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November 4, 2012

A Less Common Dickens

I was so delighted to have a warm, fully electrified apartment yesterday that I spent the whole day indoors, finishing Dombey and Son. This is not one of the Dickens novels I reread often, the way I do David Copperfield or Great Expectations, so I wasn't sure at first it would be any good.  (I had recently reread Martin Chuzzlewit, written only four years earlier than Dombey, and it was, frankly, horrible: the satiric bits about America were especially heavyhanded, but the whole thing, with small exceptions, was dull and annoying--enough to put you off Dickens for life, if that was all you'd ever read.) But Dombey and Son turns out to be one of the very good ones, with many unusual aspects.

There is, first of all, Edith Dombey.  People often say Dickens was bad at portraying women, but this particular kind of woman--the strongminded, willful, resistant, divided-against-herself woman, often a neglected orphan or a mistreated wife--reappears several times in his work, and Edith is one of his best. I think several later writers consciously or unconsciously borrowed from her--Henry James for his portrayal of the marriages of both Isabel Archer and Charlotte Stant, and Joseph Conrad in the specific wording of the passage where Winnie Verloc picks up the knife with which she kills her husband.  For both these later writers, I suspect, Edith served as a potent source figure: the woman who is psychologically abused by a husband who feels he has acquired her and her unthinking loyalty fair-and-square, generally through purchase.  In this one instance, even George Bernard Shaw was not capable of being more vociferous than Dickens on the equivalence between upper-class marriage for money and lower-class prostitution.

There are other strange, appealing darknesses sprinkled through the novel.  Little Paul Dombey is one of DIckens's best children--not just sweet or lovable, but odd, introspective, often unnerving in his manner.  We also get to look inside a couple of desperate, dislikable men and view their interior lives at their most sordid:  in particular, the portrayal of Dombey's near-suicide--when the self he sees in his reflection turns into an "it"--is strongly written and psychologically astute.  And though the novel has its inevitable creaky plot elements, and finishes with too much tying up of loose ends, well, is that really a drawback, or is it precisely what we resort to Dickens for, and forgive him for every time?  If you want open-endedness, go instead to the nineteenth-century Russians (I highly recommend Goncharov, not only for Oblomov, his masterpiece, but also for an obscure novel called The Precipice that I recently found online and enjoyed immensely); that whole nation seemed to have a grasp of the moral, psychological and narrative complexities that eluded their contemporaries in England.  But if you are in the mood for a good Dickens novel that is still somewhat unfamiliar to most of us, I suggest Dombey and Son.  It was my staunch companion through all the darknesses of the blackout week in lower Manhattan, and no lesser book could have stood that test. 
November 4, 2012 8:32 AM | | Comments (0)

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