Dickens’ Woman Problem?

I have a confession: I’m a feminist, and I love Dickens.

Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure which part of that sentence is supposed to constitute the real admission, since God knows people hate the word “feminist.” That said, I’ve met several women who are quick to write off Dickens’ entire oeuvre as patriarchal nonsense, and it pains me a little. Because while I don’t especially want to linger on Dickens’ private life—frankly, it’s not pretty—I think he often gets a bad rap where his novels themselves are concerned.

Yes, many of his heroines are painfully insipid, but, to be fair, so are many of his heroes. And while I could simply point to some of his more interesting female characters as a rebuttal, the entire focus on character complexity as the litmus test for a writer’s grasp of gender issues strikes me as a little shallow—important, but only one part of a much bigger picture.

Instead, I want to look at Dickens’ treatment of gender—or, more broadly, issues that frequently intersect with gender—in Dombey and Son. I am choosing to focus on this novel in part because I just finished (re)reading it, but also because I think it handles the split between the public and private spheres (traditionally gendered masculine and feminine, respectively) in a particularly interesting way. Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive argument about gender in Dickens—it’s hardly an argument at all—but I hope that it will at least persuade those skeptical about Dickens’ relevance to feminism that there may be something worthwhile in his novels after all. But first, some background.

You’ve probably heard the feminist catchphrase “the personal is political.” What you may not know is that the kind of thinking this slogan aimed to overhaul—the bracketing off of “domestic” concerns as an area both untouched by societal pressures and irrelevant to public discourse—took hold largely in the eighteenth and, especially, nineteenth centuries. To oversimplify a bit, it was during this time period that a sharp demarcation between the public and private spheres began to be drawn. It was also during this period that these spheres acquired, in the public imagination, the characteristics that often continue to define them today. The public sphere was the realm of politics, capitalism, and action; it was masculine, rational, and competitive. The private or domestic sphere was the realm of marriage and the family; it was feminine, emotional, and selfless. Just as important as the characteristics of each sphere, however, was the imagined relationship between them; the domestic sphere—and, by extension, the wife/mother—was supposed to simultaneously exist apart from and provide an antidote to the ruthlessness of the world outside. Or, to quote John Ruskin:

The man, in his rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial;—to him, therefore, must be the failure, the offence, the inevitable error: often he must be wounded, or subdued; often misled; and ALWAYS hardened. But he guards the woman from all this; within his house, as ruled by her, unless she herself has sought it, need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offence. This is the true nature of home—it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home; it is then only a part of that outer world which you have roofed over, and lighted fire in. But so far as it is a sacred place, a vestal temple, a temple of the hearth watched over by Household Gods, before whose faces none may come but those whom they can receive with love,—so far as it is this, and roof and fire are types only of a nobler shade and light,—shade as of the rock in a weary land, and light as of the Pharos in the stormy sea;—so far it vindicates the name, and fulfils the praise, of Home.

Dickens, for his part, is often read as a firm and even cloying proponent of the redemptive powers of domesticity, and it’s entirely true that you can often judge the moral standing of his female characters by their efficacy as both housekeepers and as emotional crutches for their male counterparts. So it’s fascinating to see how that sharp divide between the public and private begins to break down in a novel like Dombey and Son.

Like most of Dickens’ novels, Dombey and Son follows the interconnected fortunes of a dizzying array of characters. At heart, however, it is a story about the parent-child relationship, and the many ways in which that relationship can go awry. At the center of the novel is Paul Dombey, a wealthy entrepreneur whose obsession with fathering a male heir drives him first to ignore and then to hate his daughter Florence, who survives and flourishes even as her younger brother wastes away and dies.

Another way of saying all of this is that Dombey and Son tells the story of a public man whose public fortunes prove to be entirely dependent on the private sphere. The future of Dombey’s business hinges on his ability to produce a son. Or rather, on his wife’s ability to produce a son; as Dombey’s sister Mrs. Chick says, she can “forgive Fanny [Dombey] everything” once she has supplied Dombey with an heir, even her having earlier “given birth to a girl instead of a boy: which, as Mrs. Chick had frequently observed, was not quite what she had expected of her.”

Comical a character as Mrs. Chick is, her belief that the power to produce a son lay with Mrs. rather than Mr. Dombey is a suggestive one. Dombey, it is clear, is at once at sea in the domestic world and gallingly aware of his dependence on it; when circumstances oblige him to find a wet nurse for his son, he bitterly resents the fact that “the life and progress on which he built such hopes, should be endangered in the outset by so mean a want.” To be sure, there is a strong element of class snobbery to Dombey’s resentment, but there is also, I think, something else at play; the “want” itself—the dependence of Dombey and Son’s future on bodily necessity and, in particular, on a kind of nurturing that only a woman can provide—seems “mean” to him. Sour grapes, most likely, because Dombey is at once fiercely jealous of any rivals for his son’s affections and wholly incapable of himself attending to his child’s needs. In other words, Dombey and Son seems in part an exploration of the dark underside of the supposedly symbiotic relationship between the public and private spheres; for Dombey, the domestic sphere is less a refuge from the vicissitudes of the public sphere than it is itself a place of volatility (often bodily or emotional and, relatedly, often coded as female) in which he is powerless but on which he remains terrifyingly dependent. At the time, of course, this would have been a quintessentially male fear—perhaps even a misogynistic one—but it is interesting nonetheless.

What makes it even more interesting, though, is the fact that this is clearly Dombey’s nightmare vision of domesticity rather than Dickens’. Dickens pokes merciless fun at Dombey’s efforts to make the domestic sphere comprehensible and controllable by subordinating it to contractual logic (witness, for example, Mr. Dombey’s attempts to dissuade the wet nurse from investing any emotion in her charge: “It is not at all in this bargain that you need become attached to my child, or that my child need become attached to you. I don’t expect or desire anything of the kind. Quite the reverse. When you go away from here, you will have concluded what is a mere matter of bargain and sale, hiring and letting: and will stay away. The child will cease to remember you; and you will cease, if you please, to remember the child”).

Ultimately, of course, this and other similar efforts prove futile, not least because Dombey is himself incapable of fully disentangling the public and private spheres—finally, and most obviously, when his second wife (who herself regards the marriage as no more than a business transaction) elopes with the man responsible for ruining his business. Even before the novel’s climax, though, this entanglement of public and private concerns is at work. This is, perhaps, most obvious in the story of Walter Gay, a young man who works in the offices of Dombey and Son and whose plight exists in parallel to that of Florence’s. Though a skillful and diligent worker, Walter is “not a favourite” with Dombey, largely as a result of his affection for Florence. Walter’s mistreatment at Dombey’s hands is thus linked both causally and figuratively (via the language of parental favoritism) to Dombey’s failures at home.

Where then does this leave us? Is Dickens simply pushing for a reestablishment of order—the proper gendering of the public and private spheres and the proper relationship between them? Is the infiltration of domestic concerns into Dombey’s business dealings simply a byproduct of domestic mismanagement? If women like Edith did not confuse the public and private spheres by selling themselves in marriage, would the problems of the novel be resolved? Maybe, but I’m not sure that that explanation fully captures the complexity of Dombey and Son. Dickens may simply be advocating a less permeable boundary between public and private—certainly, Dombey and Son paints a grim picture of the effects of money on marriage and the family—but the way in which he handles Walter’s storyline could also suggest a need to embrace the virtues of the private sphere in public dealings. This isn’t to say that Dickens is advancing anything like an ethics of care, but he does seem to be revaluating some traditionally “feminine” virtues when he implicitly calls for greater selflessness and sympathy even in the (male) workplace.

Interesting as it may be to discuss Dickens’ intentions in writing Dombey and Son, though, I’m ultimately not sure that they really matter, at least where its treatment of gender is concerned. Regardless of intent, the fact remains that Dombey and Son offers a surprisingly sophisticated look at the ways in which the personal is political (and vice versa), and as a feminist, I’m grateful for that.


For those who are interested, the Ruskin quote is taken from Of Queen’s Gardens, which is itself part of Sesame and Lilies. You can find the entire work for free on Project Gutenberg.

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6 Comments

Filed under Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

6 responses to “Dickens’ Woman Problem?

  1. A well crafted, thoughtful and beautifully written review. Not having read Dombey and Son I have no opinion about your argument. Given his personal life his writing may be more reflective of the period and his nature than a retrospective challenge or parody. The Ruskin chivalrous view of bread-winning does reflect a cultural historical division of labor. It could be viewed apart from the time-period as gender neutral depending on the “provider”. There is (and was) likely more economic gender mutuality today and child-rearing aside, in the past. I think Dicken’s is a great observer of human nature and their foibles. If his characters are insipid, there may be a statement being made.

    • Thanks. I definitely don’t want to suggest reading Dombey and Son (or any other 19th century novel, for that matter) as simple subversion, but at the same time, I think that the pendulum often swings too far in the opposite direction, and writers are read as passively reinscribing whatever ideologies are dominant. The Ruskin ideal was an ideal rather than a reality even at the time, and I think most literature from the time period (particularly something as long as a Dickens’ novel) reflects the tensions that were already present. That’s obviously not to say that there’s nothing patriarchal (or classist/imperialist/whatever) about 19th century literature, but it is to argue that issues of gender/race/class were being talked about in a way that is more relevant (for better and for worse) to today’s society than you might at first think.

  2. Slightly off topic. I had a rare privilege today just after reading your review. I reviewed a short story anthology entitled “Odditorium” by Melissa Pritchard some time ago. It is a great and unusual collection well worth reading. Ms. Pritchard read my review and apart from being complimentary appreciated that I understood what she was trying to do. In any event, I responded that like you I keep a small blog that is personal and try to read others that do the same, particularly ones such as your which are very well written. I should have given her your link, but if she responds I will do so.

    • Thanks! It must have been exciting to have an author come across your review (I think I’d probably find it a little nerve-racking, actually, even if the response were complimentary).

  3. I’m a feminist and I love Dickens too! Dombey and Son is not one I’ve read yet but I very much enjoyed your write up of it. There are lots of eye rolling moments in Dickens to be sure, but I think we are all a product of our times and we can’t hold Dickens to our current standards when it comes to how he treats women. In some ways he was very forward thinking, in others not so much. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy him anyway 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s so true that you have to consider historical context. I think a character like Nancy in Oliver Twist tends to come off as a cliche now, because we’ve seen so many “hookers with a heart of gold,” but at the time, she was something of a novelty, and I know Dickens got some flak for making her sympathetic. I think there’s a tendency (in both academic and popular circles) to focus on the more conventional aspects of Vict. lit and forget, as you say, how “forward thinking” some of it is. To take an example: there’s a general feeling that a novel that ends with the heroine married is playing it safe by bowing to societal expectations (I’m thinking of Jane Eyre, especially). It’s obviously true to a certain extent, but I’m not sure that a “safe” ending entirely negates whatever is challenging about the work as a whole–it’s not like we only remember the endings of novels, after all.

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