Sunday, 4 October 2015

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens (1846-8)

Originally Written in 2008

I never quite found the words to express what it was I didn't enjoy about Dombey and Son, only that I knew I liked it less than even the below-average Martin Chuzzlewit. I'll do my best to put forward the case.

Dombey and Son is one of Charles Dickens' longer novels, but not one that justifies its significant length (whereas upon finishing David Copperfield, one practically begs for another hundred pages). That certainly isn't true of this particular novel; the only slightly interesting plot revolving around the Dombey family is stretched out to the ludicrous extreme of 701 mediocre pages that can't be turned fast enough.

If Dickens had kept himself focussed on Mr Dombey, Florence and Paul, and the other members of the family, if he had made them more interesting and developed them further, this might've been a reasonably good read. Unfortunately it is with this book that he chooses to raise the secondary characters to proper primary importance; often in his stories the secondary, incidental figures are memorable enough that this would work, but not so here. These minor characters become major ones, and this results in a far too cluttered mess of different roles. Because he has 20 or 25 main characters here, none are really singled out for proper characterisation, and so no one can truly develop.

Before I end this brief, stinging review I will try and sift for some gold. What do I like about Dombey and Son? Well, I found some of the writing style quite engaging; there are some colourful descriptions and particularly intriguing instances in which Dickens has his narrator use present tense in an unusual way; there's ambiguity at the heart of the novel's title, cleverly referring both to the firm and to the family; the ambitious and businesslike Mr Dombey is a good creation; and the opening chapter has a brilliant line toward the start ("Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes"). There might be flashes of Dickens' usual brilliance here, but on the whole I'd leave this one alone.

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