July 29, 2010
Review: "Our Mutual Friend" By Charles Dickens
In completing Our Mutual Friend, I believe that I may well have read one of the finest books written in the English language. One could perhaps argue that Austen's prose in her novel Emma is more perfect; but Dickens's plotting and character-development in Our Mutual Friend is bordering on exquisite. Our Mutual Friend rivals Tolstoy’s War and Peace in breadth, scope, scale, and number of characters; but while War and Peace proceeds forward majestically in a somewhat linear fashion; Our Mutual Friend, like Dickens's “Circumlocution Office” (Little Dorrit) proceeds circuitously, bobbing and weaving, exposing its mysteries and delights, one-by-one, like peeling back the layers of an onion.
In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens plumbs the deep and dark depths of humanity’s soul with the creation and actions of some of fiction’s most horrifying villains. At the same time Dickens balances the novel’s darkness and depravity as we meet, and fall in love with, some of the kindest, noblest, and most good-natured saints and souls that ever graced the pages of any his novels. One cannot but be completely taken with little Jenny Wren (“my back is bad, and my legs are queer”), and the beautiful Bella Wilfur and Lizzie Hexam, and kindly Betty Higdon. One must admire and respect the steadfastness and resolute nature of John Rokesmith, Eugene Wrayburn, and Mortimer Lightwood. One cannot help but laugh and smile at the comical goodness of Our Mutual Friend’s 'saints': the Boffins, Mr. Twemlow, “Rumty” Wilfur, and Mr. Riah. Then there are the multitude in the gray ambiguity between light and dark; the Veneerings, and those of “Podsnappery” like the Lammles. But it is the grotesque evil of the novel’s villains that makes the good characters shine so bright. There’s “Weggery”, an awful tasting dose of “Fascination” Fledgeby, all horrifyingly blended with “Rogue” Riderhood and the Dark Prince himself – Bradley Headstone.
From Dickens's pen, Our Mutual Friend falls forth onto the printed pages like the brush strokes on the canvas of the grandest painting of an old master. Our Mutual Friend depicts the freshness and rawness of human emotions in all of its attendant forms, including: joy and happiness, pain and sorrow, anger and hatred, and love and tenderness. Like looking too closely at a painting of Hieronymous Bosch, we have an almost macabre fascination as we follow the novel’s characters through life’s stages – life, death, rebirth, and even resurrection. Primary roles and responsibilities are switched too; with children 'raising' parents, the disadvantaged aiding the advantaged, and the poor enriching the well-off.
In Our Mutual Friend things are never as they appear or ought to be. On some levels, Our Mutual Friend is the quintessential detective novel or mystery; but it is really more a series of mysteries nested inside a larger mystery. The reader must pay close attention to the seemingly slightest detail, for all does truly come together in the march to the grand, and most satisfying, conclusion. Through it all, however, there is one overarching and unifying theme, one thread that connects all–The River Thames. The Thames is the source of life, of death, of rebirth, and even resurrection; it infects and purifies; it is the source of depravity, horror, hope, and even prosperity. The river is always there, relentlessly rushing onward, carrying the flotsam and jetsam, and the hopes and desires, of the novel’s characters, and even those of the reader. All I can say, upon turning the last page with a 'sigh', is that this is a novel for the ages; and one that I shall visit and revisit; setting forth again in my little boat upon the river of Our Mutual Friend.
I awarded this five of five stars, and highly recommend it. This novel has become a personal favorite of mine, and is right up there with Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Also, if you enjoy the period drama film adaptations prepared by the BBC, go find yourself the six-hour miniseries done in 1998. It is very well done! The photograph I've included is of some of the cast members from this adaptation.