OUR MUTUAL FRIEND BY CHARLES DICKENS

To speak about reality is nonsense. I’ve written about this before. I can’t think about it too much as I would lose my fucking mind. Your reality is what you experience, what you take to be the truth of the world; but what is truth? For example, consider how two people can experience an event in completely different ways. It could be something as mundane as a film. One thinks the film is really good, and the other thinks it is really bad. What is the reality? What is the truth? Is the film good or bad? How about how two people can witness a crime and yet one may describe the perpetrator as having blonde hair, and the other describe him as having brown hair? At one time people were convinced that the earth is square; that was their reality and yet we now, with just as much vehemence, believe differently. What’s more, I saw a documentary the other day in which a woman was convinced that her husband was rich; he told her he was rich, he lived as though he was rich. And yet he didn’t have a bean; he was catastrophically in debt. Likewise, you might be convinced that Africa exists; you have been told it exists, but what if you have never seen it, what if you have never been there?

The thing is, there is no objective reality; or if there is you don’t have access to it. Nothing you think you know about anything is safe. You have all seen The Truman Show I am sure. That is how the world is to me; I am always aware that everything about my experience is conjecture, potential, only possible; nothing is concrete. The reason that this is on my mind again is due to Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. It is hard to write about the book, and especially hard to write about a certain aspect of the book, by which I mean what it says about the nature of reality, without giving the game away. And yet it is central to one’s experience of the novel. So, with that said, I am not going to worry about spoilers and proceed as though you have all read it or have no interest in reading it [and therefore I can’t ruin it for you]. I will, however, make it clear when I am going to reveal the big secret, the twist, so that you can look away if you absolutely must.

Our Mutual Friend starts out as a dark tale of death, gold-digging and inheritance and, uh, pretty much proceeds that way throughout. A young man, John Harmon, is to come into a large amount of money, an inheritance from his rich but miserly father, but he drowns without claiming it, and so it goes to Mr Boffin, his father’s employee. One of the conditions of the inheritance was that John was to have married Bella Wilfer, a beautiful but essentially poor girl. Consequently, when John is found dead, and Bella’s prospects have therefore been compromised, the Boffin’s patronise the girl as a kind of recompense. Both the Boffins and Bella are classic Dickens characters, yet they are less predictable than many of his creations. Bella is charming and goodhearted [although she certainly knows the value of money], but what sets her apart from a number of Dickens’ other heroines is that she has a little more pluck, a little more spunk. Compare her, for example, to Little Em’ly or Esther Summerson and there is a marked difference; Little Em’ly is weak and a bit of a sap and Esther, although she exhibits greater strength, is almost oppressively kind and seemingly of an eternally sunny disposition. Bella, however, is not always grateful, not always cheerful; she is sometimes argumentative and will not marry for love but for money or status.

In terms of the Boffins, they are evidence of Dickens’ great genius for creating amiable and likeable characters. The truth is that they ought to be irritating; they ought to grate on you, and yet they do not. That is a talent; it is not an accident. However, while Mrs Boffin remains good-natured for the duration of the novel, her husband, as the narrative progresses, goes through a drastic, unexpected change. I do not know how other readers feel about it, but Mr Boffin’s change of heart, his development into a miser like his once employer, was one of my favourite aspects of the novel; it shifted Our Mutual Friend up a gear, gave it a momentum and tension that it would otherwise have lacked. One cannot help but be fascinated by the change, and what it will mean for the characters and the story as a whole. Boffin is also part of one of the great double acts in literature, with Silas Wegg, who he engages to read to him. Silas Wegg is a crippled ballad-seller, a conman and thoroughly nasty sort; his interplay with Boffin, both before and after his change of character, is hilarious.

In addition to Silas Wegg, the book is populated, as you would expect, by many memorable supplementary characters and storylines. However, what is novel about them, in terms of the author’s oeuvre, is that many of these stories are sad or depressing and many of the minor characters are villains or at least morally dubious. Our Mutual Friend is, in my opinion, Dickens’ darkest work. Take Bradley Headstone [great name!], a schoolmaster who becomes obsessed with another beautiful but poor girl, Lizzie Hexam. His infatuation is genuinely creepy, and ultimately ends in attempted murder. Then there is Rogue Riderhood [another great name!], a man whose employment is to drag corpses from the river and rob them of valuables before turning them over to the authorities. He too gets embroiled in a murder plot. Even the more lighthearted scenes, even the characters who one assumes are meant to provide comic relief, are shot through with misery, are entangled in horrific situations. An example of this is Jenny Wren, a crippled teenager who treats her alcoholic father as though he were her child. I mean, bloody hell. Suicide, blackmail, double-crossing, plots, murder, violence, deformity, gold-digging…Our Mutual Friend has it all.

And so we come towards the end of the review; and here be serious spoilers. As one approaches the conclusion of the novel one asks oneself, Will Dickens’ buck the trend of an entire career and wrap up his narrative without a happy ending? Will his message be that the world is an awful, bleak and terrifying place? No, of course not! And that is almost a disappointment, because the turn-around seems a bit forced. Dickens spends most of his novel showing us the dark side of life, and went so far into it that the only way to come back was abruptly. Remember that Boffin is meant to have become a miser, and that Bella will not marry a poor man; from this position it seems impossible to forge a happy ending. The way that Dickens does this is for it to be revealed that Boffin was never truly a miser, that he was pretending, and for Bella to abandon her principles and fall for a man below her own station. This man, John Rokesmith, then turns out to be the presumed-drowned John Harmon. Yep. So, basically, John Rokesmith-John Harmon set up his own girlfriend in order to be sure that she will marry him for himself and not for money, and Boffin was in on this plot.

The most troublesome aspect of this plot is Bella’s reaction. She takes the revelation in her stride, she almost approves of the plan. I find that hard to swallow. She has been manipulated. To return to my opening paragraph, her conception, her understanding of the reality of the world has been shown to be false. She thought Harmon dead, she thought her lover to be poor, and she thought her patron to be a miser, and yet none of these things turn out to be the case. Most people would, understandably, be upset about being played with in this manner, and all in order to prove to themselves that you’re not actually a heartless gold-digger! I don’t know what else to say about all that, and I certainly cannot defend it; all I can say is that while I would not have made the choices that Dickens himself did, would have preferred the book to conclude in a different way, Our Mutual Friend is still a truly great read, a ten-out-of-ten novel; it may even be his best and that is some accolade.

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4 comments

  1. Our Mutual Friends is one of my favorite novels by Dickens (high praise!), but I’ve always been uncomfortable with the ending–in part because, as you say, the amount of manipulation is troubling, but also because I have a hard time believing that the Boffins could have pulled that scheme off. That said, there are things about the ending that interest me; for one, the idea of a charitably-motivated scheme is kind of a different twist. I also remember reading an article back in grad school that argued (if I’m remembering it correctly) that the Boffins’ plot essentially lays bare the mechanism of the novelistic or author’s plot (a series of events that secretly test/change the main character).

    It’s also interesting to me that you think of Our Mutual Friend as Dickens’ darkest novel. You’re definitely not alone in that opinion, but I’ve personally always found Bleak House darker–but maybe that’s just because the two storylines that interest me the most (Lady Dedlock’s secret past and Richard’s descent into obsession) both end in death. There’s definitely a griminess to Our Mutual Friend that I don’t have so much of a sense of in Bleak House, for all the latter’s talk of poverty.

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment. Yeah, I agree, it doesn’t really sit right that the Boffins, who appear so artless, would be able, and willing, to pull something like that off. I’m not sure about that grad school article, though, that seems to me to be arguing to fit a pre-conceived theory, rather than the work itself suggesting the idea. In one sense I like the ending, because I like Trading Places-style plots and schemes and things that mess around with the nature of reality. I just don’t think that Dickens himself was particularly interested in that, more that he had to bring his narrative back to a happy conclusion.

      I think Our Mutual Friend is definitely darker than Bleak House. The thing about BL is that while there is a lot of cynicism in it, and sadness, it is still full of absolutely good characters; people like Esther and Jarndyce and Ada, for example. OMF, however, is populated by more ambiguous figures, where even the ‘good’ ones are not wholly good. Look at Boffin. He is a lovely man, and yet he gets involved in that scheme, i.e. he lies and manipulates someone he cares about over a prolonged period of time. Also, there is nothing in BL like the Headstone story. Bradley Headstone is by far his most vile creation. He isn’t vile in a cartoonish way, like Uriah for example, but in a very real, almost modern way.

      1. I definitely agree that there’s something interesting about novels (or movies, shows, etc.) that blur the lines between fiction and reality. It does also feel like an particularly modern trope because of the self-referentiality element, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read other 18th/19th century novels where it comes into play–have to think about that. It may be, as you say, less because of any interest in the device itself than for the sake of convenience, but I still think it’s interesting–in general, I guess I think works from that time period are a lot more experimental than most people imagine.

        Bradley Headstone was absolutely my favorite part of OMF–there’s a level of psychological realism in his characterization that, as you say, isn’t that common in Dickens’ villains and for me at least, it gave him just a hint of a tragic edge. He’s not sympathetic to begin with, of course, but it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for anyone who hates himself that much.

      2. Yes, if you take an obvious example, Schnitzler’s Dream Story does that [the ‘blurring’] brilliantly. For me, however, what I find most interesting is the idea that what you take to be reality, what you accept as true and real, can be shown to be false; the psychology involved fascinates me, by which i mean that moment of realisation. I remember once finding out that a girlfriend had cheated on me, and my entire understanding of the previous few months of my life altered in an instant. That kind of epiphany, or revelation, is one of the few ways we can see the world with new eyes. It’s almost profound. If that makes sense. Which it probably doesn’t. Anyway, Bella’s moment, or epiphany, disappoints me because she takes it in her stride. Proust would have wrung 400 pages of soul-searching out of it, yet for Dickens, it seems to me, it was merely a plot device. Bella stopped being real or interesting to me at that point. I’d forgive Dickens just about anything, because he was a genius, but I struggle with that; he let his own character down.

        Headstone is great. He’s more like something you’d find in a Bronte novel than Dickens. He’s a serious man; a strange, tormented soul. In fact, Dickens makes amends for the Bella stuff with him, because he is, as you say, absolutely psychologically sound. I wrote in my Anna Karenina review that with Levin Tolstoy pointed towards the future, and Dickens does it with Headstone too. Literature would become obsessed with characters like him over the next century.

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