Wednesday, 12 April 2000

Charles Dickens: Dombey and Son (1848)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 477

Of Dickens' early novels, Dombey and Son is perhaps most clearly shaped by the serial form in which it originally appeared, as well as the commercial pressures which made the serial a high selling format.

The story begins with the birth to Paul Dombey and his wife of a son, destined to inherit the great City firm of Dombey and Son. The whole of the novel is shaped by Paul Dombey's monomaniacal desire to bring about this inheritance. Thus the son, also named Paul, is subjected to a regime designed to bring the days of his childhood to an end as quickly as possible so that he can begin to take up his inheritance. His elder sister, Florence, is almost totally ignored by her father; she is of interest to him only as she affects Paul (who is devoted to her). Then the young Paul, never very strong, dies, and the Dombey household begins to feel the results of the machinations of John Carker, general manager of Dombey and Son, and an unscrupulous character with great ambitions.

To unpick the novel a bit, it is clear that in the young Paul, Dickens was attempting to repeat his great early success, for many years the most popular scene in any of his novels, the death of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. The death scene here is in fact superb, avoiding much of the sentimentality which so mars the earlier version to a modern reader. It occurs just a bit before the halfway point, and very clearly splits the novel in two. Having built up to this point, the reader senses that Dickens is a little unsure what to do next. The end point to which he aims is clear enough, but it takes some time to get started again, and John Carker, introduced at about this point to motivate the second half, is never entirely convincing.

Because of the importance of Paul and of his memory, there is not really space in the novel for a conventional hero - Florence takes on part of this role - and I suspect that this was something else which gave Dickens problems.

In the end, Dombey and Son is one of the more obviously flawed of Dickens' novels, but it still contains much that is worthwhile with occasional flashes of brilliance.

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