*River Thames (tehmz). England’s most important river serves as the central thread of the novel, tying together both character and incident. When the novel opens, the river offers both life and death. In a surreal, night scene, Gaffer Hexam is shown making his living from the bodies he finds in the river. During the course of the novel, the river is the setting for seven drownings or near-drownings, including the apparent drowning of young John Harmon, the “mutual friend” of the title.
Upriver, Rogue Riderhood and the schoolmaster, fatally embracing, drown each other in the river. In contrast, Betty Higden finds a peaceful and longed-for death on its shores in Oxfordshire, and it is the scene of Eugene Wrayburn’s regeneration after he is left for dead in the upstream shallows. Lizzie Hexam, who has always been ashamed of her father’s boat-handling lessons, is able to now use these skills to save Wrayburn from death.
Dustheaps. Mounds of dust that collect in public streets provide a second literal and symbolic portion of the novel’s landscape. These are actual representations of the Victorian heaps of soot, cinder, broken glass and crockery, paper and rags, bones, and possibly even human waste, as well as jewels, coins, and other valuables. Dickens’s periodical Household Words included mention of such heaps, not as fantasy, but as fact. They are evidence of Victorian recycling, for their contents were sifted, sorted, and then sold to brick-makers and road-builders, as well as to makers of soap,...
(The entire section is 658 words.)