In October I decided to begin reading Dombey & Son as it was originally published in serial form. Dickens made this method of publishing popular in England with The Pickwick Papers (no doubt to increase his profit) and I thought it would be fun to try and experience one of his works the way readers originally would have. I chose Dombey for 2 reasons; 1) because I know relatively little about the plot so it’s one of the few of his novels that I can approach “cold,” and 2) the serialization began In October, making it a project that I could start immediately. The first installment (chapters 1-4) was released Oct. 1, 1846 and continued monthly until April 1848, for a total of 19 issues. So I will be reading Dombey and Son until the spring of 2020.
I didn’t get around to writing a summary of the first installment for October so I’ve included both months here. I intend to summarize each installment as I imagine it will get increasingly difficult as more time passes to keep track of the characters and the plot over such an expanse of time.
October Installment : Chapters 1-4
When the novel begins Paul Dombey is joyous over the birth of his newborn son, also named Paul. This mirthful tone swiftly gives over to tragedy however when Mrs. Dombey dies shortly after giving birth. Mr. Dombey’s sister, Louisa Chick almost seems to blame the woman for her own death, saying that she’s clearly not a Dombey and that if she were she would have had the strength to resist death. Upon the quick suggestion of Miss Tox, Louisa’s friend, Polly Toodle is hired to aid in nursing little Dombey. Mr. Dombey changes Polly Toodle’s name to Richards, instructs her that she is to have nothing to do with her own family while she’s nursing Paul and that she is also not to form any great attachment to his son.
We also learn that Mr. Dombey has a daughter, Florence, but cares for her very little due to the fact of her being a girl. When Richards meets Florence, she immediately feels a tenderness for her and manipulates the situation so that Florence can spend time with her little brother in an effort to alleviate some of her loneliness. When Richards makes this case to Mr. Dombey she claims that it will be of benefit to little Paul, when in reality she is thinking of Florence.
In the last chapter of this installment Solomon Gills and his nephew Walter are also introduced as Walter has just been hired to work for Dombey. Solomon and his friend, Cuttle echo what has already been established, that Mr. Dombey cares little for his daughter and that his interest is invested solely in his son. The two also joke about Walter someday marrying Florence.
November Installment : Chapters 5 – 7
Louisa suggests that Miss Tox be made Paul’s godmother and Dombey agrees to this while still insisting that he does not want his son to form any greater attachments than to himself and that the two of them, father and son, will eventually do fine and well enough on their own.
One evening after the children have gone to bed, Chick and Tox are discussing Dombey’s lack of affection for Florence when she comes in and asks to be put in bed with her brother. Ever oblivious to the real feelings of others, Chick and Tox assume that Florence must’ve had a bad dream, never for a moment considering that she might be upset because she’s overheard their conversation.
Baby Paul is christened in what is an unnecessarily somber and bleak occasion. Afterwards, Dombey tells Richards that he’s arranged for her eldest son to attend school. Polly feigns gratitude but is inwardly worried about her son and distressed at not being there as he grows up. When she conveys this to Florence’s nurse, Susan Nipper, Susan suggests that they arrange to visit even though Richards has been forbidden to do so.
The next day they leave for Stagg’s Garden, where Richards lives. When she arrives her sister, Jemima, and her children are overjoyed to see her. However, her son is not there as he’s already left for school. They hope to have one last chance to see him as he’s walking home from school. When they spot him, he is being bullied and Polly rushes to his aid. There is a commotion and Florence runs away, assuming that Susan has followed her. When she finally slows down and looks around, neither Susan or Richards are anywhere in sight. A woman who calls herself Good Mrs. Brown approaches Florence and appears to want to help her but instead kidnaps her and steals her clothes. Mrs. Brown gives her rags to wear in exchange along with very specific instructions as to how she is to proceed to her father’s office and make her whereabouts known, under threat of death if she deviates from the plan. When Florence arrives, Mr. Dombey has left for the day and she encounters Walter who takes her to his uncle’s house where she is fed and cared for while Walter sends word to Dombey that Florence has been found safe. Susan comes to retrieve Florence and Richards is dismissed as a result of the incident.
In the meantime, Miss Tox is becoming more and more invested in spending time with the Dombeys and becomes indifferent to her old associates, particularly Mr. Bagstock, who is fond of Miss Tox and wishes to win her heart. Where she once entertained him with her attention, she is now cold and indifferent.
Some of Dicken’s usual themes are already apparent in these first two installments, which come in at about 45 pages each. The warmth of the lower classes is clearly contrasted with the cool familial detachment of the elite, who are caricatured nearly to absurdity.
Dombey seems to only care for his children to the extent that they enhance his status which is why he makes a greater investment in his son. Though even with his son he is not particularly affectionate. He says that he doesn’t want little Paul to form strong attachments to anyone else, yet he does little to endear himself to his son. Nipper and Richards show more genuine care and affection for both Florence and for Paul than any of their snooty and self-interested relatives. This is contrasted with the sincerity, warmth and love clearly present in the Toodle household. There is genuine remorse when Richards must part from her family and heartfelt joy during her surprise visit. The contrast is also present with Walter and his uncle. Florence is more attentively cared for there than she is by her own father, a contrast also borne out by her gratitude. It almost seems as though she doesn’t wish to leave.
Dombey, Louisa, and Miss Tox are too busy looking down their noses at everyone they see as inferior to see anything for what it is or anyone for who they are. They are constantly misattributing the feelings and intentions behind other people’s actions. Their judgements are always based solely on whatever explanation best suits their own purposes and have no basis in reality.