Saturday, 6 August 2011

The house of Dombey and Son

I am currently about 240 pages (of 900+) into Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son. This is my third Dickens novel and fifth novel total of my Victorian Literature project. I would like to reiterate that this might be the best idea I've ever had. (Well, second best; there was the pie-luck, after all.)

So, Dombey and Son. Dickens revisits many of the same themes in his novels: the rough ways in which children are educated, their parents' often entirely selfish desires for them, their vulnerability. Nonetheless, Dickens treats them differently enough each time that I'm always surprised. And so far, Dombey and Son is the most surprising (you guessed it—plot spoilers follow).

The novel begins in Dickens's particularly charming way, with Dombey the father sitting with Dombey the new son:
Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new. (p. 1)
This sweet and gently funny domesticity is not allowed to set the tone for the novel, however; indeed, it seems to be there only to throw into painful relief what follows—primarily, the elder Dombey's immediate commencement of a lifelong project of imposing his desires onto his boy:
'The House will once again, Mrs Dombey,' said Mr Dombey, 'be not only in name but in fact Dombey and Son;' and he added, in a tone of luxurious satisfaction, with his eyes half-closed as if he were reading the name in a device of flowers, and inhaling their fragrance at the same time; 'Dom-bey and Son!'

The words had such a softening influence, that he appended a term of endearment to Mrs Dombey's name (though not without some hesitation, as being a man but little used to that form of address): and said, 'Mrs Dombey, my—my dear.'

A transient flush of faint surprise overspread the sick lady's face as she raised her eyes towards him.
'He will be christened Paul, my—Mrs Dombey—of course.'

She feebly echoed, 'Of course,' or rather expressed it by the motion of her lips, and closed her eyes again.

'His father's name, Mrs Dombey, and his grandfather's! I wish his grandfather were alive this day! There is some inconvenience in the necessity of writing Junior,' said Mr Dombey, making a fictitious autograph on his knee; 'but it is merely of a private and personal complexion. It doesn't enter into the correspondence of the House. Its signature remains the same.' And again he said 'Dombey and Son, in exactly the same tone as before.

Those three words conveyed the one idea of Mr Dombey's life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them. A. D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei—and Son. (pp. 1-2)
Love, tenderness, care—such ideals have nothing to do with Dombey family unity. As his wife lies dying in the same room with him, the elder Dombey can think only of how having a son will finally allow him to realize certain long-cherished monetary and social ambitions. His love for his son is entirely tied up in what the child will be and what that becoming will do for the reputation and prosperity of the family. Gender and what it stands for here is everything; young Paul's potential for personality, desire, or actions unrelated to this aren't part of the equation.

Dombey is as proud as any new father with misdirected and confused priorities might be, except that he's not a new father. No, he already has a daughter named Florence but, well, she's a girl: 
They had been married ten years, and until this present day on which Mr Dombey sat jingling and jingling his heavy gold watch-chain in the great arm-chair by the side of the bed, had had no issue.—To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before, and the child, who had stolen into the chamber unobserved, was now crouching timidly, in a corner whence she could see her mother's face. But what was a girl to Dombey and Son! In the capital of the House's name and dignity, such a child was merely a piece of base coin that couldn't be invested—a bad Boy—nothing more.

Mr Dombey's cup of satisfaction was so full at this moment, however, that he felt he could afford a drop or two of its contents, even to sprinkle on the dust in the by-path of his little daughter.

So he said, 'Florence, you may go and look at your pretty brother, if you like, I daresay. Don't touch him!' (p. 3)
Dombey is in the grips of a lifelong fantasy. At this point, all the birth of a son has done is confirm the worth and primacy of that fantasy; indeed, it has confirmed Dombey's very identity. The birth of Paul is central to the plan that has defined every aspect of his life. That this fantasy conforms to many of society's approved values of a man's worth in life doesn't, however, change the fact that it is an obssession—it keeps him from seeing clearly that when humans are involved, there are sometimes variables that cannot easily be overcome.

Children, it turns out, can have plans of their own; and sometimes God (or nature; in any case, something larger and stronger than mere individuals) has plans for them that blindly disregard all of one's best laid plans. But Dombey certainly tries to control the course of young Paul's life, beginning by reminding the wet nurse brought in to care for Paul once his fragile mother dies, that as essential as such a relationship might be, it's still only transactional:
'You have children of your own,' said Mr Dombey. 'It is not at all in this bargain that you need become attached to my child, or that my child need become attached to you. I don't expect or desire anything of the kind. Quite the reverse. When you go away from here, you will have concluded what is a mere matter of bargain and sale, hiring and letting: and will stay away. The child will cease to remember you; and you will cease, if you please, to remember the child.'

Mrs Toodle, with a little more colour in her cheeks than she had had before, said 'she hoped she knew her place.' (p. 18)
In spite of his confident assertion of power here, things don't work out quite as planned. First, of course, Mrs. Toodle (who Dombey et al insist upon referring to as Mrs. Richards) becomes attached to the infant Paul, who quite naturally reciprocates and thrives under her care. Second, the very existence of young Florence, as much as Dombey tries to ignore her and not figure her into his calculations for his son at all, quietly but insistently intimates to him that there are limits to both his power and his understanding:
The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been that in the sad embrace between her and her dying mother, which was at once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be absorbed as he would in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other's arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down a mere spectator—not a sharer with them--quite shut out.

Unable to exclude these things from his remembrance, or to keep his mind free from such imperfect shapes of the meaning with which they were fraught, as were able to make themselves visible to him through the mist of his pride, his previous feeling of indifference towards little Florence changed into an uneasiness of an extraordinary kind. Young as she was, and possessing in any eyes but his (and perhaps in his too) even more than the usual amount of childish simplicity and confidence, he almost felt as if she watched and distrusted him. As if she held the clue to something secret in his breast, of the nature of which he was hardly informed himself. As if she had an innate knowledge of one jarring and discordant string within him, and her very breath could sound it. (p. 31)
More than Florence, however, young Paul himself defies the elder Dombey's expectations by becoming a gentle, sensitive, kind, and very thoughtful boy. He is naturally generous and good to others and loves none so much as the piece of base coin that is his adoring elder sister. He is naturally generous in spite of his father's influence, and insists upon his father (who humours him because he is, after all, Son, of the house of Dombey and Son) helping young Walter Gay and his grandfather to get out from beneath some ruinous debt:
'If you had money now,' said Mr Dombey; 'as much money as young Gay has talked about; what would you do?'

'Give it to his old Uncle,' returned Paul.

'Lend it to his old Uncle, eh?' retorted Mr Dombey. 'Well! When you are old enough, you know, you will share my money, and we shall use it together.'

'Dombey and Son,' interrupted Paul, who had been tutored early in the phrase.

'Dombey and Son,' repeated his father. 'Would you like to begin to be Dombey and Son, now, and lend this money to young Gay's Uncle?'

'Oh! if you please, Papa!' said Paul: 'and so would Florence.'

'Girls,' said Mr Dombey, 'have nothing to do with Dombey and Son. Would you like it?'

'Yes, Papa, yes!'

'Then you shall do it,' returned his father. 'And you see, Paul,' he added, dropping his voice, 'how powerful money is, and how anxious people are to get it. Young Gay comes all this way to beg for money, and you, who are so grand and great, having got it, are going to let him have it, as a great favour and obligation.' (p. 141-42).
Paul is firmly entrenched in the concerns of the human, rather than the pecuniary, world. He cares about others and wants them to care for him. Dombey Sr. deals in coin; Dombey the younger recognizes no meaningful currency except community:
[H]e felt a gradually increasing impulse of affection, towards almost everything and everybody in the place. He could not bear to think that they would be quite indifferent to him when he was gone. He wanted them to remember him kindly; and he had made it his business even to conciliate a great hoarse shaggy dog, chained up at the back of the house, who had previously been the terror of his life: that even he might miss him when he was no longer there.

Little thinking that in this, he only showed again the difference between himself and his compeers, poor tiny Paul set it forth to Miss Blimber as well as he could, and begged her, in despite of the official analysis, to have the goodness to try and like him. To Mrs Blimber, who had joined them, he preferred the same petition: and when that lady could not forbear, even in his presence, from giving utterance to her often-repeated opinion, that he was an odd child, Paul told her that he was sure she was quite right; that he thought it must be his bones, but he didn't know; and that he hoped she would overlook it, for he was fond of them all.

'Not so fond,' said Paul, with a mixture of timidity and perfect frankness, which was one of the most peculiar and most engaging qualities of the child, 'not so fond as I am of Florence, of course; that could never be. You couldn't expect that, could you, Ma'am?'

'Oh! the old-fashioned little soul!' cried Mrs Blimber, in a whisper.

'But I like everybody here very much,' pursued Paul, 'and I should grieve to go away, and think that anyone was glad that I was gone, or didn't care.' (pp. 197-98)
But it's precisely because he's swiftly leaving the world, and knows it at some level, that he can't help but pay such close attention to those around him. Yes, poor little Paul, initially a physical specimen to be reckoned with (under Mrs. Richards's care), pretty early begins to show that he is simply too good to live long. His connection to people is transcended only by his connection to the distant shore towards which we're all inexorably travelling:
Sister and brother wound their arms around each other, and the golden light came streaming in, and fell upon them, locked together.

'How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, 'Floy! But it's very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!'

Presently he told her the motion of the boat upon the stream was lulling him to rest. How green the banks were now, how bright the flowers growing on them, and how tall the rushes! Now the boat was out at sea, but gliding smoothly on. And now there was a shore before him. Who stood on the bank—!

He put his hands together, as he had been used to do at his prayers. He did not remove his arms to do it; but they saw him fold them so, behind her neck.

'Mama is like you, Floy. I know her by the face! But tell them that the print [of Jesus] upon the stairs at school is not divine enough. The light about the head is shining on me as I go!' (pp. 240-41)
And so, on page 241 (of 925) of a novel called Dombey and Son, Son passes away. And Dombey Sr., who may be the subject of this story but who is certainly not its hero, is left with nothing of the dream which has defined his life. It's probably fair to guess that the rest of the tale will be concerned with Dombey's reckoning with his life's work and meaning in the face of such a gaping hole in his plans; but how Dickens will construct that struggle is beyond me, for young Paul's death was not at all what I was expecting. But I should have been less surprised, at least, given how frequently childhood mortality figures in Dickens's fiction—and how frequently such early and excruciatingly unfair deaths (I'm thinking particularly of Little Nell as a counterpart to young Paul here) are tied to their parents' absurd and selfish desires and actions.

Dombey Sr. couldn't, in most ways, be more dissimilar to Nell's grandfather—but in terms of executing their burden of care with regards to their dependents, they are fatally similar in exhibiting a shocking inability to notice that their children aren't thriving, until it's far, far too late. Dombey, of course, has an opportunity to make some restitution both to the institution of fatherhood and to an individual in particular, but whether or not he'll do so seems to me highly unlikely. But then, Dickens does continually surprise...


Tony said...

Very impressed that you have a list of about 50 lined up - I just tend to pick up whatever catches my eye! Your list does give me a few ideas for future reading though :)

I must get around to those Dickens novels I haven't read - that means this one, 'Little Dorrit', 'Nicholas Nickleby', 'Barnaby Rudge' - instead of just going back to the ones I have read...

jelis said...

I have greatly enjoyed your posts! I have just finished the marathon that is Dombey, and I very much hope you will return to post your comments on having finished it.