I recently re-read Dombey and Son after not having read it in so long that I could not remember its plot. The novel is Charles Dickens’s tale about Paul Dombey, a wealthy, cold, self-important man who cares only about his son, not about his wife or his gentle, loving daughter Florence. His wife dies in childbirth, and his son Paul is weak and often ill, but Paul and Florence have a loving relationship. When Florence is kidnapped as a child, she is rescued by Walter Gay, a young employee of Dombey. Dombey ships him off to Barbados to get him away from Florence, but Walter’s ship is lost and he is presumed drowned.
With Walter gone, Florence has only her brother Paul for her friend. Then Paul dies, and her father even resents Florence for the love his son had for her, which he did not give to his father.
Dombey meets a beautiful widow, Edith Granger. She is a cold, haughty but impoverished woman, and Dombey essentially “buys” her by marrying her. She despises Dombey for his pride and herself for having married him for his money. The only person she is kind to is Florence, which provides more fuel for Dombey’s dislike of his own daughter. His attempts to subdue his wife end in her disgracing him as best she is able by running away to Dijon with Mr. Carker, one of Dombey’s rivals. When Florence attempts to offer sympathy, Dombey strikes her and she leaves the house, friendless and destitute.
Although the novel is not critically accepted as one of Dickens’s major works, it is still enjoyable. It is full of vibrant characters–mostly those of good will but also some villains–and it is gripping to the end. Some critics have noticed a change in the novel that takes place with the death of the young Paul, believing that having the colorless Florence and the unlikable Dombey as the main characters is not enough to carry the story forward. The absence of Walter and his uncle through much of the book is also thought to be a problem. However, the novel has all of the Dickens hallmarks–social commentary, comic absurdity, realism, pathos, and transformation. Dombey and Sons was written before most of Dickens’s real masterpieces like Bleak House or David Copperfield, but it certainly shows the movement from his lighter, shorter works toward the qualities of his more major works.