Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dombey and Son

While my computer was down, I started reading Dickens again. I've reviewed Little Dorrit in this blog before, about people caught up in debtor's prison--and other prisons. This time, I am reading Dombey and Son.

Dombey and Son is a family-owned firm. All the sons are named Paul. The book starts with the birth of a new Paul, and the death of his mother. The newborn's sister, Florence, is about six years old. She is completely ignored by her father because she cannot take over the business. She's considered a mistake and a disappointment, because she cannot be groomed into an heir to the Dombey tradition.

Dickens is known in the contemporary academic parlance as not having a good handle on women. It's an interesting question, but I'm not so sure it's altogether true. For instance, Dickens didn't invent a lack of business opportunities for women in the Victorian Age, did he? He was telling what he saw: girls were not looked at as viable heirs to a commercial enterprise.

In Dombey and Son, Florence is a paragon of virtue. In the Dombey family, she is the one person who can meet life and death with appropriate emotions. She's not the head of anything, and doesn't look to be.

The "selfless female" comes up a lot in Dickens (Little Dorrit, for instance), and I think forms part of the basis for what is considered Dickens' misogyny. What I think the literature critics don't see is the constant self-analysis and focus that these paragons undertake in order to forgive, excuse, prop up, and otherwise maintain goodness in the face of one disaster after another. But in this book, Dickens distinctly describes how hard it is on the paragon--it's not always natural to them, but a product of self-training and focus. These paragons get blown around and hurt all the time. But they don't give up. And eventually, they prevail. They find happiness.

As Florence comforts her mother on the deathbed, Mr. Dombey watches, mostly over his son and heir. But afterward, he avoids his daughter because he is ashamed of what he lacked when his wife died. Over and over in the book, Florence garners true affection and admiration, only to wish her father would notice her. He only responds to servility: in adult family members, his employees, and the false friends who eventually surround him. Though Florence is obedient, meek, et cetera, it doesn't have the same feel to it as a craven or opportunistic submission. And Mr. Dombey never knows what to do around her. He always feels rebuked, when all she wants is to be accepted. He only hits one note. She hits nearly all of them.

When her brother goes to school, he is physically weak and inundated by the curriculum. Dickens plainly shows that Florence is up to the intellectual task--she gets all of her brother's books and studies them so she can tutor him. The non-modern part of this is that she never shows any ambition to use it for herself, but to help another. Nowhere in the book does she spout off a quote from something she's read, or put herself forward in any way. People do it for her. They want her around. After awhile, you learn who's really moving forward, though: Florence. Her dad is in full retreat. He just doesn't know it.

I find myself wondering how different the world is post-Freud. In this era, we believe that we are the product of our early experiences--Mozart in the crib, judiciously-chosen educational toys, no shoes that pinch the foot, no corsets that bind us up. We don't believe people can be good just in themselves. We don't think they extend themselves emotionally if someone else hasn't done it first, like a parent, to show how it's done.  There's a lot more to this book, but I just keep thinking, this time around:

How much of the disconnect between Dickens and a modern reader is Dickens' fault? He had a world view. We think we're past all that. But we are as firmly entrenched in our world view as Dickens was in his.

He thought a good woman could do no wrong. That's not a lot of wiggle room for us non-perfect females. Never to have a resentment, or say a cross word, and to have that "shine through" to perfect strangers, even though someone nearer to us might not see it.  It's not that easy. To try to be Florence would twist me like a rope.

On the other hand, in this era, some people still grow up in emotionally distant environments, still have "right" feelings and the impulse to virtue. These remarkable individuals did not have all the advantages, but still bring emotional consonance and decency to their dealings in the world. They do not fit our current formula.

I think Dickens is saying that a good person is able to function with emotional power, to "do the right thing" in whatever role they might have. When emotion enters it, the right thing is sometimes distinct from the "proper" thing.  It transcends rank, class, income. A good person listens, sees, feels, and develops internal character.

I also think it is not easy, and that it never was. I think Dickens would say the same.

Just my two cents.


Bob G. said...

That's some interesting observations.

Dickens often railed against his government (and the disconnect between the classes), and I find much of it as relevent today.

And I agree with both Dickens AND your commentary.
I think Dickens would be frustrated that today, we don't pursue being that "good person" as we should, and certainly not in the numbers we should be.

Sure it's NOT easy, but it's NEVER impossible.

If it takes ONE thing to get that ball rolling, I'd have to say it's COURAGE.
Without THAT, a lot of our "moral fibers" unravel like a cheap sweater.

Besides, if it were EASY, the government would find some way to tax it...or regulate it.
(the last thing we need)

Great post.

Stay safe & warm out there.

suz said...

I agree. Dickens had a good grasp on human nature even if he portrayed his characters in caricature-like proportion. We still read him for the same reason we still read Shakespeare - His insight was universal; it transcended the world view of his era.

Momma Fargo said...

Anything Dickens is good. Even when my grandma used it as a cuss word. LOL

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
I agree with you. Dickens did see societal ills, but he was also concerned with personal moral development. I guess in a way he has tried to give us a balance between them, that we should heed today.

Thanks for the observation!
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Suz,
Oh, another Dickens lover! We are few and far between I think--have to have an attention span, you know, for those long darn books.

His characters are often caricatures, but I think even that is about the twisting that people do in order to be good. Their characters become eccentric as part of the fight against their baser impulses. What do you think?

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Momma Fargo,
My Grandma used it as a cuss word too! I think because eventually Dickens got to everything!

Ann T.

suz said...

Mmmm, "Dickens lover" is a pretty strong term, but I took a seminar in college, and my prof wrote the textbook *shiver*... no slacking there! I agree with you about the fight against baser impulses. I've always loved Mrs. Jellyby, how she had become exactly what she fought against. So many of us do. I had to laugh at your "attention span" remark; I DON'T have the attention span for Dickens, yet many of his characters appeal to me (possibly due to their narrow simplicity.)

Ann T. said...

Dear Suz,
Okay, that was hope talking. I keep thinking I'm going to find someone for a reader's group out there who will tackle this Big Honking Volumes.


My attention span is apparently pretty good, but not wide--it has its drawbacks!

As of now, I am reading a new (to me) author--Robertson Davies. And enjoying very much!

Wasn't Mrs. Jellyby interested in Boorioboola Gha????

Ann T.