July 29, 2010

Review: "Our Mutual Friend" By Charles Dickens

I recently realized that I have, on several occasions,  referred to the "greatness," in my opinion, of Charles Dickens's last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, but that I have never explained why I believe this to be so.  Therefore, without further ado, my review of what I consider to be Dickens's magnum opus.

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.


  1. I am so totally convinced by your review that I will go to my overcrowded bookshelf, take down Our Mutual Friend, and maybe put it ahead of my beloved Trollope. I love an impassioned review...

  2. I should very much like to hear from you after you've finished the novel. I noticed that you are a teacher. Perhaps you teach an age appropriate to do a quarter/semester with OMF. A whole heck of a lot to talk about here. Thank you for the visit and lovely comment! Cheers! Chris

  3. Just discovered your blog through Dead White Guys Lit, and had to comment since I'm a little under 100 pages from the end of my reread of OMF. It's just as good the second time around, even if some of the mystery was... no longer a mystery. It's such a beautiful story with such memorable characters. Definitely in my top ten.

    The first time I read it was before studying abroad in London. I think I was in the minority by finishing it, simply because many of my classmates didn't leave themselves enough time, but I always felt they missed out. It's so darn good. And I can't believe I never knew there was a mini-series. Must.track.down.

    In short, it's clear I like your taste, so I'll be back to visit. :)

  4. I was also convinced by this post to give Our Mutual Friend a chance. I downloaded it via iBooks and am a couple chapters in. I'll post about it on my blog when I'm done.

    I really enjoyed paging through your blog, and I particularly admire your efforts on Thomas Hardy. I went through my own 'Hardy phase' and like to think I am a better man for it. Jude the Obscure & Return of the Native were my favorites. Then, when I saw the Hallmark Movie production of The Return of the Native - with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachia - the story was forever burned into my brain...


  5. Okay, I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never fully read a Dickens novel. I've justified it by declaring I just haven't found the right one to start with, but I think that this review may have changed that. Great review!