Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
This was my third reading of Our Mutual Friend and this time I saw a great deal of bitterness on Dickens’ part, a writer who, despite an ending where the main characters end up not only happy but prosperous and where the bad guys are punished, associated business success, society and wealth with swindling and hypocrisy. The Podsnaps, the Veneerings, Flegby, and the Lammles and most of “society” are irredeemable. Humorous—certainly, though not among Dickens’ best satires. And static. The social gatherings of these characters—who were not aristocrats so much as those who have exploited others to grab on to their piece of the rock—are mock socials, where everyone plays a part and no real interchange of ideas or feelings takes place. Dickens, of course, planned that—to show how close they were to play acting. (These occasions remind me of the
Mr. Boffin, "The Golden Dustman", miraculously manages to maintain his good nature in spite of his money, though he is tried first and found worthy. John Harmon is allowed to regain his wealth only after he’s given it up and learned the value of love and honor as a poor man. Eugene Wrayburn, an upper class twit who is redeemed by the love of a lower class woman, even manages to turn around MRF (my respected father, as
Bella Wilfer, like her husband, has to be deprived of money and position to learn to appreciate what to Dickens are real values, and the father she adores, who has a desk in the corner furthest from the fire at Chicksey Veneering and Stobbles in Mincing Lane and is constantly demeaned by his wife as unassertive and unambitious, is likewise immune to the siren song of the social position that goes with money. Though Mrs. Wilfer’s pretentious posings are far funnier than those of the Veneering set.
My least favorite Dickens’ novels are Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby, and they seem to me to be driven by an anger and a bitterness that override the human drama and that is more the case in Our Mutual Friend than I detected earlier. Podsnappery is clever and amusing but superficial.
The real drama in Our Mutual Friend is provided primarily by Bradley Headstone whose obsession with Lizzie causes him to alienate everyone who cares for him. His jealousy of Eugene causes him to follow compulsively as Eugene laughs at him, causes him ultimately to try to murder Eugene and blame it on Rogue Riderhood, the river denizen who just happens to be minding the lock (fraught word that) that leads to where Lizzie—anxious to preserve her respectability—has hidden herself. Riderhood, an unabashed low life, understands and seeks to profit by Bradley’s obsession and ends up killing them both. In a post-Freudian time, Headstone might be an episode’s leading man on Law & Order, one where the psychiatrist is the chief witness. Interestingly, only the villain Headstone is, like the good guys of the novel, relatively uninterested in money and society.
I go back to Bleak House as my "favorite Dickens".