“[F]or not an orphan in the wide world can be so deserted as the child who is an outcast from a living parent’s love” – chapter 24
Not one of his better known novels, Dombey and Son represents a transitional novel from his earlier works to his more serious and better developed later novels (such as Bleak House and David Copperfield). The overall work is good, but a little bloated.
Mr. Dombey is a rich and prideful merchant who heads one of the most successful and famous firms in England, Dombey and Son. His first wife dies after delivering the esteemed son who will continue the family legacy and business. Unfortunately for Mr. Dombey and his plans, the son proves sickly, and dies early in his childhood, leaving only the unloved and neglected daughter from his first marriage, Florence. His daughter wants only to be loved by her father, but he views her with indifference at first, which eventually intensifies to hatred in the belief that she was a rival for his first wife’s love and Paul’s affections. Suffering from grief over the death of his son, Dombey decides to accompany his newfound friend, Joey Bagstock, a retired sycophantic military man, to the English countryside where he meets a beautiful woman named Edith. Impressed with her accomplishments and with the encouragement of Edith’s scheming mother, Dombey proposes to her. Edith accepts the marriage, but possesses a pride of her own which disdains her new husband’s wealth and consideration as worthless things. Their prideful natures quickly conflict and lead to an unhappy married life. Meanwhile, the sycophantic Mr. Carker, Dombey’s second-in-command at the firm, betrays his employer when the time is right by putting the firm at risk with bad investments and running off with Dombey’s dissatisfied new bride in the hopes of seducing her. Dombey in his anger and damaged pride over these events pushes Florence to run away from home. Only after he loses everything does Dombey understand how his pride has blinded him and discovers his love for his daughter. Intersecting this main plot is the story of Walter who secretly loves Florence and ends up missing in a shipwreck when the firm sends him off to Barbados.
Like a classical Drama from Ancient Greece, Dickens builds his novel and conflict around a character flaw. Dombey’s flaw is his extreme pride, which leads him to trust in sycophants like Joey Bagstock and Mr. Carker. Carker ends up betraying him, while Bagstock only uses the connection to increase his own reputation among society. Not only does his pride lead him to become the dupe of sycophants, but he turns on characters he should trust such as his own sister, his own daughter, and Miss Tox (a friend of Dombey’s sister) all of whom genuinely love him in their own way. This extreme pride drives him towards the brink of madness. Even when his business ventures fall apart, his pride prevents him from accepting a deal that would allow him to dissolve the business and keep a portion of his personal fortune to live upon. Instead his pride demands that all his fortune be available to pay the firm’s debts, including his personal assets.
If pride is Dombey’s personal flaw, his unbridled belief in the power of money is his ideological flaw. Most of Dickens’ novels criticize this extreme capitalist view in which people are a means to an end and your worth is defined by your wealth. He tries to explain this vision of money to his son, Paul, before the character dies from sickness.
“What is money after all!” said Mr. Dombey, backing his chair a little, that he might the better gaze in sheer amazement at the presumptuous atom that propounded such an inquiry.
“I mean, papa, what can it do?” returned Paul, folding his arms (they were hardly long enough to fold), and looking at the fire, and up at him, and at the fire, and up at him again.
Mr. Dombey drew his chair back to its former place, and patted him on the head. “You’ll know better by-and-by, my man,” he said. “Money, Paul, can do anything.”
Dombey learns the hard way that money cannot do anything. It cannot save his beloved son from death, nor can money reconcile him to his daughter. Florence loves her father better once most of his money is gone, once all that pride and status that warped his mind is stripped away. Indeed, it is precisely those things that prevented him from loving his daughter.
He views relationships in terms of financial transactions, which is a fundamentally dehumanizing process. This is apparent when he hires Polly to be a nurse for Paul, demanding she change her name to Richards. Even though a nurse will naturally develop a close relationship with her charges, Dombey insists this relationship be only a pecuniary one.
“I desire to make it a question of wages, altogether. Now, Richards, if you nurse my bereaved child, I wish you to remember this always. You will receive a liberal stipend in return for the discharge of certain duties, in the performance of which, I wish you to see as little of your family as possible. When those duties cease to be required and rendered, and the stipend ceases to be paid, there is an end of all relations between us. Do you understand me?”
In his worldview all people and relationships are mere possessions, which can bought and sold for the right price. Not only does Dombey see the nurse this way, but he even views his first wife as a piece of property.
“If his wife should sicken and decay he would be very sorry, and that he would find a something gone from among his plate and furniture, and other household possessions, which was well worth the having, and could not be lost without a sincere regret.”
He likens his wife to a piece of plate or furniture, a valued material possession, but he doesn’t see her as an actual person with feelings and emotions. This is why his second wife, Edith, ultimately disdains Dombey’s wealth. She understands that to Dombey and other rich suitors she is a mere object, a commodity, a possession to be bought and sold.
“He sees me at the auction, and he thinks it well to buy me. Let him! When he came to view me—perhaps to bid—he required to see the roll of my accomplishments. I gave it to him. When he would have me show one of them, to justify his purchase to his men, I require of him to say which he demands, and I exhibit it. I will do no more. He makes the purchase of his own will, and with his own sense of its worth, and the power of his money; and I hope it may never disappoint him. I have not vaunted and pressed the bargain (chapter 27).”
Edith’s mother is no better than a pimp who is selling her daughter to the highest bidder. Edith’s mother stole her childhood and trained her from birth to be an object of interest to rich men.
The novel then is exploring the way money and pride distort human relationships, not only through Dombey, but also through many of its other characters such as Edith, Carker, and Bagstock. Each of these characters has a pride that leads to unethical behavior. Dickens is trying to show how pride, even different forms of pride, prevent us from being humane people who are capable of loving their fellow man. The contrast to these characters is provided by characters such as Florence and Harriet who have no pride, willingly sacrificing themselves for others, and capable of the deepest love for their family and friends.
One of the reasons Dombey fails to connect with his daughter is that these attitudes prevent him from understanding the nature of love in the first place. The last image of his first wife is her embracing their neglected daughter. He has no part in his first wife’s final moments.
“The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been that in the sad embrace between her and her dying mother, which was once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be absorbed as he would in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other’s arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down, a mere spectator—not a sharer with them—quite shut out (60).”
The final image of his first wife disturbs his sense of self. He doesn’t know what to make of this love he is witnessing between mother and daughter. It has no place in his worldview. His pride makes all his relationships about him. He marries his first wife because he believes her subservience to his will reflects his own greatness; he marries the second one because he hopes her pride will bolster his and her accomplishments and beauty be a reflection of his own greatness. His relationships are not relationships, so much as mirror images of his imagined greatness. Dombey’s pride interferes with forming true connections with people because it makes all relationships about him rather than about two human beings who love and respect each other. It is this inability to form true relationships and experience love that is the defect of pride. Only when Dombey loses everything and is brought to the lowest point, his pride crushed by events, can he learn to love Florence.