Book Review – Dombey and Son By Charles Dickens

Title: Dombey and Son
Author: Charles Dickens
Format: 
Paperback
Written: 
Oct.1846- April 1848
Published: 
1995 (Wordsworth Classics)

One of Dickens’ lesser known novels, Dombey and Son is the tale of the proud and wealthy merchant Dombey who puts all his hopes into his son and neglects his daughter. As with most Dickens novels there’s a large cast of secondary characters, many of which are more memorable and charming that Dombey himself. As far as I’m concerned the indomitable maid, Susan Nipper, is the real hero of the story, though I can’t quite call her the protagonist.  There is no clear single “main” character.  In contrast with Dombey’s wealth and pride is the humble and poor but happy and loving, cobbled together family of young Walter Gay, his elderly uncle, and their colorful friend Captain Cuttle.

First, some notes on how to read Dickens, since I met many people who expressed intimidation at the dense 769 page tome in my hand. Most Dickens novels were originally released in serial form over the course of several months. They are not intended to be gulped down in a few sittings but savored over an extended period of time, like a television series. And I think the best way to appreciate Dickens is by reading a chapter a week or one per night (depending on your speed), and remember this was from an age before T.V. when the author must act as set dresser and costume designer. I pressed through Dombey and Son in less than three weeks, since I’m trying to read a high number of books this year. But I think high school ruins Dickens for most people by forcing them to quickly gulp down often abridged versions of the story, and abridging Dickens is crime, since most of the humor, wit, and insight if in the subtleties of the sentences (though less so with this particular novel).

For no reason other than the title, I got it into my head that Dombey and Son would be a comedy, but it turned out to be the least funny Dickens novel I’ve read yet, which I could also say is its main failing. The humor often falls flat, being more cringe worthy than humorous. But then I don’t think it was intended to be funny, so that may be a matter of taste rather than a failing of the writing. This is not Dickens tightest writing or plotting.   The story meanders (which is rather normal for Dickens but this meandered more than most of his books), and Dickens soapboxes to excess. It struck me as more redundant than his other stories, which disappointed me.  Florence, while a delightful character, is praised to dulling excess.

At the same time, it’s also one of Dickens more sophisticated and cutting social commentaries, poking mainly at the feigned moral superiority of the wealthy/middle-class, but also examining domestic life, abuse, negligence, and the nature of family in a variety of shapes as well as taking more than a few jabs at the school system. The “Hymen” toast (Hymen is the Greek god of marriage, btw) was pretty edgy, particularly for the time period. Even as a modern reader, I was glad not to be drinking when I read it.

Dombey and Son rips your heart out, steps on it, kicks it around for a bit, then restores it to it’s proper place and condition.

Ultimately, I’ll give it a 4 out of 5 for general quality, sophistication of theme, and wrapping up all the loose ends, but with the condition that while I would recommend this to many, it’s a terrible starter novel if you haven’t read Dickens before. If you love Dickens, don’t skip this one. You see the early development of themes and characters played out more tightly in later novels, but they are in some ways more satisfying here. If you haven’t read Dickens, I suggest cutting your teeth on Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, or A Christmas Carol, and then working up to Great Expectations and Bleak House before moving on to David Copperfield and then onto something like Dombey and Son.

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