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"[...] traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world.
am 6. März 2010
Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares." This is no contemporary character comment on those bankers, stags and scalpers whose insatiable appetite has so strongly disagreed with all our stomachs; this is rather how Charles Dickens describes the social circle of the Veneerings, a prodigious upstart couple, in his 1864/65 novel "Our Mutual Friend", his last completed novel and one of his deepest works of fiction.
"Our Mutual Friend" tells no less than five stories, of which two shall be briefly touched here. On his death, avaricious Mr. Harmon, who made a fortune collecting and selling urban dust, bequeaths his fortune to his son John on condition that the young man is going to marry Bella Wilfer, a neighbourhood girl. When John Harmon, who, estranged from his tyrannical father, has spent most of his life abroad, returns to England, he falls victim to some criminals and is officially pronounced dead. According to Old Harmon's will the fortune now goes to the Boffins, a couple of simple-minded, yet decent and honest servants, who served the testator for long years. At first the Boffins seem to have some qualms about this pecuniary bliss - they even ask Miss Wilfer to live with them, labouring under the guilty impression that they ruined the young girl's prospects in life -, but by and by Mr. Boffin apparently changes under the influence of his newly-won wealth, becoming just such a mistrustful and hard-hearted miser as his former employer was. One of the victims of his harsh egoism is Mr. Rokesmith, his private secretary, who is actually no other than - the reader gets to know this quite early in the novel - John Harmon, who has luckily escaped the assault on his life and who has not given up his chosen alias in order to put Bella, with whom he has actually fallen in love, to the test.
The other major story centres on Bradley Headstone, a schoolmaster who has worked his own way up from humble beginnings, and Eugene Wrayburn, an unsuccessful and idle lawyer, who become rivals over Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of a man whose occupation it was to fish corpses out of the Thames.
This summary doing but imperfect justice to the complexity of structure and the vast number of characters that are often so typical of Dickens's novels, I am nevertheless not going into further detail here, because mapping the land of Dickens's imagination in "Our Mutal Friend" can surely not be done within the limits of a review.
The novel is extremely rich in symbolic language, the most prominent examples being the mounds of refuse and dust out of which a fortune has been made for the existence of which not one single creature has been any happier; and the river, which flows on as the story proceeds, meaning death and corruption for some of the characters, yet cleansing and re-birth for some others. As is suggested by the first symbol, Dickens, like in many others of his latter-day novels, dwells on the corrupting influence of wealth on the human character: Mr. Boffin, however honest and genial he might have been before his rise to affluence, by degrees discovers his relish for money and his anxiety never to fall back into his old state of indigence. Miss Bella Wilfer, one of the heroines of the novel, was born in conditions of genteel poverty, and it is absolutely clear to her that she will only marry for money in order to lead the life of a lady - Mr. Boffin's change and her feelings for the seemingly impecunious secretary, however, make her reconsider her shallow materialism. Then there is Fledgeby, a greedy money-lender, who is utterly naïve with regard to anything but matters of business. Dickens's sharpest satire, finally, is reserved for the Veeering circle, whose members are mere types without any actual relevance to the story, but who afford Dickens the opportunity of some of his most ingenious sallies against materialism and social conceit, the two main ingredients of Podsnappery.
For modern readers, some few chapters are quite hard to stomach, as they show Dickens at his worst. The story of the pauper lady Betty Higden, for example, rings with melodramatic pathos, and whenever Dickens writes about young love and little babies it is better to leaf forward quickly because it is difficult to believe that the keen satirist and dramatic writer should have been capable of such trite, over-sugared ooze. Another flaw is the character of Lizzie Hexam, who seems to be completely unaffected by the surroundings in which she grew up and who even talks like the gentlest of ladies, whereas all people around her are branded by their sociolect. Nevertheless there is ample compensation for these lapses in the haunting story of Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn, who are quite ambivalent characters, marking yet another development of Dickens's skill as a writer. Especially Bradstone, disciplined and somewhat slow-witted, who has earned his status by hard labour, until his ungovernable feelings for Lizzie awaken the terrible passions he has always tried to suppress, is one of Dickens's finest achievements. Another instance of the novelist's artistic refinement are the Lammles, two social adventurers, whose marriage has been a misalliance, but who vow to enter into a partnership of convenience in order to eke out their living at the expense of society.
Finally the novel also contains the typical Dickensian oddballs, such as Silas Wegg, a scoundrel with an inclination to poetry, who scorns and plots against his benefactor Boffin as "the minion of fortune and worm of the hour", and the melancholic and lovesick taxidermist Mr. Venus, who loves "floating his powerful mind in tea"; these characters are so full of life and endearing that one almost wishes Mr. Wegg, the "literary man w i t h a wooden leg", had had a better exit than was actually allotted to him.
All in all, it can be said that "Our Mutual Friend" is a clear indication that Dickens's development as an artist was far from being exhausted - if it had not been for his untimely death.