May 06, 2021wyenotgo rated this title 5 out of 5 stars
I’m at a stage in life where there are far too many books that I want to read than I will ever have time to enjoy. So I think carefully before launching into a book with 925 pages — it had better be worth my while. No fear with Dickens. There are numerous joys along the way, top of my list being an abundance of memorable, engaging characters both great and small. When he produces a true villain, Dickens holds nothing back, he makes sure his readers will detest the blackguard. Here we have Carker, one of his most despicable creations. His heroines, on the other hand are in truth too sweet and pure to be real — and yet Dickens miraculously makes them so.
Dickens also took special delight in wonderfully droll descriptions of minor characters who happen to exhibit particularly bizarre features or behavioral traits; they add enormously to the enjoyment of his work. His depiction of the “ogress and child-queller” Mrs. Pipchin is especially apt: ".... a marvelously ill-favored, ill-conditioned old lady, of a stooping figure, with a mottled face, like bad marble, a hook nose and a hard grey eye, that looked as if it might have been hammered at on an anvil without sustaining any injury. Forty years at least had elapsed since the Peruvian mines had been the death of Mr Pipchin; but his relict still wore black bombazeen of such a lusterless, deep, dead, sombre shade, that gas itself couldn’t light her up after dark, and her presence was a quencher to any number of candles. She was generally spoken of as “a great manager” of children, and the secret of her management was to give them everything that they didn’t like, and nothing that they did — which was found to sweeten their dispositions very much."
This is a carefully crafted novel with multiple intersecting story lines and a large cast of characters who intersect in unexpected ways to trigger events. Dickens did not simply sit down and write the book, telling a story from beginning to end; he clearly laid out the plot and characters beforehand in great detail, drawing it out like a military campaign, setting his various forces in strategic positions, initiating planned sorties and flanking attacks with close attention to the terrain and field conditions.
Much has been said about the significance of time in this book: The time setting is mid-19th century, an inflexion point in history, where the eruption of steam-powered industry and the railroads turned society on its head. The future is rushing in and Dombey is a man of the past, ill-prepared to deal with such rapid change. And then, when it suits his purpose, Dickens seems to speed up or slow down time as events unfold.
Of the several prevailing themes, the one I find most compelling is the quest for redemption: can Dombey, a deeply flawed personality, be saved from himself?
Of the Dickens novels I’ve read, this is one of the very best, right up there with "Great Expectations" — in some respects even superior to that great work. It’s emotionally powerful, in places very dramatic. It stands ‘the test of time’ (here’s that theme again) and deserves to be more widely read.