Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1852-53) is one of the most complicated novels of the nineteenth century. In an amazing feat of narrative planning, all of the novel's several dozen characters turn out to be somehow integral to the plot. Bleak House features two narrators: on the one hand, the protagonist, Esther Summerson, who is emotionally damaged, determinedly cheerful, and devoted to duty; on the other, an anonymous narrator, who is near-omniscient (he sees all but rarely has access to anyone's thoughts), satirical, and frequently appalled by the human race. While both halves of the novel are bleak—appropriately enough—Esther is ultimately optimistic about human nature in a way that her counterpart most decidedly is not. In its satirical moments, the novel crusades against the Court of Chancery's labyrinthine red tape and Victorian philanthropists' self-serving hypocrisy.Given that most of Bleak House's readers need a flowchart to keep everything straight, it's impossible to do justice to the novel with a brief summary. But here are some basics:
Esther Summerson believes herself to be an orphan, raised out of duty by the icy Miss Barbary. As the novel unfolds, however, Esther discovers that Miss Barbary was her aunt—and that her mother remains alive. In the meantime, her kind guardian, John Jarndyce, has her appointed as a companion to the lovely young Ada Clare...although he has something else in mind for Esther's future.
Lady Honoria Dedlock, married to the much older Sir Leicester Dedlock, is a woman with a secret. More than one person sets out to discover and exploit that secret, including the comical clerk Mr. Guppy and the terrifying lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn.
Mr. Tulkinghorn's interest in Lady Dedlock leads him to a most unfortunate end. Or does it? Enter Inspector Bucket, a police detective who goes everywhere, sees everything, and, while he's at it, practically changes shape.
John Jarndyce, the master of Bleak House, is one of the latest players in the long-running lawsuit Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Not that he pays much attention to it or cares about the outcome. Nobody, in fact, really knows what Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is all about...
...but that doesn't stop Richard Carstone from anticipating a life of wealth and ease after his side wins the suit. Richard, another one of Jarndyce's wards, somehow never manages to find a career that suits him. While he's waiting on the suit, he romances Ada.
For obviousreasons, Bleak House resists adaptation—there have been only six film and TV (and at least one radio) versions since 1920—but the BBC's 2005 miniseries was a critical and ratings success (largely thanks to an All-Star Cast including such luminaries as Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance).
Tropes used in Bleak House:
Adaptation Distillation: The 2005 miniseries, which removed many of the numerous side characters and condensed the story (even an eight-hour adaptation has to trim for a 800-plus page novel!), whilst maintaining the original motives and storylines and the aesthetics of the novel.
Although the unnamed narrator in the book seems pretty upset in the lead-up, mourning that the clocks cannot tell Tulkinghorn to steer clear of the yard. He/she clearly has a more generous spirit than most of us...
Composite Character: While the 2005 BBC version keeps most characters from the book, Mr Guppy takes over those plot elements belonging to Smallweed's grandson and Tony Jobling. Similarly, the Bagnet family are removed, with Phil Squod filling in the gaps.
Fate Worse than Death: It's a measure of the desperation of London's poor that Jenny, a bricklayer's wife grieving for her beloved son, admits she is glad the baby is dead instead of becoming violent like its father, or a criminal like others in the neighborhood.
Florence Nightingale Effect: A variation; while Allan is not there to cure Esther's smallpox, seeing him look after Miss Flite, Jo, Caddy and the baby definitely contributes to Esther's feelings for him.
Forever War: The Jarndyce v. Jarndyce case, It's a court case over a contested will that has been dragging its way through the Chancery Courts for at least half a dozen generations. The case grew so complicated over the centuries that literally no one knows what's going on. The case only ended when the lawyer fees consumed the entire estate.
The case was based on the real life case of Jennens v. Jennens, a lawsuit over a contested will that took 117 years to resolve. The case was initially filed in 1798, 55 years before the publication of Bleak House and ended in 1915, 45 years after the death of Dickens. To the surprise of no one, the case was resolved in the same manner as its fictional counterpart: the lawyer fees consumed the entire estate.
Gold Fever: The lure of Chancery, that keeps litigants chasing the hope of a favorable judgment, is very like gold fever. Has its worst effect on Richard, who becomes first irresponsible, then paranoid and underhanded.
Lovable Rogue: Deconstructed in the person of Mr. Skimpole. He is very frank, in a jolly way, about his misdeeds, which some people find endearing; however, his charm is skin-deep and he certainly doesn't have a heart of gold.
Love Letter Lunacy: A decidedly non-comic variation. Lady Dedlock's and Nemo's hidden love letters to each other are bought, sold, destroyed or stolen throughout the book by unsavory characters looking for proof of their affair.
Matchmaker Crush: Mr. Jarndyce is an unusual variation, since he is already engaged to Esther when he decides to set her up with Allan. Because her sense of gratitude and self-denial, warped out of proportion by her unhappy childhood, prevents her from asking to be free, Mr. Jarndyce arranges everything by himself, from finding a job for Allan to furnishing a second Bleak House for the couple.
May-December Romance: John Jarndyce proposes to Esther and she accepts, but she marries Woodcourt in the end.
Meaningful Name / Punny Name: Dedlock, Smallweed, Guppy, Krook, Flite, many more. Not to mention Bleak House and Tom-all-Alone's.
Inspector Bucket is an idealized version of Inspector Charles Field.
Skimpole, by contrast, is a rather nasty take on the radical journalist, essayist, and poet Leigh Hunt.
Boythorn is the poet Walter Savage Landor (after whom Dickens also named one of his children).
Ominous Fog: Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city....
One Degree of Separation: Absolutely everyone in this novel turns out to have some link to everyone else. For example: not only is Esther Lady Dedlock's daughter, but Esther's first guardian, actually her aunt, was also Boythorn's fiancee.
At the same time, odd for a novel of its type in that the two halves of the novel (as told by Esther and the unnamed-third-person narrator respectively) don't interlink that much. Though several characters belong to both stories, or know characters from both worlds, the stories are largely separate beasts.
Proper Lady: Esther Summerson, although part of her self-effacing nature is due to her emotionally damaging upbringing.
Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Esther and Ada, bordering on Les Yay to modern eyes. They kiss on the mouth and call each other by pet names, which was considered normal in female friendships at the time.
The Scrooge: Grandpa Smallweed. Like Dickens' other Scrooge, he's a wealthy moneylender who lives in squalor, and feeds his servant the crumbs and spills from his own tea-table.
Shaggy Dog Story: The Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce case, having run on for years, even generations. The estate was worth a great deal of money Unfortunately, the legal costs consumed the estate entirely, rendering the whole thing entirely pointless.
Spontaneous Human Combustion: The fate of Krook. This is possibly the Ur Example of this trope appearing in fiction, though "true stories" were already said to have existed at the time, and Dickens was known to have strongly believed that this was possible.
Unable to Support a Wife: Allan's reason for waiting so long to propose to Esther; he does not make a move until he has secured a steady income. This is presented as a positive contrast to Richard, who marries Ada only to drag her down with him into poverty and the false hope of the Jarndyce case.
Wife Husbandry: John Jarndyce's plan for Esther, which goes back quite a long way. It succeeds until he makes way for Dr. Woodcourt.
A version is also touched upon in one of the sub-sub-plots: Mrs. Rouncewell's grandson fancies Rosa, Lady Dedlock's young ladies' maid. The boy's father, a self-made man and MP, feels the girl must be educated and sent to finishing school before she is ready to be engaged to his son.