Preferred Citation: Jaffe, Audrey. Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

Dombey and Son

3. Dombey and Son

The World Within and the World Without

For all his starched, impenetrable dignity and composure, he wiped blinding tears from his eyes as he paced up and down his room; and often said, with an emotion of which he would not, for the world, have had a witness, “Poor little fellow!”

In Dombey and Son, as in all omnisciently narrated novels, readers often see what characters wish to keep secret. Apparently disregarding boundaries between public and private spheres, omniscience creates its characteristic effects precisely by establishing and then violating such boundaries. But while this is always true of omniscience, Dombey’s narrator reminds us of it more often than most. Through comments such as the above, through extended scenes in which we observe Florence or Dombey alone, readers are made aware that they observe scenes in which characters would, but for narrator and readers, remain unobserved.

Exposing private matters to the public eye, Dombey’s narrator might seem to resemble the instrusive public world that haunts Dombey after the scandal of Edith’s departure and the bankruptcy of the firm.

The world. What the world thinks of him, how it looks at him, what it sees in him, and what it says—this is the haunting demon of his mind. It is everywhere where he is; and, worse than that, it is everywhere where he is not. It comes out with him among his servants, and yet he leaves it whispering behind; he sees it pointing after him in the street; it is waiting for him in his counting house; it leers over the shoulders of rich men among the merchants; it goes beckoning and babbling among the crowd; it always anticipates him, in every place; and is always busiest, he knows, when he has gone away. When he is shut up in his room at night, it is in his house, outside it, audible in footsteps on the pavement, visible in print upon the table, steaming to and fro on railroads and in ships; restless and busy everywhere, with nothing else but him. (809)

How, we might ask, does the novel’s omniscience differ from this? Or from the curious strangers who, also after Dombey’s ruin, participate in the dismantling of his house?

There is not a secret place in the whole house. Fluffy and snuffy strangers stare into the kitchen range as curiously as into the attic clothes-press. Stout men with napless hats on, look out of the bedroom windows, and cut jokes with friends in the street. (928)

The demise of the firm of Dombey and Son is accompanied by the end of Dombey’s ability to sustain his powerful public image—to hide, as the novel puts it, “the world within him from the world without” (808). But the novel’s omniscience has already revealed “the world within.” Gossip and rumor, we might argue, only expose what Dombey’s readers have already been shown; publicity only seeks the violent effacement of boundaries the omniscient narrator has already, more quietly, effaced. Dombey’s narrator in fact makes a point of taking characters behind locked doors and pursuing them there: “[H]e went into his room, and locked the door, and sat down in his chair, and cried for his lost boy” (329). “When the door yielded, and he rushed in, what did he see there? No one knew. But thrown down in a costly mass upon the ground, was every ornament she had had, since she had been his wife” (756).

Yet even as the novel charts the destruction of Dombey’s private and public worlds, it differentiates its methods from those of the public world, describing the latter as rapacious, greedy, and careless about knowledge. Where gossip, rumor, and publicity can only speculate, deriving their energy from their lack of knowledge, omniscience is certain: “But this is sure: he does not think that he has lost her. He has no suspicion of the truth” (808). And because it is sure of what takes place behind closed doors—because it so absolutely violates privacy—the novel’s omniscience paradoxically manages to align itself against the public world and with the private, even as it reveals private affairs to the public eye.

Confiding to each reader what, it claims, “no one knows,” Dombey’s narration provokes a peculiar double consciousness: a sense of privacy in the midst of publicity. In order to value the private sphere as it does, the novel must expose it, making what occurs in private a kind of demonstration of privacy, putting privacy into circulation. Omniscience, with its emphasis on interiority, its interest in revealing what transpires when “no one” is present—its ability, precisely, to violate privacy—is paradoxically suited to disseminate the values of private life: to sustain a fiction of privacy.

As it publicizes the private, the novel opposes privacy to the public business world, a world represented as requiring the deformation or management of natural feeling—one where, as Mr. Carker the Manager puts it, “our interest and convenience commonly oblige many of us to make professions we cannot feel” (717). Writing on what she calls the “commercialization of human feeling,” Arlie Russell Hochschild discusses the way in which emotions, when required for the performance of labor, become ever more subject to estrangement. A culture which increasingly employs feeling in the service of business, she argues, places a correspondingly high value on the spontaneous and the natural. And traditionally the management of feeling—what Hochschild calls “emotion management”—“has been better understood and more often used by women as one of the offerings they trade for economic support.”[1]Dombey’s great subject is obviously the relationship between father and daughter, ending in Dombey’s discovery of what everyone else discovered long ago: that “Dombey and Son [is] a Daughter after all” (298). But Florence’s victory is essentially a victory of emotion over convention, of the natural over the artificial, and of private life over public life, as the novel links and structures these categories. Dombey and Son and its omniscient narration may be seen as doing the cultural work which both maintains and reproduces the natural, the emotions, and the inner life as centers of value in a world in which feeling is, to use Hochschild’s term, increasingly “instrumental.”[2] Pitting private against public, interior against exterior, the “world within” against the “world without,” and Florence against Dombey, Dombey and Son enforces the essentiality and the irreducibility of what it constructs as the private, the interior, the “natural”—what Richard Sennett has called “identity composed of materials from within.”[3] In doing so, the novel contributes to the emptying out of public life which is Sennett’s concern, while assuring its readers that authentic feeling exists and can survive intact in a world of business.

Discussing such pseudosciences as phrenology and physiognomy, Sennett suggests that the Victorians both believed and feared that everything about them was visible.

[I]n the high Victorian era people believed their clothes and their speech disclosed their personalities; they feared that these signs were equally beyond their power to mold, but would instead be manifest to others in involuntary tricks of speech, body gesture, or even how they adorned themselves. (25)

What follows, Sennett argues, is a loss of belief in individual ability to control the way appearances are interpreted and the development of an anxiety about “giving [oneself] away.” As I have already suggested, Dombey’s omniscience reflects what must have been characteristic of nineteenth-century life, given a belief in physiognomy and the ability of appearances to convey essential truths: namely, the epistemological power that readers, spectators, or narrators have—or imagine they have—over participants. Sennett’s focus on the anxiety such “reading” arouses is especially appropriate for a consideration of Dickens’s sketches and novels, which are interested not only in the reading of surface marks, but also in a character’s inability to control his or her self-representation. Moments at which a narrator points out such failures serve two purposes. They establish the existence of a “natural” self, and in doing so they secure the novel’s omniscience, which perceives—and by perceiving validates—that self. For just as Dickens’s work sets up an opposition between public and private worlds, so too does it articulate one between a “true” inner self and a “false,” because publicly oriented, outer self that would manage “true” character, keeping it imprisoned. True character reveals itself in the incompleteness of a character’s control over his or her appearance, and the narrator establishes his power over his characters, just as the characters do over one another, by noting these lapses of control. Thus, purporting to see through to true character, this narrative technique establishes its own truth value. The narrator sets himself up as an eye that sees beyond what is presented for public consumption.

For Sennett, the only sure defense against vulnerability to the reading of others, the only way to maintain a boundary between the self and the public world, is “to try to keep oneself from feeling, to have no feelings to show” (26). From this perspective, Dombey’s characteristic behavior may be regarded as a response to the insistently public world Dombey and Son depicts, one in which the individual has no privacy other than what he can develop by having nothing to reveal. Dombey’s desire not to express feeling might thus be considered a “natural” result of the publicity of his age: in such a world, that is, it would be “natural to be unnatural” (Dombey, 737).

But Dombey, the narrator assures us, does feel, and despite his attempts to hide it his feeling reveals itself. “[H]e cannot hide those rebel traces of it, which escape in hollow eyes and cheeks, a haggard forehead, and a moody, brooding air. Impenetrable as before…he is humbled, or those marks would not be there” (808–9). The novel stages a competition between world without and world within, a competition the latter has already won both because the narrator pursues Dombey when he hides (exposing, as if to spite him, what he would not have others know) and because the relationship between inner self and outer is represented as that of prisoner to prison, the inner self always trying to escape and always succeeding in doing so. Characters’ attempts at managing their feelings thus give way before the power and intensity of their inner, “natural” selves, those selves whose presence the narrator insistently confirms merely by revealing what speaks for itself (“or those marks would not be there”).

But what exactly is it that is being confirmed, that speaks for itself? Hochschild distinguishes between two kinds of emotion management, based on two schools of acting: “surface” acting, which involves the manipulation of appearance, and “deep” or “method” acting, which concentrates on the engendering of feeling. In general terms, the first involves the cultivation of the appearance of feeling; the second, of feeling itself.[4]Dombey stages, as I have said, the victory of the “natural” self. But this victory, as we shall see, requires management of a particular kind: it requires deep rather than surface acting.

Omniscience shows what any keen-eyed observer might see—what individuals themselves “give away.” But most characteristically it shows what no one sees, what characters keep to themselves or what no one cares to see. By emphasizing what “no one knows,” Dombey’s narration signals the importance of what characters do when they are alone, establishing the value of privacy for the revelation of true character. And, in a displacement of privacy from the external to the internal sphere, as well as in an evasion of its own publicizing activity, the novel establishes what is essential to our evaluation of Dombey’s characters. The crucial issue is not whether characters are being watched—for, indeed, they are all being watched. Rather, it is their sensitivity to public attention, whether they know or care that they are being watched—whether, that is, they are creatures shaped by and responsive to the publicity that characterizes their age, or whether they have stubbornly, like Captain Cuttle, remained “old fashioned.” Alerting us to the importance of what goes on when no one is watching, Dombey and Son valorizes characters—Florence above all—whose primary attribute is their inattention to the public world, characters who prefer to be alone, with whom we spend long periods in private, and who, even in public, are incapable of “surface” acting. Linking the values of privacy and the natural, Dickens thus manages the unmanaged heart, constructing the natural and the private in opposition to the unnatural and the public, establishing an emotional system in which characters are valued to the extent that they are able to ignore the public world.[5]Dombey and Son depicts an unnatural world which prizes those who “act naturally.”

Emphasizing the importance of what no one knows, Dombey makes itself significant in its possession of, and interest in, information that—it claims—does not circulate. Such is the force of its recurring critique of what the “Papers” say, their tendency to “work” information “up in print, in a most surprising manner” (835–36). (Indeed, given that Dombey follows upon Dickens’s foray into the newspaper business as the editor of the Daily News, we can see in this contrast his preference for the secrets of the heart which are the novel’s business over the kind of news the papers report.) At the same time, by claiming the possession of knowledge no one knows, the novel places itself in a larger context within which what is valued appears to exist outside, and untouched by, the marketplace. This is the essence of Florence’s value, as well as of the contrast between Edith, who is unnaturally made conscious of her status as a marketable commodity, and Florence, whose naturalness results from her having been left—through neglect—to her “natural heart.” Florence, who for Dombey is “base coin,” appears to escape the laws of the marketplace, including those laws which govern the exchange of women, and embodies instead the values that Dickens poses as an alternative to those of the marketplace, both in her person and in the qualities she represents throughout the novel.[6]

For Florence’s value inheres in her performance of actions and expression of feelings that have no exchange value within the novel: she is “possessed of so much affection that no one seemed to care to have” (81). It is not that her feelings aren’t powerful. On the contrary, her possession of Paul’s and Edith’s affection places her in direct rivalry with Dombey. Her feelings are instrumental, her apparent non-management of feeling, as we shall see, a way of managing herself and others.[7] But her feelings importantly appear non-instrumental because, though Dombey rejects her, Florence “never changes”: she gives even though she receives nothing in return. This is the force of what she does that no one sees; these scenes are in fact instrumental less for Florence than for us. Her love has power for the reader because it appears useless, and therefore pure; it finds its value not primarily, or not first, within the novel, but outside it, in the act of exchange that is reading. Florence’s feelings circulate among us. She may be “base coin” for Dombey, but in her own currency—feeling—she is a pearl of great price. Her emotions, which within the novel provide a refuge from the marketplace, are precisely what give her value in the marketplace in which the novel circulates.

The novel’s valorization of non-instrumental feeling can be linked to the emotions the novel evokes. Dombey has been particularly prized for the feeling it arouses in readers. Indeed, the death of Paul was a deliberate attempt on Dickens’s part to recreate the pathos he had achieved with the death of Little Nell.[8] For the reader, the novel (and not only Dombey and Son) becomes a place to experience what is perceived as non-instrumental feeling: feeling which represents an alternative to the emotional management performed elsewhere. Hochschild’s “emotional labor” thus has its counterpart in emotional recreation of the type Dombey and other Victorian novels provide, in the imagining of a place—the novel—where the “inner life” can exist free of the constraints it encounters in public. The novel is thus most instrumental in its construction of a world within—one that, in its fantasmatic nature, it is the omniscient narrator’s privilege to oversee.

Even as the novel constructs a world of feeling within each individual, it also forges another inner world, one that its culture imagined as its primary refuge from the public world and the marketplace: the family. Nancy Armstrong argues that the novel plays a crucial role in what she calls government through the family, pointing out that fiction “helped to formulate the ordered space we call the household…and used it as the context for representing normal behavior.”[9] The novel, Armstrong writes, naturalizes cultural and political values by “presuming to discover what was only natural in the self” (9). Armstrong traces a movement in the mid-nineteenth century from government through force to government by means of the use of strategies of surveillance centering on educational institutions and the family—a movement Dombey replicates in its replacement of Dombey’s repressive rule with a familial world centered on Florence, the novel’s chief agent of surveillance from within. And what the household accomplishes through surveillance, the novel accomplishes by enabling its readers to see through the rooftop, becoming, Asmodeus-like, secret observers of family life.

Armstrong argues that though the household, as a female domain, might appear to exist outside political life, in its disciplinary and educational work and its inculcation of “civilizing” values, it plays a crucial political role. Dombey naturalizes the family by presenting it as endangered and disrupted by the external force of business, enacted in Dombey’s fundamental confusion of firm and family—a confusion which results in his dislike for his daughter and his too-great reliance on Carker. In order to locate the sources of its tensions outside the family, that is, the novel must make them the result of desires it terms alien or unnatural even to their owner. The unnatural, then, is defined as whatever fails to support the idea of family that the novel itself constructs. Only when Dombey gives way to the “sense of injustice” that, Dickens claims, is “within him, all along” (1867 Preface) can he and his family recover their “natural” affection for one another.

Dombey divides its characters into good and bad according to their desire for privacy or publicity. Linking goodness with privacy, the novel contrasts those characters who act with at least one eye on the effects of their actions with those who seek no power or recognition. The novel’s good characters keep themselves hidden, letting their deeds go unrewarded (“one has no business to take credit for good intentions,” says Morfin [842]); its evil characters attempt to impose their vision on the world, destroying the difference between themselves and the world. Little Paul keeps “his character to himself” (234); Mr. Carker the Junior seeks to remain “unquestioned and unnoticed” (247). By contrast, Carker the Manager is all effect. Above all a crafter of his own public image, what he chiefly manages are feelings, and he manipulates those of others by appearing to manipulate his own.[10] His manner toward Dombey is “deeply conceived and perfectly expressed” (239), and under his “skillful culture” Dombey grows increasingly angry at Florence (443). Typically, Carker keeps his “true” self hidden, never betraying “his own hand” (372)—a hand revealed to the reader, however, who knows that “alone in his own room he shows his teeth all day” (311). Dickens’s omniscience insists on the difference between the public and the private spheres that it happily transgresses, earning our allegiance by showing us what characters are truly like, which means showing us what they are like when they think no one sees them.

As Mr. Dombey dropped his eyes, and adjusted his neck-cloth again, the smiling face of Mr. Carker the Manager became in a moment, and without any stage of transition, transformed into a most intent and frowning face, scanning his closely, and with an ugly sneer. As Mr. Dombey raised his eyes, it changed back, no less quickly, to its old expression, and showed him every gum of which it stood possessed. (442)

Though it is characteristic of Carker to hide “beneath his manner” (690), the narrator makes a point of showing us his failure to control himself. Managing his manner, but not his emotions, Carker cannot keep his “true” self from emerging. “Wolf’s face that it was then, with even the hot tongue revealing itself through the stretched mouth, as the eyes encountered Mr. Dombey‘s!” (442).[11]

But while Carker’s lack of control signifies weakness, Florence’s bespeaks naturalness: Florence cannot dissimulate. When she is under surveillance, called upon to play with Paul under her father’s eye, her manner is “forced and embarrassed” (86). Throughout long sections of the novel we watch as she suffers, silent and alone, in Dombey’s house. During much of this time, she herself observes the private domestic scenes that take place in the window of the house across the way, scenes of “rosy children” who possess their father’s love. This watching, the narrator tells us, is her “secret,” as is her other activity: the vigil she maintains outside her father’s door.

When no one in the house was stirring, and the lights were all extinguished, she would softly leave her own room, and with noiseless feet descend the staircase, and approach her father’s door. Against it, scarcely breathing, she would rest her face and head, and press her lips, in the yearning of her love.…

No one knew it. No one thought of it. (320)

And again:

It would have been a strange sight, to see her now, stealing lightly down the stairs through the thick gloom, and stopping at it [his door] with a beating heart, and blinded eyes, and hair that fell down loosely and unthought of; and touching it outside with her wet cheek. But the night covered it, and no one knew. (327)

Later, with Dombey gone, Florence wanders among the gloomy furniture in the silent house, “unsuspected and unaided” (398). “Still no one knew” (396). Florence does what she does supremely indifferent to matters of appearance, under cover of darkness, her hair “unthought of,” her single-mindedness and sincerity attested not just by the simple fact that she “never changes”—that her private actions reinforce her public ones—but by the fact that she does so much, and we see her do so much, in private. The point—“still no one knew”—could hardly be stressed more. What Florence does counts because she does it when, and even though—and, with respect to the way the novel constructs her naturalness, because—no one knows about it.

If the naturalness of Florence’s feelings is affirmed by her extensive private indulgence in them, it is reinforced by what happens when she does have an audience. For it is important to the representation of Florence’s “natural” self that she cannot manipulate her manner; she cannot keep her private feelings from spilling over into public life. Further, the novel implies, natural feeling proves its naturalness by its refusal to be controlled; if temporarily mastered, it will not remain so. True feeling appears to be true because it cannot respect the boundary between public and private spheres; in Dickens’s rhetoric, it has a will of its own and cannot be commanded. “It was a natural emotion, not to be suppressed; and it would make its way even between the fingers of the hand with which she covered up her face. The overcharged and heavy-laden breast must sometimes have that vent, or the poor wounded solitary heart within it would have fluttered like a bird with broken wings, and sunk down in the dust” (316). It is essential to the appearance of “natural” emotion that it disregard conventions of time and place; melodramatically, it appears when it must. Hochschild defines “emotional management” as an “indication of will” involving feeling (13). In contrast to those managers of feeling Chick and Tox, Florence, it seems, cannot “make an effort.”

“…it is our duty to submit.”

“I will try, dear aunt, I do try,” answered Florence, sobbing. (313)

“Edith,” said Mr. Dombey, “this is my daughter Florence. Florence, this lady will soon be your Mama.”

Florence started, and looked up at the beautiful face in a conflict of emotions, among which the tears that name awakened, struggled for a moment with surprise, interest, admiration, and an indefinable sort of fear. Then she cried out, “Oh, Papa, may you be happy! may you be very, very happy all your life!” and then fell weeping on the lady’s bosom.

There was a short silence. (486)

The natural appears to be natural because it is naturally awkward, carefully structured to clash with the conventions that govern others’ behavior. Indifferent to the expectations of others, it opposes behavior which exists purely to evoke a response in others, behavior which is pure calculation.

Mr. Dombey leaned back in his chair, instead of bending over the papers that were laid before him, and looked the Manager steadily in the face. The Manager, with his eyelids slightly raised, affected to be glancing at his figures, and to await the leisure of his principal. He showed that he affected this, as if from great delicacy. (443)

Carker’s “skillful culture,” the management of Dombey’s emotions through the management of his own manner, is work of some complexity, uncovering levels of emotional duplicity as it “shows” what it “affects.”

Almost every character in the novel is presented as being in a state of inward struggle, willing, or failing to will, feeling. Unable to hide her true feeling for Dombey, Edith sells herself, or lets herself be sold. Just as Dombey’s face is “marked” and Florence’s feelings force their way through her fingers, so too does Edith’s body speak for her: her beauty appears “against her will” (367). Such struggle, valued as an indication of the presence of natural feeling, is juxtaposed to the easy manipulation of the appearance of feeling, as when Mrs. Skewton embraces Florence, who had “certainly never undergone so much embracing, and perhaps had never been, unconsciously, so useful in her life” (509). Though the narrator tells us that “habit” may cause the unnatural to become natural, it never quite does for many of Dombey’s characters, whose natural feeling is in a constant state of rebellion against the unnatural uses to which it is put.

As its critics have remarked, Dombey and Son is an especially melodramatic novel, containing a number of scenes in which behavior seems to transgress conventional boundaries, as, for example, the scene in which Edith announces to Dombey her desire for a separation in the presence of Florence and Carker. To some extent, “melodrama” describes the perception that we are witnessing private material—a perception enhanced here by Dombey’s insistence that Carker and Florence remain in the room as a means of humiliating his wife. In staging this scene Dombey deliberately blurs the boundary between his business world and his private life. As he does so, the novel outrages what it defines as “natural,” as “sense”: the reader’s “sense” of privacy. The presence of an audience encourages the apprehension that we have unintentionally stumbled into a family conflict, that we witness the private “by accident.” At the same time, it makes the site of such conflict one of intense feeling and interest. Like Carker—“Carker listened, with his eyes cast down” (746)—we may avert our eyes, but we are no less attentive.[12]

Peter Brooks uses the term “melodrama” to describe the representation of a “victory over repression,” of actions which, like dreams, erase distinctions between desire and action, and scenes which permit the saying of the unsayable.[13] For Brooks, such scenes reassure audiences and readers because they resolve complex emotional situations into an absolute difference between good and evil. When Dombey strikes Florence, however, or when Edith speaks the unspeakable to Dombey or tears his jewels from her breast (“Did you think that I loved you? Did you know that I did not? Did you ever care, Man! for my heart, or propose to yourself to win the worthless thing?” [654]), the novel stages a battle in which one character’s authentic feeling struggles against another’s desire to preserve appearances (“Do you know who I am, Madam? Do you know what I represent?” [749]). (Even while making a point of his desire to preserve appearances, however, Dombey cannot but reveal the scandal of this relationship to Carker and Florence, and, in contrast to Carker, he appears ineffectual here in his inability to control knowledge about himself.) But what appears excessive or melodramatic in these demonstrations, as in Florence’s effusions of feeling, is a response to a cultural need to make natural feeling visible because feeling in the main has been put in the service of the unnatural, given over to management, becoming, like Carker’s, deformed by the requirements of public representation.

It is evidence of Florence’s naturalness that, like Captain Cuttle, she cannot adapt to the modern world and has no place in it.[14] Her character is interior both in the sense that we see her from the inside (that is, we read her thoughts) and that she seems to belong indoors. Dickens emphasizes her old-fashionedness and her interiority by twice thrusting her suddenly and unexpectedly into the public sphere, in what almost seems like an irruption of privacy into that sphere: once, when she is lost by Susan Nipper in the City, and a second time, after Dombey strikes her, when she takes flight there, the second instance in some ways recapitulating the first.

Where to go? Still somewhere, anywhere! still going on; but where! She thought of the only other time she had been lost in the wild wilderness of London—though not lost as now—and went that way. To the home of Walter’s Uncle.…The roar soon grew more loud, the passengers more numerous, the shops more busy, until she was carried onward in a stream of life setting that way, and flowing, indifferently, past marts and mansions, prisons, churches, market-places, wealth, poverty, good, and evil.…At length the quarters of the little Midshipman arose in view. (759)

Florence’s bewilderment, her incapacity to understand where she is except insofar as it leads to the Midshipman’s, as well as Dickens’s emphasis on the “indifference” and impersonality of the “stream of life” that surrounds her, all serve to emphasize her essential interiority. And in both instances, the Midshipman’s—the antipodes of Dombey and Son, the shop from which nothing is ever sold—becomes her refuge, its reminders of Walter, lost on the high seas, pointing to the advisability of never going outdoors.

Throughout the novel, the natural is constructed in contrast with and opposition to the unnatural: what is forced, imposed from without, or requires “making an effort.” “Breeding” and “nature” are everywhere opposed. Morfin takes leave of Harriet “with such a happy mixture of unconstrained respect and unaffected interest, as no breeding could have taught” (562). “Forcing” is explored in the Blimber’s Academy scenes, in Mrs. Skewton’s perversion of Edith’s “natural heart,” in Mrs. Skewton’s own travesties of nature—and, primarily, in Dombey’s desire to hurry Paul through his childhood as quickly as possible. “It being a part of Mrs. Pipchin’s system not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster . . .” (163); “Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hothouse, in which there was a forcing apparatus constantly at work.…Nature was of no consequence at all” (206). What is natural is what is left to grow in its own direction, unwilled and unforced. Left on its own, the novel insists, the heart will naturally form familial affections: “She yearned towards him, and yet shrunk from his approach. Unnatural emotion in a child, innocent of wrong! Unnatural the hand that had directed the sharp plough, which furrowed up her gentle nature for the sowing of its seeds!” (585). And those affections will, ultimately, find expression. Even Carker (we are told) in his last moments “may” have a touch of familial feeling: “If ever he remembered sister or brother with a touch of tenderness and remorse, who shall say it was not then?” (874).

Dombey’s marital difficulties and the ruin of the firm only heighten the difference between “the world,” which makes use of Dombey’s misfortune in various ways, and those who respond to the disaster by remaining loyal to Dombey and doing good in secret—those who, like Florence, stubbornly insist upon an idea of family against all indications to the contrary, treating Dombey and Son as a family rather than a firm. The disaster creates publicity and celebrity: “The world was very busy…and had a deal to say” (908). Mr. Perch becomes famous over the bankruptcy, as he did over the elopement. The clerks, who have no particular attachment to Dombey, disperse. Only Morfin continues to work on clearing up Dombey’s affairs, retiring to his home at night to confide his cares to his violoncello. Harriet Carker’s plan to channel some of her and her brother’s newly acquired money to Dombey must be implemented “quietly and secretly” (915). Most strikingly, perhaps, the novel contrasts those who consider their employment by both family and firm as mere employment with those who regard it as a familial attachment. The ruin of the firm and the household creates a kind of community among the servants. The strife between Dombey and Edith gives them a “good subject for a rallying point” (743) and the bankruptcy provides them with cause for feasting. But in Morfin and in Harriet—as in the relationship between Susan Nipper and Florence—the novel celebrates a kind of feudal bond between servants and master which has no actual connection with the way the firm of Dombey and Son operates, and which, fittingly, has no point or purpose until the firm’s demise. Dombey’s business methods are superseded by, and found to be inferior to, work performed out of love or loyalty, work which asks no recognition.

In its efforts to separate the natural from the unnatural, family from business, and good characters from bad ones, Dombey and Son also separates good watching from bad. The novel’s omniscience attempts to naturalize itself by thematizing the secret observation of others. Dombey keeps Richards under surveillance; Carker watches everyone and employs Rob the Grinder as his spy; Good Mrs. Brown warns Florence that “there would be potent eyes and ears in her employment cognizant of all she did” (131). The novel’s separation of good from bad watching (or the good spirit from the lame demon, as the difference is later formulated) represents an attempt to resolve the ambivalence that attends covert observation and to associate itself with the former rather than the latter. Any “secret intelligence” gained by Morfin, for example, is used for good, its secrecy a result of his desire not to “take credit for good intentions” (842). But while Carker, Dombey’s “confidential agent” in business and personal affairs, resembles other narratorial personae in Dickens’s work (such as Boz and John Harmon) in his ability to move between these realms, that ability is here defined as sinister. Just as Master Humphrey disappeared, scapegoating Quilp as that novel’s intrusive spy, so too does Dombey’s narration attempt to distance itself from a figure it disturbingly resembles. And yet Carker, with his powers of observation and ability to move between public and private life, is inescapably linked to the narrator. It is chiefly through him, for instance, that we register the truth of Edith’s feeling about Dombey:

All this time, Edith never raised her eyes, unless to glance towards her mother.…But as Carker ceased, she looked at Mr. Dombey for a moment. For a moment only; but with a transient gleam of scornful wonder on her face, not lost on one observer, who was smiling round the board. (463)

The momentary escape of Edith’s true feeling is “not lost”—but neither is Carker’s observation of it. Conscious as he is, there is unseen intelligence above and beyond him, and it is by means of this intelligence that the novel’s narration anxiously attempts to separate itself from him, while continuing to “employ” him. Though we are told that he saw Edith “in his mind, exactly as she was” (735), Carker turns out, of course, to be wrong. In language which returns in Bleak House, and using a method later to appear in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens demonstrates the “springing of his [Carker’s] mine upon himself” (735), revealing that, as far as Edith is concerned, Carker mistakes the projection of his own desire for truth.

While the narration attempts to separate itself from Carker’s observations, however, it endorses Florence’s. One of the primary ways in which Dombey and Son valorizes the private is by aligning itself, and consequently the reader, with Florence. Though she stands for the private and the domestic, she is (next to Carker) the novel’s most penetrating observer. Seeing with Florence, narrator and readers—unlike “the world” which pursues Dombey, and unlike the merely curious stranger—see for the sake of the private. It is Florence’s vision, finally, that the novel naturalizes, and that naturalizes Dombey and Son—family, firm, and novel.

Florence, little Paul notices, is “always watching”: “You are always watching me, Floy. Let me watch you, now!” (293). Dombey feels that she has “eyes that read his soul” (355) and that “she watched and distrusted him. As if she held the clue to something secret in his breast . . .” (84). She is watching when we first encounter her; her initial observation of Dombey, at the time of his wife’s death, makes him uneasy about her. And it is through Florence that the narrator seems to comment on his own activity, raising the question of the moral status of unseen observation at the moment when she sees a “dark shape” issuing from her home, “the figure of a man coming down some few stairs opposite.…It was Mr. Carker coming down alone.…Her invincible repugnance to this man, and perhaps the stealthy act of watching anyone, which, even under such innocent circumstances, is in a manner guilty and oppressive, made Florence shake from head to foot” (752). Aligned with Florence, the reader is placed in the same paradoxical position he or she is in when learning what “no one knows,” the position of valuing the private while learning—as if unwittingly “even under such innocent circumstances”—the secrets of others. Above all, we become Florence’s allies in the desire to uncover the individual “world within” for the familial “world within”: to break down Dombey’s rigid, public facade, uncovering his private, feeling self, and to make him learn, in a way he will never forget, the value of the family, of feeling, of domestic life.

Rather than simply revealing what exists, Florence’s watching has a certain shaping power. Discussing triangular structures of desire in the novel, Diane Sadoff has argued that Florence uses Dombey to mediate her desire, seeing him as her rival for the love of others.[15] Florence’s watching reveals her repressed anger against Dombey. We might also say that it expresses a kind of vehemence against Paul: that she watches him to death. That suspicion is augmented by her fantasy of her life had she been a “favourite child.”

She imagined so often what her life would have been if her father could have loved her and she had been a favourite child, that sometimes, for the moment, she almost believed it was so, and, borne on by the current of that pensive fiction, seemed to remember how they had watched her brother in the grave together; how they had freely shared his heart between them; how they were united in the dear remembrance of him. (396)

Alone, Florence can have, or imagine that she will have, the father she does not possess in reality, and she can have him because, as this cannibalistic image suggests, both now possess Paul. But the image of standing with her father over Paul’s grave expresses not just a desire to have her father to herself, but also a desire for revenge; her fantasies about her own death convey the same feeling (“Yes, she thought if she were dying, he would relent” [426]). And when, after Dombey’s accident, Florence approaches the sickbed where he lies sleeping, her thoughts about his unconsciousness of her mingle with her never-acknowledged fantasies of his death.

As she looked upon it now, she saw it, for the first time, free from the cloud that had darkened her childhood.…There was no change upon his face; and as she watched it, awfully, its motionless repose recalled the faces that were gone. So they looked, so would he; so she, his weeping child, who should say when! so all the world of love and hatred and indifference around them! (698)

Dombey sleeping resembles Dombey dead. In either state, the disturbing reflection of Florence is absent from his face. (But it is also oddly present: in “not changing,” Dombey resembles Florence.) The idea of Dombey’s death comes as a relief to her, presenting an image of the father she cannot have while he is alive and aware of her.

For, spontaneous and natural as she appears to be, Florence’s fantasies are in fact the novel’s most powerful manifestation of emotional management, of willing feeling. The chapter entitled “The Study of a Loving Heart” demonstrates that, in order to be “loving” in the face of continual rejection, the heart needs to be disciplined: “she must be careful in no thoughtless word, or look, or burst of feeling awakened by any chance circumstance, to complain against him” (423). Florence’s solitude—or Dombey’s unconsciousness— ables her to imagine him as she wants him, and that imagining requires an effort. Indeed, the presence of others interferes with it; the world is too full of references to unkind fathers (423). And since Florence deliberately focuses on “her idea of a father” (51), her darkest hour comes after Dombey strikes her, when he “murders,” as she puts it, “the last lingering natural aspect in which she had cherished him through so much” (779). Her subsequent fear of seeing her image in the mirror—“the sight of the darkening mark upon her bosom made her afraid of herself, as if she bore about her something wicked” (779)—emerges from the desire not to see the bad father she could not help but see if she looked, the evidence for which she now (literally) bears. By refusing to look, she avoids seeing Dombey as he is, a sight which would interfere with her desire to imagine him as she desires him to be. And what, after this, she “comes to love” when she thinks of her father is an image which suggests that he has, in fact, died. He becomes to her “a dear remembrance,” one with “something of the softened sadness with which she remembered little Paul” (739).

For Dickens, as the phrase “the last lingering natural aspect” signals, Florence’s fantasizing represents not management but a clinging to nature in the face of the unnatural. What she envisions is, in the novel’s terms, Dombey’s natural self. Seeing with Florence thus means more than seeing through her eyes: it means perceiving the truth of what she sees. The novel affirms not the fantasmatic nature of her vision, but the unreality, the unnaturalness, of what does not conform to it. Those who respond to Dombey’s actual behavior—Edith and Carker—are ruined, it seems, because they do so. Almost unbelievably, when the mist falls from Dombey’s eyes and he sees Florence’s “true” self (935), the novel seems to endorse his perception that little Paul, Edith, and Carker are equal, and equally disloyal, in their changeableness to Dombey. Even little Paul’s death, from this point of view, becomes a betrayal: “His boy had faded into dust, his proud wife had sunk into a polluted creature, his flatterer and friend had been transformed into the worst of villains…she alone had turned the same mild gentle look upon him always” (935). And it is Florence’s constancy that Dombey finally “knows,” as the “unnatural” part of him “crumbles.”

He knew, now, what he had done. He knew, now, that he had called down that upon his head, which bowed it lower than the heaviest stroke of fortune. He knew, now, what it was to be rejected and deserted. (935)

Strong mental agitation and disturbance was no novelty to him, even before his late sufferings. It never is, to obstinate and sullen natures; for they struggle hard to be such. Ground, long undermined, will often fall down in a moment; what was undermined here in so many ways, weakened, and crumbled, little by little, as the hand moved on the dial. (938)

The effort of maintaining the unnatural self is presented as management. This effort over, the ever-present natural self can emerge. And, as the scene has it, Florence causes no change in Dombey; the sameness of her look merely evokes a response from the natural self that has been within him all along. Knowledge of Florence—of her true self—is for Dombey the same, in the novel’s terms, as knowledge of his natural self.

When Carker’s perceptions of Edith turn out to be mistaken, he suffers severely. But though Florence shapes her perceptions of Dombey deliberately so as not to see him as he is, the novel confirms “her idea of a father.” Why? Carker and Florence in fact represent two examples of management, alternative projections of the narrator’s own enterprise: Carker is an example of “How Not To Do It”; Florence, exactly the opposite.[16] Carker is both too great and too little a manager. Though he is said never to betray his hand, his overt desire for control and deliberate manipulations of others prove his undoing. Excellent as he is at the art of dissimulation, it is exactly because he dissimulates that his desire for power can become visible and therefore subject to manipulation. Carker is too little a manager, that is, because he manipulates only his surface, managing not feelings but only their appearance—and, despite the depth of his knowledge of others, allowing himself to be deceived by his belief in his power over them.[17]

Florence, on the other hand, concentrates her powers of management on shaping her feelings, on disciplining herself. Her management consists of holding to her “good purpose,” attempting to keep all thoughts of cruelty and unnaturalness from being associated with fathers, and concentrating on making her father aware of her love for him.

He did not know how much she loved him. However long the time in coming, she must try to bring that knowledge to her father’s heart one day or other. Meantime she must be careful in no thoughtless word, or look, or burst of feeling awakened by any chance circumstance, to complain against him, or to give occcasion for these whispers to his prejudice. (423)

Dombey and Son, in other words, prefers genuine emotional management to what only appears to be emotional management: it prefers “deep” to surface acting. And Dickens uses Florence’s emotional management to manage the entire novel.

Critics discussing Florence’s influence on Dombey falter in describing the exact form this influence takes. She has what Louise Yelin calls a “commanding submissiveness,” but precisely how her submissiveness commands is difficult to pinpoint.[18] Nina Auerbach writes that the manner in which she influences Dombey is “ungraspable by definition.”[19] Nor is it easy to separate the effect her “submissiveness” has on Dombey from its effect on the reader, for Florence’s fantasies circulate mainly between herself and the reader. But Florence’s management is difficult to perceive precisely because, like the narrator’s, it does not appear as management. Her chief action consists of “never changing”; concentrating her efforts on herself, she behaves as if her desires are reality. Like Morfin, and like Harriet Carker, Florence remains true to an ideal of familial affection even when—in fact, especially when—it remains absent from her experience. Like a method actor, Florence gets what she wants by acting as if she already has it. And the novel affirms the worthiness of, and eventually realizes, this ideal. For both Florence and the omniscient narrator, then, the difference between desire and reality, or between perception and construction, disappears. Where bad management—Carker or Dombey—must exercise control and attempt to subdue the world to its will, good management appears not to control at all, but simply waits until others become (as they inevitably must) their natural selves. Such control operates from within rather than from without: it operates, that is, at the level of establishing the natural. As a narratorial projection, then, Florence might be said to represent not a fantasy of omniscience as control, but one of omniscience as lack of control. Naturalizing Florence’s desires, the narration reveals as inevitable what Florence and the omniscient narrator have always “known”—because they affirmed it—to be so.

Whereas Florence is all feeling, Dombey, of course, is all resistance to feeling. Dombey characteristically imagines himself as a witness to the emotions of others.

The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been in that sad embrace between her and her dying mother, what was at once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be as absorbed in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other’s arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down—a mere spectator—not a sharer with them—quite shut out. (83)

Emotion creates a place from which Dombey feels excluded; or, we might say, Dombey positions himself so that he is excluded from emotional scenes. Such scenes recur between Florence and Fanny, Florence and Paul, Florence and Edith, with Dombey always the silent spectator. He perceives in these scenes emotion in which he cannot share, emotion which robs him of his property in Edith or in little Paul. But Dombey also imagines the emotions of others as a threat to him: anyone else’s feeling for Paul undermines his hold on the boy. Thus while he experiences himself as shut out of emotional scenes, he also, as we have seen, repeatedly shuts himself up in order to experience emotion in private. Dombey’s spectatorship suggests both vicarious participation and a need to distance himself from feeling. He invites Carker to become the mediator of his relations with Edith; he seeks someone to “interpose” between himself and Florence.

It troubled him to think of this face of Florence.

Because he felt any new compunction toward it? No. Because the feeling it awakened in him—of which he had had some old foreshadowing in older times—was full-formed now, and spoke out plainly, moving him too much, and threatening to grow too strong for his composure.…More than once upon this journey, and now again as he stood pondering at this journey’s end, tracing figures in the dust with his stick, the thought came into his mind, what was there he could interpose between himself and it? (356)

Whatever the specific cause of Dombey’s “strong feeling,” he distances himself from it, even seeking a wife, it seems, for precisely this reason. For although Edith’s affectionate relationship with Florence disturbs him, it is exactly what he requires to maintain his anger against Florence.[20] Dombey’s spectatorship at once expresses his power and reveals his weakness. Delegating Carker to humiliate Edith, he displays his strength while defending against the threatened loss of control that strong feeling evokes—in psychoanalytic terms, his gaze both evokes and elides the threat of castration.[21] The danger of becoming involved, of moving from observation to participation, is precisely what Carker’s fate demonstrates. In his spectatorship and in his delegation of participation to Carker, however, Dombey reveals what is at stake in the observer’s position.

In the scene in which he seeks something to “interpose” between himself and Florence, Dombey is troubled by Florence’s face as it appears in his mind. Her face comes to stand for his defeat in the world, for little Paul’s death—in general, for his inability to control Dombey and Son. For as “the face” appears in his mind, it also appears “abroad.” He thinks of it in terms which resemble those of the passage (quoted on pp. 71–72) in which “the world” pursues him. “[T]he face was abroad, in the expression of defeat and persecution that seemed to encircle him like the air.…He saw her image in the blight and blackness all around him, not irradiating but deepening the gloom” (356). The appearance of Florence’s face both in Dombey’s mind and “abroad” recalls the other passage’s images of invasion: the world that is the “haunting demon of his mind” (809), that he cannot keep out of his mind or house, that anticipates him everywhere and is always busiest where he is not. Indeed, the face that “invades” Dombey’s mind reflects what seems to be for him a characteristic fear of invasion. When he sees Toodles wearing a mourning band which he deduces is for little Paul, Dombey imagines the feelings of others as an assault on his privacy.

So! from high to low, at home or abroad, from Florence in his great house to the coarse churl who was feeding the fire then smoking before them, everyone set up some claim or other to a share in his dead boy, and was a bidder against him!…

To think of this presumptuous raker among coals and ashes going on before there, with his sign of mourning! To think that he dared to enter, even by a common show like that, into the trial and disappointment of a proud gentleman’s secret heart! To think that this lost child…should have let in such a herd to insult him with their knowledge of his defeated hopes, and their boasts of claiming community of feeling with himself, so far removed: if not of having crept into the place wherein he would have lorded it, alone! (353)

Dombey’s fear of invasion is an extreme form of the bourgeois desire for privacy. He wants too much privacy; he wants, selfishly, to keep himself to himself. And he needs too much privacy because he desires too much power: his fear of invasion is the perhaps inevitable result of imagining that “the earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in.” Even as he desires Dombey and Son to be “the world,” he acknowledges and therefore fears difference—for the presence of others signifies the existence of other worlds.

In the passage in which Dombey cannot escape “the world,” the narrator assures us that Dombey’s sense of being pursued is “not a phantom of his imagination” (809). The narrator does so, it seems, because the passage too strongly suggests paranoia, apparently depicting not what “the world” is like but what it is like for Dombey. By assuring us of the accuracy of Dombey’s representation, however, the narrator naturalizes Dombey’s fear of the “world without.” What seemed to belong to the character is asserted as a fact about the world.

The relationship between “world within” and “world without” has its stylistic analogue in those extended passages in which, employing what Dorrit Cohn calls “psycho-narration,” the narrator reproduces a character’s state of mind without abandoning third-person narration.[22] The most striking examples attempt to reproduce Paul’s confusion during his illness and Carker’s chaotic perceptions before his death. In these passages, while the character’s consciousness reflects external events, we never lose sight of the narrator’s mediating presence, nor do we lose the sense that “the world of the novel” differs from that character’s immediate perception of it. But in the present case, the narrator and the events of the novel confirm Dombey’s paranoia: his house is invaded by strangers. It is not Dombey’s fancy that the world pursues and speaks of him everywhere; the arrival of Cousin Feenix and Major Bagstock proves it true. In other words, it is not that Dombey is paranoid. Everyone is talking about him. Because we cannot separate, in this instance, the narrator from Dombey—because this is not “psycho-narration” but simply narration—Dombey’s desire to hide from the world “without” appears justified.

We may choose to believe, however, not that the world is like this, but that Dombey’s paranoia is also the narrator’s. In moments, that is, when the narrator endorses his characters’ perceptions, the constructed nature of the narrator’s world becomes evident. And the same merging, or slippage, between world without and world within occurs in the novel’s naturalization of Florence’s perceptions. In the days of his ruin, as he wanders his empty house alone, Dombey is insistently confronted with Florence’s image: “she alone had turned the same mild gentle look upon him always” (935). And as he lets “the world” go from him, as he becomes “a spectral, haggard, wasted likeness of himself” (938), he is transformed into the father Florence desires, the father she and he can now see when they look in the mirror. “Suddenly it [his likeness] rose, with a terrible face, and that guilty hand grasping what was in its breast. Then it was arrested by a cry…and he only saw his own reflection in the glass, and at his knees, his daughter!” (939). As the “it”—his likeness—becomes “him,” Dombey becomes “himself.” In a kind of Lacanian mirror scene, when Dombey sees his reflection next to Florence’s, the image he sees is mediated by her perception of him. From both within and without, the novel authorizes the self Dombey becomes after his fall as his “true” self; that is, it naturalizes Florence’s projection. But the revelation appears to come from within and not from without. Dombey’s internalization of Florence’s image of himself is presented as his discovery of himself, the result of a natural development, caused by no unnatural will.

Dickens bends the novel to fit Florence’s vision, so that it ends in a reconciliation founded on little Paul’s memory. “We will teach our little child to love and honour you; and we will tell him, when he can understand, that you had a son of that name once, and that he died, and you were very sorry” (940). In the world according to Florence—a familial circle based on the remembrance of little Paul—the family, site of oedipal rivalry, is reconceived as a world all its own, a state of conflictlessness and undifferentiation, all rivals eliminated, the possessive love which engenders rivalry replaced by remembrance and sympathy. The family—or, more precisely, the community linked through remembrance of Paul and love of Florence—becomes a portable private space, a “community of feeling” (the phrase derives from the scene in which Dombey encounters Toodles).[23] Remembrance—shared sorrowful feeling—is offered as the alternative to possessiveness. Overcoming all other feelings, remembrance links the survivors in contemplation of the dead boy. The family is thus united by remembrance of Paul, but even more by devotion to Florence, a feeling even Mr. Toots, in his newly married state, affirms, as if to assure us that love of Florence can engender no rivalries. (According to him, Mrs. Toots, the former Susan Nipper, can only agree with her husband’s opinion that Florence is “the most beautiful, the most amiable, the most angelic of her sex. What is her observation upon that? The perfection of sense. ‘My dear, you’re right. I think so too’ ” [973].) The novel thus enlarges the sphere of privacy, making it not selfish—the individual’s solitary property—but familial, dissolving differences in the affirmation of shared feeling.

The novel ultimately replaces the public world of Dombey and Son with this world made of feeling, a private, self-sustaining, conflictless domestic world which cannot be violated by the public world because it does not acknowledge that world’s existence. Once Walter has returned, Florence “never left her high rooms but to steal downstairs to wait for him when it was his time to come, or, sheltered by his proud, encircling arm, to bear him company to the door again, and sometimes peep into the street” (883). Yet when they marry, they can leave the house, not just for the streets but for the high seas, because Florence’s love creates a world all its own, “a world to fly to, and to rest in, out of his [Walter’s] one image” (884). In the end, Florence can “be happy anywhere” (885). As she and Walter walk to the church, they are “far removed from the world about them” (902), separated from the public sphere whose rapaciousness and irrelevance is represented in the destruction of Dombey’s house and the misguided rumors the world “blabs” about him. Dombey’s house has been revealed to be just that, a house—not the portable haven of domesticity, the home built out of feeling, which Florence recreates wherever she goes. Marriage creates a private space, distinct and safe from the inauthentic public space that surrounds it. The novel’s lesson has been not only that Dombey and Son is “a Daughter, after all,” but that Dombey and Son is a family, not a firm; or, if a firm, one reconceived in the image of the family.

But what is “the family”? The novel replaces one familial structure with another, neither exactly fitting the image of the typical “nuclear” family. There is nothing “natural” about the family group made up of Dombey, Florence and Walter, little Paul and little Florence. What circulates is not a specific family structure, but a feeling that signifies “family”: an image of family in which conflict is absent and in which members are linked by the sharing of feeling, by in fact possessing the same feelings—feelings, not surprisingly, about family. For the novel, the idea of family, rather than any particular family structure, signifies; and since “family” exists within each individual, it hardly matters what form it takes externally.

As its critics have noted, Dombey offers a critique of personality rather than one of capitalism; once Dombey has lost his pride, business improves.[24] But the novel has never been exactly antibusiness. Rather, it has opposed what it called “unnatural” feelings, the “unnatural” having largely to do with the imposition of will, with “forcing” rather than acceding to “natural” development. At the end of the novel, no forcing is necessary. Sol Gills’s investments “turn” of their own accord; Dombey has a source of income which he “has no doubt…arises out of some forgotten transaction in the times of the old House” (971). Money is welcome as long as one doesn’t investigate its source, and it comes more readily, it seems, when not actively sought. This is how the Midshipman’s economy has always operated: not selling is rewarded. At the end of the novel, “business” very much resembles Captain Cuttle’s fantasy of the Midshipman’s new importance to the shipping world: it is “a fiction of a business…better than any reality” (972). Similarly, Florence’s marriage, which extends the business (“from his daughter, another Dombey and Son will ascend” [974]), is the result of no unnatural transaction but the natural development of her childhood encounter with Walter. Dombey traces a movement from rule by force—the repressive, masculine regime of Dombey himself—to a naturally occurring acceptance of similar values in a regime overseen by Florence, who rules not by force but through nature.[25]

One of the novel’s (and one of Dickens’s) most famous comments about visibility, the “Oh for a good spirit” passage, ends in a plea for unity. If they could see “what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes.…men, delayed no more by stumbling-blocks of their own making, which are but specks of dust upon the path between them and eternity, would then apply themselves, like creatures of one common origin, owing one duty to the Father of one family, and tending to one common end, to make the world a better place!” (738–39). That seeing should lead to “duty,” particularly what is described as familial duty, is appropriate to the novel’s structuring of knowledge. For Dombey’s omniscient narration establishes itself by repeatedly insisting upon what Dombey does not know and cannot see.

When little Florence timidly presented herself, Mr. Dombey stopped in his pacing up and down and looked towards her. Had he looked with greater interest and with a father’s eye, he might have read in her keen glance the impulses and fears that made her waver.…But he saw nothing of this. (84)

Oh! Could he have but seen, or seen as others did, the slight spare boy above, watching the waves and clouds at twilight.…(236)

For Dombey, Dombey and Son is “the world”: “The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light” (50). Yet the narration insistently points to a larger world that Dombey, and other characters as well, fail to see. Indeed, the novel derives its satiric edge from its technique of presenting characters in relation to what they do not know about themselves, although it sometimes suggests that they can come to possess this knowledge. The “good spirit” passage, for instance, implies that evil need only be made visible in order to be eradicated.

Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them! (738)

But more often, the novel suggests that characters may not be able to see, or comprehend, even what is plainly visible.

Louder and louder yet, it shrieks and cries as it comes tearing on resistless to the goal: and now its way, still like the way of Death, is strewn with ashes thickly. Everything around is blackened.…As Mr. Dombey looks out of his carriage window, it is never in his thoughts that the monster who has brought him there has let the light of day in on these things: not made or caused them. (355)

Omniscience can report what everyone sees and can show what “no one” sees, but it cannot make characters see what it reveals. In Dombey, responsibility lies not in showing but in seeing, and it is up to characters to learn to see what they need to know. The narrator thus emphasizes his lack of management, an emphasis that is achieved in part through the novel’s focus on habit.

According to Morfin, habit keeps individuals from seeing what lies before them.

I have good reason to believe that a jog-trot life, the same from day to day, would reconcile one to anything. One doesn’t see anything, one doesn’t hear anything, one doesn’t know anything; that’s the fact. We go on taking everything for granted, and so we go on, until whatever we do, good, bad, or indifferent, we do from habit. Habit is all I shall have to report, when I am called upon to plead to my conscience, on my death-bed. “Habit,” says I; “I was deaf, dumb, blind, and paralytic, to a million things, from habit.” “Very business-like indeed, Mr. What’s-your-name,” says Conscience, “but it won’t do here!” (559–60)

Habit encases personality in a predictable, rigid form, in contrast with which the natural is conceived as spontaneous and unpredictable. It shapes perception, so that characters cannot see what lies immediately before them, nor can they perceive the distortions worked upon the natural by unnatural behavior, itself the result of habit.[26] Breaking out of habit—as Morfin does when he overhears Carker’s conversation with his brother—permits a return to one’s “natural” self, at which time characters will see how unnatural they have become, finding “a perversion of nature in their own contracted sympathies and estimates” (739). And, having seen the unnatural, “men, delayed no more by stumbling blocks of their own making…would then apply themselves, like creatures of one common origin, owing one duty to the Father of one family, and tending to one common end, to make the world a better place!” (738–39)

Beyond the father is the Father. Nature, once discovered, results in unanimity, in the recognition of one’s duty to the Father, which—in the microcosm of the Dombey family—is the same as duty to the father. The public can no longer threaten to swallow up the family because the family has swallowed up the world. The world has been reconceived in the image of the family.

It is perhaps not surprising that, having chastised the father with the specter of knowledge greater than his own, the novel ultimately takes the father’s part. By attributing Dombey’s downfall to his tyranny and obsessiveness, and then asserting “duty to the father” as the highest of values, the novel reflects not just Dickens’s own ambivalence about fathers but one characteristic of his age.[27] Punishing an actual father for his tyranny and egotism but also for his fallibility (because he can be punished), the novel comes up with an abstraction—an infallible Father—to put in his place, an “other” who, like Florence’s fantasies of Dombey, can be fashioned to suit individual desires precisely because of his inaccessibility. Such a father can be suspected of withholding love only because “he did not know how much she loved him.…[S]he must try to bring that knowledge to her father’s heart one day or other” (423). Such a father’s apparent failure, in other words, is always actually one’s own. The novel retains the father’s repressive rule, but it retains it in the form of ideology—what is internalized and willingly practiced rather than imposed by force. This accounts for the religious feeling of much of the novel’s talk about the “remembrance” of little Paul, the eucharistic image of “sharing his heart,” and even the internalization of Florence’s image. External repression is replaced with a religion of family: the acceptance of, and even desire for, duty to the f(F)ather.

Habit, we are told, only confirms one “in a previous opinion” (51–52). But the narrative’s own self-confirmation becomes evident when, in a remarkable moment of unacknowledged self-referentiality, Dombey’s narration quotes itself:

“I came, Papa—”

“Against my wishes. Why?” She saw that he knew why: it was written broadly on his face: and dropped her head upon her hands with one prolonged low cry.

Let him remember it in that room, years to come. It has faded from the air, before he breaks the silence. It may pass as quickly from his brain, as he believes, but it is there. Let him remember it in that room, years to come! (328)

And the ruined man. How does he pass the hours, alone? “Let him remember it in that room, years to come! The rain that falls upon the roof, the wind that mourns outside the door, may have foreknowledge in their melancholy sound. Let him remember it in that room, years to come!”

He did remember it. (934)

To paraphrase Roland Barthes, the very being of omniscience is to keep the question of who is speaking from ever being answered.[28] Quotation, Susan Stewart writes, “points not only inward but outward as well,”[29] establishing a “world within” and one without. Its source unnamed, the quotation naturalizes “foreknowledge”; the narrator’s voice might well be “the rain that falls” or “the wind that mourns.” It might be, for that matter, the f(F)ather’s voice. For the narrator’s assertions possess a distinctly fatherly—or Fatherly—tone, stern, parental, and godlike: “Awake, doomed man, while she is near! The time is flitting by; the hour is coming with an angry tread; its foot is in the house. Awake!” (698). The narrator as “father” remains abstract and all-knowing, and what comes to pass, fulfilling his predictions, is presented as affirmation of his authority. The world “without” proves to be as circular and self-enclosed as the world of Dombey and Son. And, like an authoritarian father (and like the police officer who asks if you know why you’ve been pulled over) the narrator refuses to reveal precisely what it is that one needs to know: what the “it” in “let him remember it” refers to; what it is that “the waves are always saying.” What one needs to know, the novel implies, is beyond the capacity of language to represent. Coming to knowledge in Dombey and Son means an end to conflict in the discovery of one’s duty toward the father and one’s familial feeling, the discovery of what the “inner” self has always known and attempted to assert. Dombey’s change of feeling, his return to his natural self, is accordingly represented as a dawning recognition: he now knows what he didn’t know before; he “remembers it” (935). In other words, what individuals need to know is that which is most natural, and therefore most familial, and which finally comes from within rather than from without. The narrator’s knowledge and nature are finally the same. As in the myth of natural development against which the novel opposes such “forcing” establishments as Blimber’s Academy, Dombey and Son suggests that the natural world is full of voices one may hear only when one has become one’s natural self. Finally, it is nature, or natural feeling, that must circulate—even, paradoxically, as it comes from within. And it does so circulate, both inside and outside the novel.

Indeed, both in Dickens’s imagination and in fact, the community of feeling created by little Paul’s death extends beyond the novel’s borders.

I cannot forego my usual opportunity of saying farewell to my readers in this greeting-place, though I have only to acknowledge the unbounded warmth and earnestness of their sympathy in every stage of the journey we have just concluded.

If any of them have felt a sorrow in one of the principal incidents on which this fiction turns, I hope it may be a sorrow of that sort which endears the sharers in it, one to another. This is not unselfish in me. I may claim to have felt it, at least as much as anybody else; and I would fain be remembered kindly for my part in the experience.

Dombey and Son reassures its readers, I have argued, on several counts. Most important, it demonstrates the persistence of an “inner life” in a “business” world—a life it constructs according to values of spontaneous emotion and familial feeling. In Dombey’s conversion, the novel affirms the persistence of feeling even under the corrupting influence of business—the certainty, for even the most alienated of spectators, of recovering a position within the warmth of family feeling. And, paradoxically claiming communality for the (generally) solitary experience of novel reading, Dickens in his Preface puts the private indulgence of emotion into the service of the family as well. In the world within the novel, a family is restored to natural feeling. And in the world without, a family—invented by Charles Dickens—is created. The novelist becomes the father of a newly forged community founded on feeling he has himself evoked. Thus, although I have suggested that the novel values precisely the non-instrumentality of feeling—what does not circulate—Dickens also provides an explicit use for the feeling the novel summons into existence: the novel and its author become mediators in the formation of an imaginary community. And in the fantasmatic family constructed by Dombey and Son, filiation is replaced with familial feeling. Finally, though this family is too vast for its members ever to become acquainted with one another, each member need know of the others only what Edith communicates to Dombey through Florence at the novel’s end: that, if Dombey has in fact come to love his daughter, “there is one feeling in common between us now, that there never was before” (968).

But how does the novel circulate what, it claims, must come from within? We might return to the image of invasion for an answer, imagining reading itself as an invasion, in several senses, of privacy, an intrusion into our “private” selves of other beings and other voices. Reading Dombey, we—like Dombey—are invaded by Florence’s image. But, in the novel’s terms, this is the same as being invaded by privacy: being possessed by and of an image of the private and natural self which, the novel insists, resides not in the mind but in the breast—where the feelings are (“He hoards her in his heart” [975]).

In a number of ways, both through Dombey’s change and through the emotions the novel evokes in its readers, Dombey and Son might thus be said to reassure the modern reader, who, according to Sennett, complains, “I never seem to feel enough” (9). For while Dombey insists that individuals overcome the effects of the “jog-trot” life Victorian culture encouraged (or required) them to live, the novel—and not just Dombey and Son—made itself a habit precisely by offering its readers a way of doing so. Hochschild’s emotional labor thus has its counterpart in the kind of emotional recreation novels like Dombey and Son provide, recreation that gives readers a place to experience what is apparently non-instrumental feeling—in other words, feeling that is instrumental precisely because it appears not to be. Habit was necessary to and ingrained in individuals by nineteenth-century forms of labor and recreation, forms to which the serial novel contributed and on which it depended. In making habit a matter of individual responsibility, however—by emphasizing the individual’s need to discover his or her natural self—Dombey both authorizes the kind of anxiety about the self that Sennett describes and offers itself as remedy.

The personal voice of the Preface differs distinctly from the managerial voice of the novel’s narrator, and the tension between the two might seem to set up a play between business and the personal. While the novel’s omniscient narrator keeps his distance, the novelist, speaking in his own voice, claims membership in the community he has created. The distinction becomes less clear, however, when we consider Dickens’s management of his public persona.

It is a commonplace of Dickens criticism that Dombey and Son inaugurated a new phase in Dickens’s career: a return, after some dabbling in activities such as the editorship of the Daily News, to novel writing (a movement from business to the personal), but more than that what Alexander Welsh calls a “reaffirmation of his vocation” as novelist. Susan Horton makes much of the idea of “coming home” in her reading of the novel, while Welsh argues for a shift in biographical emphasis from the blacking warehouse trauma to this period of what he calls (using Erikson’s model of development) a “moratorium” in Dickens’s career.[30] Both arguments might be usefully glossed by Gabriel Pearson’s 1976 essay, “Towards a Reading of Dombey and Son,” which discusses the deliberateness of Dickens’s self-presentation and the ideological nature of the idea of “development.”[31] According to Pearson (and as I have argued about the novel’s own claims for “nature”), theories of development are no more than myths, interpreting as natural what is ideologically constructed. Where critics typically see a resurgence of the creative artist in this period. Pearson sees a sophisticated manager of his craft, an actor playing “the part of the autonomous creative artist” (57).

In numerous ways—from the management of plot to the management of readers’ emotions to the lack of spontaneity in the novel’s more “spontaneous” characters—Dombey’s critics have found contrivance where the novel celebrates nature. As Pearson points out, Dickens deliberately positioned the deaths of Paul and Mrs. Dombey early in the novel to keep sales high, a response to the disappointing sales of Martin Chuzzlewit, the novel immediately preceding Dombey. And he describes the “brutal practicality” of the spirit in which Dickens, “apparently with respect to a novel specifically concerned with the evil of money and mercantile pride, decides not to end a monthly number with the spurning and flight of Florence Dombey in order to ‘leave a pleasant impression on the reader over Christmas.’ ”[32] Like Carker, Dickens is in the business of managing feeling; like Florence, however, he manages to make the management of feeling not feel like business, since he only evokes what is already available for evocation “within” each reader: our “sense” of privacy, our “familial feeling.”

But, as the personal tone of the 1848 Preface suggests, it may be impossible to separate “business” from the “personal”—in an age of business, in the person of Charles Dickens, or in any age and any person. How does privacy become a sense but through habit? How does the “unnatural” become “natural,” and who is to say when it has? What is “unnatural” feeling? The very desire to separate inside from outside, within from without, involves us in the same effort I have just deconstructed: the effort to recover a natural self behind the facade of business.

Thus Pearson’s essay, while admirably suspicious of the appearance of “natural” feeling, reveals in its evident anger at Dickens’s calculations a desire for precisely such feeling: a nostalgia for what, as I hope I have shown, may not exist except as it is constructed through the kinds of oppositions Dombey sets up—that may not exist, in other words, except as a result of management.[33] Rather than accuse the novel and its author of hypocrisy, then—the perhaps inevitable hypocrisy wherein a novel that celebrates spontaneity is itself anything but spontaneous—we might simply find contradiction: a novel that denigrates the flow of commerce in which it is itself caught up, and affirms the value of the private self even as it circulates privacy among its readers. Such contradictions are engendered by a culture that demands autonomy and spontaneity in art and artist—that wants to believe in the possibility of non-instrumental feeling—and at the same time offers individuals the opportunity to demonstrate their belief in these qualities in the marketplace. For what has value, the novel insists, does not circulate: “no one, except Florence, knows the measure of the white-haired gentleman’s affection for the girl. That story never goes about” (975).


1. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 20 and 22. Subsequent references in text.

2. My argument here might seem to resemble Steven Marcus’s discussion of the “death of feeling” in Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey, except that, as I see it, representing feeling as “dead” in one sphere brings it to life in another.

3. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: Vintage, 1978), p. 9. Subsequent references in text.

4. See Hochschild on “deep” or “method” acting, pp. 37–48 and passim.

5. For “emotional system,” see Hochschild, The Managed Heart, p. 12.

6. Robert Clark discusses Florence’s relation to the “exchange of women” argument in “Riddling the Family Firm: The Sexual Economy in Dombey and Son,” ELH 51 (1984): 69–84.

7. On the power of Florence’s feelings, see Nina Auerbach, “Dickens and Dombey: A Daughter After All,” in Dickens Studies Annual 5 (1976): 95–105; Louise Yelin, “Strategies for Survival: Florence and Edith in Dombey and Son,” Victorian Studies 22 (1979): 297–319; and Julian Moynahan, “Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Firmness vs. Wetness,” in Gross and Pearson, eds., Dickens and the Twentieth Century, pp. 121–31.

8. See, for example, pt. I, ch. 1 (“Origins and Reception”) in Alan Shelston, ed., “Dombey and SonandLittle Dorrit”: A Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1985), especially comments by Macaulay and Jeffrey, p. 32.

9. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), introduction and pp. 23–24. Subsequent references in text.

10. The word “carker” means “harass.” Dickens uses the term to describe the state of mind of Blimber’s students: “The young gentlemen were prematurely full of carking anxieties” (208).

11. Indeed, Carker’s manipulativeness, his craftiness and feline “softness” are so impressed upon us that it is difficult to believe he does not “betray his hand” to other characters. His presentation resembles that of stage villainy, in which convention demands that other characters simply do not see what is made unmistakably clear to the audience.

12. See Yelin, “Strategies for Survival”; and William F. Axton, Circle of Fire: Dickens’ Vision and Style and the Popular Victorian Theater (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966), on Dickens’s use of melodrama.

13. See Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, chs. 1 and 2.

14. Of Florence and Captain Cuttle, Dickens writes: “[I]n simple innocence of the world’s ways and the world’s perplexities and dangers, they were nearly on a level” (776).

15. Diane Sadoff, Monsters of Affection (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 60–62.

16. The management styles of Florence and Carker are juxtaposed in the monthly installment made up of chapters 20–25.

17. I cannot refrain from quoting a phrase from Wayne Booth here—who argues that omniscience which doesn’t display itself is nevertheless omniscience. It is in fact, Booth says, “omniscience with teeth in it”: The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 161.

18. Yelin, “Strategies for Survival,” p. 301.

19. Auerbach, “Dickens and Dombey,” p. 101.

20. The intention seems to be that Edith will interpose herself between Dombey and Florence, but Florence also becomes a wedge separating Edith from Dombey: “Florence would have risen when her father entered, and resigned her chair to him; but Edith openly put her hand upon her arm, and Mr. Dombey took an opposite place at the round table” (508).

21. See Sadoff, Monsters of Affection, p. 127.

22. See Dorrit Cohn, Transparent Minds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), ch. 1.

23. The phrase “community of feeling” is used by Ian Milner: “The Dickens Drama: Mr. Dombey,” in Nisbet and Nevius, eds., Dickens Centennial Essays, p. 155.

24. See, for example, Raymond Williams’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Dombey and Son.

25. Dombey and Son would thus tell the story of a shift from obviously repressive rule (coded male) to a more effective, because less visible, ideological rule (coded female). In an essay on Tennyson, Terry Eagleton writes of the nineteenth century’s need to resolve what he calls its oedipus complex: “In striving to achieve its manhood—that is to say, to secure that full political dominance which I will designate as ‘masculine’—it needed to settle a certain envying hostility towards its own repressive ‘father.…Such iron political repression continues, of course, to be a necessity for the mid-19th-century state; but in so far as this brutally explicit dominance fails to secure the conditions of ruling-class hegemony, the admiring identification with the strong father must be tempered and complicated by a sustained Oedipal allegiance to the ‘mother’—that is to say, to those ‘civilising’ values of ‘sweetness’ and ‘moral nobility’ which are paradigmatically ‘feminine.’ ” See “Tennyson: Politics and Sexuality in ‘The Princess’ and ‘In Memoriam,’ ” in Francis Barker et al., eds., The Sociology of Literature: 1848 (Colchester: University of Essex, 1978), p. 97.

26. The habitual is that which, through repetition, can come to seem “natural,” but is actually, as in Miss Tox’s case, a perverse shaping that comes from too great a concern with public effect.

From a long habit of listening admiringly to everything that was said in her presence, and looking at the speakers as if she were mentally engaged in taking off impressions of their images upon her soul, never to part with the same but with life, her head had quite settled on one side. Her hands had contracted a spasmodic habit of raising themselves of their own accord as in involuntary admiration. (55–56)

27. See Sadoff, Monsters of Affection, p. 55, on the idea of the family as devouring all other social institutions. Sadoff also describes “Victorian ambivalence about…paternal authority: the desire for its stability, decisiveness, and cultural validity side by side with the hatred of its narrowness, stubbornness, and social domination—oppression—of those without such authority” (6).

28. Barthes, S/Z, p. 140.

29. “What stands outside the quotation mark is seen as spontaneous and original; hence our generic conventions of speaking from the heart, from the body, from nature”: Susan Stewart, On Longing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 19.

30. See Susan Horton, Interpreting Interpreting (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979); and Alexander Welsh, From Copyright to Copperfield (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987). The phrase “reaffirmation of his vocation” is from Welsh, p. 10.

31. In Gabriel Josipovici, ed., The Modern English Novel: The Reader, the Writer and the Work (London: Open Books, 1976), pp. 54–76.

32. Pearson, “Towards a Reading of Dombey and Son,” quoting John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson, Dickens at Work (London: Methuen, 1963), p. 107. See also Ford, Dickens and His Readers, pp. 58–60. On the other hand, Steven Marcus invokes an idea of “natural” genius when he writes that “this is the first of Dickens’s novels whose movement seems to obey the heavy, measured pull of some tidal power” (Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey, p. 296).

33. Thus Hochschild: “[W]hat we think of as intrinsic to feeling or emotion may have always been shaped to social form and put to civic use” (The Managed Heart, p. 18).

Dombey and Son

Preferred Citation: Jaffe, Audrey. Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.