Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*River Thames

*River Thames (tehmz). England’s most important river serves as the central thread of the novel, tying together both character and incident. When the novel opens, the river offers both life and death. In a surreal, night scene, Gaffer Hexam is shown making his living from the bodies he finds in the river. During the course of the novel, the river is the setting for seven drownings or near-drownings, including the apparent drowning of young John Harmon, the “mutual friend” of the title.

Upriver, Rogue Riderhood and the schoolmaster, fatally embracing, drown each other in the river. In contrast, Betty Higden finds a peaceful and longed-for death on its shores in Oxfordshire, and it is the scene of Eugene Wrayburn’s regeneration after he is left for dead in the upstream shallows. Lizzie Hexam, who has always been ashamed of her father’s boat-handling lessons, is able to now use these skills to save Wrayburn from death.


Dustheaps. Mounds of dust that collect in public streets provide a second literal and symbolic portion of the novel’s landscape. These are actual representations of the Victorian heaps of soot, cinder, broken glass and crockery, paper and rags, bones, and possibly even human waste, as well as jewels, coins, and other valuables. Dickens’s periodical Household Words included mention of such heaps, not as fantasy, but as fact. They are evidence of Victorian recycling, for their contents were sifted, sorted, and then sold to brick-makers and road-builders, as well as to makers of soap,...

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Our Mutual Friend Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. An exhaustive, critical coverage of Dickens’ life and work.

Cockshut, A. O. J. The Imagination of Charles Dickens. New York: New York University Press, 1962. Contains an insightful chapter on Our Mutual Friend, which focuses on the symbolic meanings of the river and the dustheaps.

Cotsell, Michael. The Companion to “Our Mutual Friend.” London: Allen and Unwin, 1986. Contains factual annotations on every aspect of the text and notes on historical allusions to current events, and intellectual and social issues and customs, etc. An excellent accompaniment to the novel.

Herst, Beth F. The Dickens Hero: Selfhood and Alienation in the Dickens World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A good study of Dickens’ protagonists. Views John Harmon as one who moves “from alienation through self-discovery to a new sort of alienation.”

Romano, John. Dickens and Reality. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Discusses realism in Dickens, using Our Mutual Friend as one of the primary examples. Despite its realist nature, the novel makes no effort to conform to our “real” world, which contributes to its overall success.