Our Mutual Friend Charles Dickens
The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). See also Charles Dickens Criticism, Hard Times Criticism, and A Tale of Two Cities Criticism.
The last of Dickens's novels to be issued as a twenty-part monthly serial, Our Mutual Friend has long been considered one of the author's darkest works, the product of his declining years when exhaustion and disillusionment were taking over his life and his writing. The novel was not terribly successful at the time of its publication and was unfavorably compared to his earlier, more optimistic works. In addition, the popularity of serialized novels had peaked some twenty years earlier and the form was being replaced by less expensive monthly magazines. Critics today, for the most part, consider the novel in a more favorable light, appreciating the complexity of its numerous characters and multiple plot lines, and praising its unified presentation of the themes of money and predation.
Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, to John and Elizabeth Barrow Dickens. The second of eight children, Dickens spent his childhood on the southern coast of England, where he attended a good school until the age of eleven. The family then moved to London and shortly thereafter his father was sent to debtor's prison. Young Charles went to work in a blacking warehouse and was forced to live on his own in cheap lodgings in a state of near starvation. Although he was soon rescued by his father and sent to school in London, the brief period of abandonment and uncertainty affected his life and his writings for years to come. Dickens did not attend college but was admitted as a reader to the library of the British Museum, where he immersed himself in the study of great literature, particularly Shakespeare. He worked for some time as a clerk, as a shorthand reporter, and eventually as a news reporter for the Morning Chronicle, a position which required him to travel all over the country.
Dickens's first success, both critical and popular, was Sketches by Boz (1836), a series of short pieces on life in London. His first novel, Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), was published, as were all of his novels, in serial form, and by the time the fourth monthly installment was issued, Dickens was the most popular author in England. Over the next thirty years, he continued to publish successful novels, among them: Oliver Twist (1838), A Christmas Carol In Prose (1843), The Personal History of David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times for These Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861). His writing, once full of hope and optimism, grew increasingly pessimistic as he aged, with images of decay and corruption dominating the later works. Our Mutual Friend was his last completed novel; with its images of dustheaps and death, it is widely considered one of the author's darkest visions. In 1870, while working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens suffered an aneurysm in the brain and died the next day. He was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Plot and Major Characters
There are numerous plots and subplots in Our Mutual Friend, the main one involving a young man, John Harmon, who returns to England after an absence of many years. Before his death, his wealthy father had made his son's inheritance contingent upon his marriage to Bella Wilfer, a beautiful but mercenary young woman. Shortly after leaving the ship that brought him back to England, Harmon is supposedly murdered; a body found in the Thames is identified as his and he does nothing to correct the error. Assuming first the name of Julius Handford, and then John Rokesmith, Harmon takes a position as secretary to Mr. Boffin—a former employee and now heir of the elder Harmon's estate—in order to assess the character of his bride-to-be while in disguise. Uneasy with their newly-acquired wealth, the Boffins have taken Bella into their home in order to give her the advantages she would have had if she had married Harmon. As Rokesmith, Harmon professes his love for Bella, but believing she is capable of making a far better match, she refuses him and Mr. Boffin discharges him for impudence.
During this time, Boffin has changed from a kindly generous man to a materialistic miser as part of an elaborate charade to teach Bella a lesson about the hazards of greed. The young woman becomes so disturbed by the changes in her benefactor, she returns to her father's house, giving up the material advantages of life with the Boffins. Bella sees the error of her ways and determines to marry for love. When Rokesmith reappears, she agrees to marry him, and their marriage is happy despite their modest means. Eventually the mystery surrounding Rokesmith's true identity is unraveled and his fortune restored, making Bella the wealthy wife she had once dreamed of being.
The other major narrative involves Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of a river scavenger, Gaffer Hexam, the very man who discovered the body thought to be Harmon's. At the inquest, Lizzie is noticed by Eugene Wrayburn, a bored, upper-class lawyer. Lizzie's brother, a churlish youth, hates Wrayburn and tries to steer his sister's affections away from the lawyer and towards Bradley Headstone, a severe schoolmaster whose repressed anger surfaces when Lizzie rejects his proposal. Lizzie escapes the attentions of both men by retreating to a small country village. Returning from a visit to Lizzie, Wrayburn is attacked and thrown into the river by Headstone. Lizzie rescues him, and he is slowly nursed back to life with the help of Jenny Wren, a dolls' dressmaker with whom Lizzie had lived in London. Jenny determines that Wrayburn's wish is to marry Lizzie; she brings a clergyman from London and arranges a bedside ceremony for the pair.
Subplots include the attempted blackmail of Mr. Boffin by his employee Silas Wegg, who has been hired to read to the illiterate Boffins. Wegg had taken possession of the Boffin house and dustheap when the Boffins departed for more luxurious quarters. When Wegg finds another of the elder Harmon's wills, this one leaving the fortune to the state, he tries, with the aid of a taxidermist named Mr. Venus, to coerce his employer into sharing the estate. The plot is foiled by Venus's offer to testify against Wegg.
A second case of attempted blackmail involves Rogue Riderhood, a river scavenger who witnesses the attack on Wrayburn and tries to extract money from Headstone in exchange for his silence. As the two argue and struggle, they both fall into the river and drown.
The upper classes make up what Dickens called “the social chorus,” a group whose only apparent function is to represent society's views on the events of the main narratives as they unfold. Their lives are empty and their activities are limited to gossiping about the Harmons, the Boffins, and the other characters who lead more active lives. The main members of the social chorus are the Veneerings, a newly-rich couple who hold dinner parties in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the more established members of London society; the Podsnaps, who are rich, self-satisfied, and rigid; and the Lammles, who married each other for money only to discover that each had been trying to deceive the other and they were both penniless.
At the opposite end of the economic spectrum is Betty Higden, a poor woman hounded by her fear of dying in the poorhouse. She would prefer to starve than to suffer the cruelties and indignities associated with the almshouse, and that's exactly what she does, dying in a field as Lizzie Hexam tries to comfort her.
The major theme of Our Mutual Friend is money and the hazards associated with its misuse. The well-to-do characters, almost without exception, are negatively portrayed, and the Harmon fortune makes it necessary for its heir to hide his identity in order to assess the character of the Boffins and Bella Wilfer with any accuracy, the implication being that a rich man can never determine who his true friends are. A related theme is predation—several chapter headings refer to birds of prey—wherein the possibility of extracting wealth from another by less than honorable means proves too tempting for such characters as Silas Wegg, Rogue Riderhood, and others. The very opening scene of the novel involves Gaffer Hexam, bent over the edge of his boat like a vulture, looking for bodies in the river—bodies that he then robs before turning them over to the authorities.
Many critics have pointed out the emphasis on surfaces and depths throughout the novel. Hexam and Riderhood plumb the depths of the Thames searching for bodies and whatever other treasures they can find, while the Veneerings are all glossy surface with no depth at all. Masks, disguises, and cases of mistaken identity occur repeatedly within the narrative. John Harmon is taken for dead because a man who resembles him has been murdered by mistake. Harmon then assumes a new identity and lives as John Rokesmith, allowing the community to believe the error. Mr. Boffin pretends to be a miser in order to instruct Bella Wilfer on the perils of materialism and greed. Bradley Headstone disguises himself as Rogue Riderhood so that the attack on Wrayburn will be blamed on the waterman. Both the river and the dustheaps, which forms the basis of the Harmon fortune, are recurring motifs in the work and both are associated with death and decay but, at the same time, they provide a livelihood for some. As critic Richard A. Lanham puts it, “if the river is the liquid sewer of London, the dust-heap is the dry one, and the two together provide food and drink for the majority of the characters in the novel.”
Reading and literacy are also prominent features of Our Mutual Friend. The Boffins' illiteracy provides an employment opportunity for Weggs, who pretends to be an expert in literary matters. Gaffer Hexam's illiteracy means he must memorize the posters and pamphlets of missing persons who have possibly met their deaths in the river. His daughter Lizzie's illiteracy provides the excuse for Wrayburn's involvement with her, as the lawyer offers to provide reading lessons for both Lizzie and Jenny Wren.
Overall, the tone of the narrative is grim and bleak; the cumulative effect of the numerous references to corruption, decay, and death is a darkness that becomes oppressive. Although there are humorous instances throughout the novel, most especially those associated with the Veneerings and the Podsnaps, they are satiric in nature rather than comic.
Critical response to Our Mutual Friend was long shaped by Henry James's famous 1865 review in the Nation. James called it “the poorest of Mr Dickens's works,” claiming that the novel was “poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion.” Most scholars agreed with this assessment and termed the work incoherent and implausible. The reading public, meanwhile, was put off by the novel's relentless pessimism; subscriptions fell off monthly as installments were published. Most modern critics, though, tend to recognize the complexity of the work and to appreciate the multiple plot lines and numerous characters. Some of these characters, such as Gaffer Hexam and Betty Higden, were possibly inspired by real Londoners who had been interviewed by Henry Mayhew for his nonfiction work London Labour and the London Poor. Harland S. Nelson has examined these possible connections by comparing the two texts. Other possible sources of inspiration have been suggested by Lewis Horne, who believes that Homer's hero Odysseus was the model for three of Dickens's characters; and Howard W. Fulweiler, who suggests that Darwin's theories informed Dickens's later fiction, particularly Our Mutual Friend.
Concentrating too completely on characters and the weaknesses in their representation has led, according to Philip Hobsbaum, to many negative assessments of Our Mutual Friend. Critics would be better served, he claims, by concentrating on the novel's central images, particularly dust and the river. Other critics claim the novel is unified by the motifs of reading and literacy, among them Stanley Friedman, who believes that these recurring elements provide character definition and aid in plot development. Michael Greenstein, meanwhile, has studied the many unifying themes and motifs that focus on mutuality. As a whole, late twentieth-century scholars have dismissed the early negative appraisals of Our Mutual Friend and now urge a new appreciation of this complicated novel.