Once again, I am distraught by one of Dickens’ characters, Charley Hexam to be exact. When Charley marched up to Bradley Headstone with condemnation and distaste for Headstone upon his lips, I was so happy… I thought that sweet, wonderful boy we saw in the opening scenes of OMF was back. It was getting toward the end of the novel, and Dickens has done a great job of redemption with characters like Sydney… so I thought maybe Charley was on his way back. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.
Charley escapes a perfectly constructed opportunity for redemption. My moment of hope for him is destroyed when Dickens reveals that Charley is not disturbed by the fact that his mentor has committed cold-blooded murder. He is not disturbed by the fact that he almost sacrificed his sister to a man capable of committing cold-blooded murder. He is bent out of shape due to the suggestion that Bradley Headstone’s committing cold-blooded murder in his deranged love for his sister might reflect poorly upon him! I was totally disgusted that Charley’s only concern was that Headstone’s actions might corrupt his standing and attempts to rise in society. I was furious when Charley ranted about refusing to be “dragged down by others.” I want to take his scrawny shoulders and shake him. He is worried about his sister dragging him down… REALLY! This is the same sister who scraped together every cent she could find for him. This is the same sister who ensured that he was educated to start with. This is the same sister who endured the wrath of their drunken, abusive father when Gaffer became infuriated with Charley’s attempts to better himself. Wait… maybe Gaffer had a point. Charley’s attempts to better himself have turned him into the worst sort of man. Is really “better” for his education and the improvement of his station? I think not. It turns out that Charley is exactly the same sort as his father – selfish, egotistical, abusive, small-minded, and a failure as a man. No matter how I hoped, Dickens refuses to let this apple fall far from the tree.
Mr. Boffin – Agony
I am completely distraught over the transformation in Mr. Boffin. I was totally in his corner and was actually very excited that he and Mrs. Boffin had inherited the Harmon money, but after his radical transformation and his AWFUL treatment of Rokesmith, I find myself searching for a way to punish him separately from his wife. She has remained steadfast, humble, and loving throughout their journey, and as much as I want Boffin to be forced to “come down in the world,” I can’t stand the thought of Mrs. Boffin suffering.
Bella Wilfer – Ecstacy
I began to love her the moment that she recognized her own tendency to be mercenary, but she sealed the deal for me with her abandonment of the Boffins due to his treatment of Rokesmith. She really showed character and honor in her defense of Rokesmith/Harmon, but I was most pleased with her when she readily admitted the wrongs she heaped upon him herself. Their passionate embrace may have been a bit overdone for me, but all in all – I am a Bella fan!
Well, he’s done it to me again! Dickens has created characters that I thought I knew and either loved or hated. It seems that he does this solely with goal of tormenting me as he forces me to completely reexamine a character and my attachment to him or her.
I find myself increasingly disturbed by the changes wrought in Mr. Boffin. He was a man for whom I built a genuine affection. I loved him for his humility, his bumbling, and his willingness to help others. Unfortunately, he is no longer the character I loved. He has become obsessed with his money and his new-found station, and I really don’t know what to do with him at this point. I don’t feel that I can wish him ill and treat him as a villain because any repercussions that would come down on him will also affect those in his care – Mrs. Boffin (whom I love), Bella (whom I have a grudging respect and affection for), Sloppy (who is just beginning to benefit from the Boffin fortune), and even Rokesmith/Harmon (who is trying desperately to find a peace for himself). Mrs. Boffin is horrified by the changes in her husband but helpless to do anything about them. Bella knows something is wrong, and I didn’t get the impression that she was delighted to be told by Boffin that they were “of the same mind.” Rokesmith has been spoken to horribly but Boffin, but he has to take it because anything else might remove some of the dirt he worked so hard to place over the dead John Harmon.
Charley Hexam is also a problem for me. I thought him precious and devoted to his sister in the beginning of the book. Dickens has also made me take another look at him. He has denounced his sister because she won’t marry a man who is CLEARLY crazy! How dare he ask her to continue to sacrifice herself for him. Can’t he see and appreciate all that she has done for him in getting him in school. If it weren’t for her, he wouldn’t even be there! I guess should have seen this coming. The apple never falls far from the tree. This is the legacy Charley inherited from his father – hatred for anyone who goes against his wishes and disagreed with his choices.
Bella also causes me some concerns, but not because she has made a turn for the worse. I have developed a grudging respect and affection for her. She is mercenary – no doubt, but she no longer hides behind of façade of whiney weakness. She has come to grips with what she is and not long plays the part of a hypocrite (well, maybe with the exception of her attraction to Rokesmith… Me thinks the lady doth protest too much!).
The Devil Is Always in the Details
Our Mutual Friend is certainly a mystery, and one of the things I love about reading mysteries is my attempts to connect the dots (always revealed in small details) and unmask the villain before the writer reveals his or her identity. I feel like I am struggling to keep my head above water with Our Mutual Friend, and I hate knowing that I am not the slightest bit ahead of Dickens in solving his mystery.
Charles Dickens was nothing if not meticulous and deliberate in the works he created. I don’t think anyone can read in small snippets without facing some challenges, but for me, my major malfunction is my inability to keep character and story lines straight while attempting to absorb and remember the details that I feel are essential to the story line. I have read every word of Our Mutual Friend, but I know I am losing bits and pieces from Book One because now, I have also introduced bits and pieces from Drood and A Tale of Two Cities. My brain feels like a jumble of names, places, events, time tables, and story lines.
PonderingDickens longs for a “Previously in Our Mutual Friend,” introduction to each new reading session, and I fully agree. I can’t produce that, but Paul Davis’s book, Dickens A to Z offers summaries for each chapter that are only a few sentences. The summaries are labeled and divided clearly so that I don’t run over or get into the next chapter before I have read it. Granted it doesn’t solve my dilemma with the details, but it is a quick way to get back up to speed on major characters and events without spoilers.
Our Mutual Friend is certainly on my reread list as I am positive that I have missed some important details and clues as to where Dickens is taking me as a reader. I love the characters he has created, and I will probably love the dozen or so storylines he is developing once I can get them all tied together. I am sure that once I have finished the novel that hindsight will prove that I should have been able to see the “devil in the details.”
I was wrong! As the story continues to unfold, it has occurred to me that my perceptions of characters are radically changing. I have come to realize that my initial perceptions were undeniably colored by my own bias towards and against certain societal issues. I have always thought of myself as a somewhat objective observer when I read, but Mr. Dickens has forced me to reexamine how I read. He set me up to think one thing of characters only to force me to change my assumptions midstream and cause me to doubt what I thought I knew. Was I seeing what Mr. Dickens was presenting or what I viewing these characters through my own lens of bias?
The Boffins – Fools or Saints?
When I first met Noddy Boffin, I fell very nicely into Mr. Dickens’ trap of assuming Boffin to be ridiculous and foolish in his newly acquired wealth. I also laughed at Mrs. Boffin’s ridiculousness in her feathered hat which caught fire as Wegg read, but as I read Chapter VIII, I saw them demonstrating dedication and loyalty, feeling out of place in their new status, and having an immense sense of justice and morality. Because of these new revelations, I found myself questioning my judgment of the characters I felt I knew at that point. Did my admiration for those who dedicate themselves to making a living by their own means and determination cause me to dislike the Boffins because I assumed that they inherited Harmon’s money as a fluke and not a reward for service? After the insight into the Boffins’ history with Old Man Harmon, my opinion of them swelled to admiration before Dickens even had an opportunity to reveal their plans to invite Bella in and adopt an orphan so that a child can have the advantages the John Harmon should have had. These magnanimous offerings concreted my view of the Boffins as just this side of saintly. I also love that the Boffins don’t want to step into a world they don’t care for just because there is an expectation that they do so. They want to live and be “comfortable,” which is far more admirable to me than striving to be better than others.
Gaffer Hexam – Unsung Hero or Undeniable Villan?
Because of my admiration for those who work hard at whatever their endeavor, I may have misjudged Gaffer Hexam as well. I had no suspicion of him, even after Riderhood’s accusation. This may have been a result of Gaffer’s impassioned denial or it may have been my bias in his favor because his job is incredibly unsavory but he does it with such apparent pride – he remembers each of his “finds” and keeps complete records by maintaining the police flyers. There is something admirable in his work, even though it may be deplorable to some. I must say as a citizen of London, I would have probably been glad of people like Gaffer who fished bodies out of the river (even if they did relieve the body of some possessions); otherwise, the Thames would have been decidedly worse than it already was. However, again I may have been wrong about Gaffer. This man beats his own son and begrudges him the opportunity to better himself. Those are pretty damning facts, but even in the knowledge of these unsavory details, I find myself trying to make excuses for Gaffer – maybe he fears that Charley will discover that he can’t belong to the other world and that by preventing him from seeing that as a possibility, he prevents inevitable disappointment. However, the one thing that my admiration for his work ethic cannot overcome is his own daughter’s suspicions. She knows him better than anyone, and if she is suspicious, it is not without reason. I must look more carefully at him as a potential villain if I am to follow Mr. Dickens’ trail of intrigue.
Victorian England – OMF
- was a time of the growth of the middle class and new wealth as evidenced by the Veneerings and the Boffins. Dickens seemed to make fun of those who are the “neuvo riche” as evidenced by the ridiculousness of the Veneerings (of course, we don’t know that his commentary isn’t more the source of their income rather than their newly acquired wealth.)
- contains the struggles of families regardless of their social class. The Harmon family with its division over the choice of sister’s husband mimics the division over the choice of Charley’s learning.
- social gatherings were essential to their societal fabric, not only upper class but lower classes were just as dependent. The Veneering know that the only way to gain a foothold in “polite society” is by throwing dinner parties and inviting all the right people. The same is true for the patrons of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters. The roughest chracters Londan has to offer live in fear of being exiled from this run down shack; however, this run down shack represents and helps the maintain their social status.
- education was a way of improving one’s potential, maybe even one’s social class. However, as represented by Gaffer Hexam’s reaction to Charley’s schooling, it was also seen by some as an attempt at being “uppity” or thinking one is better than one’s own family.
- Women’s roles were limited, but the women Dickens creates don’t seem to be as limited as I’m sure many were. We see a stong and capable woman in Miss Abbey Patterson; however, Mrs. Wilfer is a wife and mother and her role is clarified by her statement, “It is as you think, RW; not as I do.” Mrs. Patterson is successful in her own right. The question is whether Mrs. Wilfer’s “Ladies’ School” was a failure due to her own shortcomings or was she limited by her husband and as he “thinks.”
LOVE HER!! She is the kind of person I love most – steady as a rock and what you see is what you get! She manages a room full of London’s “finest” with a stern look and the unspoken threat of being exiled!
What a way to start a book! A dead body and a delicate young woman all in the opening chapter… sounds like a great start to me.
What’s in a Name?
- I love that Dickens doesn’t reveal the names of some of his characters until the reader has already established an impression of the character.
- Charley is an example of a character we meet long before we have his name. Charley comes to us as higher quality than “other boys of his type.” We have established a favorable opinion of this young man through the eyes of Mortimer before we finally get his name from his sister (whom we also admire). The character of Charley could possibly be a reference to Dickens’ own son, who was also named Charley. Dickens’ son was educated at Eaton and entered a business career, where he was doing quite well at the time Our Mutual Friend was published (Davis 98). Maybe Dickens saw his own son’s journey into life as he saw Charley Hexam’s journey begin.
- However, at other times, Dickens’ names are brilliantly overstated as the character is introduced. I love that he almost hits the reader over the head with possible implications for an individual’s moniker.
- Gaffer’s name could be a reference to his landing a big catch. A “gaff” is a large hook used to bring enormous fish onto the deck of a boat – a very fitting reference to a man who “fishes” in the Thames for his unique catch.
- The most glaring example may be the Veneerings with their “bran-new” possessions and status. Their name could reference the idea of a “veneer.” It seems as though Dickens is casting disparity on their newly found fortune and social standing by associating them with something that appears to be of value but is actually made up of something far less valuable at its core.
- Bella Wilfer is another glaring reference. “Bella” means beautiful, and there is not much substance to this character besides her beauty. Ironically, her beauty is strictly superficial; we see her as nasty-natured and unpleasant. Dickens sets up a great contrast and highlights the difference in what people see and what actually is.
- The list of names goes on and on, and I cannot wait to continue exploring what their implications might be. This has turned out to be interesting enough that it might be the basis of one of my research pages.
Davis, Paul Benjamin. Charles Dickens A To Z, The Essential Reference To His Life And Work. New York: Facts on File, 1998.