This was Dickens’s seventh novel, and the fourth written during the 1840’s. It appeared after an unusually long pause: Martin Chuzzelwit had been completed in July 1844, and Dombey begun June 1846. In Dombey Dickens tried to avoid comic exaggeration and to subordinate individual scenes to a central purpose, thus producing his most highly structured novel thus far. Dickens’s next novel was David Copperfield, also a tale of insecure and restricted childhood.
The novel was designed “to do with Pride what its predecessor had done with Selfishness” (Forster). The unity of purpose is also witnessed by Dickens’s fear that “the very name getting out, would be ruinous,” and unlike most of his titles, this one seems to have been chosen without hesitation. According to Kathleen Tillotson, “Not only the comedy, but all the characters and all the action are subordinated to Mr. Dombey. This is the first novel of Dickens to be dominated by a leading idea, embodied in a single character. He is the origin, centre, and continuum of the novel, as no previous character of Dickens had been.”
1.This can be debated—is the novel as Dombey-centered as all that?
2. Originally Dickens had intended a greater emphasis on Mr. Dombey’s firm than ultimately resulted. How does this change in emphasis affect the novel’s tone and meaning?
3. What may have been some purposes in calling this novel Dombey and Son rather than Dombey and Daughter? Is the former name more appropriate after all?
4. What are some prominent features of Dickens’s style? Are there shifts in style throughout the novel? (alternation of a sonorous poetic style with caricature, indirect reference and insinuation)
5. What are some of Dickens’s methods of creating caricature?
--combination of grotesquerie and strong sentiment
--characters marked by illogic singlemindedly pursued
--repeated mannerisms bereft of any psychological foundation
How does caricature affect the reader's response to those caricatured?
--characters such as Miss Tox and Captain Cuttle lack self-doubt and self-consciousness
--author intrudes in describing evil characters (Carker, 391, obverse of sentimental chorus)
6. Are there features common to the caricatures of good people? (e. g., Toddles oblivious to the ironies of his simple-minded goodwill towards Mr. Dombey)
7. Do you find the authorial intrusions useful? Do they occur on some topics but not others? (256, author functions as chorus; 49, 261, admires Florence)
8. What are some aspects of this novel which might have especially appealed to the Victorians? (innocence, preoccupation with sickness and death of child; pathos of estrangement of father and daughter, death of mother)
9. How does Dickens use names?
10. One of the issues debated by Dickens critics is whether/to what extent he is sentimental. What is meant by sentimentality, and how is it manifested in Dombey? What are the mechanisms/stylistic mannerisms by which some of the passages often perceived as sentimental are created?
death scenes, 225, 226
Florence’s mourning, 246
Florence’s loneliness, 319-20, 321-23
authorial intrusions and chorus
evocation of Christianity/divinity in vaguest terms
use of assonance and sonorous rhythms
use of exclamation points, questions, dashes
forced involvement of the reader in the same situation—self-pity?
Use of fairy tale comparisons (or legendary, Dick Whittington becomes Lord Mayor)
repeated leitmotifs and elemental repetition—use of a succession of short units, building of staccato effects into lengthy structures
Use of language of affect—“poor,” “little,” etc. rather than mere descriptive details
11. Are there elements of sentimentality in the humorous/grotesque episodes? Does caricature undercut the sentimentality? (mixing of some conventional modes—melodrama, satire, caricature, tragedy, pathos and bathos)
12. Are these "sentimental" mannerisms also characteristics of Dickens’s style at other places in the novel?
13. How is it possible to like Dickens’s novels but claim to respond coolly to what has been called his sentimentality?
14. Dickens has possibly been the most popular of Victorian novelists with critics of past thirty years. Why do you think this may have been the case?
15. How do sentimental passages differ—or do they differ—from comic/grotesque ones? Are there elements of sentimentality in the humorous/grotesque episodes? Does caricature undercut the sentimentality? (mixing of some conventional modes—melodrama, satire, caricature, tragedy, pathos and bathos)
16. What are some distinctive features of the character of Mr. Dombey? How complex is his portrayal? Do we learn more about him as the novel moves through its second half?
17. What are characteristics of Dickens’s presentation of children? (meek, repressed, naturally filial—Florence passionately loves a father who has never exhibited the slightest interest toward her. Dickens’s children pine inwardly, but do not act out. Also his children precociously imitate adult sexual/gender roles.)
18. Are Paul and Florence perceived from within? In general, how would you describe Dickens's characterizations?
19. What are some instances of foreshadowing throughout the novel? (109, other occasions when Paul thinks of death)
20. What seems significant about little Paul's reluctance to play with other children? (another instance of foreshadowing) What symbolism surrounds his debility and death?
21. Is Paul's illness and death realistically portrayed? Why may Dickens have demphasized the physical effects of his decline and death?
22. What features, if any, of Victorian education are parodied in the presentation of Paul’s education?
--insufficient attention to what the child doesn't understand
--same education for all
--lack of play or recreation
--little emphasis on relating learning to child's life
--reduction of all literature to grammar and syntax, rigid systematization, 143
--inculcation of superficial knowledge on a scattered array of topics, 161
--emphasis on calculation, numbers
23. In Dickens’ world, how are children of the opposite sex attached to each other? (brother-sister bonding strong) Do Dickens’ children have sexual emotions? (act out Victorian adult monogramous sex roles 81, 262, 693; strange “innocent” practices of adult romantic responses cloaked as brother-sister relationships)
24. What is Dickens’s notion of the ideal family? (Tight bonding forms the ideal nuclear family—Florence cares for none but Walter.)
25. Were there literary and/or social historical antecedents for presenting the estrangement of father and daughter? (Lear-Cordelia theme; in Victorian England there were many cases of restrictive patriarchs? e. g., the fathers of EBB, Charlotte Bronte, even George Eliot)
26. Dickens has often been accused of presenting limited and trivial female characters—are the portrayals of Florence, Edith, Louisa, Alice, Harriet, or alternately, of the male characters, sex-stereotyped?
27. How about Edith? (380, 394, 423, 761) Do we come to understand her motivations? Why do you think she is not permitted reclamation at the end, as is Dombey?
28. How are marriage and adultery treated throughout the plot? Are there circumstances under which desertion might be justified, do you think? (Dombey wronged and deserted, 665; a person can only love once, 806; ultimately it is Edith who is seen as the greater transgressor, whatever her husband's faults)
29. How do older women fare in this novel?
30. What are some functions of the Walter Gay-Gills-Cuttle sub-plot? The Miss Tox-Joey Bagstock subplot? The Edith-Cleopatra-Carker subplot? The entrance of Alice and her mother?
31. Is the preoccupation with character stereotypes basically conservative or reformist? Neither? Anti-realistic?
32. Could you describe this novel as allegorical fiction? Or alternately, what are ways in which Dombey is not an allegory? (multiple images for some traits; anatomization of social classes and types; complexity of Edith and Dombey moves away from stereotypes of male and female pride—the proud suffer and interact)
33. Do you agree that this novel has a unity of theme to which all minor incidents are subordinated? What are some of its basic themes?
--reproof of toadyism, hypocrisy, affectation
--importance of sincere love as the deepest human value, far surpassing economic wealth and prestige
--need for love in rearing of children
--evils of pride (thought not pride per se but a controlling possessiveness seems to be Mr. Dombey’s sin—wants to buy friendship, respect, family life, but not to share these benefits)
--union of good characters, importance of fundamental goodwill, forgiveness and love
--possiblity of love beyond conventional family units (often the most enduring 'families" are those of choice rather than blood, or which consist of brother and sister, uncle and nephew, etc. rather than parents with their children)
34. What social classes are represented in this novel? (E. g., where on the social scale is Mr. Dombey, James Carker, John and Harriet Carker, Edith and her mother, Cousin Feenix, Miss Tox, Sol Gills, Captain Cuttle, Susan Nipper, Mrs. Brown and her daughter, etc.) Are any left out?
35. What form of social commentary is made by Dickens’ presentation of members of these different social classes? Where, if anywhere, may true goodness be found? (in all social classes) Would this view have appealed to a wide popular audience?
36. Based on incidents in the novel, what types of social reforms do you think Dickens would have favored? (favored remedy of abuses, such as lack of education for poor; excessive incarceration)
37. Do you think that at the time of this novel (1846) Dickens would have favored basic changes in the economic system of Victorian Britain?
For example, is he uninterested in considering alternate possibilities for social organization—since love and true feeling will melt cruelty and injustice? (This was a common approach by middle-class authors in the 1840s—cmp. Gaskell’s Mary Barton, 1848.)
38. Are the themes of Dombey and Son also central to Victorian prose and autobiography? (Ruskin: wealth vs. life; Mill: argument against preference for sons over daughters; Ruskin and Arnold: social dominance of mercantile wealth; Martineau: absence of tenderness in Victorian childrearing)
39. How can social harmony come to be achieved in the world of Dombey and Son ? (through loyalty of domestic units, forgiveness, female probity—how does this compare and contrast with the novels of Gaskell? George Eliot?)
40. What are some of the ways the novel is structured? Do you feel Dickens’ use of repetitions, parallels and contrasts of scene and language is effective? Does it add to the novel's incremental effect?
41. Does the novel increase in intensity towards the end? How is the effect of inevitable progression/movement achieved?
42. Are there elements of sado-masochism in the relationship between Edith and Carker? Would you agree with Kathleen Tillotson in comparing the Edith-Carker episode to melodrama?
43. What are Carker's motives in eloping with Edith? Are his impulses romantic?
44. Why doesn’t Edith escape by herself? That is, why doesn't she simply fail to meet Carker in Dijon? (764, wishes simultaneous revenge on Dombey and on Carker)
45. What are some important features of the final scene between Edith and Carker? For example, what is added by the French setting, the presence of food and retainers, the inner doors and back stairways?
46. What response does the reader have toward the fleeing Carker? What are some features of his inner consciousness in these scenes?
47. Does his death seem appropriate? (768) (hated victim motif—we feel pity) Is he "punished" by the plot more than are Dombey and Edith, and if so, why?
49. Why do you think Dickens included a foreign setting?
50. In general, how are different forms of transportation used throughout the novel, especially trains and coaches?
51. What are some important elements of the scene in which Florence is reconciled with her father? Why does she ask his forgiveness? Does he ask hers?
52. How is the scene in which Florence bids farewell to Edith contrasted with that in which she reconciles with her father? What assumptions lie behind Florence's relative emotional distance from her stepmother?
53. Why does she insist that Edith send a plea for forgiveness? How does Edith respond? (871) Is a similar acknowledgement of past error or statement of good will required from Mr. Dombey?
54. What role does Cousin Feenix play in this scene?
55. How satisfactory do you find the ending? Are the plots neatly resolved? Are you satisfied with the final outcome of the novel for Dombey? for Walter and Florence and their children? For Edith?How about the novel's basic themes?
56. What are some ways in which Dickens uses humor? How does this reinforce the novel's basic themes? (103, 120, 124, the unexpected, irony)
57. How is food used throughout the novel? What are some scenes in which it is emphasized?
58. How is the motive of spying or eavesdropping used throughout the novel? Of the use of others as proxies for spying?
59. To what extent are the events of this novel probable or realistic? What are some instances of improbable conjuntions or outcomes? Do these help or hinder the novel's effectiveness? (Walter's rapid rise from seaman to wealthy businessman)
60. What are some theatrical elements of the novel? Does it employ some of the conventions of melodrama?
61. In a novel which concerns "pride," what other forms of pride are evinced besides that of Mr. Dombey and Edith? Are any of these forms of pride also forms of honor?
62. Do motifs of fairy tale and legend appear throughout this novel? Are they successful in creating a tone of fantasy and possibility?
63. What are some of the novel’s repeated images? (light and darkness, the sea, dark house)
64. What are some instances of language play? What effect do these have? How are these related to the depiction of class differences?
65. What are some notable instances of authorial intrusion? What do these add to the novel?
66. What purpose would have been served by repetition and foreshadowing in a serialized novel? In popular fiction?
67. How important to the novel has been the presence of minor characters, such as Mrs. Chick, Toots and Susan Nipper? The servants and tradespeople?
68. What purpose has been served by the John Carker/Harriet Carker/Mr. Morfin subplot? By the scenes which include Alice Marwood and "Mrs. Brown"?
69. What is added to the novel by the illustrations? Do you find them suitable? How would you describe their tone and intention?