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Esther Summerson describes her childhood and says she is leaving for the home of a new guardian, Mr. Jarndyce, along with Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. On the way to the home, called Bleak House, they stop overnight at the Jellybys’ chaotic home. When they finally reach Bleak House, they meet Mr. Jarndyce and settle in. They meet Mr. Skimpole, a man who acts like a child.
The narrator describes a ghost that lurks around Chesney Wold, the home of Lady and Sir Leicester Dedlock.
Esther meets the overbearing charity worker Mrs. Pardiggle, who introduces her to a poor brickmaker’s wife named Jenny, whose baby is ill. Esther says she is sure that Ada and Richard are falling in love. She meets Mr. Boythorn, as well as Mr. Guppy, who proposes marriage. Esther refuses him.
At Chesney Wold, Tulkinghorn shows the Dedlocks some Jarndyce documents, and Lady Dedlock recognizes the handwriting. Tulkinghorn says he’ll find out who did it. He asks Mr. Snagsby, the law-stationer, who says a man named Nemo wrote the documents. Tulkinghorn visits Nemo, who lives above a shop run by a man named Krook, and finds him dead. At the coroner’s investigation, a street urchin named Jo is questioned and says that Nemo was nice to him. Later, Tulkinghorn tells Lady Dedlock what he’s learned.
Richard struggles to find a suitable career, eventually deciding to pursue medicine. But he is more interested in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, which he believes will make him rich. Neither Esther nor the narrator ever fully explains the lawsuit, because nobody remembers what originally prompted the parties to begin the suit.
In London, Esther meets a young girl named Charlotte who is caring for her two young siblings. A lodger who lives in the same building, Mr. Gridley, helps care for the children as well.
A mysterious lady approaches Jo and asks him to show her where Nemo is buried.
Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther some details about her background. He reveals that the woman who raised Esther was her aunt. The next day, a doctor named Mr. Woodcourt visits before leaving on a trip to China and India. An unidentified person leaves a bouquet of flowers for Esther.
Richard begins working in the law. Esther, Ada, and others visit Mr. Boythorn, who lives near Chesney Wold. There, Esther meets Lady Dedlock for the first time and feels a strange connection to her. Lady Dedlock has a French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense, who is jealous that Lady Dedlock has a new young protégée named Rosa.
A man named Mr. Jobling, a friend of Mr. Guppy’s, moves into Nemo’s old room above Krook’s shop.
Two men, George and Grandfather Smallweed, talk about some money that George owes Smallweed. They reach an agreement, and George leaves.
Tulkinghorn introduces Bucket and Snagsby, and Snagsby introduces Bucket to Jo. Bucket figures out that the woman Jo led to the burial ground was disguised in Mademoiselle Hortense’s clothes. Mademoiselle Hortense soon quits her post at Chesney Wold.
Caddy Jellyby tells Esther she is engaged to Prince Turveydrop. Charley Neckett becomes Esther’s maid. Mr. Jarndyce warns Ada and Richard to end their romantic relationship since Richard is joining the army. Gridley dies.
Smallweed visits George and says that Captain Hawdon, a man he thought was dead, is actually alive, and that a lawyer was asking about some handwriting of his. He asks George if he has any handwriting to offer. George visits Tulkinghorn, who explains that George will be rewarded if he gives up some of Hawdon’s handwriting. George refuses.
Guppy visits Lady Dedlock in London and tells her he thinks there is a connection between her and Esther. He says that Esther’s former guardian was someone named Miss Barbary and that Esther’s real name was Esther Hawdon. He says that Nemo was actually named Hawdon, and that he left some letters, which Guppy will get. When Guppy leaves, Lady Dedlock cries: Esther is her daughter, who her sister claimed had died at birth.
Charley and Esther visit Jenny and find Jo lying on the floor. He is sick, and Esther takes him back to Bleak House, putting him up in the stable. In the morning, he has disappeared. Charley gets very ill. Then Esther gets extremely ill.
Guppy and his friend Jobling want to get Hawdon’s letters from Krook. But when they go down to Krook’s shop, they find that he has spontaneously combusted. Later, Grandfather Smallweed arrives to take care of Krook’s property. Guppy eventually tells Lady Dedlock the letters were destroyed.
Smallweed demands payment from George and the Bagnets, on whose behalf he borrowed the money. Desperate, he tells Tulkinghorn he’ll turn over the Hawdon’s handwriting if he’ll leave the Bagnets alone.
Esther recovers slowly. Miss Flite visits her, telling her that a mysterious woman visited Jenny’s cottage, asking about Esther and taking away a handkerchief Esther had left. She also tells Esther that Mr. Woodcourt has returned. Esther goes to Mr. Boythorn’s house to recover fully. She looks in a mirror for the first time and sees that her face is terribly scarred from the smallpox. While there, Lady Dedlock confronts her and tells her she’s Esther’s mother. She orders Esther to never speak to her again, since this must remain a secret.
Richard pursues the Jarndyce lawsuit more earnestly, aided by a lawyer named Vholes. He no longer speaks to Mr. Jarndyce, who doesn’t want anything to do with the suit.
Esther visits Guppy and instructs him to stop investigating her.
Tulkinghorn visits Chesney Wold and hints that he knows Lady Dedlock’s secret. She confronts him and says she will leave Chesney Wold immediately because she knows her secret will destroy Rosa’s marriage prospects. Tulkinghorn convinces her to stay, since fleeing will make her secret known too fast. When Tulkinghorn is back home, he is visited by Mademoiselle Hortense, who demands he help her find a job. He threatens to arrest her if she keeps harassing him.
Esther tells Mr. Jarndyce about Lady Dedlock. He reveals that Boythorn was once in love with Miss Barbary, who left him when she decided to raise Esther in secret. Mr. Jarndyce gives Esther a letter that asks her to marry him. Esther accepts.
Esther tries to convince Richard to abandon the Jarndyce suit. While she is visiting him, he tells her he has left the army and devoted himself entirely to the lawsuit. Esther sees Mr. Woodcourt on the street. She asks Mr. Woodcourt to befriend Richard in London, and he agrees.
In London, Woodcourt runs into Jo on the street and gives him some food. He discovers that Jo once stayed with Esther. Jo tells him that a man forced him to leave and that he’s now scared of running into him. Woodcourt helps Jo find a hiding place at George’s Shooting Gallery. Jo soon dies.
Lady Dedlock dismisses Rosa with no explanation in order to protect her. Tulkinghorn is enraged and says he’ll reveal the secret. That night, Tulkinghorn is shot through the heart. The next day, Bucket arrests George for the murder.
Ada reveals to Esther that she and Richard have been secretly married.
Bucket investigates Tulkinghorn’s murder. He receives a few letters that say only “Lady Dedlock.” He confronts Sir Leicester and tells him what he knows about Lady Dedlock’s past. Instead of arresting Lady Dedlock, however, he arrests Mademoiselle Hortense, who killed Tulkinghorn and tried to frame Lady Dedlock.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Rouncewell, the housekeeper at Chesney Wold, finds out that George is her long-lost son. She begs Lady Dedlock to do anything she can to help him. Guppy arrives and tells Lady Dedlock that the letters were actually not destroyed. Lady Dedlock writes a note to Sir Leicester, saying she didn’t murder Tulkinghorn, and then she flees.
Sir Leicester collapses from a stroke. Mrs. Rouncewell gives him Lady Dedlock’s letter, and he orders Bucket to find her, saying he forgives her for everything. Bucket asks Esther to join him, and they set out in search of Lady Dedlock in the middle of the night. While Sir Leicester waits at home, unable to speak clearly, Esther and Bucket search. Eventually Bucket figures out where to find her. They finally find Lady Dedlock at the gate of the burial ground where Hawdon is buried. She is dead.
Richard is sick and still obsessed with Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Ada is pregnant and hopes the baby will distract Richard from his obsession with the lawsuit. After visiting Richard one night, Woodcourt walks Esther home and confesses he still loves her as he once did. She tells him she is engaged to Mr. Jarndyce.
Smallweed finds a Jarndyce will among Krook’s property and gives it to Vholes.
George moves to Chesney Wold, where he helps tend to Sir Leicester.
Esther begins to plan the wedding. Mr. Jarndyce goes to Yorkshire on business and then sends for her. When she arrives, she finds out that Mr. Jarndyce has bought a house for Woodcourt out of gratitude. He shows her the house, which is decorated in Esther’s style, and tells her that he’s named the house Bleak House. Then he reveals that he knows she loves Woodcourt and that they should be married. He says he will always be her guardian. Woodcourt appears, and he and Esther reunite.
The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case is finally dismissed. No one gets any money since the inheritance had been used up to pay the legal fees. Richard dies.
Esther says she and Woodcourt have two daughters and that Ada had a son. She is very happy.