Dombey and Son

Dombey and Son Summary and Analysis of Chapters 32-40


Chapter 32

Captain Cuttle has still not heard any news about either Sol or Walter; he hides from Florence the fact that Sol has disappeared because he does not want to worry her. One night, Mr. Toots, accompanied by his friend who goes by the nickname ‘the Chicken’, comes to the shop where Cuttle and Rob now live. Mr. Toots at first mistakes Cuttle for Sol Gills and is surprised when Cuttle explains that Gills has vanished, especially since Florence is unaware that this has happened. Toots explains that he hopes he and Cuttle can be friend, since he has no one else in whom to confide. At present, he has been sent by Susan Nipper to confirm some information she read in the paper and is hiding from Florence. Cuttle has not seen the paper either, so Toots shows him the paragraph indicating that the wreck of Walter’s ship has been found. Cuttle is devastated by the news. He tells Toots that he may as well share the news with Nipper and Florence, explaining that Florence will be deeply saddened, which makes Toots upset. The next morning, Cuttle goes to the offices of Dombey and Son and runs into Carker. Cuttle seeks reassurance that he was right in believing the opportunity to go the West Indies had been a good prospect for Walter, despite Walter’s own thoughts on the matter. Carker, however, abruptly orders him out, accusing Cuttle of plots and schemes. Cuttle is stunned to learn that he has been deceived, and grieves deeply for Walter.

Chapter 33

Carker continues to plot, now obsessed with Edith’s beauty and haughty demeanor. Meanwhile, John Carker grieves over Walter’s death and is comforted by his sister Harriet, who lives with him in humble poverty. After John leaves for work, a gentleman visits Harriet and expresses a desire to help her. This is his second visit, and on his previous visit he had revealed that he knew about John Carker’s past. The gentleman wants to help them, but Harriet declines. The gentleman says he will not reveal his name, but tells her that she should alert him if she ever does decide they would benefit from help; he adds that he will occasionally stop by the house. He departs after agreeing with her that it is best not to tell John. Later that day, Harriet notices a woman walking in bad weather and invites her into the house to rest and take shelter. The woman explains that she is returning after having been deported as a convict and is angry about the wrongs that have been done to her. She is now in search of her mother. Harriet offers her some money and the woman leaves.

Chapter 34

In a dilapidated home, old Mrs. Brown is shocked by the return of her daughter Alice Marwood (the woman whom Harriet Carker assisted). Alice makes it clear that she is bitter about her childhood neglect and the fact that she was taught to be vain about her good looks, falling into ruin and eventually a career as a prostitute and thief. She was arrested and sentenced to deportation. The experience hardened her, and she now takes a cynical view of the world. Mrs. Brown explains that in her daughter’s absence she has survived by begging and theft, and that she has also been observing the Dombey family closely. She mentions an unnamed “he” who is close to the Dombey family, and who is clearly hated by both Alice and her mother. Mrs. Brown says that Dombey’s recent marriage will give them an opportunity to create strife. She continues to demonstrate her knowledge by explaining that she knows about the siblings of “him”–clearly Mr. Carker. Alice realizes with horror that the woman who helped her and gave her money was Carker’s sister. She hurries back to the house, accompanied by her mother. John Carker is now at home and both he and Harriet are surprised to see Alice reappear. Alice returns the money, vehemently cursing everything associated with the Carker family. She and her mother then return to their miserable dwelling.

Chapter 35

Edith and Mr. Dombey return from their trip, and are greeted by Florence and Mrs. Skewton. Mr. Dombey begins to feel softened towards Florence, but before he can reach out to her, he notices the close relationship between her and Edith, and feels alienated and jealous. Florence, alone with Edith, confides her sorrow about Walter’s death, explaining that her father had been the one to send him away. Florence also expresses her hope that Edith will teach her how to earn her father’s love, but Edith firmly tells her that, while she will always love Florence herself, she cannot do anything to mend the relationship between Florence and her father.

Chapter 36

The Dombey household settles into a new routine. They throw a dinner party at which their opulent wealth is clearly displayed, but the tense relationships are as well. After the party is over, Dombey rebukes Edith for not having been more attentive to his guests. Edith points out that Carker is still present while Dombey is making these complaints, and Carker attempts to leave; however, Dombey demands he stay, saying that he feels comfortable with Carker knowing these details. Mrs. Skewton makes an effort to smooth over the disagreement, but it is clear that Edith and Dombey are on bad terms, and that she has no respect or affection for him.

Chapter 37

The next day, Carker comes to call on Edith. Florence hastily slips away to avoid him, and he meets with Edith and Mrs. Skewton. Carker claims that he is very uncomfortable with having been forced to witness a private altercation between husband and wife. Carker asks if he may speak to Edith alone, but she insists her mother stay. Carker says that he has noticed Florence’s father neglects her, and that as a result, she has socialized with inappropriate individuals, including Walter. He says that he has proof that Florence has been socializing with Cuttle and Gills and others, and that while he has not yet told Dombey, he feels that he ought to. At the same time, he worries that the news will lead to Dombey severing ties with his daughter. He says has decided that telling her will be equivalent to telling Dombey, but as he departs Edith is very aware that this disclosure has been a form of threat and blackmail. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Skewton suffers a stroke, leaving her bed-ridden and demanding.

Chapter 38

Miss Tox is now very lonely, cut off from Mrs. Chick and any news of the Dombey family. She decides to seek out the Toodle family to give her someone to talk to. She arrives as the Toodle family is visiting with Rob, who is explaining that Cuttle is doing a bad job of running the instrument shop. Miss Tox explains that she has lost contact with Mrs. Chick and she will always be happy to hear anything about the Dombey family. She asks if she can visit, and make herself useful by teaching their numerous children. At the end of the night, Rob accompanies Miss Tox home and she is very impressed with him.

Chapter 39

Captain Cuttle, remorseful that his meddling may have had negative consequences in the past, avoids anyone and anything to do with the Dombey family. He is even slightly suspicious of Toots, who often comes to visit. One day, Rob announces that he will be leaving for another position. Captain Cuttle is now very lonely, and also faced with a problem, as the date has come for him to open the sealed document Sol left for him, and he wants someone else to witness this. He arranges for Bunsby to come and visit him. He opens the packet to find a will and a letter to him. The letter explains that Sol has journeyed to the West Indies in search of Walter; he kept his purpose a secret so that Cuttle could not stop him, or try to accompany him. By specifying a year’s waiting period, he assumed that he would be dead if Cuttle were opening the letter. If Walter has been found he will inherit all that belonged to Sol, and if not he leaves everything to Cuttle. As they discuss this news, Cuttle’s feared landlady Mrs. Macstinger arrives, having finally tracked him down. While Cuttle is horrified, Bunsby manages to calm her down, and takes her home. He returns later that night to bring the items Cuttle had left at his lodgings when he slipped away. Now that he knows Sol did not commit suicide, Cuttle continues to nurse hope he might eventually come home.


This section plays with the theme of both failed and rekindled hopes. On the one hand, it seems increasingly clear that Walter's ship has been wrecked, and he has perished. However, the uncertain nature of there being no body to offer confirmation of his death makes this series of events difficult for others to accept, and the question of whether hope should be held out for his return haunts Cuttle. Moreover, Cuttle's basic hope and trust in human nature receives a serious blow: when he realizes that Carker lied to him and manipulated him, he is forced to confront the reality that not everyone can be trusted. The impact of that blow is clearly seen in the isolation Cuttle experiences. At the same time, however, he is unwilling to accept that Sol is also lost, and stubbornly nurses hope of his friend's return. In a parallel fashion, Miss Tox has very good reason to accept that her relations with the Dombey family are over, and yet she stubbornly clings to the hope of knowing what is happening with the family, initiating a relationship with the Toodle family for this purpose. In a novel with many characters and various plots, Dickens often uses these types of parallel experiences to highlight a shared, communal similarity between otherwise very different individuals.

At the same time, Florence's initially bright hopes for a new family dynamic are challenged. It is clear that the relationship between her father and Edith is not a loving one, and shows few signs of improving. Not only will it not help Florence to draw closer to her father, but it also seems that she will be caught up in the middle, and used as a kind of pawn.

The introduction of another plot develops the themes of disappointed hopes and bad parenting, as well as offering additional support for Carker's villainy. Alice Marwood serves as a foil character to Edith: like Edith, a greedy mother corrupted her in her youth. However, Alice's experiences have been much harsher for two reasons: she has explicitly transgressed against Victorian sexual norms, first by living as Carker's mistress, and then by working as a prostitute. While Edith may be ashamed of her behavior, she has still always behaved in ways that are socially sanctioned, and even encouraged. The key to this difference, as Alice makes clear, is the difference in their social standing. Because of their aristocratic heritage, Edith may be bought and sold, but it will be as a wife, ensuring she has legal rights and protections. For a poor woman like Alice, the best to hope for was an illicit position as a mistress; therefore, when Carker discarded her, she had no recourse.

Alice's storyline also highlights the idea of vengeance and eventual consequences. Although it seems like Carker is profiting from his schemes as he draws ever more intimately into the Dombey family, Alice and her mother's hatred and desire to punish him shows that his past may still catch up with him. By extension, this also suggests that Dombey may eventually face consequences for the way he cruelly discards people around him.