Wicked Old Women in Parallel Plots
December 21, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Dombey and Son.
An interesting development as Dickens rebuilds his plot after Paul’s death: the introduction of a parallel narrative structure.
Florence is left alone in the Dombeys’ house as Dombey goes off with Bagstock to recuperate. The opening of chapter 23 magnificently illustrates her lonely, heartbroken state with a survey of the loveless house in which she lives: the incantatory opening sentence appears with small variations three times, in this six-page tour: “Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.” Surely I’m not the first to draw a line from this portrait of oppressive domesticity — a woman trapped in a horrible house by both society and her own (rather misguided) inclinations — to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s masterpiece, “The Yellow Wallpaper”?
Whatever the case, while Florence could be seen as another of early Dickens’ colorless, selfless heroes/heroines, I think she’s a bit more of a transitional figure: Dickens is starting to understand how to make his good people as interesting as his bad. While her desire to win her wicked father’s love is undoubtedly annoying (and a little creepy), it’s a desire that’s made palpable enough — and that is unconventional enough — to keep the reader’s interest. Further, Florence is good in slightly unpredictable ways: doing Paul’s homework to be able to help him at Dr. Blimber’s, promising to keep Solomon Gills company while Walter is gone. Her constant craving for love is understandable enough, and shown in enough detail, to keep her interesting.
Most of all, though, interesting things have happened to Florence, and therein lies the key to the parallel plot. Dombey begins courting a young widow, Edith Granger, with Bagstock’s assistance. We might not have connected Edith to Florence, but for an incident shortly after we meet Edith: she is accosted by a “withered and very ugly old woman,” a fortune-teller who first offers to tell her fortune, and then threatens to, unless she receives payment. Edith is rescued from this awkward scene — and perhaps from a curse that could’ve dragged her to hell — by evil Mr. Carker, Dombey’s right-hand man.
Right down to the description of a “very ugly old woman,” this scene casts our memory back to the first moment of real action in the book, young Florence being briefly kidnapped by “Good Mrs. Brown,” who steals Florence’s clothes and gives her rags to wear instead. It’s one of Dickens’s typically memorable scenes of truly awful London street life, the old woman smoking a pipe as she takes a seat on a pile of bones and tells Florence, like any Hollywood bank-robber, “… don’t vex me. If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you. But if you do, I’ll kill you.”
With the similarity between these incidents, we draw the parallel between Edith and Florence: good women with the misfortune to know Paul Dombey, Sr. The fortune-teller even references Florence in the brief fortune she gives Carker: “One child dead, and one child living: one wife dead, and one wife coming. Go and meet her!” (At this time, Carker has never met Edith and has no idea that the woman he just helped is the one that Bagstock is arranging for Dombey to marry.) They both lacked a proper childhood: Florence, looked over by old Mrs. Pipchin, and Edith, married off very young by her hideous mother, Mrs. Skewton, both deprived of the parents’ unconditional love that defines childhood.
Dickens takes his cue from Shakespeare, who used parallel plotting often. The example I know best is King Lear, where he uses the parallel plots of Lear and Gloucester to heighten emotion and set his themes in high relief. Here, he does the same, showing us the plight of these young women through a kind of echo chamber of similarities, heightening our emotions toward both of them as neglected human beings and oppressed women. But the differences, too, allow us to connect to each of them as their own people: even early on, as we are just coming to know Edith, it’s clear that she’s much more embittered than Florence, much more cynical and knowing about the forces that are acting on her. Edith seems to have given up hope, or very nearly so, where Florence seems to feel nothing but a constant cycle of hope, rejection, disappointment, and longing. That these two are brought together at the end of chapter 28 — that Edith is to be Florence’s new “Mama” — promises fascinating developments.
Is it possible to imagine a feminist turn by Dickens, here? Will Edith act as a catalyst for change in Florence, or will she confront Dombey in his coldness, refusing to give him another son? Or will the women simply comfort each other as they are neglected and abused, and Dombey gets his comeuppance from some other (male) source? Please don’t tell me Walter’s going to sail to the rescue, here, and make it all better.