On re-reading my post about Great Expectations, I note that I more or less assumed that the reader knows the story, which means that there was a certain level of spoilage in the post. Although it doesn't go into any detail, it does reveal the final condition of the two main characters. I am not going to do that here, so I will be a little vague.
The Dombey with whom this story is concerned is Son. The first Dombey is disposed of in a few sentences, and Son Dombey is already in middle age, with a wife and a daughter and a son who is in the process of being born when the story opens. Dombey and Son is one of the great houses in London's business world; there's even a suggestion that it may be the greatest. Dombey the Second is immensely proud of this, and it is his greatest wish that it continue with future Dombeys rotating through the firm's name. These would of course have to be male; apart from the generally very separate roles of the sexes at the time (or for that matter most times and places), they would, obviously, have to be male in order for the name to remain the same. As there is no question of a daughter succeeding to that headship, Dombey has no interest in his daughter, Florence, who is about six years old when the story opens. "No interest" is putting it mildly, as being the highest point to which his fatherly heart rises. Active contempt is increasingly the case.
And those are the mainsprings of the story, which runs to roughly a thousand pages in the edition I have. As the son, Paul, is being born, the wife, Fanny, is dying, in spite of the motivational speech--"You must make an effort"--given to her by her sister-in-law. Or perhaps it was the motivational speech that delivered the last blow to her will to live, already (so it is suggested) half-crushed by living among Dombeys. Certainly the death occurs in immediate succession to the speech.
Little Paul is an odd and sickly child. He loves and is loved by Florence. Florence lives partly for him and partly in perpetual desperate hope of being loved by her father, who begins implacably indifferent to her and grows hostile as Paul fails to develop as his father assumes that he will, in fact can hardly imagine that he will not. Mr. Dombey has the royal pride of a pharoah or the Sun King.
This pride, of course, is not going to lead him to a happy place. It blinds him not only to the love of a daughter whom everyone else can see is an angel, but to the presence within his circle of an Iago, a secret flattering enemy who works toward his destruction.
If you knew anything about Dickens at all you would suppose, even without looking at the book, that this is going to be a long and complex and often very sad story. And it is, taking place over a period of roughly fifteen years and involving a great many characters. The Wikipedia page for the novel lists a round 50 of them (49 if you don't count Diogenes the dog). Many of these of course have fairly small roles, but every one is rendered with Dickens's astonishing ability to create a portrait with only a few strokes. And the names--did he really just keep an eye out for useful ones, or did he invent some of them? Peps, Pilkins, Pilcher, Pipchin, Toodle, Toots, Tox, Nipper, Gills, Cuttle, Blitherstone, Skettles....
I'm sorry to say, though, that Florence herself is a partial exception to this success, though she is, more than Dombey himself, the center of the story. I mentioned that she seems an angel, and that's the problem. She is so pure, so sweet, so self-effacing, so entirely without fault or resentment, as to seem not quite real, not quite a really living person in the way that other characters are. I don't think this is so much a failure in portraiture, a failure in execution, as a result of a choice made at a level above that, the choice of the kind of person Dickens has imagined.
The sentimentality of that portrait is not in general an anomaly in the novel. One expects a fair amount of that from Dickens, along with melodrama and implausible coincidences that would be ridiculous in other hands. I accept them as conventions of the times, and they don't diminish--well, not very much--the irresistible power of the language and the narrative. I found myself at times thinking of Shakespeare's astonishing fluency. A descriptive imaginative power far beyond the reach of most writers hardly ever stops and is brought to bear on both great and small moments. In the first paragraph, Dombey is sitting in a room with newborn Son, who
..lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.
This doom-laden figure constitutes the second paragraph:
On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time—remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go—while the countenance of Son was crossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.
And in the third:
Son, with his little fists curled up and clenched, seemed, in his feeble way, to be squaring at existence for having come upon him so unexpectedly.
No sentimentality or far-fetched coincidence can diminish the appeal of such writing.
The sentimentality is often transcended. I'm thinking particularly of the death of one character--no, make that two: the death of Fanny Dombey is handled briefly and with great poignancy. The other is protracted, and has the character drifting slowly out of this life and into another in a way that borders on the mystical. If, or more likely when, this novel fades in my memory into a blur from which only certain scenes stand out clearly, this will be one of those scenes.
Dickens's well-known concern with the wretched plight of the 19th-century urban poor is very present, often with the most furious sarcasm directed at the hypocrisy and indifference of the upper classes. The cast of characters range from those at the bottom who are barely surviving, and that only in constant physical discomfort or worse, to those near the top who are unable to conceive that it is not part of the fabric of nature that those who are below them should not serve and honor them. The anger is plain and potent. That much would be, presumably is, applauded by our contemporaries who are advocates for "social justice." But it's strikingly different in that it has no visible ideological component at all. There is nothing abstract about it. Whatever ideas Dickens may have had about changing the situation are not presented. The persons involved are persons with conscience and the ability to act--what we call nowadays "agency." The basic structures of society may seem like the laws of the universe to them, but there is nothing in the way of their behaving well within those boundaries. Some do, and some don't, and it is a clear illustration of Solzhenitsyn's famous statement that the line between good and evil is within every heart.
I wondered, as I've wondered before without doing anything to turn wondering into knowledge, what Dickens's religious beliefs were. The established church certainly comes off pretty badly, and self-righteous religiosity, though not a prominent element, gets a few knocks here and there. But there is more than one passage where a deep regard for some bedrock of the faith is evidenced:
Harriet complied and read—read the eternal book for all the weary, and the heavy-laden; for all the wretched, fallen, and neglected of this earth—read the blessed history, in which the blind lame palsied beggar, the criminal, the woman stained with shame, the shunned of all our dainty clay, has each a portion, that no human pride, indifference, or sophistry, through all the ages that this world shall last, can take away, or by the thousandth atom of a grain reduce—read the ministry of Him who, through the round of human life, and all its hopes and griefs, from birth to death, from infancy to age, had sweet compassion for, and interest in, its every scene and stage, its every suffering and sorrow.
Dickens himself seems to have felt that compassion and interest.