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.
ohn Harmon 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.
Harmon’s Will, are also key characters as Wrayburn becomes romantically interested in Eugene Wrayburn, the attorney handling
“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.”
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.