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.
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