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.
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