Our Mutual Friend

by Charles Dickens

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Critical Evaluation

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Charles Dickens’s last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, is among his greatest works, containing perhaps the most mature expression of his artistic abilities. The novel, which reflects many of his major concerns as a writer and social critic, is a complicated one, with an intricately constructed and elaborate plot. The first two chapters provide a stark contrast. In the first, Gaffer Hexam, the “bird of prey,” is in a boat on the Thames with his daughter Lizzie, on the lookout for the drowned bodies that are the source of his livelihood; in the second, the newly rich Veneerings are giving a dinner party. The unexpected link between the two worlds is provided in the third chapter.

By revealing the real links between people and classes that would seem to have no connection at all (this culminates in the wedding of Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam at the end), Dickens shows that different worlds, though separated from each other in thought, are physically close, each involved with the other. In holding a mirror up to the cumbersome structure of society, Dickens uses the idea of depth and surface to reflect the polite world on top and the seething, half-known world of misery and crime below. Dickens also implies that the sophisticated few are often stupid and easy to understand, while the unlettered many can be complex and intriguing.

This inversion of the expected is one of the book’s dominating features. Other reversions include Betty Higden’s hounding by misguided charity, the reversed parent-child relationship of Jenny Wren and her father (to some extent, though in a more benign sense, this is also true of Bella Wilfer and her father), and the unequal relationship between the morally upright Riah and the scoundrel Fledgeby. These reversals indicate something of a newfound flexibility in Dickens’s treatment of moral problems. As the problems come to seem more doubtful and difficult, his literary treatment of them becomes that much more clear and intense.

Also central to the novel is the theme of the relationships among marriage, money, and societal values. This theme is worked out in the three important marriages in the novel, those between Harmon and Bella, Eugene and Lizzie, and Alfred and Sophronia Lammle. In each of these marriages, money is an important issue. Harmon, though he is or could be rich, must pretend to be poor to be certain that Bella is not marrying him for his money. Eugene must marry Lizzie in the face of pressures from his family and society that he marry a woman with money. When the Lammles marry, each is motivated solely by the delusion that the other has money.

In the novel, money destroys and corrupts in a wide variety of ways. Old Harmon was the ruined victim of his own money. His son, too, is nearly ruined by this money. Boffin pretends to be corrupted by money in order to show its corruptive force and is so harassed by his money that he can scarcely wait to get rid of it. Bella begins to be corrupted by money but is saved.

The two major symbols in Our Mutual Friend, the river and the dustheap, show Dickens at the height of his abilities. The river cuts across all inflated, unreal social distinctions in much the same way the epidemic cuts across these same boundaries in Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book). At times, the river—its motion, mystery, swell, and obscurity—is used quite overtly as a symbol for the passage of life itself. It is also hard to resist the idea that the river has a...

(This entire section contains 1046 words.)

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sacramental, baptismal character. It is a source of mystery, bringing salvation or damnation. In the course of the narrative, many of the characters fall into the river, either to drown or to emerge as new men. John Harmon emerges as John Rokesmith, a guise he can abandon only when he has been assured that Bella Wilfer loves him and not his money. Eugene Wrayburn’s narrow escape from drowning comes at a time when he has at last overcome the view natural to a man of his class that someone like Lizzie is not a suitable marriage partner. For characters such as Headstone and Riderhood, however, the river is a source of death. Riderhood, a man to whom the river means nothing more than a criminal livelihood, almost drowned once before. Others expect him to change after he is rescued, but he refuses the gift of a second chance and eventually does drown, locked in the murderous grasp of the schoolmaster Headstone.

The novel’s other dominant symbol is the dustheap. The image of the dustheap is, in fact, less fantastic than it may at first appear. Dust, dustheaps, and dust contractors were all common in England in Dickens’s time. The dust and refuse collected from the streets was piled in huge heaps that came to have great value and were often the source of great fortunes in early Victorian times, as frequently the dustheaps contained buried treasures along with the wastes. Thus there is an obvious connection between money and dirt. Money equals dust. The dustheaps were filth, ordure, excrement—and money.

Money is also linked with dirt in the novel’s tales about misers, all of whom are physically unclean and squalid. This equation of money with dirt and the quest of money with the sifting of rubbish pervades the work. The comical figure that Wegg cuts in his lantern-lit scavenging on the dustheap finds a sinister echo in Lizzie Hexam’s father at his grisly occupation on the river and a refined, although equally precise, reverberation in the economic maneuvering of the Lammles and the Veneerings. At every level of society, people of all ages are shown in the act of hunting for money. The heroine herself does so in the beginning. The force of the dustheaps as a symbol resides in its absurdity, the high ironic comedy that clings to the surreptitious activity of digging through refuse to find nonexistent gold. It is as if the whole society were being not chastised but made to appear mad. Few novelists have dealt better with the fascination that money exerts on people than Dickens does in Our Mutual Friend.

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Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens