Study Guide

Our Mutual Friend

by Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

John Harmon is thought to have been murdered soon after he left the ship upon his return to England to marry Bella Wilfer in compliance with the conditions of his father’s will; a body found by Gaffer Hexam is identified as Harmon’s. Actually, Harmon has not died; fearing for his life and shrinking from the forced marriage, he assumes the name of Julius Handford, then that of John Rokesmith.

As Rokesmith, Harmon becomes a secretary to Mr. Boffin, who inherited the estate of Harmon’s father after young John Harmon was pronounced dead. Before that, Mr. Boffin, who never learned to read, began to employ a street peddler named Wegg to read to him such books as took his fancy. Mr. and Mrs. Boffin enjoy their new wealth and leisure, but they both regret that the son and disinherited daughter of old Harmon did not live to enjoy the fortune that has come to them. They try to find a little orphan whom they can rear, hoping to provide a boy with some of the advantages little John Harmon did not have. The Boffins also bring Bella Wilfer to live with them in their grand new house, wishing to provide her with the kind of life she might have had as John Harmon’s wife.

Bella, who is beautiful but mercenary, intends to make a good match. When Harmon, in his role as Rokesmith, declares his love for her, she rejects him with disdain. When, much later, Mr. Boffin hears that Rokesmith had aspired to her hand, a bitter scene ensues in which he charges Rokesmith with impudence and discharges him. By that time, however, Bella has become wiser, having seen how money and wealth have apparently changed the easygoing Mr. Boffin into an ill-tempered, avaricious miser. She refuses to stay any longer with the Boffins and returns to the modest life of her father’s home.

Mr. Boffin begins to have trouble with Wegg, whom he has established in the comfortable house in which the Boffins live. Not satisfied with his good fortune, Wegg has become increasingly avaricious and spends all his time searching the house and the dustheaps in the yard for possible items of value that old Harmon might have secreted when he lived there. In his searches, Wegg finds a will dated after the will from which the Boffins have profited; in the later will, most of...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Our Mutual Friend Chapter Summaries

Part 1, Chapters 1-4 Summary

Gaffer Hexam and his daughter, Lizzie, row across the surface of the Thames River in London, looking for corpses. On finding one, Lizzie stops the boat while Gaffer digs first through the pockets, finding several coins, before tying it to the stern. Lizzie does not want to be close to the body, but her father harshly admonishes her for hating the river, which gives her money enough for food and provisions. They are interrupted by another boater, who identifies himself as Gaffer's "pardner," but Gaffer denies this. The "pardner" then hints that Gaffer hastens the deaths of the people whose bodies he retrieves. Done for the night, a relieved Lizzie rows them back to shore, pulling the corpse behind.

Mr. and Mrs. Veneering are newlyweds who are newly rich. Their home is new, as are their friends. Twemlow is their oldest acquaintance and regularly appears at all their dinner parties, though he is often confused and overwhelmed by all the new people. At one dinner, a Lady Tippin flirts with all the gentlemen. Another guest, Mortimer Lightwood, tells the party the story of the Man from Somewhere, who was the son of the rich Dust contractor named Harmon. Mr. Harmon, Senior, had disowned his daughter because she failed to marry the man he had selected for her, marrying instead “Another.” The daughter soon died, as did Another. The son, who was at school in Brussels, was thus the sole heir of the fortune, but only if he married the woman whom Mr. Harmon had selected for him. If he did not, the Harmon fortune would go to an old servant. Mr. Harmon died recently, and the son was returning to claim his inheritance. A message arrives just as Mortimer finishes the story, stating that this son had drowned.

Mortimer, along with Eugene Wrayburn, leaves the dinner party and follows the messenger, who is Charley Hexam, the son of Gaffer. Their intention is to examine the body that has been identified by the steward of the ship on which it arrived as John Harmon. A stranger also arrives to see the body, but he is horrified at the sight and cannot. He gives his name as Julius Hanford. Charley goes home to his sister, Lizzie, and they imagine pictures of their past in the coals of the fire. At the inquest, it is determined that the decayed and disfigured body is that of John Harmon, the victim of murder.

Bella Wilfer is the woman whom Mr. Harmon had ordered his son to marry, and she now resents that she must wear mourning clothes for a man she never met. A new lodger arrives, signing his name as John Rokesmith, though he refuses to give references. Bella does not trust him from the start. It is mentioned that John Rokesmith could have been Julius Hanford’s twin.

Part 1, Chapters 5-7 Summary

Silas Wegg, an errand runner and street corner salesman, sets up his wares at the corner near Cavendish Square. He believes himself to be in the employ of an imaginary family of an empty house. Nicodemus (Nick, or Noddy) Boffin, the uneducated servant who has inherited the Harmon estate after John Harmon’s presumed drowning, hires Wegg to be his personal reader. Boffin has bought a set of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (though he mistakenly refers to it as the Russian Empire) and would like Wegg to come to his new home, Boffin’s Bower (formerly Harmony Jail), to read it to him. Wegg agrees and arrives at Boffin’s Bower to be greeted by Mrs. Boffin. After managing to get fed by the Boffins, Wegg begins reading, stumbling over most of the unfamiliar Roman names.

At the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, Miss Abbey Potterson reigns behind the bar. She tells the customers when it is time for them to go home, much as a mother would. Riderhood, a former partner of Gaffer Hexam, is told by Miss Potterson that he is no longer allowed in the tavern because of his trade of picking the pockets of corpses found in the river. Riderhood resents that Gaffer is still allowed in when he is in the same trade, so he insinuates that Gaffer murders his victims for the purpose of picking their pockets after they are dead. Miss Potterson throws Riderhood out and says that Gaffer Hexam is no longer allowed either. She sends for Lizzie Hexam and tells her that she has to get away from her father and take no more part in his “trade.” She shares the suspicion that Gaffer is a murderer, but Lizzie swears it is only Riderhood’s revenge for Gaffer's severing their partnership. Lizzie goes home and tells her brother Charley that he must escape and go to school. She gives him money and sends him out the door. When she tells her father where Charley has gone, Gaffer exclaims that he is now disowned. As he speaks, he stabs his knife in the air, which terrifies Lizzie. She begs him not to use his knife, and he is overcome by the fear that he has caused his daughter.

On his way home from reading to Mr. Boffin, Silas Wegg stops at Mr. Venus’s shop. Mr. Venus is a taxidermist and an “articulator of human bones.” Mr. Venus has acquired Wegg’s amputated leg, and Wegg is interested in purchasing it, but Mr. Venus doesn’t deal. He is very sad and confesses to Wegg that he has been refused by the woman he wants to marry because of his profession.

Part 1, Chapters 8-10 Summary

Mr. Boffin keeps an appointment with his lawyer, Mr. Lightwood, wanting to create a “tight” will to ensure that all his fortune (estimated at 100,000 pounds) will be left absolutely to Mrs. Boffin. He tells Mr. Lightwood that he is offering a reward of ten thousand pounds to the person who solves the murder of John Harmon, but Mr. Lightwood warns that this large amount may bring out more misinformation from scoundrels than the truth. Mr. Boffin tells of the last time he saw John Harmon, when John was a young boy being sent abroad to school. As he is leaving the lawyer’s office, Eugene Wrayburn enters. Mr. Lightwood introduces the two gentlemen. Outside of the office, a stranger approaches Mr. Boffin, explaining that he had been pointed out to him on the streets and has wished to speak with him. He introduces himself as Rokesmith and mentions that he is lodging with the Wilfers. Mr. Boffin knows Bella Wilfer. Rokesmith offers his services as a secretary to Mr. Boffin, who is not sure exactly what kind of services a secretary would provide, explaining to Rokesmith that he already has Mr. Wegg as his “literary man.” Mr. Rokesmith suggests that they meet further, to which Mr. Boffin agrees in a week or two.

On arriving home, Mr. Boffin is greeted by Mrs. Boffin’s announcement that they must begin to live up to their new position in society. She proposes offering a home to Bella Wilfer, who tragically lost her future husband. She also would like to adopt an orphan boy, rename him John Harmon, and bring him up as a tribute to their late employer’s son. Mr. Boffin agrees to all this, and the Boffins go to the home of the Reverend Mr. Milvey, who promises to find a suitable orphan for them. Mr. and Mrs. Boffin then go to the Wilfer home and make their proposal to Bella. Mrs. Wilfer feels herself superior to the former servants. She calls in Bella to let her decide. Her other daughter, Lavinia, also arrives along with her gentleman friend, George Sampson. After some acrimonious conversation among the Wilfers, Bella agrees to the Boffins’ proposal. Mr. Boffin asks about their lodger, Mr. Rokesmith, to whom he refers as “Our Mutual Friend.” As they leave, Mr. Rokesmith arrives. He is startled when he hears Mrs. Boffin tell Bella that she will soon be introduced to little John Harmon. She explains her plans for adoption to Rokesmith.

Two friends of the Veneerings, Alfred Lammle and Sophronia Akershem, are married, each believing that the other is a person of property. On their honeymoon, they discover that each one had been deceiving the other. After the initial outrage, the Lammles decide to treat the world as they have treated each other and vow to deceive and take advantage of everyone they know.

Part 1, Chapters 11-13 Summary

Mr. and Mrs. Podsnap decide that they must have a dinner for their daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Mr. Podsnap, a friend of the Veneerings, has contempt for all countries except England. At the dinner, Podsnap has a conversation with a foreign gentleman in which he constantly corrects the latter’s English pronunciation. Podsnap begs Mr. Veneering to tell the party about the night they learned of the Harmon murder during a dinner at the Veneering home. Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are also present and decide that they will begin their deception of the world with the Podsnaps. Mrs. Lammle befriends Miss Georgiana Podsnap, who is painfully shy. Georgiana is angered by her mother’s bringing over men to dance with her, which she says that...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 14-17 Summary

Riderhood suggests that since they cannot find Gaffer, they should go and apprehend his daughter, Lizzie. Wrayburn contemptuously puts this idea down. He and Lightwood go with Riderhood to drag the boat in and are shocked to discover Gaffer’s body tied behind it. The inspector takes charge of the body, and Lightwood suggests that they go tell Lizzie of her father’s death. He turns to talk to Wrayburn and finds that he has disappeared. He returns home and goes to bed after his long night. When he awakens, he finds that Wrayburn has returned home as well, explaining that he had had enough of the investigation and had gone for a walk.

Mr. Boffin attempts to understand what Mr. Rokesmith meant when he offered to be his...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 1-3 Summary

At his new school, Charley Hexam requests permission to visit his sister Lizzie. His schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone, suggests that it would be better to distance himself from his sister as a connection to his unsavory past. When Charley insists, Mr. Headstone declares that he will accompany him. Charley resists, not wanting Mr. Headstone to see Lizzie’s living conditions, as he himself wants to put his past behind him. On the way, they are stopped by Miss Peecher, a teacher at a girls’ school, who is interested in Mr. Headstone. Mr. Headstone is indifferent to her, and he and Charley continue until they come to Lizzie’s lodgings. They are welcomed by Fanny Cleaver (who is called Jenny Wren), a thirteen-year-old girl who has...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 4-6 Summary

The Lammles still live in Alfred’s bachelor lodgings, saying to their friends that they are looking for a larger home. This invites everyone to suggest places, which do not seem to satisfy the Lammles. Mrs. Lammle intensifies her efforts to make friends with Miss Podsnap. Over tea one day, Miss Podsnap says that Mr. Lammle is her idea of the perfect lover, though she assures Mrs. Lammle that she has no romantic notions about her husband. Alfred Lammle arrives and suggests that Miss Podsnap has an admirer in “Fascination” Fledgeby, a lanky, insecure youth who is even more shy than Miss Podsnap. He has arranged for Fledgeby to join Miss Podsnap and the Lammles for dinner and the opera the following day, which horrifies Miss...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 7-10 Summary

Mr. Boffin frequently shows up at Boffin’s Bower, which upsets Mr. Wegg, who thinks that he is being watched. Mr. Venus arrives at the Bower with Mr. Wegg’s leg, which Mr. Wegg says is his by law anyway. Mr. Venus is still in low spirits from being disappointed in love when his marriage proposal was rejected. Mr. Wegg shares with Mr. Venus his resentment at being passed over by Old Mr. Harmon in favor of the Boffins, having spoken to Mr. Harmon on several occasions. The two men discuss the possibility of starting a partnership, searching through the dust around the Bower for articles of any value. They agree to this proposal when Mr. Rokesmith arrives with a message for Mr. Wegg. He tells him that Mr. Boffin does not want Mr....

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 11-13 Summary

Miss Peecher questions her pupil, Mary Anne, about Charley Hexam’s sister. Mary Anne tells her where Lizzie lives, and soon Mr. Headstone comes to Miss Peecher’s home. Miss Peecher makes it clear that she knows Mr. Headstone is going to Lizzie’s home, but Mr. Headstone neither confirms nor denies. At Lizzie’s home, Mr. Headstone is quizzed by Jenny Wren until Lizzie arrives. Mr. Headstone tells Lizzie that she should end her relationship with Eugene Wrayburn, but Lizzie does not take his advice. Mr. Headstone says he has something else to tell her, but he cannot bring himself to do so and asks for another interview.

Pleasant Riderhood, the daughter of Gaffer’s former partner, Rogue, is visited by a strange man...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 14-16 Summary

Mr. Rokesmith continues to “bury” John Harmon ever deeper, now that Bella Wilfer has rejected him as a poor man, rather than as John Harmon the rich man she has decided she must marry. Mrs. Betty Higden comes to the Boffins’ and tells Rokesmith that she is running away from Sloppy, who thinks that he can live with both the Boffins and her at the same time. She wants to remove herself to make his new life easier. She also complains of a deadness coming over her since Johnny’s death. She wants to borrow money from the Boffins to outfit a sewing basket so that she may travel around the country as a seamstress. While the Boffins regret losing her and would do more for her if she let them, Rokesmith encourages them to allow the...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 1-4 Summary

On a foggy morning, Riah, the Jewish debt collector, goes to the offices of Pubsey and Co., awakening Fascination Fledgeby, even though it is after ten o’clock. He presents his accounts of debts to Fledgeby, who notes that “Queer Street is full of lodgers” (meaning, many people are deeply in debt). Alfred Lammle arrives and shows Fledgeby a note from Podsnap requesting that the Lammles stay away from Georgiana. Lammle and Fledgeby argue, blaming each other for the failure of their plans of having Fledgeby marry Georgiana for her money. After peace is made, Fledgeby warns Lammle never to fall into the hands of Pubsey and Co. as far as unpaid debts are concerned. Lammle is unsettled by this and leaves. Fledgeby muses to himself...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 5-7 Summary

Mr. Boffin is finally ready to talk wages with Mr. Rokesmith. He offers his secretary two hundred pounds a year, which Rokesmith views as fair. Mr. Boffin tells Rokesmith that he “buys” him on a round-the-clock basis. Mrs. Boffin thinks that he has been too strict with Rokesmith. Mr. Boffin tells Bella that her good looks will make money for her, and he urges her to use them to her own advantage. This also bothers Mrs. Boffin, as it does Bella, despite having told herself the same thing. In the following days, Mr. Boffin has Bella buy him books on the lives of misers. She notices that Mr. Boffin is becoming a miser himself. Sophronia Lammle becomes captivated by Bella, now that she has stopped her husband’s machinations of...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 8-10 Summary

Betty Higden continues on her journey, though the Boffins receive no news of her. Her life has not been easy, and she struggles to maintain her independence. She travels up along the River Thames, fearful of “falling into the hands of Charity.” One day, sitting on a bench in a village marketplace, she faints. The villagers try to help her, asking her if she has anyone nearby to care for her. Betty tells them she does and escapes as quickly as she can. Another incident involves her seeing her dead children and grandchildren riding on a canal barge. The canal attendant questions her, believing her to be a vagrant. She shows him the Boffins’ letter, but he cannot read. He talks her into giving him all her money...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 11-14 Summary

Headstone watches outside Wrayburn’s lodgings. He suspects that Lizzie may be in Wrayburn’s chambers. The watchman lets him in and he listens at the door, hearing voices but not a woman’s.

Leaving, Headstone runs into Riderhood, who is there on business and explains that he is seeking damages from the steamer that ran him down as well as requesting a job as a Lock-keeper. Headstone asks Riderhood when he last saw Lizzie. Riderhood responds that it was the day Gaffer’s body was pulled from the river, which is also the only time he saw her with Wrayburn. Headstone gives Riderhood money and asks him to tell him if he should ever see Lizzie.

At breakfast, Mrs. Lammle remarks that the only income they...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 15-17 Summary

Tensions increase between Mr. Boffin and Mr. Rokesmith. After Mrs. Lammle tells him about Rokesmith’s proposal to Bella, Mr. Boffin confronts his secretary, stating that it was sheer insolence on Rokesmith’s part to approach a woman so far above his station. Bella objects to Mr. Boffin’s attack on Mr. Rokesmith for her sake, but Mr. Boffin dismisses her objections. Bella begs Mr. Rokesmith’s forgiveness for the manner of her rejection of his proposal.

Mr. Boffin dismisses Rokesmith without letting him resign. Before he leaves, Rokesmith repeats his love for Bella, which has not lessened since her rejection. Mr. Boffins asks him how he can say he loves Bella when he would subject her to a life of poverty instead...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 1-4 Summary

Rogue Riderhood is now the lock-keeper of Plashwater Weir-Mill Lock. Eugene Wrayburn comes through the lock, rowing a small boat. Not long after Wrayburn passes, Bradley Headstone appears, disguised as a bargeman. Riderhood recognizes him, however, and also knows that he is following Wrayburn.

Headstone tells Riderhood that he is sure that Wrayburn is going to Lizzie, who evidently must be nearby, and that is why he is following him. After Headstone leaves, Riderhood puts on a red neckerchief.

Headstone returns for a few hours of rest before returning to the pursuit. He observes closely the red neckerchief that Riderhood is wearing, as Riderhood intended him to. The next day, Headstone continues his chase...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 5-7 Summary

Mr. Wilfer returns home, pretending that he knows nothing of Bella’s whereabouts. Mrs. Wilfer, who has received the letter, tells him that he no longer has a daughter because Bella has married a mendicant (poor beggar).

Lavinia resents Bella for having jeopardized her relationship with George Sampson by running off and getting married. While Mrs. Wilfer and her daughter argue, Mr. Wilfer is content to stand to one side and avoid involvement. He tells his wife that, no matter her disapproval, both Bella and Rokesmith will be welcome in the Wilfer home.

A few weeks later, the Rokesmiths come to a very uncomfortable tea. On their walk home, Rokesmith asks Bella if she would rather that he were as rich as Mr....

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 8-11 Summary

Jenny Wren, having discovered the hypocrisy of Riah, gets scraps for her doll clothes elsewhere, but she does not tell Lizzie what she has learned.

Fledgeby comes to see Jenny since she no longer comes to Pubsey and Co. He asks about Lizzie’s whereabouts, but Jenny will not tell him. He says that Riah has “dark motives” concerning Lizzie that he would like to prevent. Jenny agrees to meet him the following day.

The next morning, Jenny waits while Fledgeby meets with Alfred Lammle, who is leaving the country. Mr. Lammle soon comes downstairs and hands Jenny a broken cane for her to return to Fledgeby.

Jenny goes up to find Fledgeby writhing on the floor. Besides beating him with the...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 12-14 Summary

Bella gives birth to a baby girl, and John asks her again if she would like to be rich. After a few months, Bella notices that John seems uneasy, but he will not tell her why. He keeps asking her if she would like to be rich, but she always answers that she would not.

As they are out walking, they unexpectedly meet Lightwood, who recognizes John as Julius Handford from before he became John Rokesmith. Bella is shocked, knowing that Julius Handford was wanted for questioning in the death of Gaffer Hexam. Lightwood points out that John’s avoidance of him increases the suspicion of his involvement in Gaffer’s murder.

At home, John tells Bella, who has asked no questions, that the mystery soon will be over....

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 15-17 Summary

Bradley Headstone is haunted by the fear of being caught for his attempted murder of Eugene Wrayburn as well as the realization that his attempt to separate Wrayburn and Lizzie had in fact brought them together.

One day, Rogue Riderhood shows up at his school while he is teaching class. He asks for Wrayburn, and Headstone nervously says he will tell him to meet Riderhood at the lock. Riderhood asks the pupils what is found in a river and answers his own question: a bundle of clothes, which he reveals under his arm.

After Riderhood leaves, Headstone falls into another fit, knowing that Riderhood knows he murdered Wrayburn. The next day, Headstone walks up to the Lock, where he meets Riderhood.

The...

(The entire section is 494 words.)