What is the significance of Henry James' and Walter Besant's arguments in their essays "The Art of Fiction," and how does their debate influence the understanding of and relate to Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son?

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In The Art of Fiction controversy, Henry James discusses his departure from Walter Besant's arguments about the true purposes of the novel.

For example, James rejects the notion that a novel should serve some moral purpose; he merely reiterates that a novel should be 'interesting' and should present the realities of life as organically as possible. He complains that the novel has received an unfair reputation as a demoralizing and debasing influence. Instead, James advances the idea that the novelist should view himself as an expert, with skills commensurate to that of the artist, musician, or historian, with a relevant story to tell.

He continues to argue that a novelist should view his work as a serious reflection of reality. Thus, he should not be circumscribed by his rank or station in life, but should be open to new impressions and opportunities. This leads to the argument that there should never be literary constraints on the craft of writing; rather, sincerity should be one's ultimate guide.

No author better exemplified Henry James' arguments than Charles Dickens. Interestingly, this consensus was not without its controversies. Dickens often vehemently defended his portrayal of reality, despite the charge from certain critics that he overplayed his literary accomplishments in this quarter. Nevertheless, the Dickensian realistic novel often highlighted the life of the working class; in this context, Dickens never shied away from the ugliness and the horror of unrelenting English poverty. He attempted to paint a realistic portrait of Victorian life from the viewpoint of the downtrodden.

In regard to Dombey and Son, Dickens saw this novel (published in one volume in 1848), as the catalyst for all his subsequent realist fiction. Dombey and Son highlighted the new industrialization and mechanization that had pervaded the Dickensian world of old England. In 1848, the railroads were coming into their own, symbolizing both progress as well as destructive influence. The railways facilitated great economic activity and led to dizzying financial rewards, but they also brought about dehumanizing change and a greater divide between the rich and the poor. You will see that Dickens highlighted the growth of the railway industry and all its ramifications extensively in his novel. For a historical background as well as specific references in Dombey and Son, please refer to:

The Growth and Impact of Railways in Victorian England.

Railways in Victorian Literature.

In Dombey and Son, the social divide is closely delineated by Dickens. His classic, descriptive passages are famous for reinforcing the authorial voice in regards to issues about class and gender. Take, for example, Dickens' portrayal of both Mr. Toodles and Mr Dombey. The latter is a wealthy merchant, and the former, a poverty-stricken family man who works for the railroad. When his wife, Polly, is tasked with suckling Mr. Dombey's sickly son, Paul, we are invited to peruse the differences between two men who exemplify the divide between the rich and poor in Dickens' day.

...Toodle returned and confronted Mr Dombey alone. He was a strong, loose, round-shouldered, shuffling, shaggy fellow, on whom his clothes sat negligently: with a good deal of hair and whisker, deepened in its natural tint, perhaps by smoke and coal-dust: hard knotty hands: and a square forehead, as coarse in grain as the bark of an oak. A thorough contrast in all respects, to Mr Dombey, who was one of those close-shaved close-cut moneyed gentlemen who are glossy and crisp like new bank-notes, and who seem to be artificially braced and tightened as by the stimulating action of golden showerbaths.

Read about Toodles as railwayman in Dombey and Son. Also, railways as image and plot device in Dombey and Son.

Apart from class issues, the novel also highlights gender issues in Dickens' England. In the story, the first Mrs. Dombey dies shortly after Paul's birth. her death is not unduly mourned by Mr. Dombey, who takes a second wife shortly after. His new wife, Edith Granger, is beautiful, accomplished, and definitely not in love with her aging suitor. However, Edith marries Mr. Dombey for financial security and for her aged mother's welfare. Mr. Dombey, for his part, sees Edith as a possession and a decorative piece on his arm. Here, Dickens highlights the anguish of a woman, dependent upon the graces of an indifferent husband and subject to the whims of her circumstances. Florence, Mr. Dombey's daughter, is likewise rebuffed by her father for most of the novel. She is, after all, only a daughter, hardly fit to be inheritor of Dombey and Son.

So it is that Dickens' social commentary on class and gender is highlighted amid a background of evolving social change. With the advent of industrialization, fueled by the railway revolution, the reality of life was often a brutal survival-of-the fittest game when Dickens wrote Dombey and Son. As with Henry James' claim, the purpose of a novelist is not to teach some moral lesson, but to delineate reality in as sincere and as accurate a way as possible. This leaves the reader to reach his/her own conclusions. Dickens achieves this literary goal admirably in juxtaposing dueling dichotomies in the railway revolution (Mr Carker dies when a train hits him, but Mr Toodles improves his life by stoking train engines) and in highlighting the eventual fate of his female characters.

Source: Railways and Culture in Britain: The Epitome of Modernity by Ian Carter.

Sex, Crime, and Literature in Victorian England.

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