‘Our Mutual Friend’ is Charles Dickens’ last complete novel and one of his most complex and intricate works. The novel revolves around the River Thames and around wealth, especially that which results from the financial industry.
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Dickens is harsh in his criticism of such wealth, which is gathered without labour and refers to it as ‘mounds of dust i.e. piles of papers which gather dust. Despite having a strong social message, Our Mutual Friend is a novel with strong elements of romance, mystery, suspense, comedy and other elements designed to the masses.
‘Our Mutual Friend’ can be considered an example of popular literature. Popular literature is the name given to the body of work whose main appeal is to mass audiences rather than an elite group of literature connoisseurs and literary critics. Popular literature is designed to entertain common people. It may often have content that is considered trite and clichéd, simplistic and silly or bawdy and offensive to educated people. Critics often see works of popular literature as lacking in artistic content.
During his lifetime and afterwards Charles Dickens found widespread acclaim as a writer of popular literature. His works appealed to the masses, especially to the middle class who often accessed his works in the form of monthly or weekly instalments in mass published periodicals. At the same time, despite his popularity, his works were often decried by literary intellectuals as altogether lacking in artistic merit.
Our Mutual Friend never gained the popularity of Dickens’ earlier works such as Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. The reason for this is that ‘Our Mutual Friend’ like ‘Bleak House’ before it reflects greatly the author’s social concerns and the humour element of the novel is reduced and subordinated to the social message.
One of the attributes of Dickens’ novels that caused him to be condemned by critics is the fact that his novels contained a lot of humour. It was believed that the presence of humour and comedy in a work rendered it completely vulgar and common and not fit to be appreciated by learned people.
Dickens portrays the city as a place of mutual conflict and harsh Darwinian survival of the fittest. Dickens’ London is characterised by poverty and pollution caused by industrialisation. Dickens’ city can be seen in many ways as the polar opposite of his depiction of the countryside, which is peaceful and green.
Dickens writings not only touched the reading public but also the uneducated underclass of his times through stage productions. These productions were usually unauthorized and because intellectual property laws were in their infancy during Dickens’ times, the author had no absolutely no control over the dramatizations of his works.
One of the side effects of these popular dramatizations was that many of the critics of Dickens’ time associated his works with low-brow popular fare. According to one snobbish reviewer of Dickens’ works, “We have never met a single man of high cultivation who regarded Dickens in the light of an artist at all, or looked upon his books as greatly worth the attention of persons capable of appreciating better things”.
Dickens’ humour was offensive to the serious-minded critics of his times. The presence of humour in his novels meant that they condemned his work to the lowest strata of literature and denied his artistic ability. According to one critic:”You take up the esteemed writers, Thucydides and the Saturday Review; after all, they do not make you laugh. It is not the function of really artistic productions to contribute to the mirth of human beings”.
Dickens times were those of rapid change in the society. Rapid industrialization led to vast political and economic changes. Industrialization rendered thousands of people without a living and forced others into mindless, backbreaking and low-paying jobs which left them with little time for themselves or their families.
In many families even little children had employed as industrial workers in order for the family to survive. The new era also saw great change in the relationship between different social classes, the rich no longer saw themselves as being obliged to protect and help the poor.
The idea that the unfortunate were merely unfit for survival and that having wealth meant having an inherent superiority and a right to exploit the less fortunate permeated the upper class. Industrialization, while making thousands of people poor and jobless, also made some people very rich, who previously belonged to the lower classes. This new breed of rich people may not have possessed the same spirit of noblesse oblige that was much esteemed among the ‘old money’ rich people.
In the opening scene of the novel a father and daughter (Gaffer Hexam and Lizzie) ply the Thames looking for drowned people. The father and daughter duo make a living by turning in drowned bodies to the authorities after first stripping them of their valuables.
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They find a drowned man who is subsequently misidentified as John Harmon, the heir to the Harmon estate. There are two stories told in the novel, the first is that of the real John Harmon and the other is that of Lizzie Hexam, the connecting element of both stories is the misidentification of the drowned man as John Harmon.
After the death of his father, John Harmon has returns to London to claim his inheritance. The will left by his father’s obliges him to marry a certain Bella Wilfer; failing that his inheritance will go to his father’s loyal employees the Boffins, consisting of Noddy Boffin and his wife. When his ship reaches to London, Harmon’s travel companion George Radfoot makes up a plan to seize his wealth by killing him and adopting his identity.
He hires a boatman called Rouge Riderhood to aid him in this. Harmon is drugged and dressed in Radfoot’s clothes while Radfoot himself takes up Hexam’s appearance. Radfoot then tries to drown Harmon but Harmon somehow manages to drown him instead. It is George’s body that is found and incorrectly identified as that of Harmon.
John Harmon then adopts another identity; that of ‘John Rokesmith’ in order to examine Bella more intimately. Since he has been declared dead, his fortune has passed on to the Boffins. As Rokesmith, Harmon takes up a job as a secretary to Noddy Boffin. Out of a pity for Bella Wilfer, who lives in poverty, the Boffins take her in. They are very conscious of being illiterate and from a poor background and attempt to acquire the education that is more in fitting with their new financial state.
Noddy Boffin employs a one-legged man named Silas Wegg to read to them, Wegg is very envious of their new found prosperity and finds in the deceased Harmon’s estate another will with which he can acquire more money from the Boffins. Weggs enlists the aid of Mr Venus, a taxidermist, in his effort to blackmail the Boffins, but Venus later regrets his decision to aid Wegg and reveals the plan to Harmon. Harmon falls in love with Bella, but Bella values money and not knowing him to be the heir of the Harmon fortune, initially rejects him.
Over the course of the novel Bella is reformed, becomes less mercenary and agrees to marry John. Boffin escapes Wegg’s blackmail by revealing yet another will, in which he is the beneficiary of the Harmon estate regardless of whether John marries Bella or not. However he decides to leave everything to John and Bella upon the death of him and his wife.
The second story of the novel is concerned with Lizzie Hexam and her father. Gaffer Hexam, who discovered the corpse believed to be that of John Harmon, is accused of having killed him by Rouge Riderhood. Harmon has to decide whether he is obliged to reveal himself so that the innocent Gaffer and his daughter Lizzie do not suffer.
However Harmon decides on another course of action, he finds Rouge Riderhood, who had conspired with Radfoot to kill him, and blackmails him into helping absolve Gaffer Hexam of the crime by recanting his accusation.
An ineffectual gentleman named Eugene Wrayburn becomes obsessed with Lizzie. He feels that he cannot marry her because of her low social standing and her moral beliefs do not permit her to become his mistress. Lizzie has a brother Charlie who she encouraged to leave home and seek education. She gains another ardent suitor in the form of Charlie’s teacher Bradley Headstone. Headstone’s strong desire for Lizzie frightens her. He becomes enraged at Wrayburn and attempts to kill him.
Lizzie leaves London to bring an end to the conflict between Wrayburn and Headstone. She hides with Jenny Wren, a crippled girl who makes a living by making dresses for dolls and cares for her alcoholic father. Lizzie is searched by both Wrayburn and Headstone and eventually found by Wrayburn who is being followed by Headstone. Headstone attempts to drown Wrayburn and she rescues him, he conquers his social inhibitions against marrying a lower class woman and she becomes his wife.
Rouge Riderhood tries to blackmail Headstone about his attempt at Wryburn’s life. Headstone attempts to kill Riderhood and both of them are drowned. There are several minor characters that play a part in this novel; many of them have their own little stories which fit into the broader pastiche of the two main stories.
Some of these characters include Veerings who are a pretentious and vacuous, nouveau riche family who wish to project an image of respectability that comes with belonging to ‘old money’. A money lender named Fascination Fledgeby defrauds them of their wealth, aided by his assistant Riah the Jew. Riah is forced to be the public face of Fledgeby’s money lending enterprise. Riah finds what he does immoral but is forced to do it due to circumstances.
Another interesting character is that of Mr. Podsnap. Mr. Podsnap exemplifies a mindless and misguided nationalism. Podsnap tends to boast about the qualities that make Englishmen superior to other nations, without having any of these qualities in himself.
He boasts to a Frenchman that the English possess “, a modesty, an independence, a responsibility, a repose, combined with an absence of everything calculated to call a blush into the cheek of a young person, which one would seek in vain among the Nations of the Earth”, while at the same time his character is that of an immodest, irresponsible, calculating and unscrupulous man.
Betty Higden is a minor character who dreads having to enter the poorhouse. She would rather starve to death in a ditch then be seen living on public expense .Miss Peecher, the schoolmistress is described as “Small, shining, neat and methodical”, she has the ability to write an essay on any subject, “exactly a slate long, beginning at the left-hand top of one side and ending at the right-hand bottom of the other, and the essay should be strictly according to rule.”
The characters of Noddy Boffin and his wife are meant to poke fun at the nouveau riche and their desire to emulate the ‘old money’ families. Noddy Boffin wishes to adopt the learning and culture of the upper classes while his wife wants to mimic their outer appearance by displaying her newly acquired wealth.
John Podsnap, a smug and jingoistic man of the nouveau riche represents the more harmful aspects of this social change. Podsnap looks down upon the poor and is an advocate for social reproduction of poverty and class differences, as evidenced by his condemnation of Wrayburn’s marriage to Lizzie Hexam.
Jenny Wren is a typical pathetic character of popular literature, especially the type of literature that was, in those times, aimed at women. According to an early review, “Miss Jenny Wren is a poor little dwarf, afflicted, as she constantly reiterates, with a ‘bad back’ and ‘queer legs,’ who makes dolls’ dresses, and is forever pricking at those with whom she converses, in the air, with her needle, and assuring them that she knows their ‘tricks and their manners.’
Like all Mr Dickens’s pathetic characters, she is a little monster; she is deformed, unhealthy, unnatural; she belongs to the troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and precocious children who have carried on the sentimental business in all Mr Dickens’s novels; the little Nells, the Smikes, the Paul Dombeys.”.
Riah the Jew is Dickens’ attempt to make amends for his earlier negative portrayals of Jews such as the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Riah has been depicted as an entirely well meaning and virtuous person who does not wish to exploit or harm anyone. He finds employment opportunities for young women in miserable circumstances at the factories owned by his fellow Jews.
In contrast to Riah, his employer Fledgeby is a Christian, but possesses all the negative attributes, such as a great lust for wealth, propensity to defraud people, financial chicanery and sexually exploiting and lusting after younger women etc. that are stereotypically attributed to Jews.
Certain aspects of the novel echo those of Dickens’ own life. Like Jenny Wren the doll’s dressmaker, Dickens was forced to work in his childhood in order to provide for his family while his father was in debtors prison. Dickens grew up in poverty in London, and the scenes of poverty and destituteness that he has portrayed in his works may be considered authentic portrayals of what life was like for the poor in those days.
While there is an overarching social message in ‘Our Mutual Friend’, the books displays many of the attributes of works of popular literature. It is possible to see the work primarily as a romance novel; depicting the romance between John Harmon and Bella Wilfer and that between Eugene Rayburn and Lizzie Hexam.
The attempt of a poor man to gain the affections of a girl intent upon marrying a rich man is a common trope in romance novels. Similarly a poor girl being at once courted by a roguish commoner and a gentleman is another common trope.
It is also possible to see the novel as a mystery story; what is the story of the man recovered from the river and who is the true heir of the estate left by Old Harmon? Is John Harmon really dead or not? The novel also contains several comic elements. Noddy Boffin and his attempts at acquiring an education and sounding profound and wise are a continual source of humour throughout the novel. Silas Wegg is one of the villains of the novel but is also one of the wittiest and funniest characters.
Jenny Wren is a tragic character which tugs at people’s heartstrings and appeals to their sense of pathos. All in all it is not difficult to view the novel as work of popular literature, however compared to Dickens’ earlier works; the popular content of this novel is subordinate to its social message.
P Collins, The Critical Heritage: Charles Dickens, Routledge, London, UK, 1986.
C Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, Digireads.com, New York, NY, 2009.
H James, “Review on Our Mutual Friend”, The Nation, December 21, 1865.
E D H Johnson, Charles Dickens: An Introduction to His Novels, Random House, New York, NY, 1969.
R Newson, Charles Dickens revisited,Twayne Publishers, New York, NY, 2000.
- P Collins, The Critical Heritage: Charles Dickens, Routledge, London, UK, 1986, p. 7.
- Collins, p. 14.
- Collins, p. 10
- Collins, p.566)
- Collins, p. 14
- R Newson, Charles Dickens revisited,Twayne Publishers, New York, NY, 2000, p. 240.
- Collins, p. 255
- E D H Johnson, Charles Dickens: An Introduction to His Novels, Random House, New York, NY, 1969, p. 246.
- Dickens, p. 90
- Dickens, p. 146
- Collins, p. 472
- James, Henry. “Review on Our Mutual Friend.” The Nation, December 21, 1865.
- Johnson, p. 243
- Johnson, p. 54