Mr. Dombey is a stiff, dignified man who rarely shows emotion, but the birth of his infant son, who is named Paul, is cause for rejoicing. Mr. Dombey longed many years for a child who would become the Son of his mercantile firm of Dombey and Son. The fact that Mrs. Dombey dies shortly after the boy’s birth does not particularly concern him; his attention centers entirely on the little infant. Mr. Dombey also has a daughter, Florence, but she means nothing to him, for she cannot take a place in the firm.
Little Paul is first given over to a wet nurse, but the woman is considered unreliable and is dismissed. After her dismissal, little Paul is cared for by Mr. Dombey’s sister and one of her friends. Despite their vigilant care, however, the boy suffers from poor health. He is listless and never cares to play. At last, Mr. Dombey arranges to have him sent to a home at Brighton, together with his sister, to benefit from the sea air.
Paul loves his sister very much, and they are constant companions, but Paul’s love for Florence only makes Mr. Dombey dislike the girl. He resents the fact that she is healthy when his son is not, and he feels that his daughter is coming between him and his son.
One weekend while Mr. Dombey is visiting at Brighton, Walter Gay, a young clerk in his firm, comes to the inn where Mr. Dombey and his children are dining. Some time before, the clerk rescued Florence from an old thief. Now his uncle is about to become a bankrupt, and Walter comes to ask for a loan to save his uncle’s shop. Mr. Dombey lets little Paul, then six years old, make the decision. Paul asks Florence what he should do; she tells him to lend the money, and he does.
Shortly afterward, little Paul is placed in a private school at Brighton, where he is to be educated as quickly as possible. The pace of his studies proves too much for him, and before the year is out his health breaks down. Even after his father takes him home to London, he does not seem to grow any better. He dies a few months later, deeply mourned by his father and his sister, although for different reasons.
Mr. Dombey takes his son’s death as a personal blow of fate to his plans. His sister and her friend become so concerned about him that they persuade him to take a trip to Leamington with Major Bagstock, a retired officer. While in Leamington, they meet Edith Granger, a young widow whose mother the major knew. Mr. Dombey begins to court Mrs. Granger, seeing in her a beautiful, well-bred young woman who will grace his household and provide him with an heir. Mrs. Granger, coaxed by an aged mother who is concerned for her own and her daughter’s welfare, finally accepts Mr. Dombey, although she is not in love with him.
Florence saw young Walter several times since their meeting at Brighton. After her brother’s death, she comes to look upon Walter as a substitute brother, despite his lowly station. Their friendship is broken temporarily when Mr. Dombey sends Walter on a mission to the West Indies. Weeks pass, and no word is heard of the ship on which he sailed. Everyone believes that it sank and that Walter drowned.
After Mrs. Granger accepts Mr. Dombey’s suit, they begin to make plans for the wedding and for reopening the Dombey house in London. Edith Granger first meets Florence at the house....
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The two immediately become fast friends, even though Mr. Dombey dislikes his daughter and makes it plain that he does not want his wife to become too fond of the girl.
Mr. Dombey’s second marriage is unsuccessful from the start. Edith is too proud to give in to Mr. Dombey’s attempts to dictate to her and to his claim upon her as a piece of merchandise, and she resists him in every way. Dombey, who is too dignified to argue with her, begins to send his business manager, Mr. Carker, to tell his wife that he is dissatisfied with her conduct. Carker warns Mrs. Dombey that, unless she obeys Mr. Dombey, Florence will be the one to suffer. Edith thereupon becomes outwardly cool toward her stepdaughter, but she continues to resist her husband. Mr. Carker is dispatched to tell her that Mr. Dombey means to be obeyed in everything.
Edith revolts by ostensibly running off with Mr. Carker, her husband’s most trusted employee, who is so far below Mr. Dombey socially that the blow hurts Mr. Dombey even more. When Florence tries to comfort her father, he rebuffs her cruelly, going so far as to strike her. She runs out of the house, knowing she no longer has a home or a father, and finds refuge in the shop owned by Sol Gills, Walter’s uncle. Gills disappeared in search of his nephew, and his friend, an old ship’s captain, is in charge. Captain Cuttle recognizes Florence and takes her in.
Mr. Dombey learns the whereabouts of his wife and Carker from a young woman whom Mr. Carker seduced and deserted. Mr. Dombey follows the pair to France but fails to locate them. Mr. Carker returns to England after Edith refuses to have anything to do with him. She had her revenge, she says, in ruining him and her husband. Mr. Carker tries to escape into the English countryside, but when he meets Mr. Dombey at a railway station, an accident occurs and Mr. Carker is killed by a train.
Florence continues to stay with Captain Cuttle, hoping that Walter will return, even though everyone gives him up for dead. Her faith is at last rewarded. Walter was picked up by a vessel bound for China. Shortly after his return, he confesses to Florence that he no longer feels toward her like a brother, for she became a woman during his absence. Realizing that she, too, fell in love with him, she accepts his proposal. Walter finds work as a clerk on a ship, and after their marriage, they sail on a ship bound for the East.
The failure of his marriage breaks Mr. Dombey’s spirit, and he takes little interest in his firm from that time on. The firm is placed in a difficult position by some of the transactions Mr. Carker handled while he was Dombey’s trusted agent. As a result of Mr. Carker’s mismanagement and Dombey’s lack of interest, the firm goes bankrupt. After the bankruptcy, Mr. Dombey stays alone in his house, sees no one, and gradually drifts into despair.
On the very day that Mr. Dombey decides to commit suicide, Florence returns to London from the East with her one-year-old son, who is named Paul, after his dead uncle. Florence and the baby cheer up Mr. Dombey, and he begins to take a new interest in life. Reconciled to his daughter, he realizes that she always loved him even when he was cruel to her. Walter succeeds in business, and all of them live together happily; his misfortunes make a changed man of Mr. Dombey.