Our Mutual Friend

by Charles Dickens

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When the Boffins are trying to adopt a child, are children being treated almost like commodities and materials?

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Our Mutual Friend is a novel written by famed English writer and social critic Charles Dickens. It is the author’s fourteenth and last completed novel, and it was published as a monthly serial of nineteen installments, from May 1864 to November 1865. Because of Dickens’s heavy criticism of the socio-economic and political climate of Victorian English society, the novel is also considered a social satire.

Having grown up poor and underprivileged, Dickens often used his past experiences as an inspiration for many of his novels. He had a tough childhood, and his struggles greatly influenced his moral and political views. Thus, he grew up to be a fervent advocate for children’ rights and happiness. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens describes the children, especially the orphans and those living in poverty, as financial “stock” and “merchandise.” He purposely uses a satirical rhetoric that is quite similar to economic language to showcase the unfair treatment of children and the consequences of penury and indigence.

In the First Book, titled “The Cup and the Leap,” we meet the newly rich and naive Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. They have no children of their own and wish to adopt a little boy and name him Johnny, in honor of John Harmon—the main protagonist of the story, who is wrongly presumed dead. Thus, they visit Reverend Frank Milvey and his wife, Margaretta, who, apparently, have orphans in “stock.” The entire conversation is led as if it’s a business transaction.

“We have orphans, I know,” pursued Mr. Milvey, quite with the air as if he might have added, ‘in stock,’ and quite as anxiously as if there were great competition in the business and he were afraid of losing an order, “over at the clay-pits; but they are employed by relations or friends, and I am afraid it would come at last to a transaction in the way of barter. And even if you exchanged blankets for the child—or books and firing—it would be impossible to prevent their being turned into liquor.”

By objectifying the children and presenting the orphans as commodities and material goods to be sold and bought, Dickens wants to metaphorically pinpoint how little value was given to a child’s life in Victorian England, especially the life of an orphan who is slightly older, “squints too much,” or has troublesome relatives—in other words, a child that has unfortunately been branded “imperfect.” Essentially, with his clever metaphors and analogies, Dickens wants to showcase Victorian society’s tendency to put a price on human emotions and human lives.

Either an eligible orphan was of the wrong sex (which almost always happened) or was too old, or too young, or too sickly, or too dirty, or too much accustomed to the streets, or too likely to run away; or, it was found impossible to complete the philanthropic transaction without buying the orphan. For, the instant it became known that anybody wanted the orphan, up started some affectionate relative of the orphan who put a price upon the orphan’s head. The suddenness of an orphan’s rise in the market was not to be paralleled by the maddest records of the Stock Exchange.

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