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Literature / Dombey and Son

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Dombey and Son is a novel by Charles Dickens.

The story begins with Paul Dombey, a wealthy middle-aged businessman, exulting over the birth of his newborn son. Wrapped up in his ambitious plans for this future heir to the family business, he nearly fails to notice that the baby's mother is dying, with only their daughter Florence, to comfort her. By the time he does notice, it's too late, and Florence - seven years old and already a better human being than her father will ever be - begins to make him uncomfortable, since he misreads her shyness as fear and disgust with his emotionally stunted condition. As Paul Jr. grows into a frail, eccentric child who bonds more closely with his older sister and their lower-class nurse than with his father, Mr. Dombey enters into a strange one-sided competition with Florence over Paul's love, and later, the attention of his new wife Edith. The more he "loses", at least in his own view, the more twisted he becomes. Only after losing everything he valued will he begin to understand that all he really needed has been right there all along.


Tropes in this novel:

  • Accidental Misnaming: The mentally challenged Toots calls Captain Cuttle "Captain Gills" and Walter Gay "Lieutenant Walters". Mrs. Skewton confuses the names of her sons-in-law.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Captain Cuttle has a rich collection of them for Florence: "Heart's Delight", "Lady-lass", "Beauty", "Diamond" etc.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Mr. Toots and Walter both make one to Florence. The former gets a Better as Friends speech, the latter a joyful acceptance.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Paul to Mr. Dombey; it continues to haunt him throughout the book.
    "Papa, what is money?"
  • Babies Ever After: Florence and Walter's children, including a Dead Guy Junior named Paul.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: A variation. Dr. Blimber and his family-slash-colleagues are neither abusive nor unkind; the food and lodging are decent, and the students treat each other with respect. However, the academic pressure is so intense that it prevents the boys from taking any joy in learning, and even leads to mental breakdowns such as that of Toots. Even Paul Jr.'s terminal illness is implied to be partly due to being overworked at the Blimbers' school.
    • The Charitable Grinders' school plays this straight.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Florence.
  • Break the Haughty: Mr. Dombey and Edith, mostly at each other's expense. He humiliates her by passing his criticisms through his employee, James Carker; she humiliates him by eloping with said employee, who turns out to have been sabotaging the firm.
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  • Butt-Monkey: Major Bagstock's much abused manservant, whose dark skin and indeterminate origin made him one of the Acceptable Targets of the era.
  • The Captain: Captain Cuttle.
  • Cain and Abel: The Carker brothers.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Florence's friend Walter Gay, a clerk at Dombey and Son's, has an innocent crush on her for which he is teased by his relatives.
  • Cooldown Hug: Mrs. Mac Stinger, Captain Cuttle's landlady, is furious at him for moving out of her house without notice. Having tracked him down, she is interrupted in mid-tirade by a hug from his friend Captain Bunsby, which makes her burst into tears, showing just how worried she has been over her tenant's unexplaned disappearance.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: James Carker "the Manager". John Carker "the Junior", his brother, used to be one until he was caught; now he is The Atoner.
  • Cram School: Dr. Blimber's school is so hard, the Head Boy (Toots) turns feebleminded from too much cramming. It's implied the academic overwork may have sent Paul Dombey to an early grave, but it's possible it was just natural causes.
  • The Dandy: Mr. Toots praises his tailors, Burgess & Co, at every opportunity.
  • Death by Childbirth: The first Mrs. Dombey.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: James Carker holds the real power in the firm.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: In-universe. At Edith's and Mr. Dombey's wedding reception, her cousin Feenix tells a joke about a "bargain" of a marriage between a rich man and a beautiful emotionless woman. Cue the awkward silence.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Dombeys.
  • Gold Digger: Edith was trained by her mother to become one from an early age. She actually hates it, but doesn't know any other way of living, especially since they are poor gentlewomen unused to serious work. She makes it plain from the start that Mr. Dombey's house and money is all she is after, but unfortunately, that's not the way he sees it.
  • Empathy Pet: Florence's dog Diogenes acts extra goofy when she needs cheering up, growls at anyone she dislikes, and lies down next to her whenever she needs comforting.
  • Happily Married: The Toodles; later also the Gays and the Tootses.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Walter Gay.
  • Henpecked Husband: Captain Cuttle is terrified of turning into this trope, although he's alredy henpecked enough as Mrs. Mac Stinger's lodger. Captain Bunsby ends up marrying her instead.
  • Heir Club for Men: Mr. Dombey has ignored Florence since her birth because she's not the male heir he wanted; what little time and affection he can spare goes exclusively to Paul.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Thanks to her Daddy Issues, Florence's self-respect is at zero. She even believes his neglect is her own fault.
  • Hilariously Abusive Childhood: Mrs. Mac Stinger's son. It's a Running Gag for her to spank him until he's blue in the face and carry him into the street to cool off his bottom on the pavement.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Alice.
  • Hypocritical Humor: "We should all be more natural!" exclaims Mrs. Skewton - slathered in makeup, dressed fifty years younger than she is, and languishing in a wheelchair when she's perfectly capable of walking.
  • I Don't Want to Ruin Our Friendship: Walter's reason for hesitating to tell Florence how he feels. He only admits because his uneasiness is making Florence worry that he no longer likes her.
  • I Have No Son!: James Carker disowned his brother John for the fraud he committed, and their sister Harriet for taking John's side. Mr. Dombey and Florence each refuse to hear the other mentioned after Florence's escape, though they do reconcile in the end.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: Mr. Dombey to Edith, as part of their highly conventional "courtship"; Florence to various older friends out of gratitude and respect.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Mr. Toots for Florence; Miss Tox for Mr. Dombey.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Edith's mother Mrs. Skewton.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: Captain Bunsby is prone to nautical versions of these, leaving Cuttle in awe.
  • Ill Girl: Paul is an Ill Boy.
  • Karmic Death: In backing away from a vengeful Mr. Dombey, James Carker trips onto the railway tracks and is crushed by an oncoming train.
  • Kick the Dog: Louisa's rejection of Miss Tox. Later Mr. Dombey's Armor-Piercing Slap of Florence on the night of Edith's elopement, which causes her to run away from home.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Rob Toodle is mercilessly bullied on the way home for his conspicuous Grinder's school uniform.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Mr. Dombey fumes privately over the fact that the working-class Toodles have four healthy sons while he only has sickly Paul.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Florence and Walter, at least according to her.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: A creepy old woman named Mrs. Brown steals Florence's clothes and almost chops off her beautiful long hair, but leaves it alone in memory of her lost daughter.
    • Later that daughter, Alice, a former prostitute and thief returning from exile in Australia, angrily refers to her own hair as being her downfall.
    • Paul is confused by Cornelia Blimber's short hair and wonders why she is "like a boy".
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Edith and Alice are illegitimate cousins.
  • Meaningful Name: As in all of Dickens' novels. We have Captain Cuttle (as in cuttlefish), Sol Gills, Walter Gay, Mrs. Skewton (who has a "skewed" perspective on everything), Susan Nipper and Mrs. Mac Stinger.
  • Meet Cute: Walter finds Florence crying in the street after being robbed, and takes her home.
  • Meganekko: Cornelia Blimber, although Paul finds the glasses more mysterious than cute.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Mrs. Skewton's admirer, the crude and boastful Major Bagstock.
  • Mona Lisa Smile: Edith's "twilight smile".
  • Morality Pet: Florence is one to Edith, as she is determined to prevent the little girl from losing her innocence as Edith herself has.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After Edith's elopement with Carker, a devastated Mr. Dombey loses control over his finances and lets the firm go bankrupt. He realizes that Florence is the only one who would have stayed by him, and that his own pride and hatred drove her away.
    • Alice, who tipped off Mr. Dombey to Carker's whereabouts due to an old grudge, regrets her actions and asks Harriet Carker to warn her brother.
  • Nephewism: Walter is raised by his uncle.
  • Old, Dark House: The Dombeys' house, at least until Edith has it renovated into a Big Fancy House.
  • Old Maid: Miss Tox, a kind but silly friend of Mr. Dombey's sister.
  • Panicky Expectant Father: Mr. Perch is constantly getting his wife into "an interesting condition" and fretting about her health to anyone who will listen. Mr. Toots is the same with Susan in the epilogue.
  • Parental Neglect: Mr. Dombey of both his children - Florence especially, but even Paul sees somewhat less of his father than he would like.
  • Parental Substitute: Polly Toodle, Paul's wet-nurse, for Paul and Florence; later Edith to Florence. Walter has his uncle Sol and Captain Cuttle.
  • Pride: Mr. Dombey's and Edith's fatal flaw, and a major theme in the novel.
  • Proper Lady: Florence again, mostly in an attempt to "earn" her father's love.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Florence, Edith and Alice.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Mr. Dombey and Mr. Carker send Walter to Barbados to get him away from Florence, as they consider his "common" background a bad influence on her.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Alice.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Walter is presumed dead at sea, but comes back toward the end of the novel.
  • Shadow Archetype: Mrs. Skewton and Edith have their heavily lampshaded counterparts in Mrs. Marwood (alias Good Mrs. Brown, in a shout-out to Fanny Hill) and her daughter Alice.
  • Shipper on Deck: Captain Cuttle and Sol Gills ship Walter with Florence. Mr. Dombey's sister Louisa tries to match him with her friend Miss Tox, but brutally rejects the plan when Mr. Dombey introduces the more "suitable" Edith. Mrs. Skewton and Major Bagstock emphatically ship Dombey/Edith.
  • Society Is to Blame: In one of his long Author Tracts, Dickens argues that you might as well expect "figs to grow from nettles" as virtuous people in a physically and spiritually polluted environment like the slums of Victorian London.
    • Specifically, an abusive and inept charity school is blamed for turning Rob Toodle into a juvenile delinquent.
  • Suicide as Comedy: A lovesick Mr. Toots' allusions to "making an end of himself" are treated as funny.
  • "Take That!" Kiss: One of these from Mr. Dombey on their wedding anniversary finally pushes Edith into leaving him.
  • Third-Person Person: Major Joseph Bagstock constantly refers to himself as "Josh", "old Joe", "Joey B." etc.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Paul.
  • Took a Level in Badass: It's Edith who finally gives James Carker the verbal beatdown he deserves - at knifepoint, no less.
  • Tsundere: Florence's hot-tempered but kind-hearted maid, Susan Nipper. Also Mrs. Mac Stinger, although her "dere" side only shows in one scene.
  • The Unfavorite: Florence, so much.
  • The Un-Smile: Mr. Carker is constantly described as "showing his teeth".
  • Upper-Class Twit: Toots and Feenix.
  • Weddings for Everyone: Florence and Walter, Harriet Carker and Mr. Morfin, Susan and Tooys, even Mrs. Mac Stinger and Captain Bunsby.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Susan to Mr. Dombey.
    "You don't know your own daughter, Sir, you don't know what you're doing, Sir, and I say to some and all - it's a sinful shame!"
  • Wicked Stepmother: Interestingly subverted with Edith Dombey, who is every bit as haughty as the trope suggests, but actually bonds with Florence at first sight. It is Edith's kindness to his daughter, combined with her cold indifference to him, which Mr. Dombey finds unbearable.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Paul, sometimes bordering on Creepy Child territory.
  • You're Cute When You're Angry: James Carker says this to Edith ("you handsome shrew ... handsomer so than any other woman in good humor") the first time they're alone together after their "elopement". Her response? A blistering "The Reason You Suck" Speech, the revelation that she only used him to get revenge on Mr. Dombey, and a knifepoint warning not to touch her. Smooth move, Carker.


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