Dombey and Son #1

I am again reading Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.  When I started on my Dickens binge about fifteen or twenty years ago, the first work I read was Dombey and Son.  I didn’t much enjoy it.  I didn’t get it. 

The story is about a completely self-absorbed, successful businessman who fixates on the fame of his company, Dombey and Son.  However, to make his fantasy complete, he needs a son.  His firstborn, a daughter, is of no use to him, doesn’t even exist (as far as  he is concerned) except as one who gets in the way.  And yet this daughter is a saint.  Out of the dry, rocky ground of emotional abandonment, a flower blossoms.

When I first read Dombey and Son it seemed too fantastic to me that love would take hold in the heart of one so despised by her only parent (mother having died as a result of the birth of her brother, who himself lives only long enough to complete his first year of schooling).  

At the time I first read Dombey and Son, I was of the raise-up-your-child-in-the-way-he-should-go school.  Like Job’s comforters, I thought the lines of cause and effect in relationships were pretty clear: Good, loving parenting produced good, loving children; troubled children came from….[I wouldn’t have actually said it, but I thought it].  That’s why I didn’t get Dombey and Son.

Reading Dombey and Son a second time, now that my children are raising their own children, I see things differently.  Maybe I get it more.  Maybe the lines of cause and effect, while still important, are much more convoluted, interrupted, and influenced by the inner workings of the child herself and the Grace of God and the mysteries of free will than I had ever imagined.  Maybe the inner workings of the child, her dispositions and her choices, her responses to her perceptions and interpretations of what is going on around her (regardless of her parent’s good, evil or indifferent intentions), maybe these inner workings of the child have as much (or more) to do with who a child becomes as do the quality of the parental nurturing and other circumstances in which a child finds herself.

This is not to say that parenting is irrelevant–clearly it is not.  Rather, it is to say that parenting, even very good parenting and advantageous social and economic circumstances only provide a context, a soil if you will, in which the seed of the child grows.  But then children are not seeds.  Children are human beings who make choices, who interpret, who assume, hope, doubt, believe.  Children are very complicated seeds planted in very complicated soil.  The lineaments are not easily traced out.

One aspect of a child’s inner workings is her openness to God; or rather, her openness to dependance on God, openness to receive from God.  In Dombey and Son, Florence, the saintly yet despised daughter, prays: “it is the pouring out of her full heart,” Dickens says.  And in her prayer, the finite world of her temporal circumstances opens to take in light and comfort from another realm.  

Florence’s family certainly provides no sterling example of prayer or godliness.  How she learns to pray and receive help from God is a mystery.  It’s always a mystery.  Similarly, many a child raised in a pious family never really seems to get prayer.  Some do later in life.  Some just fake it.  Some don’t even try.  This too is a mystery.

That flowers can grow out of the scorched earth after a forest fire is amazing.  That a saint can come from the barren field of parental neglect is even more amazing.  But then, isn’t it amazing that anyone in this world is saved, that anyone in this world exhibits the qualities of the next?

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