Dombey and Son was initially published as "Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation." The novel is typically seen as marking a transition in Dickens's career. His seventh novel, it is notable for showing greater structural unity and a less comedic, bleaker perspective on human relations than earlier novels. These traits would subsequently be developed in works of his such as David Copperfield.
Dickens began writing Dombey and Son in 1846, while living abroad in Lausanne, Switzerland. Before the novel was completed, he would spend time in Paris and then return to England. Letters indicate that by July 1846 he had a rough plan of the plot in mind. Like Dickens's other novels, and indeed most novels during the Victorian period, Dombey and Son was initially published in serial format, with short installments published at regular intervals. The first installment was published on October 1, 1846 and the rest of the novel appeared in a total of 20 installments. In April 1848, both the final installment and a complete volume were published. The novel featured illustrations by an artist named Hablot Knight Browne, who used the working name "Phiz" and famously provided illustrations for many of Dickens's novels.
It is possible that Dickens’s godfather, John Huffam, may have inspired the novel. Huffam was a wealthy man who was the head of his own firm, Huffam and Son. When Dickens's father was a young man working as a clerk, he had asked Huffam to be the godfather to his son. It would later be suggested by Thomas Powell, a writer and clerk who worked alongside Dickens's brother at the firm Chapman & Co. before being discovered to be an embezzler, that Dickens's might also have drawn on Thomas Chapman, one of the firm's principle partners. Dickens, however, strongly disputed this claim.
The writing of the novel coincided with a period in which railways were rapidly expanding in Britain, with a great deal of new track being laid to expand the network. Since the building and presence of railways plays an important role in the novel, Dickens may have been influenced by this changing technology, about which he was often ambivalent. Additionally, and interestingly considering the novel's engagement with themes of prostitution and fallen women, the writing of Dombey and Son took place at the same time as Dickens was involved in setting up Urania Cottage, a home for women who had been working as prostitutes and wished to reform their lives. In 1846, he had begun talking with a woman named Angela Burdett-Coutts, who had observed the number of women working as prostitutes in urban London and wanted to find a way to help them. Together, the two planned to establish a home where fallen women could go, and through which they would be helped to re-enter society. After spending about a year at the cottage receiving an education, nutritious food, and rest, they would immigrate to Australia to begin new lives. The cottage opened in November 1847, and remained open until 1862, during which time 56 women lived there for varying amounts of time. Dickens's commitment to this project shows his interest in seeing prostitution as a behavior to which women might be pushed by social circumstances and poverty, and his belief in individuals redeeming themselves. Both of these ideas are present in Dombey and Son.