Dombey and Son was conceived first and foremost as a continuous novel. A letter from Dickens to Forster on 26 July 1846 shows the major details of the plot and theme already substantially worked out. According to the critic George Gissing, 'Dombey was begun at Lausanne, continued at Paris, completed in London, and at English seaside places; whilst the early parts were being written, a Christmas story, The Battle of Life, was also in hand, and Dickens found it troublesome to manage both together. That he overcame the difficulty—that, soon after, we find him travelling about England as member of an amateur dramatic company—that he undertook all sorts of public engagements and often devoted himself to private festivity—Dombey going on the while, from month to month—is matter enough for astonishment to those who know anything about artistic production. But such marvels become commonplaces in the life of Charles Dickens.'
There is some evidence to suggest that Dombey and Son was inspired by the life of Christopher Huffam, Rigger to His Majesty's Navy, a gentleman and head of an established firm, Huffam & Son. Charles Dickens' father, John Dickens, at the time a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, asked the wealthy, well-connected Huffam to act as godfather to Charles. This same Huffam family appeared later in Charles Palliser's 1989 The Quincunx, an ambitious homage to the Dickensian novel form.
As with most of Dickens' work, a number of socially significant themes are to be found in this book. In particular the book deals with the then-prevalent common practice of arranged marriages for financial gain. Other themes to be detected within this work include child cruelty (particularly in Dombey's treatment of Florence), familial relationships, and as ever in Dickens, betrayal and deceit and the consequences thereof. Another strong central theme, which the critic George Gissing elaborates on in detail in his 1925 work The Immortal Dickens, is that of pride and arrogance, of which Paul Dombey senior is the extreme exemplification in Dickens' work.
Gissing makes a number of points about certain key inadequacies in the novel, not the least that Dickens's central character is largely unsympathetic and an unsuitable vehicle and also that after the death of the young Paul Dombey the reader is somewhat estranged from the rest of what is to follow. He notes that 'the moral theme of this book was Pride—pride of wealth, pride of place, personal arrogance. Dickens started with a clear conception of his central character and of the course of the story in so far as it depended upon that personage; he planned the action, the play of motive, with unusual definiteness, and adhered very closely in the working to this well-laid scheme'. However, he goes on to write that,'Dombey and Son is a novel which in its beginning promises more than its progress fulfils' and gives the following reasons why:
Impossible to avoid the reflection that the death of Dombey's son and heir marks the end of a complete story, that we feel a gap between Chapter XVI and what comes after (the author speaks of feeling it himself, of his striving to "transfer the interest to Florence") and that the narrative of the later part is ill-constructed, often wearisome, sometimes incredible. We miss Paul, we miss Walter Gay (shadowy young hero though he be); Florence is too colourless for deep interest, and the second Mrs. Dombey is rather forced upon us than accepted as a natural figure in the drama. Dickens's familiar shortcomings are abundantly exemplified. He is wholly incapable of devising a plausible intrigue, and shocks the reader with monstrous improbabilities such as all that portion of the denouement in which old Mrs. Brown and her daughter are concerned. A favourite device with him (often employed with picturesque effect) was to bring into contact persons representing widely severed social ranks; in this book the "effect" depends too often on "incidences of the boldest artificiality," as nearly always we end by neglecting the story as a story, and surrendering ourselves to the charm of certain parts, the fascination of certain characters.'
Characters in the novel
Karl Ashley Smith, in his introduction to Wordsworth Classics' edition of Dombey and Son, makes some reflections on the novel's characters. He believes that Dombey’s power to disturb comes from his belief that human relationships can be controlled by money, giving the following examples to support this viewpoint:
He tries to prevent Mrs Richards from developing an attachment to Paul by emphasising the wages he pays her. Mrs Pipchin’s small talk satisfies him as ‘the sort of thing for which he paid her so much a quarter’ (p.132). Worst of all, he effectively buys his second wife and expects that his wealth and position in society will be enough to keep her in awed obedience to him. Paul’s questions about money are only the first indication of the naivety of his outlook'.
However, he also believes that the satire against this man is tempered with compassion.
Smith also draws attention to the fact that certain characters in the novel 'develop a pattern from Dickens's earlier novels, whilst pointing the way to future works'. One such character is Little Paul who is a direct descendant of Little Nell. Another is James Carker, the ever-smiling manager of Dombey and Son. Smith notes there are strong similarities between him and the likes of Jaggers in Great Expectations and, even more so, the evil barrister, Mr Tulkinghorn, in Bleak House:
From Fagin (Oliver Twist) onwards, the terrifying figure exerting power over others by an infallible knowledge of their secrets becomes one of the author’s trademarks ... James Carker's gentlemanly businesslike respectability marks him out as the ancestor of Tulkinghorn in Bleak House and even of Jaggers in Great Expectations. And his involvements in the secrets of others leads him to as sticky an end as Tulkinghorn’s. The fifty-fifth chapter, where he is forced to flee his outraged employer, magnificently continues the theme of the guilt-hunted man from Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist and Jonas’s restless sense of pursuit in Martin Chuzzlewit. There is always a strong sense in Dickens of the narrative drive of discovery catching up with those who deal in darkness...'
Gissing looks at some of the minor characters in the novel and is particularly struck by that of Edward (Ned) Cuttle.
Captain Cuttle has a larger humanity than his roaring friend [Captain Bunsby], he is the creation of humour. That the Captain suffered dire things at the hands of Mrs. MacStinger is as credible as it is amusing, but he stood in no danger of Bunsby's fate; at times he can play his part in a situation purely farcical, but the man himself moves on a higher level. He is one of the most familiar to us among Dickens's characters, an instance of the novelist's supreme power, which (I like to repeat) proves itself in the bodying forth of a human personality henceforth accepted by the world. His sentences have become proverbs; the mention of his name brings before the mind's eye an image of flesh and blood – rude, tending to the grotesque, but altogether lovable. Captain Cuttle belongs to the world of Uncle Toby, with, to be sure, a subordinate position. Analyse him as you will, make the most of those extravagances which pedants of to-day cannot away with, and in the end you will still be face to face with something vital – explicable only as the product of genius.
The growth of the railways
One theme is the destruction and degradation, of both people and places, caused by industrialisation, illustrated in particular by the building of the new railway through Camden Town (assumed to represent the London and Birmingham Railway constructed between 1833 and 1837). The novel reflects to some extent Dickens' concerns with railway travel and the 'railway mania', 'a fascination which had a strong ingredient of fear in it', and reflects ambivalence towards the effects of the railways – they generated prosperity and employment, but undermined older ways of living and encouraged speculation. In 1865, many years after this novel was published, Dickens was involved in a train crash. Soon after this incident he wrote two short stories, Mugby Junction and The Signal-Man, which projected a morbid view of the railways.
Gissing refers to Dickens's instinctive genius for reflecting the thoughts and morals of the common man in his writing. He observes that the author was in constant communication with Forster,
... as to the feeling of his readers about some proposed incident or episode; not that he feared, in any ignoble sense, to offend his public, but because his view of art involved compliance with ideals of ordinary simple folk. He held that view as a matter of course. Quite recently it has been put forth with prophetic fervour by Tolstoy, who cites Dickens among the few novelists whose work will bear this test. An instinctive sympathy with the moral (and therefore the artistic) prejudices of the everyday man guided Dickens throughout his career, teaching him when, and how far, he might strike at things he thought evil, yet never defeat his prime purpose of sending forth fiction acceptable to the multitude. Himself, in all but his genius, a representative Englishman of the middle-class, he was able to achieve this task with unfailing zeal and with entire sincerity.
Karl Smith, in his turn, gives his specific reasons for what makes Dombey and Son – and the works of Dickens as a whole – worth reading again and again. He observes that this is based in part on Dickens's 'recognition that solemn themes require humour and verbal vigour to accompany and complement them' and goes on to conclude:
Grim psychological realism, social commentary, comic absurdity and symbolic transcendence are here brought together more than in any previous novel with the possible exception of Oliver Twist. Dombey and Son not only prepares the ground for Dickens’s later masterpieces, but demands to be enjoyed for its own energy and richness.