Bleak House

Bleak House

by

Charles Dickens

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Themes and Colors
Social Mobility, Class, and Lineage Theme Icon
Law vs. Justice Theme Icon
Passion, Obsession, and Madness Theme Icon
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Theme Icon
Haunting, Guilt, and Destiny Theme Icon
Identity and Appearance Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Bleak House, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Haunting, Guilt, and Destiny Theme Icon

The are many examples of hauntings in Bleak House, and the line between the past and the present is blurry and uncertain throughout. Characters are also influenced by their past and by powerful emotions such as guilt and shame, which are associated with these private histories. In the resolution of Bleak House’s many plots, Dickens suggests that a person’s past behavior influences their future and demonstrates that greed and selfishness have their punishments while virtue and goodness earn their rewards.

Many of the novel’s characters are haunted by their pasts. The most prominent example of haunting in Bleak House is the legend of “The Ghost’s Walk” at the Dedlock country house, Chesney Wold. “The Ghost’s Walk” is both a literal terrace attached to the house and a reference to a ghost story attached to the family. The sound of raindrops on the “Ghost’s Walk” represents the footsteps of the ghost—the unhappy wife of a Dedlock ancestor who swore to haunt the mansion until the Dedlock line was destroyed—who is believed to walk up and down on the terrace. The legend also indirectly refers to Lady’s Dedlock’s guilt over her illegitimate child, whom she gave birth to before her marriage to Sir Leicester, and whom she believes died at birth. The impact of the past on Lady Dedlock is clear through her emotional reaction when she discovers that Esther is her daughter. Esther, in turn, is haunted by her childhood and the unkind assertion made by her aunt, Lady Dedlock’s sister who raised Esther in secret without her sister’s knowledge: that it would be better if Esther had never been born. In response to this past rejection, Esther feels a sense of guilt about her existence and spends her whole life hoping that those around her will accept her. The constant presence of secrets from the past in Bleak House suggests that although time moves on, people’s pasts stay with them and impact their behavior in later life.

Past events not only haunt the novel’s characters but foreshadow their futures. Captain Hawdon, Esther’s father, is so haunted by his past mistakes and the failure he has made of himself that he retires entirely from public life and tries to erase his past. He becomes a shadowy presence who haunts Krook’s shop, where he takes up residence. This sense of haunting is intensified because Captain Hawdon’s guilt over his past, and his wish to escape from recognition, leads him to change his name to Nemo, which means “no one.” This change foreshadows his destiny: Captain Hawdon dies in his room at Krook’s from an opium overdose and becomes a ghostly legend associated with the place, and also literally “no one” when he dies. Similarly, the “ghost’s walk” legend both haunts the Dedlock family and foreshadows their future destruction, which is brought about when the existence of Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate child is discovered by Mr. Tulkinghorn, the sinister lawyer who works for Sir Leicester, and Mr. Guppy, a clerk who suspects Lady Dedlock’s past connection to Captain Hawdon. Just as the ghost in the legend curses the Dedlock name and then expires, Lady Dedlock’s past shame causes her to run away, and it is her decision to flee that dooms her. In this sense, Lady Dedlock’s past guilt informs her future decisions, and this in turn shapes her tragic destiny. This suggests that guilt is a powerful and destructive emotion and can bring about one’s own demise if it is never resolved.

Characters create their own destinies through their past behaviors and reap the rewards or suffer the punishments that they deserve. The inevitable destiny of Mr. Tulkinghorn is one of the most prominent examples of this in Bleak House. Mr. Tulkinghorn’s office is decorated with a large, personification of “Allegory” painted on the ceiling. This Allegory points to a specific spot on the floor and comes to represent destiny, or fate, within the novel. Dickens deliberately draws the reader’s attention to this painting early on, during the first description of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s study. When Mr. Tulkinghorn is finally shot by Lady Dedlock’s resentful maid, Mademoiselle Hortense, who wishes to frame Lady Dedlock for the murder, he falls down dead in the spot that Allegory points to. This suggests that this destiny has waited for Mr. Tulkinghorn and that he could never escape from meeting this end.

Mr. Tulkinghorn’s death is inevitable because of his behavior throughout life. He is an unpleasant and mercenary man, and he deliberately learns other people’s secrets in order to have power over them. Therefore, he gets what he deserves when Madamoiselle Hortense uses this power against him and kills him because of what he knows about Lady Dedlock; Madamoiselle Hortense is aware that Mr. Tulkinghorn knows Lady Dedlock’s secret and thinks that the police will suspect Lady Dedlock of the murder because she has motive to silence Mr. Tulkinghorn. This suggests the book’s lesson that negative behavior in life will bring on negative consequences.

In contrast to Mr. Tulkinghorn’s unhappy destiny, the characters who behave virtuously, honestly, and industriously throughout the novel have a hand in creating their own happy endings. Esther, who is always grateful for the love she receives and is very generous with other people, is repaid through the love others feel for her and their willingness to provide for her in turn. Similarly, Mr. Woodcourt is rewarded with a happy ending after his generous and genuine commitment to treating the poor through his medical practice. Although many of the characters meet tragic fates throughout Bleak House, those who are kind and behave well towards others are ultimately rewarded, or at least fondly remembered, whereas those who behave selfishly, or who seek to have power over others, receive what they give out before the novel’s end.

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Haunting, Guilt, and Destiny Quotes in Bleak House

Below you will find the important quotes in Bleak House related to the theme of Haunting, Guilt, and Destiny.
Chapter 2 Quotes

A whisper still goes about, that she had not even family; howbeit, Sir Leicester had so much family that perhaps he had enough, and could dispense with any more. But she had beauty, pride, ambition, insolent resolve, and sense enough to portion out a legion of fine ladies. Wealth and station, added to these, soon floated her upward; and for years, now, my Lady Dedlock has been at the center of the fashionable intelligence.

Related Characters: Lady Dedlock, Sir Leicester Dedlock
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

‘Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart.’

Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 16 Quotes

What connection can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard step? What connection can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together! Jo sweeps his crossing all day long, unconscious of the link, if any link there be. He sums up his mental condition, when asked a question, by replying that he ‘don’t know nothink.’

Related Characters: Jo (speaker), Lady Dedlock, Sir Leicester Dedlock
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 35 Quotes

What should I have suffered, if I had had to write to him, and tell him that the poor face he had known as mine was quite gone from me, and that I freely released him from his bondage to one whom he had never seen!

Related Characters: Esther Summerson (speaker), Mr. Jarndyce, Jo, Mr. Woodcourt
Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 429
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 36 Quotes

Even in the thinking of her endurance, she drew her habitual air of proud indifference about her like a veil, though she soon cast it off again.
‘I must keep this secret, if by any means it can be kept, not wholly for myself. I have a husband, wretched and dishonoring creature that I am!’

Related Characters: Esther Summerson (speaker), Lady Dedlock (speaker), Sir Leicester Dedlock, Captain Hawdon / Nemo
Page Number: 436
Explanation and Analysis:

‘I dread one person very much.’
‘An enemy?’
‘Not a friend. One who is too passionless to be either. He is Sir Leicester Dedlock’s lawyer; mechanically faithful without attachment, and very jealous of the profit, privilege, and reputation of being master of the mysteries of great houses.’

Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 437
Explanation and Analysis:

‘I am resolved. I have long outbidden folly with folly, pride with pride, scorn with scorn, insolence with insolence, and have outlived many vanities with many more. I will outlive this danger, and outdie it, if I can. It has closed around me, almost as awfully as if these woods of Chesney Wold had closed around the house; but my course through it is the same. I have but one: I can have but one.’

Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 437-438
Explanation and Analysis:

The way was paved here, like the terrace overhead, and my footsteps from being noiseless made an echoing sound upon the flags. Stopping to look at nothing, but seeing all I did see as I went, I was passing quickly on, and in a few moments should have passed the lighted window, when my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost’s Walk; that it was I, who was to bring calamity upon the stately house; and that my warning feet were haunting it even then.

Related Characters: Esther Summerson (speaker), Lady Dedlock, Sir Leicester Dedlock
Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 440
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 39 Quotes

They gradually discern the elder Mr Smallweed, seated in his chair upon the brink of a well or grave of waste paper; the virtuous Judy groping therein, like a female sexton; and Mrs Smallweed on the level ground in the vicinity, snowed up in a heap of paper fragments, print and manuscript, which would appear to be the accumulated compliments that have been sent flying at her in the course of the day. The whole party, Small included, are blackened with dust and dirt, and present a fiendish appearance not relieved by the general aspect of the room.

Page Number: 477
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 54 Quotes

Heaven knows what he sees. The green, green woods of Chesney Wold, the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him. But if such shadows flit before him to his bewilderment, there is one other shadow which he can name with something like distinctness even yet, and to which alone he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms.

Related Symbols: Houses
Page Number: 629-630
Explanation and Analysis: