Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

John Harmon is a young man who was sent away in anger to school abroad. He remains estranged from his father and only returns to England upon his father’s death. According to the will, he will only receive his inheritance if he marries Miss Bella Wilfer as his father stipulated. Unfortunately for him, he goes missing on the journey home and is found drown later in the Thames. A mysterious man, Julius Handford, claiming to be a friend of John Harmon, arrives to help indentify the body and then promptly disappears.

Since John is dead, the money then goes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, old employees. They are a kind, friendly, jovial, but naïve couple who accept the inheritance and share it freely with others in need. Shortly afterwards, John Rokesmith contrives to meet Mr. Boffin and secure a position as his personal secretary and assistant. Mr. Boffin accepts the offer and Mr. Rokesmith is hired. At the same time, Mr. Boffin asks Miss Wilfer to come and live with them as compensation for the loss of her fiancée and therefore of all her prospects. However, as time goes on, the money goes to Mr. Boffin’s head, and he begins to turn into a miser.

There’s also a subplot revolving around the daughter of the waterman who brings John Harmon home. Lizie Hexam realizes that her brother is worthy of a much better life than he is destined for should he remain with his father, so she arranges to send him off to school before his father can stop her. She later becomes entangled in a love triangle with her brother’s headmaster and Eugene Wrayburn, a friend of the lawyer who in charge of the Boffin inheritance.

That’s the basic set up of the novel, but it is, in reality, quite a bit more complicated. There are a myriad of people who come and go in different settings, giving the reader a good idea of what life in the different social spheres is like. The upper class is incensed at the rise of such uneducated, unrefined people like Mr. and Mrs. Boffin and spurns them, while several of the lower class plot and scheme to somehow loosen Mr. Boffin’s hold on his money. As a woman, Lizzie Hexam finds herself fighting for her freedom as the two men wrangle over her affections. Most of the plots deal with money and how it affects the lives of the people in the different social stratospheres. There are also, as in all of Dickens’ works, glimpses of social ailments and injustices which need attention. Without ever directly saying as much, he demonstrates why and how society needs to be changed for the better and also how kindness can be its own reward.

Again, it’s a very verbose novel (which of Dickens’ isn’t?), but it’s really one of his best. The plot is complicated, but it’s ingeniously crafted so that all of the elements somehow fit together to create the whole story. The only criticism I have is that some of the characters’ actions can seem a bit forced. Dickens’ does work with larger than life characters, but it occasionally doesn’t seem to work. Some are too good and some go bad without real impetus. However, for the most part, they are good, solid characters, so with a little willing suspension of disbelief, you can easily ignore the failings.

All in all, it’s a great book and well deserved of a 5 out of 5.

Classics Challenge 2010
Typically British

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