Top shelf – Dombey and Son

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

DOMBEY AND SON

Charles Dickens, 1848

Folio Society, 1984.  Bound in illustrated boards and slipcased.  Illustrated by Charles Keeping.  Introduction by Christopher Hibbert.

When I completed my reading of Dickens’ fourteen novels some time ago, I placed my preferences in five categories: First, Tale of Two Cities.  Second, Barnaby Rudge, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend.  Third, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Nicolas Nickleby, and Oliver Twist.  Fourth, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Pickwick Papers.  Fifth, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and Old Curiosity Shop.  That list may look eccentric, and it may change according to the time of day, but it does say that not only was Dickens prolific, but that he had a wide range of subjects and the capacity to appeal to very different tastes.

Paul Dombey suffers from the delusion that success in business might lead to a rise up the social ladder.  (Not so – trade, old boy, just trade.)  His single-minded pursuit of money and fame leads him to neglect his daughter, Florence, and then impose a regime on his son and heir that kills him.  His second marriage is just a financial transaction and it fails for that reason.  Nemesis and ruin come in the form of a trusted manager, James Carker – he of the ‘white teeth’, a demonic jerk, straight into the silent movies.  Dombey survives his ruin to be reconciled to Florence in a scene that might resemble the end of King Lear.  All this takes place with a cavalcade of characters some of whom show how a simple life may be the good life.

The novel begins.

Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution was analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.  Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age.  Son about eight-and-forty minutes.

Here is a writer, then, at the top of his game.  The novel ends with Dombey and grad-daughter Florence.

‘Dear grandpapa, why do you cry when you kiss me?’

He only answers, ‘Little Florence!  Little Florence!’ and smooths away the curls that shade her earnest eyes.

The novel is shot through with the ideas and demons of Dickens’ friend Thomas Carlyle (The French Revolution), especially as found in Past and Present, and the objections to ‘Mammon-Gospel’.

We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation….Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under laws-of-war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth, it is a mutual hostility.  We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man…

Hell had become the terror of not succeeding, of not making money….

Oh, it is frightful when a whole Nation ….had ‘forgotten God; has remembered only Mammon and what Mammon leads to….Supply-and-demand, Competition, Laissez-faire, and Devil take the hindmost….Moral philosophies sanctioned by able computations of Profit and Loss.

In his illuminating book Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg said:

Dombey and Son is a sustained and powerful attack on Victorian Mammonism.  It embodies the nightmare vision that Dickens was coming to have of nineteenth century capitalism and his early recognition of its inborn cruelties, its incompatibility with virtue, and its inherent contradictions.  Dickens courageously places at the novel’s centre one of the new financial tycoons and traces the withering effects of business ethics on his sentiments and his humanity.  In the death of his son, as in the moral bankruptcy of Mr Dombey himself, Dickens presents a stark Carlylean parable on the sacrifice of humanity demanded by the money fetish….Finally he uses the corrective values which Polly Toodle, Captain Cuttle,   and Sol Gills offer to the sophisticated sterilities of the Dombey world, to bathe the novel in the gentler perspectives of the New Testament.

To my taste, Dickens is too sloppy with love scenes but wonderful with death scenes.  He is on any view superbly gifted at the crunch.

‘Papa, what’s money?’

The abrupt question had such immediate reference to the subject of Mr Dombey’s thoughts, that Mr Dombey was quite disconcerted.

‘What is money, Paul?’ he answered.  ‘Money?’…

Mr Dombey was in a difficulty.  He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth; but looking down at the little chair, and seeing what a long way down it was, he answered: ‘Gold and silver, and copper.  Guineas, shillings, half-pence.  You know what they are?’

‘Oh yes, I know what they are,’ said Paul.  ‘I don’t mean that Papa.  I mean what’s money after all?’

‘I mean, Papa, what can it do?’ returned Paul folding his arms…

‘Money, Paul, can do anything.’

‘Anything, Papa?’

‘Yes.  Anything – almost,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Anything means everything, don’t it, Papa?’ asked his son.

‘It includes it, yes,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Why didn’t money save me my mama? returned the child.  ‘It isn’t cruel, is it?’

You can’t beat writing like that.  Thackeray threw the book down in exasperation.  ‘There’s no writing against such power as this…It is unsurpassed.  It is stupendous.’

This is a book for the ages – but especially the age when Mammon stomps all over God, and the pinnacle of capitalism surrenders to the Golden Calf.

 

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