Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dombey and Son

Each novel by Dickens is like a public monument around which readers gather to admire, ponder, and debate.

This one suggests a fairy tale in which a lost girl falls into the clutches of an evil witch who steals her clothes and dresses her in rags. She is rescued by an honest young swain and returned to her merchant prince father. She has a haughty step-mother and a bestial adversary whose most distinguishing feature is his teeth.

Her moral support comes from a collection of people reminiscent of the Seven Dwarves: Mrs. Toodle the nurse, a maid called The Nipper, Diogenes the dog, an insolvent shopkeeper, an honest sea captain with an iron hook, and a tongue-tied lad named Toots with a pugilistic acquaintance known as the Game Chicken.

In the end the beast is dispatched, the honest young swain marries the princess, and the icy father has a change of heart.

See, a fairy tale.

Memorable Characters

Major Bagstock is one of Dickens's most grotesque creations, a self-described "smoke-dried, sunburnt, used-up, invalided old dog of a Major" with "eyes like a prawn" and a "complexion like a Stilton cheese". He is an outrageous toady whose bluff manner gains him the confidence of Dombey.

Captain Cuttle is the reverse of Bagstock, a retired sea captain of matchless loyalty and generosity. Both have a style of speech that is instantly recognizable: Cuttle's nautical expressions match Bagstock's constant references to himself in the third person.

Dombey's manager Carker is one of Dickens's most sinister creatures, a "smiling gentleman" who is always "airing his teeth." When he speaks his mouth is "bare to the gums," and in his smile there is something "like the snarl of a cat." He is "sly of manner, sharp of tooth, soft of foot, watchful of eye, oily of tongue, cruel of heart, nice of habit..." He sits at his desk "as if he were waiting at a mouse's hole."

Finally there is Edith Granger, a beautiful widow who bitterly submits to an arranged marriage with Dombey. When the match proves intolerable, she runs away with Carker solely to humiliate Dombey. Dickens makes her defiant to the end.

Memorable Scenes

Chapter 10 serves up a wonderful contrast between Major Bagstock's shallow machinations with the simple honesty of Captain Cuttle, who approaches Dombey seeking financial aid. Dickens surprises us by meeting Cuttle's request in an original manner -- giving the decision to Dombey's young son as a sort of lesson in capitalism.

Chapter 27 describes Dombey's courting of Edith Granger. They are accompanied by three companions who are all surface, thus imbuing their interactions with a rich irony. Bagstock, the "falsest of majors," on hearing of Edith's unpleasant encounter with a vagabond, wonders why no one can have the "honour and happiness of shooting all such beggars through the head without being brought to book for it."

Also present is Carker, whose interest in Edith is already surfacing, and Edith's mother, Mrs. Skewton, aka Cleopatra, whose disrobing at the end of the day reveals a body as hideous as her morals:

...the hair dropped off, the arched dark eyebrows changed to scanty tufts of grey, the pale lips shrunk, the skin became cadaverous and loose; an old worn yellow nodding woman with red eyes, alone remained in Cleopatra's place, huddled up, like a slovenly bundle, in a greasy flannel gown.

(The resemblance here to Good Mrs. Brown, the "witch" who robbed Florence of her clothing, is more than passing. Her daughter Alice is Edith's cousin.)

Chapter 31 drops into the present tense to describe Dombey's wedding, beginning with the "vinegary face" of Mrs. Miff the pew-opener and serving up some delightful comedy at the church when Edith's cousin gives away the wrong woman, and in signing the register "puts his noble name into a wrong place, and enrols himself as having been born that morning."

At the wedding feast several servants over-indulge, resulting in the following prophetic exchange:

Words have arisen between between the housemaid and Mr. Towlinson: she, on the authority of an old saw, asserting marriages to be made in heaven; he, affecting to trace the manufacture elsewhere...

Chapters 54 & 55 show the result of a hellish marriage. Carker, after being dumped by Edith, is chased to his doom by Dombey. It is melodrama, yes, but very good melodrama.


Orwell's essay on Dickens finds his novels full of "rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles." Major Bagstock is a typical gargoyle, yet to my mind Dombey and his daughter Florence are equally grotesque, though far less entertaining.

Florence is the most one-dimensional of the Dombeys, a fact underscored by her endless weeping throughout the novel. She is submissive and blindly devoted to her father despite a lifetime of indifference on his part. Only after he strikes her does she rise above her cloying sweetness and run away.

Dombey's cartoon arrogance is buffered somewhat by his agreeing to Captain Cuttle's request for assistance, and by his sponsoring of Mrs. Toodle's son at school. Though the latter act seems oddly out of character, it does provide a satisfying irony when the boy becomes Carker's cat's-paw and is instrumental in Dombey's downfall. The latter is accorded a touch of complexity when, instead of skimming off what he can from the ruins of his business, he insists on paying his debts to the best of his ability. However, his transformation into a kindly white-haired grandpa on the last page is difficult to swallow.

Finally there is Dombey's son. It was a brave move to dispatch him so early in the novel, though his death occupies an entire chapter. Fortunately it is not a long one.

Concluding Remarks

Dombey and Son is considered an advancement in Dickens's growth as a novelist because it was his first carefully plotted book, and indeed the story hangs together very well -- better in fact than some of his later books, which he worked very hard at plotting but which often fell victim to byzantine storylines.

In the Afterword to the edition I read, Alan Pryce-Jones echoes Orwell when he says of Dickens: "His faults are inseparable from his virtues."

1983 BBC TV mini-series: