Tag: Charles Dickens

Dombey and Son

Dombey and Son

   Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son begins with a birth. Mr Dombey, a magnate of the London merchant community, the proprietor of a great house and trading concern, is blessed with a son. He was once himself the son in Dombey and Son and for many years he has longed and waited for an heir of his own, and now, as he himself declares, the house is once again Dombey and Son in fact as well as in name. He has dreamed of an heir and already charted out the course of the boy’s future.

Mr Dombey has one child already, Florence, but as a daughter she can take no part in the business, and he’s never taken any exceptional interest in her. Mrs Dombey doesn’t long survive the delivery of her son, and with her death, Florence is left with no mother and an aloof and disinterested father. The infant boy, Paul, similarly deprived, comes to bestow on his sister all the tender attachment he might have felt for the mother he never knew.   Mr. Dombey sees to every detail of his son’s upbringing and education, and loves his in his own stern and obsessive manner, but Paul is never as close to his father as he is to his sister.

It is Florence who is his comfort, it is Florence who is his nurse, it is Florence who tucks him into bed at night. Paul remains delicate and sickly while Florence flourishes, growing in strength and beauty. Mr. Dombey’s former indifference begins to turn into jealousy and bitterness. Florence never suspects that Paul’s love for her is sowing an active hostility in the heart of their father, and she can only wonder why he holds her at such a distance.

Like King Lear, Mr Dombey a proud and powerful man, repulses the love of a daughter, and like King Lear he only appreciates this love and sees his own folly after he’s ruined. It is said that pride goes before a fall, and both Lear and Dombey are both proud, both hearken only to flatterers and betrayers and both fall. Most conclude that Dombey and Son is a story of pride and while pride is one theme it isn’t the main element. Like most Dickens novels there is a large cast of characters and the one trait they all hold in common is an inability to understand what the people around them are thinking and feeling. Mr. Dombey, in his arrogance, mistakes servility for loyalty, sycophancy for admiration, and he’s destroyed by a fawning and treacherous associate. A young man named Walter who comes to falls in love with Florence and works in a minor position in Dombey’s firm, comes to incur his displeasure, and seeks to propitiate Dombey by his cheerfulness and energy, not realizing that the constant display of these qualities which Mr. Dombey has lost over the years if he ever possessed them, is disagreeable to his employer and is regarded as defiance and impertinence.

Walter’s friend, an eccentric sea captain named Cuttle, is granted an audience with Mr. Dombey and he flatters himself that they understand one another perfectly and get on splendidly, oblivious to the reality that, because of the vast gulf between their respective stations, Mr. Dombey can never meet him on terms of equality and greets every familiarity on the part of the captain, every wink, every nudge, with shudders of revulsion and outraged dignity.

Mr. Dombey remarries, taking a haughty beauty much younger than he, a woman who marries a man she neither likes nor respects solely to provide for an elderly grasping mother. She, in the censorious manner of the time, regards herself as no better than a harlot, her purity and innocence lost forever, and in turn she despises her husband for having bought her. Dombey responds to her coldness by attempting to awe her with his rank, wealth, and power, and every show of munificence and ostentation only works to make her more contemptuous and pertinacious. Fanny can never understand that her father resents her because his son and his second wife love her as they have never loved him.


Nearly every character, the sympathetic and the contemptible, the kindly and ingenuous, the selfish and insincere, in imagining the opinions and emotions of their fellows are completely and tragically deluded. There are two notable exceptions. The scheming associate who brings down the firm, Mr. Carker, can see through the lies and hypocrisy of those around him, but he can only see the worst, the greed, the craving to be in the circle of power, the expectation of reward, the denigration of dignity in pursuit of profit.

It is the child, Paul, so often described as impossibly young and old all at once, who can see through to the heart and discern the good and the bad. No great Dickens novel is complete without an incompetent and self-aggrandizing educator, and Mrs. Pipchin is an object of much fascination to Paul who seems to look right through her with results very disconcerting to that worthy lady. Paul also can see the warmth and tenderness in Florence and so he loves her above all others. What the son has seen from the beginning, the father sees as well, but only at the end and as an prematurely aged, broken man.

The story has a happy ending in the same bittersweet strain as most of Dickens’ resolutions but the central problem remains unsolved. Almost none of the characters can move past the image they have of themselves and they’re unable or unwilling to really see themselves and the world through the eyes of those closest to them and this leads to all the misery that has come before and is only partly alleviated by the handful of happy coincidences that cushion their landing in the last pages.