Paul Dombey has always wanted a son to continue his business. It’s the driving force of his life, the only thing he lives for apart from his work.
So when his son sickens and dies, Dombey – as far as he’s concerned – has no children and no future; his wife died giving birth to Dombey Junior.
Except…Dombey has a daughter, Florence. One he completely ignores, one he resents for living and taking up space in his heart (as much as he denies it). How dare she live and be happy when his son has died?
So Dombey, not being able to quite help loving her, not cruel enough to disown her, cuts her from his life. He ignores her utterly, leaving her alone with the servants in his rattling London home for months at a time, not speaking to her when he sees her.
When Dombey eventually marries again – Edith, a woman he essentially ‘buys’ from her mother – things look up for Florence. Her new mother is kind and generous to Florence, much to Dombey’s annoyance: How dare Edith love my daughter and not me?
Then Dombey presents Edith with a choice: Ignore the child or I’ll send her away. Blackmailed into coercing, Edith backs away from Florence, leaving her alone again.
In the meantime, Dombey’s chief assistant, Carker, knowing the depths that Edith hates Dombey, convinces her to leave Dombey and elope with him. Carker has been running Dombey’s empire into the ground in the shadows, and getting rich from it without Dombey’s knowledge…
This was a long book, intensely involved with many minor characters and spinning subplots. I really felt for 19th century readers who would have read this in installments over two years. There’s a lot going on, and it takes Dickens a while to decide where he’s going with it: About three hundred pages, actually.
For instance, he spends a lot of time digging into a family who only tangentially have anything to do with the story. Only two characters from the family of about twelve have anything to do; we didn’t really need a chapter describing their convoluted family life, didn’t need to know the father (who has nothing to do in the book) was a steam engine driver. The mother becomes Florence’s nanny…for a whole chapter, then is tossed overboard until the last third of the book, where she’s only mentioned in passing.
In the end though, Dickens decides this is really Dombey and Daughter, and he seems happy to run with that. Florence’s relationship with her father – or lack of it – is where the book flies; actually, it’s the only place the book does fly. Her endless efforts to get her father to love her, or even acknowledge she was in the same room, were heart breaking, and I nearly cried when Dombey finally snaps and hits her when she’s coming to comfort him.
The chapters with Dombey Junior were sweet, but disjointed, like he was an engine to get the plot moving. Suddenly, he becomes ill and dies, like Dickens needed him out of the way quickly.
Everywhere else, the book really sags and shows its length. There’s no real motivation explained for Carker to want to ruin Dombey, no reason for it except to say he’s ‘evil’. He’s a twirling moustache of a Victorian villain, given no depth at all.
Of the standout characters in the book, Edith – Dombey’s second wife – is a real showstopper. Dombey buys her body, but we’re never in any doubt he’s never going to own her soul; she gives as good as she gets. Captain Cuttle is a delight as well, an opposite of Dombey in every way – humble to proud, loving to cold, sociable to withdrawn.
There’s a sense, though, that most of the characters in the later part of the book are props holding Dombey aloft merely so they can be knocked away and he can be shown that his true wealth lies not in money…but in a daughter that never stops loving him.
One, I would say, for the completists only. If you fancy reading it, I’d start at the section where Dombey Junior goes to Brighton. You won’t be missing much by skipping anything before that.