Thursday, 29 December 2016

Wealth and Corruption in Charles Dickens’s 'Our Mutual Friend'

Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’ most complicated novels, made up of a complex of interrelated plots and sub-plots. This multi-layered storyline enables Dickens to give a comprehensive vision of the breadth of London life, from the aristocrats and nouveaux riches to the teachers and paupers. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickensian London becomes most whole, bringing alive what Deborah Wynne described as ‘a disturbing vision of Victorian society’ fissured by ‘class divisions’ and ‘greed’. Because every echelon of society has its representatives in the novel, wealth and class are central to the narrative. As the plot develops, Dickens demonstrates the corrupting power of money and wealth in the context of an ‘unjust, commercialized, and de-naturing society’ (Barbara Hardy). And yet, the novel is far too complex to be branded as a straightforward didactic tale about how ‘money corrupts’. Our Mutual Friend seems to be more of a study of values and principles and how they work in Victorian society, rather than a complete satire on the upper classes. What Dickens seems to be suggesting is that, whilst modern society is both corrupt and corrupting, depravity and corruption can be navigated in certain ways, namely the avoidance of greed and the pursuit of love.

Still, it is important to consider Dickens’s presentation of the rich before we move onto his exploration of counteracting values. The Veneerings are the novel’s most obvious example of the shallow rich, suggested by their name alone. They are first introduced in Chapter 2, which slips into the present tense and mimics the clipped and lazy speech of the privileged: ‘Reflects Veneering; forty, wavy-haired, dark, tending to corpulence, sly, mysterious, filmy…’ It is interesting that the Veneerings are described through their presentation in a mirror, again implying that they are incomplete and without depth – they are characterised by superficiality and surface appearances. Hence, they only exist in relation to their ‘bran-new’ home full of ‘bran-new’ objects. Even their ‘friends’ (who are not really friends at all) become objects, with Twemlow becoming ‘an innocent piece of dinner furniture’. And so, our first view of the rich (in this case, the nouveau riche) is one of shallow façades, reminiscent of Gilbert Osmond in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, for whom life is only ‘a thing of forms, a conscious, calculated attitude.’ The Podsnaps are similarly satirised, with Mr Podsnap’s arrogance being emphasised throughout: he is ‘happily acquainted with his own merit and importance’ and stands ‘very high in Mr Podsnap’s opinion’. This sardonic humour was possibly influenced by the biting satire of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a novel which likewise mocks the superficiality and arrogance of the rich. We might also recall Browning’s mockery of the bishop in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”, a poem that shows a Veneering-like obsession with appearances. To some extent then, Dickens depicts an unattractive group of wealthy individuals, perhaps suggesting that money is apt to corrupt, leading to egotism or ostentation. This is also implied in his novel Great Expectations, which tracks Pip’s descent into snobbishness and ungratefulness due to his ‘great expectations’. 

And yet, in Our Mutual Friend, money does not always have this same corrupting effect. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Boffins, who acquire the wealth of the old, misanthropic John Harmon, but avoid corruption and stick to their values. They are described as ‘unpolished people’, immediately contrasting them with the highly-polished Veneerings. Their surface might not be ‘bran-new’ but they are motivated by kindness and good will, as is seen in their adoption of Bella. Mrs Boffin explains: “Next I think… of the disappointed girl; her that was so cruelly disappointed, you know, both of her husband and his riches. Don’t you think we might do something for her?” Mr Boffin even offers to help Silas Wegg to set up a new stall, despite all the Machiavellian scheming Wegg has done to blackmail him – Boffin would not like to see Wegg “worse off in life” than when they first met. This shows a genuine generosity so clearly lacking in the Podsnaps and Veneerings of Dickens’s world. But it’s not just the newly-wealthy Boffins that avoid the corrupting effect of wealth. Although Mr Twemlow comes across as relatively spineless throughout most of the novel, he can be read as another example of a comparatively rich man who has not been corrupted by money. At the end of the novel, it is Twemlow who resists the ‘Voice of Society’ and the cruelty of Lady Tippins, who mocks Lizzie Hexam and is outraged by Eugene Wrayburn’s decision to marry her – she describes them as “savages” and questions whether Lizzie was dressed “In rowing costume” at her wedding. But Lightwood and Twemlow both defend them, with Lightwood describing Lizzie as “a brave woman” and Twemlow arguing that wealth and class do not matter in the case of marriage. Wrayburn married her out of “feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection” – the feelings of a gentleman, a rank which “may be attained by any man”. And so, Twemlow and Lightwood show that it is not necessarily money that has led to the corruption of society – wealth does not necessitate Podsnappery, Dickens seems to suggest here – but a lack of ‘gentlemanly values’ and an over-obsession with both wealth and class. Their handshake at the end of the novel can be seen as a silent act of resistance against the more prevalent tones of societal injustice.

It is clear, then, that money in and of itself is not the corrupting force of the novel, though Dickens has shown that it is dangerous. Arnold Kettle is to some extent right when he argues that “The corrupting force in Our Mutual Friend is not money but bourgeois attitudes to it.” And yet, though bourgeois attitudes do play a role in the corruption of society (Lady Tippins and the Podsnaps are examples), the primary force of corruption seems to be greed – the desire for wealth, leading to jealousy and cruelty. Kenneth Muir argues that, in Our Mutual Friend, ‘Radix malorum est cupiditas’. For example, the Lammles marry for money only to discover that they had both been deceiving each other. Coming to terms with their relative poverty, they instigate insidious schemes to boost their wealth, such as their attempts to marry Georgiana Podsnap with Fascination Fledgeby. As Mrs Lammle later admits to Twemlow, Georgiana was to “be sacrificed” in “a partnership affair, a money speculation”. The greed of the Lammles is again reminiscent of James’s Portrait of a Lady, with Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle planning marriages (Isabel to Osmond, and Pansy to Warburton) simply for monetary gain. This leaves us with what Marx called a ‘cash nexus’ – the reduction of all relationships to financial exchange, also realised in Dickens’s Dombey and Son. The other villains of the novel, Roger Riderhood and Silas Wegg in particular, are similarly driven by greed. Riderhood unjustly blames Hexam for the murder of John Harmon in the hope of a reward, and Silas Wegg tries to blackmail Boffin with a second will, despite all the good that Boffin has already done for him. Dickens’s comment on Wegg’s actions is cogent: ‘Such was the greed of the fellow, that his mind had shot beyond halves, two-thirds, three-fourths, and gone straight to spoliation of the whole.’ Evidently, it is greed that drives these characters to their cruel and criminal acts.

Another study of yearning for wealth is that of Bella Wilfer, who begins the novel (in her own words) “the most mercenary little wretch that ever lived in the world.” It is her desire for money that leads to her cruel and haughty refusal of Rokesmith/Harmon, whom she rejects only on monetary and class terms. She tells him: “It is not generous in you, it is not honourable in you, to conduct yourself towards me as you do,” and asks him “not to pursue me”. Her obsession with money makes her a relatively unattractive character, though we cannot help being drawn in by her coquettish charm. It is only when Mr Boffin adopts the pose of unpleasant miser that she realises the dangers of her mercenary viewpoint. As she tells her father, “Mr Boffin is being spoilt by prosperity, and is changing every day.” When Boffin accuses Rokesmith of “impudent addresses” and states that Bella is motivated only by money, she has her heroic moment in the novel, telling Boffin, “you don’t right me… You wrong me, wrong me!” She calls him a “hard-hearted Miser” and, having seen how an obsession with money can corrupt, abandons her monetary ambitions, choosing Rokesmith’s love over the pursuit of wealth. This is, perhaps, the crux of the novel, since it shows the values that Dickens truly champions: love over pecuniary gain.

All of this demonstrates that Dickens’s novel is not simply an attack on the rich. Dickens shows that money does not always corrupt, though it often can. The novel is, in fact, an attack on a society which is governed largely by an obsession with money and class. Such a society has no time for real human values and promotes the Machiavellian scheming we see from Riderhood and Wegg, amongst others. So the divide in Dickens’s view is not so much based on class or wealth, but rather on principles: there are members of the upper classes whom Dickens’s satirises ruthlessly, whilst there are members of the lower classes to whom the reader is immediately averse, and vice versa. The novel does not present us with a black-and-white view of the problems in Victorian society. Rather, it stresses the importance of certain values and the possibility that there can indeed be hope: money and class will not always get the upper-hand. Hence, Eugene rejects societal conventions and marries Lizzie, and Bella and the Boffins reject monetary gain for kindness and love. As Kettle argues, Dickens has “an almost childlike faith in Low Church goodness” valuing “kindness, patience, the innocence and elation of youth, the power of love…”. This is clear throughout the novel, and the final handshake arguably demonstrates Dickens’s hope that class distinctions will diminish over time and that, one day, people will be judged on their actions and principles rather than on their wealth or status.

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