Illustration By Phiz
This triple decker novel isn’t a commitment, it’s an immersion. And as such, you could not spend your time better than living for some 800 pages in the world of Dombey and Son (1848).
This was Charles Dickens’ seventh novel. It was illustrated by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne, 1815-1882), and was the first with his new publishers, Bradbury and Evans. At first, Dickens was anxious about the abilities of his new publishers to effectively sell his novel; he shouldn’t have been. Dombey and Son was first released in serial format, and sold 40,000 copies a month, while Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray (1811-1863) released at the same time, sold only 5,000 a month. Literary history has been kinder to Vanity Fair than Dombey, but that is a shame as Dombey is the exponentially better novel.
Up until Dombey, Dickens’ novels were largely picaresque affairs. His books The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby or his earlier The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, for example, were largely interconnected episodes, strung together by the thread of a central character. With Dombey Dickens wrote his first well-made novel, with characters introduced in the earliest chapters that move the action throughout in a clear, linear narrative.
The story is a simple one: Mr. Paul Dombey heads the firm Dombey and Son. His wife dies after giving birth to his son and heir, Paul, Jr. Dombey also has a daughter, Florence, to whom he pays no attention whatsoever. The children are sent away to school, where young Master Paul grows more and more attached to his sister. When young Paul dies, Mr. Dombey retreats into his grief, having no room whatsoever in his heart for young Florence.
In time, Dombey marries again, to a proud young woman named Edith Granger. She is, essentially, sold into marriage by her grasping, social climbing mother. The marriage is a disaster. Edith – haughty and proud as Dombey himself – openly despises her new husband, and he does everything he can to break her will. Caught in the middle is young Florence, whom Edith grows to love. Dombey uses Florence as a tool with which to beat Edith down – threatening the welfare of his own daughter if his wife shows her affection.
At length, Edith runs away with Dombey’s business manager, the vile Mr. Carker. But she does this only to hurt Dombey and destroy Carker – and as a gambit, it works. But the cost is high.
At the same time, Dombey throws Florence out of her own home. With no place to go, she returns to her friend Capt. Cuttle, who is waiting for word of his shipwrecked nephew, Walter Gay, and his friend, Sol Gills.
The conclusion of the novel is a surprise on many levels, and an enthralling read.
Dombey and Son is also, in many ways, Dickens’ most transgressive novel. He really only has two effective female protagonists in his oeuvre, Esther Summerson in Bleak House, and Florence, here in Dombey and Son, and I’m not sure that Florence is not the most compelling. A lonely and neglected child, she seeks affection in the most unlikely places, and her growth into womanhood is drawn effectively. It is a psychologically sound portrait.
But even better still is Edith Granger, Dickens’ masterstroke in the novel. She is in incredibly powerful woman, who does not steer from her convictions (or hatreds) even when doing so would certainly make her situation easier. Edith takes life on her terms, or not at all. Wonderfully realized is her destruction of Carker, the novel’s villain, though it effectively ruins her life and her reputation.
Even more interesting is Dickens’ use of humor and grotesque characters. Dickens clearly did not believe that life was either a tragedy or a comedy, and he populates his novels (even the bleaker ones) with vivid comedic characters. There are many in this novel, including Edith’s mother, “Cleopatra” Skewton, a middle-aged woman who dresses like a young girl, Major Bagstock (a Col. Blimp character), and his two most memorable, Capt. Cuttle and Mr. Toots.
To call Capt. Cuttle a cartoon is, perhaps, to do a disservice to cartoons – the good Capt. would give Popeye the Sailor a run for his money in the absence-of-reality department. However, Dickens, in his genius, understood that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and it often his most comedic characters who are the most heroic. Cuttle is the heart and soul of the novel, he gives it warmth, zest and vitality. In addition, it is he who saves the day on countless occasions – not bad for a hook-handed old salt who speaks only in nautical phrases.
Mr. Toots, a boyhood friend of young Paul, is a comic figure as well – a halfwit who cannot sit still. But it is Toots, too, who comes to the rescue quite often. He loses Florence to the blandly heroic Walter (who barely makes an impression), and one cannot help but wonder if she made the right choice. Toots might be a halfwit, but he kept the right half.
To leave a novel like Dombey after pouring through its pages is something of a letdown. Dickens’ world is so densely imagined, his people so vivid and lifelike, his sense of drama so satisfying, that putting down Dombey and Son is rather like saying goodbye to a friend. To read a book like Dombey and Son is to realize the current poverty of creation in contemporary novelists – the lack of expansive spirit, of warm humanism, of complex plotting, of delight in creation. Reading Dickens provides warmth and succor, cheer and insight. How many contemporary novelists can make that claim?
This year many of us will return to A Christmas Carol, perhaps the central text of our holiday celebration. But there is much more to Dickens than Scrooge and “bah, humbug!” and adventurous readers would be amply rewarded by visiting the world of Dombey and Son.