Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hooroar! Hooroar! I finished Dombey and Son

Hey, waddaya know, I finished Dombey and Son (1846-8). This was Dickens's seventh novel, and his best yet.

Months ago, a friendly commenter mentioned that her mother claimed that it is better than Bleak House. Not to me, but I can see how one could think that. This is the first time that the big arc of the whole book really makes sense. A businessman of narrow soul gives all of his affection to his son, and none to his daughter. We know that, by the end of the novel, Mr. Dombey will have been either humbled, and reformed, or destroyed. Some of the steps to that end are what one might expect, while others are quite original.

The previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4), contains the first plot that Dickens planned in advance and stuck with (aside from the short The Christmas Carol, written in the midst of the Martin Chuzzlewit serialization). But it's a pretty simple plot, and a simple structure - there's a selfish man who learns his lesson, and another who does not. The end is typical "wrap it all up" stuff.

Martin Chuzzlewit has its delights, but Dombey and Son is richer, the best characters are more complex, and the structure is innovative, even surprising. The first quarter or so really builds to a moving and significant climax. I can see why someone might single this part out as a great favorite. Then there are seven hundred more pages. Long book, ain't it? The long part two builds to a satisfying end as well, although Dickens seems to need more plotty nonsense to get there.

Reading Dickens in something like chronological order has been so interesting. Some gifts - the comic characters, imitations of speech - he had from the beginning and never lost. Other skills, like plotting and story structure, he had to work on. Despite his early success, he never stopped experimenting. He didn't stop with Dombey and Son, either - it's not half as ingenious as Bleak House, two novels later.

I think that tomorrow I'll write about one old problem Dickens still hadn't solved - his boring virtuous heroes and heroines - and a new one, potentially worse, that cropped up. Each novel is like a serial issue in the story of the artistic development of Charles Dickens. They have cliffhanger endings - what will Dickens do next?

Oh, right. "Hooroar," that's what Captain Cuttle says. "'Hooroar, my lad!' exclaimed the Captain, in a burst of uncontrollable satisfaction. 'Hooroar! hooroar! hooroar!'" And so on.


  1. Dombey and Son isn't better than Bleak House, in my opinion, but it's still really good. And I believe that Edith Dombey is the most complex, three-dimensional female character Dickens ever wrote. (I think she's a very successful character, and I've never understood why Dickens couldn't repeat that feat in other books. Instead, in the next book, we get Dora Spenlow and Agnes Wickfield. Although Betsey Trotter is some compensation....)

  2. Over the past two years I've amassed a nice little collection of Dickens titles. I really like your idea of reading him in the order he wrote, in the way I've done with other I'll get going on The Pickwick Papers before the end of the summer.

  3. I haven't read this one yet but I think the first page is know, the part about toasting Son by the fire like a muffin. Dickens was such a strange one. The next Dickens on my agenda will be Nicholas Nickelby.

  4. Hooroar! I have not read Dombey and Sons nor have I read Bleak house. I had better get crackin!

  5. Gayla, I still have five unread Dickens novels to go, but within my knowledge I certainly agree. Esther Summerson is the only equal to Edith Dombey. What different characters. I used your comment in the post I just wrote.

    One advantage of reading Dickens in order is that The Pickwick Papers is so good, and it's barely even a novel. There are some aspects of that book that Dickens equals but never surpasses.

    On page 1 of Dombey, Son is "about eight and forty minutes" of age. He is very close to the fire "as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new." Such beautiful writing; I am weeping. And hungry.

    Stefanie suggests a puzzle to me. Bleak House is now the best Dickens novel by scholarly consensus (not that you or I have to agree). But that wasn't always the case, and it's still not the most famous novel, not at all. I'd like to read something about how this happened.

  6. Congratulations! Page 1 really is wonderful, too.