tries to help Richard choose a profession, but Richard struggles to settle on one and sometimes dreams that his fortune will be made when Jarndyce and Jarndyce is resolved. Esther notices that Ada and Richard have fallen in love and, one day, they announce they are engaged. Mr. Jarndyce has many philanthropic friends and, one afternoon, Esther and Ada visit the house of a brickmaker with one of these people and meet two poor women, Jenny and Liz, with whom they strike up a friendship. Mr. Jarndyce takes Esther and Ada on holiday to stay with his friend, Mr. Boythorn, who lives next door to Chesney Wold, Sir Leicester’s country house, and Esther sees Lady Dedlock and her French servant, Mademoiselle Hortense, in church one afternoon. She has the strange feeling that Lady Dedlock dislikes her but also thinks that she looks a little like herself. When Esther returns, she hears that Jenny and Liz have taken in Jo, who is very sick, but that they cannot keep him at their house because of their violent husbands. Esther agrees to take Jo in and nurse him, but Jo disappears during the night. Esther falls ill herself and her face is scarred beyond recognition by the disease. Esther does not mind the loss of her beauty so much, but she is disappointed because she has fallen in love with a young doctor, Mr. Woodcourt, who is currently away at sea. She believes that he will not love her now that she has lost her looks and persuades herself to give up on the romance.
While Esther is ill, she hears from her servant that a veiled woman has been several times to Jenny’s house to ask after Esther’s health. She does not know who this woman can be. Soon after this, Esther goes to Mr. Boythorn’s house in the country to recover and, one day, when is walking in the woods outside Chesney Wold, she is approached by Lady Dedlock. Lady Dedlock confesses that she is Esther’s real mother and that she had no idea that Esther was alive. She was told that Esther died at birth, but really her sister, Miss Barbary, took Esther and raised her in secret. Esther’s father is a man named Captain Hawdon, who is also Nemo. Lady Dedlock says that no one knows her secret, but she is very afraid that Mr. Tulkinghorn will find out and expose her. Therefore, she can never see Esther again. Esther is distraught but forgives her mother. Esther returns to Bleak House and confides in Mr. Jarndyce. He is very kind and tells her that he has fallen in love with her. He asks her to marry him and, after brief consideration, Esther accepts.
Meanwhile, Richard’s career progresses badly. He has switched jobs three times and has been unable to settle on anything. Esther is concerned to learn that he has taken a lawyer, a man named Mr. Vholes, and that he has given up on work and intends to pour all his energy into solving the case. He has also turned against Mr. Jarndyce, who has tried to dissuade him from having anything to do with Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Mr. Jarndyce has seen people go mad over Chancery lawsuits and worries that this is now happening to Richard. Ada is deeply concerned but remains loyal to Richard. One day, she confesses to Ada that she and Richard have been married in secret and that she will no longer live with Mr. Jarndyce, but with Richard, though she bears her guardian no ill will and hopes that Richard will soon come around. Esther is very upset but supports Ada’s wishes. She asks Mr. Woodcourt, who is back from sea, to visit Richard sometimes and to make sure he is well.
One night, several weeks after this, Mr. Tulkinghorn suggests to Lady Dedlock that he knows her secret, and Lady Dedlock angrily confronts him and gives herself away. Mr. Tulkinghorn triumphantly explains that he has proof that she was Captain Hawdon’s lover when she was young. He knows that it was his handwriting that she recognized, and he has obtained a sample of this himself to compare with some letters of hers which have been found. Lady Dedlock knows that Mr. Tulkinghorn will reveal her secret and does not know what to do. She cannot bear to hurt her husband, who has always been kind to her.
Mr. Tulkinghorn returns home and is shot in his living room. Sir Leicester puts up a reward for the apprehension of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s murderer, and Mr. Bucket volunteers for the job. He receives a letter which tells him that Lady Dedlock is the murderer and discovers that Lady Dedlock has fled her home. Mr. Bucket arrests Mademoiselle Hortense, who has killed the lawyer in order to try and frame Lady Dedlock. Mr. Bucket knows that Lady Dedlock’s secret is out and tells Sir Leicester what has happened. Sir Leicester has a stroke from the shock but later comes around. He says that he forgives Lady Dedlock and begs Mr. Bucket to find her. It is winter and she is outside in the snow alone. Mr. Bucket takes Esther with him on his search for her mother. They discover that Lady Dedlock has gone to Jenny’s house, which is near Bleak House, to see if she can find Esther. She has borrowed Jenny’s clothes and returned to London in disguise. They find her body beside Captain Hawdon’s grave; she has frozen to death.
Not long after this, Richard dies from tuberculosis. Ada tells Esther that she is pregnant and that this gives her hope for the future. Esther is still engaged to Mr. Jarndyce, but when Mr. Woodcourt confesses his love to her, Mr. Jarndyce gallantly steps aside and allows the pair to marry. He gives them a house in Yorkshire, where Mr. Woodcourt has taken a job at a hospital for the poor. They live a happy and modest life together, and Esther is eternally grateful for all the love she has received.