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Classics Corner

Our Mutual Friend
by Charles Dickens
Our Mutual Friend was the last novel Charles Dickens completed and is, arguably, his darkest and most complex. The basic plot is vintage Dickens: an inheritance up for grabs, a murder, a rocky romance or two, plenty of skullduggery, and a host of unforgettable secondary characters. But in this final outing the author's heroes are more flawed, his villains more sympathetic, and the story as a whole more harrowing and less sentimental. The mood is set in the opening scene in which a riverman, Gaffer Hexam, and his daughter Lizzie troll the Thames searching for drowned men whose pockets Gaffer will rifle before turning the body over to the authorities. On this particular night Gaffer finds a corpse that is later identified as that of John Harmon, who was returning from abroad to claim a large fortune when he was apparently murdered and thrown into the river.
      Harmon's death is the catalyst for everything else that happens in the novel. It seems the fortune was left to the young man on the condition that he marry a girl he'd never met, Bella Wilfer. His death, however, brings a new heir onto the scene, Nicodemus Boffin, the kind-hearted but low-born assistant to Harmon's father. Boffin and his wife adopt young Bella, who is determined to marry money, and also hire a mysterious young secretary, John Rokesmith, who takes an uncommon interest in their ward. Not content with just one plot, Dickens throws in a secondary love story featuring the riverman's daughter, Lizzie Hexam; a dissolute young upper-class lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn; and his rival, the headmaster Bradley Headstone. Dark as the novel is, Dickens is careful to leaven it with secondary characters who are as funny as they are menacing--blackmailing Silas Wegg and his accomplice Mr. Venus, the avaricious Lammles, and self-centered Charlie Hexam. Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens's most satisfying novels, and a fitting denouement to his prolific career. --Alix Wilber

From: Ann Davey Date: Sunday, November 02, 2003 11:35 AM The Classics Corner book for November is Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley has said about Dickens and this novel: he wrote Our Mutual Friend, which is my favorite and in which the style is perfect, the characters are fabulous and all the parts of the novel are beautifully integrated with one another. Do you agree?
From: Beej Connor Date: Monday, November 03, 2003 08:17 AM Tho I had reservations with Book the First, things really picked up with Book the I'd have to agree with Smiley. As with all Dickens' novels, this was first published in serial form and I think it probably was better suited for that form. Much of Book the First was really difficult to get through. Dickens slams us with intricate details of so many characters that, for a while, I thought I would never get through the book..and I'm still not done. But, with the very beginning of Book the Second, there was a delightful turn. Now I'm glad I sludged thru all the characters' background material, because with the onset of the (much easier to read) Book the Second, I feel I know these people. This is a masterpiece. Absolutely. Beej
From: Candy Minx Date: Monday, November 03, 2003 04:25 PM Stillcatching up...but getting into the characters for sure! I am really looking forward to this one, it seems like ages since I sunk down with Dickens... a small note I loved the first intro to the Veneerings where we heard they had brand new this and brand new that. I thought it was interesting that there name contained "veneer" as in facade or fake?
From: Beej Connor Date: Tuesday, November 04, 2003 10:00 AM What a bunch of dark and dismal characters..even the (very few) lighthearted characters are shadowed with a sense of gloom..makes me wonder what Dickens state of mind was when he wrote this. I haven't read all the Dickens' novels but I think this one has the most involved, intricate character development of all the ones I have read. I can see, even tho I'm not quite half done, why some consider this to be his greatest. Beej
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Tuesday, November 04, 2003 01:34 PM Beej -- I'm just over half-way done, loving the writing, but don't want to venture into the Introduction for background. However, the tiny bio of Dickens at the beginning of the edition I'm reading (Modern Library) says: "Our Mutual Friend, published in 1865, was his last completed novel, and perhaps the most somber and savage of his later works. Dickens was weakened by years of overwork and by a near-fatal railroad disaster during the writing of Our Mutual Friend." Candy-- Yes, Veneering is just such a perfect, and perfectly Dickensian, name. Though I guess Dickens was following a tradition within some English writing (didn't Restoration playwrights also give some of their characters descriptive names?) Very funny, anyway. Mary Ellen
From: Barbara Moors Date: Tuesday, November 04, 2003 07:01 PM I'm only on page 97, just because my life has been very busy lately, and I tried to cram in too many books before I started it. However, if you don't mind, I'm going to post a bit as I go along. Dickens' wit and his power of description keep me smiling and occasionally chuckling out loud. One of my favorites was his portrait of Boffin: The words referred to a broad, round-shouldered, one-sided old fellow in mourning, coming comically ambling towards the corner, dressed in a pea overcoat, and carrying a large stick. He wore thick shoes, and thick leather gaiters, and thick gloves like a hedger's. Both as to his dress and to himself, he was of an overlapping rhinoceros build, with folds in his cheeks, and his forehead, and his eyelids, and his lips, and his ears; but with bright, eager, childishly-inquiring grey eyes, under his ragged eyebrows, and broad-brimmed hat. A very odd looking old fellow altogether. Barb
From: Dale Short Date: Tuesday, November 04, 2003 10:30 PM I just picked this one up at the library today and am about to take it bedward and dig in. I'm looking forward to more Dickens, even the dark variety. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Barbara Moors Date: Wednesday, November 05, 2003 07:32 AM Oh good, I'm delighted as I see each new name joining in on this one. I nominated it and I feel bad that I'm getting started late. I made good progress last night though and loved the story of the couple who got married thinking that each had a fortune. Plus, Charles does a wonderful rant on "shares." Barb
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Thursday, November 06, 2003 12:49 PM I have about 200 pp to go (and no time for sustained reading in sight!). I find my appreciation of the book increases as I go on. At first, I saw the characters as colorfully drawn 2-dimensional figures and was mainly enjoying the style and humor in the writing. But I have found the major characters much richer and fuller as I've gone on, and now I really care about what happens to them (one measure of "realness" in depiction of character for me). Bearing in mind the warning that this is Dickens's "darkest" of his later works, I am afraid things won't come out right in the end -- that Mr. Boffin won't come round to his senses, and Mrs. Boffin's heart won't be eased, and Fledgeby will not get what he deserves, and (in another sense), neither will Lizzie or Jenny or Mr. Riah. So I'm in the odd state of wanting to know, quickly, what happens, and not wanting the book to end! Mary Ellen
From: Dale Short Date: Saturday, November 08, 2003 11:12 PM Wow! What a formidable book this is. The opening chapters are definitely daunting, especially the slang and shop talk during the social gathering. It was Mortimer who phrased my condition best when he said, "I am far from being clear as to the last particular." But when Dickens turns to straightforward description, such as the interior of the Hexams' cottage, scenes come alive for me as if they're happening right now. What a talent. I've still got a long ways to go, but I'm caught up in Dickens' authority...a sort of high-wire act of seeing just many disparate story threads he can bring in and still make them all fit together. I'm looking forward to the rest of the haul. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, November 08, 2003 11:40 PM I have 330 pages yet to go but Dale, I think one of the most outstanding qualities of this book is that which you many subplots! As you go on in the book, they all become clear and they all intertwine. The thread that seems to connect them all is money and how it, or the lack of it, affects each of these characters...and what an absolutely perfect beginning for this novel to have poor Gaffer and Lizzie Hexam going about their livelihood of fishing dead bodies out of the Thames in order to empty the pockets of those who had drowned! I'm sure that entire thing is metaphorical. I think, as more folks finish this book, we'll get into a grand comparison between Belle Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam and what they stand for. This book has an almost never ending supply of stuff to discuss..I won't say much more until we're all finished reading tho. Barb, thanks for nominating this one. It's quite the reading experience. Beej
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Monday, November 10, 2003 02:07 PM I finished this over the weekend and can't wait to discuss it! But for now I'll discipline myself & type no more! Mary Ellen
From: Candy Minx Date: Wednesday, November 12, 2003 03:29 PM I'm catching up and have had very little time to read or post...I'm in the thick of reading back tonight or tomorrow morning......
From: Beej Connor Date: Thursday, November 13, 2003 09:32 PM I'm curious to know who all is reading this? So far, I think it's myself, Candy, Dale, Ernie, Mary Ellen and Barb Moors. Anyone else? How far along are y'all? I have about 140 pages left to read and hopefully, will finish by tomorrow night. It's difficult to post anything without knowing the fates of these characters yet! I will say, though, the character of Fascination Fledgeby reminds me of Uriah Heep..he's downright dastardly! His displays of antisemitism made me cringe. Mr. Riah was such a kind and gentle soul, and I hurt with every nasty, prejudiced word Fledgeby threw his way..(speaking of which, I read that Dickens included the character of Riah in this book as a means of making amends for the stereotypical Fagin in 'Oliver Twist.') Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Thursday, November 13, 2003 09:35 PM Anyone have any thoughts about who..or what..'our mutual friend' is? For awhile I thought it was 'money,' but money seems to be most of the characters' mutual enemy. Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, November 14, 2003 12:55 PM Oh god, I feel soooooo alone *sob* :( Okay, how's this for a theory as to who's our mutual friend? I'm going to say death is our mutual friend. (well, at least in this book, it is, methinks.) Beej
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Friday, November 14, 2003 01:35 PM Beej, don't feel blue! I've been waiting for the conversation to start and hoping it would start before I'd lost my enthusiasm (and memory) for discussing this book! At one point, somebody (Mr. Boffin?) refers to Boffin's secretary (his name escapes me! and he's such an important character!) as "our mutual friend." His character does pull quite a few of the plot threads together. I think one of the brilliant things about the use of the Riah character is that Dickens isn't just indicting the execrable Fledgeby. Fledgeby wouldn't get away with his horrible use of poor Riah for cover, but for the anti-Semitism of everybody else! Even Jenny Wrenn is willing to think the worst of her gentle "godmother." (Of course, Riah was complicit in some pretty rotten dealings for a long time. I wondered why it took so long for his human decency gene to kick in...) Mary Ellen
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, November 14, 2003 01:50 PM Mary Ellen, I remember that reference to Mr. Boffin's secretary, and immediately figured that solved the mystery of the title, but I've changed my mind and think Dickens was just playing with us..The secretary (John Rokesmith?) was an important character but far from having enough importance to carry the title, tho I do believe Dickens is giving us a hint with the reference you mention. The book begins with the drowning death of a young man. Then we get to the death of Gaffer Hexam..the death of the elder Harmon, and move on to the death of baby John Harmon and then the death of Betty. Etc, etc..(so as not to give more away.) Each of these deaths led to some sort of union among these characters. One by one, lives began to intertwine and relationships, of one sort or another, evolved. Without it all, there would have been no novel. Death seems to have been the mutual friend who brought these people together. Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, November 14, 2003 02:07 PM Oh yes, Riah; I got the impression that even he bought into Fledgeby's antisemitism. He was so accepting of it. He almost totally lost a sense of self, didn't he? Also, Candy had mentioned the names; do you think there's anything in the fact that two of these women, Lizzie and Betty, have names rooted from the same name, Elizabeth? Is Dickens leading us to draw some sort of comparison between these two characters? Also, I thought it interesting that the surnames of the two dead fathers, fathers who had such a major affect on their offspring, were named Harmon(y?) and Hex(am). Beej
From: Barbara Moors Date: Sunday, November 16, 2003 09:27 AM My conferences last week really slowed my reading down again but I'm back at it this weekend. For anyone who is involved in the first 200 pages or so, please stick with it. The rest of the book starts rolling into Dickens the storyteller as we all know and love him. I'm also interested that he has more axes to grind in this book in little rants occasionally that I remember in any Dickens book except, perhaps, Bleak House. The first one was the man who had "shares". Then, the section on people who wrote to the Boffins for money had the ring of things that Dickens had experienced as a famous, popular writer who was perceived to have a lot of money. Oh, and the comments on schools and the "education" going on in them ring a particularly strong bell with me. This man was a colossus. Mary Ellen, please go right ahead and start discussing. If you are worried about spoiling it for any of us, just post a spoiler alert. It sounds like Beej is almost up with you and I will be there soon. I sincerely apologize for being such a latecomer on this one. I really didn't budget my reading time well. Barb
From: Dale Short Date: Sunday, November 16, 2003 11:10 AM Barb: Satire as social commentary doesn't get much better than this, does it? I'm also struck by how many of Dickens' grinding axes seem timely in 2003, particularly the arrogance and obliviousness of the privileged class. By all means, folks, please post away. I'm approaching the halfway point of OMF, but the number and scale of plot threads has long ago exceeded my brain's ability (never very hardy) to follow in detail what's going on. As a result I'm enjoying the beauty of the writing and the characterizations, and look forward to hearing others' comments. Onward, >>Dale in Ala.
From: Beej Connor Date: Sunday, November 16, 2003 01:03 PM I still have 70+ pages to read yet. (I would have been done yesterday but instead of reading, I got caught up in the looonnnnng FSU/NC football game, which went into a second husband and son..lucky brats...were at the game, sitting at the 45 yard line..'GO 'NOLES!') I should be done today. I've been doing some browsing and came across this original cover: And here's an excellent report on Dickens and 'The Composition, Publication, and Reception of Our Mutual Friend.' Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Monday, November 17, 2003 09:30 AM I'm done. Something in this book that kind of intrigues me is the symbolic use of the dust mounds. I take it these mounds were basically charred landfill...rubbish. People would sift through these mounds hoping to find items of worth that had been inadvertently discarded. Mary Ellen, I'm really interested in your thoughts about the dust mounds and all their symbolic implications. The following includes stuff from the very end of the book and, Dale and Barb, you might want to wait to read it... Old Mr. Harmon had made his fortune, around which so much of the story revolves, from trash picking through the dust mounds. Young John Harmon will inherit his father's wealth only if he marries Bella Wilfer. I think Dickens' use of tying the dust mounds in with wealth and societal acceptance was a display of pure genius. The symbolism is gigantic. Not only was the fortune amassed from these garbage heaps, the final Harmon will was found in one of them. Add in the fact that the last dust heap was removed from the mansion's lot on the same day that John and Bella Harmon move into the mansion, and the symbolism deepens. Beej
From: Jody Richael Date: Monday, November 17, 2003 04:07 PM I finished this book a while ago but haven't found the time to post until now. Dickin's is one of my favorite authors and I was surprised to see that I hadn't read this book before. I found the first half slow going as I was trying to keep all the characters straight but the second half was enthralling. I didn't want to put it down. I've found that to be true of many Dickin's novels - the first half is work but well worth the reward at the end! I would probably say that if the title "Our Mutual Friend" is meant to be symbolic it would represent money or wealth. It was the one aspect of the book that seemed to reflect in some way on every character's personality. I had a hard time accepting Lizzie and Eugene together. I thought Dicken's had created Lizzie as a little too good and moral and then all of a sudden she is in love with someone like Eugene who really doesn't deserve her. Anyone else feel the same? Was there intended to be a lot of suspense around the identity of John Rokesmith/John Harmon/etc.? I think there was a comment that Dicken's didn't intend to have the reader guessing throughout the entire novel. However, my edition came with a list of characters at the very beginning where it clearly listed John Harmon and all the aliases he would use in the novel. Jody
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Monday, November 17, 2003 06:03 PM Jody, I agree that the Lizzie/Eugene pairing didn't work. SPOILER! I thought it would come out better if Eugene died, as he clearly was about to do. I can't believe that those 2 will have a happy future; I think his indolent nature will reassert itself and they'll be quite unsuited to each other. I agree that money seemed to be more a theme in this book than death, although literalist that I am, I took Rokesmith to be the mutual friend of the title, as I mentioned before. I don't think Dickens has a dark enough view to refer to death as "our mutual friend" and I also didn't think death played a bigger part in this book than it does in most of his, or most 19th cent. novels, for that matter. (Death of the young/middle aged being more common then than now.) It seemed to me that Dickens killed off folks he needed to kill off, for his plot to work! It took me a while to picture those mounds of debris. Fascinating symbols! That the elder Harmon made his fortune by going through cast-offs, never producing anything on his own (and rejecting what he did produce -- his children)! Mary Ellen
From: Beej Connor Date: Monday, November 17, 2003 11:05 PM As for the meaning of the title, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. It might be a reference to money, yes, but I still hold it's very likely a reference to death. If the wording had been, instead, 'Our Mutual Acquaintance,' it might better explain how I see it; with every death, a new and important acquaintance is made..with the exception of the deaths of Headstone and Riderhood. I've also read that when Dickens first wrote his notes for this novel, he described the drowning death in the opening chapter as 'Done in the Mutual.' This would imply that Our Mutual Friend might just be the river Thames. Why do you think Lizzie/Eugene is such a bad pairing? I think, if anything, Lizzie could use someone a bit more laid back. Was he really more indolent than any other young man of society in that era? I was surprised that you didn't consider that death played a HUGE part in this book, Mary Ellen! I haven't read all the Dickens novels but, even tho death is in each of the ones I have read, it seems by comparison to have played and extraordinarily large role in this particular Dickens. I saw it just the opposite; it seems death was everywhere, and very often death had such great bearing. If the man had not drowned in the Thames in the beginning, Lizzie would have not met Eugene. If the elder Harmon had not died, there would have been no plot to the book..Even the death of the infant John Harmon immediately followed his meeting with John Rokesmith. And Betty's death resulted in Lizzie and Bella's introduction to one another. To me, death in this book was prominent. But, in a book of this size and depth, it's only logical we will all come away with varied takes. That's half the fun of discussing books such as this one! Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Monday, November 17, 2003 11:22 PM There was one character that drove me absolutely crazy..Mrs. Wilfer..she drove me nuts and I just kept wishing she'd shut up. Here's a little neat thing..a map of London, 1862, showing where many of the characters in 'Our Mutual Friend' lived: Beej
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Tuesday, November 18, 2003 01:00 PM Beej, I agree with you that lots of people died in this book. I guess the opening chapter (which would have induced me to put it down, were it not for this CR discussion!) with the Veneerings & crowd, the emphasis on "new money," set me off to see this as a book talking about money: lacking it, acquiring it, scheming for it; its corrupting influence; its rare ability to do good. Not that an 88-page book can't be "about" many things! (I really like the notion that the mutual friend is the Thames, though!) I agree with you 100% about Mrs. Wilfer! She would have been utterly intolerable but for the fact that nearly everyone ignored her! What a trip! (Whenever she went on a rant about her many opportunities to make a better match, I thought of the mother in "The Glass Menagerie" with her 17 gentleman callers!) SPOILERS!! I truly did enjoy this book, but there were a few things (minor quibbles) I just couldn't swallow easily: the transformation(s) of Mr. Boffin (he seemed such a transparent soul -- how did he get to be the consummate actor? and why does he keep up the charade with Wegg for so long?); the Eugene/Lizzie match (discussed above); and the changed character of Bella Wilfer. When we first see her, she's as disagreeable as her mother & sister. As the novel continues, she becomes Miss Sweetness and Light, even when at home with her horrid female relations. Is this the effect of finding True Love? I can understand that her attitude toward Rokesmith/Harmon would change, but not her basic way of responding to people. Mary Ellen
From: Jody Richael Date: Tuesday, November 18, 2003 03:38 PM I agree that the plot would have been more credible had Eugene died. I also cannot picture them living together. I personally would not have been so pleased to marry a man whom I know would never have consented to marry me had he not been on his death bed! The character description of Eugene in my book (done by Dickens?) called him a "briefless barrister, of a gloomy, indolent, unambitious nature." I thought that even his best friend, Mortimer, found him to be somewhat of a cad. Jody
From: Beej Connor Date: Tuesday, November 18, 2003 08:47 PM Jody, I thought, when Eugene tracked Lizzie down after she disappeared from London, that he had intentions of making her a permanent part of his life and that it was she who refused, feeling their stations in society were too far removed. Maybe I read that section wrong. I still don't see why he's such a poor match for Lizzie. I think he might have been a bit full of himself, and lacking quite a bit in maturity, but I think he really loved her and she, him. To quote a sentence from Henry James' review of 'Our Mutual Friend:' "Dickens introduces men and women whose interest is preconceived to lie not in the poverty, the weakness, the drollery of their natures, but in their complete and unconscious subjection to ordinary and healthy human emotions..." and how true that is in the case of Wrayburn...his nature might have been weak but he was nevertheless capable of strong human emotion. I was surprised, however, he survived that attack, too. It almost felt like Dickens meant to kill him off and then changed his mind. Beej
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Wednesday, November 19, 2003 01:53 PM Beej, I took it that Lizzie was asking him not to hang around because the difference in their social stations meant he would not marry her, and so her reputation would suffer from being the object of his attentions. I agree with Jody: he only decided on marriage when he thought he was dying. Wrayburn, however, was goodness itself compared to the other men in Lizzie's life! In a book that has its fair share of contemptible characters, I'd say Charlie Hexam makes it to the top 3! During my morning commute I was musing on Riderhood & Wegg--how they both had this exaggerated sense of their own entitlement and worth. And then it occurred to me that Charlie was the same way! It was bad enough that he dumped his sister (and even the demented Headstone) when he thought she was no longer "respectable." The truly maddening thing about Charlie, for me, was that he had the nerve to be angry with her! The little ingrate! One great thing about this book -- it provides so many targets for one's ire; very cathartic! Mary Ellen
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, November 19, 2003 10:22 PM I went back and re-read chapter VI, Book the Fourth, 'A Cry For Help,' several more times and after Lizzie denies him her affections because of their different places in society, Wrayburn asks her three times if she would feel the same if HER view of his social standing were different. I just can't see where he is making that differentiation. It seems for all the world to me that it's Lizzie's stand, not his. Maybe he did feel that way. But I'm just not seeing it like that. Was there any other mention of this besides in that particular chapter? I think Charlie Hexam was a little puke. His biggest concern was himself and how he could manipulate others in order to make himself look good. What did y'all make of Jenny Wren constantly referring to her father as her child and Mr. Riah as her godmother? She was such an odd little character. Beej
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Friday, November 21, 2003 12:37 PM Beej-- I don't know if Eugene was reluctant to marry Lizzie because of the differences in their status, but I think what he DIDN'T say to her in that chapter is very significant. He didn't say, my dear, you are the love of my life and, social conventions be damned, I want to marry you. All he is offering her, it appears, are protestations of affection and walks along the river. Lizzie attributes this to their different social rank, which I think shows how little she knows of his character. He is a classic commitment-phobe! (I base this on all those conversations with Mortimer, in which he says he doesn't know how he feels about Lizzie, he doesn't know what he wants from her and doesn't know what he intends to do.) Jenny is such a touching character. I sensed that her survival depended on her maintaining this little fantasy world for herself. Since no one (before Lizzie and Riah) offered her the slightest bit of encouragement or kindness, she had to lift her own spirits up. So, she doesn't refer to the father who has let her down; rather, she talks about the child who gives her so much trouble (a pretty realistic assessment of how their household operated!). And all those references to the suitor who'll eventually come by, and the demands she'll make on him. She only talks about her hard experiences -- being taunted by other children -- in the third person. She had no time to be sorry for herself, as she had to work constantly to support herself, so she had to keep the negatives of her life at arm's length. A fascinating character! Mary Ellen
From: Barbara Moors Date: Sunday, November 23, 2003 06:52 PM I'm still reading but loving every minute of it now that I'm on page 475. Jenny may be my favorite character in the book. I love her toughness. I'm trying to remember another dwarf that was in a Dickens book. Was it David Copperfield? Barb
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Wednesday, November 26, 2003 12:58 PM The introduction to the edition of OMF that I read (which is now back at the library) noted that Bradley Headstone epitomizes the conflict between appearances and reality and that OMF is, in fact "the story of Bradley Headstone writ large." SPOILERS! I had not regarded Bradley as so central to the story but it is interesting to pair him up with Rokesmith/Harmon, the point of comparison being their employment of disguise to such different ends -- Harmon to discover the truth for himself, and to advance it, and Headstone to blur the truth. Of course, a lot of the characters go in for disguise -- Boffin disguises his true nature beneath the show of avarice, the Lammles hide their poverty beneath a show of wealth, Fledgeby hides the source of his wealth by presenting a false picture of Mr. Riah, Bella creates a diversion to allow her father to attend her wedding, Sloppy disguises himself and his voice to trick Wegg. In this world created by Dickens (and our own!) you really can't trust appearances. Mary Ellen
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, November 28, 2003 09:00 AM Barb, yep there was a dwarf in David Copperfield, an equally strong and impressive character. Wasn't her name Miss Mowcher? I read somewhere that Dickens used physical handicaps as a metaphor for society, and most often used legs as symbolic of a crippled society, so besides Jenny Wren, we should also look at the meaning behind Wegg's wooden leg. Now that I think of it, wasn't Miss Mowcher a cosmetics salesperson? There's probably additional meaning behind that. Mary Ellen, there sure were a lot of disguises among these characters, weren't there? And so many of them had to do with money..but then, money was what 19th century society was all about, wasn't it? I would have never considered Bradley to be pivotal to this story. I'm not sure I do now, either..well, at least no more pivotal than any of the other characters were. Beej
From: Barbara Moors Date: Friday, November 28, 2003 09:23 AM Thank you, Beej! I loved Miss Mowcher too, but she's a different character from Jenny Wren, isn't she? I'm glad he didn't succumb to the temptation of making all dwarves alike. I'm also glad that he took the stereotype out of the character of Riah, but I feel like he drives that point home a little too incessantly in this one. Barb...closing in on the ending at pg. 593....
From: Barbara Moors Date: Sunday, November 30, 2003 05:20 PM Finished! Wow, this was a worthwhile book. When I read Bleak House which is also supposed to be one of Dickens' dark, complicated books, I lost patience with him, but with this one my interest just kept growing and growing. The ending feels like one of those dreams you have in which everything which was wrong in your life has been righted (am I the only one who has experienced this?). It didn't all feel likely, but, as a fantasy, I enjoyed it enormously. Also, so much is righted in the end, that it doesn't feel dark to me at all, despite the fact that we see the base side of humanity in so many of the characters. Though much of this related to money, that was not so in Bradley Headstone's case. How does he fit into that whole theme of the effects of money, do you think? I've had a great time reading your notes now that I can read the spoilers. Somewhere, there was a question about whether the Harmon/Rokesmith identity was meant to be a secret or not. My edition contains a few pages by Dickens entitled "Postcript, In Lieu of Preface." It opens with this sentence: "When I devised this story, I foresaw the likelihood that a class of readers and commentators would suppose that I was at great pains to conceal exactly what I was at great pains to suggest: namely, that Mr. John Harmon was not slain, and that Mr. John Rokesmith was he". Sounds like he wanted us to know. I'm off to read the parts in my Dickens biography by John Smiley that have to do with this book and the interview with her that Ann posted. Beej, I've been trying to read the article at the link that you posted but it won't come up. Barb
From: Barbara Moors Date: Sunday, November 30, 2003 07:27 PM When I first read Jane Smiley's biography of Dickens, I gave it a glowing review here. After rereading her comments on Our Mutual Friend, once again I want to press you all to read it. She always has original observations and makes me think. The following paragraph includes her most far-reaching observations about this novel: Dickens has stepped back from his wholesale critique of English society and, in so doing, allows his characters to assert their freedom within what he continues to portray as a corrupt structure. Corruption, he is saying, is a fact of life, but not the determiner of the individual's moral direction. The average man or woman (not just the exceptional Amy Dorrit type) can understand right and wrong. Twemlow, Lightwood, Jenny Wren, Riah, Mrs. Lammle, and Georgiana Podsnap are all required to assume a moral stance against one sort of pressure or another, and all do, and thus a right-minded community is formed within the larger community of fools and knaves. Earlier in her biography she talks about how only one of Dickens' sons was successful, that the others were irresponsible and "profligate" with money. He saw this not as evidence of something lacking in him as a parent, but as something basically wrong with them particularly when compared with his own youthful ambition. She goes on to say: His novels abound with feckless young men--James Harthouse in Hard Times, for example, and in Our Mutual Friend, Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, whose easy manners are so galling to the ambitious, Dickens-like characters Bradley Headstone and Charlie Hexam. That observation really brought me up short. Charlie Hexam, and even Bradley Headstone, really are much like what I've read about the young Charles Dickens. He had to pull himself up out of poverty with single-minded energy. And, yet, those two characters are portrayed in such an unsympathetic fashion. You would think that he would be tempted to make them more attractive. Also, Smiley uses the term greed at some point to refer to qualities in Bradley's Headstone's character. I know that he wanted to raise himself in society but I don't remember any instance of all-out greed. He is so totally identified in my brain with obsession. Barb
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Monday, December 01, 2003 01:07 PM Wow, if Dickens modeled Bradley & Charlie after himself, he must have had some buried (or not so buried) self-loathing! I know very little about his life (but Barb, you have convinced me to add the Smiley book to my way-too-long TBR list) although I had the impression he worked himself way too hard. I suppose greed could be one motivation for that, but it is not the same thing. Barb, thanks for the quote from the Smiley book. I would not have put all those characters together -- some are sympathetic and others not -- and now that I am thinking about them, I like the fact that they are not all purely good and self-sacrificing. I agree that this book was not as dark as I'd been led to expect, and I think the point Smiley makes -- that Dickens shows people as independent moral actors -- shows that it is not a pessimistic book after all. Mary Ellen
From: Barbara Moors Date: Monday, December 01, 2003 06:49 PM I don't perceive Bradley and Charlie as being motivated by greed either, Mary Ellen. But, there is a very single-minded ambition to raise themselves out of poverty. I certainly get that impression of Dickens when I read about him. When his father began to fall on hard times and Dickens had to work as a child, he felt utterly abandoned. Smiley's book on him is from a series called Penguin Lives. They are short books by famous authors about famous people. They are very readable. Smiley's reads like a summary of the best that has been written about him plus her own interesting take on most of his writing. It's very worthwhile and only 212 pages long. At the time I read it, I said that it was like going to an excellent literature class and Smiley did teach at Iowa State for a while. Barb

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