I was eager to reread Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens; I remembered it as being my favorite Dickens novel. However, 100 pages into this 800 page story, I was having a hard time remembering why I liked this novel so much.
Our Mutual Friend is not one of Dickens’ popular novels, and certainly it is not one of his best. It is his last full novel, completed in 1865. Like most of his novels, Our Mutual Friend was published as a series of monthly installments, the subscription for this publication decreased dramatically during its run. The story was just too dark for most readers.
The novel opens in the boat of Jesse Hexam, a river scavenger, rowed by his daughter Lizzie, and carrying a dead man whose pockets Hexam has rifled for cash. Soon Hexam is confronted by Roger Riderhood, his former partner, who had been accused of picking the pocket of a living sailor and so Hexam refuses any longer to be called his partner. In the course of the conversation about the difference between stealing from a living man and a dead one (which is technically not stealing–how can a dead man own anything, argues Hexam), Riderhood insinuates that Hexam’s luck in finding so many dead bodies in the river is based on more than his skill as a dredger.
Chapter two contrasts the cold, dirty, thieving, and perhaps murderous world of the waterfront with that of Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, of the newly rich, whose deepest and longest friendships have nothing to do with time of acquaintance and everything to do with perceived wealth and social status. The subplots relating to the Veneering crowd really have little to do with the main plots of the novel. They act as a kind of Greek Chorus, but not a very good one in my opinion. However the Veneering society’s shallow relationships and mercenary behavior and complete ignorance (and ignoring) of anything in the world below their sphere does act as a comic satire on the dark reality of those who squeeze pennies and shillings out of the waste and sewage of the higher classes.
Dickens’ novels often take a couple hundred pages to captivate the reader. Our Mutual Friend requires the reader to push through a good half of the novel to finally piece together a main plot, or I should say plots. The abundance of characters, subplots and hidden identities is enough to make any but the most determined reader put down the book before the midpoint. However, if you hang in there, you are rewarded with what is my favorite story of repentance in 19th century British Literature. If you keep reading, eventually two love stories emerge. Both involve repentance and both are wonderfully complicated.
The main plot involves John Harmon who having spent most of his life abroad, is about to come home to inherit the fortune of his father. However, in a peevish move, his father in his will requires his son, in order to inherit the fortune, to marry a woman he has never met, whom even the father only met once when the girl was a child. However, since the dead body found in the river in chapter one is supposed to be that of the returning John Harmon, the fortune is given instead to his father’s faithful servants, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. This leaves Bella, now grown into a beautiful and a little spoiled young woman, without a dime.
The Boffins being good natured people and feeling guilty for inheriting the entire fortune, decide to invite the Bella to live with them and share the wealth that she grew up expecting. Mysteriously, a John Rokesmith shows up and offers his services to Mr. Boffen as secretary. This John Rokesmith looks amazingly like John Harmon, whom the Boffins haven’t seen since he was a child. Rokesmith watches Bella closely and comes to admire her; however, being even more spoiled by her new wealth and station in life, Bella becomes mercenary and can only imagine marrying for money. So when Rokesmith proposes marriage, Bella cruelly rejects and insults him because of his apparent poverty.
The other love story involves the daughter of the river scavenger, Lizzie Hexam. Living in the deepest poverty and knowing that her father may be involved in criminal activity, Lizzie does all she can to influence him for the better. At the same time, Lizzie secretly uses all of the money she can squeeze out of her muddy life to put her younger brother through a cheap schooling program so that he can learn to read. Eventually, the brother shows himself adept at learning and goes off to better himself in a school where he can support himself teaching younger boys. Lizzie stays behind in order to support her father.
After the supposed murder of John Harmon, two lawyers visit Lizzie’s home to talk to her father. One of the lawyers, Eugene Wrayburn, notices Lizzie sitting by the fire and is captivated by her beauty. Wrayburn, although a Lawyer by training, takes no cases. He lives off a small income from his father and spends all of his time perfecting the art of being bored. Seeing Lizzie puts a spark of interest in him, a spark that motivates him to continue looking in on her; and after her father’s drowning, the same spark motivates him to help her better herself by provider for her and her friend, a crippled doll’s dress maker, a tutor who will teach them to read. What is clear about Wrayburn’s relationship with Lizzie is that she is growing to like him, but the social distance between them is such that the only romantic relationship possible between them is either one bringing degradation to Lizzie, or marriage which would destroy Wrayburn’s social standing.
Now back to the first love story. Even as Bella struggles with greed, she sees wealth change Mr. Boffin. Wealth is corrupting him. Wealth turns a happy, generous man in to a cruel miser. And seeing this change in Mr. Boffin, and particularly his ungenerous treatment of John Rokesmith his secretary, Bella repents, or rather, begins to repent. Like many of us, changing Bella’s mind and heart is a process that takes months, maybe years. Very few of us are granted instant conversions. Bella is confused. She recognizes her selfish impulses and confesses them unabashedly to her father, yet she is unsure. She calls herself mercenary, and even tries it on like an expensive silk dress to see if she can wear it, but it just won’t fit. Yet she cannot deny the selfish greed she knows is in her breast. Who is she? Who is she to become? Who am I? Who am I to become? These are the questions of a soul beginning to repent.
Light shines in her darkness in the person of John Rokesmith. Although Bella has rejected his proposal of marriage, he continues to interest her. Over the next several months, she watches Rokesmith humbly and faithfully serve the Boffin family in spite her own despicable treatment of him and now Mr. Boffin’s increasingly demeaning and insulting behavior toward him. Not only is Bella frightened by the change in Mr. Boffin, but her heart is also drawn more and more to this man whom she rejected, a man who continues to serve with faithful integrity even as he is treated with increasing contempt.
Over several months Bella not only grows to respect Rokesmith, but respect blossoms into love–a love that has been smoldering for a long time deep in her heart but had been smothered by the silken layers of mercenary greed. Love, then, or the light of Rokesmith’s faithful integrity, becomes the force that finally helps Bella choose to forsake wealth as a means to happiness.
Wrayburn, on the other hand, is finding himself drawn more and more to Lizzie in spite of her brother’s and her brother’s school master’s protestation. Bradley Headstone, the school master, himself hopes to marry Lizzie and sees Wrayburn as both a rival and as a potential destroyer of what little social integrity Lizzie has. However, Headstone is an angry man laking self control and he merely frightens Lizzie by his attempts to protect her and fully terrifies her by his attempt to propose to her. Headstone blames Wrayburn for Lizzie’s rejection and threatens to kill him. After this, as Lizzie walks home alone and in tears, she bumps in to Wrayburn who tries to find out the cause of her sadness so that he might further help her, but fearing what Headstone may do to him and fearing the love she is beginning to feel for Wrayburn–a love which could only lead to scandal–Lizzie flees to the countryside where, with the help of her Jewish tutor, she finds honorable employment in a paper mill.
Wrayburn is confused. He is captivated by Lizzie and senses that she loves him, but he is unwilling to sacrifice his social position by marrying her. Using underhanded methods, he discovers Lizzie’s whereabouts and meets her at the paper mill. Unknown to him, Headstone had followed him into the country. That evening, Wrayburn pressures Lizzie into a private interview outside of town. There, Lizzie makes it clear that she loves him, but that she will always flee from him, urging him to leave her alone–if he cares for her at all—because nothing but shame can come of anything else. He lets her go for the evening, but ponders in his own confusion what he will do next. Walking along the river he decides not to offer marriage but to continue pursuing Lizzie to see where it will lead. Suddenly he is attacked from behind by Headstone, beaten senseless, and thrown into the river. Lizzie hears the shouting and returns to find Wrayburn floating in the river barely alive.
Lizzie, with her old river scavenging skills, saves Wrayburn from drowning and as he is slowly nursed back to health, Lizzie’s love and his own suffering bring about a change in his heart. Wrayburn in his pecarious wavering between life and death, asks his best friend to beg Lizzie to marry him. This change of heart may seem rather abrupt, but in my experience, sudden, sharp suffering often acts as a catalyst to spur on long ignored good behavior. Wrayburn is knocked, quite literally, out of his comfort zone, out of his realm of indolent boredom, and off of the self-satisfied perch from which he could contemplated the pros and cons of destroying the integrity of someone he is coming to love.
While Wrayburn is brought to repentance by sharp suffering, Bella finds a change of heart under the influence of the unselfish and faithful love of John Rokesmith. And If I am not stretching things too much, I would like to suggest that in Bella’s life, Rokesmish (who is really John Harmon) is a kind of Christ, and that the struggle Bella has to find herself is the same struggle common to all of us. All is not well in Bella’s world and she imagines that wealth gained at any cost will right the wrongs that oppress her. But when she pursues what she hopes will be her salvation, she finds the same or worse demons following her. She is confused. She doesn’t know how to become herself. Then love breaks through. Someone loves her enough to be rejected by her and continue to serve and love in integrity. Love breaks through by enduring humiliation and insult without retaliation. Love breaks through by not demanding what is his own or his right, but by granting complete freedom to the object of his love. A love breaks through that can inspire the heart of a confused young woman to repentance, to finally take off the ill-fitting silk dress and putting back on the comfortable, modest cotton frock that her father had bought her. Love breaks through.
Our Mutual Friend is an inspiring story, or set of interwoven stories, if one can get through the first half of the novel and the many tertiary characters and sub plots. During Dickens’ day, many could not get through, so the work was both a popular and critical failure. However, the novel has experienced somewhat of a revival in recent years. Most contemporary critics praise it as an intelligent, complex novel based on the themes of poverty and wealth, hiddenness and openness, and both pious and impious uses of deception; however, I recommend Our Mutual Friend largely as a story of repentance. As story of how bad behaving people are not always as bad as they appear to be. A story that shows that repentance, a change of heart, is always possible.