The “Dickens World,” as Humphrey House calls it, is one of sharp moral contrast, a world in which the self-seeking—imprisoned in their egotism—rub shoulders with the altruistic, freed from the demands of self by concern for others; a world in which the individual achieves selfhood by creating a “home” whose virtues of honesty and compassion are proof against the dehumanizing “System”; a world in which all things are animate and where, indeed, metaphors for moral perversity take on lives of their own, like the miasma of evil that hangs above the houses in Dombey and Son.
Many of Charles Dickens’s most memorable characters are those whose language or personality traits are superbly comic: Sairey Gamp, the bibulous nurse in Martin Chuzzlewit, with her constant reference to the fictitious Mrs. ’Arris; Flora Finching, the parodic reincarnation of a stout, garrulous Maria Beadnell in Little Dorrit; and Turveydrop, the antediluvian dandy in Bleak House. Providing characters with distinguishing traits is, of course, a dramatic device (to see red hair and a handkerchief is to be reminded of Fagin, and knitting, of Mme DeFarge); more important, however, such traits carry a moral resonance. While Dickens’s villains grow more complex as his writing matures, most share an overriding egotism that causes them to treat people as things. Perhaps that is why things become animate; in a world in which human traits are undervalued, objects achieve a life and controlling power of their own. The miser Harmon disposes of Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend as if she were a property to be willed away; the convict Jaggers creates a “gentleman” out of Pip in Great Expectations; both Carker and Dombey see Edith as a valuable objet d’art in Dombey and Son.
Dickens’s later heroes and heroines are characterized by their movement toward self-actualization. In the early novels, Rose Maylie, Mr. Brownlow, Tom Pinch, Nicholas Nickleby, and even Pickwick represent compassionate but stereotyped models. Later, however, Dombey is thawed by his daughter Florence’s love; Eugene Wrayburn, the blasé lawyer, is humanized by Lizzie Hexam; and Bella Wilfer gives up self-seeking for John Rokesmith. Some, however, must go through the reverse process of acquiring self-assertiveness. Florence Dombey is such a one; only by fleeing her father’s household and establishing a family of her own can she achieve perspective. Amy Dorrit is another; she must grow up and then willfully become as a child again for the benefit of Arthur Clennam, who needs to be convinced of his worth. Esther Summerson is yet a third; persuaded of her worthlessness because of her illegitimacy, she must learn a sense of self-worth before she can marry Allan Woodstone.
Many of the heroes and heroines are tested by touchstone figures, such as Smike, Jo, Mr. Toots, Maggie, and Sloppy—unfortunates whose lack of mental capability or personal disfavor provides a test for altruism. Many of Dickens’s child characters serve a similar purpose, from Oliver Twist and his famous request for more gruel to the itinerant Little Nell.
All of the characters are subject to the effects of the “System,” in whatever shape it takes: Dotheboys Hall and the Gradgrind’s school, the Circumlocution Office, the middle-class complacency of Podsnappery, the unsanitary conditions of Tom All Alone’s, or the financial shenanigans of Montague Tigg’s Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Insurance Company. Far worse are the hypocrisy of Pecksniff, the concupiscence of Gride, the utilitarianism of Gradgrind, and the lovelessness of Estella, but all are personal evocations of the evils of the “System.” Even as early as Oliver Twist, Dickens seemed to recognize that no one individual could rectify evil. As Stephen Marcus has observed: “Pickwick Papers is Dickens’s one novel in which wickedness, though it exists, is not a threat. The unfortunate and the deprivedhave only to catch a glimpse of Pickwick in order to be renewed, for this is the world of the ’good heart,’ that thaumaturgic resource of spirit.” When Nicholas breaks up Dotheboys Hall by whipping Squeers, all that one can do is succor the runaways; when the law is befogged by obscurities as in the Jarndyce case, all one can do is provide a warm, loving household. This, in fact, seems to be Dickens’s solution, for despite his call for reforms, he was, at heart, a conservative, more likely to help Angela Burdett-Coutts set up a home for “fallen women” and to campaign against public executions than to lead riots in the streets. Dickens, then, might say with Voltaire’s Candide, “Let us cultivate our garden.”
Nicholas Nickleby, an ebullient novel loosely patterned on such picaresque models as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), is ostensibly an attack on the abusive Yorkshire schools that served as repositories for unwanted children. It is, as well, a depiction of Dickens’s theatrical concerns, a condemnation of greed, a mystery story, and a conventional romance. To be sure, as Bernard Bergonzi has noted, it has been criticized for its lack of a tightly woven plot as well as for its lack of a “significant moral pattern”; nevertheless it stands as the first of Dickens’s full-scale, complex novels.
Dickens went to some trouble to establish the realistic fabric of the novel. Dotheboys Hall is modeled on William Shaw’s notorious Bowes Academy, and the generous Cheeryble brothers, who give employment to the titular hero, mirror the merchants William and Daniel Grant. More important than the realistic antecedents, however, is what they represent: The schoolmaster Squeers and the Cheerybles are at opposite moral poles. Indeed, Nicholas’s encounter with Dotheboys, his self-defense against Squeers, and his decision to “adopt” the enfeebled and mistreated Smike are preparation to confront his uncle Ralph, whose ungenerous nature is paradigmatic of moral usury. Even Nicholas’s accidental joining with the Crummleses and their Infant Phenomenon is a way for him to act out his confrontation with pasteboard sword, for certainly, despite Crummles’s benevolence, the closed world of the theater betrays as much selfishness as the world Nicholas eventually joins.
As Angus Wilson has suggested, the foe that Nicholas confronts is more complex than generally recognized. Ralph, driven by the desire for money, is also driven by a desire for power. His belittlement of his clerk, Newman Noggs, is comically reflected in Miss Knag’s spitefulness and in Mr. Lillyvick’s patronizing attitude toward his relatives; more seriously in Arthur Gride, the miser who charily serves an old wine—“liquid gold”—on his wedding day; and in Walter Bray, who affiances his daughter Madeline to Gride for a retirement stipend. Ralph is powerless, however, against generosity. Cast off by his uncle, Nicholas, like a hero in a French comedy of manners, rescues his sister Kate from the unwelcome advances of Sir Mulberry Hawk, one of Ralph’s procurers; he is befriended by Noggs, with whose help he eventually rescues Madeline; and he is given a livelihood by the Cheerybles. In setting up a home for his mother, his sister, and Smike, Nicholas establishes a center of domestic harmony independent of his uncle’s world yet connected to that of the Cheerybles, who inculcate similar homely virtues in their business. Indeed, as Nicholas gathers friends around him, Ralph is slowly denuded of his power. Both plot strands meet in the Gride/Bray association, where Ralph faces a double loss, material and psychological: Not only does Gride’s loss of valuable deeds spell the beginning of Ralph’s financial downfall, but Ralph’s scheme to marry Madeline to Bray also is foiled by his nephew, against whom he feels growing resentment.
Nicholas’s circle of friends thus comes to dominate Ralph’s circle of power. Ralph’s bankruptcy is, moreover, symbolic of spiritual bankruptcy, for his ultimate ignominy is discovering that Smike, whom he had persecuted in an attempt to wound Nicholas, is his own son. That the enfeebled boy turned to Nicholas for help is, for Ralph, a final, inescapable bitterness. As Ralph’s wheel of fortune reaches its nadir, he hangs himself, cursing the hope of the New Year that brings to Nicholas a marriage and a new family.
Partly the product of Dickens’s 1842 trip to America, Martin Chuzzlewit takes as its theme the effects of selfishness. Some critics, such as Barbara Hardy, find this theme to be fragmented, insofar as the characters are so isolated that their moral conversions produce no resonance. Critic John Lucas locates the flaws not only in narrative sprawl and faulty timing but also in Dickens’s indecision as to “whether he is writing a realistic study or a moral and prescriptive fable.” The fabular element is indeed strong. Young Martin is a developing hero whose American experiences and the selflessness of his companion Mark Tapley bring him to recognize his flaws, while his father, Old Martin, serves in his wealth and eccentricity as a touchstone for cupidity. In studying the cumulative effects of selfishness, Dickens portrays a number of family groups and also presents an effective psychological study of a murderer.
Pecksniff, ostensibly an architect and Young Martin’s teacher, is the root of hypocrisy in the novel. He imposes on the gullible Tom Pinch; he raises his daughters, Charity and Mercy, to be spiteful and thoughtless; he tries to seduce Martin’s fiancé, then accuses Tom of the action; and he attempts to influence Old Martin to disinherit his grandson. Like Molière’s Tartuffe, Pecksniff only appears to be virtuous. His assistant, Tom Pinch, is the reader’s surrogate; honest, consistent, and generous, Pinch is exiled from Pecksniff’s house and goes to London, where he is aided by John Westlock, a former pupil who has come into his inheritance. Tom’s household, where he installs his sister Ruth (rescued from being a governess to a highly inconsiderate family), is in direct contrast to Pecksniff’s in its innocent, loving companionship. Other family groups appear as contrasts as well, not the least being that of Anthony Chuzzlewit, brother to Old Martin. Anthony’s miserly ways have inculcated in his son Jonas so grasping a nature that Jonas attempts to poison his father. Another kind of family group may be seen at Todgers’ Commercial Boarding House, where the Pecksniffs stay and where Mercy, eventually married to the brutal Jonas, finds understanding from Mrs. Todgers. The association between young Martin and Mark Tapley may be contrasted with that between Pecksniff and Pinch, for Mark moves from the character of servant to that of friend. While Mark’s Pollyannaish attitude—that one must be “jolly” under all circumstances—has annoyed many critics, he is a descendant of the comedy of humors and serves as an important antidote to Martin’s selfishness. In setting Martin’s conversion (a purgative illness) in the swamps of America, Dickens suggests that hypocrisy, greed, and false pride are not simply manifestations of the British social milieu but flourish even in the “City of Eden,” which that worshiper of freedom, Major Hannibal Chollop, praises so highly.
Jonas, on the other hand, undergoes no such conversion, although Mercy fills a role similar to that of Mark. As an investor in a pyramid scheme, the Anglo-Bengalee Company, he is blackmailed into procuring Pecksniff as an investor by Montague Tigg, who is privy to Jonas’s poisoning scheme. Fearing exposure, Jonas murders Tigg. Dickens’s portrayal of the murderer’s frame of mind is exceptional, accompanied as it is by a study of Nadgett, the self-effacing paid informer who shadows Jonas like conscience itself. Even more telling is the disclosure that the deed was unnecessary, for Anthony, who had discovered his son’s scheme and foiled it, is said to have died of a broken heart.
The regrouping that occurs at the end when Old Martin confesses his own kind of selfishness, that of suspicion of others, is a reestablishment of an extended family and a casting out of Pecksniff as a kind of scapegoat. Martin and Mary, and Ruth Pinch and John Westlock, are affianced; only Tom Pinch, hopelessly in love with Mary, remains unwed, to be a source of financial support for Pecksniff and Charity, who cadge small amounts from him. In the final analysis, Dickens has performed an “anatomy of selfishness” that is especially powerful because some of his characters have exhibited moral development. To be sure, Old Martin’s pretended subservience to Pecksniff and final revelations may be seen as contrivances making possible a deus ex machina ending; yet, for all their artificiality, the conversions seem as true in spirit as do Jonas’s terrified and cowardly maunderings.
Dombey and Son
Dombey and Son is considered to be the first novel of Dickens’s maturity. Indeed, as John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson have pointed out, it is the first for which he worked out a complete plot outline; therefore, the subplots are controlled, and a fully orchestrated set of symbols emerges. John Lucas has observed that Dombey and Son presents the social panorama of the new, industrialized England, allowing “patterns of behavior and language to suggest connections more deeply insistent than blood-ties.”
In this story of a middle-class merchant prince who must learn to place heart above head, Dickens produces one of his most moving and powerful studies of childhood, not only in Florence, the neglected daughter, but also in Paul, whom Dombey regards as a small version of himself. Paul is portrayed as an “old-fashioned” boy, one who astonishes his father by asking what money is. Unlike Oliver Twist, who seeks to find a way into society, Paul runs counter to its expectations, resisting his father’s attempt to make him into a grown-up before he has been a child. Alive to the world of the imagination, Paul is left untouched by Blimber’s educational establishment, described as a hothouse where young minds are forced to produce before their time. Mr. Toots, one of Dickens’s divine fools, is intellectually blasted by the process but retains a sweetness of soul that adds poignancy to his comic diction.
When Paul dies in Florence’s arms, Dickens illustrates his pervasive water imagery in a masterly way. Paul, rocked gently out to sea in a flood of divine love, has come “to terms with the watery element,” as noted by Julian Moynihan; only by close association with the sea is anyone in Dombey and Son saved from an atrophying of the affections. Paul’s death is but one step in the education of Dombey, whom it initially hardens rather than softens: Dombey blames all of those Paul loved—Polly Toodle, his wet nurse; Walter Gay, one of Dombey’s clerks in love with Florence; and Florence herself—for alienating Paul’s affections. Another important step comes from Dombey’s second marriage, which is to Edith Granger, a young widow put on the marriage market by her Regency mother, the artificial Mrs. Skewton. Bought for her accomplishments and ability to bear sons, Edith sets her will against Dombey’s, determined to scorn his material success. She elopes with John Carker, the manager to whom Dombey had entrusted not only his domestic troubles but also his business affairs. Outraged, Dombey strikes Florence when she tries to comfort him. Florence runs away, taking refuge with a friend of Walter’s uncle. Edith eventually runs away from Carker, for her motive was not adultery but vengeance. Carker, while trying to escape from the pursuing Dombey, is hit by a train. As Marcus has noted, the railroad is Dickens’s “great symbol of social transformation” as well as Carker’s nemesis.
That Florence takes refuge with Captain Cuttle, a friend of Walter’s uncle, shows the way in which the ocean theme is invoked even in a comic way, for Captain Cuttle is a peg-legged, Bible-quoting sea dog, yet he proves to be a tenderhearted surrogate father to Florence. Her affiancement to Walter, who, at Dombey’s instigation, has been sent to the West Indies and shipwrecked, is another blow to Dombey, for it allies him not only with a class he shuns but also with an individual he believes had stolen his son’s affections.
The last step in the education of Dombey is the failure of his business, largely through Carker’s machinations. Left alone in his empty mansion to be pitied by Miss Tox, an old-maid figure whose ridiculousness, like Captain Cuttle’s, is belied by her warmth of heart, Dombey meditates on the remembered figure of his daughter. His contemplation of suicide is interrupted, however, when Florence unexpectedly returns. For Dickens, Florence serves as the model of Christian, womanly behavior, of unselfish self-abnegation that, founded upon love, redeems her father. She returns because, as a mother, she can imagine what desertion by a child would be like.
The story of Dombey was a powerful parable for the middle classes, for whom, Dickens believed, overconcentration on such firms as Dombey and Son led to dehumanization, to a buying and selling not of goods but of people. That Paul’s old-fashioned, loving nature could evoke responses in such unlikely quarters as in the pinched and spare Miss Tox or in the schoolmarmish Cornelia Blimber, or that Florence could melt both the disdainful Edith and her hardhearted father, is testimony to Dickens’s optimism. In keeping with the theme, all of the characters, no matter how comic, are invariably treated as more than comic elements. Mr. Toots and his fascination with the boxer, the Game Chicken; Miss Tox’s futile hope to become Mrs. Dombey; the straitlaced Mrs. Pipchin; and the seaman’s caricature, Captain Cuttle himself, are integrated with the plot and ranged on the side of heart.
While David Copperfield is considered to be Dickens’s autobiographical novel par excellence, Little Dorrit explores some of the same themes through the metaphor of the imprisonment that had so deep an effect on the Dickenses’ family fortunes. Critical opinion ranges from Angus Wilson’s comment that the “overcomplicated plot” weakens the imprisonment/release theme, to Lionel Trilling’s assessment that the novel is “one of the most profoundand most significant works of the nineteenth century.” In Little Dorrit, imprisonment has many facets. The initial and end scenes are set in the Marshalsea, where William Dorrit, imprisoned like Dickens’s father for debt, has set up a social circle whose obsequiousness and class consciousness are simply a reflection of the society outside the prison. The resemblance suggests, in fact, that the large, self-seeking society without is itself a prison, for even when William Dorrit is freed by a legacy (as was John Dickens), he carries the taint of the Marshalsea with him, attempting to conform to social conventions so rigid that they dehumanize him, and hiring the “prunes and prisms” Mrs. General to tutor his daughters. That Dorrit, in ill health, should break down at Mrs. Merdle’s state dinner to babble about the prison is indicative that he has never, indeed, left it but has merely called it by different names.
Some prisons are built to contain those like Blandois, an evocation of the evil principle; others are less obvious, like the workhouse, for example, where old Nandy lives, or Bleeding Heart Yard, whose tenants are imposed upon by the patriarchal landlord Casby, or the Circumlocution Office—an accurate representation of the futile motions of a government bound by red tape. People, as well, create their own prisons: Miss Wade, for example, writes “The History of a Self-Tormentor”; Flora Finching is, as Wilson puts it, an “embodiment of romantic love that persists against all reason and propriety”; even Cavalletto is sequestered by his inability to speak English fluently. Amy, or Little Dorrit, is held in bondage not only by her selfless love for her father but also by her neurotic refusal to be anything but a child. Her sister Fanny willfully contracts a marriage with the dandified Edmund Sparkler, a marriage that guarantees her social respectability at the price of a fool for a husband. Fanny’s prison becomes even smaller when her father-in-law, Mr. Merdle, commits suicide before his financial chicanery is discovered; without the emollient of money, Fanny spends her days in social battle with her mother-in-law, leaving her children in Little Dorrit’s care.
For Arthur Clennam, to return home to his mother’s house is to return to imprisonment, where the walls are walls of the spirit, built of her unforgiving nature and her Calvinism that judges by the letter, not by the spirit of the ethical law. Clennam, however, carries his prison with him in the form of diffidence, for it is a lack of self-confidence that prevents him from proposing to Pet Meagles and almost prevents him from believing in the redeeming love of Little Dorrit herself (whom Lionel Trilling sees finally as “the Paraclete in female form”). In the end, he deliberately takes responsibility for his friend Doyce’s financial trouble and is imprisoned in William Dorrit’s old room. It is fitting that Amy should tend him there, for just as she held the key of affection to lead her father from the prison of self, so she holds the key of love that frees Clennam. In this respect, she radically differs from Clennam’s mother, who, knowing that Arthur Clennam is her husband’s illegitimate child, takes her vengeance accordingly.
Clearly, in Little Dorrit, the individual is both the jailer and the jailed, the cause of suffering and the sufferer; perhaps nowhere else does Dickens so emphasize the intertwined fates of all humans. At this stage in his life, when he was actively involving himself in a number of projects and coming to understand that his marriage was failing, Dickens’s view of the human condition had little of the sunny hope exhibited, for example, in Pickwick Papers, or little of the simplistic interpretation of motivation found in Nicholas Nickleby. Indeed, the last lines of the novel sound a quiet note: Little Dorrit and Clennam go down into the midst of those who fret and chafe as if entering a prison; their only hope is “a modest life of usefulness and happiness.” Their ability to quell the “usual uproar” seems severely limited.
Our Mutual Friend
According to J. Hillis Miller, “Our Mutual Friend presents a fully elaborated definition of what it means to be interlaced with the world.” In this last completed novel, Dickens has indeed relinquished the idea that evil or, in fact, the redemption of society resides in any one individual or institution. The Poor Law in Oliver Twist, the effects of education in Nicholas Nickleby, and the law itself in Bleak House represent abuses that are manifestations of a larger illness permeating society. This view, which Dickens begins to develop in Little Dorrit, is clear in Our Mutual Friend. From the violent, repressed sexuality of the schoolmaster Bradley Headstone to the cool indifference of Eugene Wrayburn, who would despoil Lizzie Hexam to satisfy a whim, all society is affected with a kind of moral (and financial) selfishness that was a matter of parody in Martin Chuzzlewit. Even the heroine, Bella Wilfer, becomes, as she calls herself, a “mercenary little wretch,” consciously weighing her desire for a wealthy marriage against love for John Rokesmith. The exuberance of subplotting evident in Dickens’s early novels is again evident here, although in this case he provides a more disciplined framework, giving the reader not only a central symbol—money (represented as an excremental dust heap) inherited by the Boffins from the miser John Harmon—but also a central character, the enigmatic John Rokesmith, Harmon’s son and therefore rightful heir to the fortune.
The central plot that devolves from a single generous act—the Boffins returning to Rokesmith his inheritance—is illustrative of the title, the significance of which Arnold Kettle has explored in terms of the mutuality of relationships, insofar as the activities of Rokesmith/ Harmon interweave all social levels, from Wegg and Venus to the Podsnaps. The novel, moreover, contains elements of the masquerade in Martin Chuzzlewit as well as the motif of educating the affections in Dombey and Son. Boffin pretends to be a miser and Rokesmith an impoverished clerk to convince Bella that grasping for wealth deadens the heart. Her happy marriage is contrasted with that of her mother, whose perpetual toothache, tender temperament, and mortuary-like deportment minister to her pride but not to the comfort of her family. Indeed, other marriages in the book are hardly preferable: The nouveau-riche Veneerings, who make good friends of strangers in order to entertain them at a sumptuous board, are one example; another is the Lammles, who, sadly deceived in their original estimate of each other’s wealth, set out to defraud the world. Likewise, the Podsnaps, an embodiment of the solid, tasteless, and pretentious middle class, are concerned not, for example, with the emotional state of the much-repressed Georgiana but rather with their place on the social scale, and they are therefore willing to entrust her to the Lammles, whose intention it is to procure her in marriage for the moneylender “Fascination Fledgeby.”
Our Mutual Friend is about the use and misuse of childhood as well. It offers a panoply of unnatural parents, among them Jesse Hexam, who forces Lizzie to dredge corpses from the Thames, and the bibulous “Mr. Dolls,” whose crippled daughter Fanny (“Jenny Wren”) is a dolls’ dressmaker. There are adoptive parents as well—some, like the Lammles, shamming affection to benefit themselves; others, like Lizzie, mothering her selfish brother Charley; or Riah, giving Lizzie fatherly protection; or Betty Higden, showing kindness to her diminutive boarders. The prime example is, of course, the Boffins, who nurture a series of children, young and old, beginning with John Harmon, for whom their kindness created a home in his father’s cold house; then Bella, who they felt had been harmed by the dictates of Harmon’s will, being, as she was, ceded in marriage to a stranger; then Johnny, the orphan who dies; and finally, Sloppy, an idiot foundling. Their adoption of Sloppy, an unprepossessing individual, is the key to the series, for Sloppy is another of Dickens’s touchstone figures.
The subplot that runs parallel to the education of Bella is that of Lizzie Hexam’s wooing by Eugene Wrayburn. While Bella originally refuses Rokesmith because of his supposed poverty, Lizzie evades Wrayburn because of his wealth, fearing that she will become his mistress rather than his wife. Again, while Bella can accept Rokesmith’s proposal without knowing his true identity, Lizzie flees Wrayburn to a factory town (perhaps an evocation of Lowell, Massachusetts, where Dickens visited on his American tour). Even Bella’s moment of bravery, in which she relinquishes all hope of inheriting the Boffins’ money in favor of defending Rokesmith, whose dignity she thinks Boffin is maligning, has a parallel, albeit on a more earthy level: Lizzie rescues Wrayburn from the murderous attack of Headstone, thereby putting to use the skills she had learned when working with her father. Wrayburn’s proposal of marriage to her is his recognition that financial and class standing are irrelevant in matters of the heart.
It is, in fact, their marriage that is central to the “trial” scene at the end of the novel, in which the Veneerings convene their friends to pass judgment on Wrayburn’s action. Mr. Twemlow, a minor character with romantic notions and little apparent strength of character, nevertheless rises to the occasion, as he had in agreeing to help warn the Podsnaps that their daughter was in danger of a mercenary scheme. He asserts, with finality and against the general disparagement, that if Wrayburn followed his “feeling of gratitude, of respect, of admiration and affection,” then he is “the greater gentleman for the action.” Twemlow’s voice is clearly not the voice of society; rather, it is the voice of the heart, and it is to him that Dickens gives the closing word.