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.