The novel is set primarily in nineteenth century England, with action occuring mainly in the cities of London and Brighton. The setting of urban London reflects Dickens's lifelong relationship with that city, which features as the primary setting in much of his fiction.
Narrator and Point of View
The novel is narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator. The narrator, however, is not neutral and clearly demonstrates opinions and preferences about the different characters and their behavior. The narrator will also intrude to suggest comparisons (for example, by explicitly suggesting that the relationship between Mrs. Brown and Alice resembles that between Edith and Mrs. Skewton), or to prompt a particular emotional response on the part of the reader.
Tone and Mood
The novel's tone varies, and tends to fluctuate between somber and comic. Many of the scenes that take place in the Dombey mansion or the offices of the firm are bleak and depict loneliness, cruelty, and manipulation. The action located In cozy domestic settings such as the Wooden Midshipman shop, the home of John and Harriet Carker, or the Toodle household tends to evoke either a sense of human kindness, or a playful, comedic perspective on human behavior and idiosyncrasies.
Protagonist and Antagonist
In the plot that dominates the second half of the novel, Mr. Dombey is the protagonist and Mr. Carker is the antagonist. Much of the novel's action, however, centers on Florence, who can also be viewed as a protagonist figure.
Like many of Dickens's novels, Dombey and Son features a number of intersecting plots, which give rise to a number of different conflicts. For much of the novel, Dombey is in conflict with Florence because he feels resentful and jealous towards his daughter. At the same time, he is socially obligated to care for her, especially when she becomes the heir to his fortune. The more Florence tries to reach out and earn her father's love, the deeper this conflict becomes. At the same time, Dombey is also in conflict with himself: his pride and ego make his life more lonely and prevent him from forming meaningful relationships, but he cannot escape these characteristics. Finally, although he is often unaware of this, Dombey is also in conflict with Carker, who secretly hates him and plots against him.
The climax of the novel occurs in Chapter 47, when it is discovered that Edith has left Dombey to run away with Carker. Florence tries to comfort her enraged father and he hits her. Finally despairing of ever having a good relationship with him, Florence leaves the Dombey house. This moment reveals the collapse of the Dombey family.
Many of the events of the novel are foreshadowed before they occur, as this technique creates suspense and holds a reader's attention through a long text. Paul's delicate health and the imagery of death that surrounds his birth and christening foreshadow his death. Carker's suspicious behavior foreshadows that he is up to no good, and will someday harm the Dombey family. The unhappy fate of the Dombey marriage is foreshadowed both by other characters, like Mrs. Brown, and by Edith herself due to the grim foreboding she experiences before the wedding.
A number of allusions are present in the novel. In the way that Florence is rejected despite her true virtue and desire to win her father's love, the story echoes Shakespeare's King Lear, though with a much less tragic ending. Florence's isolation in the Dombey mansion also evokes fairy tale motifs of a princess trapped in a castle or tower, needing to be set free. Carker's meddling in the Dombey marriage for his own malevolent purposes might also echo the manipulative tendencies of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello.
See section on imagery.
A number of paradoxes exist in the novel. Dombey is both simultaneously very rich (due to his financial status) and very impoverished (due to his lack of genuine emotional connection with anyone). When Florence leaves her father's house, she is both orphaned (in the sense that she loses contact with her only remaining blood relative) and yet finds a new family through Cuttle taking her in, and through her subsequent marriage to Walter, which becomes the only true family she ever has known. A number of characters (Toots, Cuttle, etc.) are also paradoxically uneducated and often incorrect in their assumptions and understandings, and yet extremely wise in their knowledge of human nature and ability to make correct ethical choices. These paradoxes allow Dickens to suggest that appearances and reality can be quite different, and that it is important for readers not to be too hasty in their judgments.
A number of parallel plotlines function in the novel to reinforce key themes. The relationship between the Carker siblings echoes the unhappy family dynamic created by putting pride ahead of family loyalty, drawing a parallel with the Dombey family. The relationship between Edith and her mother is a close mirror of that between Alice and her mother. Walter's departure and the strong possibility of his death creates a loss for his family which parallels the loss of little Paul. Dickens uses these parallel plotlines to suggest that, despite different social circumstances, many individuals actually have shared experiences, emotions, and conflicts.
Metonymy and Synecdoche
Personification occurs a number of times in the novel, but most frequently in reference to the Dombey house. In order to create a heightened sense of the somber, decaying mood of the house, it is often given human characteristics to convey that is a grim and dark place.
Dombey and Son Questions and Answers
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