Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dombey and Son

There were other Victorian novelists, and some of them might read similarly in short snatches, but there was only one Charles Dickens. Dombey and Son, published in serial form from 1846-1848, was his seventh full novel (not counting the five Christmas books published between 1843 and 1848, which are all substantially shorter than his non-Christmas works) and is "Dickensian" in every sense of the word. It is populated with the full array of saints and sinners, grotesques and eccentrics, that make up London as seen through Dickens' eyes.
"A wandering princess and a good monster in a storybook might have sat by the fireside, and talked as Captain Cuttle and poor Florence talked—and not have looked very much unlike them."
And they interact in the tightly coupled webs of coincidence that Dickens so often plotted. (If the phrase deus ex machina hadn't originated long before, it might have been necessary to coin it for use in describing Dickens' works.) And the reader can be alternately moved to tears of sadness or tears of laughter, often on the same page.
The Captain immediately drew Walter into a corner, and with a great effort, that made his face very red, pulled up the silver watch, which was so big, and so tight in his pocket, that it came out like a bung.

'Wal'r,' said the Captain, handing it over, and shaking him heartily by the hand, 'a parting gift, my lad. Put it back half an hour every morning, and about another quarter towards the arternoon, and it's a watch that'll do you credit.'
If Dombey and Son doesn't rise to the level of David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby or Bleak House, it is still a much better book than The Old Curiosity Shop or Great Expectations (my least favorite, and a book I find myself unable to get through a second time) or Martin Chuzzlewit. If I were to rank the 14 novels1 (excluding the Christmas books for length and Drood for being unfinished), it ranks solidly in the middle.

The Victorian novelist and critic George Gissing apparently considered one of the inadequacies of the book to be the unsympathetic central character. To which I respond that he doesn't know who the central character was. While Paul Dombey is, in many ways, unsympathetic, he's neither totally unsympathetic, nor the central character. If the book were instead titled "Florence Dombey," there would be no confusion on this point.

That's not to say that there aren't inadequacies, because there are. Some of what appear to be inadequacies to us, such as the relationship between Cap'n Cuttle to Mrs. MacStinger, are, I suspect, cultural vestiges, much more accessible and clear to the readers of the day. And it's possible that the primary flaw that I see belongs in that same category. But it is not at all clear to me what the source of James Carker's expectations of Edith would have been. And there is one major development late that may have been intended to surprise the reader, which it entirely failed to do. (It may not have been intended as a surprise, I suppose, but if even if it was, it wasn't.)

Of course, one of the reasons that Dickens is still relevant is that many of the subjects on which he wrote are timeless. Many people today are sure to share Solomon Gills' complaint that "competition, competition—new invention, new invention—alteration, alteration—the world's gone past me." And Mr. Morfin's comment to Harriet that "it would do us no harm to remember oftener than we do, that vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess" is certainly still timely.

In short, asked to describe it, I'd say, "it's Dickens. Maybe not the best Dickens, but certainly good Dickens..." Would I recommend it? Well, do you like Dickens? That's the answer...

1 - I have not yet read Hard Times, Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, so they aren't included in the ranking.

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