Austen vs. Dickens: two of my favorite British authors. It was a tough choice, but I've finished all of Austen, so I chose Dickens this time around -- nothing against my beloved Jane, but I'm trying to work my way through the Dickens canon. For this edition of the Classics Circuit, I'm reading my tenth Dickens novel: Dombey and Son.
Yes, Dombey and Son : one of Charles Dickens' classic novels. . . . the one that nobody's ever heard of! Because, honestly, nobody ever reads it anymore! Compared to Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and even my beloved Bleak House, Dombey and Son is one of Charles Dickens' least read works. Even Hard Times is more popular. I suspect people read Hard Times because it's Dickens' shortest novel, though I personally think it is the least good of his novels. My library system -- which includes more than 1 million items -- does not own a single copy of this book. Not one! Along with Martin Chuzzlewit (the one where the main character goes to America) and Barnaby Rudge (the one about "the Riots of 'Eighty"), Dombey and Son belongs to the trio of works which are probably only read by the hard-core Dickens fans.
Anyhow, for those of you who are not familiar with the story, here is the setup, without spoilers. The novel begins with Mr. Dombey (the father), holding his new baby (the eponymous son); sadly, his wife is dying in childbirth. (Mr. Dombey's sister explains it's all the wife's fault, "because she wouldn't rally" -- i.e., she didn't have the character not to die. Riiiight.) Dombey has another child, a daughter, named Florence, about whom he could not care less; his hopes and dreams are all pinned on his son Paul, who will grow up and take over the family business. Mr. Dombey is some sort of business magnate, so little Paul has some big shoes to fill.
Needless to say, things do not work out as planned regarding his big plans for his beloved son. I don't want to give anything major away, but basically, this novel is about Mr. Dombey's relationship (or the lack thereof) with poor Florence, who essentially fills the role of the orphan in this novel. As you may remember, there's an orphan in every Dickens novel, or someone who is had a terrible childhood without loving parents, if you haven't noticed this already.
Apparently, this is Dickens' attempt at a feminist novel, though I wouldn't say he's really promoting the rights of women as far as work or property are concerned. Poor little Florence is rejected by her father at every opportunity, and it seems like he goes out of his way to get rid of anyone who might show her affection, because he's aware of what a jerk he is and he doesn't want anyone else to show him up. Dickens does make a point about the sad lot of marriageable women. [Mild spoiler alert!]
For example: Mr. Dombey is looking for a second wife and he's courting a beautiful widow, Edith, whose mother is one seriously manipulative gold-digger. The fact that Edith and Mr. Dombey don't really love each other is irrelevent. Edith has spent her life looking for husbands and not for love, and she blames her mother:
"What childhood did you ever leave to me? I was a woman -- artful, designing, mercenary, laying snares for men -- before I knew myself, or you, or even understood the base and wretched aim of every new display I learnt. . . . There is no slave in a market: there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, Mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years," cried Edith, with a burning brown, and the same bitter emphasis on the word.
As usual, Dickens fills this book with minor subplots and eccentric side characters, which sometimes disappear for hundreds of pages at a time. I really wanted to like this book (which I admit I haven't finished; I have about 250 pages to go), but I don't think this is going to rank near the top with my favorites. I'm finding it terribly uneven -- some parts are just great, and I could easily read eighty or a hundred pages in a day, and some parts dragged glacially. I found the parts about the wretched Mr. Dombey to be just depressing and rather boring. Dickens seems to go out of his way to show that Dombey is a cold, heartless, bastard, but after a while it got tiresome. Things really perked up when the fun supporting characters were in the picture, but I've always found them to be Dickens' best writing. I haven't given up on the book yet -- I'll stick with it to the end and see if it gets better. Florence may be one of Dickens' typical ingenues, but I do find myself caring about whether or not her story is going to have a happy ending.
UPDATE: I did finish the novel, and the ending was extremely satisfying, so I'm really happy that I read it. I wouldn't rate this novel in the same tier as Bleak House or Oliver Twist, but it's still a good read and worth sticking with if you're a Dickens fan -- if you're new to Dickens you might try another one first. But it's still a good book overall.