Friday, December 28, 2018

The Daughters in Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Paul Dombey is wealthy, proud, and heartless. Well, not entirely heartless. He shows signs, even at the start, of being able to feel a bit of unease now and then at how he treats his daughter, Florence. Because she isn't a son who will one day go into business with him, he maintains a distant coldness towards her and suppresses the occasional twinge telling him that he's not as a father should be. At various points, he also feels hatred, jealousy, or outrage because of the love and loyalty she receives from people who should be giving their attention primarily to him.

Dysfunctional parenting is a major part of Dombey and Son, which I read for the Classics Club Challenge. Dickens makes a connection between cruelty and neglect in private homes and cruelty and neglect in public life. Mr. Dombey measures Florence's worth by what she can bring to his business; she doesn't seem worth much in monetary terms. Similarly, there's a scene where Florence, as a child, is kidnapped for a short while by an old woman who steals the nice clothes off her and gives her some rags to wear before setting her free. As she tries to make her way home, Florence is soundly ignored or sneered at because of these rags; in public, her worth is measured by how much (or how little) money she appears to have.

Two other daughters in the novel – Edith Granger and Alice Marwood – are additional examples of the harm that comes from viewing people and relationships in a purely transactional way. In their case, it's their moms selling them into marriage or prostituting them. Florence, at least, had the benefit of knowing that her mother loved her; perhaps this is one reason Dickens has her maintain her angelic character. Edith and Alice, in contrast, are full of rage and bitterness, and Dickens winds up pushing them out of the way by the end of the novel, giving them tidy endings in an overseas home or in death. Florence gets to stick around because she maintains purity and an inhumanly forgiving personality. No anger for her, unnaturally so. (Among the wronged daughters in this novel, the options are all-consuming rage combined with compromised sexual purity OR unblemished forgiving sorrow combined with sexual purity.)

In any case, Dickens has chosen women as the primary way of showing the dangers of treating people as objects in a transaction, with Florence worth nothing to her dad, and Edith and Alice worth only as much as they can bring to their moms through looks, charms, and/or pleasing accomplishments.

Edith, by the way, is Mr. Dombey's second wife, and one reason their marriage tanks so quickly is that Dombey uses a go-between to express his displeasure to her. This go-between is Mr. Carker, the right-hand man in Dombey's business. (This is another way Dombey is mixing business with personal relationships.) Carker is the most smiley villain I've seen in any book. At no point did I come close to forgetting that he smiles a lot, because Dickens refers endlessly to Carker's teeth. Well, not endlessly. Carker does come to a pretty grim end, and his teeth stop appearing in the novel.

What I like best about Dickens is his description of places (here's one example) and certain psychological states and social conditions. His characters, however, don't feel quite real, even if some of their thought processes are complex and real. His descriptions can be wonderfully inventive, but he also falls back on repeating dull phrases like "weary head" and "little hand." The book, which is roughly 950 pages, is over-sweetened and made false at various points by excessive sentimentality. It's also larded with repetition.

I still think it's worth reading because of its better parts and its themes, particularly how genuine love and closeness can't exist in a relationship that's based primarily on how useful someone is to you in the wider world.