Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Book Two: Birds of a Feather

I’ve decided that Our Mutual Friend is about money.  What people will do to get it, how having it affects them but mostly what it’s like to live without it.

In Charles Dicken’s novels characters either have jobs or they have incomes.  The rich have incomes while the poor and the middle class have jobs.  Characters are generally placed into one category or the other by birth, and almost no one crosses from one to the other, not by gaining or by losing wealth.

Take Mr. and Mrs. Lammle as a case in point.  The Lammle’s each agreed to marry the other in the mistaken belief that they were marrying someone with an income.  Neither was right.  After their marriage they realize that neither of them has any money nor any income.  That Mr. Lammle should go out and find work never enters the discussion.  Instead they must find some way to maintain their lifestyle without any income.  They do so by creating a reputation to mask their poverty.  Take the way they use their lack of housing as a sign of wealth instead of as a sign of poverty.

Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s house in Sackville Street, Piccadilly, was but a temporary residence. It has done well enough, they informed their friends, for Mr. Lammle when a bachelor, but it would not do now.  So, they were always looking at palatial residences in the best situations, and always very nearly taking or buying one, but never quite concluding the bargain Hereby they made for themselves a shining little reputation apart. Peolpe said, on seeing a vacant palatial residence, “the very thing for the Lammles!” and wrote to the Lammles about it, and the Lammles always went to look at it, but unfortunately it never exactly answered  In short, they suffered so many disappointments, that they began to think it would be necessary to build a palatial residence. And hereby they made another shining reputation; many persons of their acquaintance becoming by anticipation dissatisfied with their own houses, and envious of the non-existent Lammle structure.

This explains why the Lammle’s live in such modest circumstances, without revealing their complete lack of money.  They can remain in society.  But this lack of an income has begun to affect them by the end of book two.  When asked if her husband loves her, Mrs. Lammle replies:

“Truly , my dear,’ said Mrs Lammle, with a rather singular expression crossing her face.  “I believe that he loves me, fully as much as I love him”

The singular expression reveals all the reader needs to know and has long suspected.  Mrs. Lammle married for money, just as the young and impoverished Bella Wilfer has pledged to do.  Mrs. Lammle’s life points out the cost of the bargain Bella Wilfer wants to make.   It’s a clever stroke to put both of these plot lines in the same novel.  Bella Wilfer’s desire for money is leading her to make the same choices that doomed Mrs. Lammle.  While we can already see that Bella is falling in love with John Rokesmith, whom she believes to be a man without an income, she openly states to her father that she will marry for money in order to escape her childhood poverty.

Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, in contrast to the Lammle’s, married for love knowing full well that neither had either an income or prospects for gaining one.  Because they were simple, poorr, household servants, they have been able to make a happy marriage.  In the opening chapters of Our Mutual Friends, the Boffin’s inherit a fortune, much to their surprise.  What affect will this new found wealth have on them. So far, they remain true to themselves and to each other.

Silas Wegg, Mr. Boffin’s ‘literary man,’ is already being driven mad by the Boffin’s unearned wealth.  Why should they be the ones to benefit when he knew old Mr. Harmon just as well as they did?  Why shouldn’t he have been the one to come into such a great fortune.  He’s already planning some what to get the Boffin’s money, only Mr. Rokesmith stands in his way.

Rokesmith is an interesting character in relation to money as well.  At this point in the novel, we know that he is the true heir to the Harmon fortune, but he has not revealed his true identity to anyone, preferring to let the Boffins enjoy the fortune that never brought him anything but grief throughout his childhood.

I’ll have to make a chart of all the characters to see how money and the pursuit of it has affected everyone in Our Mutual Friend.  Will money turn out to be the “mutual friend” in the end?

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2 Comments

  1. bookeywookey says:

    I have tried and tried to begin this book, having been told that I will love it, and I have yet to get further than a few chapters. You seem to be very involved – I’ll take that as an encouraging sign!

    1. I say try a different one. Dickens’ long books are not all alike. They are all similar, but they’re different enough. Our Mutual Friend has turned out to be one of the more challenging ones, as far as keeping track of everybody goes.

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