Wherein we introduce the fifteenth read of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-24, Dombey and Son; with a reading schedule and a look-ahead to the coming week.
(Banner image by Fred Barnard)
Hooroar there, brave lasses and lads! What is the cost of progress? What makes a man a man and a woman a woman? Is happiness within families even possible?
But first, a few quick links:
- General Mems
- Historical Context
- Thematic Considerations
- A Note on the Illustrations
- Reading Schedule
- Additional References
- A Look-Ahead to Week One of Dombey and Son
- Works Cited
Reminder: SAVE THE DATE! Our next Zoom group chat (on Dombey and Son) will be held on Sat, 25 March, 2023, 11am Pacific / 2pm Eastern / 6pm GMT.
If you’re counting, today is Day 414 (and week 60) in our #DickensClub! This week, we’ll be beginning Dombey and Son, our fifteenth read of the group. I hope you’re as excited as we are, and as our dear member Rob Goll is! He “accidentally went and read the whole thing”! (See twitter thread on the left.) Anyway, here’s to some lively discussion and enthoosymoosy!
Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Society, and the Charles Dickens Letters Project for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Gina Dalfonzo, Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvellous online resource for us.And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
“The first number seems to have come relatively easily to him. He had planned well ahead, he knew where he was going, and his prose has a new measure of deliberation and restraint; despite the relatively clean state of his manuscript, with far fewer emendations than usual, it is almost as if he were actively working against his fluency, working to create more prolonged effects and to unite the narrative from its very opening.” — Peter Ackroyd, Dickens
In September 1846, eager to get working on his next project, the thirty-four-year-old Charles Dickens took his wife, six children and servants to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he planned to stay for a year. Stationed for the first couple days in the Hotel Gibbon, Dickens was instantly won over by the pastures, cottages, wooden bridges, fairy-tale houses and steep streets running “like streets in a dream.” In letters home to Forster he described the Alps in terms that would have warmed the heart of Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch: “… an eternally changing range of prodigious mountains—sometimes red, sometimes grey, sometimes purple, sometimes black, sometimes white with snow; sometimes close at hand, and sometimes very ghosts in the clouds and mist.”
Finding a villa that reminded him of a doll’s house, called Rosemont, overlooking the mountains and lake, he moved his family into it, along with certain possessions he had shipped from London, and which he found it difficult to write without—a goose-quill pen, a paper-knife, a gilt leaf with a rabbit on it, a figurine of a gentleman stuffing dogs into the pockets of a large coat, a figurine of two frogs dueling, a copy of Tristram Shandy in which he was to find inspiration whilst writing Dombey. There’s some debate in scholarly circles as to whether Dickens wrote plans for his previous novels; the plans for Dombey are the first to have survived, and they demonstrate a meticulous attention to plotting that was lacking in some of his more freewheeling and spontaneously plotted early works such as The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens enthusiasts generally date this as the beginning of Dickens’s “second act” as a writer; after the slump in critical and commercial respect that had accompanied Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, there on the slopes of the Alps his mind was afire with characters and ideas that would people an unbroken streak of great works in the years to come.
From Pickwick on, Dickens had been weaving fairy-tale elements into his stories with increasing subtlety. When he set out to write Dombey he was in the middle of his run of Christmas Books, in which the magical element is generally more pronounced, and the spirit of those books spills over into the texture of this one. Harry Stone, in his seminal book Dickens and the Invisible World, argues that Dombey was his first fully successful attempt to weave together magic and the more mundane world of shipbuilding and offices and dingy riverside pubs. Dombey “blends social, psychological, symbolic, and mythic truth. This felicitous coming together of diverse elements, a coming together that is centripetal and reinforcing, sets Dombey apart from the apprentice novels… With Dombey, for the first time in a Dickens novel, the fairy tale has become a consistent and pervasive force. Enchantment is now one of Dickens’s chief means of integrating and deepening meaning. The fairy tale suffuses scenes, characters, and actions; it controls nuances as well as grand effects. It hovers over the book, now faintly, now forcefully, a presiding genius.”
“The world of commerce and offices which Dickens describes in Dombey and Son bears at least oblique relationship to the world of newspapers and railways which he had just quitted. There is a sense in which Dickens seems to wish to separate himself from the world of men, the solid world, and in Dombey and Son to reach out to the water and the sea, and to describe and to celebrate those specifically female virtues which he longed for.” — Peter Ackroyd, Dickens
In Dombey and Son we see Dickens grappling, more than in perhaps any other book, with the forces that made his success possible. Prior to the industrial revolution, reading had been a niche hobby for people of leisure and the few who were educated (estimates place the literacy rate in England in the eighteenth-century at around thirty percent of the population). As Jeremy Black notes in his recent book England in the Age of Dickens, “The appearance of large numbers of relatively inexpensive books reflected the impact of technology in allowing a far greater ease in moving timber thanks to railways and steamships; the development of papermaking using esparto-grass and wood pulp in place of linen and cotton rags; speedy, steam-powered production processes; and lower printing and binding costs.” Dickens was no sentimental nostalgist—he welcomed the moral and technological advances of his era, not least because he recognized how indebted he was to those advances—but in the pages of Dombey his zeal for progress is tempered, for the first time, with a note of ambivalence about the alterations that industry is imposing on the natural landscape and on human relationships. His passages describing the building of the great railways are some of the most stirring and evocative of his middle period.
“What was a girl to Dombey and Son?” For complicated historical reasons involving, among other things, capital, imperialism and a growing militancy, the Victorian conception of gender was undergoing a dramatic change at the time in which Dickens was writing Dombey. You’ll remember that in 1841 when Dickens was serializing The Old Curiosity Shop, men wept openly in the streets at the death of Little Nell. Such frank expression of male sentiment would become increasingly uncommon in the latter half of the nineteenth century, as tears, “softness,” excess of feeling came to be negatively associated with women. Dickens, himself a man of great feeling, a man who enjoyed the company of women more than that of men, spoke out in Dombey against the growing pressure on men to divest themselves of any traits that could be classified as “feminine.” When the so-called feminine is banished, he argues, both men and women suffer; Dombey’s hunger for dominance and control, so typical of his era, his hunger for power, his rejection of the gentler virtues, provokes the dissolution of his family and business. Dickens paused in the middle of writing Dombey and Son to finish The Life of Our Lord, a retelling of the New Testament for children, in which he presented Jesus as a model of masculinity as he understood it—“the model of all goodness,” a benevolent figure who “never raised his benignant hand, save to bless and heal.” This religious sensibility pervades all of Dickens’s writing, and in Dombey we see what becomes of a man who rejects the gentleness and self-giving love of others that Dickens held Jesus to embody. (It’s worth noting that Dickens was not alone in lamenting the growing association of maleness with violence and power—both Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen felt it keenly and wrote books that can be read as celebrations of the feminine.)
Without getting too far into spoilers, there’s an event midway through the book that caused widespread controversy during the book’s publication. In some quarters Dickens was viciously lampooned for falling back on a device he had used in previous novels (and would use again); others felt that the novel reached an emotional high point in this event which it never again achieved. Peter Ackroyd, while admiring the artfulness of the novel’s construction, laments that “he [Dickens] is almost too much with us in this novel; he seems to be doing all the work, determining the readers’ reactions to events, suggesting the nature of the characters; he is very much the performer and stage manager here, aware of every possible trick to capture and maintain the attention of the audience.”
Novelist Jonathan Lethem recently wrote an essay (which has been the subject of much discussion among your umble co-hosts) arguing that to fully appreciate Dombey, one needs to read it as if all the characters were animals—as if Dickens were writing an animal novel in the vein of The Wind in the Willows or Watership Down. He even offers the cautious suggestion that Dickens was the “greatest animal novelist” of all time. (This is how we read it, when we read it aloud, and it greatly enhanced our delight in the text.)
A Note on the Illustrations
After several experiments and the occasional resulting dips in popularity (e.g. Barnaby Rudge, American Notes, Martin Chuzzlewit), Dickens seems to have decided to return to the tried and true, trusting Dombey to his now long-established illustrator, “Phiz” (Hablot Knight Browne). And not only that, but with Dombey, Phiz has resumed the steel engravings of his early collaboration with Dickens, rather than the woodcuts that can be slipped right into the text.
Philip V. Allingham notes that just as with Dickens’s plotting of Dombey, the planning out of the illustrations also seems to have been far more deliberate—in subject choice, spacing, etc, having two illustrations per number, plus the wrapper design and frontispiece. Allingham writes: “The book differed from Dickens’s previous novels because its serial publication involved unusually careful planning and symmetrical composition of instalments.”
|Week One: 21-27 Feb, 2023||1-16||The first sixteen chapters constitute monthly numbers I-V, published from October 1846 to February 1847.|
|Week Two: 28 Feb – 6 Mar, 2023||17-31||Chapters 17-31 constitute the monthly numbers VI-X, published from March to July 1847.|
|Week Three: 7-13 March 2023||32-48||Chapters 32-48 constitute the monthly numbers XI-XV, published from August to December 1847.|
|Week Four: 14-20 March 2023||49-62||Chapters 49-62 constitute the monthly numbers XVI-XX (the final month being a double number), published from January to April 1848.|
In 1983 the BBC broadcast a ten-part miniseries adaptation of Dombey starring Julian Glover as Dombey, Shirley Caine as Miss Tox and Zelah Clarke as Susan Nipper. It’s currently available to stream on Britbox.
Katie Lumsden at Books & Things—who, remarkably, is doing her own two-year chronological read-through of Dickens, the Mega-Dickens Read-Along—has posted a half-hour video analyzing Dombey from a feminist perspective, laying out how the book pushed back both against the narrow understanding of gender roles that was becoming prevalent in Victorian society and against a view of marriage that treated women essentially as slaves to be bought and sold at market. It’s worth watching both for the salience of her insights and her enthoosymoosy for the text—Dombey is Katie’s second favorite novel by Dickens, after Our Mutual Friend.
A Look-Ahead to Week One of Dombey and Son (21-27 February 2023)
This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 1-16 of Dombey and Son. These first sixteen chapters constitute the monthly numbers I-V, published between October 1846 and February 1847. Feel free to comment below for your thoughts this week, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
If you’d like to read it online, you can find it at a number of sites such as The Circumlocution Office, or download it from sites such as Gutenberg.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Allingham, Philip V. “Phiz’s Steel-Engravings for Dombey and Son, Wholesale Retail & for Exportation (1846-48)” The Victorian Web. https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/phiz/dombey/index.html. Accessed 15 February 2023.
Black, Jeremy. England in the Age of Dickens. Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2021.
Graham, Adam H. “Following Dickens through Switzerland.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/travel/following-dickens-through-switzerland.html. Accessed 18 February 2023.
Lethem, Jonathan. “Dickens: Greatest Animal Novelist of All Time?” The Believer, 1 March 2003. https://www.thebeliever.net/dickens-greatest-animal-novelist-of-all-time. Accessed 15 February 2023.
Stone, Harry. Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making. Palgrave Macmillan, 1980.
I must just add: though Boze was kind enough to insist that my name too go on the intro, it was mostly his work! Though we discussed it a lot together. But I want to give credit where it is due! 🙂
I am so, so excited to be with DOMBEY again! What a marvelous book. I love it that Rob “accidentally” went & read it all already, he was so captivated!
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Yes! I did accidentally read the whole thing already, and I am utterly glad that I did. I have so much ‘enthoosymoosy’ for this novel that my rambling comments and observations may be more higgledy-piggledy than ever! So I entreat you to bear with me!
I sometimes wonder whether I read novels properly. Especially when I see some critic or other has made an observation about something lacking, or which could have been better, or in some way falls short of greatness! I, along with Mr Perker (of Gray’s Inn) say to this, ‘Pooh, pooh, my dear sir!’ – and rightly so, I think! I read in my own way and so of course I read properly!
But what is that way, you may ask…
Well, as an audiobook narrator and actor, my ‘way’ is to receive the story as told in the most accepting and accommodating way possible, I suppose! To be carried away by the narrative and delight in its sights and sounds, its highs and lows, its locations and, I suppose, most of all, the people who inhabit it. When I produce an audiobook version of the work, I try to do the utmost justice to all of the above, in a way in which I hope the author would approve. To tell their version of the story as boldly and in as compelling way as possible. No mean expectation of oneself, I should say. Still, one must aim high… and if a thing’s worth doing, its worth doing well. The same can be said of my approach to acting on stage too.
Whenever I read Dickens, my first response is usually that I would like to do an audiobook version of it. There are many versions exist already of most of the major works, but that is not the deciding factor. The Characters are the big appeal… they almost demand to be performed. But also the way Dickens tells his story. Some accuse him of being overly sentimental… but I for one love that about his writing… I love to be carried away by the emotion.
Sometimes he writes such beautiful passages that on occasion these become a stumbling block for me when I record the audio… they are almost too beautiful to be rendered by my humble set of skills. But they have to be done, so do them I do! (as a side note to this, I can always hear in my own voice the fear as I approach them… I hope that other listeners would not detect them as easily)
Anyway, apologies once more for my going off at tangents – I reiterate my entreaty that you bear with me… I do sincerely hope I am approaching a point. At the moment I am allowing free flow to ideas falling out of my head onto the keyboard. It feels like I have started writing an autobiography!! But there is a point coming, I promise.
In all events, I could add, as I’m sure a character in one of the great man’s novels might have said 😉
So… onwards towards that point…
When producing an audiobook version, one does not have the luxury of picking which characters to render… you must play them all. Dickens presents quite a cast of speaking characters in all his works. And be they a minor or a major character they must be rendered in the telling of the tale.
Fortunately Dickens creates character with such flair and imagination and playfulness. He almost makes you see them with their quirks and peculiarities and idiosynchrasies. The theatricality of his writing presents vivid characters who speak ‘speakable’ dialogue. The sheer variety of his creations is staggering. This is what I most delight in as a reader and often is the time that I will have a go at these many and varied characters.
In the novels I have done in audio, I have rendered so many of these wonderful creations, and for the most part remember each and every one as old friends. Some are trickier than others.
As a man, the female characters present particular challenges. And yet there are some that I have enjoyed immensely. Mrs Nickleby, Fanny Squeers, Miss Knag. Mrs Joe and Miss Havisham. Madame Defarge and the little seamstress; to name but a few. Others were much harder. Nancy and Estella spring to mind.
As some of you may know, I am halfway through an audiobook recording of The Pickwick Papers which is jam-packed with wonderful characters. But this new read for the Dickens Club contains a new set of characters, quite unlike many before, but just as vividly drawn and enjoyable to encounter. After the intimacy I have formed with so many of the characters from the other works it was an absolute delight to meet new friends. Some of them not so likeable. But with what ease Dickens seems to draw them.
That is his art… the hard work put in to make it ‘look’ easy!
I only came on here to make a brief comment, and it looks like I got carried away!
Oh well… I’m sure you’ll all forgive me
Two articles which look at Dickens’ gift for character will perhaps detail his flair and talent way better than me. I take the liberty to (hopefully) include both here
Paul Bailey in The Guardian – on Dickens’ Minor Characters:
and Rupert Godsal in Country Life on those unforgettable characters:
Dombey and Son enchanted me from the very first chapter all the way to the end. I couldn’t put it down, it certainly had me in its thrall. Nothing felt unnecessary, Everything deserved its place in this compelling tale before me. Having finished it, I felt bereft… thankfully I am going through it all again – mainly via audiobook this time ( The Audible Studios version narrated by Owen Teale)
I am very much trying to avoid spoilers at this time! But I look forward to popping back with more of my rambling observations
In terms of the hard work and invention of Dickens, I shall leave my ramble concluded by some quotes relating to such things.. it amazes me how much Charles Dickens was anxious to refine and revise his drafts (as evidenced by the wonderful The Life of Dickens by John Forster)
In August 1846, having just begun Dombey and Son, he wrote to Forster
I’m weirdly grateful to this post for mentioning Hans Christian Andersen, a writer who had an…interesting relationship with Dickens, because I’ve been meaning to ask the group something about him.
For Christmas, I got a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s complete fairy tales and happily I was able to make my way through it before Dombey and Son with time to spare. One of the stories in it, The Pigs, begins this way,
“Dear Charles Dickens once told us the story of the pig and since that time it has put us in a good humor just to hear on grunt.”
Does anyone know to what this could refer?
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I am so curious now!! Of course, pigs were not represented in the best light in American Notes – not that there was anything wrong with the pigs, as I recall, but that they were everywhere in the streets! 🙂 But it has been a minute since I’ve read Great Expectations, but wasn’t there a special pig at Wemmick’s tiny castle? Does anyone else have any ideas?
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It actually sounds in context like Dickens was the one who originally told “The Pigs” and Andersen was saying he was retelling it.
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Could it be a reference to the Pig in the True Legend of Prince Bladud from Pickwick?? (Just a thought!) 🙂
Among the herd (so said the legend) was a pig of grave and solemn countenance, with whom the prince had a fellow-feeling—for he too was wise—a pig of thoughtful and reserved demeanour; an animal superior to his fellows, whose grunt was terrible, and whose bite was sharp. The young prince sighed deeply as he looked upon the countenance of the majestic swine; he thought of his royal father, and his eyes were bedewed with tears.
‘This sagacious pig was fond of bathing in rich, moist mud. Not in summer, as common pigs do now, to cool themselves, and did even in those distant ages (which is a proof that the light of civilisation had already begun to dawn, though feebly), but in the cold, sharp days of winter. His coat was ever so sleek, and his complexion so clear, that the prince resolved to essay the purifying qualities of the same water that his friend resorted to. He made the trial. Beneath that black mud, bubbled the hot springs of Bath. He washed, and was cured. Hastening to his father’s court, he paid his best respects, and returning quickly hither, founded this city and its famous baths.
‘He sought the pig with all the ardour of their early friendship—but, alas! the waters had been his death. He had imprudently taken a bath at too high a temperature, and the natural philosopher was no more! He was succeeded by Pliny, who also fell a victim to his thirst for knowledge.
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“Imagine it is January 1847 and I am an avid, middle-class novel reader living in London. I have been following Charles Dickens’s huge bestseller, Dombey and Son, a novel I have been buying in serial installments at a railway bookseller’s stall just as soon as it comes out each month, since October of 1846…”
This is a fascinating short read, looking at the serial publication effect in Victorian Times, and brings in Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre (all three being fairly close together in the publishing time frame)
well worth a read if you feel so inclined… it also contains no spoilers which at this stage of our proceedings is a good thing 🙂
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Well, my breath is stolen! All of the introduction and the depth perspective that you offer, Rob. And, your wise insights, Stationmaster.
I’m certainly being amused, elevated, and calmed–not just by the Master Writer but by all of you who are contributing so wonderfully to understanding the man, his times, his irrepressible imagination, his ethical goodness.
A few observations and themes struck me in a particularly strong way.
1. Switzerland: I’m wondering about the effect of this relocation–new sights, smells, language, etc. I try to imagine setting up shop with his six children and servants . . . and “a goose-quill pen, a paper-knife, a gilt leaf with a rabbit on it, a figurine of a gentleman stuffing dogs into the pockets of a large coat, a figurine of two frogs dueling, a copy of Tristram Shandy in which he was to find inspiration whilst writing Dombey. ”
2. Dickens’ “second act”: It seems that the Inimitable took stock of his writing up to this point, and decided to exert a new level of intentionality and discipline. “. . . the beginning of Dickens’s “second act” as a writer; after the slump in critical and commercial respect that had accompanied Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, there on the slopes of the Alps his mind was afire with characters and ideas that would people an unbroken streak of great works in the years to come.”
3. Enchantment: What a splendid guiding muse! Rob, you clearly enter this “zone” of enchantment in discovering the world of the books you read and infuse with your own genius. Ah, for more interlaced fairy tales in our lives!
4. The “feminine” qualities: What prescience . . . “to celebrate those specifically female virtues which he longed for.” The demeaning of the warmer, softer, more compassionate, move loving, deeper dimension of things often viewed as “feminine” is a problem that plagues many male-dominated societies. It is a tragic split of the “animus” and “anima.” Dickens, a man of remarkable emotional depth and power, surely grieved this harsh “masculinization” of society.
5. Jesus as a model of masculinity: I was not aware of “The Life of Our Lord,” but this sense of Christ as healer and lover–especially of the humble, simple, lowly–pervades Dickens’ work.
I am–like you, Rob–LOVING this book, which Deacon Matthew has dubbed “the Best Yet”!
Can’t thank you all enough for the depth and breadth of your love of Dickens and your range of research and insight!
Blessings, Inimitables All!
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Mr. Pilkins’s name not appearing in Chapter 1 until Dr. Parker Peps says it is a great way to illustrate how subordinate the former is to the latter.
How do readers feel about Miss Tox at this point? She recommends Mrs. Pipchin to Mr. Dombey despite having been under her change and knowing what she’s like, and she’s implied to be kind of a gold digger. But later in the book she’s seen as kind of a victim and (SPOILER ALERT) she redeems herself in the end.
You can’t really accuse Walter Gay of being a gold digger since he fantasizes about marrying Florence after he’s made his fortune, but it’s kind of weird that these fantasies start when she’s a child. I don’t want to say I find him creepy or unlikeable, but I couldn’t blame someone else for having that opinion.
Because so much of the humor of Solomon Gills and Captain Cuttle involves nautical and cultural references (Read Dickens, His Parables and His Readers by Linda M. Lewis for an analysis of Cuttle’s malapropisms) it hasn’t aged that well, which is unfortunate since they’re meant to be among the book’s most lovable characters. Mrs. MacStinger is great fun though and so is Susan Nipper’s enmity toward Mrs. Pipchin. (“You can buy me the books, Susan, and you will when you know why I want them.” “If it was to fling ’em at Mrs. Pipchin’s head, I’d buy a cartload.”)
I’m aware there’s a school of criticism dating back to Andrew Lang that finds young Paul Dombey to be too cute, but I’m fond of him. I was an eccentric, generally quiet introvert when I was a young kid, so he feels relatable to me.
While I don’t find Dombey and Son to be the most engaging thing Dickens wrote (certainly not compared to the “Christmas books” this group has been reading), I do love this description.
“In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boys blew before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances.”
This description of young Paul’s scholastic problems is also hilarious in a sad way.
“Whether twenty Romuluses made a Remus, or hic haec hoc was troy weight, or a verb always agreed with an ancient Briton, or three times four was Taurus a bull, were open questions with him.”
Jonathan Lethem’s article argued that Dickens could be as cinematic as he could be “stagey.” I feel like Walter noticing Captain Cuttle’s discarded nosegay at Dombey’s house before we’ve seen what actually happened is a great example. I can just see the camera panning down to it as ominous music plays before we cut to the next scene.
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The first sentences juxtapose the father and son so beautifully: right away, we “see” the father “in the corner of the darkened room,” a cold place from which to observe the birth of his awaited son, and where only his accessories—e.g. his buttons—reflect the “distant” fire; the son, all warmth and light by comparison, is by the fire itself. (Toasted like a muffin!)
Mr. Dombey, wintry and hard, or “glossy and crisp like new bank notes,” is softened only by those portentous words, “Dombey and Son.”
“Those three words conveyed the one idea of Mr. Dombey’s life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them: A.D. had no concern with anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei–and Son.”
And what of his daughter? We hear of her immediately in the past tense, as though she had died: “There had been a girl some six years before…” She, all but dead to her own father, is an afterthought at best. Even, an obstacle, threatening Dombey with some less-than-gratifying self-reflection; threatening Son with more affection than Dombey himself is able to give. But then, “girls are thrown away in this house,” as the blunt Susan Nipper says. Floy is the one there with the dying mother, as Dombey keeps aloof—and we have this sense that there is a perverted envy, a resentfulness, that Floy is so much more connected to all that he *should* treasure, than he himself is. (Dombey is resentful of Polly, too: she has the healthy kind of family that he lacks, and a potential relationship to Paul that Fanny was never able to have.) Floy even seems to be something like Dombey’s uncomfortable conscience: “his previous feeling of indifference towards little Florence changed into an uneasiness of an extraordinary kind. He almost felt as if she watched and distrusted him.” Of course, we know that the only thing she wants is affection; the fact that she is fearful of him speaks to his coldness, and her fear of rejection–almost as though she is trying to do honor to him by not giving him an additional opportunity to reject her. So heartbreaking!
But Dombey sees Floy through a narcissistic, warped perspective, which has some deep insecurity in it.
I was struck by how the book begins with both Life and Death—and oddly enough, there is more life, more emotion in the scene between Floy and her dying mother, than there is in any scene of the “life” of Mr Dombey. Even the christening of little Paul is saturated with death-imagery and biting “cold.”
In contrast to the cold, as Paul is, at the outset, by the fire, so also he stares at the fire in his old-souled childhood later, as though the firelight were his “prompter and advisor”. Dickens has this repeatedly: thoughtfulness, curiosity, and imagination seem to be connected with “reading” things in the flames of the fire, as Little Nell does in The Old Curiosity Shop, and as Lizzie Hexam does in the fire later, in Our Mutual Friend.
I meant to write more, and perhaps I’ll be able to later today, but here’s a start! 🙂
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Great comments, Rach! Trying to keep this comment short… always a great challenge for me
I think the opening chapter of Dombey and Son is the best of the novels to date (Bearing in mind that I still haven’t got to read Barnaby Rudge yet). It gets straight to the heart of the matter and, indeed, seems to contain most of the novels main themes and argument. It’s compelling from the very start. There seems to be a lot it has in common with the opening of Oliver Twist (though that is much shorter)
I love the way that Time and Care are almost made active characters in the novel at this early point. Time especially making his presence felt in all the ticking of watches and clocks:
There was no sound in answer but the loud ticking of Mr Dombey’s watch and Doctor Parker Peps’s watch, which seemed in the silence to be running a race.
The race in the ensuing pause was fierce and furious. The watches seemed to jostle, and to trip each other up.
Which rather brings me to one of those curious observations I seem disposed to have:
Dickens takes a great deal of trouble with the names of his characters, so I can’t help but suspect a deliberation in the names ‘Chick’ and ‘Tox’ as being rather similar to ‘Ticks’ and ‘Tocks’ giving us an aural echo of the clock/watch ticking phenomenon. But this could be fancy of course!
Always love a good watcher of the fire lost in thought and reflection. There’s Steerforth in David Copperfield and Louisa in Hard Times who have a go at this too 😀
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Speaking of Dickens’ names, every time I see “Tox” I hear “toxic”. Anyone got an OED about to check on etymology? Was that a word in the 19th century, or is it some sort of scientific neologism? Enquiring minds want to know!
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As found on https://www.etymonline.com/word/toxic
1660s, from French toxique and directly from Late Latin toxicus “poisoned,” from Latin toxicum “poison,” from Greek toxikon (pharmakon) “(poison) for use on arrows,” from toxikon, neuter of toxikos “pertaining to arrows or archery,” and thus to a bow, from toxon “bow,” probably from a Scythian word that also was borrowed into Latin as taxus “yew.” Watkins suggests a possible source in Iranian taxša- “bow,” from PIE *tekw- “to run, flee.” As a noun from 1890. Toxic waste is by 1888 in medicine, “toxin;” by 1955 as “chemical or radioactive waste.”
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Haha, thanks, Rob! So I can be forgiven for suspecting that the association was not accidental on the part of the Inimitable!
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There is of course ‘intoxicate’ which dates back to the mid 1500’s … there could be something in that! 🙂
Wow, guys, so much going ON here–in the first chapter of the novel and in our commentary on it. Yes, the scent of DEATH is already present, with the reference to Time and Care, the reference to Scythe, the overwhelming darkness of the room, the ossified Mr. Dombey, and the fact that Mrs. Dombey is virtually dying before our eyes. Somewhat later, when we get to Paul’s christening scene, the idea of Paul’s mortality is virtually underlined and in bold and capital letters with the description and commentary of the proceedings.
Daniel brings up the association, or rather the dissociation of anima and animus–the “tragic split” of the two, and that I see as the central psychological topic and truth of the novel; and here in the opening chapter we see not only the literal “outward” split–as Rachel has noted–between Mr. Dombey, Paul, Mrs. Dombey and Florence, but the figurative “inward” split within the consciousness of Mr. Dombey. This man is ALL PERSONA (thus my comment about his ossification–his wooden, calcified personality), having split off regenerative, loving feeling, playful sides of his personality way before the novel has begun. So that in the mise-en-scene of the first chapter (I see it as very cinematic–almost Bergman-like), we see the various portions of his psyche that have been split off and held down as shadow manifestations. He’s killed the potential anima figure of his wife, he’s relegated his daughter’s anima/child archetype characteristics to his shadow, and sees his son (another aspect of his child archetype) as no more than a replica of himself–as symbolic proprietor to be of Dombey and Son. This is an auspicious opening–with all its tragic foreshadowings–of the novel to come.
Thus the novel’s first chapter sets the stage of a novel which, in many ways, is really a psycodrama–a psychomachia, a huge metaphor of the human psyche (Dombey’s, society’s) that will play out through its many chapters. From a personal level, all the characters in the novel might be seen as aspects of Mr. Dombey’s unformed psyche. In fact, his actions reveal to what extent he attempts to repel and repeal the various side of his personality in order to save his idea of what he thinks he should be, TRAGICALLY (again echo Daniel) attempting to “save” his outsized persona. Again, one might say he’s ALL persona–to the detriment of all the positive possibilities that exist within that he has repressed.
And I think that all of this “characterization’ is offered by Dickens as a warning to society that it, too, is becoming collectively ossified, itself splitting off important, life-giving, loving and nourishing parts of ITS psyche in the name of commerce and corporate power! A man is self-destructing, a society that is killing itself…. Hence, the train metaphor and all that that entails. But that comes later!
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Already there is so much wonderful commentary from a variety of viewpoints! So many avenues of exploration and insight! I’m taking my time sifting through everything already presented & reading all the supplemental material (oh, so much, thank you!!). In the meantime, here are some thoughts.
There is a strange sense of “isolation in the midst of connectedness” in this novel. Characters struggle within themselves with propriety vs genuineness, position vs responsibility, desire vs necessity, motivation vs duty; personal and interpersonal struggles which mirror those taking place in the wider world. This one of the many points of the novel – no one lives in isolation, no one can live in isolation, all things and people are connected whether they will or not.
These first 16 chapters could be a stand-alone novel, yet the lingering questions beg for the rest of the book. The biggest question of all is how will these characters fare now that Little Paul is dead?
The one thing I do wish this densely-packed had more of is backstory. Yes, we will get backstory snippets about of some of the characters, but of others we get next to nothing. For instance, Mr Dombey – so stiff and proper, yet so full of suppressed emotion. His backstory would be such an interesting a case study of the Proper Victorian Male. I have so many questions about his upbringing – his relationships with his parents, his sister, and mostly, his wife. How on earth did they ever have children, so stiff is their relationship in the very brief glance we get of them together: “A transient flush of faint surprise overspread” the dying Fanny’s face when her husband “appended a term of endearment” to her name (Ch 1). There is so much left unsaid about these two and Dickens drops such tantalizing hints that are never explained – why did gossips say Fanny had no heart to give, what did Mrs Chick have to forgive Fanny for (Ch 1) and WHAT was in Fanny’s letter that Dombey reads and then destroys (Ch 5)?
I am struck by the contradiction between Dombey’s ambitions for his son and his stupidity in laying the groundwork for realizing those ambitions. The ease with which he delegates responsibility for his son to those whose motives are self-serving and mercenary is astonishing given his ambition. He seems to believe that Little Paul will simply morph into “Dombey and Son” – He does not follow up on how his son is cared for until it is too late, does not seek advice from competent authorities, does next to nothing to properly vet those to whom he delegates the care of his son. With the exception of Polly Toodle and Florence, none of those who care for Little Paul really have HIS welfare uppermost in their thoughts. Yet it is clear that Mr Dombey “loved his son with all the love he had” (Ch 8) and that he is truly heartbroken as Little Paul declines and dies (Ch 14, 16). I am torn between feeling sorry for Dombey because he IS heartbroken and feeling contempt for him because his inability to come out of himself precluded him from seeing what was truly necessary to care for his son. What will he do now that that son is gone?
Little Paul’s short life is a counterpart to Oliver Twist’s in that he suffers the fate Oliver escapes: “had [Oliver] been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time” (“OT”, Ch 1); Little Paul is brought up by hand by a nursery Commission headed by “Mrs Chick and Miss Tox: who devoted themselves to their duties with such astonishing ardour” that they “could not make little Paul a thriving boy” (“D&S”, Ch 8). I wonder what sort of man Little Paul would have become had he lived. At 6 or 7 years old he is already quick of perception and already has acquired the Dombey attitude of superiority and entitlement, saying exactly what he means with no filter. How well would he have fulfilled his father’s vision had he lived, how much of his gentle nature would he have retained – in other words, how would the battle between his father’s influence and his sister’s have played out? But that is an entirely different novel.
Dear Florence appears to be in for a difficult time what with her allies dropping off one by one. Now with her brother gone and Walter on his way to Barbados, Florence seems to be entering into an even more Gothic existence – alone in a large, dismal (gloomy) house, imprisoned by an ogre (her father), with no avenue of escape. Her only friend at this point is Susan, but will this be enough?
Susan is indeed a spitfire and a welcome one in this novel full of so many characters who too stiffly mind their manners. Though she is sharp and a little rough with Florence it is clear she loves Florence and has a good heart. In fact, I think the roughness works to toughen Florence up a bit, to make her resilient – traits Florence will need to counteract her sensitivity and passivity in the future. I’m interested in how pointedly Susan refers to herself as “a black slave and mulotter” (Ch 5) especially after “Martin Chuzzlewit” and “American Notes” (she is described as “brown” in Ch 3) and wondering if anyone has done a study on the black or mixed raced characters in Dickens. I’ll see what I can find.
Walter reminds me of Kit Nubbles from OCS. Solid boy, good heart, takes his duty to family and friend seriously at an early age, and yet is put in an impossible situation for doing so. Like Kit, the powers that be feel it necessary to get rid of Walter, to get him out of the way because, they don’t like him because he poses a threat to their sense of superiority.
The Tootles are one of the few really good, wholesome, close-knit, intact families in Dickens. Mr Dombey and Mrs Chick could certainly learn a thing or two from them, which is perhaps part of the reason they dismiss them. For example, I’m struck by how quickly and completely Mrs Chick abandons her own husband and children to maintain her influence with her brother by superintending the care of Little Paul compared with how difficult it is for Polly to leave her children.
Miss Tox is one of my favorite Dickens characters – a late bloomer who lives up to Mr Dombey’s assessment of her as “a woman of great natural good sense, whose feelings did her credit and deserved encouragement” (Ch 5) (Mr Toots is her counterpart in this respect). We see only hints of her quality in these first 16 chapters: her resourcefulness in finding a wet-nurse, her abilities to manage her own affairs (with the cabbie in Ch 5 and in her home in Ch 7), her relative ease with the children though having none of her own (Ch 7 & 8), and especially in the notice, slight though it may be, she takes of Florence whom she recognizes as sensitive and forlorn and who she might console and comfort if Mrs Chick were not present (Ch 5). She is indeed passive and obsequious, but she is also attentive and observant. We must wait and see if, with the proper encouragement, she allows her natural good sense to not be overruled by her unnatural sense of propriety and place (undoubtedly learned at Mrs Pipchin’s).
Mr Toots is one of Dickens’s lost boys. Like a monied Dick Swiveller, he doesn’t know what to do with himself and flails along waiting for direction. But we see his good heart in his behavior toward Little Paul with whom he is kind and tender and caring in spite of his apparent dullness.
As with Miss Tox we must wait and see if and how Mr Toots will develop.
I can’t close without stating my opinion that Major Bagstock is an ass. There is nothing to like about the Major. Granted he does manage the unprecedented act of befriending Mr Dombey. This might have absolved him a bit if it weren’t for the fact that this feat was only accomplished via the Major’s talents for fawning, bragging, name-dropping, and throwing other people under the proverbial bus. Undoubtedly he will continue in the same manner, but how his villainy will play out remains to be seen.
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