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Literature / Bleak House

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"London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincolnís Inn Hall." —Bleak House, Chapter 1: In Chancery

Bleak House is a major novel of Charles Dickens and was published as a serial between March 1852 and September 1853. Half recounted by the heroine, Esther Summerson, and half by an omniscient narrator, Bleak House is fairly complex, with many characters and sub-plots all tied together by a particular Chancery suit — that is, a civil suit dealing with equity rather than law. When the novel begins in London circa 1830, the suit in question, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, has continued for generations, lost all meaning, and become a labyrinthine amalgamation of red tape and legal costs.

Jarndyce and Jarndyce is, in fact, the linchpin and crux of the novel, being what ties its many characters and plots together. In particular, Esther Summerson, an orphan who becomes a ward of the present Mr. Jarndyce, narrates her own involvement with the parties of the suit and those connected to them, whilst the omniscient narrator tells the remainder. Aside from Esther herself and John Jarndyce, the suit pulls in his young relatives, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone; Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife, Lady Honoria Dedlock; the Dedlocksí lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn; a law-stationer by the name of Snagsby; a charitable, young, dark surgeon, and many, many more.

The novel helped support a judicial reform movement, which culminated in the legal reforms of the 1870s.

Bleak House has been adapted many times in drama, film, and music. The Death of Poor Joe (1901) is a short film and the oldest surviving one to feature a character from Dickensís works. During the silent film period, Bleak House was filmed twice: first in 1920 and again in 1922. Another short film as recorded in 1928. BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation in five hour-long instalments in 1988. The BBC has produced three television adaptations, all entitled Bleak House: the first aired in 1959, in eleven thirty minute episodes; the second, in 1985 aired in eight episodes and won three BAFTA awards and nominations; the last aired in 2005, ran in fifteen episodes, and won a Peabody Award for creating "appointment viewing," soap-style. The songs "Ada Clare" and "Farewell to the Old House" were inspired by the novel, as was Anthony Phillips' piece "Bleak House" which he released on Slides (1979).

Tropes used in Bleak House:

  • Act of True Love: Sir Leicester's forgiveness of his wife, Lady Dedlock, and request that even if he suffers another attack (most likely a stroke), it should be known that his attack merely happened to coincide with a slight misunderstanding which temporarily deprives him of her company and concerns only the two of them. Considering the standards of the time, his forgiveness of her affair and bearing an illegitimate child prior to their marriage is exceedingly touching and extremely selfless. Furthermore, it is made still more so by his abandonment of his usual Pride, his condition at the time, his entreaties to Mr. Bucket to find her, and his behavior after she is found dead by her former lover's grave.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The TV adaptions removed many of the numerous side-characters and sub-plots to condense the eight hundred plus page novel into viewable productions.
  • The Alcoholic: Krook is described as constantly drinking, which leads to his death. The Jellybys' maid, Priscilla, is another example: she constantly smells like a pub.
  • All for Nothing: The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is finally resolved only for the legal fees to have already consumed the entire estate.
  • Amoral Attorney: Mr. Tulkinghorn and Mr. Vholes.
  • Anyone Can Die: A number of characters, both major and minor, die in the course of the story. This includes a victim of murder, among others, for a total of eight (Nemo, "Coavinses", Mr. Gridley, Krook, Jo, Mr. Tulkinghorn, Lady Dedlock, and Richard Carstone in chapters 10, 15, 26, 32, 47, 48, 59, and 65, respectively), plus an infant who passes into and out of the story in chapter 8.
  • Artifact of Attraction: The Court of Chancery and its suits all have a fatal allure. As Miss Flite explains in chapter thirty-five:
    "Thereís a cruel attraction in the place. You canít leave it. And you must expect."
  • Asshole Victim: The murdered Mr. Tulkinghorn was a truly Manipulative Bastard. He was careful to hide his true behaviour from most people, however, so he was mourned, at least initially.
  • Bait-and-Switch: In at least one adaption (not the original): "Arrest this lady for the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn." The viewers and most of the characters think Bucket means to arrest Lady Dedlock, but instead the policeman arrests Hortense.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness:
    • Bleak House provides a variation: the eternal traits say something of the character's personality but nothing of their morals. While many of the "good" characters are described as attractive, Charley, Jo, and Mr. Snagsby are never mentioned as such, nor are all of the novel's antagonists and other less-moral characters described as ugly, but all are instead given traits which speak of their characters. E.g. in chapter twelve, when describing Hortense:
    Through all the good taste of her dress and little adornments, these objections so express themselves, that she seems to go about like a very neat She-Wolf imperfectly tamed.
    • Another excellent example is the description of Mr. Tulkinghorn in chapter two:
    One peculiarity of his black clothes, and of his black stockings, be they silk or worsted, is that they never shine. Mute, close, irresponsive to any glancing light, his dress is like himself.
  • Blind Obedience: Prince Turveydrop is described as having this for his father, "the Deportment."
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Mr. and Mrs. Bucket jointly bamboozle the culprit.
  • Bruiser With A Soft Centre: George's personality in a nutshell.
  • Cats Are Mean: Krook's cat, Lady Jane, the only cat in the book, is considered quite sinister.
  • Chekhov's Gun: This is part of how the novel is held together, and in it most things follow The Law of Conservation of Detail, when not a part of mood or characterization. Some details reappear several hundred pages after their initial appearance, and nearly all details are present either for the sake of Foreshadowing or characterization. The former is displayed numerous times, e.g. the papers which Krook snatches up in chapter eleven are next heard of in chapter thirty-two.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Allan Woodcourt first appears as "a dark young man on the other side of the bed" in chapter eleven; he is only named in chapter fourteen. There is also the case of George Rouncewell, first mentioned in chapter seven yet only first appears in chapter twenty-one, and it is not until chapter fifty-four that the connection is made.
  • Clear My Name: Mr. George, who also happened to walk by Mr. Tulkinghorn's house at the time of the murder, is arrested as a primary suspect, thanks to having been previously exhorted and insulted by the victim. Meanwhile, Hortense tries to frame Lady Dedlock for the same crime.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle would be this if not for the lack of success with which their philanthropic endeavours meet.
  • Composite Character: Most adaptations do this out of necessity. For example, while the 1985 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 is removed with Phil Squod filling in the gaps.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Largely averted due to how the characters are connected (see Two Lines, No Waiting). There are only three examples in the novel that actually qualify, which come in the form of three characters (see One Degree of Separation).
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Miss Flite, a kind but mad spinster, keeps twenty-five birds which she will free on "the day of judgment," all of whom have names (they are Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach; make of that what you will). Later in the novel, she gets two more (for a total of twenty-seven), which she names the Wards in Jarndyce. She releases them when Jarndyce and Jarndyce ends.
  • The Cynic: Mr. Bucket presents a mild version of this.
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: Esther was raised as an orphan (death being an unavoidable reason), however, it's later revealed that her father was lost at sea and her mother had been lied to, so neither of her parents were aware of her whereabouts.
  • Death of a Child: The story has two examples, first with Jenny's baby and much later with Jo of Tom-All-Alone's.
  • Decoy Trial: Although it wasn't his original intent, Mr. Bucket ultimately uses his arrest of Mr. George to do this in order to get evidence against the actual culprit.
  • Detective Drama: Believe it or not, there's a reasonably good argument that this book is the Ur-Example in English literature, at least as far as the detective novel goes. Mr. Bucket is considered the first fictional police detective to play a major crime-solving role in an English novel. note 
  • Determinator:
    • Mrs. Bagnet is proclaimed as this by her husband. Lady Dedlock is also described as such.
    • Unfortunately, Chancery's allure results in one of the least stubborn characters, Richard Carstone, being absolutely determined to win the suit; as with Mr. Gridley, the effects of this sort of stubborn grit are fatal. In Richard's case, his determination is partially from some unfounded optimism that the suit will soon end to his benefit.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: This occurs twice in the novel. First, Jenny craddles her dead baby in her arms for a while after they had died. Later on, Ada Carstone holds her husband in her arms as he "begins the world."
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Hortense gets involved in shady business to exact revenge for getting fired, attempting to completely ruin her ex-employer... and then she gets even worse. After her revenge has apparently succeeded, she goes so far as to try to emotionally harm her former employer's spouse for... being the spouse.
  • The Ditherer: Richard Carstone cannot settle on anything, with the exclusion of two matters alone.
  • Does Not Know How to Say "Thanks": Mr. Jarndyce is an inversion: if he thinks that he is about to receive gratitude, he flees, sometimes for months at a time. Living with his young relations helps to allay this, however, near the end of the novel (after his greatest act of generosity yet), he threatens that, if thanked, he will run away for good (the degree to which he is joking is uncertain).
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Mr. Guppy, which does not convince Esther in the slightest; he obliviously maintains his attitude that she really ought to be flattered by his attentions.
  • Domestic Abuse: The brickmakers are stated to routinely beat and berate their wives, Jenny and Liz.
    • As a child, Esther suffered from a purely emotional version, courtesy of Miss Barbary, her guardian, and her maid, Mrs. Rachael. As a result, she is extremely self-effacing and sees very little value in herself.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Sir Leicester Dedlock at the close of the novel, which ultimately forces Lawrence Boythorn to continue their argument about land so as to not further offend him.
  • Door Stopper: The book clocks in at over 800-1000 pages in most editions, and is well over 360,000 words long.
  • Driven to Madness: Miss Flite, who both knows this and freely admits it. Mr. Gridley, the man from Shropshire, is conscious that he's verging on this. In both examples, the cause is Chancery.
  • Driven to Suicide: Tom Jarndyce is stated to have been an example. Also, possibly Nemo and probably Lady Dedlock.
  • Dying Alone: This is what happened to Nemo. Interestingly, the only other character mentioned to die alone is his lover, Lady Dedlock. All other characters had some kind of company at their time of death.
  • Emotionally Tongue-Tied: In the extreme case of Mr. Jellyby, it hardly matters what he's saying, since he habitually opens his mouth to say something and closes it without a word. In chapter thirty, he has a more clear-cut example: he repeatedly tries to thank Esther for helping Caddy prepare for her marriage and cannot seem to say it; Esther responds to his attempts with "You are very welcome, sir. Pray don't mention it!"
  • Empathic Environment: Mr. Jarndyce, when dealing with something less-than-pleasant, especially if has any relation to Chancery, will speak of the wind being in the East.
  • Entitled Bastard / Fair-Weather Friend: Harold Skimpole uses being a child as an excuse from all responsibility, particularly with regard to money, which he freely takes from others. It is particularly bad when he continues to take money from the far-from-wealthy Richard Carstone, whose worst foibles he encourages, and later ceases to pay any mind once the Carstones are clearly troubled by this.
  • Face Death with Dignity: One rather likely interpretation of Richard Carstone's death, seeing as he was rather aware of the fact that he was dying, although how much so is another question.
  • Fate Worse than Death: It's a measure of the desperation of London's poor that Jenny, a brickmaker's wife grieving for her dead infant, admits she is glad the baby is dead instead of becoming violent, like its father, or a criminal, like others in the neighborhood.
    • Not necessarily so far as death, however, the omniscient narrator explains that any honest individual involved with Chancery will tell you to suffer any wrong rather than come there, in chapter one, no less. Later on, this is echoed by Mr Gridley.
  • Flaw Exploitation: The ever-so-respectable Mr. Vholes does this to his client, Richard Carstone; it is not without reason that the man is likened to a vulture.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: A variation: while Allan Woodcourt is not there to cure Esther's smallpox, seeing him look after Miss Flite, Jo, Caddy, and the baby definitely contributes to her feelings for him.
  • A Foggy Day in London Town / Ominous Fog:
    • The London fog pervades through the novel, is closely associated with Chancery, and is particularly well described in the beginning of the first chapter. In particular:
    Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights[...] Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds[...] The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation—Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
    • In chapter three, when Esther first arrives in London, she thinks the fog is smoke from a fire and asks a passerby about it:
    "O, dear no, miss," he said. "This is a London particular."
    I had never heard of such a thing.
    "A fog, miss," said the young gentleman.
  • Forever War:
    • Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a Chancery suit over a contested will that has been dragging its way through the Chancery Courts for at least half a dozen generations. As the narrator describes in the first chapter:
    Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.
    • This suit was based on the actual suit Jennens and Jennens, a lawsuit over the contested will of the "Acton Miser," William Jennens, which took one hundred and seventeen years to resolve. The case was initially filed in 1798, fifty-five years prior to the publication of Bleak House and ended in 1915, sixty-two years after the serial publication had been completed. To the surprise of no one, the case was resolved in exactly the same manner as its fictional counterpart: the legal fees consumed the entire estate, which had been estimated to be over two million quid (more than two hundred thirty million pounds, putting inflation into account, as of 2015).
  • French Jerk: Hortense is this in spades. Just look at her description (see Beauty Equals Goodness).
  • Friend to All Children: Esther is always this, even to the bratty ones; she especially likes being confided in by them.
  • Funny Background Event: Despite the novel's generally grim plot and frequently sombre atmosphere, these often occur, usually one or other of the minor characters is involved (but not always).
    • For a good (and brief) example, among those of chapter 1:
    Eighteen of Mr. Tangle's learned friends, each armed with a little summary of eighteen hundred sheets, bob up like eighteen hammers in a pianoforte, make eighteen bows, and drop into their eighteen places of obscurity.
    • And one of the many such instances involving Mr Guppy:
    It appears to the afflicted Mr. Guppy and his inconsolable friend that there is no end to the Dedlocks, whose family greatness seems to consist in their never having done anything to distinguish themselves for seven hundred years.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Or, in this case, nickname: Charley is short for Charlotte.
  • Gentleman Snarker: All snark in the novel (of which there is a fair bit) is delivered politely and avoids being too overt. This role chiefly belongs to the third-person narrator; however, Caddy Jellyby, John Jarndyce, and even Esther will take on this role from time to time.
  • Good Samaritan: Most of Bleak House's heroes have this quality. John Jarndyce is implied to do this regularly and certainly did so in caring for his young wards. Allan Woodcourt is a very charitable surgeon who routinely cares for the poor without asking for anything in return. Esther Summerson is shown to do this several times (usually in caring for children), most dramatically, when she and Charley care for Jo, who is homeless and has smallpox; this results in Charley catching the disease, and later Esther catches it when caring for her.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Mrs. Snagsby becomes this, merely because Mr. Snagsby is keeping some unspecified secret, which she quickly concludes to be infidelity, without any evidence whatsoever.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Ada Clare.
  • He Is Not My Boyfriend: Esther goes out of her way to avoid describing her feelings for Allan Woodcourt.
  • Henpecked Husband:
    • Messrs. Jellyby, Pardiggle, and Snagsby (increasingly so).
    • Subverted in Messrs. Badger and Bagnet, both of whom are perfectly happy to have their wives take the lead. Mr. Bagnet is especially notable, since all of his opinions come from "the old girl's" mouth, without their ever having consulted each other.
  • Heroic Bastard: Although the person herself is unaware of it for the bulk of the novel, Esther Summerson (actually "Hawdon") is illegitimate.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Mr. Tulkinghorn's various manoeuvres to discover Lady Dedlock's secret, backfire when one of his informants ultimately kills him. Similarly, Hortense's intense hatred for Lady Dedlock ultimately reveals her own secret.
  • Hospital Hottie: Allan Woodcourt, whose descriptions hint at him being Tall, Dark, and Handsome.
  • I Am Not Pretty: Esther Summerson is convinced that she is no beauty and will not be persuaded under any circumstances to be anything of the kind, despite all evidence to the contrary (not the least of which is the resemblance of herself to her mother, a very handsome woman in her own estimation, which even has people confuse the two after she recovers from smallpox).
  • I Can't Believe a Guy Like You Would Notice Me: Esther, partially due to her upbringing under her first guardian, has this reaction to any man who shows affection for her. In fact, she believes herself largely unworthy of the affection she receives from any quarter.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Mr. Jarndyce does this for Esther, once he realises that she (without realizing it) is in love with Allan Woodcourt, who returns her affections. Not only does he break off his engagement to her, he gets Esther and Woodcourt together, convinces the prospective groom's mother to assent to the match, and even prepares a second "Bleak House" for the couple, making him a positively munificent example.
  • I'm Standing Right Here: This occurs amusingly in chapter three when Richard makes a comment under his breath regarding Miss Flite's mental health and she hears him. However, she doesn't mind in the slightest, cheerfully agrees, and continues to discuss it:
    "Right! Mad, young gentleman," she returned so quickly that he was quite abashed. "I was a ward myself. I was not mad at that time[...]"
  • Indifferent Beauty: Ada Clare qualifies, as does Allan Woodcourt (as a male example). Lady Dedlock arguably has this attitude toward her own appearance.
  • Irrational Hatred: Hortense comes to blame and hate Sir Leicester for the actions of Lady Dedlock.
  • Karma Houdini: Neither Smallweed nor Skimpole are punished for their behaviour, in fact Smallweed has gained a tidy sum from Sir Leicester.
  • Kissing Cousins: Richard and Ada, although the only thing that's clear of their blood relation is that it exists.
  • Like Father, Like Son:
    • The strongest example is the likeness of Lady Dedlock to Esther Summerson, which even has Jo confuse the two, smallpox scars or no. Esther Summerson believes Prince Turveydrop to greatly resemble his deceased mother. Mr. George comments on the resemblance of Mr. Bagnet and his son Woolwich and of Mr. Rouncewell and his son Watt Rouncewell.
    • The Smallweed family does this in character alone which they take to new heights, by all being consummate misers who have never been "children" (with the sole exception of Mrs. Smallweed who is too senile to be anything but a "child").
  • Line-of-Sight Name: When Mr. George goes to see the ironmaster and his estranged brother, Mr. Rouncewell, he chooses the pseudonym "Steel."
  • Lonely Funeral: The funeral of "Nemo" has Jo as the only mourner.
  • Love Letter Lunacy: A decidedly non-comic variation: Lady Dedlock's love letters to Captain Hawdon (Nemo) are bought, sold, destroyed, or stolen throughout the book by unsavory characters looking for proof of their affair.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: This occurs when Esther Summerson and Lady Dedlock meet, in what becomes their only meeting where they are both aware of their relationship: since the former is illegitimate they both resolve to keep this a secret and to never meet again.
  • Magnetic Hero: Esther Summerson, Mr. Jarndyce, and Allan Woodcourt all have this quality; with the speed of acquiring friendships, the breadth of acquaintance, and good report among all acquaintances, respectively, to attest to this.
  • Manchild: Harold Skimpole is practically the embodiment of this. He very frequently states that he is a child, although it appears this is largely to avoid responsibility.
  • Manipulative Bastard: As the novel's primary Schemer, Mr. Tulkinghorn has no qualms about blackmailing, exhorting, paying off, and using any other means available to him to achieve his own ends, which are far from scrupulous.
  • Matchmaker Crush: Mr. Jarndyce is an unusual inversion, since he is already engaged to Esther when he decides to set her up with Allan Woodcourt.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's never revealed what makes the noise on the Ghost's Walk.
  • MayĖDecember Romance:
    • Subverted in the case of John Jarndyce, who proposes to Esther, presumably having fallen for her. She accepts; however, he comes to realize that she sees him as a father and is in love with Allan Woodcourt. Upon this realisation, Mr. Jarndyce breaks off his own engagement in order to bless Esther's marriage to Woodcourt and even goes so far as to prepare a second "Bleak House" for the couple.
    • Played straight in the case of the marriage between Sir Leicester and his lady: he is twenty years her senior.
  • Meaningful Name / Punny Name: Dedlock, Smallweed, Guppy, Krook, Flite, and many more. Not to mention Tom-all-Alone's.
    • Miss Flite's birds all have names regarding Chancery, even "Gammon and Spinach" (a colloquialism for 'nonsense').
    • "Nemo" is Latin for "nobody, no one." It is an obvious alias, having been famously used by Odysseus, and this is recognised In-Universe.
    • The name "Bleak House" is a particularly significant example:
    Mr. Jarndyce: "It had been called, before [Tom Jarndyce's] time, the Peaks. He gave it its present name and lived here shut up, day and night poring over the wicked heaps of papers in the suit and hoping against hope to disentangle it from its mystification and bring it to a close. In the meantime, the place became dilapidated, the wind whistled through the cracked walls, the rain fell through the broken roof, the weeds choked the passage to the rotting door. When I brought what remained of him home here, the brains seemed to me to have been blown out of the house too, it was so shattered and ruined."
  • Mysterious Parent: Lady Dedlock and Captain "Nemo" Hawdon.
  • Never Found the Body: This is the case for a couple characters, namely, Captain Hawdon and Krook, in the case of the former, his body is eventually found, although it takes longer for the connection to be made. For the latter, there was no body, due to the manner of death.
  • Never Learned to Read: Jo is entirely without any form of education; there's also Krook, who obstinately tries to teach himself how to read with no real success.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Instead of ameliorating the situation, Mr. Bucket accidentally makes it worse by threateningly ordering Jo to "move on," the failure is in part because Jo is very ill at the time.
  • The Nicknamer: Miss Flite does this to everyone and never changes them regardless of whether or not their's is still applicable.
    • Inverted in the case of Mr Bucket, who seems to enjoy referring to people by their full names and titles, even when addressing them in conversation, e.g. Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • The novel contains a fair few examples. Mr. Bucket is an idealized version of Inspector Charles Field, Lawrence Boythorn is based on the poet Walter Savage Landor (after whom Dickens also named one of his children), Mrs. Jellyby lampoons Caroline Chisholm, and Hortense is modelled on Mrs. Manning, a murderer whose execution (together with that of her husband) Dickens had witnessed.
    • Harold Skimpole is a rather harsh caricature of the radical journalist, essayist, and poet Leigh Hunt. That said, this was for the purposes of the plot, which accounts for Dickens' and Hunt's continued friendship.
  • The Noodle Incident:
    • Tony Jobling, otherwise known as Mr. Weevle, is out of work, and what ever he did which resulted in this, is referred to multiple times with the utmost vagueness.
    • The epilogue is an inversion of this as far as Prince Turverydrop is concerned: without any mention of how, when, where, or wherefore he is mentioned as lame in an aside.
  • Not a Game: As a Manchild who eschews all responsibility, Harold Skimpole never understands the gravity of anything.
  • Not Good with Rejection:
    • Hortense, without there having been any romantic feelings involved, clearly does not deal well with first being let go and then not getting exactly what she wanted out of her deal with Mr. Tulkinghorn.
    • Much later in the novel, Mrs. Guppy reacts to her son's most ridiculous proposition yet getting politely rejected by demanding that Mr. Jarndyce "go along and find somebody that's good enough for [him]." What makes this even stranger, is that Esther is engaged at the time, and has been for a while, albeit not to the same person.
  • Oblivious to Love: Esther is inclined to disbelieve any romantic affections directed towards her to the point of obliviousness; this is due to her being a highly Insecure Love Interest (which is only encouraged by her personal history).
  • One Degree of Separation: This occurs in the adaptations due to Adaptation Distillation and combining characters for the sake of space. In the novel, this happens only with three characters: Jo (by knowing "Nemo," by guiding Lady Dedlock to his grave, and by knowing Jenny), Mr. George (by being a former subordinate of Captain Hawdon and by actually being George Rouncewell), and Grandfather Smallweed (by his involvement with Mr. George and by his relation to Krook). Those three aside, this trope is averted (see Contrived Coincidence).
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted! There are multiple Carolines, Williams, Toms, and other such persons. Most of these are minor characters and usually at least one of them goes by a nickname. That said, the main characters mostly have names which are not applied to other characters in the novel. Additionally, there is one instance which was played straight, only downplayed: the name "George" occurs both as a personal name and surname — they are found to be the same person.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Jo suffers badly due to this. Esther Summerson ultimately subverts this, although her original guardian, Miss Barbary, was emotionally abusive, she had the good fortune to become John Jarndyce's ward, narrowly avoiding this fate. Moreover, the novel later reveals that not only was Miss Barbary actually her aunt, her parents were both alive (however, none of them knew each other to be alive), but this comes to nothing as both parents die in the course of the novel.
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Partially subverted and throughly justified, since Lady Dedlock's sister told her that the baby died after birth. Even more so for the father, since he was believed to be dead at the time and never knew of the child's existence.
    • John Jarndyce is implied to be scarred for life by his great uncle and guardian, Tom Jarndyce's suicide.
  • Parental Obliviousness: Although Mrs. Jellyby is the novel's prime example, Mrs. Pardiggle isn't exactly attuned to her children's feelings. Also, Mr. Turveydrop is oblivious to the conditions his son must deal with.
  • Parental Substitute: John Jarndyce. Although he's none too pleased that Esther persists in thinking of him as a father, not he's put out by it either. He is seen as this by all three of his wards, and is most frequently referred to as "Guardian."
  • The Plot Reaper: Thanks to Moral Guardians, there's no way for Lady Dedlock to remain alive once it's revealed that she had a child out of wedlock. That said, she is otherwise portrayed in a surprisingly positive light given the standards of the time.
  • The Pollyanna: Richard Carstone's brand of optimism verges on this. However, this does not help him be happy; rather it makes everything worse.
  • Posthumous Character: The novel has quite a few of these, beginning with Tom Jarndyce in the first chapter. Another notable example is Nemo.
  • Present Tense Narrative: The third-person narrator, but not Esther.
  • Pride: This is the foremost vice of Sir Leicester; he periodically verges on Jerkass for this reason (although, he can also verge on Nice Guy for much the same).
    "He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man."
  • Remake Cameo: Anne Reid played Mrs. Bagnet in the 1985 miniseries. Twenty years later she played Mrs. Rouncewell in the more famous 2005 series.
  • Proper Lady: Esther Summerson, although part of her self-effacing nature is due to her emotionally damaging upbringing. Ada Clare is another example. Caddy Jellyby tries her best to become this and is aided by her friendship with the former two.
  • Pseudo-Romantic 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 close female friendships at the time.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Subverted in the altercation between Hortense and Mr. Tulkinghorn, when you expect this to happen; both do tell the other why the other sucks, however, they are actually merely throwing insults at each other, neither paying any attention to what the other is saying.
  • The Resenter: Hortense is this and then some. She goes above and beyond to exact a disproportionate revenge. And, if that wasn't enough to convince you, she thereafter continues to harangue someone who was only tangentially involved.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Aside from the punishment being far greater than the offence, Hortense first gets involved in shady business to get revenge on her former employer, and when the person who was orchestrating that refused to continue to use her services, she murdered him and tried to frame it on her ex-employer. ...Which she proceeds to harangue their spouse for. Since she made her own resentment very clear, this ultimately leads to her downfall.
  • The Reveal: This happens multiple times in the story, usually via connecting previously unconnected points or persons. In two of these, an alias is connected to the actual person. In all of these cases, there is Foreshadowing to varying degrees.
  • Rich Boredom: Lady Dedlock and her cousin Volumina are always trying to escape "the Dragon Boredom."
  • Robbing the Dead: It's easy to miss, but Nemo is a victim of this, courtesy of Mr. Tulkinghorn. Krook also might well have snatched somethings.
  • Scenery Porn: The omniscient narrator includes thick description of the setting (where ever that may be at any given point), e.g. the first chapter, as well as any chapter set in Chesney Wold.
  • Schemer: Mr. Tulkinghorn is the largest example. In a more positive sense, there's John Jarndyce, who is always inventing schemes for others' happiness.
  • The Scrooge: Grandfather Smallweed and the entire Smallweed family (minus his wife who has dementia). 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 (mind you, this is no metaphor).
  • Secret Relationship: Richard and Ada for a time; Lady Dedlock and Nemo (Captain Hawdon) by definition since they never married yet had a child.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Jarndyce and Jarndyce has droned on for generations, and the once-large estate has been nearly consumed by costs. This becomes far worse when a third and later will is found among the papers hoarded by the late Krook, which the Smallweed family kept quiet about and had to be convinced to reluctantly give to Mr. Jarndyce. Not only does this testament render the entire suit pointless, it also gives a considerable sum to Richard and Ada (then in poverty), however, the will is dragged out of the Smallweeds' grasp a few months too late, and the next session of court does not even bother with that will for the entire estate has been consumed by legal costs.
  • Shown Their Work: Dickens' research into the Courts of Chancery was accurate and supplemented his personal experience with the institution. It shows.
  • Shrinking Violet: Rosa, who is always becoming "shyer than ever."
  • Slave to PR: Mr. Vholes, for whom his reputation for being respectable is almost everything.
  • Society Is to Blame: For Jo, in particular. Chancery itself has this effect on several characters, including Tom Jarndyce, Miss Flite, Mr. Gridley, and Richard Carstone (see Artifact of Attraction).
  • The Sociopath: Hortense and all of her actions scream it.
  • Someone to Remember Him By:
    • Richard Carstone, fils, as a posthumous child, is this for Ada Carstone, née Clare. Although both parents were aware of the pregnancy prior to the father's death, he died well before his son was born.
    • Arguably, Esther Summerson is this for Lady Dedlock, although, this is not in the usual way, since Lady Dedlock thought her dead at birth and the father, Captain Hawdon, was reported dead at around the same time. However, she finds out about Nemo's death a few months before discovering that their child is alive and in her twenties. This results in an odd variant of Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You, since both mother and child will be in peril should their relationship be known.
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion: The fate of Krook. This is possibly the Ur-Example of this trope appearing in fiction; "true stories" were already said to have existed at the time, and Dickens was known to have strongly believed that this was possible. His use of this here probably is due to the nature of the novel.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Mr. Guppy is this to Esther, and she comments on it as being simultaneously ridiculous and unnerving.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: This happens thrice in the novel:
    • Subtlety in chapter 11, Miss Flite is mentioned to bring one medical professional with her upon the discovery of Nemo's corpse. The entrance of the "dark young man" (Allen Woodcourt) is not mentioned, although he was not there previously.
    • Mr. Snagsby has this inflicted on him in his first encounter with Mr. Bucket.
    • Mr. Tulkinghorn does this to Mr. Guppy when the latter is visiting Smallweed.
  • Suicide, Not Accident: This is believed to possibly be what happened to Nemo. It is noted that which actually occurred is unclear, due to it being an instance of death-by-opium-overdose and the victim a poor and lonely addict. In Allen Woodcourt's opinion, it probably was an accident... probably. Opinion remained (and remains) divided.
  • The Summation: Mr. Bucket's explanation of how the murder was committed.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Between Esther Summerson, who writes in the first-person past-tense, and a third-person omniscient narrator, who writes in the present-tense.
  • Theme Naming:
    • The third-person narrator names one set of politicians as Boodle, Coodle, Doodle and so on and a separate group of politicians as Buffy, Cuffy, Duffy, etc. This is first seen in chapter twelve and continues through the rest of the book.
    • Miss Fleet's birds all have names relating to chancery (see Meaningful Name).
  • Think Nothing of It: Since Mr. Jarndyce does not handle gratitude well, he always attempts this route. Most of Bleak House's more heroic characters will at least have moments of it, e.g. Esther, Mr. Bucket, and Mr. George. Also, Allan Woodcourt, aside from being a charitable man, routinely cares for the poor and in need without remuneration.
  • Truth in Television: Jarndyce and Jarndyce is based on Jennens and Jennens (1798-1915): Dickens' description of Chancery is not inaccurate, and Jennens and Jennens provides a prime example, as he himself mentions in his preface to the novel. There are also many characters who are based on actual people of the era. Dickens apparently also believed this to be true for Spontaneous Human Combustion, but Science Marches On in this case.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: In fact, more than two lines, however, they are all ultimately tied into each other by that of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, through which most of the central characters know each other. With only three exceptions, the characters knowing each other is purely from their mutual involvement in Chancery, being introduced by mutual friends or acquaintances, or physical proximity to each other.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: This is Allan Woodcourt's reason for waiting so long to propose to Esther; he does not make a move until he has secured a steady income. Likewise, this is why Richard and Ada's engagement was broken, and among the chief difficulties when they are married, since the former's obsession with Jarndyce and Jarndyce eats away at their savings and they have no income (that said, it is unclear which of the two proposed to marry at that juncture).
  • Upper-Class Twit: Sir Leicester Dedlock's relations, especially Volumnia. Sir Leicester himself lacks the requisite stupidity; he has other problems.
  • Wife Husbandry:
    • This was one of John Jarndyce's plans for Esther (given his personality, it is most likely that he thought of this as an option and ended up falling for her), and they do get engaged. However, Mr. Jarndyce first suspects and then confirms that Esther is in love with someone else, and then revokes his own engagement and blesses Esther's marriage to Allen Woodcourt.
    • A variation is also touched upon in one of the sub-plots: Mrs. Rouncewell's grandson, Watt, fancies Rosa, a maid working for the Dedlock household. The boy's father, a self-made man who later runs for a seat in Parliament, feels the girl must be educated and sent to finishing school before she is ready to be engaged to his son.
  • Wretched Hive: Tom-All-Alone's.
  • Victorian Novel Disease: It's not at all clear what kills Jo. However, it is hinted that he never fully recovered from smallpox and caught something else on top of that. The 2005 miniseries averts this, since Allan Woodcourt states Jo has "pneumonia in both lungs."
  • Villain with Good Publicity:
    • Harold Skimpole's diaries, in which he calls his benefactor, John Jarndyce, "the incarnation of selfishness," are published and become popular.
    • Mr. Vholes is known for being very, very respectable, his actions in the novel are highly questionable.
  • You ALL Share My Story: In many adaptions, every character plays some important role in the plot. This is not true of the novel, where there are many characters who play very minor roles and still others who are merely mentioned or used to illustrate something before passing into oblivion.