Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 922
John Harmon is thought to have been murdered soon after he left the ship upon his return to England to marry Bella Wilfer in compliance with the conditions of his father’s will; a body found by Gaffer Hexam is identified as Harmon’s. Actually, Harmon has not died; fearing for his...
(The entire section contains 922 words.)
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John Harmon is thought to have been murdered soon after he left the ship upon his return to England to marry Bella Wilfer in compliance with the conditions of his father’s will; a body found by Gaffer Hexam is identified as Harmon’s. Actually, Harmon has not died; fearing for his life and shrinking from the forced marriage, he assumes the name of Julius Handford, then that of John Rokesmith.
As Rokesmith, Harmon becomes a secretary to Mr. Boffin, who inherited the estate of Harmon’s father after young John Harmon was pronounced dead. Before that, Mr. Boffin, who never learned to read, began to employ a street peddler named Wegg to read to him such books as took his fancy. Mr. and Mrs. Boffin enjoy their new wealth and leisure, but they both regret that the son and disinherited daughter of old Harmon did not live to enjoy the fortune that has come to them. They try to find a little orphan whom they can rear, hoping to provide a boy with some of the advantages little John Harmon did not have. The Boffins also bring Bella Wilfer to live with them in their grand new house, wishing to provide her with the kind of life she might have had as John Harmon’s wife.
Bella, who is beautiful but mercenary, intends to make a good match. When Harmon, in his role as Rokesmith, declares his love for her, she rejects him with disdain. When, much later, Mr. Boffin hears that Rokesmith had aspired to her hand, a bitter scene ensues in which he charges Rokesmith with impudence and discharges him. By that time, however, Bella has become wiser, having seen how money and wealth have apparently changed the easygoing Mr. Boffin into an ill-tempered, avaricious miser. She refuses to stay any longer with the Boffins and returns to the modest life of her father’s home.
Mr. Boffin begins to have trouble with Wegg, whom he has established in the comfortable house in which the Boffins live. Not satisfied with his good fortune, Wegg has become increasingly avaricious and spends all his time searching the house and the dustheaps in the yard for possible items of value that old Harmon might have secreted when he lived there. In his searches, Wegg finds a will dated after the will from which the Boffins have profited; in the later will, most of old Harmon’s money was to go to the Crown. With the assistance of an acquaintance, a taxidermist named Venus, Wegg blackmails Mr. Boffin, telling him that unless he shares the fortune equally with them, they will make known the existence of the later will. Mr. Boffin pretends to agree.
Mr. Boffin has offered a reward to anyone giving information about the murderer of young Harmon and has placed the matter in the hands of Mortimer Lightwood, a lawyer. Lightwood’s only clue comes from Handford (actually John Harmon), who was present when the body was identified as young Harmon’s. For a time, Lightwood thinks that the murderer might have been Gaffer Hexam, who is known to make a living from finding corpses in the river. Hearing that Hexam’s daughter is suffering under the suspicion attached to her father, Harmon, in his role as Rokesmith, secures an affidavit from Rogue Riderhood, who had informed against Hexam; in the affidavit Riderhood admits to having given false information.
When Bella Wilfer returns to her father’s home, she is much improved; she has realized that she can marry only a man she loves, and she also realizes that she loves Rokesmith, who was unjustly discharged on her account. When Rokesmith, apparently penniless and without a job, comes to her, she joyfully accepts his suit. Their marriage proves a happy one, for Rokesmith tells her that he has found a job that will keep them in modest comfort. Both are happy when their child is born.
One day, Lightwood meets Rokesmith and Bella on the street by chance and immediately recognizes Rokesmith as Handford. That evening, a police officer arrests Rokesmith, who is forced to admit his real identity as John Harmon. As it turns out, the corpse identified as Harmon’s was really that of his would-be murderer, who was killed by thieves. The mistake occurred because the man had changed into Harmon’s clothes after drugging him. Harmon has to admit his real identity to his wife, and more besides. Mrs. Boffin had early guessed his true identity, and Mr. Boffin had only pretended to become an unpleasant miser for the purpose of showing Bella the kind of person she might become if she continued in her mercenary ways. The success of their scheme was proved when she defended Rokesmith to Mr. Boffin and returned to her father’s home. Eager for Harmon to inherit his father’s fortune, the Boffins turn the estate over to him; Bella thus becomes the rich woman she had at one time wished to be.
The situation with Wegg and Venus is easily settled because Mr. Boffin had only pretended when he agreed to the terms of their blackmail. Mr. Boffin actually possesses an even later will, which he has kept secret only because of its insulting language about Harmon and his dead sister. This later will, too, leaves the fortune to the Boffins, but they return it to Harmon and his family. Wegg is taken out of the house by a servant and dropped into a wagon piled high with garbage.