Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 9: Dombey and Son

When the death scene in Dombey and Son was published, all of England was apparently prostrated by grief.

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I cried when Paul Dombey died, but I wasn’t the only one. When the fifth installment of Dombey and Son was published in 1847 — the chapter in which the fragile young heir to the great Dombey import-export firm breathes his last — the entire nation of England was apparently prostrated by grief. William Thackeray, who was in the middle of serializing his novel Vanity Fair, was prostrated by envy. His verdict: “There’s no writing against such power as this — one has no chance!”

Paul Dombey had no chance either. He’s sickly from infancy; the “and Son” in the title has the ring of a premature epitaph. But unlike the innocent Oliver Twist, Paul is a wise child, with a philosophical air that lifts him preternaturally out of his small body. He dies about a quarter of the way into the book, but you feel as if he’s worked through enough existential questions for a lifetime. Then you wonder: What’s the next three-quarters of this book going to be about?

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 10: Oliver Twist)

It is mostly about unrequited filial love, which may be even sadder than unrequited romantic love. Mr. Dombey — we are not on a first-name basis — dotes on Paul to the exclusion of his older daughter, Florence. Florence dotes on her father, but she is a girl, and thus useless to the firm; once Paul dies she only reminds her father of his lost son, and he loathes the sight of her. She is devastated by this aversion for most of her life. It’s not that she hasn’t known affection; it just hasn’t done her much good. Paul and Florence adored each other, but that ends with his tombstone. A poor boy named Walter, a sort of gofer at Dombey and Son, is infatuated with Florence, but his attachment to her is inappropriate and he is sent off to sea. The second wife Mr. Dombey takes, who quickly learns to loathe him, loves Florence, but Mr. Dombey gets jealous of his wife’s attention and forbids the two to communicate.

The wife’s name is Edith Granger. I had not read Dombey and Son until this fall, and I was not prepared for the venom of this marriage. Most of Dickens’ unhappy women suffer in silence or otherwise stoic passivity. In this case, you can practically hear her spitting at him. Their union is a callous transaction: she marries him for money; he marries her hoping for another male heir. And I have to give Dickens credit: He sets Edith up as a classic evil stepmother, but instead, she reaches out to lonely, neglected Florence, and the two of them are happy in each other’s company, for a little while at least.

Dickens said of Dombey and Son, at the time that it was published, that he thought it would be remembered as one of his best works. It was only his seventh novel, and he was underestimating himself. Still, there are two transformative forces in Dombey that give it a visceral power. One of these forces is Edith, who stands in for all passionate women bridled by expectation and duty. You could lock her in an oppressively upholstered room with her better-known 19th-century sisters, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth and James’ Isabel Archer and watch them all try (some successfully, some not) to break free. Edith’s liberation strategy may not be quite rational, but she’s definitely a trailblazer.

The other trailblazer is the railroad, which claims the house and the head of anyone in its path. There are two train scenes in Dombey and Son that alone make the book worth reading. The first shows Mr. Dombey after Paul’s death, traveling to the resort town where he will court Edith:

He found no pleasure or relief in the journey. Tortured by these thoughts he carried monotony with him, through the rushing landscape, and hurried headlong, not through a rich and varied country, but a wilderness of blighted plans and gnawing jealousies. The very speed at which the train was whirled along mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its fore-doomed end. The power that forced itself upon its iron way — its own — defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.

You can feel the tension between the human scale of existence and the mechanical scale, the ebb of the former and the onrush of the latter. The first commercial rail line in England began operating in 1830; it represented speed, connection and most of all mobility, but it dealt out noise, dirt and destruction in its wake. And as with other points of “progress” in the Victorian Era — like the Reform Bill, which aimed to expand the electorate — it was hotly debated, both in fact and in fiction. A resident of Middlemarch, the provincial town of Eliot’s epic novel, puts the objection beautifully: “Some say this country’s seen its best days, and the sign is, as it’s being overrun with these fellows trampling right and left, and wanting to cut it up into railways; and for all the big traffic to swallow up the little, so as there shan’t be a team left on the land, nor a whip to crack.” Dickens taps into the profound inhumanity of this human convenience, the disorienting nature of rapid change via rapid transit. Entrepreneur though he was, he was also deeply conservative and sentimental, and in his mind the railway could be as dangerous an invention as the guillotine.

Thackeray, by the way, was right to be jealous of Dombey and Son. It sold far better in serial than Vanity Fair — some 34,000 copies per month to Vanity Fair’s 5,000. From the 21st century perspective, Vanity Fair is a better book, with an arch, ironic narrative voice that’s well suited to the modern sensibility. If you haven’t read it, take a look. But bear in mind that its archness makes it a little bit unlovable, at least in terms of emotional attachment. It won’t make you cry. For that, try the deathbed of little Paul Dombey.

Come back tomorrow for our look at Charles Dickens’ eighth best novel — Hard Times.

READ: The Previous Entry in This Series—Number 10: Oliver Twist