Archive | March, 2018

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens (1865)

12 Mar

Crime thriller, love story, comedy, social analysis; Charles Dickens’s final completed novel crosses all these different genres. A colourful, multi-character-ed story in which various story-lines inter-weave and the characters’ paths cross in a variety of situations that induce a variety of emotions in the reader.  In a way, the structure is like that of a soap opera.  I realise that some Dickens aficionados may baulk at making such a comparison, but hear me out.  Soap operas often endure for years, captivating the viewers’ interest with their inter-woven plots and characters’ lives.  A particular plot can resurface after lying dormant for a while, with the viewer excited to know how it’s going to turn out.  Dickens’s style is similar in this respect, and indeed the book was published in serial form initially, released over the course of 19 months.

(SPOILER ALERT: this post contains some details of the story, though there are still many more details left unsaid.)
(And on the subject of spoiler alerts, some editions have a list of characters at the beginning, before the text of the story. This can give away some details of a significant part of the plot so I would recommend not reading the character list until you’re about half-way through the book.)
(OK, that’s sorted; now on with the post.)

The central event, to which nearly all the other story-lines are in some way related, is news of the untimely death of John Harmon. This event is the basis for the crime thriller genre: the mystery of who murdered him. This event also brings together various characters, creating the love stories of John Rokesmith and Bella, Eugene and Lizzie.  In turn, the examination of how this universal human emotional need – the reciprocated love for another – plays out in the paradigm of a society in which money and social class are highly visible and important, creates a fascinating social analysis.  A social analysis made more memorable by Charles Dickens’s biting satirical wit.

In general, fiction is often about conflict and quest, anything that leads the reader to wonder “Will they or won’t they?”; or “How will it be resolved?”  In “Our Mutual Friend”, a central form of conflict and quest is this analysis of relationships within and against the social constraints of 1860s England.  Dickens uses vivid scenes, emotive characters and satire to draw the reader’s attention to the shallow superficiality of a society in which retaining full membership of a particular social class is perceived as more important than loving someone for whom they really are.
Bella’s brave rejection of the wealth and potential social status of the newly rich, social-climbing Boffins in favour of the (relatively) poor John Rokesmith; Eugene’s marriage to the poor and working class Lizzie, ignoring the criticism by society of such a marriage.  Dickens shows these to be sincere, worthy relationships, based on real love and sacrifice (particularly in the case of Bella).  Bella is delighted by her own ability to overcome her former mercenary nature. Eugene and Lizzie’s marriage is praised by Mr Twemlow as a marriage of “the greater gentleman” and “the greater lady” on account of the marriage being based on feelings of gratitude, respect, admiration and affection.  Similarly, many of the less rich characters are shown to be wholesome and decent people in general, e.g. proud Betty Higden, Jenny Wren, Lizzie and the Boffins when they forgo their newly-found fortune.

By contrast, the Veneerings and their dinner party guests (except Mortimer and Mr Twemlow) are shown to be callous and superficial, a feature further highlighted by the very name of Veneering.  This is particularly the case in the final dinner party at which Twemlow makes his above remark in praise of Eugene and Lizzie.  In some ways, it feels as though the story was building up to this: the veneer of respectability (in the form of ‘excellent dinners’ in the opulent home) now fully stripped away, to reveal the callous, pompous attitudes beneath.

It is true that some of the poorer characters are portrayed negatively too, e.g. Rogue Riderhood and Silas Wegg; but the unpleasantness of the rich characters is hidden under a veneer which Dickens removes to expose them.  Yes, we know Rogue Riderhood is a scheming villain and so would anyone; but the Veneerings and their dinner party guests hide their callousness under a veneer of respectability.  Dickens’s biting satire strips this away and Twemlow is shown to be the better person.
In reality, the need for belonging to a group is an important need for anyone; but Dickens shows that the belonging to such a shallow society as that of the Veneerings is rather vacuous.  However, that sense of fully belonging may be difficult to forgo, in a time when social class played such a greater part in people’s lives and in society, however vacuous that may be.  Also the need for financial security is entirely understandable, particularly in the times of far less (if any) social security.  Therefore, it is perhaps excessively romantic to consider someone choosing their love over financial security.
But then this was perhaps Dickens’s aspiration: a change in society to one in which relationships based on feelings of gratitude, respect, admiration and affection COULD thrive above those based on desire for money and/or class.
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