Reading Dickens-Dombey and Son

I finally finished my summer reading, Dombey and Son, clocking in at 1040 pages! That is, if you read the Penguin Classics edition.

The Wordsworth Edition that I read was only 808 pages, but if felt like 1040 pages.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed every minute of it, but it didn’t go quickly.

As I mentioned elsewhere I like to read a Dickens novel each summer. For teachers and students, summer is just the time for a big,thick Dickens novel. I guess the rest of you will just have to squeeze it in whenever you can.

Now, I will not say that Dombey and Son is my favorite Dickens novel. (As it was for one reviewer-click on the link for a very good synopsis.)

I enjoyed David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Hard Times more.

But I did enjoy Dombey and Son and am glad to have added it to my Dickens repertoire. Next summer I will either read Martin Chuzzlewit or The Pickwick Papers or perhaps re-read Nicholas Nickleby. For those of us with poorer memories, having already read a good book is no obstacle to re-reading it. Of course this is even more true with an excellent book.

For those of you who enjoy a heartbreaking story, Dombey and Son will not disappoint. I won’t give away the plot- but Dickens again proved himself the master of character portrayal. Of particular significance is the novel’s heroine, the long-suffering and saintly Florence Dombey. Florence, or “Miss Floy” is the personification of blessed meekness and piety.

‘Miss Floy,’ said Susan Nipper, ‘is the most devoted and most patient and most dutiful and beautiful of daughters, there ain’t no gentleman, no Sir, though as great and rich as all the greatest and richest of England put together, but might be proud of her and would and ought. If he knew her value right, he’d rather lose his greatness and his fortune piece by piece and beg his way in rags from door to door, I say to some and all, he would!’ cried Susan Nipper, bursting into tears, ‘than bring the sorrow on her tender heart that I have seen it suffer in this house!’

But all of his characters are unforgettable. Time and again, Dickens manages to present a perfectly vivid cross-section of humanity; he describes in colorful and memorable detail the rich and the poor , the beautiful and the ugly, saints and devils, and everything in between.

How does he do it? How is it possible to present the entire world of men with such precision? He must have experienced all of it to some degree to know it so well.

Oddly, Dickens appears to be no friend of classical education. He describes the forlorn students at Dr. Blimber’s school studying the dead languages with no veiled contempt.

In the confidence of their own room upstairs, Briggs said his head ached ready to split, and that he should wish himself dead if it wasn’t for his mother, and a blackbird he had at home. Tozer didn’t say much, but he sighed a good deal, and told Paul to look out, for his turn would come to-morrow…Paul, who lay awake for a long while, and often woke afterwards, found that Briggs was ridden by his lesson as a nightmare: and that Tozer, whose mind was affected in his sleep by similar causes, in a minor degree talked unknown tongues, or scraps of Greek and Latin.

Dr. Blimber lived in order to squeeze knowledge of things classical into the minds of students.

Whenever a young gentleman was taken in hand by Doctor Blimber, he might consider himself sure of a pretty tight squeeze. The Doctor only undertook the charge of ten young gentlemen, but he had, always ready, a supply of learning for a hundred, on the lowest estimate; and it was at once the business and delight of his life to gorge the unhappy ten with it.

In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boys blew before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.

Poor little Paul, the son of Dombey, dies in fact, and another older student, Toots, has apparently lost his mind through the rigors of premature mental exertion. I hope this doesn’t happen to any of our students, although some of them do give the impression that their studies are a sort of cruel and unusual punishment.

I don’t know anything about Dickens’ own schooling, but I am not certain that he wrote a complete novel without making one or two disparaging comments about the study of Latin and Greek. I forgive him. The schools of his time must have been absolutely horrific.

Perhaps they are worse now?

It’s probably a good thing for teachers at schools that focus on classical learning to keep Dr. Blimber’s school in mind. I know I will the next time I find myself try to cram the heads of my students with material, squeezing into their brains as many pages of Herodotus and Thucydides, and the Aeneid, and chapter after chapter of Algebra, and Greek and Latin vocabulary.

Poor students. One sometimes wonders whether they should be in school at all. If only they could just get enough sleep and perhaps work on a farm for several years eating fresh meat and vegetables and lots of raw milk.

But let us return to the point. For everyone who loves the idea that people can be pure and noble and loyal and lovely and guileless and beloved and wholesome and winning and … then Dickens is the man to read.

Although he took a generally dim view towards churchmen and organized religion, his heroes are always Christlike in their love for others.

And what about his death scenes?

I find myself weeping at every one. Dickens has thought deeply about death and especially those last moments that each of us must face.  Apparently when Dickens wrote the installment that included little Paul Dombey’s death all England was prostrate with grief. I am still grieving.

For an instant, Paul looked at her with the wistful face with which he had so often gazed upon her in his corner by the fire. ‘Yes,’ he said placidly, ‘good-bye! Walter dear, good-bye!’—turning his head to where he stood, and putting out his hand again. ‘Where is Papa?’

He felt his father’s breath upon his cheek, before the words had parted from his lips.

‘Remember Walter, dear Papa,’ he whispered, looking in his face. ‘Remember Walter. I was fond of Walter!’ The feeble hand waved in the air, as if it cried ‘good-bye!’ to Walter once again.

‘Now lay me down,’ he said, ‘and, Floy, come close to me, and let me see you!’

Sister and brother wound their arms around each other, and the golden light came streaming in, and fell upon them, locked together.

‘How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, Floy! But it’s very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!’

Presently he told her the motion of the boat upon the stream was lulling him to rest. How green the banks were now, how bright the flowers growing on them, and how tall the rushes! Now the boat was out at sea, but gliding smoothly on. And now there was a shore before him. Who stood on the bank?—

He put his hands together, as he had been used to do at his prayers. He did not remove his arms to do it; but they saw him fold them so, behind her neck.

‘Mama is like you, Floy. I know her by the face! But tell them that the print upon the stairs at school is not divine enough. The light about the head is shining on me as I go!’

The golden ripple on the wall came back again, and nothing else stirred in the room. The old, old fashion! The fashion that came in with our first garments, and will last unchanged until our race has run its course, and the wide firmament is rolled up like a scroll. The old, old fashion—Death!

Oh thank GOD, all who see it, for that older fashion yet, of Immortality! And look upon us, angels of young children, with regards not quite estranged, when the swift river bears us to the ocean!

‘When my own time comes I hope it is just like that!

I certainly will not want to die in the horrific manner that he describes the arch villain of the story, whose death is mixed up with a train!

Little Paul Dombey’s death is particularly moving because of Dickens’ understanding and appreciation for children. He reveals wisdom through their mouths whereas many of his grown-ups are silly and foolish… nay, even childish imbeciles. Dickens loved children and that makes me like him even more.

There’s no question that Dickens was a great author. He achieved timeless beauty in his writings. The words of the great Democritus, that fifth century B.C. father of the atomic theory, come to mind,

What a poet writes when possessed and inspired by the gods is most beautiful. (Democritus, DK 18)

It is fair to say that Dickens wrote under the inspiration of the gods. Where else did he obtain his genius?

As much as it makes me blush to make the comparison, Dickens certainly achieved some approximation of what Homer himself achieved

Homer, obtaining by fate a divine nature, built a cosmos of all kinds of verse. (Democritus, DK 21)

Dickens also built a cosmos in his writings. He delivers an entire world into the minds of his readers. He makes me want to live in it. And while educating me about the evil to be avoided, and its consequences, he makes me aware of the beauty of human virtue and inspires me to emulate any one of his noble heroes.

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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1 Response to Reading Dickens-Dombey and Son

  1. Perhaps Dickens is no friend of classical education in particular, but at least was an implacable foe of utilitarian education. Who can forget Mr. Gradgrind in the opening of Hard Times? “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

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