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Dombey & Son & Me

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If you noticed me at any time during the last few weeks, skulking through the halls of the New York Public Library, I was probably clutching a plump little volume in one hand, wondering when I’d get another chance to read a few more pages. That copy of Dombey and Son was my loyal companion for a long time. Henry James might have derisively called nineteenth-century novels “loose, baggy monsters,” but I certainly appreciated the scope of this book, the sense of time passing, lives changing, characters intersecting on a vast, 900-page canvas. It made me wonder how much more intense the reading experience would have been, as it was originally conceived, in monthly numbers stretching over a year or so. The closest analogy I could come up with were the glory days of Masterpiece Theatre, before the VCR was even invented, when I just had to be home on Sunday night to catch the next episode of “I, Claudius” or “Jewel in the Crown.”

I have had some trouble with Dickens in the past. My initial enthusiasm in starting one of his books usually peters out after the first few hundred pages. Maybe I just start to long for a female character who does not so totally embody the concept of goodness. But, since I’ve been preparing my public presentation on Charles Dickens, I thought I’d try again and chose one of the few novels I’d never read before, Dombey and Son. To my surprise, it’s one of the most thoroughly enjoyable Dickens novels I can remember. Of course, I’m familiar with the phenomenon of talking myself into feeling the way I think I should be feeling, but in this case there are many substantive reasons for my enjoyment—one of which might just be that I came to it at the right moment in my life.

For the first time, I seemed attuned to the sheer vitality of Dickens’s sentences. Page after page, each sentence is swollen with the author’s personality and pulses with a sort of inner life which is hard to describe. As an experiment, I opened the book at random and pointed to this sentence, which reflects on Florence Dombey’s unreciprocated love for her father:

“It was easier to hope, and pray, and love on, all uncared for, yet with constancy and patience, in the tranquil sanctuary of such remembrances; although it mouldered, rusted, and decayed about her; than in a new scene, let its gaiety be what it would.”

There is an elegance in this characterization which works on a number of levels.

I also came away with a sense of having inhabited the lives and minds of a number of memorable characters—not merely the comic or melodramatic grotesques of the inferior Dickens adaptations. Paul Dombey is a proud, powerful man obsessed by his work, sort of a Citizen Kane without a Rosebud, whose attachment to his son as the principal inheritor of the family business leads him to a thorough indifference to his own daughter. Although Florence Dombey’s devotion to her father seems, on the surface, completely self-denying and suspiciously close to masochism, she is not just another of Dickens’s good women; there are subversive elements in her character, too, and her triumph at the conclusion is a testament to her strength and endurance. Little Paul Dombey, though, is fragile (he makes Tiny Tim look robust), and I don’t imagine I’d be spoiling anything by revealing that he doesn’t make it to the end of the book; but his death is a tremendously moving scene, with all the outpouring of emotion that Dickens can command.

One of the most fascinating characters, I found, was Dombey’s second wife, Edith, a strong, articulate woman with no illusions about her status in the upper-class marriage market (“I suffered myself to be sold as infamously as any woman with a halter around her neck is sold in any market-place.”), and the scenes of her resistance to her husband’s dominance provide some of the most surprisingly powerful moments in the book. There are other characters, with names like Mr. Toots and Cap’n Cuttle, who seem cut from a more standard Dickensian cloth, but even those strands are woven seamlessly into the vast tapestry that is Dombey and Son.

Paul and Miss Pipchin, 1846 etching, viaThe Victorian Web (click image for source)Paul and Miss Pipchin, 1846 etching, via
The Victorian Web (click image for source)
Another element of my reading was a new appreciation of the subtle interplay between text and pictures. I was particularly struck by this illustration of little Paul and the grim old boarding house keeper, Mrs. Pipchin. Dickens describes her as a:

“marvelously ill-favored, ill-conditioned old lady, of a stooping figure, with a mottled face, like bad marble, a hook nose, and a hard grey eye, that looked as if it might have been hammered out on an anvil without sustaining an injury.”

I thought the illustrator, Hablot Knight “Phiz” Browne, had perfectly captured and in some ways even enhanced the moment. I even gave a spontaneous chuckle when I saw the ruminating expression on the witch-like Mrs. Pipchin’s face. (Dickens, I later learned, was violently disappointed with this particular drawing, and even wrote that he would have cheerfully given a hundred pounds to keep it out of the book.) I will be giving my presentation “Out of the Blacking Factory: Charles Dickens at the New York Public Library” for the first time next Friday, November 14th. If you can’t make it then, I’ll be repeating it on December 10th and again on January 16th. If you would like to sit in, please join me in the first floor classrooms at 2:15. I would enjoy meeting you.

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Charles Dickens

Through the years I felt the same way about Dickens as you - great at the start - then a chore to get through. But I recently read Bleak House and loved it. Not sure I'm ready for another just yet - but definitely, intrigued about Dombey & Son now that you've written about it.

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