In what ways does the novel challenge ideas of what constitutes family?
In the Victorian era, the family was typically seen as a beacon of love and goodness in a sometimes-corrupt world. In Dickens's novel, however, family can be a hellish source of suffering. Dombey makes life miserable for both his daughter and his second wife. Both Edith and Alice believe that their lives were ultimately ruined by the scheming and manipulative behavior of their mothers. Indeed, it is the world outside of the family home where Florence can ultimately find unconditional love. When she symbolically exits the Dombey mansion, such as when she is taken to Stagg's Garden as a child, or when she flees her father's house after he strikes her, she is paradoxically finally able to find a home. The homes that most characters find reassuring and validating are the ones formed by eclectic groups of individuals with no blood connection, but with deep loyalty and affection to one another. This suggests that family should be considered as a broader category than simply the group of individuals to whom one is genetically related.
To what extent is Edith a sympathetic character?
Edith is a complex and ambivalent character. She can be very cold and even cruel. She is manipulative and deceptive when she tricks Carker into believing she is in love with him, and she uses his hatred of Dombey for her own purposes. While she feels disgust about marrying Dombey for money and social position, she goes ahead and does so anyways. Since she knows this behavior will only make her unhappy, one might wonder why she does not refuse to go through with the marriage. At the same time, Edith is fiercely loving and protective towards Florence. She makes sure her mother is not allowed to corrupt her, and she tries to keep Dombey from resenting his daughter any more than he already does. She also tries to ensure that Florence is not in any way contaminated or tainted by the values that have dominated Edith's life. At the end of the novel, she even tells Florence that she will try to forgive Mr. Dombey for all of the wrongs. By accepting her own responsibility for the mistakes in their marriage, Edith ultimately earns the reader's sympathy.
How is class represented in the novel?
The novel shows characters from many different social classes. The Dombey family is both very high-ranking and very wealthy. Edith and her mother come from an aristocratic family and therefore have a great deal of social privilege even though they are not actually wealthy. Other characters like Bagstock and Miss Tox aspire to higher social positions but have to make an effort to hide their relatively humble financial positions. Other characters like Gills, Cuttle, and the Toodle family are clearly middle and working class and rely on earning their income. In addition to showing how all of these class positions intersect and are interconnected with one another, Dickens also reveals that one's economic standing does not reflect one's moral integrity. Dombey, despite his wealth, is a hardhearted and ungenerous man, while characters who have much less are in fact much more warm, open, and willing to share their emotional and physical resources.
How is death represented in the novel?
The novel features a number of death scenes, most poignantly that of little Paul, a scene which made Dickens very emotional when he wrote it. Often, these moments seem to be cases where a lack of human control is highlighted. When Mrs. Dombey dies at the beginning of the novel, Mrs. Chick is insistent that she could simply have chosen to live if she wanted to, and that her death represents a kind of weakness. Mrs. Skewton dies while still clinging to the illusion that she can continue to pretend to be young and beautiful, and deny her own mortality. Mr. Dombey is in denial about his son's death until almost the very end, believing that he can use his money and privilege to prevent it. One lesson the novel offers again and again is that human control is largely an illusion. Those who believe too strongly in it are doomed to be humbled by the realization that fate can always contradict their plans. Death is shown to be, like love, a power that cannot be bought and that demands humility and acceptance in order to encounter it gracefully.
Why and in what ways is forgiveness important in the novel?
When Florence and her father finally reconcile, she asks him to forgive her, but he counters that he is actually the one who needs to be forgiven. Dombey is perhaps the character that is most visibly in need of forgiveness in that he mistreats his daughter for a long time, and is too proud and stubborn to see the error of his ways. Despite all of his cruel actions, Florence shows compassion towards him and welcomes him into her new life. Dickens suggests that if one truly understands what one has done wrong, and takes steps to correct it (as Dombey does by being especially loving towards his granddaughter), it is never too late to redeem one's life. Forgiveness is also shown to be important because all characters, even the ones who are clearly very good, end up needing it at times. Even the honest and honorable Cuttle makes mistakes, such as not thinking to check for the letters from Sol at his old address. No one, in the end, is perfect, but as long as forgiveness is a possibility, there can always be the hope of a fresh start.