The Progress of Dombey:
or All’s Well That Ends
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 so—the 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 change—it
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 others—the 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 interaction—the
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 Son—suitors,
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
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
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
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 Son—Toots, 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
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 marriages—Busby 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 forgiveness—which
interventional, which alters the course of events. Forgiveness,
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 treasure—neither 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 forgiveness—going to him, pleading
with him, succoring him in her own home—that 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 too—let
him know it then—and 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 mothers—and 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 plays—the 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
obsessions—in 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
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 this—the
call for compassion, insistence upon the unity of humanity, admission of
shared responsibility and blame, moving beyond the past while not denying
it—can be a paradigm for co-existence today. It will
serve to start with that.
Copyright © 1999 by Nadya Aisenberg.
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