By Chet Yarbrough
Dombey and Son
By Charles Dickens
Narrated by John Richmond
Charles Dickens’ wrote many works picturing life during the industrial revolution. His books motivated more than writers to write. They are chronicles of social change.
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstory (1828-1910)
Tolstoy, a master of social insight, said that Dickens’ literature was a source of motivation for him.
Dickens describes many of the negative consequences of the industrial revolution; particularly, child labor abuse and family-value deterioration. Dickens becomes a source of information for societal reform. His reflection on business profitability at any human cost tests the world.
The 21st century’s Covid19 pandemic is today’s test. Every leader in the world struggles with opening their economy at the right time, in the right way, to avoid a return to rising death rates.
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“Dombey and Son” is a lesser known work of Dickens that pleases the senses and gladdens the heart. For anyone who has children, “Dombey and Son” teaches parenthood and touches on errors of parental commission and omission.
The consequence of hubris and greed in “Dombey and Son” are well told in this story of father/husband arrogance, and business manager misdeeds.
Like a Shakespearean play, Dickens writes about the difficulty of life with a dénouement of “Alls Well That Ends Well”. Dickens infers human cost must be weighed in determining value of any end. Human cost is the sine qua non of government leader’s decision on returning to economic prosperity after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The industrial revolution is in full swing in the 1800s with children working long hours for low wages.
In the mid 1800s, a patriarch and successful businessman, Paul Dombey, marries. A daughter is born to a father who pines for a son. Paul Dombey plans to call his growing company “Dombey and Son”. Fate chooses to provide a son but the boy loses his mother in child birth. The boy is sickly and destined to live a short life that never fulfills the desire of his father for a son to inherit the family business.
Paul Dombey only grieves for his son. He alienates and ignores his daughter, and marries again for appearance and convenience. Paul Dombey lacks empathy or understanding of others or himself.
Dombey’s loss of a son and his hubris get in the way of any human compassion or love for others. He is abandoned by his new wife. He accuses his daughter of aiding the abandonment. Dombey strikes his daughter and she runs away. Through the connivance of his business manager, Dombey’s business is bankrupted. Dombey spirals into a pit of despair and self loathing.
The beauty of Dickens’ writing is in his character development. His skill is exhibited in multiple story lines that weave together to change the course of a story. Dickens juxtaposes pitiable despair with great joy.
When his daughter flees she begins a new life, presaged by an earlier encounter with an apprentice. The apprentice, after exile and ship wreck, becomes her husband.
The daughter, though neglected by her father, loves him deeply. She attempts to reconcile Paul Dombey with his second wife. Because of his second wife’s childhood miseries reconciliation is not possible, but Dickens suggests forgiveness is in Dombey’s future.
The relationship between father and daughter begins to heal. Paul Dombey begins to understand himself; i.e. he recognizes his failure as a father and husband and begins to rebuild his life through his grandchildren.
The fracture of family values caused by yesterday’s industrialization is depicted in Dickens writing and well documented by sociologists and historians.
Looking back, after economic recovery from today’s pandemic, how will family values be recorded by tomorrow’s sociologists and historians?
Fracturing of family values is exacerbated by today’s technological revolution. Adding a pandemic to technological change further reduces personal contact.
Dickens’ stories dramatize parental psychological abuse; an abuse that resonates with modern society. Much of the abuse is unintentionally caused by the demands of modernization, and human isolation.
The widening gap between rich and poor is harmful. The wealth gap reinforces human alienation. Less time is used to raise children because both parents work or are distracted by self-interest. Ironically, Covid-19 demands family re-connection, and empathy for others.
On one hand, Covid-19 compels families to reassess family values. On the other, 21st century technology continues to reduce physical contact. Some say the economy is in free fall today, but most have plans for tomorrow. It seems every good and bad historical event has unintended consequence. Hope is all that remains in Pandora’s box.