Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation

“Kindness effects more than severity.” — moral from The Wind and the Sun, Æsop. Fables. (The Harvard Classics, 1909–14).

I enjoyed reading Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens a great deal, until it came toward the end. The ending managed to confirm all the points of the story that I disliked. It has a “tighter” story than, say, Nicholas Nickleby or Martin Chuzzlewit. In the end, however, it doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the beginning. I think the heroine, Florence is largely responsible for this.

Mr. Dombey’s ambition centers around having a son to carry on his business. “The House will once again …. be not only in name but in fact Dombey and Son,” is his satisfied comment on the birth of his second child, a son.

Those three words conveyed the one idea of Mr Dombey’s life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them. A. D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei—and Son. (Ch. 1)

The Dombey Family PhizMr. Dombey’s first child was a disappointment to him, for she was a girl. He completely neglects her from her birth, and pins all his hopes on his son. Mr. Dombey’s wife dies the very day their son is born. Deprived of his mother from birth and of his wet-nurse at the young age of six months, little Paul Dombey (named, of course, after his father) is a sickly child. Mr. Dombey’s satisfaction in his son is incomplete — he is impatient for the day when his son will be a man and can join him in his business. He pushes him, putting him into a very demanding school. But little Paul dies at the age of six.

Eventually, Mr. Dombey marries a second time — to the beautiful Edith Granger. She is as proud and haughty as Mr. Dombey. He thinks that her pride will be subservient to his, and that she will do credit to him. “It flattered him to picture to himself, this proud and stately woman doing the honours of his house, and chilling his guests after his own manner. The dignity of Dombey and Son would be heightened and maintained, indeed, in such hands.” (Ch. 30). But Edith is tortured by a feeling of having been bought by Dombey, and humiliated by his use of the cunning and sensual Mr. Carker — the second-in-command in Mr. Dombey’s business — to subdue her. Finally, goaded by the two of them, Edith, to humiliate her husband, intentionally gives the impression that she has run away with Carker. In what he considers his moment of triumph, Edith then abandons Carker, effectively humiliating him as well. Thus revenged, she hides herself away. Pursued by the enraged Dombey, Carker dies under an oncoming train.

Dombey’s daughter, Florence, spends her life trying to win notice and love from her father. She becomes convinced that it is her own fault that her father does not love her, and studies to become as good and clever as she can in the hope of finding the path to his affections. This has the effect of forming Florence into a very virtuous young woman (albeit, not very intelligent, despite being well-educated and accomplished), but it fails to get her father’s attention, and poor Florence pines.

Finally, Florence runs away from her father after he strikes her in his rage over his wife’s elopement. Then, his business fails. He is left alone. His thoughts begin to center on his children, his dead son and his lost daughter, and of the constant, unrequited love of his daughter for him. She alone, of all about him, had never changed and he has lost her. “As, one by one, they fell away before his mind—his baby-hope, his wife, his friend, his fortune—oh how the mist, through which he had seen her, cleared, and showed him her true self! Oh, how much better than this that he had loved her as he had his boy, and lost her as he had his boy, and laid them in their early grave together!” (Ch. 59). And then, his daughter, now married and with a little son of her own, returns to him. They are reunited and live happily ever after.

The set-up of Mr. Dombey’s feelings towards each of his children is masterfully portrayed, I think. We can see how, though not an affectionate man, Mr. Dombey loves his son, but his love for him is intertwined inextricably with his love of himself. We see how his indifference to Florence, turns to a fear that he will come to hate her, and then turns to an active dislike.

Florence and her father are like the sun and the wind in one of Æsop’s fables1. Mr. Dombey tries to control everyone with harshness and pride and money. He fails. Florence wins them through her gentleness and kindness. It is only Florence’s voice that can win recognition from Mr. Dombey’s dying [first] wife. It is to Florence that his beloved son, the object of his pride and ambition, turns for love, despite Mr. Dombey’s jealousy of anyone that comes between himself and his son. Nothing Mr. Dombey says or does will subdue his haughty second wife, but for Florence’s sake she is willing to concede much to him. Florence’s mildness has a power which his own arrogance and superiority can never command or his money buy.

The North Wind and the Sun Milo Winter

Unfortunately, Florence is the weak point of the story. She is weak and obtuse. This wouldn’t be such a big deal, if she weren’t meant to be a cornerstone of the story. Florence begins neglected and all but forsaken by her father, but, through the disgrace and disillusionment of her father and her own goodness, she ends triumphant. “And so Dombey and Son, as I observed upon a certain sad occasion,” said Miss Tox, winding up a host of recollections, “is indeed a daughter, Polly, after all.” (Ch. 59). Unfortunately, she is a feeble and annoyingly unintelligent pillar.

Florence is an abused child — abused by her father’s neglect and even his dislike. I can understand Florence’s longing for her father’s affection as a child. Any neglected child can tell you that they want their parents to love them. But, as she gets older, it becomes more and more ridiculous for Florence to still think that it her own fault that her father does not love her. Of course, this realization wouldn’t make her happier, but I start to think that she must be oddly unintelligent to not realize it. When Florence’s first child is born, she is stirred to return to her father. “When it was born, and when I knew how much I loved it, I knew what I had done in leaving you. Forgive me, dear Papa!” she tells him (Ch. 59). This is nonsense. Florence should have known from the love that she bore her child, that she would never treat her own child the way her father had treated her. If nothing else had opened her eyes to the fact that her father did not love her, her love for her own child should have done so. Instead, she comes back to her father saying, “Papa, dear, I am changed. I am penitent. I know my fault. I know my duty better now. Papa, don’t cast me off, or I shall die!” (Ch. 59). Apparently Walter and baby Paul are chopped liver now!

When her father marries a second time, his new wife loves and cherishes Florence. Realizing that Florence longs for her father’s love, Edith Dombey does her best to shield Florence from the knowledge of his dislike for her, and even of his mistreatment of his wife. Eventually, Mr. Dombey begins to use Florence as a tool to get his wife to submit to him. It doesn’t work, but does have the effect of making Edith avoid Florence in an attempt not to hurt her. The affection of Edith for Florence is sacrificed for the futile hope of affection from Mr. Dombey for Florence. A bad trade-off, in my opinion. And then, in the end, Florence meets her mother again, after being reconciled with her father. She shrinks from Edith. Why? In her own words, it is not because she fears her, or because she dreads to be disgraced by her (Edith had purposely given the impression that she was unfaithful to her husband when she ran away from him). No. She explains, “I only wish to do my duty to Papa.” (Ch. 61). So, in faithfulness to a man who has mistreated her all her life, she is willing to slight a woman who was kind and loving to her. Florence’s memory of her mother’s goodness to her does eventually overcome her reluctance to endanger her relationship with her father by being kind to her, and she treats her more affectionately.

Thankfully, Edith does not become so sentimental as Florence and continues to insist that her husband was wrong in his treatment of both of them, though acknowledging her own blame as well. “I do not repent of what I have done,” she tells Florence. Still, she is glad that he is a changed man and now values Florence. Edith tells Florence, “Tell him, that, dead as we are to one another, never more to meet on this side of eternity, he knows there is one feeling in common between us now, that there never was before.” She adds, “I … think that when I thought so much of all the causes that had made me what I was, I needed to have allowed more for the causes that had made him what he was. I will try, then, to forgive him his share of blame. Let him try to forgive me mine!” (Ch. 61).

Of the other characters in the story, some were interesting, others annoying — some both.

Florence and Paul at Brighton Jessie Willcox SmithLittle Paul Dombey is a cute kid, and it is quite sad when he dies. He is often called old-fashioned, and is a quaint, winning child, thoughtful and full of odd questions. On one occasion he asks his father, “Papa! what’s money? … I mean what’s money after all? … what can it do?”

“Money, Paul, can do anything.” …

“Why didn’t money save me my Mama?” returned the child.

Mr Dombey having recovered from his surprise, … expounded to him how that money, though a very potent spirit, never to be disparaged on any account whatever, could not keep people alive whose time was come to die; and how that we must all die, unfortunately, even in the City, though we were never so rich. But how that money caused us to be honoured, feared, respected, courted, and admired, and made us powerful and glorious in the eyes of all men; and how that it could, very often, even keep off death, for a long time together. … And how it could do all, that could be done. This, with more to the same purpose, Mr Dombey instilled into the mind of his son, who listened attentively, and seemed to understand the greater part of what was said to him.

“It can’t make me strong and quite well, either, Papa; can it?” (Ch. 8)

The story loses when it exchanges Paul for Florence as the focus.

Mr. Toots KydWhile at school, Paul is befriended by the friendly, though rather vacuous, Mr. Toots. Mr. Toots develops puppy love for Florence after little Paul dies. He cannot win her love, however, though she likes him very much. After she marries Walter Gay (“Of all others!—a hated rival! At least, he ain’t a hated rival,” said Mr Toots, stopping short, on second thoughts, and taking away his hand; “what should I hate him for?” — Ch. 50), Mr. Toots decides to marry her former maid, the black-eyed, excitable and no-nonsense, but devoted and warmhearted, Susan Nipper.

“You see,” said Mr Toots, “what I wanted in a wife was—in short, was sense. Money, … I had. Sense I—I had not, particularly. … Why should I disguise it? I had not. I knew that sense was There,” said Mr Toots, stretching out his hand towards his wife, “in perfect heaps.” (Ch. 60)

So, they marry and make quite an adorable couple. Mr. Toots announces the birth of his third daughter with a quite Shakespearean sentiment: “Yes, …. and I’m glad of it. The oftener we can repeat that most extraordinary woman, my opinion is, the better!” (Ch. 62). Of Susan it must be stated that she is the only one brave enough to reprimand Mr. Dombey to his face for his treatment of his daughter (Ch. 44). Unfortunately for Florence, this incident loses Susan her place. They are reunited after Florence runs away from her father.

It's a sinful shame! Fred Barnard

When Florence was a little girl, she was lost in the city. Found by a young boy in her father’s employ, Walter Gay, she is taken to his home, where he lives with his uncle, Sol Gills, while her father is notified of her whereabouts. They remain on friendly terms, and when she runs away from her father (at age seventeen), she can think of no where to go, but to Mr. Gills. When she arrives, Captain Cuttle, a friend of Mr. Gills’s, takes her in, as Mr. Gills has gone in search of his nephew who was lost at sea. Captain Cuttle is the kind of friend that one would not wish to slight, but that you wouldn’t want around during any delicate problem (like Mr. Gills’s debts and Walter’s dealings with the firm of Dombey and Son). He manages to cause some rather awkward moments. Still, he takes good care of Florence and is full of remarkable quotations. “Turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, and when you are old you will never depart from it” (Ch. 4), “[I]n the Proverbs of Solomon you will find the following words, ‘May we never want a friend in need, nor a bottle to give him!’” (Ch. 15), “Train up a fig-tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade on it” (Ch. 19), “[P]rowiding as there is any just cause or impediment why two persons should not be jined together in the house of bondage” (Ch. 50), &c. — generally ending with the exhortation, When found, make a note of. He also has a remarkable watch, of which he says, “Put you back half-an-hour every morning, and about another quarter towards the arternoon, and you’re a watch as can be ekalled by few and excelled by none.” (Ch. 48).

Captain Cuttle's Bright Idea Harold CoppingWalter returns, having been the only person saved from the wreck of the ship he had been sent to Barbados in. To Captain Cuttle’s delight, Florence quickly falls in love with Walter (in about a week’s span of time), who has long adored her, and they marry. Florence finally has someone to love and care for her — “no more repulsed, no more forlorn” (Ch. 50). Walter determines “to cancel her remembrance of past sorrow” (Ch. 57). His career taking him abroad, they leave for China after the wedding. They return soon after their first child is born — a little boy named Paul. Florence reconciles with her father. She and Walter have a little girl too — named Florence, of course. Mr. Dombey spends the rest of his life with “[t]he voices in the waves speak[ing] low to him of Florence, day and night” and he has a special affection for her little girl Florence. Walter is a fine, eager, upright, manly fellow, but isn’t really in the story much.

The characters John and Harriet Carker should have been cut from the story completely, I think. Harriet is sappy and sentimental. John is servile. They are siblings of the Mr. Carker who runs away with Mr. Dombey’s wife. Parallel to Edith and her mother, are the characters of the poverty-stricken Alice Marwood and her mother. Alice is as handsome and proud as Edith, and she hates Mr. Carker more than even Edith does. She helps Mr. Dombey to pursue him after he runs away with Edith. It was ridiculous to have Alice, for no apparent reason, repent of revenging herself on the man she has passionately hated for the last ten years and become gentle and grateful and then to sink into a romantic decline. She spurns help from Harriet because her name is Carker, but then, after her inexplicable softening, she seeks out Harriet again, and dies blessing her (Ch. 58).

At the beginning of the book, one thing in particular struck me as being not quite right. It is ridiculous that Mrs. Toodle (also known as Mrs. Richards) would leave her six week old baby to nurse Mr. Dombey’s son. She agrees to not so much as see any of her own family while she is in his employ. She is abruptly dismissed six months later for taking her young charge to her home to see her own children. Apparently, however, this was unexpected — she and Mr. Dombey had intended the connection to continue longer. Young Paul Dombey becomes sickly after his abrupt weaning. It makes me wonder about the poor little Toodle baby who was as abruptly weaned at a much younger age.

In conclusion, I liked Dombey and Son. It was intriguing, and I think that it could have made a great book if it had just had a stronger heroine.


1 THE WIND and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on. “KINDNESS EFFECTS MORE THAN SEVERITY.”

From: The Wind and the Sun, Æsop. (Sixth century B.C.) Fables., The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

This post is part of the Dickens Project that “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. You can read Sophie’s post here: ‘Dombey and Son’.

I read Dombey and Son February 25 – March 15, 2013.

“The Dombey Family” by Phiz.
“The North Wind and the Sun” from The Æsop for Children, illustrated by Milo Winter.
“Paul Dombey and Florence on the Beach at Brighton” (Chapter 8) by Jessie Willcox Smith (“The sea, Floy, what is it that it keeps on saying?”).
“Mr. Toots” by Kyd.
“Sir, you don’t know what you’re doing, Sir, I say to some and all,” cried Susan Nipper, in a final burst, “that it’s a sinful shame!” (Ch. 44) by Fred Barnard.
“Captain Cuttle’s Bright Idea” by Harold Copping, 1924.

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2 Responses to Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation

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