Dombey Essay

The Fire in Florence

Florence’s Internal Strength and Power in Dickens’ Dombey and Son

Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son was serialized over a period of eighteen months as readers ached for each installment of this story that describes the impossibility of separating the family and business spheres. Critics have offered various interpretations of the relationship between the dominating father and his refined daughter in all her perfect imperfections. Various critics have suggested that Florence should be interpreted as a meek and feeble damsel in distress, tortured by her father’s inability to love her. Florence’s refusal to stand up to her father and unending quest for his love are represented as weaknesses that deem her a “fairy-tale princess.” While her angelic nature and diffident personality contribute to this claim, understanding Mr. Dombey’s hatred for his daughter and recognizing the effects that abusive relationships have on women allows for the perception of Florence as an emblem of strength and power rather than a timid figure on a quest for a non-existent entity.

In order to appreciate Florence’s strength and internal power, one must first comprehend the reasoning behind Mr. Dombey’s genuine hatred towards her. Dickens writes, “such a child was merely a piece of a base coin that couldn’t be invested- a bad Boy- nothing more” (Dickens 13) to describe young Florence in the economy of her father’s household. Critic Lynda Zwinger investigates this relationship and the atypical nature of its function and denotes that Mr. Dombey’s animosity towards his daughter is rooted in his fear of her and the unpredictability she possesses. Much like the railroad- a symbol of modernity and mystery that frightens Mr. Dombey- Florence depicts the instability of change and possibility of revolution. Florence’s younger brother Paul is the symbol of permanence and evokes the comfort in habit; he demonstrates the inheritance of Mr. Dombey’s business and the continuation of the Dombey name. When Paul passes away, the only heir to the Dombey throne passes with him and thus Mr. Dombey becomes infuriated that “the successful rival of his son” (Dickens 285) is embodied in female form, which is useless to him and inept for the continuation of his legacy. As Zwinger notes, a son can “help Dombey cheat time” (429) by allowing him to perpetuate the family business, while a daughter “stands for impotence” (429). Florence can easily disrupt the circularity of business and family and destroy the bridge between them by swaying from the pre-destined path that Mr. Dombey has set for Paul. In a novel structured by circularity, Florence not only possesses the power to disrupt the family, but to destroy the appropriated path the novel embarks on.

Not only does Florence represent a rival for Mr. Dombey’s attention, and the successful rival at that, but she embodies a matriarchal leader of the league against him: the league of women formed from herself and Edith. Soon after his marriage to Edith, it becomes abundantly clear to Mr. Dombey that Florence holds the power to form a “new alliance” (Zwinger 425) that would act against him and consequently, against his business. Additionally, as critic Louise Yelin notes, Florence both undermines and confirms Mr. Dombey’s power, a contradictory task that threatens Mr. Dombey’s abilities as the head of his household and leader of his business. Moreover, Florence evolves, as Zwinger supports, from the rival of her father’s attention, to the first domino in a line directed towards Mr. Dombey’s fate. Florence’s stunning physical beauty and innate lovability allow her to hold the power that makes her father feel fearful and threatened by her. No character of this novel is immune to this power- not even Mr. Dombey in all his strength and sternness. In a scene of the novel in which Mr. Dombey pretends to sleep as he watches Florence, he almost conjures up the ability to redeem himself with her, until Edith enters the room, completely altered from the stern woman he believed he married. Edith’s ability to release her hair and soften her appearance demonstrates that the unchangeable product Mr. Dombey believes he purchased is fully capable of alteration. Visualizing her ability to change and recognizing Florence’s capacity and guarantee that she could and would do the same terrifies Mr. Dombey into refraining from such redemption and only hardens him against her further. Florence, much like Edith, in her ability to change and alter beyond the form of a stamped coin, severely threatens Mr. Dombey’s pride and his reign as the “Head of the Home-Department” (Dickens 33).

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Dombey and Son

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Dombey and Son

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation

Dombey and Son was Dickens’s seventh novel, and was written in 1848. Martin Chuzzlewit precedes it, and David Copperfield follows it. Even though most people are not too familiar with Dombey and Son, this novel was well received by its readers, and is considered to be the first novel that reflects Dickens’s artistic maturity (Schlicke, 280).

The novel begins with the Dombey family, which is comprised of Fanny Dombey, her husband Paul Dombey, their little daughter Florence, and their newborn son Paul. Shortly after Paul’s birth, Fanny dies, and Mr. Dombey is forced to hire a nurse to take care of the children. Mr. Dombey sends little Paul to school so that he may be well educated and someday work at Dombey’s firm. Dombey does not view little Paul as a son or a loved one; rather, he views him exclusively as a business partner. While Dombey puts all of his energy into Paul, he neglects to love his daughter. She is of no value to him; therefore, he has no regard for her whatsoever. As a result of Dombey’s cold nature, Florence, and little Paul realize that they only have each other. The love between these two siblings is so great, and the bond they make is tight. Sadly, within the first 300 pages of the novel, little Paul becomes sick and dies. The rest of the story is focused on Mr. Dombey and his daughter. Florence constantly shows her father affection, but he constantly acts cold towards her. Dombey and Son explores relationships between business and private life, parent/child relationships, wealth and poverty, old and new, and male/female relationships.

Dombey and Son was serialized in nineteen monthly parts that ran from October 1846 through April 1848 in London's The Graphic magazine. It was illustrated by Hablot Browne, and was published in one volume on April 12, 1848 by Bradbury and Evans (Page, Companion, 149).

Dickens wrote Dombey and Son while residing in Switzerland and Paris. Supposedly, he was having trouble with Dombey during the first few stages, so he decided to relocate to Paris for some inspiration.

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Dickens first spoke to his first biographer and best friend John Forster about the creation of Dombey and Son. Dickens told him, “It [Dombey and Son] was to do with Pride what its predecessor [Martin Chuzzlewit] has done with Selfishness” (Schlicke, 280).

Dickens also told Forster that a character in Dombey and Son was modeled after somebody he had relations with in his own life. On November 4, 1846, he tells Forster, “I hope you like Mrs. Pipchin’s establishment. It is from the life and I was there” (Johnson, 605). Mrs. Pipchin was an old woman who taught little Paul Dombey. She was modeled after Elizabeth Roylance, a woman who Dickens lodged with while his parents were doing time in Marshalsea Prison for debt (Page, Chronology, 27).

The construction of the railroad in England during the 1840s is also exemplified in Dombey and Son. During the 1840s, England was rapidly changing from a predominately rural to a predominately urban society. In 1846 (which was the year Dickens began Dombey), the building of 4,538 miles of railroad line was authorized by Parliament (Schlike, 280). Dickens describes the railroad and its influence throughout Dombey and Son. Dickens writes, “The first shock of the railway had, just at that period rent the whole neighborhood to its centre” (Dombey, Ch 6).

Dickens was known for being a man who had a million projects going on at one time. Several factors impinged on his process of constructing Dombey. First, he was writing a version of the New Testament for his children at the time. Secondly, he almost abandoned his Christmas book for 1846 entitled, The Battle of Life, because it was extremely difficult for him to concentrate on two books at a time. Dombey was finally finished on March 24, 1848. Dickens even threw a small party to celebrate his completion of the novel on April 11, 1848. Among those invited was Thackeray, but it is not certain whether or not he attended (Schlike, 287).

After a disappointed reception of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son was a triumph. The first number released was a huge success, and 25,000 copies of it were sold out within a few hours. Because of this, printers put in over ninety hours of overtime in order to keep up with the public’s demand for it (Page, Companion, 147).

Possibly no two Victorian novelists had a rivalry quite as intense as the one that existed between Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair serial publications were being released alongside those of Dombey and Son. In contrast to Dickens’s novel selling roughly 25,000 copies per issue, Thackeray’s only sold a measly 5,000 copies per publication. Also, Thackeray only profited about sixty pounds per issue, while Dickens made over 400 pounds per issue. In all, Dickens’ total profits exceeded 9,000 pounds (Page, Companion, 146). Without a doubt, the success of Dombey and Son gave Dickens an economic security that he had never known before.

Most critics and readers applauded Dickens for his creation of Dombey and Son. Most were shocked that little Paul Dombey was killed off within the first 300 pages because the title of the novel is Dombey and Son. However, Dickens intended this; the title was a trick to help conceal Paul’s death. The title is an ironical allusion to the true subject of the book, which is Dombey and Daughter (Johnson, 608).

Thackeray commented that the death of little Paul was “unsurpassed...stupendous- there’s no writing against this- one has no chance” (Page, Companion, 148). Lord Jeffrey wrote along the same lines as Thackeray, but had mixed feelings about how the novel could go on without little Paul. He exclaimed, “Oh my dear Dickens! What a no. 5 you have given us...but after reading the climax in the fifth number, what are you to do with the fifteen that are to follow?” (Page, Companion, 148). Another commentator declared that Paul’s death “flung a whole nation into mourning.” In 1859, David Mason, a well known critic added, “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say the death of little Dombey caused a national mourning” (Page, Chronology, 28).

Kathleen Tillotson, a modern day critic, commented that Dombey is the first of Dickens's novels, “In which a pervasive uneasiness about contemporary society takes the place of an intermittent concern with specific social wrongs” (Schlicke, 286). In essence, Dickens was not so much occupied with the Poor Laws (as he was in Oliver Twist), or with the boarding schools; rather, he was concerned about the change occurring in England’s society due to the construction of the railroad.

On the other hand, some of the critics complained about Dickens’s writing, finding the symbolism of the river and the sea overdone. Others thought that little Paul was unconvincingly precocious. However, most were satisfied and pleased with this novel (Johnson, 604).

Surely every one of Dickens’s novels contributed to Dickens’s popularity as a writer. Some of his works greatly influenced the Victorian era, while others were not quite essential to the development of the period. F.R. Leavis designated Dombey as follows: “It marks a decisive moment in Dicken’s career presenting a major theme; it was his [Dickens] first essay in the elaborately plotted Victorian novel” (Page, Companion, 149). Presently, critics including Nina Auerbach and Helene Moglen are focusing on the book’s sexual politics, analyzing the polarities between male and female spheres. Commenting on Dombey, Dickens said, “I have a strong belief that if any books are read years hence, Dombey will be remembered as one of the best of them” (Schlicke, 286). Well, Dickens, I do not know of many people who have read this novel, but I can assure you that it has been remembered and researched to this very day.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. England: Penguin Books, 1985.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph Volume 2. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

Page, Norman. A Dickens Chronology. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1988.

Page, Norman. A Dickens Companion. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

Schlike, Paul. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999



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