Summary of Chapter XXXVI: Chesney Wold
Esther and Charley go to Mr. Boythorn’s house, which is ready to receive her, while Boythorn is in town. Esther wants to recover her strength in the country before Ada sees her. She has not yet looked in any mirror, and when Charley is asleep, she prays and then looks at her scarred face. She accepts it with a few tears, and it is a weight off her mind.
She keeps Woodcourt’s bouquet, but as a memory, for “I wished to be generous to him . . . because I could have loved him—could have been devoted to him” (p. 382).
In the village, Esther makes friends easily with the people, who remark on her changed appearance, but accept and love her. Once, when resting in a spot in Chesney Wold that looks on Ghost’s Walk, Esther meets Lady Dedlock, who comes expressly to see her. Charley is sent away, and the two have a private interview in which Lady Dedlock admits she is Esther’s mother. She weeps and kisses her daughter, giving her a letter explaining her birth and how she did not know of her existence. She says that Esther must keep the secret, and that she herself cannot be helped; she must bear the burden alone, for she is hunted by Tulkinghorn. Esther gives her love to her mother and forgives her. Lady Dedlock gives her leave to confide in her guardian but no one else.
Esther feels guilt for having been born and brought misery to her mother. She is frightened of herself and when she walks near the Ghost’s Walk and hears her own footsteps, she feels she is the curse on the Dedlocks. Esther soon recovers by getting letters from Ada and her guardian. She has brought love into their lives, and she concludes, “I knew I was as innocent of my birth as a queen of hers” (p. 391). Ada comes, sees Esther’s scars, but loves her just the same.
Commentary on Chapter XXXVI
This is a pivotal scene where mother and daughter are reunited and the two strands of plot finally mesh. Many bloodhounds have been on the trail of this connection, and so far only Guppy knows but cannot prove anything. The danger is that Tulkinghorn is close, knowing that Guppy has some piece of the puzzle, and he is about to match the handwriting of Hawdon to the document. Lady Dedlock says, “I must travel my dark road alone . . . This is the earthly punishment I have brought upon myself” (p. 386). It is not only the crime of having a child out of wedlock, but of hypocrisy, of “murdering within her breast the only love and truth of which it is capable” (p. 388). She has made her life into a lie and a mask, and now she must die in it.
Esther is full of love and pity for her mother, and their reunion fulfills a deep desire in her heart. She decides against guilt, for she has been a blessing to other lives and has love, the one thing her mother could not obtain with all her title and money. Lady Dedlock is the tragic heroine, and Esther is the comic heroine. Together they point out Dickens’s moral of what is important in life. The simple genuine life of doing good to others is weighed against those who sell their lives for power and status.