Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Paul Dombey is a wealthy, proud and cold man, with only one desire – to have a son to bear his name and to carry on the business he has built. His downtrodden wife has already given him a daughter, Florence, but what use is a daughter? What good is she in business? However, finally the son arrives – young Paul, who within a few hours will be motherless as Mrs Dombey dies, almost unremarked by anyone except the broken-hearted Florence. This is the tale of young Paul’s life…

Well, at least so the title would suggest. And for the first third of the book we do indeed follow Paul, as he grows into a weakly child and is sent off to school in Brighton where it is hoped the sea air will restore his health. *spoiler alert* Alas! ‘Tis not to be. Our little hero dies and we are left with a huge gaping hole, possibly in our hearts (I certainly sobbed buckets!), and most definitely in the book!

Dickens quickly regroups and from then on Florence is our central character and she does her best, poor little lamb. But Dickens’ heroines are only allowed a little latitude for heroism. They must be sweet, pure, loving and put-upon, and they must rely on male friends and acquaintances, mostly, for help in their many woes. So Dickens promptly introduces a new hero – young Walter Gay, nephew of Solomon Gills who owns a shop dealing in ship’s instruments. Walter promptly falls in love with Florence (they are both still children at this stage) and sets out to be her chief support and defender. For alas, although she is now Dombey’s only child, this merely makes him resent her even more. So we, the readers, mop up our tears over Paul and get ready to take Walter to our hearts instead. And what does Dickens do then? Promptly sends Walter to Barbados on a sailing ship so that he disappears for years, and for most of the rest of the book! I love Dickens, but I must admit he annoys me sometimes!

Book 5 of 80

You’ll have gathered that I don’t think this is the best plotted of Dickens’ books. I had some other quibbles too – unlikely friendships, inconceivable romantic attachments, less humour than usual, especially in the first section. However, as always, there’s lots to love too. Florence, despite the restrictions placed on her, shows herself to be strong, resilient and intelligent. She is pathetic in her longing for her revolting father’s love, but that’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to be pathetic about. I’ll try to avoid more spoilers, but she does take control of her own future to a greater degree than most of Dickens’ heroines, and Dickens gives her a lovely dog, Diogenes, which allows her to have some love and cheerfulness in her lonely life.

In fact, there are a lot of rather good women in this one – good as characters, I mean, rather than morally good. I think they’re more interesting than the men for once. There’s Polly Toodles, young Paul’s wet nurse who is loved by both the children and has plenty of room in her generous heart for a couple of extra children despite her own large brood. Through her and her husband, we see the building of the railways in progress and Dickens is always excellent on the subject of industrialisation and the changes it brings to places and ways of life.

Then there’s Mrs Louisa Chick, Dombey’s sister, and her friend, Miss Lucretia Tox who is a beautifully tragic picture of faded gentility – a romantic heart with no one who wants the love she would so like to give. Although she’s a secondary character, I found her story quietly heart-breaking. Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, is a bit of a comedy character, but again she is strong and resourceful, and loyal to her mistress, as indeed Florence is loyal to her. They provide an interesting picture of two women from very different classes and levels of education who nevertheless find themselves in solidarity against an unfair world. Mrs Pipchin, Paul’s landlady in Brighton, is not cruel to the children exactly, but she is cold and grasping – it’s all about the money with her.

A major character later in the book is Edith Granger, whom Dombey condescendingly decides to marry. She reminded me very much of Estella in Great Expectations, in that she had been brought up to fulfil a purpose not of her own choosing; in her case, to marry a rich man. Mostly her inward struggle is portrayed very well. However, some of her actions seemed not just illogical but frankly unbelievable, so that I found my sympathy for her waning over the course of the book. And possibly the strongest female character is Alice, whom, since she appears only quite late on and is central to the book’s climax, I can’t say much about at all without spoilers, except that she is righteously full of rage and out for revenge, and Dickens does vengeful women brilliantly!

Oh, there are some men in it too, but I’ve run out of space! Maybe I’ll talk about them the next time I read the book… 😉

Charles Dickens

Overall, I didn’t think this one worked as well as his very best in terms of plotting and structure, and I felt the absence of a hero for most of the book left it feeling a bit unfocused. But as always I loved the writing, and the huge cast of characters provide us with everything from comedy to cold-hearted cruelty, with a healthy dash of sentimental romance along the way. The oppressed position of women is a central theme – from Florence’s dismissal from her father’s love for the sin of being born female, through Edith being as good as sold into marriage, to Alice’s story and the reasons for her fury against one man in particular but also against the society that looks the other way or blames the woman when women are mistreated by men. I’d almost suggest Dickens was being a bit of a feminist here! Not one of my top favourites, but a very good one nevertheless, and as always, highly recommended!

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48 thoughts on “Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

  1. You’ve got a good point about Dickens, FictionFan; his female characters do tend to be of a type. And it’s interesting that he would move from one to another male ‘lead’ in this one. I can see how that might not work as well (and that’s not to mention all the tissues that have to used to mop up the tears!). It may not be tops on your list of Dickens’ work, but his writing is so good, and he does create some interesting characters. And besides, even Dickens isn’t going to tick all the boxes all the time. Still, I’m glad you found a lot to like in this one.

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    • He does have an occasional good heroine, but most of them really do tend to be drips! The fact that he killed the hero off so early on in this one was really odd. I’d like to know what his intention was, whether he thought that he would make Florence the central character or whether he intended all along to bring in another hero. I could have lived with that but then getting rid of that character too for most of the rest of the book felt as if he was setting out to deliberately annoy me! 😉

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  2. Yes, Dombey is far from Dickens’ most tightly plotted novel, and seems to lack a central character as such, but I’m glad you still enjoyed it over all, and it is probably the closest Dickens ever came to writing a feminist novel. I must admit I prefered Alice to Edith, as the latter became a bit much for me in the end. As for Florence, I do actually have a bit of a soft spot for her among Dickens’ heroines dispite all the crying, as I think there was more going on under the surface than there might have seemed at a first glance. She certainly had the most detailed inner world with the possible exception of Esther Summerson, and her desperation for familial love and slightly morbid obsession with death and diing were extremely unhealthy, but not psychologically impossible. It is also worth noting that she chose to marry a man she knew her father disliked, so on an unconscious level, might have felt the need to perform an act of defiance before being able to return to him. She is certainly an improvement to Dora Copperfield or Little Dorrit.

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    • Almost anyone would be an improvement over Drippy Dora or Little Dorrit! 😉 But yes, I do think Florence has more substance to her then most of his heroines. The very fact that she chose to leave a situation that she found intolerable was pretty amazing, in Dickens’ terms, even if she then merely ran to other men and expected them to look after her instead. I also preferred Alice to Edith. I never find myself with much sympathy for the kind of wronged woman who gets her revenge by destroying her own life or the lives of other women, like Miss Havisham. I prefer the ones who set out to take down the men who wronged them, or all men! 😂 Not my favourite, but there’s always so much in any Dickens novel and his characterization is such fun that even the less great ones are still great!

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  3. Not my absolute favourite either but I like that Florence has more to her than some of his other heroines. And being as I am (though it has been years since i last read this) i do of course remember Diogenes🙂

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    • I always think he does dogs really well! There’s a lovely dog in one of the Christmas stories – can’t remember which one at the moment. But I think you can always tell by the way he writes about them that he must have been a dog person himself! Which of course only makes me love him more. 😀

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        • I had a look – it’s Boxer from The Cricket on the Hearth…

          “He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, ‘Halloa! here’s Boxer!'”

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  4. I had started this book (I recall feeling sorry for Florence and ticked off at her father), and then it disappeared under an avalanche of other books that I needed to read for research, so it sounds like I may need to pick it up again. Perhaps this summer…..

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    • That’s the problem with these classics, they take so much time and require so much mental commitment. I hardly read any classics at all while I was working because I just didn’t have the brain energy. But if you do get a chance to return to this one I think you’ll enjoy it. For a Dickens heroine, Florence has a bit more substance than most of them!

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  5. Well, I’ve missed reading this one, but after your review, perhaps I need to remedy that. It sounds most interesting, and, as you said, Dickens does offer delightful characterization … even if we’d like to strangle some of them, ha!

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    • It’s odd, I love all his characters except usually for his heroes and heroines. I don’t know why he always felt that he had to make them such drips! There are a few of them they are quite good like Nicholas and Kate Nickleby but most of the women especially make me want to slap them! Metaphorically speaking, of course! 😉

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  6. I’ve not read this one (I’ve read so few!) and will admit I was surprised to see only four smiles! I would have thought even the weakest Dickens would still garner a five-smile rating! 😉

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    • Ah, there are a few authors that I don’t rate in the same way as I rate all the rest – Dickens, Christie, Reginald Hill, PG Wodehouse, Austen. Because I love all of their books, I go on the basis of rating them against themselves, if you see what I mean, rather than against other people. So a four star Dickens is definitely better than a five star for almost anyone else, but it’s just not quite as good as a five star Dickens! 😉

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  7. The daughter who still wants her father’s love and cares for him even though he’s absolutely awful reminds me of Madeline Bray in Nicholas Nickleby. I found it hard to sympathize with her but there are obviously a lot of differences in the culture and society of the time. While things have come a long way between fathers and daughters, I’ve been surprised by how pervasive some of these attitudes still are. People still act like my husband is hard done because he only has daughters.

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    • That’s so true, and yet it’s also very odd. While there undoubtedly always were men who wanted a son to continue the family name, take over a business, etc, there have also been loads of great relationships between fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons. And yet even when I was a kid, and was always Daddy’s little helper, people quite often used to say to me “oh, you’re just good as a son!”, as if that was a compliment. And the worst thing was, we were all so conditioned I actually felt that it was a compliment! What I like about Florence is that although she is pathetic about her father’s love, she does eventually recognise the she has to accept the situation and move on – very unDickensian, I feel! Makes her seem a little stronger than a lot of his drippy women.

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      • You know, looking back, I don’t ever recall that sort of interaction when it came to me and my dad. Maybe because my dad was never in to the traditionally masculine type activities? I feel like that’s why it came as such a surprise to me when after Pearl was born and people were telling me my husband must be hoping for a boy.
        Florence does sound quite different from Madeline, who I felt would have stayed with her awful father no matter what if he hadn’t dropped dead!

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        • That’s the thing. The difference between masculine and feminine activities is much less now than it used to be. In my day it was still expected that boys would play sports, whereas girls really were expected to stop sports at roundabout their teen years and become domestic goddesses! And physical jobs were the preserve of men, whereas the most that ordinary women could aspire to would be a job in an office. Obviously this is a huge generalisation – there were plenty of women who were moving into the professions by that time but the old stereotypes we’re still in force. It’s a bit sad that, after all the intervening years and all the changes that we have made to society, people are still saying that men need a son to share their interests!

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          • That’s very true. My favourite response to people who say my husband must want a son is to ask them what activities in particular they think he can’t do with our daughters. All of the things my husband likes to do he can or will be able to do with our daughters.

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            • I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was obviously very lucky that my dad always felt that his girls should have the same opportunities as his son. I took it for granted but I’ve realised over the years that for a man of his generation (born 1919) that was quite exceptionally forward looking. He took that attitude towards both education and leisure time – he was just as enthusiastic to teach me sports or to change a plug as my brother and was equally keen for us both to go to university. Maybe that’s why I find the whole idea of people still thinking after all these years that sons are in some way better for fathers so odd!

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            • That would be quite forward thinking for a man of his time. How lucky you were to have a dad like that! I hope that more and more girls are being raised by fathers who see all that possibility in them.

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    • His heroines really do leave something to be desired, don’t they? I just love his style of writing so even when the story is weaker, I still get so much pleasure from reading him that really all his books are great from my perspective. He does still annoy me from time to time though! 😉

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  8. I do want to read more Dickens but I don’t think I’ll move this to the top of the list, from what you’ve said. The female characters do sound a bit different to his others though, which is good to hear!

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    • I did enjoy reading this, but then as you know Dickens can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned! But I felt that while losing one hero could be regarded as a misfortune, having two disappear could only be considered carelessness… 😉

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  9. Hmm. I never read this one, though I’ve read his other novels.I’m not sure why I skipped this one. Based on your description of the heroine, I can’t help thinking of Little Nell. 😑

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    • The general problem with his heroines is that they are all so pathetic, they’re practically interchangeable! But yes, I think Florence and Little Nell both have a little more strength of character and substance to them than some of the complete drips!

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  10. I did enjoy Dombey and Son. I loved the diversity of characters, the nasty baddies, the idiosyncratic and generous souls who remained humane, the comic amongst the terrible. For me it was a rich and rewarding story.

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    • I enjoyed it very much too and my criticisms of it are only in comparison to Dickens’ best books. In reality for me every one of his novels is a five star novel when compared to novels by anyone else, but I have to find some way to differentiate between the great ones and the great, great ones! I do think he does the women much better in Dombey and Son than in a lot of his novels, though his seceondary women are often much better than his heroines. And even though Florence does her fair share of weeping and relying on other people to solve her problems for her, I think she’s a much stronger person than most of his heroines, with the possible exception of Kate Nickleby who’s my personal favourite. Haven’t decided yet which Dickens will be the one to read this Christmas!

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  11. I’m not sure why, but this book seems incredibly sad. And maybe i just haven’t read enough Dickens to realize that all his books are sort of sad? And that a lot of ppl died back then, and that was just the way it was? Still sounds heartbreaking…

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    • It’s funny you should say that. While I was reading this one, I was thinking to myself about the number of child deaths there are in Dickens novels. And he always writes them in similar ways – as sad but rather beautiful events, where the child exchanges their angelic human nature to become a true angel. I suspect that most families would have suffered at least one child death and often several, and that the way he writes them may have been a comfort. For modern readers, it feels very different, a bit sentimental and almost emotionally manipulative. But that’s because we are in the happy position where a child death is a rare event and therefore seen as much more tragic than a normal part of life.

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  12. I read this multiple times (because it was on the syllabus of a literature course) and grew to love it. Florence was too much of a watery character but the way she was treated by her father was appalling.

    One of the really interesting aspects of this book was how Dickens treats the coming of the railways – they are shown as destructive beasts, tearing up communities and even people.

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    • Yes, he always seems to take a dark view of the new railways, which always makes it seem a bit spooky that he ended up being involved in a train crash from which he never seemed to fully recover. But he clearly had his doubts about industrialisation as a whole, and it’s hard not to see him as prescient on the subject now.

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      • He has an ambivalent attitude to the railways. He sees them as exciting and symbols of progress initially but then changes his mind to look more at the destruction.

        He did have a concern about the impact of industrialisation on humanity though George Orwell was pretty scathing about him on this front. More or less saying that all he did was talk about the issues, not try and do anything to solve them or counter the effects

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        • That wasn’t his job, though. Not all authors are campaigners, and frankly, what did Orwell achieve? Sounds to me like Orwell might be a bit jealous of Dickens’ book sales… 😉

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