In this novel by Charles Dickens, the primary theme of social climbing is shown through many of the central characters, who display the negative effects of acquiring wealth and thereby gaining elevated social status. More particularly, through the minor characters, Dickens can pinpoint disagreeable aspects and highlight their negativity by contrasting them with related, virtuous characters. Mr. Fledgeby is one of those unappealing minor characters.
Fledgeby’s role impacts the novel’s plot primarily in two ways. For one thing, he is a suitor to the lovely young Georgiana Podsnap, whose parents are materialistic, pretentious pillars of society. To have Georgianna as his wife would perfectly suit Fledgeby’s aspirations for social advancement but is not what her parents intend. Fledgeby is not interested in her as a person; he's interested in her only as her parents’ daughter.
Another way that Fledgeby figures into the novel is through his business practices. Although on the surface, Fledgeby is frivolous and vain, he actually has a good head for business. His brokerage firm, Pubsey and Co., is actually a front for illicit dealings. Mr. Riah, his agent, is an ethical man who is drawn into behaving unethically but finally both helps the needy Lizzie and separates himself from the unsavory business.
The reader learns much of Fledgeby’s character as he is introduced to Georgianna by Mr. and Mrs. Lammle in their home. While not an unattractive young man, he is overly concerned with accentuating his features with the most up-to-date outfits. Because of his excessive attention to such superficial matters, his friends have nicknamed him “Fascination.” Dickens describes his preoccupation with every aspect of fashionable attire, even what type of whiskers he should grow (although he cannot yet do so).
Young Fledgeby had a peachy cheek, or a cheek compounded of the peach and the red red red wall on which it grows, and was an awkward, sandy-haired, small-eyed youth, exceeding slim (his enemies would have said lanky), and prone to self-examination in the articles of whisker and moustache.
Fledgeby has become involved in shady finance, in part through his own family background, as his father had been a moneylender. His mother, however, had been of the higher-born Snigsworth family, remotely related to aristocracy, and her family’s money supported the marriage. Their son had grown up into a greedy, tight-fisted young man, whom Dickens compares negatively to a dog.
He was the meanest cur existing, with a single pair of legs. And instinct (a word we all clearly understand) going largely on four legs, and reason always on two, meanness on four legs never attains the perfection of meanness on two.
Fledgeby, adamant about keeping his unethical business dealings secret, uses an agent called Riah. While the business has numerous aspects, moneylending and buying up bad debts from those who cannot pay are two of their main lines. Dickens presents Riah in appearance as a stereotype of a Jewish broker, but he makes the elderly, bearded man a good-hearted, sympathetic character. Fledgeby has created a front company, Pubsey, to disguise his involvement. Fledgeby’s unkind character is revealed by his treatment of Riah, whom he expects to work on holidays and insults by calling Jews avaricious liars. Fledgeby constantly denigrates Judaism with unfavorable comparisons to Christianity. Deeply suspicious of anyone else’s honesty, he also constantly tells Riah that he believes he is cheating him through the book-keeping.
When Fledgeby decides the Lammles have not helped him enough with Georgianna, whose father insists he stop seeing her, he tricks them into borrowing from “Riah’s” company. Through later conversations with Twemlow, it becomes clear that Fledgeby has made a habit of ruining debtors by calling in the entire sum of their debt at once, enabling him to acquire all their properties for next to nothing. When Lammle finds him out, he goes to his rooms and beats him. Blaming Riah for his problems, Fledgely fires the old man, but it turns out he had devised a way to be freed from his contract. Miss Wren describes to Riah the chastised Fledgely, calling him a fox.
[T]he fox has caught a famous flogging, and that if his skin and bones are not tingling, aching, and smarting at this present instant, no fox did ever tingle, ache, and smart.