Friday, December 25, 2015

Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens

"I make so bold as to believe that the faculty (or the habit) of correctly observing the characters of men, is a rare one. I have not even found, within my experience, that the faculty (or the habit) of correctly observing so much as the faces of men, is a general one by any means."
-- Charles Dickens, "Preface of 1867" to Dombey and Son

"The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please.
If it's any consolation, I can't begin to understand."
-- The Replacements, "Bastards of Young"

In this novel (published serially from1846-1848), Dombey, a successful shipping magnate, pins all his hopes for posterity, and the future of the business that gives the novel its title, on his frail, sensitive son Paul, while ignoring and neglecting his firstborn, daughter Florence, who idolizes him. The gulf between the affectionate children and their distant father grows even wider with tragedy, and when the long-widowed Dombey marries a beautiful, much younger woman, the hidden stresses will eventually come out into the open.

Now, I avoided Dickens for years -- decades -- despite his being one of the biggest names right smack dab in the middle of my time period. Although I did finish and enjoy Bleak House, that was read with a professor who made everything interesting, and even that did suffer a bit from what I considered the two big turn-offs in Dickens' work: caricature and sentimentality, two things I've never been fond of. I was aware of this more from an early attempt on Nicholas Nickleby, a TV movie of Oliver Twist, and, of course, A Christmas Carol, with that whole Tiny Tim business, and the thought of reading more Dickens made me go "Ugh."

When I decided to give him a fair and earnest try, I picked The Pickwick Papers as something that, talked about as lighter and sprightlier, more an extension of his nonfiction sketches than his later work. And I loved it. I followed his first novel with his last finished one -- Our Mutual Friend -- and started working my way through, willy nilly.

What I've started to believe is that the poles of caricature and sentimentality work as a yin and yang of imaginative exaggeration, which surround closely-observed real-life detail about human behavior. So that quote, at the end of my edition of Dombey and Son, struck me forcibly. It is unusual to see so clearly, and be able to describe people so accurately, that even with minor characters you lose track of in a complicated story, when they pop up, you never mistake them for anyone else.

Frankly, I'm not even sure if Dombey contains less caricature than Bleak House (from which I vividly recall the Jellybys, and Guppy, and the "Shake-Me-Up Judy" guy), or if I'm no longer reading it as caricature per se, because I'm viewing it as grounded in things people do, and the ways they are, just focused on in a particular way. The sour Mrs. Pipchin, the Blimbers (who run a school cramming children with the classics), and the blustery Major Bagstock all have the Dickens caricature thing going on. But they're so differentiated as exaggerated individuals-- not stereotypes, or stock characters, which is often what we're talking about with caricature -- and contain grains of truth about what some people are like, that they come out the other side and become weirdly realistic.

There are many, many people in the world of Dickens. His books are as crowded as the streets of London. When we meet many of these people, we never get to know them beyond the superficial qualities they express to the world. Just like in real Some people are so embittered that they're perpetually in a bad mood, even when it goes against their interests; some people are so oblivious that they barely seem to see other people; and, getting to the sentimental part of the spectrum, some people are self-sacrificing, and they do love people who don't love them back.

It's easy to look at sentimentality as particularly a part of the Victorian age, but in ours, billions of dollars are spent on TV commercials that manipulate their audiences by plucking on the same heartstrings, even more shamelessly. Just because we like to think we're more sophisticated, doesn't mean we are. Dennis Walder says in his introduction that "Florence's passivity and infinite loyalty under duress have led to much critical impatience" (xxi),  but maybe that's partly because too many people are as embarrassed by open emotions as her fictional father is.

Florence is particularly worth looking at because, of the Dickens novels I've read so far, this one is the most explicitly concerned about the places for women in society. Before the all-important son is born, Dombey is described as being a man who "had had no issue. -- To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before ..." (3). Not long after that, the outspoken servant Miss Nipper will make the famous statement that "girls are thrown away in this house" (28).

While Florence is indeed a little over-the-top in her sweetness and goodness and unconditional love (as her father recognizes, unchanging), and I could easily roll my eyes at the way so many of the novel's other characters exalt her for it, this is in the service of expressing a general truth about life, which is that many people aren't appreciated by the very people who are most in a position to recognize their worth. And significantly, these judgments can be colored by prejudice.

In this case, Dombey immediately wrote off his daughter as having no value to him, by virtue of her gender, and treating his son as the only important thing in his life, by virtue of his, long before either of them had a formed character, or had given him any inkling of their personalities or their intrinsic value.

The introduction of Edith, Dombey's proud second wife, emphasizes the theme of women's limited options, and the way their lives are warped by what people expect from them. She has a mirror image in the novel, Alice, a once-beautiful former convict who lurks in the background, seeking revenge on the lover who refused to help her in a time of need. Although Edith lives in high society and Alice in the dirtiest slums, they were both brought up by mothers who had one goal: to sell their daughters' beauty to the highest bidder, however they could, for their own benefit. And both daughters are gloriously angry about the results.

Edith's self-awareness about her position in life leads to some articulate, stinging attacks, which reflect upon the whole of Victorian society; for example: "Grown too indifferent for any opposition but indifference ... knowing that my marriage would at least prevent their hawking of me up and down; I suffered myself to be sold, as infamously as any woman with a halter round her neck is sold in any market-place. You know that" (802).

Later, when Edith says "I do not repent of what I have done -- not yet -- for if it were to do again to-morrow, I should do it" (917), I wanted to cheer. She's saying "screw you" not only to the awful man who married her for status, but to the whole game.

The downside for Edith and Alice is that they're still stuck inside the confines of the world they were born into. Their justified resentment of the situation can't help them, and in fact, it hurts them. Again, this may not be right, but it's certainly realistic. Florence's refusal to hate the man (and the parent) who wronged her is contrasted to the way they revel in hating the men and parents who wronged them, in that it's more beneficial to Florence to forgive. Edith and Alice are both shown being rude to others, out of their ingrained cynicism and free-floating rage, and for most of their lives have no allies on their sides, other than the mothers they despise, and who "corrupted" them in the first place. Florence, on the other hand, makes friends wherever she goes.

It's not all sentiment and proto-feminism, since various parts in the both have a decidedly Gothic feel, which is always a nice mode for Dickens. For example, "The wind was blowing drearily. The lamps looked pale, and shook as if they were cold. There was a distant glimmer of something that was not quite darkness, rather than of light, in the sky; and foreboding night was shivering and restless, as the dying are who make a troubled end" (644). Ahhhh. I should have started reading Dickens YEARS ago.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Love your review. I've slowly been working my way through Dickens' work and haven't made it to this one yet. Like you, I wasn't a fan of his work at first, but David Copperfield is the one that really turned me around on my opinion.