Our Mutual Friend Charles Dickens
The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). See also Charles Dickens Criticism, Hard Times Criticism, and A Tale of Two Cities Criticism.
The last of Dickens's novels to be issued as a twenty-part monthly serial, Our Mutual Friend has long been considered one of the author's darkest works, the product of his declining years when exhaustion and disillusionment were taking over his life and his writing. The novel was not terribly successful at the time of its publication and was unfavorably compared to his earlier, more optimistic works. In addition, the popularity of serialized novels had peaked some twenty years earlier and the form was being replaced by less expensive monthly magazines. Critics today, for the most part, consider the novel in a more favorable light, appreciating the complexity of its numerous characters and multiple plot lines, and praising its unified presentation of the themes of money and predation.
Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, to John and Elizabeth Barrow Dickens. The second of eight children, Dickens spent his childhood on the southern coast of England, where he attended a good school until the age of eleven. The family then moved to London and shortly thereafter his father was sent to debtor's prison. Young Charles went to work in a blacking warehouse and was forced to live on his own in cheap lodgings in a state of near starvation. Although he was soon rescued by his father and sent to school in London, the brief period of abandonment and uncertainty affected his life and his writings for years to come. Dickens did not attend college but was admitted as a reader to the library of the British Museum, where he immersed himself in the study of great literature, particularly Shakespeare. He worked for some time as a clerk, as a shorthand reporter, and eventually as a news reporter for the Morning Chronicle, a position which required him to travel all over the country.
Dickens's first success, both critical and popular, was Sketches by Boz (1836), a series of short pieces on life in London. His first novel, Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), was published, as were all of his novels, in serial form, and by the time the fourth monthly installment was issued, Dickens was the most popular author in England. Over the next thirty years, he continued to publish successful novels, among them: Oliver Twist (1838), A Christmas Carol In Prose (1843), The Personal History of David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times for These Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861). His writing, once full of hope and optimism, grew increasingly pessimistic as he aged, with images of decay and corruption dominating the later works. Our Mutual Friend was his last completed novel; with its images of dustheaps and death, it is widely considered one of the author's darkest visions. In 1870, while working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens suffered an aneurysm in the brain and died the next day. He was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Plot and Major Characters
There are numerous plots and subplots in Our Mutual Friend, the main one involving a young man, John Harmon, who returns to England after an absence of many years. Before his death, his wealthy father had made his son's inheritance contingent upon his marriage to Bella Wilfer, a beautiful but mercenary young woman. Shortly after leaving the ship that brought him back to England, Harmon is supposedly murdered; a body found in the Thames is identified as his and he does nothing to correct the error. Assuming first the name of Julius Handford, and then John Rokesmith, Harmon takes a position as secretary to Mr. Boffin—a former employee and now heir of the elder Harmon's estate—in order to assess the character of his bride-to-be while in disguise. Uneasy with their newly-acquired wealth, the Boffins have taken Bella into their home in order to give her the advantages she would have had if she had married Harmon. As Rokesmith, Harmon professes his love for Bella, but believing she is capable of making a far better match, she refuses him and Mr. Boffin discharges him for impudence.
During this time, Boffin has changed from a kindly generous man to a materialistic miser as part of an elaborate charade to teach Bella a lesson about the hazards of greed. The young woman becomes so disturbed by the changes in her benefactor, she returns to her father's house, giving up the material advantages of life with the Boffins. Bella sees the error of her ways and determines to marry for love. When Rokesmith reappears, she agrees to marry him, and their marriage is happy despite their modest means. Eventually the mystery surrounding Rokesmith's true identity is unraveled and his fortune restored, making Bella the wealthy wife she had once dreamed of being.
The other major narrative involves Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of a river scavenger, Gaffer Hexam, the very man who discovered the body thought to be Harmon's. At the inquest, Lizzie is noticed by Eugene Wrayburn, a bored, upper-class lawyer. Lizzie's brother, a churlish youth, hates Wrayburn and tries to steer his sister's affections away from the lawyer and towards Bradley Headstone, a severe schoolmaster whose repressed anger surfaces when Lizzie rejects his proposal. Lizzie escapes the attentions of both men by retreating to a small country village. Returning from a visit to Lizzie, Wrayburn is attacked and thrown into the river by Headstone. Lizzie rescues him, and he is slowly nursed back to life with the help of Jenny Wren, a dolls' dressmaker with whom Lizzie had lived in London. Jenny determines that Wrayburn's wish is to marry Lizzie; she brings a clergyman from London and arranges a bedside ceremony for the pair.
Subplots include the attempted blackmail of Mr. Boffin by his employee Silas Wegg, who has been hired to read to the illiterate Boffins. Wegg had taken possession of the Boffin house and dustheap when the Boffins departed for more luxurious quarters. When Wegg finds another of the elder Harmon's wills, this one leaving the fortune to the state, he tries, with the aid of a taxidermist named Mr. Venus, to coerce his employer into sharing the estate. The plot is foiled by Venus's offer to testify against Wegg.
A second case of attempted blackmail involves Rogue Riderhood, a river scavenger who witnesses the attack on Wrayburn and tries to extract money from Headstone in exchange for his silence. As the two argue and struggle, they both fall into the river and drown.
The upper classes make up what Dickens called “the social chorus,” a group whose only apparent function is to represent society's views on the events of the main narratives as they unfold. Their lives are empty and their activities are limited to gossiping about the Harmons, the Boffins, and the other characters who lead more active lives. The main members of the social chorus are the Veneerings, a newly-rich couple who hold dinner parties in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the more established members of London society; the Podsnaps, who are rich, self-satisfied, and rigid; and the Lammles, who married each other for money only to discover that each had been trying to deceive the other and they were both penniless.
At the opposite end of the economic spectrum is Betty Higden, a poor woman hounded by her fear of dying in the poorhouse. She would prefer to starve than to suffer the cruelties and indignities associated with the almshouse, and that's exactly what she does, dying in a field as Lizzie Hexam tries to comfort her.
The major theme of Our Mutual Friend is money and the hazards associated with its misuse. The well-to-do characters, almost without exception, are negatively portrayed, and the Harmon fortune makes it necessary for its heir to hide his identity in order to assess the character of the Boffins and Bella Wilfer with any accuracy, the implication being that a rich man can never determine who his true friends are. A related theme is predation—several chapter headings refer to birds of prey—wherein the possibility of extracting wealth from another by less than honorable means proves too tempting for such characters as Silas Wegg, Rogue Riderhood, and others. The very opening scene of the novel involves Gaffer Hexam, bent over the edge of his boat like a vulture, looking for bodies in the river—bodies that he then robs before turning them over to the authorities.
Many critics have pointed out the emphasis on surfaces and depths throughout the novel. Hexam and Riderhood plumb the depths of the Thames searching for bodies and whatever other treasures they can find, while the Veneerings are all glossy surface with no depth at all. Masks, disguises, and cases of mistaken identity occur repeatedly within the narrative. John Harmon is taken for dead because a man who resembles him has been murdered by mistake. Harmon then assumes a new identity and lives as John Rokesmith, allowing the community to believe the error. Mr. Boffin pretends to be a miser in order to instruct Bella Wilfer on the perils of materialism and greed. Bradley Headstone disguises himself as Rogue Riderhood so that the attack on Wrayburn will be blamed on the waterman. Both the river and the dustheaps, which forms the basis of the Harmon fortune, are recurring motifs in the work and both are associated with death and decay but, at the same time, they provide a livelihood for some. As critic Richard A. Lanham puts it, “if the river is the liquid sewer of London, the dust-heap is the dry one, and the two together provide food and drink for the majority of the characters in the novel.”
Reading and literacy are also prominent features of Our Mutual Friend. The Boffins' illiteracy provides an employment opportunity for Weggs, who pretends to be an expert in literary matters. Gaffer Hexam's illiteracy means he must memorize the posters and pamphlets of missing persons who have possibly met their deaths in the river. His daughter Lizzie's illiteracy provides the excuse for Wrayburn's involvement with her, as the lawyer offers to provide reading lessons for both Lizzie and Jenny Wren.
Overall, the tone of the narrative is grim and bleak; the cumulative effect of the numerous references to corruption, decay, and death is a darkness that becomes oppressive. Although there are humorous instances throughout the novel, most especially those associated with the Veneerings and the Podsnaps, they are satiric in nature rather than comic.
Critical response to Our Mutual Friend was long shaped by Henry James's famous 1865 review in the Nation. James called it “the poorest of Mr Dickens's works,” claiming that the novel was “poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion.” Most scholars agreed with this assessment and termed the work incoherent and implausible. The reading public, meanwhile, was put off by the novel's relentless pessimism; subscriptions fell off monthly as installments were published. Most modern critics, though, tend to recognize the complexity of the work and to appreciate the multiple plot lines and numerous characters. Some of these characters, such as Gaffer Hexam and Betty Higden, were possibly inspired by real Londoners who had been interviewed by Henry Mayhew for his nonfiction work London Labour and the London Poor. Harland S. Nelson has examined these possible connections by comparing the two texts. Other possible sources of inspiration have been suggested by Lewis Horne, who believes that Homer's hero Odysseus was the model for three of Dickens's characters; and Howard W. Fulweiler, who suggests that Darwin's theories informed Dickens's later fiction, particularly Our Mutual Friend.
Concentrating too completely on characters and the weaknesses in their representation has led, according to Philip Hobsbaum, to many negative assessments of Our Mutual Friend. Critics would be better served, he claims, by concentrating on the novel's central images, particularly dust and the river. Other critics claim the novel is unified by the motifs of reading and literacy, among them Stanley Friedman, who believes that these recurring elements provide character definition and aid in plot development. Michael Greenstein, meanwhile, has studied the many unifying themes and motifs that focus on mutuality. As a whole, late twentieth-century scholars have dismissed the early negative appraisals of Our Mutual Friend and now urge a new appreciation of this complicated novel.
Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People [as Boz] (sketches and short stories) 1836
*Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (novel) 1837
*Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
*The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839
*Barnaby Rudge (novel) 1841
*The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841
American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842
A Christmas Carol in Prose (short story) 1843
The Chimes (short story) 1844
*The Life and Adventures of Martin...
(The entire section is 171 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Our Mutual Friend, in Nation, 21 December, 1865, reprinted in Dickens: Hard Times, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, ed. by Norman Page, Macmillan Press, 1979, pp. 152-56.
[In the following review, James asserts that Our Mutual Friend is uninspired and disappointing, filled with implausibly eccentric characters.]
Our Mutual Friend is, to our perception, the poorest of Mr Dickens's works. And it is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion. It is wanting in inspiration. For the last ten years it has seemed to us that Mr Dickens has been unmistakably forcing...
(The entire section is 2052 words.)
SOURCE: “The Critics and Our Mutual Friend,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 13, No. 3, July, 1963, pp. 231-40.
[In the following essay, Hobsbaum examines common misreadings of Our Mutual Friend and suggests that they are caused by an overemphasis on character, whereas a study of the novel's central images would yield a greater understanding and appreciation of the work.]
Even the greatest novel can lend itself to misreading if there is some uncertainty in its execution. The misreading may, however, be considerably in excess of the uncertainty.
For example, the young Henry James came out decisively against Our Mutual Friend when...
(The entire section is 3753 words.)
SOURCE: “Our Mutual Friend: The Birds of Prey,” in Victorian Newsletter, Vol. 24, Fall, 1963, pp. 6-12.
[In the following essay, Lanham claims that the theme of Our Mutual Friend is predation rather than money.]
Our Mutual Friend's reputation began in the cellar with Henry James' famous review, and climbed steadily in critical esteem until Edmund Wilson's reappraisal established it at the top of the house. The two opinions make a startling contrast. James had begun his review, “Our Mutual Friend is, to our perception, the poorest of Mr. Dickens's works. And it is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent...
(The entire section is 6772 words.)
SOURCE: “Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 3, December, 1965, pp. 207-22.
[In the following essay, Nelson studies possible sources for the characters Betty Higden and Gaffer Hexam in Our Mutual Friend from among the poor Londoners interviewed by Henry Mayhew for his nonfiction work.]
Betty Higden (the character in Our Mutual Friend who would rather die than go to the poorhouse, and does) offended some of Dickens's readers, the same ones, no doubt, who felt about Jacob's Island in Oliver Twist, and the Yorkshire schools in Nicholas...
(The entire section is 7861 words.)
SOURCE: “Laughter in Our Mutual Friend,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1971, p. 509-21.
[In the following essay, Sherer examines Our Mutual Friend as a prime example of Dickens's ability to create humor while treating serious themes.]
Dickens' enigmatic Our Mutual Friend, the last complete novel he wrote, is an ideal place to examine his mature genius for creating humor. The laughter of the novel is abundant and varied and is related in complex ways to what is unique in Dickens' art. Most characteristic of the work itself is its comprehensiveness. Its innumerable scenes and characters generate a web of...
(The entire section is 5544 words.)
SOURCE: “The ‘Golden Bower’ of Our Mutual Friend,” in ELH, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 105-30.
[In the following essay, Stewart analyzes the character of Jenny Wren; unlike most critics who either ignore or disparage her, Stewart considers the character central to the novel's symbolic meaning.]
‘You are talking about Me, good people,’ thought Miss Jenny, sitting in her golden bower, warming her feet. ‘I can't hear what you say, but I know your tricks and your manners!’
Miss Jenny is Fanny Cleaver, alias Jenny Wren, the crippled seamstress in Our Mutual Friend who fashions...
(The entire section is 10679 words.)
SOURCE: “The Motif of Reading in Our Mutual Friend,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1, June, 1973, pp. 38-61.
[In the following essay, Friedman explores the way the motifs of reading and literacy serves not only to reinforce the themes of Our Mutual Friend, but also to help move the plot forward and to define characters.]
Two-thirds of the way through Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, Eugene Wrayburn responds to his friend's criticism:
“You charm me, Mortimer, with your reading of my weaknesses. (By-the-bye, that very word, Reading, in its critical use, always charms me. An actress's Reading of a...
(The entire section is 9841 words.)
SOURCE “Depth and Surface in Our Mutual Friend,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 25, No. 2, April, 1975, pp. 197-214.
[In the following essay, Gribble suggests that the character of Eugene Wrayburn represents Dickens's interest in the conflict between individual identity and the social persona required by a repressive Victorian society.]
A note from Dickens to Forster in 1861 suggests the genesis of Our Mutual Friend:
—a man, young and perhaps eccentric, feigning to be dead, and being dead to all intents and purposes external to himself, and for years retaining the singular view of life and character so...
(The entire section is 6103 words.)
SOURCE: “Savages in a ‘Bran-New’ World: Carlyle and Our Mutual Friend,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 199-217.
[In the following essay, Qualls suggests that Thomas Carlyle's vocabulary, stock characters, and social concerns strongly influenced Dickens's writing of Our Mutual Friend.]
Though Dickens, a few months before beginning Our Mutual Friend, wrote to Carlyle of “always reading you faithfully and trying to go your way,”1 no close attention has been given to any role Carlyle's work might play in that novel.2 Yet in essential ways Carlyle's presence is as strong and significant in Dickens's...
(The entire section is 8534 words.)
SOURCE: “The Education of the Reader in Our Mutual Friend,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 1, June, 1979, pp. 41-58.
[In the following essay, Mundhenk maintains that some of the confusing plot elements in Our Mutual Friend are caused by the author's deliberate attempts to manipulate and deceive his readers and thus to educate them about the limitations of individual perception.]
The narrator of Our Mutual Friend describes Twemlow as a creature “condemned to a passage through the world by such narrow little dimly-lighted ways, and picking up so few specks or spots on the road.”1 Vexed by the “insoluble question...
(The entire section is 6884 words.)
SOURCE: “Boffin and Podsnap in Utopia,” in The Dickensian, Vol. 77, No. 3, Autumn, 1981, pp. 154-61.
[In the following essay, Meckier discusses the use of the characters Podsnap and Boffin in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and William Morris's News from Nowhere, respectively.]
During the lecture-tour at the commencement of Brave New World, the Director of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre boasts about Bokanovsky's Process: from a ‘bokanovskified egg’, he gloats, as many as ninety-six embryos will grow, each eventually yielding a mentally retarded but ‘full-sized adult.’1 One can staff an entire plant with a...
(The entire section is 4133 words.)
SOURCE: “Our Mutual Friend and the Test of Worthiness,” in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 62, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 292-302.
[In the following essay, Horne suggests that three of the characters in Our Mutual Friend—John Harmon, Silas Wegg, and Bradley Headstone—can be compared to Homer's hero Odysseus.]
Shortly before he reveals his real name to her, John Rokesmith tells his wife Bella, “The time will come … when you will be tried,”1 and with his warning articulates one of the central themes of Our Mutual Friend. Others are sounded throughout this dark work—themes of greed, money, identity—but the theme of trial, in...
(The entire section is 4872 words.)
SOURCE: “Dickens and Our Mutual Friend: Fancy as Self-Preservation,” in Etudes Anglaises, Vol. 38, No. 3, July-September, 1985, pp. 257-65.
[In the following essay, Collins examines the therapeutic quality of Dickens's use of fancy and imagination in Our Mutual Friend, and suggests that this is reflective of the author's preoccupation with his own dwindling creative powers.]
For J. Hillis Miller Dickens's attention to the “otherness of elemental matter” in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) functions as a kind of anti-transcendental vision: “the river, the dust, the wind, and the fire are what they are: mere matter.” They “are not symbols,...
(The entire section is 3676 words.)
SOURCE: “The Coherence of Our Mutual Friend,” in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 234-43.
[In the following essay, Beiderwell explores the distinct writing styles Dickens uses to describe the two different social worlds represented in Our Mutual Friend.]
The first two chapters of Our Mutual Friend introduce two apparently distinct social worlds. The novel opens in the dark, primitive, and dangerous world of Gaffer Hexam. The second chapter introduces the unbearably bright, new, and insular world of the Veneerings. Dickens allows the two chapters to stand with no explicit connection until the last sentence of the second...
(The entire section is 4782 words.)
SOURCE: “Realism, Rhetoric, and Reification: Or the Case of the Missing Detective in Our Mutual Friend,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 86, No. 1, August, 1988, pp. 34-45.
[In the following essay, Solomon discusses the critical controversy surrounding two confusing plot lines within Our Mutual Friend: the one involving John Harmon's “death” and the one involving Noddy Boffin's feigned change of character.]
But more extraordinary than any chapter is the preface, or postscript, or apology, for we don't know what to call it, which closes the work. It is divided into five sections, and each section contains a separate fallacy, except...
(The entire section is 6901 words.)
SOURCE: “Dickens and Popular Culture: Silas Wegg's Ballads in Our Mutual Friend,” in The Dickensian, Vol. 86, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 142-57.
[In the following essay, Dvorak examines Dickens's use of Victorian popular ballads to illuminate the character of Silas Wegg and to reinforce the themes of Our Mutual Friend.]
Recently (in The Dickensian, 1972), Lillian Ruff reminded us that ‘Dickens's novels are a rich source of information about popular vocal music in the first half of the nineteenth century’, and she noted more than 200 songs ‘of social and historical interest’, suggesting that Dickens's original readers would have ‘quickly...
(The entire section is 7566 words.)
SOURCE: “Prospecting for Meaning in Our Mutual Friend,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 19, 1990, pp. 231-46.
[In the following essay, Gaughan explores the various characters in Our Mutual Friend and the different strategies they employ to negotiate their way around the roles each has been assigned by a rigid social system.]
So many of Dickens' characters in Our Mutual Friend are so entrapped and mutilated by the roles they are forced to play and by the rules and values of their society that meaningful action seems all but impossible. Characters like Lizzie Hexam and John Harmon are forced to live stories they did not author and cannot rewrite....
(The entire section is 7252 words.)
SOURCE: “‘A Speeches of Chaff’: Ventriloquy and Expression in Our Mutual Friend,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 19, 1990, pp. 247-79.
[In the following essay, O'Donnell examines issues of ventriloquy and representation of narrative voice in Our Mutual Friend, suggesting that identity and relationships are called into question continuously throughout the novel.]
In an age of public spectacle for which P. T. Barnum serves as the ultimate exemplar, Dickens' novels provide a succession of forays into the spectacular. The spectacle can be viewed as a displacement of “private” anxieties and fantasies onto the public stage. The authorial dream of...
(The entire section is 15016 words.)
SOURCE: “Mutuality in Our Mutual Friend,” in Dickens Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 3, September, 1991, pp. 127-34
[In the following essay, Greenstein examines the many unifying themes and motifs highlighting mutuality in Our Mutual Friend.]
J. Hillis Miller has argued that the milieus of Our Mutual Friend exist side by side without organizing themselves into a larger whole: the novel's “structure is formed by the juxtaposition of incompatible fragments in a pattern of disharmony or mutual contradiction” (Miller, 284). While most critics have accepted Miller's view, others like Masao Miyoshi have contested it in favor of a resolution of identity where...
(The entire section is 3661 words.)
SOURCE:: “‘A Dismal Swamp’: Darwin, Design, and Evolution in Our Mutual Friend,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 49, No. 1, June, 1994, pp. 51-74.
[In the following essay, Fulweiler explores the connections between Darwin's theories and Dickens's fiction, particularly Our Mutual Friend; both offer worlds of inter-connected individuals competing for advantage with no hint of a transcendental master plan for the world.]
Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life.
(The entire section is 8513 words.)
SOURCE: “Invigilating Our Mutual Friend: Gender and the Legitimation of Professional Authority,” in Novel, Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 154-72.
[In the following essay, Shuman posits that Our Mutual Friend demystifies the Victorian domestic sphere at the same time it legitimates the professionalism of the intellectual worker.]
Examining the contradictions of nineteenth-century professional authorship and the gendered separation of public and private in David Copperfield, Mary Poovey argues that “stabilizing and mobilizing a particular image of woman, the domestic sphere, and woman's work were critical” to the fixing of “the English...
(The entire section is 8468 words.)
SOURCE: “‘The Ring of Cant’: Formulaic Elements in Our Mutual Friend,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 24, 1996, pp. 167-84.
[In the following essay, Edgecombe studies the “cant” often disparaged by critics of Our Mutual Friend, and suggests that this was part of a deliberate and highly-controlled strategy to reinforce the primary concerns of the author.]
At one point of Our Mutual Friend Dickens turns to the Podsnaps in his audience and attacks them for their reductive use of language, for the way in which they have blocked sentient human responses with unreal, inhuman formulae. The rebuke to some extent recalls the arraignment of...
(The entire section is 7148 words.)