Dombey and Son at Sea

February 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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