Monday, March 23, 2015

Dombey and Son

I've been putting off writing a post about the most recent Dickens novel that I finished, Dombey and Son, because I can't figure out what I want to say about it.  This is one of those "leap-of-faith" posts where you sit down and start typing and hope that something coherent emerges.

Overall impression - I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, although it is not my favorite Dickens of the ones I've read so far.  It's not as good as A Tale of Two Cities, or Little Dorrit, or David Copperfield, which I'm currently rereading.  But, it's infinitely better than Hard Times, which I disliked.  I think it's really a 4-star book, but the Dickens name counts for a star on its own, I suppose.

The best place to begin with a Dickens book is the characters--he was brilliant at populating his books with an extraordinary number of well-drawn, interesting characters.  My biggest problem with the book is that I don't think Mr. Dombey was a convincing character.  I loathed him, which as a reader, I was meant to do.  But, I never really got why he shunned his sweet daughter, Florence, until it was almost too late.  I know that he was disappointed that she wasn't a thriving boy, ready to step into the role of son and heir, but that wasn't enough to explain to me why he couldn't get over it.  I really think Dickens should've given us Mr. Dombey's backstory.  We get to meet his sister, Louisa Chick, but their relationship tells me nothing about the forces that shaped him into who he was.

I loved Florence, and was absolutely thrilled that Dickens didn't kill her off as he seemed threatening to do with some red-herring foreshadowing. Maybe he meant to, but since this was a serialized work, he could have changed his mind after tossing out some hints that she was as fragile in health as her brother, Paul.  

Speaking of Paul, I went into the book thinking that he made it to adulthood, and I was pretty disappointed that he died before he could convince his father than money was a means and not an end.  He was a sweetie, though, and his deathbed scene was all that I expected of Dickens, whose pathetic scenes are the stuff of legends.

Edith Granger was another character that I never really got.  As with Mr. Dombey, I understand that she hated being in the role of being auctioned off to the highest bidder in marriage market, but for the life of me, I don't get why she didn't tell her mother to back off.  While Mrs. Skewton was a money-grubber, Edith was no door mat and could have managed her.  Again, more of Edith's backstory would have been helpful.

James Carker was a wonderful villain--I liked seeing him as a prototype for Uriah Heep insofar as he was also an underling who ingratiated his way into controlling the firm.  Carker's white teeth were extremely creepy and terribly effective as a way of encapsulating Carker.  Again, I wanted details about his relationship to Alice.  Did he seduce her?  And what were the details of brother John's transgression?  It's amazing that in a book this long, there were so many unanswered questions.  I loved their sister, Harriet, and wished I knew more about her.

Captain Cuttle, Major Bagstock, Rob the Grinder (what is a grinder, anyway?), Polly, Walter and his uncle, Susan Nipper, and Mr. Toots were all wonderful characters and I enjoyed spending time with all of them.

My conclusion is that Dombey and Son was a bit of a proving ground for a lot of what came to perfection in David Copperfield.  Their plots are very different but some themes are similar--make-shift families, surrogate parents, for example.

Dombey and Son fulfills the category of "A Very Long Classic Novel" in my 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge.


  1. Terrific commentary on this book Jane.

    I have not read this one. It seems to be held in a little less esteem then other works by this great author.

    Though I once looked at Dickens’s characterizations with some skepticism I have come to appreciate them more and more. It sounds like this book ids full of interesting ones.

    Great minds think alike! I am currently reading David Copperfield also. In my case it is for the first time.

  2. I find Dickens tough reading these days. There are quite a few I haven't read yet, including this one. I still have my old favorites on the shelves, though, including David Copperfield, and Nicholas NIckleby.

  3. Ack! I understand your trepidation in writing this post. It's a hard book to review but you did a fantastic job. I know what you mean about Dombey ....... as with many Dickens characters, he is almost exaggerated into a caricature. Dickens characters are fun, but they're not always believable.

    Congratulations on finishing your very long classic. I think I'm going to use my Rousseau's Confessions for this category as soon as I finish my review!

  4. 'This is one of those "leap-of-faith" posts where you sit down and start typing and hope that something coherent emerges.' - haha! That's pretty much how almost all my reviews start! This is a nice way of putting it. :D

    I have personally found Dickens to be too melodramatic for me. So, I really try to avoid him as much as I can. However, from the wee bit you have said of Dombey and Edith Granger I don't find their actions unbelievable without a backstory. If one understands the times they are set in (Victorian - a very stringent society that!) it isn't difficult to understand why Dombey would be obsessed with having a son and would therefore ignore his daughter, or that Edith could have no control over who she had to marry no matter how vivacious or vocal her character could otherwise be.

  5. This one's just to tick the 'notify me' button. I forgot about that!

  6. This may well be the only Dickens that we do not own and, until I read your review, I knew nothing about it. As I have several of his books yet to read, I don't think I'll be in any rush to get to one that is long and not his best. But kudos to you for knocking it out!