Esther Summerson, friendless and unloved, is raised at Windsor by her "godmother" (actually, her aunt), Miss Barbary. After the aunt's death, John Jarndyce, acting through his attorney Kenge, arranges to have Esther sent to Greenleaf, a boarding school at Reading. After six happy years as a student and teacher at Greenleaf, Esther is asked to serve in Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce's household. At the Chancery Court, she meets and at once befriends Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. Like Esther, these two young people have been made wards of Mr. Jarndyce. As they leave Chancery, the three encounter a diminutive old lady (Miss Flite), who has been driven partly mad by the never-ending, convoluted Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit.
This long chapter introduces and begins characterizations of the book's principal figures: Esther, Ada, and Richard. Curiosity about Mr. Jarndyce is heightened: We wonder why he is so benevolent. To characterize Esther sympathetically, Dickens utilizes the principle of contrast: Esther's naturalness and goodheartedness are all the more impressive when set against the background of her aunt's dour, unbending puritanism. Implied in this chapter is Dickens' criticism of his society for its element of cold self-righteousness and its inexcusable harshness toward children.