Dombey and Son

Dombey and Son Themes


Jealousy is shown throughout the novel to be a deeply destructive force. Mr. Dombey is so jealous and controlling of his beloved son that it poisons Dombey’s relationships with other people. Rather than creating community and empathy by realizing that other people also love little Paul and that he can share this bond with them, he is ferociously resentful of anyone who shows affection towards Paul. This is most destructive in terms of his relationship with Florence, but he feels similar resentment towards other figures, such as when Paul asks to see Richards while he is dying, or even when he runs into Mr. Toodle after Paul's death, and is angry to see the other man displaying mourning in honor of Paul. Dombey's jealousy might be linked to his fixation on business, profit, and money. In financial terms, resources are finite, and one individual having more usually means that another individual will have less. Dombey does not realize that emotions such as love do not work the same way. The novel also shows characters who are able to resist jealousy, and who end up happy as a result. Florence never resents or envies her brother, even though he is so clearly preferred by their father. Later in the novel, when Toots realizes that Florence does not love him in a romantic sense and is instead attracted to Walter, he accepts this relationship and shows great respect towards it, even though he also grieves for himself. The novel suggests that jealousy only leads to isolation and bitterness.


Money is a key theme in the novel; it is a huge priority for Dombey, not so much because he loves expensive things, but because he believes that money is an important source of power and social position. While Dombey does indeed hold power because of his wealth, the novel also suggests that he overestimates its true value. In a key scene (see "Quotes and Analysis" section), young Paul asks what money can do, signaling his naïve wisdom in recognizing that coins, without the social value afforded to them, are simply pieces of metal. Dombey assures him that money can do everything. However, Dombey's wealth cannot protect him from tragedy, such as Paul's death. In other cases, his wealth and fixation on maintaining his wealth actually causes him trauma, such as the elopement of Edith and Carker. By the end of the novel, Dombey has lost all of his money. Importantly, this is not simply because of Carker's betrayal. Although Carker's actions damaged the firm, if Dombey had been willing to adapt and conduct business on a more modest scale, the business would have remained stable. His greed and pride are his ultimate downfall. And yet, it is only when his money is gone that Dombey is humbled and can find love in his heart for Florence. The novel reinforces throughout that the people who are most disinterested in wealth end up happy, and that the true value of money exists in opportunities to display kindness and compassion. Dombey ultimately ends up being supported by anonymous payments from John and Harriet Carker, even though he fired John Carker from his job.


In the Victorian era, family was often idealized as a source of love and protection from the challenges of the public world. Dombey and Son challenges this viewpoint by suggesting that biological families can be destructive and damaging, while individuals who may not be related by blood can choose to form loving and supportive relationships. Dombey fails to provide any real loving guidance to either of his children: he values Paul because of his own egotistical hopes and projections, and he neglects Florence entirely. Other biological parents, such as Mrs. Skewton and Mrs. Brown, see their daughters as pawns that they can manipulate in hopes of gaining wealth. The parents and parental figures who do have loving relationships with their children, such as Mr. and Mrs. Toodle and Uncle Sol, love their children unconditionally. There is a number of cases of a kind of adoption, where an individual is welcomed into an existing family dynamic, such as when Miss Tox begins to visit the Toodle family, when Toots begins his friendship with Captain Cuttle, or when Florence takes refuge with Captain Cuttle. These show, in contrast with Dombey's fixation on bloodlines and inheritance, that love and compassion are the biggest factors in the formation of families. Strikingly, at Walter and Florence's wedding, the only person present to whom the couple is related by blood is Uncle Sol. Everyone else in the loving community gathered around them has become part of their extended family because they recognize the good qualities of the couple. At the same time, however, the novel acknowledges the deep bonds of family: Florence never stops hoping to earn the love of her father. This refusal to completely discredit the importance of the family structure has been noticed by scholars like John Glavin, who writes, "Though it despises Dombey’s household, the novel, like Florence, cannot renounce it. Indeed, the novel’s main drive works finally to reanimate the household, with Florence the agent of its renewal" (822).


In the Victorian era, prostitution was heavily stigmatized as it contradicted ideals of female chastity and virtue. However, those same ideals led some reformers and activists to argue that women would only engage in prostitution due to desperate economic situations and therefore should be treated with pity, and assisted if possible. Dickens was known to express compassion for female characters driven into prostitution in several of his novels. Alice Marwood, who engages first in an illicit sexual relationship with Carker, and then pursues prostitution and theft as a way of keeping herself alive, is presented with some sympathy due to the suggestion that her mother manipulated her into this lifestyle. Dickens also makes the bold choice to compare actual prostitution to the much more widely accepted practice of women marrying wealthy men with the aim of securing financial stability. Edith, particularly in the self-loathing and disgust she displays in regards to herself and her desire to avoid "contaminating" Florence, suggests that she sees herself as akin to a prostitute due to selling herself via marriage. She is likewise pushed towards this behavior by a greedy mother hoping to capitalize on her daughter's beauty.

Modernity and Technology

In many of his novels, Dickens is interested in how new forms of technology and industrialization were changing Victorian society. Uncle Sol, for example, realizes that his shop is no longer profitable because the navigation instruments he sells are becoming old-fashioned, and he is anxious for Walter to establish a career that will be more sustainable in his future. Technological change is signaled even more explicitly with the construction of the railroad. When Dickens describes how neighborhoods are being changed as more railroad tracks are installed, the expansion of the railway is presented in fairly negative terms. At the very least, it is a radical force: when Susan Nipper is frantically trying to find Richards to bring her to Paul's deathbed, she finds that the neighborhood where the Toodles’ home was located has effectively vanished due to the reconfiguration demanded by the construction of the railroad. While Carker's death may offer a just punishment for a villainous figure, the train that strikes and kills him is also presented in sinister, almost demonic terms. All of these examples suggest that forces of innovation and technological change are represented with ambivalence in the novel.


Because the novel follows the childhoods of Florence and Paul, it explores the theme of their education. As is often the case in novels by Dickens, he turns a sharp and satirical eye towards the way children are treated. While Doctor Blimber is ultimately shown to be kind-hearted and well-intentioned, and while Paul and Florence form some valuable friendships at school, the method of education clearly has little real benefit to the boys in the school, and tends to be austere and cold. It is even possible that the rigorous study damages Paul's frail health, since his time at the school comes immediately before his death. Similarly, Rob Toodle’s experience at the Charitable Grinder School does not provide him with any new opportunities or advancement; it just makes him a target of bullying. Even less formal kinds of education that don't take place in schools are shown to have potentially poisonous effects on young minds. Both Alice Marwood and Edith blame their mothers for corrupting them as young girls, teaching them to be manipulative and seductive, and they aspire to seek the protection of wealthy men. Through all of these examples, Dickens highlights how adults often misunderstand and manipulate children.


Throughout the novel, there are examples of loyalty both being maintained and betrayed. While Dombey assumes that Carker will be loyal to him because of his displays of subservience and flattery, he turns out to be totally incorrect. Other figures, such as Bagstock and even Dombey's own sister, Mrs. Chick, also prove disloyal once Dombey's fortunes change. Characters whose loyalty seems rooted in respect for wealth or position eventually reveal themselves to be fickle. On the other hand, those who display disinterested affection are capable of fierce loyalty, even if mistreated. Despite his cruel treatment of her, Florence's love for her father never wavers. Miss Tox is also frequently ignored and eventually cut off from contact with the Dombey family, but she remains devoted, even after Mr. Dombey loses everything. In the end, these loyal figures form supportive relationships with Dombey in his later years.