Sometimes, we’re just unable to like a book, even when our intellectual understanding tells us that what we’re reading is good writing. I’m embarrassed to say I have read without enjoyment the works of authors such as Faulkner, Steinbeck, and even Thomas Hardy and Victor Hugo, the latter of whom you’d think would have some appeal for me as a lover of 19th century literature. I acknowledge these writers’ talent, but the emotional cores of their works are strangely inaccessible to me.
I never have this problem with Charles Dickens. He’s the ultimate guilty pleasure, sans guilt. Every time I read his books, I am amazed at their power to engage me emotionally, as well as awe me with the power of their meticulously expressed insights. He’s the Beatles (or Michael Jackson, if you’re the rare non-Beatles fan) of literature: a legitimate artistic genius with immense popular appeal.
Dombey and Son suffers, a bit more than some other Dickens novels, from the author’s usual quirks. The titular “Son”–who it turns out, is actually a daughter, Florence– is the typical Dickensian angel, who has no fault but her blindness to her father’s cruelty. She is pitiable, but she’s still a reminder that Dickens never really managed to write a three dimensional female character who wasn’t also either middle-aged or morally questionable. We know he had the ability to create personalities that were both complex and morally correct, because he did it with his male main characters all the time. Then, too, the book spends too much time with supporting characters who aren’t all that compelling, and Dickens fans know that he was more than capable of creating excellent supporting characters– Mr. Micawber, anyone?
Even these weaknesses, however, couldn’t lessen the magnetism of the three main characters aside from Florence. Dombey, his scheming assistant Mr. Carker, and his ill-fated second wife, Edith, are really spectacular to read. It would have been easy to write Dombey as a simple misogynist who neglects his daughter merely because she is a girl, but only Dickens could describe so convincingly how Dombey, through the limitations of his personality, is first confused by Florence, then made uncomfortable by her, and how he finally comes to resent and hate her. I wish his development near the end of the novel had been a bit more convincingly handled. His wife, Edith, is one of Dickens’ finest female creations: a proud, seemingly cold woman, who has surprisingly believable, contradictory sides to her nature. Carker is the typical, if more intellectual-than-most, schemer, but Dickens always does villains well, so it’s no surprise that reading any Carker scenes gives the reader a delightful frisson of repulsion and anticipation.
Also of note is Dickens’ clearly intimate understanding of what children suffer at the hands of unloving parents, and how nearly impossible it is to kill the longing abused children have to be loved, even by the people who have done them the most harm. The book contains several examples of dysfunctional parent/child relationships, and they largely pivot on that recurring Dickensian theme, love vs. love of money.
Dombey and Son, before now, always existed in my mind as “optional” Dickens reading, but having read it (funny how that helped), I see that was my mistake. It’s actually one of the better introductions to Dickens, because of its fairly straightforward plot combined with the moving presentation of themes that recur throughout the Dickens oeuvre. For seasoned Dickens readers, it offers the chance to enjoy Dickens’ writing in a comparatively light and easy read.