Bleak House
  • Short, cadaverous, and withered, with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth as if he were on fire within‘ is a quotation from Bleak House (Chapter 5).
  • Bleak House was the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, intended to illustrate the evils caused by long, drawn-out legal cases in the Court of Chancery. Serialised between 18521853, the story unravels through the use of double narration, in part from the perspective of a third-person narrator and in part from the first-person point of view of the main protagonist, Esther Summerson.


This quotation is a description of shop proprietor and landlord Mr. Krook. We first meet the character Mr. Krook in Chapter 5 of Bleak House when one of tenants, Miss Flite brings Ada Clare, Richard Carstone, Ester Summerson and Caddy to her lodgings which adjoin Krook’s shop. Krook, with his love of gin drinking, appears slumped over and breathing alcoholic fumes from his mouth. The reference to fire within foreshadows his fate later on in the story.

Krook runs a shop with signage calling it KROOK, RAG AND BOTTLE WAREHOUSE and KROOK, DEALER IN MARINE STORES. A rag and bone merchant, Krook’s shop is chaotic and messy. Locals nickname Krook the Lord Chancellor, and his shop the Court of Chancery, satirically symbolic of the chaos that resembles the real legal Court of that name, full of accumulated cases that once they enter, and likely to never come out.

Illustration of Mr. Krook by the British artist Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clark).
Illustration of Mr. Krook (with his cat Lady Jane) by the British artist Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clark).

Literary Technique.

This is an example of the literary techniques Charles Dickens uses in his works, here using foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a technique when an author indirectly hints at what is to come later on in the story. In the description of Mr. Krook as having breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth as if he were on fire within, Dickens hints at how the alcoholic rag and bone merchant will meet his fate. In chapter 32 of Bleak House, Krook is found dead from apparent spontaneous human combustion when Mr. Guppy and Mr. Weevle visit his shop and find a small burnt patch of flooringthe cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes. Spontaneous human combustion refers to the death from a fire where the fire is believed to start within the body of the victim and where there is no apparent external source of ignition. At the time some people, including Charles Dickens, believed in the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. Dickens was an acquaintance of the Royal Navy officer and novelist Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848). In chapter one of Marryat’s 1834 work Jacob Faithful, he gave a vivid account of the spontaneous combustion of the hero’s mother, also an alcoholic. Many scholars have subsequently dismissed the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion as a myth, possibly exploited through the eighteenth century by the temperance movement.

Mr. Krook.

The brother of Mrs. Smallweed, Mr. Krook is a landlord and proprietor of the Krook, Rag and Bootle Warehouse situated close to Lincoln’s Inn Field, the main legal area of London. Although illiterate, Krook hoards heaps of legal documents within the shop which he has accumulated amongst the other clutter. Krook’s tenants are the elderly eccentric Miss Flint and a mysterious man known as Nemo (the Latin word for nobody). When Nemo passes away, Krook steals his personal letters which will attract the attention of Mr. Guppy and Mr. Tulkinghorn who also seek them. Krook possesses a cat named Lady Jane who torments Miss Flint’s pet birds. His body diluted by his love of alcohol, Krook dies by the unusual method of spontaneous human combustion, a phenomenon Dickens believed in.

  • In the 2005 BBC television adaptation of Bleak House, Mr. Krook was played by English comedian and actor Johnny Vegas.


Taken from the following passage in Chapter 5 (A Morning Adventure) of Bleak House:

She had stopped at a shop over which was written KROOK, RAG AND BOTTLE WAREHOUSE. Also, in long thin letters, KROOK, DEALER IN MARINE STORES. In one part of the window was a picture of a red paper mill at which a cart was unloading a quantity of sacks of old rags. In another was the inscription BONES BOUGHT. In another, KITCHEN-STUFF BOUGHT. In another, OLD IRON BOUGHT. In another, WASTE-PAPER BOUGHT. In another, LADIES’ AND GENTLEMEN’S WARDROBES BOUGHT. Everything seemed to be bought and nothing to be sold there. In all parts of the window were quantities of dirty bottles—blacking bottles, medicine bottles, ginger-beer and soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, ink bottles; I am reminded by mentioning the latter that the shop had in several little particulars the air of being in a legal neighbourhood and of being, as it were, a dirty hanger-on and disowned relation of the law. There were a great many ink bottles. There was a little tottering bench of shabby old volumes outside the door, labelled “Law Books, all at 9d.” Some of the inscriptions I have enumerated were written in law-hand, like the papers I had seen in Kenge and Carboy’s office and the letters I had so long received from the firm. Among them was one, in the same writing, having nothing to do with the business of the shop, but announcing that a respectable man aged forty-five wanted engrossing or copying to execute with neatness and dispatch: Address to Nemo, care of Mr. Krook, within. There were several second-hand bags, blue and red, hanging up. A little way within the shop-door lay heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls and discoloured and dog’s-eared law-papers. I could have fancied that all the rusty keys, of which there must have been hundreds huddled together as old iron, had once belonged to doors of rooms or strong chests in lawyers’ offices. The litter of rags tumbled partly into and partly out of a one-legged wooden scale, hanging without any counterpoise from a beam, might have been counsellors’ bands and gowns torn up. One had only to fancy, as Richard whispered to Ada and me while we all stood looking in, that yonder bones in a corner, piled together and picked very clean, were the bones of clients, to make the picture complete.

As it was still foggy and dark, and as the shop was blinded besides by the wall of Lincoln’s Inn, intercepting the light within a couple of yards, we should not have seen so much but for a lighted lantern that an old man in spectacles and a hairy cap was carrying about in the shop. Turning towards the door, he now caught sight of us. He was short, cadaverous, and withered, with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth as if he were on fire within. His throat, chin, and eyebrows were so frosted with white hairs and so gnarled with veins and puckered skin that he looked from his breast upward like some old root in a fall of snow.

“Hi, hi!” said the old man, coming to the door. “Have you anything to sell?”

We naturally drew back and glanced at our conductress, who had been trying to open the house-door with a key she had taken from her pocket, and to whom Richard now said that as we had had the pleasure of seeing where she lived, we would leave her, being pressed for time. But she was not to be so easily left. She became so fantastically and pressingly earnest in her entreaties that we would walk up and see her apartment for an instant, and was so bent, in her harmless way, on leading me in, as part of the good omen she desired, that I (whatever the others might do) saw nothing for it but to comply. I suppose we were all more or less curious; at any rate, when the old man added his persuasions to hers and said, “Aye, aye! Please her! It won’t take a minute! Come in, come in! Come in through the shop if t’other door’s out of order!” we all went in, stimulated by Richard’s laughing encouragement and relying on his protection.

“My landlord, Krook,” said the little old lady, condescending to him from her lofty station as she presented him to us. “He is called among the neighbours the Lord Chancellor. His shop is called the Court of Chancery. He is a very eccentric person. He is very odd. Oh, I assure you he is very odd!

She shook her head a great many times and tapped her forehead with her finger to express to us that we must have the goodness to excuse him, “For he is a little—you know—M!” said the old lady with great stateliness. The old man overheard, and laughed.

“It’s true enough,” he said, going before us with the lantern, “that they call me the Lord Chancellor and call my shop Chancery. And why do you think they call me the Lord Chancellor and my shop Chancery?”

“I don’t know, I am sure!” said Richard rather carelessly.

“You see,” said the old man, stopping and turning round, “they—Hi! Here’s lovely hair! I have got three sacks of ladies’ hair below, but none so beautiful and fine as this. What colour, and what texture!”

“That’ll do, my good friend!” said Richard, strongly disapproving of his having drawn one of Ada’s tresses through his yellow hand. “You can admire as the rest of us do without taking that liberty.”

The old man darted at him a sudden look which even called my attention from Ada, who, startled and blushing, was so remarkably beautiful that she seemed to fix the wandering attention of the little old lady herself. But as Ada interposed and laughingly said she could only feel proud of such genuine admiration, Mr. Krook shrunk into his former self as suddenly as he had leaped out of it.

“You see, I have so many things here,” he resumed, holding up the lantern, “of so many kinds, and all as the neighbours think (but THEY know nothing), wasting away and going to rack and ruin, that that’s why they have given me and my place a christening. And I have so many old parchmentses and papers in my stock. And I have a liking for rust and must and cobwebs. And all’s fish that comes to my net. And I can’t abear to part with anything I once lay hold of (or so my neighbours think, but what do THEY know?) or to alter anything, or to have any sweeping, nor scouring, nor cleaning, nor repairing going on about me. That’s the way I’ve got the ill name of Chancery. I don’t mind. I go to see my noble and learned brother pretty well every day, when he sits in the Inn. He don’t notice me, but I notice him. There’s no great odds betwixt us. We both grub on in a muddle. Hi, Lady Jane!”

A large grey cat leaped from some neighbouring shelf on his shoulder and startled us all.

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Short, cadaverous, and withered, with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth as if he were on fire within.


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