Charles Dickens’s last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, is among his greatest works, containing perhaps the most mature expression of his artistic abilities. The novel, which reflects many of his major concerns as a writer and social critic, is a complicated one, with an intricately constructed and elaborate plot. The first two chapters provide a stark contrast. In the first, Gaffer Hexam, the “bird of prey,” is in a boat on the Thames with his daughter Lizzie, on the lookout for the drowned bodies that are the source of his livelihood; in the second, the newly rich Veneerings are giving a dinner party. The unexpected link between the two worlds is provided in the third chapter.
By revealing the real links between people and classes that would seem to have no connection at all (this culminates in the wedding of Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam at the end), Dickens shows that different worlds, though separated from each other in thought, are physically close, each involved with the other. In holding a mirror up to the cumbersome structure of society, Dickens uses the idea of depth and surface to reflect the polite world on top and the seething, half-known world of misery and crime below. Dickens also implies that the sophisticated few are often stupid and easy to understand, while the unlettered many can be complex and intriguing.
This inversion of the expected is one of the book’s dominating features. Other reversions include Betty Higden’s hounding by misguided charity, the reversed parent-child relationship of Jenny Wren and her father (to some extent, though in a more benign sense, this is also true of Bella Wilfer and her father), and the unequal relationship between the morally upright Riah and the scoundrel Fledgeby. These reversals indicate something of a newfound flexibility in Dickens’s treatment of moral problems. As the problems come to seem more doubtful and difficult, his literary treatment of them becomes that much more clear and intense.
Also central to the novel is the theme of the relationships among marriage, money, and societal values. This theme is worked out in the three important marriages in the novel, those between Harmon and Bella, Eugene and Lizzie, and Alfred and Sophronia Lammle. In each of these marriages, money is an important issue. Harmon, though he is or could be rich, must pretend to be poor to be certain that Bella is not marrying him for his money. Eugene must marry Lizzie in the face of pressures from his family and society that he marry a woman with money. When...
(The entire section is 1046 words.)
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