Monday, August 19, 2013

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens


Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’s last novel. I found it to be an engaging, entertaining and fun. The story and characters can best be described as lively and full of philosophy and symbolism that reach into the heart of Western culture as well as the human psyche. The book is full of both tragedy and comedy. As is typical of Dickens, it is peopled by a host of larger then life characters, ranging from the virtuous to the villainous.

In some ways this novel is a series of case studies on what money does to people and how they react to it. Some behave horribly while it brings out the best in others. This is also an exploration of death, resurrection and rebirth, the power of books and learning, and a whole lot more. It is also a hilarious satire of upper class manners and lack of morality as well as a plea for social and economic justice.

 The plot is somewhat complex and includes lots of characters. When the old, rich and mean Mr. Harmon dies he leaves a last Will and Testament that sets things in motion. He bequeaths most of his fortune to his son, John Harmon who he all but abandoned in childhood. The inheritance is conditional on the eventuality that the younger Harmon marry the impoverished Bella Wilfer who he has never met. While traveling to meet his intended bride, Harmon is assaulted by thugs, knocked insensible and is mistaken for dead. Though he eventually regains his senses Harmon continues to uphold the fiction that he was killed and takes on fake identity. He decides to scope out Bella, from the point of view an uninterested stranger, to out to determine if she would make an honorable and virtuous wife. Meanwhile, the old miser’s servants, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, inherit the fortune as per the Will, since the younger Harmon is presumable dead.

Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of the man who is falsely accused of killing Harmon, and Eugene Wrayburn, the attorney handling Harmon’s Will, are also key characters as Wrayburn becomes romantically interested in Lizzie. Bradley Headstone is a schoolmaster who is also a psychotic stalker obsessed with Lizzie. The are numerous other important characters and lots of plot twists.


 Some Thoughts on Bella


I like complex characters. At times I have trouble with Dickens as he often portrays people as extremes of either reprehensible monsters or unquestioned saints. Thankfully this is not true of all of his creations. Those who fall into the grey areas particularly intrigue me. I was initially impressed by portrayal of the character of Bella Wilfer for these reasons. Early in the novel Bella is intelligent, kind and empathetic if a bit coquettish. She is not perfect however. She is also unabashedly greedy. She is searching for a husband whose main attribute is wealth.


Talking to her father she remarks,


 “I have made up my mind that I must have money, Pa. I feel that I can't beg it, borrow it, or steal it; and so I have resolved that I must marry it.”

and later,

“I have money always in my thoughts and my desires; and the whole life I place before myself is money, money, money, and what money can make of life!' 

I love the unabashed, unashamed exuberance of the above!


Bella understands that to many this is a character flaw she later comments,


“When I was at home expecting to be rich, I thought vaguely of all the great things I would do. But when I had been disappointed of my splendid fortune, and came to see it from day to day in other hands, and to have before my eyes what it could really do, then I became the mercenary little wretch I am.”


At the same time that she exhibits such avarice, Bella shows displays positive traits. She shows great tenderness to a dying orphan. She also has a strong bond with her hapless father whom she is exceeding kind to. This relationship is a bit unusual. She is extremely close to “Pa”.  She confides her secrets to him. However, in some ways she treats him as a beloved child. She dotes upon him like a mother. At one point she bristles when his co – workers chide him. What a complex and in my opinion, realistic combination of traits that Dickens has endowed into Bella!

Another aspect that enhances Bella’s character is that, as expressed in the above passages, she is self – aware. She knows that she is greedy. She also knows that this is a character flaw. At least in this part of the narrative, she accepts this about herself.


But Bella is destined to disappoint me. Observing how mean and miserly Mr. Boffin has seemingly become as a result of his newfound wealth, and having fallen in love with the seemingly poor and disguised John Harmon, she decides to forgo riches in lieu of marital bliss. By the novel’s end she has transformed into a completely unselfish and self - sacrificing woman.


It may seem odd that I am complaining that a character, with lots of redeeming qualities, forgoes a terrible character weakness in favor of virtue. Of course if Bella was a real person, I would rejoice that she had put aside such rapacious tendencies. However, when it comes to literary characters, I like a little darkness even in the best of them. A mix of virtue and vice makes a delicious and interesting stew. When characters become too good they become less interesting. Bella seems too real of a character for such a simplistic epiphany. Had she been a pure villainess she would not have been as intriguing either, it was the amalgam of traits, much like real person, that was unfortunately lost here.

I am just being cranky on this point. This is a terrific and important work. Bella’s redemption is only a small part of the book. I must also admit that the transformation is appealing on some levels. A completely unimproved Bella might have been a disaster for the narrative. Perhaps however, in the end, a few materialistic tendencies in a partially changed Bella would have added some spice to the stew.


36 comments:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Eh, not so cranky. The perfect Dickens women area a big problem, worth worrying about. Bella, dismayingly, is one of the better ones, for the reasons you describe. Imagine the ones who are perfect through the whole book (see Agnes in David Copperfield)! How tedious.

A number of Dickens heroes are no more interesting, but he solves the male side of the problem earlier in his career and with more lasting effect. The women are always a struggle.

Suko said...

I think the way (or ways) we think about money changes(-) with our experiences with money. It seems Dickens had a lot to say about money, miserliness, and morals. This book sounds fascinating. Terrific review!

Lucy said...

I've never read this one of Dickens's novels, although it's something I've always thought I'd enjoy. Bella's character seems particularly great!

Heidi’sbooks said...

Wow. I'm always amazed at our similar tastes in reading. I have never read this one--but I'm enjoying David Copperfield. I'm enjoying Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick who is slightly crazy, but fun-- for the same reason you like the characters with a mixture of good and bad. My daughter can't figure out why some of the characters are so bad.

seraillon said...

I had such fun with Little Dorrit last year that I went out and got this one to read next.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Indeed Dickens's women are just too virtuous or monstrous, more so then the men. An interesting exception Was Mrs. Lammle in this book. Greedy and conniving throughout the narrative she at one point behaves virtuously. It is a pity that she is such a minor character.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - This one was really a look at all the permutations of the effect of money and people.

Thanks for the good word!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy- It seems like this novel sometimes gets overlooked. I really think that it is one of Dickens's important works.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - Great minds think alike!

Dickens can be so much fun.


When I was younger evil and bad behavior was such a puzzle. Unfortunately it is really a reflection of life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seraillon - I have not yet read Little Dorrit but I must get to it soon. I would love to hear what you thought of this one.

Sharon Henning said...

I went through a real season of reading Dickens then quit. My copy of Our Mutual Friend has been collecting dust on my shelf for a few years, unread.
I quit reading your review after a couple of paragraphs because I am now inspired to read it.
Then I'll come back and read your review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I tend to do the same thing as I tend not to like to read the comentary of others before reading or writting about a book. In terms of spoilers I give a little, but not an excessive amount away here.

Illok forward to reading what you have to saying this one.

Guy Savage said...

I've been meaning to get back to Dickens. What's your favourite Dickens novel?
I'm with you on the little darkness issue--and it's much more believable that way anyway.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Oh no your question has revealed my secret! I really have not read enough Dickens to have a decent favorite. I liked this one better then Great Expectations, Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities so for noW I must say this one. I plan to read Bleak House soon.

Guy Savage said...

Ha!

My fav is Bleak House, so you have a treat in store.

JaneGS said...

>By the novel’s end she has transformed into a completely unselfish and self - sacrificing woman.

Oh gag! I'm with you in liking my characters flawed, interesting, and even maddening. It's almost as if Dickens sold out at the last minute to his usual mode of good or bad women, but nothing in between.

I haven't read this one, and not sure where it comes on my TBR Dickens list, but now I am eager to.

Excellent review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Many seem to say that Bleak Hose is his finest work. I will hopefully soon see what I think.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I strongly suspected that the transformation was coming. I had just hoped for a little bit of grey at the end.

Thanks for the good word!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Among other virtues, Bleak House solves the "perfect heroine" problem - even while the heroine remains perfect! A good trick.

Naida said...

This sounds interesting. And it is crazy how money can affect people, in all different kinds of ways.
Isn't it great to find a character like Bella?
Great review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I really must get to that one soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I really did not get to it in my short post, but some of the characters in this book do positively act crazy over money. All sorts of self delusions and despicable behavior are involved. There is also a lot of humor involved.

Richard said...

I read Bleak House last year and loved it after having had Dickens in my doghouse for more years than I care to remember. I'll prob. read Great Expectations next by him since I already own it, but I'll keep this one in mind on account of your "lively" reading rating.

Harvee @ Book Dilettante said...

Had no idea Dickens wrote a book with this theme and title. Learn something new every day!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - It seems funny that lots of us who like to really read things of substance sometimes have mixed feelings about Dickens. I found Great Expectations a mixed bag. See what you think!


i really must read Bleak House soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - For whatever reason folks seem to talk about this one less. Yet I found it to be better then some of his more discussed works. In addition this one is almost always included on Critic's lists of his best books.

....Petty Witter said...

Though not a big fan of Dickens, your review has piqued my interest enough for me to seek out a copy of this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - as I alluded to I have had some reservations about Dickens. I think that one has to go in to his books with the understanding that sometimes his characters are simplistic, sometimes he is over sentimental and melodramatic, as well as other flaws. As I mentioned earlier, I have only read a limited number of his novels. This one has raised my opinion of him.

Caroline said...

I read Great Expectations last year and liked it while I read it but it's all but gone now. Dickens has a lot that I don't like. He's a fabulist, more than a story teller, he gets carried away by his imagination. I like that about him, at the same time it annoys me. But I want to read Bleak House as well.
I found your post very interesting, plus what Tom added about the "perfect heroine."
I don't think I'll ever read everything he's written, therefore I'm not sure I'll get to it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I agree with your description of Dickens. The word "fabulist" is just about perfect. Of course variety is the spice of life and perhaps all this makes him so different from other writers that he is actually appealing.

stujallen said...

Lovely review Brian I not read this have read a couple of his books my favourite of the ones I read is great expectations .One my highlights the other year was going to his house for a book launch wonderful to feel him in the house and see where he wrote so much ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - Thanks for the good word. Going to Dickens's home must have been neat!

bookaroundthecorner said...

I wanted to read this along with Himadri last year but I couldn't make it.
According to your review, it's worth reading but I'd better find a good French translation as the book is quite long.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - This is indeed a long one. I would imagine a French translation would be fairly easy to come by.

I would love to hear what you thought about it.

Maria Behar said...

Terrific review, as always! I especially like your character analysis of Bella. I totally agree with you -- characters that are either too good or too evil are not realistic. However, such characters sometimes do appear in fiction. Not all the time, though. For instance, I'm currently reading "Shadow and Bone", a young adult fantasy novel in which one of the characters, The Darkling, appears to be good and noble at first, but later turns into a villain. I know that he does have some redeeming qualities, but his quest for power has made it necessary (in his view) for him to squash these qualities. At this point, his only good quality is his love for Alina, the novel's heroine. I must confess to having mixed feelings about him, in spite of his evil ways....especially since he's so handsome....lol.

Thanks for your interesting thoughts!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - As always - Thanks!

These complex characters really help keep fiction interesting. It sounds like Bella, The Darkling, actively contemplates his life choices. That is not always the case with these mixed characters but it adds even more to the mix!