Poetry Porch: Forgiveness


The Progress of Dombey: 
or All’s Well That Ends Well 

by Nadya Aisenberg 

“When we shall gather grasses from thorns, and figs from thistles; when fields of grain shall spring from the offal in the bye-ways of our wicked cities, and roses bloom in the fat churchyards that they cherish; then we may look for natural humanity and find it growing from such seed.”   
                                 —Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

“And let me think, when I know Time is coming on, that some one like my former self may stand there, for a moment, and remember me with pity and forgiveness.” 
                    —Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

       The reader of Dombey and Son, propelled through prose by turns comic, tragic, satiric, sentimental, melodramatic, surrealistic, and poetic, understands upon his or her own pulse that this is a novel of motion and change. In Dickens’s own words, “change upon change.” The date of publication, 1848, was, after all, a time of increasing urbanization, pollution, overcrowding, industrial development; it was the era of social reform aimed at education, welfare, public health. The period saw the beginnings of organized labor, and the struggle for representative democracy. We hear the voice of Carlyle, of the Chartists. The novel reflects all these vast upheavals, choosing two main symbols to do sothe sea and the railway.
      The port of London, near which some of the major characters dwell and from which others set sail, teems with the exoticism of arrivals and departures, of foreign shipping and foreign peoples. It throbs with the commerce of empire, captured in the full title of the novel: Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Export. The great financial heart of this empire and its port, the London district known as the City, is where we find the House of Dombey, a firm of exchange; money changes hands, deals are made and broken, property conveyed, fortunes lost. Beyond the port of London proper lies the sea, unbounded and one, the very symbol of flux, bringing wealth, bringing destruction. From this port young Walter Gay, the boy/prince of the novel, sails to the West Indies to seek his fortune and is feared shipwrecked. Fortuitously, the waters of change cast him up again. For young Paul Dombey, the frail son and heir of the enterprise of Dombey and Son, the sea whispers endlessly (and presciently, it turns out in his case) of death, of the “beyond.”
       Even the earthly landscape of the novel alters before our eyes as the railway, newly introduced into England, hurtles through the novel, a monster of speed and destruction, changing what had been rural to metropolitan sprawl, demolishing neighborhoods, uprooting families. Not until Hard Times, however, four years later, does Dickens stand unequivocally opposed to industrial “progress.” In Dombey and Son, Dickens still grants the railway power for positive changeit brings employment, it brings people together geographically. As it passes through the countryside, it “lets in the light of day,” things lie open as if the roofs were off, exposing poverty. We cannot then, with this discovery, ignore the plight of othersthe railway brings us closer to feeling “the unity of humanity” as we ride the rails with Dickens in his lyric exposition of this theme.
       Dickens’s pen was a tool for reform, and Dombey and Son is, indisputably, a novel of social criticism. But it is much more than that; importantly, it is also a great domestic novel, tracing the fortunes of one family over a lifetime. And, in this novel, these two levels of exploration, individual conduct and social conduct, always reflect one another, always connect. Indeed, part of the greatness of Dombey and Son for us today is the complexity of this interactionthe individual is responsible for the faults of the life, but society has a hand in creating the individual. This is the perspective Dickens brings to “public” issues. The recognition of this duality bestows upon the individual moral will, the individual moral act, a weight and significance that the inexorability of fate cannot permit. Despite references to Heaven and God, individual characters do not abjure the necessity for their own moral affirmations. Even the reader is not exempt. Dickens, in much the same way that he relies on individual actors in the novel for dramatic intercession, appeals directly to the reader’s “good spirits,” by which he means “good social conscience.” This is why the “unity of humanity” is crucial for Dickens; it provides the basis for our responsibility; it cuts across class, money, power, education. As one of the characters in the novel exclaims on her deathbed, “If man would help some of us a little more, God would forgive us all the sooner, perhaps.” There is fate, but there is intervention, there is the symbolic gesture. And as I will argue, the symbolic gesture of forgiveness turns this novel from darkness to comedy.
       I speak of comedy not in the narrow sense of “comic turns” performed by eccentric personalities, though they are present in Dombey and Son, but in its broadest conceptual terms as affording us the time and space to consider ethical issues; focusing on both the family and the society at large; dealing with the bourgeois; allowing the hero or heroine to survive, and often, to marry. Comedy is wide-angled, as this novel is, showing us a spectrum of humanity, just as the far-reaching railway does.
       The thousand and some pages of Dombey and Son are crammed with all the events and incidents Dickens’s exuberant imagination customarily affords us. Births, marriages, deaths, partings, disappearances, madnesses, crowd the novel with changes. Here is the vast spectacle of humanity which is the business of comedy. Additionally, Dickens draws upon the fairy tale, to which he was always partial, to provide many of the characters and situations of Dombey and Sonsuitors, witches, fools, an animal helper, and a prince and princess who live happily ever after. As we all know, the essence of fairy tale is transmogrification and transformation, marvelous things happen to the ugly duckling, the Frog Prince, the rescued maiden. In Dombey and Son, as in the fairy tale, the forces of good and evil are delineated and joined in battle, and from the fairy tale comes as well the precedent for the novel’s providential ending.
       Comedy is, finally, hopeful and futuristic. In the course of the novel, the prospective heir, young Paul Dombey, dies. When Florence Dombey marries toward the end of the novel, she has a son whom she names Paul, and in the final scene, the final reconfiguration, Mr. Dombey and Florence watch young Florence and young Paul disport themselves by the sea. The comedy of life is played out by fiction; the tragedy of unstoppable destiny we already know.
       The change Dombey undergoes is the greatest, the central change this novel of change contains. Dombey’s journey, which we trace from our first encounters with him in the two Houses of Dombey, chronicles a moral change of extraordinary proportions, a change of heart.
       In the commercial firm, Mr. Dombey was the supreme ruler, haughty, arrogant, class-conscious, a man without sentiment, running the establishment along the strictest utilitarian lines. A business cannot be run like a family, knows Dombey. Strangely enough, this distinction is irrelevant, for Dombey runs his household like a business, also. Even the nurse of his motherless son is cautioned to keep the relationship distant. Form and abode are both Houses of Dombey; in both he requires submission, in both his will is final. His fine domicile is his, and only secondarily the place in which his first wife, his daughter Florence, and an array of servants dwell, though it is also the place in which this wife dies in childbirth, and the long-awaited son and heir, Paul, is born.
       Dombey brings another wife, the imperious Edith, to this House after the death of his first wife and the subsequent death of young Paul in childhood. As befits its cold, remote occupants, the House is dark, gloomy, huge, and divided into individual cells with no communal life. Dombey and Edith have been complicit in the contractual arrangements of the “marriage mart”: she will gain security, position, wealth, he a suitable hostess, adornment for his station, and with luck, an heir. Commerce and domesticity are transacted under one roof. Buying and selling extends to bodies and souls. From this barren luxury and from his tyrannical rule, his daughter, and subsequently Edith, flee.
       Given the man we follow through the bulk of the novel, Dombey’s own journey toward human community is necessarily arduous and long. It is precipitated by the bankruptcy of the firm, a staggering financial and personal loss of power for Mr. Dombey. The House of Pride, as Dickens terms Dombey’s mansion, decays and is finally auctioned off. Pride went before the Fall of both Houses of Dombey. The bankruptcy of the business parallels the moral bankruptcy of its owner, and initiates his slow, though adumbrated, development through loss and near-madness to physical and spiritual recovery.
       The destination of his progress is the domestic world he had extirpated even from his mansion, the feminine world, the home, not House, his daughter Florence eventually provides. Florence, the good daughter, the good sister, the good wife, the good mother, the good nurse (perhaps named with Florence Nightingale in mind). Dombey must enter this realm in order to forgive, and to be forgiven by Florence. Forgiveness can create the novel’s dénouement only within Florence’s realm, for the two worlds of the novel, the commercial and the domestic, do not intersect. In this new world, the man described as “frozen” becomes a man of feeling. Here, indifference and pride are bested by love and kindness; greed and arrogance succumb to forgiveness and community. It is a novel with a resolution.
       Many critics have disparaged the ending, unpersuaded by its resolution. Kathleen Tillotson judges that the novel remains “dark,” its main thrust social criticism “with no suggestion of hope.” Steven Marcus is disappointed in the reduction of scale, energy, and masculine power at the conclusion. Julian Moynihan similarly derides the “little society of the back parlor” [in Florence’s house], the society in which Dombey Sr. finds refuge, as lacking intelligence, peopled only by women, old men, and the immature Walter Gay.
       Twentieth century feminist critics may object that Florence Dombey’s unilateral forgiveness of her father entails loss of self-respect and stature. But has it become commonplace even late in our own twentieth century to view forgiveness as a masculine virtue as well as a feminine one? Not just to suppose that it should be? Florence plays an endorsed role, to be sure, she is the ultimate (blonde) Angel in the House. But even if hers is a gendered role defined by the nineteenth century (and can we make retroactive cultural demands of Dickens?), it would be a mistake to think of her as wholly passive. She is not afraid of risk; after her father strikes her, she runs away from home; Dickens describes her then as “homeless and orphaned.” And she certainly takes the initiative, repeatedly, toward reconciliation with her father, despite his neglect, rebuff, even physical anger; she is not restrained by false pride or selfishness. “Homeless and fatherless, she forgave him everything; barely thought that she had need to forgive him . . . or that she did.” She operates through love, and successfully melts the haughty (read proud and selfish, Dickens’s twin obstacles to forgiveness) hearts of both Edith and Mr. Dombey.
       Dramatically, her “perfect goodness” serves as the foil for Dombey’s injustice. Nor does Dickens make of her a sacrificial victim/heroine; she gains love, marriage, children, offers a hearth for her old friends, reunion with her father. With more justification, feminists could object that the City firm, Dombey and Son, never became Dombey and Daughter and that, despite father and daughter’s common grief at the loss of young Paul, son to one and brother to the other, the mansion that is the other House of Dombey witnesses their continued isolation from each other. Even the dwelling in which they are the two sole remaining occupants is not Dombey and Daughter. In the most profound sense, the coupling agent, “and,” is missing.
       Notwithstanding, in the long trajectory of the novel and Dombey’s progress, Florence is agentic, successfully establishing a world in which reconciliation is possible. Some one has to. Mr. Dombey, ensconced in that “little society in the back parlor,” acquires a new hearth, new relations, and new friends. If in the past Dombey’s draconian rule rendered Florence “orphaned and homeless,” Home, and the natural affections, Dombey and Daughter, triumph at the end over House.
       I want to argue, given this interpretation, that the ending is hopeful, a change from disharmony to harmony (literally so in all the singing, whistling, and dancing that transpires); from solitaries (Edith, James Carker, Dombey, the self-seekers in the social throngs at watering holes) to community; that the ending is not a sop to the serial-buying public of Dickens’s day who were looking for formulae, but a necessary, creative act of imagination on Dickens’s part: the presentation of moral intervention and change for the better. If Dickens laments that only in some never-never time when we can “gather figs from nettles” will we find “natural humanity” in our “wicked cities,” then where can we seek it? He supplies the answer himself.
       Precisely because the denouement can be controlled by authorial will, we the readers remain with clusters of beneficence and with belief in their importance. The analogy here is with a living organism; one starts with a nucleus, a cell; from the tiniest reproductive organism of the spore, a plant eventually grows. We may not be able to summon in the world outside fiction the assembly of “good” characters who congregate in Dombey and SonToots, Paul Dombey, Jr., Florence, Walter, the Nipper, Mrs. Richards, Captain Cuttle, Old Sol, Harriet Carker, John Carker, Mr. Morfin, Alice Marwood. But, through their sheer numbers, we feel Dickens’s belief in the efficacy of humanism, we feel the novelist’s hand loading one aide of the scale.
       On the other weighing pan Dickens takes great care to place only one monstrous character (though there are lesser villains such as Joseph Bagshot), James Carker, a sly, insinuating Iago muttering falsehoods into Dombey’s ear. Tellingly, Carker does not, cannot forgive his errant brother and the sister who stands by him; he is unredeemable, which is, ultimately, why he must die. In a haunting visual image, the unrepentant Carker is “run down and crushed” by the iron wheels of Fortune, the railway, leaving all the room he had occupied for forgiveness to expand and thrive.
       To accommodate this growth, in the last four chapters of the sixty-two which comprise the novel the tempo becomes accelerando. If, in a tragedy, corpses are strewn onstage by the final curtain, here, in a comedy, the curtain rings down upon a merrymaking of marriagesBusby marries Mrs. MacStinger, Toots marries Susan Nipper, Mrs. Morfin marries Miss Carker, and our hero Walter Gay marries our heroine, Florence Dombey. To the opening scene of the mother’s death in childbirth, to the early death of little Paul, the unhappiness and voluntary exile of Dombey’s second wife Edith, Dickens opposes in these last chapters “relenting,” “clemency,” “restitution,” and above all, “reconciliation.” The characters exeunt omnes in a flurry of forgiveness: Dombey forgives Susan Nipper her diatribe against his treatment of Florence; Dombey forgives Florence and Walter for eloping; Alice Marwood forgives her Mother; Edith forgives her mother; Edith forgives Dombey for his role in their ruinous marriage; Florence forgives Edith for leaving her father, and abandoning her; Florence forgives her father.
       Perhaps it is not that the conclusion as wrought is unconvincing, but that our late twentieth century skepticism and disbelief, all our angst and alienation, shut out any bedrock conviction of goodness. Or, it may be objected from a more literary standpoint that goodness is less convincing than evil because it is more difficult to dramatize, is more static, as many readers of Milton’s Paradise Lost have observed. Certainly, the “good” characters in Dombey and Son have no need to change; they already constitute the positive pole. But if goodness is static, it does contain and foster the impulse toward forgivenesswhich is interventional, which alters the course of events. Forgiveness, Dombey and Son teaches us, is dynamic. Dombey, notably, recovers, to join the human community.
       Forgiveness weaves its bright thread through the tapestry of all the characters’ lives. Alice Marwood finally forgives her mother because she perceives her as much a victim as herself, driven on the streets by society, and unable, not unwilling to provide for her child. The mother, a cunning and greedy old crone, nevertheless harbors genuine affection for her daughter, and craves intimacy with her. On her deathbed, Alice pleads with her benefactress, Edith Dombey, “You will not forget my mother? I forgive her, if I have any cause. I know that she forgives me, and is sorry in her heart.” Forgiveness issues from the heart, it is not tutored, as Alice Marwood, the former vagrant and convict exemplifies.
       Florence, for whom forgiveness is unreserved, all-encompassing, is the agent of Mr. Dombey’s restoration. Dickens has shown the reader cracks in Dombey’s frozen facade so that his transformation will not seem an unbelievable volte face; in that case, Dickens would have had to dispose of him as he did Carker. But we see Dombey sleepless, alone, crazed with the realization that he may have forfeited his truest treasureneither the Firm nor the mansion, but the unswervingly loyal Florence. During his breakdown, the stricken father has remorse-filled visions of Florence. Dombey’s “Retribution,” as Dickens titles that chapter, are the guilt and fear he experiences for having “rejected the angel.” Though his son-in-law had written at the time of his elopement with Florence, “I do not think or hope that you will ever forgive me,” Dombey, with the awareness that suffering has brought him, realizes he is the one to sue for forgiveness: “Oh my God, forgive me, for I need it very much.” The hand that struck Florence, and drove her away, comes close to self-murder.
       It is what Florence is, and does, as the embodiment of forgivenessgoing to him, pleading with him, succoring him in her own homethat enables Dombey to change, and that literally restores him to life.
      Edith, by far the most reflective and self-analytical of the major characters in the novel, adds two important components to our understanding of forgiveness, inflecting the spontaneous and complete emotional outrush of which Florence is capable. First, she acknowledges mutual responsibility and blame in her relations with both her mother and Dombey. If Mrs. Skewton, Edith’s mother, connived at snaring a wealthy husband for her daughter, why, Edith agreed to marry him. On the eve of her loveless marriage to Dombey, she tells her mother: “I forgive you your part in tomorrow’s wickedness. May God forgive my own!“
       Even more striking is Edith’s conditional forgiveness of Dombey, as confided to Florence: “Tell him [Dombey] that if, in his own present, he can find any reason to compassionate my past, I sent word that I asked him to do so. . . .” She looks to the time when Dombey “will be most repentant of his own part in the dark vision of our married life. At that time, I will be repentant toolet him know it thenand think that when I thought so much of all the causes that had made me what I was, I needed to have allowed more for the causes that had made him what he was. I will try, then, to forgive him his share of blame. Let him try to forgive me mine! ” [emphasis mine]. Again, forgiveness follows upon the admission of mutual responsibility and blame.
       Like Alice Marwood, Edith also forgives her mother for robbing her of her childhood, parading her before suitors like a slave at the auction block. Edith’s mother, a risible, self-deluded character painting her wrinkles, wearing girlish attire, adopting flirtatious manners, appealing always to sentiment, plays as much of a gendered role as Florence. She, too, is a victim, and was before she victimized her daughter. How could women of that class and time advance, or even endure, without the marriage mart? By her own lights, Edith comes to feel, Mrs. Skewton was trying to ensure the best life for her daughter, though the result was Edith’s swollen, self-protective pride and miserable marriage. Slum-poor, reduced to petty thievery and prostitution for survival, Alice Marwood’s mother cannot even scheme at matchmaking. Dickens elicits our sympathy, our forgiveness, for these failed mothersand daughters. The individual is responsible for the faults of the life, but society has a hand in creating the individual.
       The second insight Edith has about forgiveness is that it achieves liberation from the past. And comedy is forward-looking, it moves on. Thus, Edith comforts her dying mother: “I told you then that I forgave your part in it, and prayed to God to forgive me my own. I told you the past was at an end between us [emphasis mine]. I say so now, again. Kiss me, mother.” A remarkable request from the angry daughter who habitually shrank from her mother’s touch.
       Dickens’s own voice lies behind both the heightened rhetorical flight and the message of Edith’s pleas. Forgiveness rests here on Dickens’s theme of “natural” or “common humanity,” conveyed in Edith’s appeal to Dombey’s “compassion,” and by her own enlightened understanding of the hand society playsthe imperial, material, patriarchal, class-ridden, public opinion-dominated society of Victorian England molded Dombey into the man she married. “I needed to have allowed more for the causes that had made him what he was.” Once more, Dickens places his vision of the complex interplay between the individual and society at the service of forgiveness.
       Edith, looking back, repents her own besetting sin of pride, as Dombey, reviewing his life, repents his unforgiveness. “I have dreamed,” she tells Florence, “of a pride that is all powerless for good, all powerful for evil. . . .” Resigning the past, including her mistaken flight with Carker whose seductive designs she failed to recognize, she accepts the consequences of her own moral choice. To run away from a destructive union, from Dombey and his Houses, is to forfeit position, security, wealth, even the status being married confers. (The position of a separated wife with little income was even more unenviable then than now.) What Edith has learnt in her relationship with both her mother and Dombey is that forgiveness enables you to get beyond crippling obsessionsin her case, the ill usage she underwent in both relations. Edith grows. Getting beyond the past doesn’t mean that either Edith, or Dombey, who also grows, forgets the past. But what both remember is not only their own suffering, but the suffering they have inflicted upon others.
       The author offers us no master plan for the improvement of society through institutions; indeed, institutions are etched in acid on Dickens’s page, perhaps the obverse side of the emphasis he lays upon the individual’s social conscience. When Paul Dombey, Jr., is sent to school, Dickens creates a caricature of an establishment, its pompous and self-deluded staff, its educational methods which he dismisses as “force-feeding”; the children’s minds are compacted, not expanded. Like George Eliot, Dickens inveighs against “hypocritical“ Christianity; the clergymen in Dombey and Son are dreary and ineffectual at best, buffoons at worst. Nor does Dickens put his faith in the law of the land and its representatives in Parliament who do little to create a less class-ridden society. Like Eliot, again, Dickens mocks “the world” which parades its fashions and trails its malicious gossip through Dombey’s evening soirees. It is, finally, the human heart to which Dickens returns. He may agree with Robert Burns that “Man’s inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn/,” but this galaxy of goodness he has created, composed of single stars, shines with hope, with Dickens’s “good spirits.” “These are our virtues,” he seems to proclaim. The “little society of the back parlor,” inglorious though it be, is the agent for change, committed to human life and its betterment. It practices forgiveness. All thisthe call for compassion, insistence upon the unity of humanity, admission of shared responsibility and blame, moving beyond the past while not denying itcan be a paradigm for co-existence today. It will serve to start with that.

Copyright © 1999 by Nadya Aisenberg.

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