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Our Mutual Friend (Everyman's Library) Paperback – September 1, 2000
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Our Mutual Friend was the last novel Charles Dickens completed and is, arguably, his darkest and most complex. The basic plot is vintage Dickens: an inheritance up for grabs, a murder, a rocky romance or two, plenty of skullduggery, and a host of unforgettable secondary characters. But in this final outing the author's heroes are more flawed, his villains more sympathetic, and the story as a whole more harrowing and less sentimental. The mood is set in the opening scene in which a riverman, Gaffer Hexam, and his daughter Lizzie troll the Thames searching for drowned men whose pockets Gaffer will rifle before turning the body over to the authorities. On this particular night Gaffer finds a corpse that is later identified as that of John Harmon, who was returning from abroad to claim a large fortune when he was apparently murdered and thrown into the river.
Harmon's death is the catalyst for everything else that happens in the novel. It seems the fortune was left to the young man on the condition that he marry a girl he'd never met, Bella Wilfer. His death, however, brings a new heir onto the scene, Nicodemus Boffin, the kind-hearted but low-born assistant to Harmon's father. Boffin and his wife adopt young Bella, who is determined to marry money, and also hire a mysterious young secretary, John Rokesmith, who takes an uncommon interest in their ward. Not content with just one plot, Dickens throws in a secondary love story featuring the riverman's daughter, Lizzie Hexam; a dissolute young upper-class lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn; and his rival, the headmaster Bradley Headstone. Dark as the novel is, Dickens is careful to leaven it with secondary characters who are as funny as they are menacing--blackmailing Silas Wegg and his accomplice Mr. Venus, the avaricious Lammles, and self-centered Charlie Hexam. Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens's most satisfying novels, and a fitting denouement to his prolific career. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From School Library Journal
Grade 7 Up-With a cast of characters that covers the whole spectrum of London life, Dickens weaves a tapestry of tales that are by turn funny, moving and tragic.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
It's also clearly not Dickens' sunniest work. At the time of its release already, people spoke nostalgically about the more gentle nature of _David Copperfield_ or _Oliver Twist_ . While the farce that constitutes such an important element in Dickens' works is present, it's tainted with a note of bitterness that conveys a feeling of pervasive sadness throughout this great novel.
Dickens was working on this book when he was caught in the Staplehurst rail disaster and narrowly escaped death when his car was the only one of the first-class cars not to plunge from a bridge into a river bed. He was one of the people who climbed down the side to do what he could for the dead and dying. Dickens himself mentions the accident in his afterword, and at the risk of reading too much into the incident, it's hard not to read this book from the perspective of an aging man who narrowly avoids death himself. The nature of death, and the idea of escaping it by a hand's length, is one of the themes that comes back over and over again in _Our Mutual Friend_
The plot hinges around a disputed inheritance and mistaken identity, with a meditation about love as societal coin. The characterizations and situations in this novel are among his best-- particularly worth mentioning are Rogue Riderhood and his resurrection, the insane love of Bradley Headstone, the crippled doll-maker Jenny Wren, and the loyal Mr. Sloppy.
I'm not sure that I can call this my favorite Dickens, _Little Dorrit_ still has a strong claim on that position, but it's certainly one of the strongest reading experiences that I've had in a while.
"Our Mutual Friend" begins with Lizzie and her father Gaffer Hexam patrolling the river in the dark of night. Pulling a body out of the river for the potential reward money, the novel jumps right into the action with a bang. The body is presumed to be that of young John Harmon, just returned from South Africa to claim a huge inheritance from his recently deceased, hateful and miserly father. The only heir dead, the elder Harmon's loyal employees, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin stand next in the will to inherit everything. This causes a stir in Society, where Mortimer Lightwood, the legal executor of the will, and his friend Eugene Wrayburn are called in to view the body and question Gaffer Hexam. This causes two others to be drawn into the plot - Lizzie Hexam, an uneducated, but prescient young woman, who immediately catches Wrayburn's eye, and Miss Bella Wilfer, a sprightly young woman whose marriage to young John Harmon was the sole condition for that gentleman to come into his inheritance prevented by his untimely death. The novel tries over the next 700 pages to work out the personal ramifications of the murder, the will, and the fates of these two young women.
So many of Dickens's novels deal with the lives and educations (scholastically, socially, or both) of young people, and "Our Mutual Friend" is no different. Gaffer Hexam, the boatman, is opposed to book-learning, and refuses to allow either Lizzie or his younger son Charley, to learn even to read. Lizzie arranges, though, for Charley to remove himself from the cycle of riverside drudgery by facilitating his escape to a school, where he excels under the tutelage of one of Dickens's most intense characters, Bradley Headstone. Elsewhere, the Boffins, now in a state of financial ease, seek to improve their cultural understandings, hiring a literary man "with a wooden leg," the well-versed Silas Wegg, and even buy the mansion that Wegg works in front of. Other characters, like the mercenary Bella Wilfer, the absolutely indolent Wrayburn, and the articulator of bones, Mr. Venus, all seem to be in sore need of social and moral educations.
Just to kind of continue this theme, one may be particularly interested in the kinds of literary funds that Dickens draws on in "Our Mutual Friend": His debt to 18th century literature is heavy indeed, with the works of the poet James Thomson and the historian Edward Gibbon coursing through the novel like the very Thames itself, laying the groundwork for literary and historical commentary on the nature of Empire and particularly British Imperial interests, and how those interests reach from the international into the lives of individuals. Another important predecessor in this line is the infamous Mr. Podsnap, a very dark descendant of Laurence Sterne's Corporal Trim from "Tristram Shandy." Trim's famous flourish, in Podsnap's hands acquires the power to annihilate entire nations. Dickens also reveals heavy debts to fairy tales and nursery rhymes that continue and complicate the novel's emphasis on children's educations, how they are managed, and the impact that they can have on the world as it will become.
If you aren't interested in reading "Our Mutual Friend" yet, you should be! Clearly, my interests lay in the national and educational strains of the novel, but there's obviously so much more. Now, my knowledge of Dickens may be limited to the five or six novels I've read so far, but you will be hard pressed anywhere in Dickens, (or anywhere else for that matter), to find a more frenetic villain than Mr. Bradley Headstone - to see him in action alone makes this novel worth reading. He ranks right up there with "David Copperfield"s Uriah Heep in terms of Dickens's most insistently horrifying creations. Ok. Enough from me, go, read "Our Mutual Friend." What are you waiting for! Go, now!