By Charles Dickens. Straight of, I have to say that I found this novel, which I read in May, a bit of a slog at times and certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as, for instance David Copperfield. I’m putting the review under the cut, as it contains spoilers.
The main theme of this long novel is about the desire of the title character, Paul Dombey, for a son to carry on his life’s work in his shipping company and how this perverts his relationship with his daughter. Paul Dombey is an arrogant and prideful person who marries the meek and kind Fanny. Their first child, Florence, is much loved by her mother, but disdained by her father. Fanny dies at the birth of their son, also named Paul. After Paul’s birth, he is the apple of his father’s eye and very much the focus of the household, while Florence is ignored, although she loves her father very much and pines for his attention. Despite his father’s disdain of Florence, her brother Paul loves her very much. Paul is surprisingly not a spoilt brat, but a nice, precocious child, who, sadly, soon dies (but only after being forced to board at an unpleasant school). After his son’s death, the elder Dombey thinks it a misfortune that Florence is the surviving child. After some years, Paul Dombey marries again, the cold and equally arrogant Edith, who marries him for his money. Oddly, Edith is very fond of Florence and wants to keep her safe from harm. There is a battle of wills between Dombey and Edith, as Dombey expects Edith to submit her pride to him, but she refuses to do so. The discord between the couple is exacerbated by James Carker, who is Dombey’s right hand at his company and who uses his previous knowledge of Edith to try to blackmail her and who is also used by Dombey to exert pressure on Edith for her compliance. Florence is used a bargaining chip between the parties. Florence is unhappy, as she loves Edith but thinks it disloyal towards her father, whom she still loves despite his awful behaviour against her. When matters between Edith, Dombey and Carker come to a head, Florence is driven from the household by Dombey’s cruelty and finds refuge with an old friend, where she also finds her childhood love again, who was lost at sea but has serendipitously survived. Eventually, there is a happy end for many of the characters – even a reconciliation between her and her father, when he comes to understand that she is the only person who truly cared for him.
This novel has some very good parts, but it also has some very odd and improbable plot devices, the main one being the affairs between Edith, Carker, and Dombey. Edith hates Carker, who blackmails her, but nevertheless agrees to elope with him when her marriage to Dombey is failing. On her side it is a false elopement which she only does to get back at Carker to show him that she won’t submit and also to pay Dombey back for using Carker to threaten her. This, however, also ruins her in the eyes of society, so she has also lost everything, even Florence. It is also hard to understand why Carker even wants to have her elope with him, as she clearly hates him and is not bringing any money along. Also, after the failed elopement Carker is deadly afraid of Dombey, who pursues him relentlessly. Carker, like Edith, lost everything with this stupid stunt.
The also plot hinges on the arrogance of Paul Dombey. His inability to love his daughter, is inability to show his love for his son, his jealousy, his willingness to bask in the fake adoration of his sycophantic friends, who play to his blind arrogance. He is basically manipulated into the marriage with Edith by his false friends and his own pride. He thinks Edith own arrogance will enhance his position, but she didn’t encourage his suit (although, pressured by her mother, she also didn’t refuse it) and her pride doesn’t allow her to submit to him. In fact, the only person who would submit to him is Florence, but he doesn’t accept her love and support. In fact, he actively works against her, isolating her from any friends, so that she lives a ghostly, lonely life.
Another plot device is the sudden reappearance of Walter Gay, Florence’s childhood friend, who loves her and marries her. This marriage would have been impossible if Florence hadn’t been thrown out of her home by her father, as Walter had a much lower social status than Florence. It seem unlikely that young Florence could have married without the permission of her father. The marriage, however, is a happy one, showing up the unhappy marriage of convenience entered into by Edith and Paul Dombey and also a prosperous one, for Walter rises in business to rival Dombey and Son. This theme of happy marriages between unequal partners who marry for love is echoes in the marriage of Florence’s loyal maid, Susan Nipper. She marries above her status, and the marriage is only possible because her husband has no family to protest, but it, too, is a happy marriage.
There are other themes familiar to Dickens’ readers: bad schools where the students are abused, both in charity schools and in schools for the upper classes. Even the school Paul junior is sent to, is a dreadful place. Then there’s the plight of the poor and outcast. There is also a large and varied cast of lively and interesting supporting characters. There is a lot of drama and emotion and evocative writing, but as some of the important plot turns are so improbable, or else so foreseeable (does the reader really believe that Walter is lost at sea?) that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel. Maybe I will need to reread it in future, so see if my judgement is valid or if I am merely a bit tired of Dickens’ style after reading so many of his novels. However, I’m currently reading Little Dorrit and enjoying it just fine, so that’s probably not it. It must have been the improbable plot points in addition to the main character Paul Dombey (such arrogant, cold and unlikeable person) that caused me not like this novel as much as the others I’ve read. I don’t regret that I read Dombey and Son, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it.
Here’s my updated ranking, from favourite to least favourite:
- David Copperfield
- Bleak House
- Our Mutual Friend
- Hard Times
- Pickwick Papers
- Dombey and Son