Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

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. 

(Crickets chirping).

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 ExpectationsA Tale of Two Cities, and even my beloved Bleak HouseDombey 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.


  1. I read Dombey and Son for a course I did last year. One of the things I found interesting (which I probably wouldn't have noticed without the course materials) was the social and economic history in the form of the growth of the railways and the impact it had. In the novel the Toodle family are most affected. And Carker, but I don't want to give anything away if you haven't finished it!

  2. Add me to the list of people that have never read this book, although I do enjoy Dickens. It sounds like Florence's story is pretty interesting. I'm really looking forward to the rest of your review!

  3. I admit, I am extremely fearful of Dickens. I have only read A Tale of Two Cities, and I hated it so much I haven't had the heart to read more.

  4. You're right; I've never heard of this one. Poor Florence...

  5. Joanne -- I haven't read anything about the railways yet, I am intrigued. I thought Carker was a snake like Tulkinghorn in Bleak House, but I'm starting to wonder if he doesn't have some good in him. We shall see.

    Col -- thanks! Which Dickens are your favorites? I still have several more to read, though I'll probably take a break before tackling another. I really want to read Our Mutual Friend.

    Reviewsbylola -- I was pleasantly surprised when I read Great Expectations, which I read in college and ended up loving. A Tale of Two Cities isn't my favorite Dickens, though it's by far his most popular novel -- it's one of the top-selling novels of all time. I prefer Bleak House and Oliver Twist. You might like Dickens more if you watched one of the BBC adaptations -- Bleak House is especially good.

    Care -- Poor Florence is right!! I am getting a little tired of Dickens' pathetic orphans and unloved children. I don't think I've read a single one of his novels without one.

  6. I haven't read this one yet but as I'm slowly working my way through Dickens' novels I should get to it eventually. My favourite so far has been Our Mutual Friend.

  7. I will eventually get around to Dombey, so thanks for the warning. I will most likely read it along with several other lighter, brighter books and pace myself.

    I agree that Dickens really shines with the comic characters and falters when he gets too serious. I'm a bit intrigued by the Florence character, as well as Edith (I can't think of another gold-digger in Dickens, so she might be a bit of an anomaly).

    Good review of a somber book. Good luck finishing it.

    I'm with you--not understanding the relative popularity of Hard Times...almost seems like an academic conspiracy, or maybe it is that length thing.

  8. "some parts are just great, and I could easily read eighty or a hundred pages in a day, and some parts dragged glacially."

    That is EXACTLY how I felt about Old Curiosity Shop. Whenever it switched back to Nell and her grandfather, it got deathly boring.

    I can't believe how long Dombey and Son is. I mean...I want to read all of Dickens, but my gosh.

  9. Helen -- I keep hearing good things about Our Mutual Friend, I can't decide if it should be my next Dickens or if I should save it for last. Parts of Dombey and Son are really good -- I read some more today and it's picking up. Maybe he saved all the best parts for the end. I thought David Copperfield dragged in the middle too, though the beginning was wonderful.

    JaneGS -- I truly disliked Hard Times, can't think of thing to recommend about it. If people want to try a shorter Dickens I always recommend Oliver Twist or Great Expectations. I think Hard Times is so short because Dickens left out all the good stuff.

    Alice -- I think Dombey is actually the third longest; I was googling it and found some academic who published an article about electronic versions of Dickens. He said the longest is David Copperfield (more than 358,000 words) followed by Bleak House (356,000 +) and then Dombey and Son (352,000 +). I don't feel so bad about not finishing it in time for the Classics Circuit!)

  10. I agree with you that Dombey, Martin & Barnaby are for the real Dickens fans. I've read Dombey but not the other two. I want to reread Dombey at some point & I will read M & B, I really will! I didn't expect to like Pickwick but I loved it so I can't write the other two off just yet.

  11. Lyn -- I love how you describe them as "Dombey, Martin & Barnaby" -- sounds like a law firm! I read another 100 pages of D&S today and it got better, so I'll probably finish it tomorrow. I was a little put off by Pickwich but all the postings have been great so I'll definitely give it a shot sometime.

  12. I will also get around to this one eventually but I'm thinking it will be one of the last Dickens novels I read.

  13. Not being a hard core Dickens fan, I never heard of this one. It doesn't sound like his best work. Was it one he wrote early on before he got his groove on?

  14. I've never heard of this one! I've only read one Dickens though, Oliver Twist. However, I have loved, loved the adaptations of Bleak House and Little Dorit on the BBC.

  15. Kristen -- I finally finished it and it was pretty good overall. There are some really good characters and the ending was very satisfying.

    Jenners -- I think this is sort of in his middle period, just before David Copperfield. The stuff after that is my favorite, except for Oliver Twist which is his second novel.

    Mrs. B. -- Oliver Twist is one of my favorites! I loved the BBC adaptations though I haven't watched all of them. I really should watch Oliver Twist and the most recent David Copperfield which starred Maggie Smith and Daniel Radcliffe.

  16. Sorry it's not a favorite. It's on our long list for book club next year....maybe I can convince the group to consider a different Dickens instead...

  17. Rebecca -- I did finish it, and I ended up quite liking it. It's not my favorite Dickens but it had a satisfying ending and some memorable and endearing characters, so it gets a thumbs-up. Still way better than Hard Times!

  18. 'Dombey and Son' is my co-favourite Dickens novel along with 'David Copperfield'. 'Dombey ...' is best read slowly in my opinion. I found 'Our Mutual Friend' and 'Barnaby Rudge' difficult to get into, and left them until last, but was eventually rewarded as I now rate them in the top eschelon of his novels. My dislikes: 'Hard Times' and 'A Tale of Two Cities'. I'm ambivalent about 'Bleak House' and 'Nicholas Nickelby'. All the rest are now old friends!


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