Tulkinghorn, an extremely capable solicitor (a leading attorney) of the Chancery Court, is the main enemy, or antagonist, in this novel. He is an enigma which Dickens chooses not to solve. As Sir Leicester’s legal advisor, Tulkinghorn has a right, even a responsibility, to take notice of any action whatever that seems as if it might be detrimental to his client. Therefore, it is by no means unnatural or outrageous that he should wonder what his client’s wife is up to when she begins to act strangely and make inquiries about the handwriting on a legal document. But Dickens himself neither makes this point not leaves it as an obvious inference. Tulkinghorn pursues the lady’s secret so obsessively and ruthlessly that he gives the impression of desiring not so much protection of his client as power over the lady and the pleasure of inflicting pain.
Although a reader’s rational sense might be better satisfied if Dickens had been more explicit about Tulkinghorn’s motivations, we should remember that cruelly evil behavior is actually very hard to “explain.” Should Dickens have indicated, at least, that somehow Lady Dedlock excited in the lawyer a compulsion to pursue and torture, a compulsion which he himself didn’t understand? Or could one make a good case for the idea that the obscurity and irrationality of Tulkinghorn’s behavior make it all the more mysterious and unpredictable and, therefore, all the more powerful in its impact on the reader?
Does Dickens mean for us to see Tulkinghorn as not only a servant of Chancery but a symbol, an extension or personification of it? If so, does he give that point sufficient emphasis that we can hardly miss it? When Tulkinghorn entraps Lady Dedlock, are we to think of Chancery as swallowing one more victim?
On one matter, many readers will agree: our not knowing what makes the unfathomable Tulkinghorn tick takes nothing away from his archetypal power as a Devil figure, the Sinister One.