Dombey and Son

Dombey and Son Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Carker's Teeth (Symbol)

Carker is frequently described as having prominent, excessively white teeth which are displayed when he smiles. The teeth are an important symbol of his predatory nature: even when he appears benevolent, he is always watchful and calculating. The teeth also reveal hints of an animalistic lust: although Carker is highly intelligent, and a master manipulator, his physical lust for Edith and his psychological lust for power eventually prove to be his downfall. The teeth also symbolize Carker's deceitful nature, as he displays them in insincere smiles designed to trick other characters into believing that he is trustworthy.

The Sea (Motif)

The sea appears throughout the novel as a both a destructive and life-giving force. The dangers of the sea are well recognized by the various naval men, explaining their resistance to Walter going on sea voyages. At the same time, when characters such as Paul and Mrs. Skewton are ill, they are advised to go to the seashore due to the ocean's restorative powers. The sea also figures as a motif representing the transition from life to death. The idea of a hidden message carried in the sounds of the waves recurs to imply mysteries that are revealed as someone passes from life into death. Finally, the sea is both literally and symbolically tied to economic fluctuations. As Supritha Rajan writes, "the sea is a recurring motif for both the liquidities of capitalist speculation and its predication on imperialist trade" (36). Both Walter and the Dombey firm in general require sea access to maintain economic prosperity, but their economic fortunes are fickle and shifting, like waves on the ocean surface.

The Bottle of Madeira (Symbol)

A bottle of Madeira (a type of fortified wine) is a treasured possession of Uncle Sol. He sets the bottle aside at the beginning of the novel when Walter begins his job at the Dombey firm with bright prospects, and tells him that it will be opened and drunk when Walter's good fortune has been achieved. Due to the many pitfalls that both happen to Walter and Sol, the Madeira remains unopened for many years, and the narrator periodically mentions its existence as it gathers dust. It is not even opened at Walter and Florence's wedding, being opened and consumed only in the final chapter when Dombey has reconciled with his daughter and been welcomed into the family circle, which is also assured of extending into the next generation due to the birth of Florence and Walter's son. The wine therefore symbolizes the importance of keeping hope alive even through long periods of trouble and uncertainty: Sol's faith in Walter's success eventually comes true, despite all of the many obstacles, and Florence's hope that she and her father will someday share a loving relationship likewise comes to fruition because she remains faithful to it.

Edith's Diamonds (Symbol)

Edith's diamonds symbolize her marriage to Mr. Dombey. They are very expensive, reflecting the wealth she is able to access through this marriage, and are very beautiful, symbolizing the apparently well-matched couple as they might appear to an outside glance. However, just as the diamonds function as a kind of adornment, Dombey only wants Edith because of the status and admiration a beautiful wife will bring him, seeing her as a kind of accessory and being disappointed when she has her own views and opinions. As the relationship deteriorates, Edith comes to see the diamonds as chains binding her to an unhappy marriage which she increasingly regrets. In her final argument with Dombey, shortly before she runs away with Carker, Edith rips off the diamonds and flings them on the floor. This shows that she considers her marriage to be at an end and no longer cares about trying to preserve it. The violence of the gesture also foreshadows the radical and scandalous step of tricking the world into believing that she is having an affair.

Mrs Skewton's Rose-Colored Curtains (Symbol)

From the moment she is introduced, it is clear that Mrs. Skewton is very vain and cares a great deal about her appearance and cultivating the impression of youth. While this preoccupation might seem silly and harmless, it is clear that these priorities have had a toxic effect on Edith's upbringing since she was taught to value her own beauty as a commodity to sell to the highest bidder. When Mrs. Skewton suffers a stroke, she frantically tries to communicate her desire for rose-colored curtains to be hung in her room for when the doctor visits. Similarly to turning a light to a dimmer switch, the curtains will soften harsh daylight and create a flattering light for her to be seen in. This request symbolizes Mrs. Skewton's misguided priorities and how, even as she approaches death, she does not achieve wisdom but rather continues to value fleeting and artificial external qualities.