Introductory: Critical Reception since 1836
Since the publication of his first novel, Dickens achieved a great and long-spanned success throughout his life. All his fifteen novels together with his short stories and hundreds of sundry articles were best-sellers of his time, and he never showed a hint of flagging in his penmanship, although he himself underwent a change during his 30 years' writing career.
What destiny awaited him after his long years of success? Particularly after his death in 1870, appreciation of his works turned into a directly opposite direction for nearly 70 years, long enough to bury his reputation beyond resurrection.
From 1836 to 1848, Dickens was triumphant, making his readers laugh, shudder, and cry. Instead of Abraham Hayward's prediction that having risen like a rocket, he would come down like the stick, Dickens never came down but attracted an even greater number of readers: Nicholas Nickleby sold 70,000 numbers, and the sale of The Old Curiosity Shop reached 100,000. Only in Martin Chuzzlewit, did he meet with a difficulty with his readers for the first time in his life. But when he got over this with the success of Dombey, he was no longer an entertainer, but an artist.
From then on until 1870, he wrote a series of great novels, exploring in each a different way of novel writing. During this period, long dreamt-of periodicals were launched successfully under his editorship, inviting many contributions from eminent authors, and himself contributing weekly installments of novels. He was a dominant figure in the literary world. When he died in 1870, obituaries were generally praiseworthy. A year later, however, all criticism, as if allied together, turned against him. Perhaps realism which had gradually been under way, and the discovery-of-soul novel came to be preferred. There also was a new generation who wanted a change. But the change was so sudden and drastic. Leslie Stephen epitomized all this into his essay on Dickens in DNB, writing that "Dickens's merits [were] such as suit the half-educated." John Forster wrote the Life of Charles Dickens and tried to redress the distorted image of the author, but his single-handed struggle was powerless against the totally hostile atmosphere of the age, "lack of education" becoming a common denominator for negating Dickens.
Although there was a powerful defense of Dickens by Chesterton, Gissing and some others, it was not persuasive enough to restore the image of Dickens which was prevalent in his lifetime. Dickens was neglected among literary circles until 1940.
1940 saw a revival of interest in Dickens, stimulated by Edmund Wilson's essay on Dickens. George Orwell's penetrating essay, which did much to revive critical interest in Dickens, also came out in 1940. Several outstanding scholars followed, and they devoted themselves to finding intrinsic merits in Dickens and his work. Humphry House tried to see Dickens as his age saw him, and his attitude was an immense contribution to setting right the image of the author, long distorted by critics' haphazard interpretations without clear evidence. The Pilgrim Letters were started by him, and the Clarendon edition of Dickens's works, too. Edgar Johnson's Life was an astonishing success, which nullified all biographies of the author published before it, excepting John Forster's. Another remarkable work was John Butt and Tillotson's Dickens at Work, which looked for evidence in memoranda and manuscripts to prove that Dickens was a careful, not an extempore, writer.
Finally G. H. Ford gave a historical survey of Dickens's acceptance from 1836 to 1955, and this was strengthened, with documentary evidence, by Philip Collins's Dickens: The Critical Heritage, and by a centennial number of The Dickensian (1970). It was literary historians who corrected the image of Dickens, and the inadequate essay on Dickens in DNB has been finally replaced by one in Britannica (15th edition), where it is stated that Dickens is the greatest novelist in the English-speaking world.
Success of The Pickwick Papers
The success of Pickwick was remarkable. Nearly all layers of society read it, and there were Pickwick hats, Pickwick sticks, Pickwick pottery, and Weller trousers in the streets. It also brought about, at home and abroad, its imitations in prints, theatres, songs, novels and magazines. It is reasonable to ask why the first novel of a 24-year-old writer could have achieved such popularity. The phenomenon is to be investigated with reference to: (1) the sort of writing that was familiar among people in those days; (2) the advance of literacy in the late 1820s and early 30s instigated by cheap reprints and periodicals; and (3) the change of taste and sensibility in the new era.
The immediacy of the readers' response to Pickwick suggests a source deeply rooted in their mind. A quarter of a century earlier, illustrations with a text written up to them produced Dr. Syntax's Three Tours (1810-21), which received nationwide applause. The name of Dr. Syntax was in the mouth of the people, and there were Syntax hats, Syntax wigs, and Syntax coats, together with its plagiarisms at home and abroad. The piece was a sort of gallery in which people enjoyed typical scenes of comic adventures. Then appeared in 1820 Egan's Life in London, which at once captured the mind of the people with the delightful adventures of Tom, Jerry and Corinthian, illustrated with powerful effects by the Cruikshanks. It became the furor of the age for nearly 10 years after its publication.
A direct spur to Pickwick might be Jorrocks (1831-34), whose hero, a cockney sportsman, enjoys hunting in Surrey on Sundays. His comic adventures were a great success, and seeing its success, Robert Seymour brought to Chapman and Hall the idea of publishing cockney sporting plates with a text that would follow. Dickens, when appointed as text-writer, was not content with the hackneyed sporting plates with which he was not familiar, and reversed the writer-illustrator relation, and started installing picaresque adventures, which sold tremendously. Although Pickwick began improvisationally, it was based upon the popular taste of the early nineteenth century, and soon transcended its predecessors to become the delight of the reading public.
A decade before Pickwick was a period in which common people sought reading material on an unprecedented scale. Novels were very expensive in the triple-decker days, but through the efforts of several publishers, cheap reprints were offered to people at the reasonable price of 5s. The common people, however, could spend at most a penny or two for reading material, and their reading was limited to religious pamphlets, chapbooks, broadsides, bluebooks and almanacs. While taxes on knowledge kept them from access to newspapers, three new periodicals which did not include news were launched in 1832 at the price of 1d or 1.5d. Their tremendous success opened the floodgates of cheap publication, and for the following several years England suffered an inundation of ephemeral periodicals that appeared and disappeared in a very short time. But the habit of reading had by now extended to every class of people, who, when good reading material was offered at one shilling, were ready to respond to it, even by collecting a penny each from a dozen associates in order to purchase it.
In the 1830s, the novel had few outstanding practitioners, and so Pickwick, as it progressed, gained a warm welcome from various quarters. Based upon the popular tradition, it was clearly different from its predecessors in terms of sentiment. Noticeable was the change from vulgar and masculine scenes to moderate, harmless, and humane ones. Sam Weller's appearance was another reason for its success, as a figure from the lowest layer of society plays a central role, teaching Mr. Pickwick, the innocent gentleman, how the world stands, with his wit, shrewdness, and varied knowledge of life. But the crowning reason was best expressed in the author's preface to the first edition of the novel, where he wrote that he would be proud and happy if his work should induce only one reader to think better of his fellow men, and to look upon the brighter and more kindly side of human nature. Already a new social sentiment had been born out of the hopes and disappointments of the Reform Bill of 1832, with warm, tender feelings towards one's fellows replacing the wit and satire of the eighteenth century.
Oliver Twist: Journalism and Literature
The scene of Oliver asking for more claims universal admiration. A hungry boy asks for another bowl of thin gruel for mere survival, thus opposing the rigid workhouse system that is firmly controlled by the utilitarian spirit. The situation evokes in us a strong sense of sympathy towards the boy and a strong sense of horror against the system. What is written about the workhouse system in the early chapters of Oliver Twist seems to consist of well-founded facts, slightly exaggerated perhaps, but largely confirmed by street-literature, newspaper articles, and the annual reports of the Poor Law Commissioners and their interpretations.
The ballads such as "The Workhouse Boy" and "Baby Farming" have the same humanitarian appeal to the general public as Oliver Twist. Even the atrocious words of Mr. Gamfield the chimney sweeper cannot be dismissed as exaggerations when we read a police case of 1839, cited by John Ashton in his book Gossip. But the most powerful agent for exposing the ill- administration of the New Poor Law was The Times. Its owner and its editor, out of a humanitarian concern towards their fellow people, fought against the new law continually from the days of the parliamentary debate in 1834. And young Dickens seems to have taken "most of his information as well as a confirmation of his basic position from The Times" (Dennis Walder).
What Dickens did in this novel based on the topical issue of the time was to put in contrast utilitarianism and humanitarianism, and to expose the brutal facts of how small boys in a workhouse were bullied, starved, and disposed of under a callous philosophy. Poor Oliver's diet might have been an exaggeration, but a factual example which the Select Committee of Inquiry found in Fareham Workhouse in 1837 testifies that the true-life situation was very similar.
All such facts are deftly controlled as general truths. Although the workhouse satire occupies only a portion of Oliver Twist, it is an admirable piece and a well-timed tract, which might have helped to ignite the anti-Poor Law agitation that flared up in 1837-9.
The underworld that Oliver innocently went into is also a realistic rendering of what it was like around 1830. Simply to trace how the Dodger and Oliver come back to Fagin's hiding place illustrates how the searching eyes of the new police officers penetrated into every corner of the metropolis.
The London of Oliver Twist, with Fagin's gang of boys engaged in pickpocketing activities, presents a notable study of the criminal underworld. According to Donald A. Low, the one great characteristic of the early nineteenth century underworld was that the thieves appeared to be getting younger all the time. And 18 out of 20 who were hanged in the Regency were minors (Rumbelow). Dickens's sketch is accurate, even down to the training of boys, which, although handled comically, had been nevertheless true from Elizabethan times on (Stow, Charles Knight, & Tobias). What the young thieves do and witness in the novel can be traced to the validity of its statements. Dickens the young journalist is thoroughly versed with the courts and lanes of London, together with the manners and customs of thieves; and the terminology such as "the mill", "the drop", "wipes" and "a fence" helps present a masterly picture of the contemporary underworld.
Although the novel is like a slice of "a streaky bacon," with the layers of workhouse satire and underworld horror put side by side, it contains wonderful scenes that can enjoy a wide appeal, such as the one in which Oliver asks for more, or the one in which he is pursued by the hue and cry. Dickens the journalist is very dominant in Oliver Twist, but in the midst of his journalism we notice a great novelist emerging with imaginative insight into human nature and into the psychological workings of criminals in particular.
Dombey and Son: Mr. Dombey's Fall
In Dombey and Son Dickens shows great progress over his former works. Compared with Martin Chuzzlewit, where variations of self are the manifest peculiarity, Dombey is composed from the point of view of the temporal mode of existence. Indeed, the introduction in this novel of the temporal sequence of events was a clue to its success: the author is particularly conscious of it in this work, in devices such as diverse clocks and watches, the river and the sea, the voice of waves, and the different cycles of time towards the good and the bad. And among these symbolical devices he tries to build a poetic structure by means of which he searches for the value of life in opposition to death or the death of feeling, or that of the eternal in opposition to the temporal. The most central development of the time problem takes place in Mr. Dombey's fall--his dramatic fall from the height of pride to the bottom of humanity, which is treated with care and psychological precision--this fall, or his change, is brought about by three kinds of encounter: with Paul, Florence, and Edith.
Mr. Dombey thinks that money can do anything; but he also is a "shut up" character, and his essential elements are "ice", "the east wind", "the funeral", as well as "pride." He is treated as the embodiment of death, or the death of feeling. And yet the writer prepares, at the same time, a counterbalancing element within this proud man, the unconscious self, which, at first taking the form of "uneasiness" towards his daughter, slowly undermines him, cracks the hard crust of arrogance, and finally disrobes him of the armour of pride.
While Paul is set up as the opposite to Mr. Dombey and his short life supplies his father with opportunities to look into the world of opposite values, Mr. Dombey's inner struggle, and hence his change, is mostly shown, not described with authorial analyses, in connection with his daughter. Florence's "pilgrimage" in the "wilderness" to gain her father's affection draws no attention from him at first. But Mr. Dombey's image of his daughter gradually changes. There are moments in which we see doubts falling upon him, moments when he, secluded in the dead of night, displays a peculiar mental vision or monologue. These are the products of his "shadow," which is slowly beginning its activities. But pride, or the "demon that possessed him," soon quenches such activities; and Mr. Dombey's attitude towards his daughter changes from uneasiness to hatred.
Edith's appearance is important at this point. She is proud and beautiful and yet has a sense of contempt towards money and pride. Awakened by Florence's pathetic love-seeking, she is determined to confront Mr. Dombey. Pride clashing against pride, she confounds him by eloping with Carker, manager of the Dombey firm. Once Mr. Dombey's "persona" is broken, his fall is quick. And when everything--pride, money, respect, children, and the firm--is taken away from him, his change becomes manifest: his nightly pilgrimage upstairs is one of the most dramatic scenes of the novel, showing the humbled Dombey repenting what he has been.
Thus, in this novel, Dickens has described, with keen insight, a character divided by an alarming polarity, and also he shows the change in this character brought about by the basic current of life which at last causes his moral awakening. With strong organic structure, sensitive poetical effects, and above all the powerful symbolical devices, the writer has succeeded in writing a magnificent human moral drama in the setting of Victorian prosperity.
David Copperfield: Love and Stumbling
David Copperfield has been the most favoured of Dickens's novels: David the hero realizes an exemplary life in which he works his way through thrift, patience and efforts to achieve fame and happiness. This novel employs a first-person narration effectively to link the past and the present, and whenever the hero comes across events of moment, he looks back upon the past to find his future direction. It is a valid and admirable way of life, and yet as the hero does not undergo a variety of inner struggles, which by overcoming he achieves spiritual growth and moral integrity, the total impression of the novel remains somewhat different from what we expect from a bildungsroman. Rather, the novel might be termed the hero's progress in search of what love is and means. Compared with Great Expectations, written ten years later, Dickens was not fully prepared for fictionalizing, through analysis and examination, the self-respect or selfishness of a hero. Here in this novel, the hero merely goes through and witnesses varieties of love and marriage, either arranged in parallel with or in contrast to, the main plot to discipline his undisciplined mind and deduce a sort of ideal marriage.
Parallel or contrast seems an appropriate term for understanding the structure of the novel. For example, Dora and Agnes, whom David marries at different times of life, are treated in the novel as those representing two different qualities of love, that are needed for awakening the hero from admiration of physical beauty to one of spiritual beauty; from his impetuous love to his inner need. They complement each other to build an idea of what David is in need of, while each remains insufficient and unsatisfactory.
Unhappy love-relations, born out of the first mistaken impulse, are treated in a variety of situations, with Betty Trotwood, with Amy Strong, and with David at his first marriage. And a darker, more destructive love is studied with supreme care between Rosa Dartle and Steerforth, to present a powerful contrast to the happy, blind love of the hero. The Micawbers' is a puzzling but lovable union that has a great impact upon the young David. All these are arranged in such a way that they will teach David what love and marriage are and should be.
While the innocent David follows suit to his father in choosing a child wife, and finds something lacking in his married life, another strand of the plot is prepared, unraveling Dr. Strong's upright sincerity towards his young wife, which is amply repaid by her unshaken love and confidence. David eventually succeeds in life as an author and as a husband. And yet his success does not fully convince the reader. There is something in his character or in his attitude that interferes with his great achievement. Throughout his life, he does not take responsible actions for whatever has happened that he has had a hand in. He remains an observer of what has happened, never blaming himself or undergoing moral, spiritual or ideological struggles. All he cares about is maintaining his respectability. This somewhat unreliable character of the hero might have come from Dickens's attitude to the new novel: he was simply interested in how to manipulate a novel through a first-person narration, after it had been suggested to him by John Forster. His interest was utterly technical. Not being able to build a social picture in a first-person novel, together with the difficulty of keeping the reader interested in each of the 20 installments, the hero's analysis of self was left behind and the variety of love and marriage experiences were arranged so that the hero's progress could be maintained, either by comparison or by contrast.
The Significance of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield
There are few characters in English novels so comic and yet so attractive as Mr. Micawber. Whenever we meet him, he is wallowing in the slough of debts and difficulties, and yet the next moment, he, with his characteristic elasticity, soars up into the clouds of rhetoric and optimism, forgetting all traces of his sordid life. His metaphorical world becomes very rich and his grandiose words carry special weight and splendour when he laments his bad fortune and the situation he is newly thrown into. In dejection, left at the mercy of ill-fate, he is most powerful.
Mr. Micawber as a literary and theatrical artist is wonderfully discussed by Bernard N. Schilling. In many cases, critics take Mr. Micawber simply as a comic person finding himself in many ridiculous situations, and rarely go into the complexity of his character. Schilling's Micawber is delightful, but if something is missing in his superb rendering of this character, it is the role Mr. Micawber plays in David Copperfield.
Except for his weakness for making debts and writing promissory notes rather too frequently, he is meticulous, ready to help others, unfailing in friendship, and rejoices in the world of words. He is by no means a despicable man. Rather he has many meritorious qualities we sanctify in life. We trust him at heart, and consequently his presence in the novel gives us pleasure and hope in the face of poverty and misery. Mr. Micawber engages himself in a variety of professions, but succeeds in none of them, nor does he give us a sense of what he actually does for a living. This means that he is a lone individual entity. Life is a struggle, and he is the quintessential representative of it, and, I should say, the epitome of all mankind. He makes use of adversity, and in utter dejection, turns out to be a great poet of life. We take him as a champion of mankind, struggling for some affirmation of life in the midst of dire poverty and ill-fate.
To see Mr. Micawber this way is relevant, when we put him side by side with David. To me, the whole structure of the novel seems a wonderful mixture of parallel stories, antitheses, and contrasts. To focus on the progress of David alone, for example, is to cut off all other strands that are placed in parallel or in contrast to him.
David's way of life is somewhat Apollonian, walking along a straight way to success and happiness. His sufferings at Murdstone and Grinby's are still on a surface level, compared with the Micawbers' struggles with the harsh realities of life. By living with them, David gradually regains his sense of self-respect. Micawber's struggle is far deeper than that of David's. His is the endless struggle of failure, and yet in his disinterested services to others or in giving his all to what ought to be, he fights it out, even if it turns out to be a failure. In him we see a Dionysian way of life, in quest of the collective good. And when such Biblical words as "the cup is bitter to the brim," or "dust and ashes are forever on the head . . ." come to his lips, his rhetoric adds a special dignity. His struggle is not only an individual one, but a fundamental struggle everyone on earth is forced to meet in life. This is why the Micawber chapters are so entertaining, and at the same time so full of vitality, hope and encouragement.
Bleak House: Buried Past
Bleak House is unprecedented in that it employs two different narratives, omniscient narrative told in the present tense and Esther's first-person narrative in the past tense, which, through their interdependence, bring the novel to a wonderful harmony, not a dichotomy. With the former unfolding dramatic scenes while the latter accepting the role of narration that supplements what it has left untouched, this rich, complicated novel displays Dickens' artistry and social criticism on a greater scale than any of his previous work.
Apart from the documentary symbolism of the Chancery World where his criticism goes deepest, the central drama of Bleak House takes place between Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock. Tulkinghorn, by a careful reading of the text, proves "the triumph of the complexity of Dickens' mature art" (Eugene F. Quirk). His psychological richness is well worked out through the reticence and repression on the part of the author; and we notice three motives for the lawyer's pursuit of Lady Dedlock: passion for learning secrets, dislike and suspicion of women, and resentment of the overbearing pride of the fashionable world.
Lady Dedlock, on the other hand, is a shining star of the fashionable world, which is, however, a "deadened world" for her: she, having concealed her secret marriage, is married to Sir Dedlock and is at the top of the social ladder. At her first appearance in the novel, we come across several phrases that will in later scenes bear great significance. She in her childless status, is "bored to death" at a child running out into the rain to meet its father. Behind her "exhausted composure" is hidden some grave fact of her past. "Want of air" is also characteristic of her household, and her "movements" will later become very "uncertain." When the lawyer's pursuit focuses upon her, she goes out to the slum (XVI), meets Esther (XXXVI) and comes back to London "as a bird of passage," and she is rumoured to take a walk at night.
From the very beginning of their meeting, the lawyer and the Lady are in the centre of the scene, drawing the reader's attention. And her swooning at a law paper makes him to work his way towards exposing her. As the shadow on the Lady's portrait prefigures, the lawyer gradually begins throwing a shadow upon her and her life--people in London are thus obliged to live in darkness, fog, and mire, by the merciless behaviour of lawyers. When her past is unveiled by him and she is little more than a doll played within his fingers, she discards all her pretence, defies him in vain, and flies--flies from deception to natural feelings, to her spiritual awakening that occurs even as she dies.
While the intense drama is played in the omniscient narrative, there is, in Esther's narrative, a marked sign of the omniscient running into it in Chapter 35, where she is obliged to be in bed, fighting against illness. She dreams of herself crossing "the dark lake," climbing "a colossal staircase," and praying to be taken away from "a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind." The last imagery is rather too peculiar unless we understand that it is composed of various descriptions, by the omniscient narrator, of the Dedlock family and the upper class, such as: "like a row of jewels set in a black frame" (XII, 159); Lady Dedlock's "sparkling rings" (XVI, 225); "the brilliant and distinguished meteors" (XX, 285); "Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty" (XXXII, 488); and "the Dedlock chain of gold" (XXVIII, 389). Her unconscious self is struggling to get away from the Dedlock world--the world of hypocrisy, irresponsibility and moral deterioration.
After the merging of the two narratives at this point, Esther's role in the novel marks a change--she becomes a healer of the victims of the Chancery World. She sees her mother at her feet when she asks forgiveness, or she nurses Richard at his deathbed so that he promises to begin the world anew, with a light in his eyes and a smile radiating from his face. Thus, Esther's narrative is assigned to throw a light of salvation into the grotesque Chancery World. Through her and with her help, the victims of the Chancery World could return to their natural feelings long forgotten.
The interdependence of the two narratives is superbly manipulated: the dark reality of the Chancery World rendered so gravely, is counterbalanced by the saving grace of the heroine, who, in a hostile society, does her best, extending love and help to the victims.
The Inner Drama of the Characters in Little Dorrit
Many topical allusions in Little Dorrit, whose satirical intent was keenly understood and reacted to by the contemporary readers, have lost their poignancy after the lapse of a century. They are considered, today, as outward and visible signs of what the novel is basically concerned with: the internal futility of man and society. Dickens, retaining much of his despair about society, scrutinizes the possibilities and potentialities of human beings, and by using apparently religious references throughout the novel, he creates life-in-death out of death-in-life. The basic design of the novel is strongly religious, and with this frame in mind Dickens inquires into the almost unbridgeable gap between truth and falsehood, between humanity and human institutions.
Nearly all characters in the novel are prison-tainted, emotionally or spiritually. They stick to their own beliefs and assumptions about life at the expense of humanity and the inner life. And in order to put off the prison taints, all human beings go on a pilgrimage in search of eternity. As the author remarks, they are "restless travellers," climbing up dusty hills and toiling over weary plains, "through the pilgrimage of life."
Therefore many characters in Little Dorrit travel in one way or another, and among these travellers, Arthur Clennam and William Dorrit become of central importance to the novel, as they present a wonderful inner drama during their pilgrimage in search of their true self. In this chapter I shall study Dickens's sense of drama, by concentrating on these two characters.
The story of Arthur Clennam is essentially concerned with his recovery from various illusions as well as with his emotional void. He is an unusual hero, being forty and unglamorous, and having no "will, purpose, hope." His homecoming in Chapter 3 painfully tells the emotional vacuity in which he was brought up. His crippled psyche and emotional void is clearly illustrated in his attitude towards Flora Finching and Pet Meagles. A dolorous misunderstanding of reality and a painful consciousness of himself as a nobody are the ordeals he has to go through, and his psychological fulfillment is finally attained through the tender care and love supplied by Little Dorrit, a small, innocent figure who ministers to the afflicted as a spirit of Love and Truth. She is the final, humble purpose of the traveller in life, and yet this embodiment of Christian virtues has also been in pursuit of Arthur's love from a hopeless distance.
William Dorrit is of special interest in the sense that imprisonment induces him to build a world of deception in which he lives complacently, though his deception constantly comes into collision with his reality. As he is finally released from deception by death, we suspect, tragically, that he was another pilgrim in search of love and freedom.
William Dorrit is a "helpless, shy, retiring man with irresolute hands" when he comes into the Marshalsea prison, but he soon gets the title of the "Father of the Marshalsea" and puts on a mask of fraudulence, behaving "courtly" and "royal." A profound analysis of this man in epitomizing "better in than out" is wonderfully unfolded, when he leaves the prison as a nouveau riche in Book II. From this time on, he suffers constant friction with his inner self--partly represented by his brother Frederick--with the result that he frequently gets somnolent or falls ill. Again, through the tender care and concern of Little Dorrit, he finally escapes from self-deception and recovers his true self, but only in death.
The novel is a wonderful rendering of Dickens's view of society. It is concerned with various forms of prison in society, and with emotional and spiritual prison as well. Starting with the familiar issues of the time, Dickens has created a profound work of art in which he communicates his vision of human nature, the human situation, and human needs.
Our Mutual Friend: Death and Resurrection
Our Mutual Friend is a panorama of Victorian society, with the power of print, sensational murder, ugly "dust mounds," the dirty Thames and the upsurge of the common people. Even a dustman on the bottom layer of society plays the role of a central figure in the novel. And particularly for the last mentioned, we have to stop and think how the idea came into Dickens's workshop. Interestingly, we find a ballad on which Dickens seems to have relied: it is entitled "The Literary Dustman," published in 1834. As the novel develops, however, the literary dustman becomes a miser, and here the reader encounters the familiar theme of a miser's (adopted) daughter loved by a penniless young man, who in the end turns out to be the legitimate heir to the inheritance.
Ainsworth's The Miser's Daughter (1842) might have slipped into Dickens's mind. But a penniless young man in Our Mutual Friend offers himself as secretary, to Mr. Boffin's total incomprehension. In Molière's L'Avare (1668), a steward proposes marriage to a miser's daughter, and in James Sheridan Knowles's The Secretary (1843) and The Hunchback (1832), it is a secretary who plays the central role.
The Hunchback, among others, has much in common with Our Mutual Friend: both heroines oscillate between wounded pride and their true selves; in the former a hunchback tells a princess's story to bring his daughter back from her flippant urban life to her former self, while in the latter, a dustman plays a miser to bring his adopted daughter back to her true self; in both, the heroine regrets her disrespectful behaviour to the secretary and wishes to kneel before him. It is clear, accordingly, where the Rokesmith-Bella story of Our Mutual Friend comes from. Dickens has relied on a familiar plot from contemporary sources for laying the groundwork of the novel.
What did Dickens aim at, then, in this novel where the central plot is already familiar to the reader? His greatness lies in developing a great theme of life and death out of a very sensational beginning. John Harmon, Jr. reported dead, appears as John Rokesmith and works at Mr. Boffin's: he is a living-dead man. This "living-deadness" is the component attributed to almost all the characters in the novel. Our Mutual Friend is Dickens's deep analysis of living-deadness of man and society in the contemporary world. And fittingly, there are two symbols in the novel; the dust mounds and the river, both of which are very dirty, but which also have potentialities of restoring people to life (see Horne's "Dust" in Household Words, where it is mentioned that a drowned man could be restored to life when buried up to neck under a dust mound). The Thames is not used in a simple way of immersion-to-resurrection. It is compared to man's inside with its purity and its dead-body quality at the bottom. And therefore, Headstone's fiery depths are dramatically probed; Riderhood's unconscious depth is brought to light in the resurrection scene, proving nothing other than wickedness; and out of the depth of Eugene, who in his intolerable ennui has been "buried alive," a gleam of sure love finally comes up to the surface, when he is saved from drowning and tended by Lizzie.
The novel is constructed within a moral framework which the four book-titles illustrate, the emphasis being placed on whether all characters, after going through "the furnace of proof," come out "pure gold." Many strands of the novel--the Rokesmith-Bella story, the analysis of the ennui, the psychological probing into the heart of a respected gentleman, and Eugene's heroic break from a conventional marriage--all these, which might have developed as independent fiction, are integrated into the theme of living-deadness, and, with dust mounds and the river as symbolic devices, into the vivid illustration of life and death of the Victorian, if not our own, world.
I should like to express my great indebtedness to Professor Philip Collins for his valuable help and advice while I studied Dickens with him at Leicester in 1977-79. Without his advice, I might not have appreciated the depth and width of Dickens's achievements. I am also grateful to Mr. Robert Cross, my former colleague, and Professor Graham Parry, University of York, for their patient reading of the resume of this book.