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Dickens: Dombey And Son

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 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. 


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Hopefully this doesn't take away from your wondering :) But the short book, just some 30 something pages, he wrote for his children, The Life of our Lord, perhaps explains his religious beliefs the best:

That's fascinating--thanks.

A couple years ago my daughter gave me a book for Christmas on the subject of Dickens and the poor, but I've not read it yet. I may do so after I finish my current reading of Bleak House.

It's been at least 25 years since I've read it, but I recall Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens as being quite good. Can't remember how much he discusses the religious element though.

The one I really want to read is Chesterton's, but I want to have read more, preferably all, of the novels first. It's subtitled "A Critical Study," so not a biography, but it's extremely unlikely that Chesterton wouldn't discuss Dickens's theology.

It's on Project Gutenberg:


Ah, I'm going to need to read The Life of Our Lord! Seems like I had heard that title before, but it slipped my mind.
The ability Dickens has to very quickly bring the most minor of characters to life is simply amazing. Every now and then someone will pop up for just one or two sentences and (at least in my mind) be fully realized through the short description.
People who don't really "like" to read, meaning those that tend towards only genre fiction with a plot propelling the reader ever forward, are always making comments to me about long books and authors that likely wrote so much because they were paid for the word or some such idea. Without all of those words and tangents you don't spend the proper time to be fully immersed in the author's vision, right? It's why short stories never seem to work for me; a day later I have no memory of them except that it was something I read.
I get what you are saying about Florence, and this was per usual with Dickens and lots of characters (male and female) in his early books: Oliver Twist (the character), both Nicklebys (brother and sister) etc. However, it does seem that Dombey and Son might be the real turning point in his writing, one in which there is a concrete plot that all characters and tangential plotlines are to some degree following from page one until the end. This makes it a truly satisfying read unlike many of the earlier novels, though some are quite delightful.

"...long books and authors that likely wrote so much because they were paid for the word..." [snort] You pretty much nailed the problem there: people who don't really like to read.

Looking at a chronological list of Dickens's fiction made me wonder along the lines of your suggestion that D&S was a turning point. I was confined to wondering, though, as the only pre-Dombey one (not counting A Christmas Carol) I've read is Oliver Twist. It certainly didn't make anything like the impression on me that, for instance, David Copperfield did.


By the way, the 1983 BBC dramatization of D&S is good, very good with respect to its fidelity to the book. It's not as slickly produced as we expect these days, and the acting often strikes me as a little hammy. But the writers did an impressive job of keeping the essentials intact and clear, especially impressive as it's only five hours long (ten half-hour episodes). They had to eliminate one whole and not insignificant subplot, but it works anyway.

Didn't know there was a dramatization of D&S, but I do recall that I liked the BBC's 'Martin Chuzzlewit' very much. In fact, it's what prompted me to pick up Dickens again after not having read him for a number of years, and also to read the Ackroyd biography. Not sure of the exact dates here, but it would have been mid-90's. I'm fairly sure that at that point I hadn't read any Dickens for at least five years, probably longer.

In reading Bleak House I can see why Dostoevsky loved Dickens so much. Despite the differences in style, approach, etc., many of their fundamental concerns were similar, and I imagine that FD got at least some of his penchant for including a large number of characters from Dickens.

That's funny, I was just reading another chapter of BH and mentally comparing him to Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky is much more concerned with ideas than Dickens, which I think is why some critics and intellectuals in general seem to consider him superior. I enjoy Dickens more, and one of several reasons for that is that Dickens writes such vivid and memorable English, while Dostoevsky is only accessible to me in translation that always has a somewhat foreign quality. People who read Russian praise his prose, but it doesn't really make it into English.

Found this in an interesting essay on Dickens by George Orwell:

"Roughly speaking, his morality is the Christian morality, but in spite of his Anglican upbringing he was essentially a Bible-Christian, as he took care to make plain when writing his will. In any case he cannot properly be described as a religious man. He ‘believed’, undoubtedly, but religion in the devotional sense does not seem to have entered much into his thoughts(3)."

Here's that footnote 3:
"From a letter to his youngest son (in 1868): ‘You will remember that you have never at home been harassed about religious observances, or mere formalities. I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things, before they are old enough to form opinions respecting them. You will therefore understand the better that I now most solemnly impress upon you the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself, and the impossibility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it... Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.’ "


I'm confused. "Essentially a Bible-Christian" but "cannot properly be described as a religious man"? Seems like Orwell may be a little confused. But I haven't read the whole essay.

Still, it seems pretty much in line with what I suspected, that Dickens was a fairly usual educated Protestant of the time, not keen on doctrine or anything startlingly supernatural, and dismissive of "mere formalities." Very individualistic. A Christ more Great Teacher than Messiah.

Sounds a bit like Wendell Berry: Bible-reader, Christ-believer, but not a church-goer. Somewhat common in Protestantism, in both liberal and conservative variants. They tend to see the "formalities" as add-ons -- helpful but not necessary. I have people in my family like that.

I think I'd remove the "somewhat." Maybe even change it to "very." I've heard it all my life, and not from the intellectually-inclined. It's sort of a Christian version of "spiritual but not religious."

Very true. I remember a 70's CCM song that went "I'm not religious, I just love the Lord." There were bumper stickers that said that.


There was a discussion (using the word loosely) in National Review's comments about the recent disruption by sex activists at St. Patrick's in NYC. Catholics and some others spoke of "desecration," and one Protestant seemed to object to the whole idea that a building can be sacred.

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