Dombey and Son, which appeared after Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), was Charles Dickens’s effort to regain the popularity he had lost with the publication of his previous novel. Martin Chuzzlewit, which had heavily satirized America and Americans, had caused Dickens to lose a great deal of favor, much to Dickens’s chagrin, who was by that time in something of a competition for the public’s attention with another great Victorian novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray. Dombey and Son is unusual in Dickens’s work for being set among a higher social level than his previous novels. For the first time, he indicated an interest in and a sympathy for the upper-middle classes and the aristocracy. The story is a very serious one, involving the downfall of a dignified merchant and the painful process by which he learns that love is more powerful than money. As is typical of Dickens, however, there is a large cast of characters providing a rich, sometimes humorous background to the central story.
In Dombey and Son, Dickens for the first time attempted to portray the full panorama of English society, from beggar to magnate, from baronet to housemaid. Although less successful than Bleak House (1852-1853) in expressing the connections between all levels of society, the novel has a prodigious scope.
The principal theme of the work is the relationship between parents and children, chiefly Mr. Dombey’s relationship with Paul and Florence and subordinately those of various parents and their offspring, ranging in social station from Mrs. Skewton and Edith down to Mrs. Brown and her Alice. Each family situation is thrown into relief by contrast with another that is similar in social class yet utterly different in kind. Edith Granger, schooled almost from infancy to be “artful, designing, mercenary, laying snares for men,” is shown in contrast with the son of Sir Barnet Skettles, whose parents willingly interrupt his studies at Dr. Blimber’s academy in order to enjoy his company during their trip abroad. Mr. Dombey’s crude attempt to mold his fragile son to a shape that does his father honor in the world’s eyes contrasts with the honest and unpretentious course that Solomon Gills recommends to his nephew Walter: “Be diligent, try to like it, my dear boy, work for a steady independence, and be happy!” The miserable devices of greed that Mrs. Brown urges on her daughter as the only recourse of the poor is proven a lie by the love and warmth shown by Polly Toodle toward her erring son Rob.
The sad ends of Edith, little Paul, and Alice Marwood all result from the corruption of childhood by adult concerns and from the disregard of individuality in children, a view of them as things, counters in a game, or a hedge against destitution or mortality. Mr. Dombey views Paul as a little mirror of...
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