Esther Summerson - The narrator and protagonist. Esther, an orphan, becomes the housekeeper at Bleak House when she, Ada, and Richard are taken in by Mr. Jarndyce. Everyone loves Esther, who is selfless and nurturing, and she becomes the confidante of several young women. Although she eventually does find her mother, circumstances prevent them from developing a relationship. At first a hesitant, insecure narrator, Esther’s confidence in her storytelling grows, and she controls the narrative skillfully.
Mr. John Jarndyce - Esther’s guardian and master of Bleak House. Mr. Jarndyce becomes the guardian of the orphans Ada and Richard and takes Esther in as a companion for Ada. Generous but uncomfortable with others’ gratitude, Mr. Jarndyce provides a warm, happy home for the three young people. When Esther is an adult, he proposes marriage, but he eventually rescinds his offer when he realizes she’s in love with someone else. Mr. Jarndyce has sworn off any involvement whatsoever with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit.
Ada Clare - A ward of Jarndyce. Kind, sweet, and naïve, Ada becomes Esther’s closest confidante and greatest source of happiness. She falls in love with Richard, and although they eventually marry and have a baby, she never finds full happiness with him because of his obsession with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit.
Richard Carstone - A ward of Jarndyce. Affable but lazy, Richard can’t decide on a career and seems to have no passion for a particular field. Eventually, he becomes obsessed with Jarndyce and Jarndyce and ultimately sacrifices his life for the lawsuit. He pursues the suit for Ada’s sake but never succeeds in providing a real home for her.
Lady Dedlock - Mistress of Chesney Wold, married to Sir Leicester, and Esther’s mother. Lady Dedlock, revered and wealthy, has kept the secret of her illegitimate child throughout her life, believing the child died at birth. She reveals her true identity to Esther but is wary of pursuing a relationship because she believes Sir Leicester’s reputation will suffer. When the truth threatens to come out, she runs away, certain that Sir Leicester will hate her. She dies outside of a cemetery.
Sir Leicester Dedlock - Master of Chesney Wold. Sir Leicester is a strong, respected man who ultimately withers and weakens because of Lady Dedlock’s disappearance. Fully willing to forgive her, Sir Leicester does his best to find her, but he is too late.
Mr. Tulkinghorn - A lawyer involved in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Mr. Tulkinghorn shares Lady Dedlock’s secret and threatens to reveal it. He is eventually murdered by Lady Dedlock’s former maid, Mademoiselle Hortense.
Mr. Matthew Bagnet - A soldier who owns a musical instrument shop. Mr. Bagnet incurred debts to help George Rouncewell.
Inspector Bucket - A detective hired by Tulkinghorn to investigate Lady Dedlock’s past. Bucket eventually winds up investigating Tulkinghorn’s murder and arrests Mademoiselle Hortense for the crime. His wife helps him with his detective work.
Mr. Lawrence Boythorn - Mr. Jarndyce’s friend who is given to hyperbole. Mr. Boythorn feuds with Sir Leicester about trespassing. He was once in love with Lady Dedlock’s sister, Miss Barbary, who left him when she decided to secretly look after Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate child, Esther.
Mr. William Guppy - A clerk at Kenge and Carboy. Mr. Guppy proposes to Esther, but she refuses him. He investigates her parentage with the hope of changing her mind and reveals to Lady Dedlock that Esther is her daughter.
Captain Hawdon (Nemo) - Krook’s dead lodger. Hawdon is Lady Dedlock’s former lover and Esther’s father.
Mademoiselle Hortense - Lady Dedlock’s French maid. Mademoiselle Hortense is jealous of Lady Dedlock’s attention to young Rosa. She kills Tulkinghorn and frames Lady Dedlock.
Mrs. Jellyby - A blustery woman who is obsessed with her “mission,” Borrioboola-Gha in Africa. She neglects her family entirely.
Mr. Krook - Owner of the rag-and-bottle shop. Mr. Krook collects documents even though he can’t read. He dies by spontaneous combustion.
Charlotte (Charley) Neckett - The oldest of three orphaned siblings. Charley becomes Esther’s beloved maid.
Harold Skimpole - A friend of Mr. Jarndyce, who calls himself a “child” and claims to have no idea about time or money. Mr. Skimpole borrows money liberally with no thought of repaying it. He eventually betrays Mr. Jarndyce by telling Inspector Bucket that Jo is in the stable at Bleak House.
Grandfather Smallweed - A shrill old man who can barely sit upright in his chair. Grandfather Smallweed threatens and wheedles other people to get his own way. He lends George money.
Mr. Snagsby - A law-stationer. Mr. Snagsby gets inadvertently caught up in everyone else’s secrets, although he pays Jo not to tell anyone a secret of his own. He sneaks around to avoid his wife’s prying eyes.
Mrs. Snagsby - Mr. Snagsby’s suspicious wife, given to drawing inaccurate conclusions from her eavesdropping and spying.
Mr. Vholes - The sneaky, immoral lawyer determined to get as much money as possible out of Richard’s involvement with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit.
Allan Woodcourt - A doctor and friend of Mr. Jarndyce. Mr. Woodcourt marries Esther, and they live together in the new Bleak House.