Dombey and Son
Dombey’s Lack of Compassion
Narcissism, defined as extreme selfishness combined with a lack of empathy for others, is the exact trait which Dombey exhibits in the short story. Immediately after his wife has given birth to their son, he displays his indifference towards her by solely focusing on his son who must follow his legacy. Viewing his son as a tool for future business deals rather than caressing his new born and enjoying his moment of birth, further validates his own selfish agenda. In the excerpt, the author displays his disapproval of Dombey’s self-centered nature as well as his pity towards Dombey’s son and wife through a variety of figurative devices.
The author insures the reader is aware of their distaste of Dombey throughout the excerpt of the story. The passage begins with the a description of the setting in which Dombey, the son, and the Mrs. Dombey are relaxing. While “Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room…Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead.” The reader can immediately recognize the tension in the room as well as the indifference from the father, Dombey, who distanced himself from his newly born child. Usually a new parent will smother their infant with attention and love, however Dombey appears to be completely uninterested by the presence of his new child. The author also makes note to title the son of Mr. and Mrs. Dombey’s in the same manner which Dombey himself addresses him, as just ‘Son.’ His detached diction through the use of ‘Son’ rather than ‘my baby,’ ‘my son,’ or even addressing him by his name, displays his lack of empathy and compassion. His lack of empathy is further displayed when attempting to lovingly address his wife. While attempting to discuss plans of Son’s baptism “he appended a term of endearment to Mrs. Dombey’s name (though not without some hesitation, as being a man but little used to that form of address. Again, Dombey struggles with even expressing signs of compassion through terms of endearment towards no other than his own wife. In addition to his inability to address Mrs. Dombey as his ‘dear’, he also plans the life between him and his son, as if she will not be present in their future. Dombey repeatedly repeats the phrase “Dombey and Son” without any regard to the feelings of his ill wife.
The author feels immense sympathy towards Son throughout the excerpt due to Dombey’s selfishness and having to be raised by an uncompassionate father who has already planned his life out. Immediately after birth, Son is already being linked to his father Dombey, as an indication of Dombey’s expectation of Son to be just like him. The author links their ages with a clever, “Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes.” The age comparison foreshadows Dombey’s constant control over Son’s new life and the chain that Son must be forced to wear by his father’s pre-planned future for him. Son’s defiance to his own chained future with Dombey are displayed through his innocent-like actions. The author describes as “Son…seemed, in his feeble way, to be squaring at existence for having come upon him so unexpectedly.” While his actions may be perceived as harmless and normal, the author seems to foreshadow a strained relationship between Son and Dombey. Furthermore, the author reinforces Son’s Dombey-controlled life by portraying the perfect life which he imagines for them together. Son’s life has already been predetermined by Dombey who believes “the earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and the moon were made to give them light.”
Mrs. Dombey is also portrayed as a victim to Dombey’s selfish and apathetic nature. The introduction of Mrs. Dombey’s character is critical to the pity the author feels towards her within the story. After lengthy descriptions of Dombey and Son, Mrs. Dombey is finally and only introduced when Dombey addresses a plan he has for Son. In fact, while Dombey and Son are both given illustrative descriptions, the reader is only left with the fact that Mrs. Dombey actually does exist and is ill because she has just given birth to Son. The author purposely left out descriptions of Mrs. Dombey to further portray Dombey’s selfishness for taking up the majority of the excerpt and to evoke a sense of pity that as a result, not much is known about her. Mrs. Dombey’s lack of love received is displayed in response to Dombey’s difficult attempt to display a hint of affection towards his wife. She displays “a transient flush of faint surprise” at Dombey’s task of addressing her as ‘dear.’ Her surprise at the affection alludes to her deprivation of compassion from her partner as a whole, which further directs the reader to imitate the author’s feelings of pity towards Mrs. Dombey. The manner in which Mrs. Dombey responds to her husband’s idea of baptizing Son further alarms the reader as “she feebly echoed, ‘Of course,’ or rather expressed it by the motion of her lips.” Not only does she barely receive love or compassion from her partner, but the author also reveals that she is weak and ill, most likely from recently giving birth.
The author’s use of detached and worrying diction to describe the three characters as well as missing and emphasized critical details, efficiently directs the reader to perceive Dombey as self-centered and apathetic as well as feel pity towards Son and Mrs. Dombey. Dombey isolates himself and Son from Mrs. Dombey through their plans for future life, and is enamored with the sound of ‘Dombey and Son.’ While his ideas may portray him to be an efficient and loving father, the manner in which he treats both Son and Mrs. Dombey prove otherwise. In fact, his inability to express love to his own wife while in pain, proves that he won’t be able to nurture his son at all.
Florence’s Failed Expectations: The Unfulfilled Daughter Coming Into Her Own in Dickens
Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son displays the patriarch Mr. Dombey in his obvious and complete disappointment in his daughter. Florence, as the only surviving heir to Mr. Dombey, has no worth to him, which he outwardly acknowledges, yet Florence still pines for his affections and will do anything to earn them, blaming herself for the lack of reciprocation. Other motherless daughters play similar roles in Dickens’ books, like Amy in Little Dorrit and Estella in Great Expectations. These daughters live under harsh pressures from parental or other familial expectations and obligations, which interfere with their autonomy and their ability to grow fully into womanhood. I argue that this results from an unresolved model of triangular desire, as explained by René Girard. Once Dickens resolves this issue, however, if he chooses to do so, the women in his stories can finally come into their own, with less oppression, emerging all the better as people from their childhoods, or pseudo-childhoods, which is often the case. Neither fully child nor fully adult, these dynamic female characters struggle for autonomy while maintaining a kind of authority that is unique to their positions.
Florence is often demonstrated throughout Dombey and Son as an afterthought in the mind of Mr. Dombey, often through suspended quotation, which shows his uncaring nature toward her and her lack of ability to do anything about it, despite her attempts. The first time she is represented through suspended quotation arises in a small example of pseudo-indirect discourse; this is also the first time she is mentioned at all in the novel: “They had been married ten years, and until this present day on which Mr Dombey sat jingling and jingling his heavy gold watch-chain in the great arm-chair by the side of the bed, had had no issue,” the narrator begins in a Dombey-like tone of formality and arrogance. This is followed immediately by a new paragraph with the suspended quotation beginning as the end to the previous paragraph’s sentence:
—To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before, and the child, who had stolen into the chamber unobserved, was now crouching timidly, in a corner whence she could see her mother’s face. But what was a girl to Dombey and Son! In the capital of the House’s name and dignity, such a child was merely a piece of base coin that couldn’t be invested – a bad Boy – nothing more. (Dickens 13)
This passage is incredibly indicative of Florence’s role throughout the novel. She is “unobserved” by her great father, but she still “crouch[es] timidly,” yearning to be in the same room as her parents but being afraid at the same time. The striking metaphor of Florence as a piece of base coin in the eyes of Mr. Dombey carries a weighty significance and shows her fate throughout the novel; next to all the women in Dombey and Son who can be sold and purchased, like Edith and Alice, and even characters in other Dickens novels that are sold off as women, like Estella in Great Expectations, Florence is useless to her father and unable to find a place. This causes her to be completely and entirely alone without anyone else wanting or needing her. Without a direct, explicit, economic purpose, Florence practically does not exist. She yearns to be treated like the other women who can be invested in marriage, child-bearing, and social prominence, but instead she is left entirely alone with no one with whom she can barter her way toward love. This inability for Florence to gain something in the only way her father has modeled how to gain something – economically – forces Florence into an impassioned, obsessive, wishful desire of anything resembling love from her father.
Florence Dombey, from the very earliest stages of her life, was rejected by her father and overshadowed by her brother, even before her brother came into existence. Because she is not useful to him as a successor to the family name, specifically Dombey and Son, she is not loved by him through the limited means he understands. Paul, on the other hand, is valued purely because of his potential as a business partner. “That the hope of giving birth to a new partner in such a house, could not fail to awaken a glorious and stirring ambition […]” (Dickens 12) contrasts sharply with Mr. Dombey’s idea of Florence as useless and essentially nonexistent. “‘Girls,’ said Mr Dombey, ‘have nothing to do with Dombey and Son […]’” (Dickens 153). Instead of acknowledging this exclusion, Florence sees it as her job to change Mr. Dombey’s mind and earn her place, something which, according to the master of the house, is simply impossible for a lowly girl like her to do; her efforts are futile.
Florence still sees that Mr. Dombey is capable of loving women and children, or at least of the façade of doing so, and so she sees the creation of a triangle of desire built upon the models of her father’s relationship with Paul and Edith. The triangles of desire based on child-parent relationships can be very strong, according to Girard, particularly when the object of desire (the parent) is not reciprocal in affections. He uses the example of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust: “The child enjoys, in his universe, both happiness and peace. But this universe is already threatened. When the mother refuses her son a kiss she is already playing the double role characteristic of internal mediation: she is both the instigator of desire and a relentless guardian forbidding its fulfillment” (Girard 35). Unknowingly, then, by refusing to interact with Florence and naturally being her father, Mr. Dombey is also both an “instigator” of Florence’s desire and the one blocking its realization. Of course, other blocks appear later in the novel, as well, like Edith. According to Girard, these models of triangular desire would be based upon “internal mediation,” when the emotional distance between the two spheres of relationships (that which is being sought and that which already exists) is very small. This means the two spheres can easily overlap and affect one another greatly, having significant influence on these relationships (Girard 9). Florence even begs of Edith to show her how to earn love: “[…] that I am not a favourite child, Mama. I have never been. I have never known how to be. I have missed the way, and had no one to show it to me. Oh, let me learn from you how to become dearer to Papa. Teach me! you, who can so well!” (Dickens 550). This suspended quotation brings forth the idea of the original from the first chapter of the book. Before, Mr. Dombey and the narrator showed how insubstantial Florence is with the afterthought of a quotation. Now Florence admits to herself that she is an afterthought with the same kind of structure and hesitant language, beginning mid-sentence and appearing meek.
So much more can be deduced from this passage, as Florence admits that she feels the loss of her mother in her life, if in no other way than to have a model to show her appropriate relationships of love. Schor asserts, “It is proof of Florence’s unworldliness (and how little her life has shown her of real love) that she imagines she can learn from Edith how to please her father – that her ‘beautiful mama’ can give her the key to winning the affection she has spent her life trying to gain” (55). Edith acknowledges Florence’s loss and her own position as a child lacking in a mother’s love. “‘That I should teach you how to love, or be loved, Heaven forbid!’ said Edith. ‘If you could teach me, that were better; but it is too late. […]’” (Dickens 550). This rejection may be the first step to showing Florence the importance of selecting models carefully. Edith understands Florence’s position and has had a poor model to observe as well, hence her knowing warning to Floy. Learning more about Edith from the rest of the novel, it can be deduced that Edith represents many of Dickens’ daughter characters, particularly Estella in Great Expectations, as she reveals in her heated assertion to Carker.
“I am a woman,” she said, confronting him stead “who from her very childhood, has been shamed and steeled. I have been offered and rejected, put up and appraised, until my very soul has sickened. I have not had an accomplishment or grace that might have been a value, as if the common crier had called it through the streets. My poor, proud friends, have looked on and approved; and every tie between us has been deadened in my breast. There is not one of them for whom I care, as I could care for a pet-dog. I stand alone in the world, remembering well what a hollow world it has been to me, and what a hollow part of it I have been myself. You know this, and you know that my fame with it is worthless to me […] Grown too indifferent for any opposition but indifference, to the daily workings of the hands that had moulded me to his; and knowing that my marriage would at least prevent their hawking of me up and down; I suffered myself to be sold, as infamously as any woman with a halter round her neck is sold in any market-place […]” (Dickens 823)
The deep objectification and commodification of Edith exemplifies, and perhaps magnifies and exaggerates, the situations of the daughters of Dickens. These women are not people with human wants and desires; they are objects created to perform tasks, be married, stay out of the way, or perform for the sake of someone else. This passage also shows how ongoing the torment is for these women, staying in past participle and drawing painfully on every detail. Parallels between Edith and Estella can be seen, especially, as Estella asserts that she is also “hollow” like Edith with ties “deadened in [her] chest,” claiming, “[…] I have no heart – if that has anything to do with my memory […] I have no softness there, no – sympathy – sentiment – nonsense” (Great Expectations 237). Autonomy is not present in these girls’ childhoods, but, while Edith turns bitter and cold, the daughters of Dickens primarily receive happy endings with heavy doses of moral goodness, wish fulfillment, and reparation, even partially in the case of empty-hearted Estella. Without characters like Edith, however, who act as catalysts, these happy endings would not be possible. For Florence particularly, Edith creates a new possibility to be independent, but Florence does not see this. Florence desires to be even more commodified than she is so she is worth something to her father. While believing that this commodification will set her free and gain her love, in reality, the daughters of Dickens prove that it only restricts movement even more. These daughters rarely gain what they desire in their original triangles; their input is considered unnecessary as the only triangles put into narrative action are those concerning these women as commodities, or, in René Girard’s language, quite simply, “objects.”
In this way, Florence is involved in several effective triangles of desire, as described by René Girard, based upon the commodity of love. It is essentially a worthless, empty, hollow type of love, but it is the appearance of this love in which all parties involved are interested, for the most part, due to the way it is modeled. Edith’s entrance into the Dombey family transitions Florence’s want of a loving father from a desire based on the models of relationships she has seen, to a rival-based desire, with Edith at the center. Girard explains this phenomenon of roles switching as necessary to the desire triangle itself. He says, “one is always confronted with two competing desires. The mediator can no longer act his role of model without also acting or appearing to act the role of obstacle” (Girard 7). This can also be explained by the fact that the previous triangles of desire were based on “internal mediation,” and therefore allowed for the two relationships to have significant impacts on one another, allowing for a volatile dynamic. When Mr. Dombey demands that Edith stop bestowing affection upon his daughter (Dickens 647), he, knowingly or unwittingly, creates a multi-directional triangle of desire. Edith acts as a rival for Florence’s affection for her father. Mr. Dombey serves as a rival for Florence’s desire of Edith’s love. Mr. Dombey acts as a rival for Edith’s affection toward Florence. Florence serves as a rival for Mr. Dombey’s want of Edith.
Perhaps most interesting in these triangles is the third, in which Florence serves as a rival to Dombey’s acquisition of Edith. Dombey never outwardly mentions Florence as a rival, but it is clear that he is jealous of Florence and Edith’s relationship, saying to her, through Mr. Carker, “You will please to tell her that her show of devotion for my daughter is disagreeable to me. It is likely to be noticed. It is likely to induce people to contrast Mrs. Dombey in her relation towards my daughter, with Mrs. Dombey in her relation towards myself” Dickens 647). Florence clearly plays a very heavy role in Edith and Mr. Dombey’s relationship through his jealousy of Edith’s attention. According to Girard, “Jealously and envy imply a third presence: object, subject, and third person toward whom the jealousy or envy is directed. […] Like all victims of internal mediation, the jealous person easily convinces himself that his desire is spontaneous, in other words, that it is deeply rooted in the object and in this object alone” (Girard 12). Mr. Dombey’s jealousy of Florence immediately gives her an abundant amount of power, but his refusal to admit this directly disenfranchises her once again. Fortunately, however, these triangles do not last long after Dombey forbids Edith’s interaction with Florence.
When Edith leaves Mr. Dombey and Florence follows, these triangles are broken. Edith chooses herself over aiding Florence and Florence chooses Edith over the unrequited love of her father. This finally opens the opportunity for Florence to grow fully and develop real attractions and affections as a woman, rather than as a child, breaking out of the susceptibility René Girard asserts children have to this triangular desire. Girard quotes Puerile, saying, “childhood is the natural state in which the ability to imagine oneself otherwise is most evident” (Girard 36). Florence finally steps out of this imagining of herself otherwise and accepts herself for who she is; she becomes an action taker instead of a victim of unrequired love and desire.
She is finally able to marry Walter without hesitation or question of loyalty to her father’s ideals. The reader sees Florence’s first step of autonomy occur during her proposal to Walter. “If you will take me for your wife, Walter, I will love you dearly. If you will let me go with you, Walter, I will go to the world’s end without fear. I can give up nothing for you – I have nothing to resign, and no one to forsake; but all my love and life shall be devoted to you and with my last breath I will breathe your name to God if I have sense and memory left” (Dickens 770). Florence’s proposal is shocking first because she chooses to take the first step; rather than waiting for something to happen to her, she seeks love herself, something that she learned from her rocky relationship with her father. Secondly, Florence makes a point to show that she has nothing to give him; she has sacrificed her childhood in bitter loneliness for seeking love. Not only does she now have nothing materially or monetarily to give, but she also will no longer sacrifice respect or autonomy for love, a big step for Florence and a lesson she may have picked up from the strong, independent Edith. It is because Edith gave up respect that she became bitter and cold, as she admits later to Carker: “[…] the struggle that I long had had with something that was not respect for my good fame – that was I know not what – perhaps the clinging to that last retreat – was ended. On that night, and then, I turned from everything but passion and resentment” (Dickens 824). Florence, never having been commodified the way Edith was, is not forced to give up respect, but she also now recognizes that she does not want to. Edith’s life ends unhappily and Florence, now that she sees the potential for happiness in front of her, understands that following Edith’s path and giving away her self-respect will take this away, but she also understands what kinds of things to sacrifice. From Florence’s lifetime of wishing away the person that she is, she understands compromise and sacrifice, but this is now manifested in a healthy way after seeing how Edith may have misused these things. According to Schor, “[Florence’s proposal] speech provides a category of the virtues that Florence is here to represent, and that separate her from Edith: she is patient, she is good, she loves ‘dearly.’ Being ‘nothing’ pays off at this moment, for Florence (unlike Edith) has ‘nothing to resign.’ Nonetheless, in Florence, as in her magical change-purse, nothing will ever be lost, and the world’s end will bring no fear. The more Florence gives away, the logic goes, the more she has; the more she loves, the more she deserves love; the more she is forgotten, she more she will remember” (60). While Florence’s possession of nothing may show her as a disenfranchised character that is lacking, it actually empowers her in this situation.
Still, Dickens takes the opportunity to wrap up Florence’s relationship with her father quite neatly in the end. As Mr. Dombey’s company falls into bankruptcy and Mr. Dombey himself falls into ruin, he reminisces about the love he lost with Florence and the potential for non-material happiness their relationship could have been. This shows how impactful even a freedom-less girl can be. Still, it is only when Florence reaches a level of autonomy suitable to bear the name of Dombey that she can become admirable in her father’s mind, particularly as a way out of his destitute state. Before she ran away, “Florence tried so hard to be a substitute for one small Dombey, that her fortitude and perseverance might have almost won her a free right to bear the name itself” (Dickens 187), but it was simply not enough; she could not escape the idea in Dombey’s head that she was useless, un-investable base coin. So, she invests herself. When she shows that she is not needy or desperate or wanting of affection, but rather is independent and self-assured, she is accepted by her father and all else as someone who can reasonably take care of him. Mrs. Chick one reproachfully admonished Florence for her desire, saying, “Will you never be a Dombey, my dear child” (Dickens 155)!, and at this point one wonders what makes a Dombey, and what exactly the expectations upon Florence are. Mr. Dombey eventually relinquishes Florence from all these expectations due to his economic state and he accepts her as a great amount of value as she supports him through this terrible time. Perhaps he is some form of a “fair-weather father,” but this consequently gives Florence some autonomy in any case. Florence begins a base coin but ends as an enormous wealth in Dombey’s life which, instead of investing for commodifying, he invests in himself, thus completing the original metaphor Mr. Dombey creates for his originally unworthy daughter. Florence also chooses to forgive the wrongdoings of her father based on yet another triangle of desire, this time with her son, Paul, at the center. Schor asserts that “her realization of how much she loves her child has demonstrated anew to Florence how much she should have loved her father” (65). Florence uses her son as a model to give her father another chance and welcome him back into her life.
Florence of Dombey and Son is just one of the yearning daughters Dickens crafts in his 40-year tradition. She, however, along with Edith, represent the core of the Dickens daughters in their most complex states. We see Edith in Estella and Miss Havisham. We see Florence in Estella and Amy Dorrit and Lucie Manette. These characters are truly the basis of the Dickens tradition, along with many other countless characters in Dombey and Son that could be discussed much further, like Good Mrs. Brown, Alice Marwood, and Cleopatra Skewton. The incredible mirroring Dickens performs both within each of his novels and between them is masterful in more ways than one. He manages to repeat triangles of desire in disenfranchised daughters time and time again while still continuing to make it seem new and fresh. Florence herself begins as worthless base coin, having potential value in herself, but unseen by her father. As she reaches success and happiness by the end of the novel, she opens up a pattern for characters after her to reach new levels of independence and value. While these women begin as insignificant, they certainly do not end that way, serving purposes beyond the objects of others’ desires.
Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. London: Penguin Classics, 2012. Print.
Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965. Print.
Schor, Hilary Margo. Dickens and the Daughter of the House. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.
The Psychological Black Hole: Female Versions of Arrested Development in Dickens Novels
“Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.” This quote, often attributed to Einstein, is actually said by many physicists and writers – the oldest confirmed being Ray Cummings in a short story. However, Dickens’s novels have redefined the interpretation of this quote by allowing characters to (attempt to) manipulate and condense time and acknowledge it in atypical ways. While may characters in Dickens obsessively check their pocket watches, deliberately tracking time’s passing and feeling the urge to move forward, characters such as Miss Havisham, Mrs. Clennam, and Mrs. Skewton function as epitomic cruxes that shirk this desire to move with ever-passing time – these women strive to maintain a stasis, manipulating time into a metaphor for a disappointed future that’s wrought with rot and decay. This stasis only disintegrates once these women are removed from the domains they control. Time serves as a controlled function in Dickens that is not only arrested by the aforementioned characters, but becomes the arrested development of them entirely in their ruin.
In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham overtly attempts to freeze time in her dismal, deliberately unchanging house. This attempted temporal manipulation speaks volumes about her character, portraying her as an already dead specter sealed away in her tomb until she actually dies. Unlike other characters who are always on the move and express an urgency in regards to time, Miss Havisham approaches temporality with a sort of dread and prefers to suspend her life in a single, life-changing moment. Miss Havisham says in a passage,
“On this day of the year, long before you were born, this heap of decay,’ stabbing with her crutched stick at the pile of cobwebs on the table but not touching it, ‘was brought here. It and I have worn away together. The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me.” (“Great” 89)
She refers to the “heap of decay” as being brought to her home many years ago, and though this seems insignificant, her mentioning this implies that this oldness, this decay and decrepitude, have always been the way they are – trapped temporally in their existence and will continue to exist in this state. The oldness was always old, or at least Miss Havisham believes it has always been, and it seems this translates to a belief that she has always been stuck in this moment and will always be. Miss Havisham also makes a strange acknowledgment of time in this passage by her saying that “it and I have worn away together.” Time must have been passed for anything to wear away, and this is made even more complicated by her preceding sentence about the heap of decay that seems to have always existed. Miss Havisham, then, is completely aware of time and its passing, which further leads to the notion that she willfully manipulates time into the metaphor for the future she will never have and that she prefers to essentially be a pitiable woman destroyed by her past (or what has become her perpetual present).
It is also significant to note the day and time at which Miss Havisham has attempted to temporally entrap her house. Time is stopped on her birthday, which is typically celebrated as the beginning of one’s time, but Miss Havisham detests this day. Though this is the only day she ever has guests, none of them are allowed to even mention it is her birthday, and she mentions this explicitly when she says “they come here on the day, but they dare not refer to it” (“Great” 89). Additionally, her birthday is also her (would be) wedding day, yet every clock is stopped at twenty to nine in a strange stasis of the moment when her husband-to-be abandoned her. She remains confined to a moment of despair, refusing to move on in either a dread of the future or an attempt to remember the pain of the past, and she has not even bothered to change out of her wedding clothes. She has, in a sense, doomed herself to this pivotal moment in her life by never moving on from it, and as she seems to believe the house and its artifacts have always been antiquated, she has convinced herself that her life is destined to be frozen in time forever.
To bring this particular day’s significance full circle, Miss Havisham is determined that she shall die on this very day as well. She says to Pip, “When the ruin is complete… and they lay me dead, in my bride’s dress on the bride’s table – which shall be done, and which will be the finished curse upon him – so much the better if it is done on this day!” (“Great” 89). What is strange though is that she uses the word “complete” as if there is a process to this forced stasis that must run its course, which could imply she recognizes the futility of truly manipulating time but stubbornly refuses to move on to make her point. It’s also interesting that she uses the phrase “curse upon him” because, in her attempted temporal manipulation, she seems to be the one under a curse, and it is a curse bestowed upon her by her own hand. However, through all of this, her birth/death cycle will be comprised of her own imprisonment in the moment that changed her life – conveying the notion that she literally was born for and will die for this sustained torturous moment.
In relation to physical temporality, Miss Havisham’s manipulation of time is similar to that of a black hole because her internal condensing of time into a single moment has extended to the Satis House itself. In Pip’s description of the house, he observes,
So unchanging was the dull old house, the yellow light in the darkened room, the faded spectre in the chair by the dressing-table glass, that I felt as if the stopping of the clocks had stopped Time in that mysterious place, and, while I and everything else outside it grew older, it stood still. Daylight never entered the house as to my thoughts and remembrances of it, any more than as to the actual fact.” (“Great” 125)
First, it’s important to note “spectre” is Miss Havisham’s descriptor, portraying her as a ghost – something already dead and literally temporally encased in time, unchanging in their environments or tombs (whether they be actual tombs or the Satis House). It’s also worth noting that “Time” is capitalized as if it is a named person that can be controlled in the same way that Miss Havisham controls and manipulates Estella. Time, then, is not only Miss Havisham’s metaphor for doom, but is merely a tool she uses to perpetuate the pain of the past and saturate the present (and future) with it. Grammatically, “and” is withheld in the first sentence of the aforementioned passage, making it more direct and everything equal in the moment of lapsed time, and the phrase “Time… stood still” is a dead metaphor, generating a perfect parallel within the context of the seemingly dead Miss Havisham and Satis House.
Mass and gravity have a direct relationship, and that relationship is the more mass an object has, the larger its gravitation force will be. Since black holes have an enormous amount of both mass and gravity, time essentially slows down to a near stop in close proximity to a black hole. To an observer outside the black hole, time would be stopped, and in this case, Miss Havisham would be the singularity causing this with her mass of wedding clothes, heaps of decay, and grandiose house. With all her accumulated mass and immovable density of vengeful betrayal, Miss Havisham creates a strange gravity all her own, allowing her to control time and space similar to that of a black hole. According to the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, “Einstein’s theory of gravity seems to predict that time itself is destroyed at the center of the hole: time comes to an abrupt end there. For this reason, a black hole is sometimes described as the ‘reverse of creation.’” Miss Havisham’s reverse of creation lies both her manipulation of time, stopping it altogether, as well as her emotional dismantling of other characters (e.g. Pip) through her controlled use of Estella.
It’s also worth noting that daylight never entered the house, as Pip mentions, and, to an outside observer, light seems to never enter nor exist in a black hole, either. “Daylight never entered” Satis House, and Miss Havisham entrapped herself in a room much like a tomb, and it is in this tomb she eventually meets her demise. Even in her death, there is a sort of lamination of time in her dressing wounds. Pip recounts, “though every vestige of her dress was burnt, as they told me, she still had something of her old ghastly bridal appearance; for, they had covered her to the throat with white cotton-wool, and as she lay with a white sheet loosely overlying that, the phantom air of something that had been and was changed, was still upon her” (“Great” 403). Even in all of Pip’s visions of her hanging from a beam – literally suspended in a moment of ruin – she is imprisoned by her own will and manipulation of time and space, she is perpetually in death.
Speaking of wounds, the literal wounds that Miss Havisham acquires at the end seem reflective of her internal, emotional wounds of past wrongs done to her. Martin Price says in a chapter titled “Dickens: Selves and Systems” in his book that:
Miss Havisham has been cruelly wronged, although the event was in part created by her own will; more to the point is what she has made of her suffering. She stops time so as to live in a constant state of betrayal; she enjoys her wounds too much to let them heal. Moreover, she converts Estella into her instrument for repeating the wrong again and again at the expense of others’ feelings. She has turned her suffering into the cycle of one wrong avenging another; and it never enters her imagination that Estella can feel anything but gratification as she sustains the cycle. (Price 118)
The event “created by her own will” harkens back to the curse she has supposedly placed which has really become a curse upon herself and others. This becomes complicated because, though she is in a stasis temporally, the cycle of vengeance continues because of it – an extension of Miss Havisham’s preferred temporal binding in vanity and despair. This cyclical behavior goes along well with Peter Brooks discussion of return of the repressed, which will be addressed in later paragraphs.
Price also points out Pip about Miss Havisham to himself when she is on her actual deathbed, after she has been consumed by fire (also note that black holes are theoretically extremely hot because of their axial rotation speeds):
And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world? (“Great” 399)
Besides this being a revelatory reflection on Pip’s part, there are a lot of fascinating things about this passage. Firstly, this resonates well with characters from other Dickens novels that exemplify extreme vanity as well, and this seems to be the first time Miss Havisham’s behavior is explicitly described in comparison to vanity – narrowing the focus of her actions to an intrinsic reaction that many women who have been wronged in Dickens novels demonstrate. Aside from Miss Havisham, there is another impressionable character in Dickens’s novels who attempts to manipulate time by means of stopping it or perhaps even reversing it out of a distorted vanity. In Dombey and Son, Mrs. Skewton, aka Cleopatra, goes to great efforts to appear young even though she is aging miserably. She actively tries to restrain time from advancing in her desire to remain suspended in a date before time became unforgiving to her face and figure, and the vanity of this old crone is emphasized throughout the novel and most particularly during her introduction:
The discrepancy between Mrs. Skewton’s fresh enthusiasm of words, and forlornly faded manner, was hardly less observable than that between her age, which was about seventy, and her dress, which would have been youthful for twenty-seven. Her attitude in the wheeled chair (which she never varied) was one in which she had been taken in a barouche, some fifty years before, by a then fashionable artist who had appended to his published sketch the name of Cleopatra: in consequence of a discovery made by the critics of the time, that it bore an exact resemblance to that Princess as she reclined on board her galley. Mrs. Skewton was a beauty then, and bucks threw wine-glasses over their heads by dozens in her honour. The beauty and the barouche had both passed away, but she still preserved the attitude, and for this reason expressly, maintained the wheeled chair and the butting page: there being nothing whatever, except the attitude, to prevent her from walking. (“Dombey” 319)
This overelaborate description of Mrs. Skewton parallels well with her vanity, her obsessive desire to control time in regards to herself. Another character (who will be addressed more in-depth later) is Mrs. Clennam, whose distorted vanity leaves her determined to enact vengeance on those who wronged her in the past, all while imprisoned temporally in her room. Secondly, in the passage regarding Miss Havisham, to refer to Miss Havisham as a ruin reiterates the established link between her house and self – the house in ruins (ruin as metaphor for arrested development) is an extension of Miss Havisham and the Time (a metaphor for disappointed future) that she controls. This also starts to beg the question of if the house is actually a ruin when it is imprisoned in time or when it is a literal ruin, and the answer seems to be it is both – the temporal ruin frozen in time as well as the ruin it becomes at the end of the novel when the house is allowed to catch up with real time and crumbles apart. Thirdly, Pip’s mentioning that Miss Havisham has a “profound unfitness for this earth” resembles notions of Miss Havisham behaving like a black hole – another thing profoundly unfit for earth that would end up destroying it if it was in too near proximity. It’s also strange that Pip mentions Miss Havisham was “placed” on the earth, which might suggest this to be another (or the very first) wrong done against Miss Havisham. “Placed” implies it was not necessarily her will or wish to exist on earth when she is fit for elsewhere. Fourthly, the aforementioned irony of Miss Havisham’s “curse” comes back into conversation here, as Pip distinctly realizes that the curse Miss Havisham has given is actually on herself in the form vanity, and, like a black hole, it is a “monstrous” one itself that affects everything it comes into contact with, particularly Pip and Estella.
The house name, Satis House, translating to “enough house,” also wells deep with significance. Satis is a play on multiple words, and the first that comes to mind is stasis which implies the house is stuck temporally as well as physically in its immovability from the moment in which it is perpetually suspended, and this relates directly to another interpretation, stagnant, implying the same thing while conveying the connotation that the house is deteriorating and festering in the languish of Miss Havisham. Another play on the house name is “status,” which might indirectly imply the societal need to retain high regard by society, and this pulls the direction of the other interpretation of satis, being “satisfaction,” that seems more ironic than anything because Miss Havisham is far less than satisfied. Or perhaps in some masochistic way she is very satisfied to be making a strange statement by keeping her home temporally stuck, even though the world outside continues to change and move while she attempts to remain in a single moment. With the stasis of the house, it becomes understood that a character such as Miss Havisham can have a satisfactory home that she can control, but she may not have a satisfactory time or amount of time, which she cannot control despite all attempts.
In Peter Brooks’ article“Repetition, Repression, and Return: Great Expectations and the Study of Plot,” he discusses the cyclical return of the repressed throughout the novel, typically regarding Pip, but also paying close attention to Miss Havisham and Satis House. He says “The craziness and morbidity of Satis House repose on desire fixated and become sadistic, on a deviated eroticism which has literally shut out light, stopped the clocks, and made the forward movement of plot impossible” (Brooks 508). The return of the repressed for Miss Havisham is held hostage in her temporal manipulation and becomes complicated by its manifestation as stasis – this is a continuing return of the repressed, a return that could perhaps be described as condensed into suspension like that of a black hole, the power of which extends beyond itself (or Miss Havisham) and effects everything surrounding it (Satis House itself, Pip, Estella, etc.). It seems there will be no resolution to this repression, as Brooks discusses plots typically strive for, and Miss Havisham’s past is very non-repressed since she actively chooses to live in it, aware of yet dismissing time. The only way to get closure or resolution of any kind in her instance is through death.
Brooks indirectly addresses this notion of her death as a resolution to this stasis as well when he says
The novel in fact toward its end records a generalized breakdown of plots: none of the schemes machinated by the characters appears to accomplish its aims. The proof a contrario may be the ‘oversuccessful’ result of Miss Havisham’s plot, which has turned Estella into so heartless a creature that she cannot even experience emotional recognition of her benefactress. Her plotting has been a mechanical success but an intentional failure. (Brooks 520)
The breakdown of plot as well as the literal breakdown of Satis House comes with Miss Havisham’s death, and even Estella by the end of the novel seems to have potential for some sort of change once she is freed of the gravitational, manipulatory grasp of Miss Havisham, particularly in her last encounter with Pip that implies there could be a potential friendship or relationship of some sort. This makes it important to zero-in on Miss Havisham’s last words and her death as it is the dismantling of her manipulated stasis.
Towards midnight, she began to wander in her speech, and after that it gradually set in that she said innumerable times in a low solemn voice, ‘What have I done!’ And then, ‘When she first came I meant to save her from misery like mine.’ And then, ‘Take the pencil and write under my name, ‘I forgive her!’’ She never changed the order of these three sentences, but she sometimes left out a word in one or the other of them; never putting in another word, but always leaving a blank and going on to the next word. (“Great” 403)
Brooks says “The cycle of three statements suggests a metonymy in search of arrest, a plot that can never find satisfactory resolution, that unresolved must play over its insistent repetitions, until silenced by death” (Brooks 520). And it is, indeed, only in death that Satis House is allowed to catch up with real time and crumble, become a literal ruin, and have its many parts sold off at auction (“Great” 473). When the black hole of Miss Havisham is removed from the house, stasis disintegrates and resolution and re-initiation into the natural order of time can commence. This stasis, then, is a form of continuing return of the repressed until the condensing repressor is removed from the situation and the metaphorical disappointed future can be either realized or dissolved.
Miss Havisham isn’t the only character that attempts to manipulate time into a frozen metaphor for a disappointed future. Little Dorrit’s Mrs. Clennam does precisely the same thing, and her temporal control has extended to her environment and home as well, affecting other characters such as Affery and Jeremiah Flintwinch, Amy (to an extent), and Arthur. She lives in a state of ruin, confined to a wheelchair in an unchanging room, arrested in development and saturated with the vanity of her own vengeance against wrongs done to her. Confined as such, her stasis of time seems to be a suspended waiting game for her death (similar to Miss Havisham as she awaits her birth/death/non-wedding day) or her vengeance to perhaps be realized. Similar to Miss Havisham, Mrs. Clennam is wholly aware of the passage of time but acknowledges that time essentially stands still for her in her conscious, mummified state. In a conversation about seasons and the passage of time regarding them, she says, “all seasons are alike to me…I know nothing of summer and winter, shut up here. The Lord has been pleased to put me beyond all that” (“Little” 49-50). Though she is confined both physically and seemingly temporally, she is aware that time passes, and she submits that she has no will or control over her situation of confinement even though she seems to be the one truly manipulating the time, space, and even people around her. Mrs. Clennam explicitly defines her situation as imprisonment as well, but she seems almost content in it as a means of “not forgetting,” which she might otherwise do if she were not physically and temporally bound to her room.
This complicates her situation in the same way Miss Havisham’s situation is complicated, and strikes great similarities with the character of Miss Havisham as well. Miss Havisham’s forcing the clocks to be stopped at a certain time, remaining in her wedding gown, leaving all the fixings for a wedding such as the cake and bride’s table, and her desire to die on that very day as well imply that she fully intends to “not forget” the pivotal moment in her life that she claims she cannot possibly move on from. Mrs. Clennam, on the other hand, is similarly trapped in a room tomb, ignoring the seasons and the changes of the outside world while continuously looking at the watch near her on the table in an effort to not forget. Both women, then, actively choose to manipulate their world into a stasis, acknowledging that time exists and passes but electing to remain suspended in their ruin, vengeance, and vanity-filled occupations of causing others to suffer because of the wrongs that have been done to them.
Martin Price makes note that the “arrest of movement, of action, of mind appears throughout the novel of Little Dorrit,” and this includes Mrs. Clennam’s “denial of time” (Price 131). Though she does deny time when she regards the unchanging room and seasons, her phrase “Do Not Forget” is a suspension of time that shirks real time in favor of continually remaining throughout time in a stasis. She says, “‘Do not forget.’ It spoke to me like a voice from an angry cloud. Do not forget the deadly sin, do not forget the appointed discovery, do not forget the appointed suffering. I did not forget. Was it my wrong I remembered? Mine! I was but a servant and a minister” (“Little” 808). In the same way that Miss Havisham does not forget her past, Mrs. Clennam does the exact same, perhaps most explicitly. These women revel in stasis of their own misery, freezing time to “not forget” transgressions against them. Miss Wade is also an example of a Dickensian woman who refuses to forget her past and the wrongs done to her, vengeful towards everyone and affecting her environment.
Moreover, Mrs. Clennam shares other qualities with Miss Wade and Miss Havisham. Price says, “A principle contrast with ‘arrest’ is the growth toward fulfillment. So energetic is the vitality of normal growth that the arrest must become a strenuous pressure, a violence committed upon oneself or upon others” (Price 132). We see this in Miss Havisham, Mrs. Clennam, Mrs. Skewton, and even (now) Miss Wade. Price goes on to say that Miss Wade has “learned to interpret all experience as grievance” and Mrs. Clennam thrives in self-punishment who has “created a ‘monstrous idol’ of her ‘vindictive pride and rage,’” giving their manipulated stasis a strange vanity to it as they have made themselves essentially into martyrs (Price 132). Price also notes that “Both women cling to their wrongs, Mrs. Clennam in severe self-punishment, Miss Wade in bitter retaliation. Neither can relinquish her torment” (Price 132). Like Miss Havisham, these women do seem particularly attached to the idea of suspending themselves in their wrongs, arresting time itself to stay there, and it seems all these women, not only Miss Havisham, have bestowed a curse upon themselves – a curse that seems to link closely to a distorted sort of vanity until something moves and the temporal structure is allowed to dissolve into a resolution.
However, it might seem that Miss Wade never relinquishes her vengeance and remains in a stasis, doomed to be stuck in the cycle of “return of the repressed” forever, but Tattycoram seems to solve this as Tattycoram exhibits similar feelings to that of Miss Wade toward the Meagles – a sort of unbearable resentment towards them. Within Miss Wade’s realm of vengeful stasis (or at the threshold of her theoretical black hole), Miss Wade can manipulate (“missuade”) Tattycoram (Tatty even admits this once she rejoins the Meagles), but once Tattycoram scrounges up the courage to escape from Miss Wade’s grasp, the vengeance had on the Meagles and on Tattycoram dissolves. Though it might be upsetting to modern readers that Tatty would return to the Meagles because of their (mis)treatment of her, it does reinforce the continuing pattern of Dickensian women who function as manipulative black holes, arrested in their own development and disappointed futures based on wrongs from the past
Also similar to Miss Havisham, Mrs. Clennam’s stoppage of time disintegrates once she, the manipulator of this temporal binding, is removed from the house itself. “Before her ghostly figure, so long unused to its erect attitude, and so stiffened in it, Rigaud fell back and dropped his voice. It was, to all the three, almost as if a dead woman had risen” (“Little” 817). The description of Mrs. Clennam as being similar to a ghost or a dead woman is similar to Miss Havisham being described as a “spectre” (actually, Mrs. Clennam is also described as a “spectral woman” on page 819). Both women are entombed in a stasis that extends to even their environments, and it is in the moments they become the most alive that this stasis disintegrates. Upon Mrs. Clennam’s return to her house, it “heaved, surged outward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed, and fell,” and Mrs. Clennam “dropped upon the stones; and she never from that hour moved so much as a finger again, or had the power to speak one word” noting that “she lived and died a statue” (“Little” 827). Price also notes this moment, saying that once Mrs. Clennam relinquishes her repeated/stasis torment, “her house falls as if it had been the edifice of her will, and she survives it in only three years of paralysis and ‘rigid silence’” (Price 132). In relinquishing her vain vengeance and temporal hold on the house (and herself) true time is allowed to catch up with both, causing them to finally collapse and desist in existence.
It’s also useful to note other versions of female arrested development found in Dickens’s novels, though they don’t have the black hole power that other female characters, such as Miss Havisham, Miss Wade, and Mrs. Clennam, do. These characters seemingly have no control over their stasis and are unwillingly imprisoned temporally. One such character, and perhaps the most notable one for this example, is Maggie from Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit recounts to Arthur the dooming history of Maggie, telling “When Maggie was ten years old… she had a bad fever, sir, and she has never grown any older ever since” (“Little”116). Maggie even nods her head in assent to this in true belief that she is only ten years old despite her actual age being 28. Interestingly, however, though Maggie is temporally trapped at ten years old, she seems to be a character least concerned with time. She is unwillingly governed by the stasis of her existence, but she pays no mind to the racing world around her while other characters are constantly and willingly being made aware (either by others or by themselves) of time and its passing.
Another character that exemplifies a unique form of arrested development is Flora Finching, who is seemingly temporally imprisoned twenty years in the past when she was the love of Arthur Clennam. Price notes this as well, pointing out how Arthur has noticed the change, but Flora hopes time has not changed her or Arthur. “She is a large woman, a little given to drink, locked up in a coy and breathless monologue. Within its protection she can believe what she says… She has moments of shrewdness which she cannot sustain and perhaps conceals from herself. She buries them in a torrent of girlish and ‘literary’ talk” (Price 132). Flora attempts to remain (vainly) the girlish child she was years before, believing that she can talk her way into continuing to be that young figure – testing her ability to charm others with her talk, despite it being more comic and a bit bothersome to characters (like Arthur) who have grown with time and suddenly can’t get a word in due to Flora’s domination of the dialogue.
Now, regarding black holes, all these women’s relations to black holes thus far seem loose at best. However, black holes do exactly what these women do over time, and once it relinquishes its temporal energy and gravity, it and the affected area around it dissolve (Sutter). In almost all cases – Miss Havisham, Mrs. Clennam, Miss Wade, Mrs. Skewton, and their respective homes – the manipulators of arrested time and their extended self-environment hybrid dissolve once they relinquish their energy or stasis of vengeance. Black holes emit Hawking Radiation in the form of virtual particles – particles that could be akin to the havoc these women wreak on other people’s lives such as Arthur Clennam, Amy, Estella, Pip, Tattycoram, the Meagles, and other characters. Once this vengeance (particles) is used up, the temporal stasis is interrupted and arrested time is allowed to dissolve into actual time, and the effects of the black hole around time and space cease to exist.
Black holes also are in a confined, condensed space similar to that of these characters, most particularly Miss Havisham and Mrs. Clennam who remain tucked away in a cluttered room with heaps of decay in Satis House or a small room in a house, both of which are unchanging. Since these rooms and these women are unchanging, it seems there is little resemblance to how they could function as a black hole since black holes eventually eat themselves up and dissolve, but throughout the novels, this is exactly what happens. Miss Havisham’s eventual guilt for what she has done to Pip – she continuously asks him to write “I forgive her” under her name – through her vengeful vanity and process of creating the heartless Estella for the mere purpose of hurting men is the factor of energy that consumes itself and her while still affecting other characters. Mrs. Clennam follows a similar progression when the righteous act of retrieving the box of papers that would do great emotional damage to Arthur should he read them overpowers her vengeance, and what has been eating away at her (she indeed “did not forget,” especially with that gold watch next to her every moment) finally starts to dissolve her entirely, and death consumes her in the end and both women’s homes dissolve with them as if a black hole had finally eaten away at itself.
As Brooks says in his article, “The past needs to be incorporated as past within the present, mastered through the play of repetition in order for there to be an escape from repetition: in order for there to be difference, change, progress” (Brooks 519). Regarding the stasis of time, black holes are an exemplary model for this notion. If the condensed density, like a confined room, of a black hole with its enormous gravity causes time to come to a standstill, the past and present become fused as what could be interpreted as a means of “not forgetting” something. Black holes are also fueled by their own energy which eventually consumes and dissolves them, and Dickensian women in a temporal binding are also fueled by their own energy based on vanity and vengeance for past transgressions. Time as a metaphor for a disappointed future, then, is entirely appropriate because for even black holes, the future is bleak as both expended (vengefulness against other characters) and internalized (vanity, guilt) energy causes them to dissolve regardless – precisely like the women in these novels. And despite the lingering temporal stasis, the dissolution of these women and everything they manipulate and influence, is the resolution for ruin (arrested development) that finally, instead of the repressed returning, it is the natural order – the order of the universe, even a Dickensian one – that is essentially returned.
Brooks, Peter. “Repetition, Repression, and Return: Great Expectations and the Study of Plot.” New Literary History, Vol 11. No. 3 On Narrative and Narratives. John Hopkins University Press, Spring 1980.
Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Penguin Books, 2002.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Penguin Books, 2003.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Penguin Books, 2003.
Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “What are Black Holes?” Universe Forum. NASA, Smithsonian Institution, 2004. https://lweb.cfa.harvard.edu/seuforum/bh_whatare.htm
Price, Martin. “Dickens: Selves and Systems.” Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel. Yale University Press, 1983.
Sutter, Paul. “Do Black Holes Die?” LiveScience. Purch, 29 Sept. 2016. https://www.livescience.com/56321-do-black-holes-die.html
Dombey and Son at Sea
He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.Job (ch. XLI, v. 31)Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Export by Charles Dickens is a novel largely about motion and change. A good place to begin the analysis is at the continuous reference to the ocean that occurs at key points in the narrative. The first Mrs. Dombey’s death is described as drifting “out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world” (Oxford University Press, 1987 p. 10). Such a description implies the wantonness of change and death, which money can not control, and begins the recurrent associations the Dombey children express with the sea.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, and of the “beyond.” The fact that “sea air” is prescribed to aid little Paul Dombey’s ailing health is ironic since from the beginning of the novel the reader is led to associate the sea with death and unpredictability. Little Paul, who is deemed “old fashioned” by some, seems to experience a very strong affinity for the ocean. Upon early acquaintance with the seashore, he becomes absorbed in trying to understand its meaning or purpose, as he believes the rolling of the waves “are always saying something. Always the same thing.” (109) Perhaps Paul’s extreme precociousness and connection with things others cannot understand is a testament to his being, in a way, too good to live (at least for the purposes of this novel). His close connection with the ocean indicates that in his weak childhood condition he has never come far enough away from the place of death, creation and uncertainty (that place to which the children believe their mother has gone) to begin a stable, normal and modern life with the people of the more realistic world.The description of Paul’s fatal fall into illness uses the metaphor of a trip down a rushing river “bearing [him] away” (224). A river is another stark symbol for movement, change, inevitability and a strange (not necessarily bad) lack of control. Golden light “streams” (note the continued water imagery) in on Paul as he delivers his last words: “How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, Floy! But it’s very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!” (225) He describes how “the motion of the boat upon the stream was lulling him to rest” (225) until the “boat was at sea, but gliding smoothly on.” (225) Paul’s descriptions of his watery trip into death are in fact quite positive, and he is nearly ecstatic. His good and loving nature is imprinted upon an otherwise dim event. At last, he claims to see “a shore before him,” with a person standing on a bank, whom Paul refers to as his mother, as he says she is like “Floy” and he knows her “by face.” The sea is not only the great power that restores little Paul to his mother in death; it is also his final nurse who lulls him into eternal sleep.Paul’s apparent ability to see into the next world during his last moments connects him even further to the ideal of a heavenly child. Florence too, partly through her close connection with Paul, is a heavenly child yet for complicated reasons is not recognized as so by her father, Mr. Dombey. The name “Florence” (and especially Paul’s nickname for her, “Floy”) employs sparkling yet subtle wordplay in its phonetic similarity to the word “flow” or “flowing” — another deep-rooted allusion to the power and mystery of water. The unbounded sea is the very symbol of flux in the novel, bringing wealth and bringing destruction. On this same sea is where young Walter Gay, one of the novel’s heros, sails to the West Indies to seek his fortune and is feared shipwrecked. Fortuitously, the waters of change cast him up again and return him in time to marry Florence in the extreme high point of the novel.The port of London, where much of the novel’s events take place, teems with the exotic nature of both arrivals and departures, and of foreign shipping and foreign peoples. It ebbs and flows 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 is where we find the House of Dombey, a firm of exchange: money changes hands, deals are made and broken, property is conveyed, and fortunes are lost. The sea is a mighty and preemptive force; it can be, at some times, the pliant tool of Man’s will and benevolent supporter to its projects; at other times, it can be Man’s nemesis, reminding him that the ocean defines earthly space and has absolutely no need of man nor his projects.The sea theme lends breadth and depth to Dombey and Son; the sea itself has the formidable status of a character. It can be violent, forceful, even punitive when necessary, but gracious and protective as well. It can be an agent of separation and loss; for example, the death of Walter Gay, Florence Dombey’s suitor and a source of loving concern to the reader. The sea has taken Captain Cuttle’s hand and deprived him and his friend Jack Bunsby of many a shipmate. Yet these men all regard the sea with a mellow familiarity, free of bitterness. The reader particularly enjoys Gills and Walter reviewing the dates and locations of disasters at sea. Through the feelings his characters relate of the sea, Dickens creates an understanding of his novel’s unconditional love for the sea — a characteristic often lacking in the literal parents of the novel.Although the Toodles are in fact an excellent example of the possibilities in loving parentage, throughout much of the narrative Dombey clearly did not love his daughter Florence under any circumstances. And perhaps he only loved his son under the circumstance that his heir would fulfil his business aspirations. And of course Edith’s mother virtually brokers her away for money. Parenthood is unreliable in Dickens’ Dombey and Son to the point that in a way the entity of the sea (however grand and fluctuating) takes its place.
Tamed Dragons and Sandwich-Boxes: The Significance of the Railway in ‘Dombey and Son’
The railway system brought an air of uneasiness to British society during the nineteenth century, during which change was felt behind every corner. While this feeling of skepticism was felt through all social classes, the middle and lower classes had the most to gain with this industrial advancement. Dicken’s novel, Dombey and Son, set the stage for this time of change through his characters, such as the Toodle family, and settings, being Stagg’s Garden, to show how drastically the railway system transformed social class and economic disparity. Furthermore, it also dismantled, literally and figuratively in the case of Mr. Carker, the upper class’s hierarchy that was suppressing the lower class. It connected people and places in a way never seen before.
One of the most important contributions that the railway provided in this novel is the transformation of Stagg’s Garden. The once “miserable waste ground, where the refuse matter had been heaped of yore, was swallowed up and gone…the old by streets now swarmed with passengers and vehicles of every kind,” (p. 211). Stagg’s Garden was essentially a waste land where impoverish families, such as the Toodles were known for inhabiting. More so, the inhabitants were skeptical and suspicious of the railways coming. It was, “regarded by its population as a sacred grove not to be withered by rail roads,” (p.64). Now, the railway chugged through and took away all disparity, leaving, “railway hotels, coffee-houses, lodging- houses, boarding-houses; railways plans, maps, views, wrappers, bottles, sandwich-boxes, and time tables…” (p. 211). The railway literally wiped the hopeless and destitute Stagg’s Garden off the map and left behind this thriving tourist community themed in the industrial phenomena itself that was so feared. It provided prosperity for the people in Stagg’s Garden, it provided better living conditions and, most importantly, it provided jobs for the inhabitants. This is evident prosperity in the Toodle family, who so benefited from this tame dragon gliding through their neighborhood. Everyone knew who Toodle the Engine Fireman was in this bustling community.
In the beginning of the novel the Toodle family is struggling to make ends meet and is pinched to put Mrs. Polly Toodles to work as a wet nurse for Mr. Dombey. Mr. Dombey inquired Mr. Toodles after learning he had five children at the time, “Why, it’s as much as you can afford to keep them!” (p. 19). After Mrs. Polly is fired for her actions it leaves the reader wondering if the family will make it with so many children and so little income. However, in an encounter with Mr. Dombey on page two hundred sixty seven Mr. Toodle states, “…we’re a doin’ pretty well, Sir; we haven’t no cause to complain in the worldly way, Sir. We’ve had four more since then, Sir, but we rubs on.” This reinforces the idea that the railway narrowed the economic disparity gap in London at the time. The Toodle family has a total of nine children throughout the book and Mr. Toodle confidently tells Mr. Dombey that they are essentially well off says a lot about the stable income the railway provides.
The comparison between these two gentlemen in two different scenarios within the novel shows the drastic difference in the lives of the people. It is one thing to have a visible difference in the appearance of the town, yet you can still have poverty in the background that is covered up by the elites and upper class. However, in this situation we have two very different gentlemen from two very different social and economic backgrounds in the same place having a conversation. While Mr. Dombey may feel superior in the situation, he is put into place by being rejected of his money for the first time in life by a “lesser” man. This is a profound change within the society and culture of London that is happening on a large scale. The Toodles represent the lower and middle class of London that is constantly being oppressed by people like Mr. Dombey and Dickens shows, intentionally or not, this change.
In the case of Mr. Carker, we see how the railways were dismantling this social system in a more realistic way. He was fleeing from Mr. Dombey, and after days of sleep deprivation he slips to his death at the hands of the tamed dragon, with Dombey as witness. The striking scene of page seven hundred thirty eight, “…felt the earth tremble—knew in a moment that the rush was to come—uttered a shriek—looked round—saw the red eyes…struck him limb from limb, and lick his stream of life up with its fiery heat, and cast his mutilated fragments in the air.” His death is painted as a train crashing through the station itself, with no one to stop it but itself. Dickens describes the scene so vividly and almost gore-like. However, his death is also a symbol for society being torn apart, limb by limb. Mr. Carker is a man of such high status up till the end, where he finds himself in the bottom of the tracks – like a coal digger. This is similar to Carker himself, a proud man, sure of himself. He was so sure of himself that he attempted adultery with his boss’s wife, of which became his demise.
The most fascinating aspect of the train symbolizing Carker’s death isn’t the fact that it killed him. What killed him was the timely manner that he met Dombey on the train. This incident wouldn’t have been possible if he had taken a coach as his get-away transportation. The train brought the two men together, it gave them a common purpose. It connected them, same as it did everyone at the time. It allowed for Europe to become a cohesive and productive continent. Mr. Dombey is a man that flourished from this industrial revolution. He represents the food production it increased, the decreasing cost of living, and the people involved by the process. All of which attribute to the narrowing economic and social disparity.
Mr. Carker represents the part of society that refused to accept this change. They perished in this new age of technology and industrialism. Similar to the usage of ships for Dombey and Son, Mr. Carker’s presence was no longer needed within the novel as a whole, and made way for change. Mr. Dombey accepted this change through his business and his family relations. This is evident in the final chapter most of all as he is described, “…[He] is a white haired gentleman, whose face bears the heavy marks of care and suffering; but they are traces of a storm that has passed on forever, and left a clear evening in its track,” (p. 828). It’s as if his journey in the novel is a trip that starts on this boat in a storm and ends on a smooth train ride. Mr. Carker, however, bought the wrong ticket, and as a result received an unfortunate outcome.
Dickens use of the railway in Dombey and Son is minor through the majority of the novel. However, its significance behind the scenes is great, as shown in examples in the transformation of Stagg’s Garden from a waste land to bustling railway community, the Toodles family prospering as a result of the economic stability the railway provides, and even Mr. Carker’s demise as a result of the railway bringing people together under circumstances not possible without the industrial phenomena. Its greater meaning is its transformation of social and economic classes that are so prevalent within the novel itself. Status and wealth are key characteristics to Dicken’s characters and the aiding of the railway to provide this prosperity and narrowing of the widespread disparity is shown in his character development. Dombey and Son marked a great change in the nineteenth century as the great tamed dragon rolled across Europe and improved their lives, even their sandwich-boxes.
Dickens, Charles. N.p.: Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2003. Print.