Dickens: Dombey and Son

February 4, 2016

Dombey and Son
Charles Dickens
(Oxford, 1988) [1848]
960 p.

I came to Dombey and Son knowing nothing about it, but with the reasonable presumption that it would be about Dombey and his son — and this was wrong. Since I’d heard very little about it I assumed that it was probably not all that good and might be a chore to get through — and this was wrong too. It was for me a story full of surprises. I am happy to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

In the introductory notes he wrote for the novel, Chesterton points out that Dombey and Son occupies an important place in Dickens’ authorship. It was preceded by Martin Chuzzlewit and succeeded by David Copperfield, two very different books. In his early books, of which Pickwick is the immortal exemplar, Dickens was really an episodist and caricaturist, not a novelist; his ‘story’ was a long string of mostly disconnected stories, tied together by amusing and endearing characters. In Nicholas Nickleby he took some steps in the direction of novel-writing, though there too the story was mostly episodic, and he continued largely in this vein up through Martin Chuzzlewit. Yet David Copperfield is unquestionably a novel in the full sense, so we might expect Dombey and Son to be a transitional work between the early, episodic Dickens and the late, novelistic Dickens. And we would be right.

In fact, it’s a good deal closer to Copperfield than Chuzzlewit. There are character arcs — especially for young Florence Dombey, whom I would defend as one of Dickens’ greatest and most affecting heroines — and, to a lesser degree, for Edith and for Mr Dombey himself, though his ‘arc’ is a rather abrupt one. The story as a whole has clearly been carefully planned on the large scale, and it holds together nicely, even if the most important of the long-range developments were rather obvious and, in a sense, necessary.

But Dickens the novelist is still Dickens, and Dombey and Son has its fair share of delightful Dickensian comic characters, the sorts of figures for whom one would happily clear the deck to let them hold forth for chapter after chapter. (Chesterton: “One good character by Dickens requires all eternity to stretch its legs in.”) Of these my favourites were Captain Cuttle, whose good heart and penchant for speaking in impenetrable naval metaphors endeared him greatly to me, and Mr Toots, whom Chesterton praises in lavish terms that are worth quoting:

Lastly, there is the admirable study of Toots, who may be considered as being in some ways the masterpiece of Dickens. Nowhere else did Dickens express with such astonishing insight and truth his main contention, which is that to be good and idiotic is not a poor fate, but, on the contrary, an experience of primeval innocence, which wonders at all things. Dickens did not know, anymore than any great man ever knows, what was the particular thing that he had to preach. He did not know it; he only preached it. But the particular thing that he had to preach was this: That humility is the only possible basis of enjoyment; that if one has no other way of being humble except being poor, then it is better to be poor, and to enjoy; that if one has no other way of being humble except being imbecile, then it is better to be imbecile, and to enjoy. That is the deep unconscious truth in the character of Toots — that all his externals are flashy and false; all his internals unconscious, obscure, and true. He wears loud clothes, and he is silent inside them. His shirts and waistcoats are covered with bright spots of pink and purple, while his soul is always covered with the sacred shame. He always gets all the outside things of life wrong, and all the inside things right. He always admires the right Christian people, and gives them the wrong Christian names… He forgets who they are, but he remembers what they are. With the clear eyes of humility he perceives the whole world as it is.

Surely any book of which such things can be said of even a minor character must be very much worth reading, and that is certainly true of Dombey and Son, a book that surpassed my expectations in virtually every respect.

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