#BookReview : Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend is the last novel completed by Charles Dickens. It first appeared in a serialized form consisting of 19 monthly installments appearing during the years 1864–65. It has an intricate plot involving several different sets of characters. Like Dickens’ other novels, Our Mutual Friend too throws light on several dark aspects of the society. But on the whole, it centers around the theme of Money. As Bella Wilfer, its heroine says, “money, money, money, and what money can make of life.” The book shows how money does not just spread glimmer of splendour. It can raise some very dark shadows too.

I recently finished reading this delightful novel. And here’s what I think of it:

Our mutual friend cover

Our Mutual Friend Review

Plot:

The plot of the book reminded me of Dickens’ earlier novel titled Bleak House. Both books have a very intricate plot featuring different sets of characters. Like Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend too starts by introducing us to all these characters. It took me several chapters before I could remember who was who. There is such a crowd of characters that it is tough to remember their names till you have met them several times and are well into their stories. For several chapters, I wasn’t even sure who was going to be the hero and heroine! However, once you are past this initial hurdle, the book becomes quite engrossing.

Charles Dickens has used a very interesting technique to maintain the suspense in the book. He keeps shifting the story from one set of characters to the other, exactly when their stories reach some crucial and critical point. One by one, the stories of different people are brought to critical points, and then left hanging in suspense. But in the end, all these different threads are pulled together to form one brilliant, delicious whole.

No one is useless in this world quote

Our Mutual Friend Characters:

As I’ve already mentioned, the book has a plethora of characters. And till several chapters, it isn’t even clear which of them are more important than the others. This makes the first few chapters of the novel rather confusing.  Once, I was baffled by a character name that had appeared in the book after a long time. I searched through the ebook to know where I had met him before, only to realize that the name was a fake identity adopted by the hero!

(If you ever face similar confusion, this Wikipedia page can help).

Anyway, not all the characters of the book would appear realistic, but they do reflect the realities. The author deliberately seems to have made some characters like caricatures to mock some facet of the society. Realistic or not, major or minor, all the characters are described vividly and come alive on the pages of the book. And even the most somber of these characters is described in a way, or given such moments or speech, that will make you chuckle and smile.

Imagery:

Charles Dickens has made a brilliant use of imagery. He does not just describe a scene as a setting. He uses imagery to reflect his characters, to heighten the suspense, to make the reader fearful of an impending doom, and much more. Long before an event takes place, author’s imagery prepares us for it, like in this scene of one boat stealthily following the other:

Within Mr Riderhood’s knowledge all daggers were as one. Even to Bradley Headstone, there was but one subject living in the world for every sharp destructive instrument that summer evening. So, Riderhood looking after him as he went, and he with his furtive hand laid upon the dagger as he passed it, and his eyes upon the boat, were much upon a par. The boat went on, under the arching trees, and over their tranquil shadows in the water. The bargeman (Bradley Headstone) skulking on the opposite bank of the stream, went on after it. Sparkles of light showed Riderhood when and where the rower dipped his blades, until, even as he stood idly watching, the sun went down and the landscape was dyed red. And then the red had the appearance of fading out of it and mounting up to Heaven, as we say that blood, guiltily shed, does.

One of the most prominent image in the book is the depiction of dark, murky river. In fact, the book starts with this image, at once pulling the reader into a sense of suspense, mystery, and evil.

Our Mutual Friend opening scene
In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in. The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognizable as his daughter. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waistband, kept an eager look out…. Half savage as the man showed, with no covering on his matted head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow and the shoulder, with the loose knot of a looser kerchief lying low on his bare breast in a wilderness of beard and whisker, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made out of the mud that begrimed his boat, still there was a business-like usage in his steady gaze. So with every lithe action of the girl, with every turn of her wrist, perhaps most of all with her look of dread or horror; they were things of usage.

As the book proceeds, again and again we find the characters in the dark, murky waters. Some manage to come ashore, some swim too far into the dark mire and drown.

Deception:

Deception plays a major part in the novel. Many characters in the book either deceive others, or themselves. Many characters pretend to be what they are not, not always with an intention of doing wrong. For example, a young man gives up his inheritance to an elderly couple and works for them as a secretary, keeping his identity secret because he loves them. A poor and crippled young girls pretends to herself that her drunkard father is her bad child, and takes care of him as such. A simple, honest, generous man pretends to be a miser to teach a young woman the dangers of money. Of course, there are some villains too who pretend to do evil. There is a respectable school master who is really one of the darkest characters in the entire novel. There is a ‘literary man’ who pretends to be servile but plots the ruin of his own benefactor.

In short, just like in life, everyone wears a mask.

Love is a wonderful teache quote

Romance:

I haven’t yet read all the novels of Charles Dickens. But among the ones that I’ve read, Our Mutual Friend appears to me to be most the sweetly romantic book. There are two main romantic pairs in the novel. Their love is endearing, and their speech full of sweet endearments for each other. Just sample these:

John and Bella:

‘Yes there is! Look here!’ Sooth to say, Mr Rokesmith not only passed the window, but came into the counting-house. And not only came into the countinghouse, but, finding himself alone there with Bella and her father, rushed at Bella and caught her in his arms, with the rapturous words ‘My dear, dear girl; my gallant, generous, disinterested, courageous, noble girl!’ And not only that even, (which one might have thought astonishment enough for one dose), but Bella, after hanging her head for a moment, lifted it up and laid it on his breast, as if that were her head’s chosen and lasting resting-place! ‘I knew you would come to him, and I followed you,’ said Rokesmith. ‘My love, my life! You ARE mine?’

To which Bella responded, ‘Yes, I AM yours if you think me worth taking!’ And after that, seemed to shrink to next to nothing in the clasp of his arms, partly because it was such a strong one on his part, and partly because there was such a yielding to it on hers. 

Eugene and Lizzie:

 ‘O Mr Wrayburn,’ she answered, suddenly breaking into tears, ‘is the cruelty on my side! O Mr Wrayburn, Mr Wrayburn, is there no cruelty in your being here to-night!’

‘In the name of all that’s good — and that is not conjuring you in my own name, for Heaven knows I am not good’— said Eugene, ‘don’t be distressed!’

‘What else can I be, when I know the distance and the difference between us? What else can I be, when to tell me why you came here, is to put me to shame!’ said Lizzie, covering her face.

He looked at her with a real sentiment of remorseful tenderness and pity. It was not strong enough to impell him to sacrifice himself and spare her, but it was a strong emotion. ‘Lizzie! I never thought before, that there was a woman in the world who could affect me so much by saying so little. But don’t be hard in your construction of me. You don’t know what my state of mind towards you is. You don’t know how you haunt me and bewilder me. You don’t know how the cursed carelessness that is over-officious in helping me at every other turning of my life, WON’T help me here. You have struck it dead, I think, and I sometimes almost wish you had struck me dead along with it.’

She had not been prepared for such passionate expressions, and they awakened some natural sparks of feminine pride and joy in her breast. To consider, wrong as he was, that he could care so much for her, and that she had the power to move him so! ‘It grieves you to see me distressed, Mr Wrayburn; it grieves me to see you distressed. I don’t reproach you. Indeed I don’t reproach you.’

Very satisfying end:

Out of all the Charles Dickens’ novels that I’ve read, Our Mutual Friend has the most satisfying end. Its beginning is a bit baffling due to the crowd of characters, but the tightly paced, intricate plot in the middle leads swiftly to a happy and very satisfying end. When the book finishes, there is no shade of lingering sorrow or loss. Everyone the reader wants to see happy, is made happy. Everyone the reader wants to see punished, is punished. All the love stories reach a happy conclusion.

Previously, I reviewed the great classic Wuthering Heights. That book made me feel as if I was caught in a storm. Our Mutual Friend has its dark and intense moments too, but it is not stormy. Rather, it felt as if I was in a neighbourhood full of interesting people. A place where not everything is fine, but there is an assurance that all will be right in the end, and every person will get what he or she deserves.

If you think you have the patience to wade through the confusion of first few chapters, do give this book a chance. (Find it here on Amazon)

Books by Jyoti Arora
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