Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (I think we can see why the title is usually shortened) was originally published in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848. It’s the book I was supposed to read for a Classics Club Spin over a year ago, but I struggled to get into it at the time and decided to wait until I was more in the mood for Dickens. And you definitely need to be in the right mood for a book of this length – more than 900 pages in the edition I read! I’ve loved other very long Dickens novels, though, such as the wonderful Our Mutual Friend, so I hoped I would end up loving this one too. Unfortunately I didn’t, but I did still find a lot to enjoy.

The Dombey of the title is the wealthy owner of a shipping company who dreams of having a son and heir who will be able to continue the family business. Dombey gets his wish early in the novel when his wife gives birth to a son, Paul. However, she dies shortly after the birth, leaving Paul to become the sole focus of his father’s attention – even though Dombey already has a six-year-old daughter, Florence. Florence loves her father and does her best to please him, but no matter how hard she tries, it’s obvious that all of Dombey’s hopes and ambitions lie with Paul and that Florence is just a useless girl and an inconvenience.

Whether or not the proud and arrogant Dombey will ever come to love and value his daughter as she deserves is the question at the heart of the novel, but as you would expect from Dickens, there are also plenty of diversions and subplots and lots of larger than life characters to get to know. Of these, my favourites were Captain Cuttle, the kind-hearted retired sea captain with a hook for a hand, and Susan Nipper, Florence’s loyal nurse and one of the few people who will stand up to Dombey for his neglect of his daughter. There’s a great villain too: James Carker, the scheming manager of Dombey and Son, with gleaming white teeth and a devious brain. There are too many others I could have done without, though – mainly the ones who seem to be there purely for their comedy value, such as Major Bagstock, Sir Barnet Skettles and Cousin Feenix, without actually adding much to the central plot.

Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his treatment of female characters (I think Dora in David Copperfield is his worst), but the women in this book are well-drawn and interesting. Yes, Florence can be too good to be true at times, but her father’s rejection of her is so cruel and hurtful that it’s impossible not to have sympathy for her. Her stepmother, Edith Dombey, though, is one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across in a Dickens novel: a woman filled with self-loathing after being pushed into marriage by her mother, who then decides to take her fate into her own hands.

Although I really enjoyed parts of this book, other sections dragged and I’m afraid I can’t list it amongst my favourite novels by Dickens. Nicholas Nickleby is the next one I’m planning to read, so I’m hoping for better luck with that one.

This is book 17/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

23 thoughts on “Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

  1. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I love the way we all respond so differently to novels. Objectively, I wouldn’t rank this among Dickens’s best, as it seems to sit in a kind of no-man’s land between his early, predominantly Piccaresque Adventure Tales, and his later, more overt Social Criticism Novels. Having pointed this out, it was actually reading Dombey which made me a Dickens fan. I had had a degree of trial and error with him over the years, and read Dombey more or less on a whim with no real expectations, but something seemed to click in my mind, and I then felt ready to tackle his later masterpieces. I would therefore rank this among my favorites, maybe even my absolute favorite for sentimental reasons, although I realise he wrote far greater novels.

    • Sandra says:

      This is very interesting and helpful Alyson. I’m reading Dombey at the moment and you’ve helped me to locate it in the development of Dickens’ novels.

    • Helen says:

      I had a similar experience with Our Mutual Friend, Alyson. It was the first Dickens novel I really loved, after having mixed feelings about the others I’d read previously.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’ve not read Dombey though I’ve often been keen to because I think it covers the advent of railways, which interests me. I know what you mean about the length and the extra characters, though – you do sometimes wish Dickens would get to the point…

  3. whatmeread says:

    Dombey is okay, but there are others that are better. You might like Nicholas Nickleby better. I don’t mind the tomes. I like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend the best of all, although David Copperfield is an early love.

  4. Sandra says:

    I’m reading Dombey at the moment. I’m about 40% through, having just picked it up again after a long pause. (Dickens was something I couldn’t read when the pandemic hit.) I’m enjoying it so far, more than I expected to, but I liked Nickleby more. I do agree about Carker. Dickens’ descriptions of him are wonderful!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it, Sandra – and yes, Carker is a wonderful villain, isn’t he? I’m pleased to hear you liked Nicholas Nickleby as well; I’m looking forward to reading that one.

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    I began this year with a plan to read at least one Dickens. I have read a few but there are many I have not and this is one of them. You have encouraged to me to renew my vow, though I will probably read A Tale of Two Cities.

  6. FictionFan says:

    It’s not one of my top favourites, but I think I enjoyed it more than you – I forgive Dickens’s digressions and incidental characters in a way that I wouldn’t with other authors, simply because I enjoy his writing so much. Nicholas Nickleby, on the other hand, is one of the very best, so I hope it works better for you. Kate Nickleby is another of his better female characters.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve loved one or two of his books, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a big fan either. There are other Victorian authors I like much more.

  7. Elizabeth Bailey says:

    I felt pretty much the same about Dombey. Really struggled to finish it and found some of the plot so utterly ridiculous I couldn’t hack it at all. The saintly son Paul pretty much did me in, and Florence was almost as sickly, though she did get better. The latter part of the book was more interesting for me, but it’s one I will never read again.
    On the other hand, I absolutely loved Barnaby Rudge, which is loaded with action and intrigue, even though it’s also very long. Recommend that one highly.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think I will ever want to read this one again either. I haven’t read Barnaby Rudge yet, so I’m pleased to hear you loved it so much!

  8. jessicabookworm says:

    I’m sorry to hear you didn’t end up loving this one, Helen, but well done on finishing such a beast of a book! I read Nicholas Nickleby many years ago now and vaguely remember enjoying it (which is why I have put it on my Classics Club list for a re-read), so hopefully you’ll enjoy that one more. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Thank you! I’m pleased that I’ve read it, even though it hasn’t turned out to be a favourite. I’m glad you enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby – I will look forward to it!

  9. Karen K. says:

    Dombey wasn’t my favorite either, but I did love the relationship of Florence and her stepmother. Many of Dickens’ women are really one-dimensional, so I really liked that. (Totally agree about Dora, she is truly annoying.)

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