Dombey and Son, which appeared after Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), was Charles Dickens’s effort to regain the popularity he had lost with the publication of his previous novel. Martin Chuzzlewit, which had heavily satirized America and Americans, had caused Dickens to lose a great deal of favor, much to Dickens’s chagrin, who was by that time in something of a competition for the public’s attention with another great Victorian novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray. Dombey and Son is unusual in Dickens’s work for being set among a higher social level than his previous novels. For the first time, he indicated an interest in and a sympathy for the upper-middle classes and the aristocracy. The story is a very serious one, involving the downfall of a dignified merchant and the painful process by which he learns that love is more powerful than money. As is typical of Dickens, however, there is a large cast of characters providing a rich, sometimes humorous background to the central story.
In Dombey and Son, Dickens for the first time attempted to portray the full panorama of English society, from beggar to magnate, from baronet to housemaid. Although less successful than Bleak House (1852-1853) in expressing the connections between all levels of society, the novel has a prodigious scope.
The principal theme of the work is the relationship between parents and children, chiefly Mr. Dombey’s relationship with Paul and Florence and subordinately those of various parents and their offspring, ranging in social station from Mrs. Skewton and Edith down to Mrs. Brown and her Alice. Each family situation is thrown into relief by contrast with another that is similar in social class yet utterly different in kind. Edith Granger, schooled almost from infancy to be “artful, designing, mercenary, laying snares for men,” is shown in contrast with the son of Sir Barnet Skettles, whose parents willingly interrupt his studies at Dr. Blimber’s academy in order to enjoy his company during their trip abroad. Mr. Dombey’s crude attempt to mold his fragile son to a shape that does his father honor in the world’s eyes contrasts with the honest and unpretentious course that Solomon Gills recommends to his nephew Walter: “Be diligent, try to like it, my dear boy, work for a steady independence, and be happy!” The miserable devices of greed that Mrs. Brown urges on her daughter as the only recourse of the poor is proven a lie by the love and warmth shown by Polly Toodle toward her erring son Rob.
The sad ends of Edith, little Paul, and Alice Marwood all result from the corruption of childhood by adult concerns and from the disregard of individuality in children, a view of them as things, counters in a game, or a hedge against destitution or mortality. Mr. Dombey views Paul as a little mirror of his own greatness. He expects his son to reflect himself—that is, to love him as he loves himself. In his stubborn individuality, Paul perceives the merits of Florence and turns to her; Mr. Dombey is amazed and outraged, because he sees Paul as an extension of himself and cannot conceive that the little boy could have a different opinion. In Mr. Dombey’s own mind, no blame accrues to himself; he decides that Florence must be the cause of the “distortion” of Paul’s feelings. In this way, she falls victim to her father’s self-love and becomes the object of his hatred, almost a scapegoat for his repressed feelings of guilt about Paul’s death; in his view, she destroyed Paul as a tool capable of advancing his father’s self-approbation, the...
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function for which his elaborate education was supposed to have prepared him.
Edith Granger, too, was formed in her youth to fulfill her mother’s nasty ambitions. The shining ideal that both Mrs. Skewton and Mr. Dombey urge on their children is a certain standing in the eyes of the world, essentially an adult concern. In contrast, Walter’s mentor in his own invincible childishness (he rebukes himself for being “old-fashioned”) guides his charge in the path of honesty, which is the natural behavior of childhood. Young Paul is the chief exemplar of this virtue in the novel, and his resistance to corruption is likewise referable to that curious quality of being “old-fashioned.” Paul was “born old”; he possesses that wisdom of extreme age that constitutes a return to the innocence of childhood. He is fey and resists classification. His obdurate honesty shows itself in his concern for first principles. When he inquires of his father what money can do and his father proudly replies that money can do anything, little Paul suggests two things it cannot do: bring back his mother or give him health. Then he asks the question again, still more pointedly: “What’s money, after all?” as if to direct his father’s attention to the extreme paltriness of those things that money can do, to that vain show that nurtures his father’s pride. His father takes no notice of it then; it is not for him to learn from a child. Despised, neglected, and thought unfit to prepare for any great purpose, Florence has her brother’s memory for a master and educates herself to his truth rather than to her father’s ambition.
Dombey and Son is unique among Dickens’s novels in its profusion of strongly drawn female characters. Indeed, the author seems intent on ringing the changes on female nature from best to worst. For the most part, these figures though vivid have but one dimension, but two characters evidence a greater depth of understanding than the author had previously achieved in his representation of women. One is the character of Florence, whose states of mind illustrate a classic psychological progression. Rejected by a loved parent, she reasons thus: “I am unloved, therefore unlovable.” Her early conviction of unworthiness not only dictates her subsequent actions but indeed shapes the main plot of the novel. Florence eventually becomes the figure of ideal womanhood; she even displays talents of a housewife in Solomon Gills’s parlor. She is truly good without being saccharine, a major advance in Dickens’s treatment of women characters. Miss Tox is even more an unusual creation; Dickens had not previously produced a female character who was at once such an object of satire and so generally sympathetic. She comes in for her share of ridicule for her delusions about Mr. Dombey’s intentions and for her genteel pretensions in general, but the author allows her the virtue of her consistency: “poor excommunicated Miss Tox, who, if she were a fawner and a toad-eater, was at least an honest and a constant one. . . .” She is as unlikely a vessel of kindness and simple wisdom as the dandy Toots or the exhausted aristocrat, Cousin Feenix; yet Dickens puts wisdom into their mouths as if to show that although corruption might seem to reign supreme everywhere, truth, though hidden, can flourish and even prevail.