In Charles Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend,” the exploration of Victorian society’s perception of money is evident. The characters Lizzie Hexam, Bella Wilfer, and Mrs. Boffin offer valuable insights into the interplay between money and social class in the 1960s.
The title of the Charles Dickens novel is ‘Our Mutual Friend’. The author, who was born in the early 1850s, wrote this novel in 1864. His family lived in poverty.
‘Our Mutual Friend’ depicts a wide array of characters, ranging from extremely impoverished individuals like Gaffer to newly affluent figures like the Veneerings. Additionally, the novel features characters spanning various age groups, including children, elderly men, and women. Moreover, there are characters like Mrs. Boffin and Bella Wilfer who fall into the lower middle class category, neither rich nor poor.
In Victorian society, there were significant class disparities with the wealthy enjoying great affluence, living in large homes and hiring servants. On the other hand, the impoverished struggled to make ends meet, resorting to begging for survival while lacking sufficient funds even for essential sustenance. Luxury was a distant concept for the destitute.
Money holds great significance in the novel as it serves as a dividing factor among the various classes and characters. It provides valuable insights into the Victorian era, revealing the actions and expenditures of its people. Moreover, it demonstrates the impact money had on the Victorians.
In the novel, the characters known as the Veneerings are depicted as exceedingly wealthy and extravagant, yet lacking in kindness. They would only assist others if it served their own interests. After the death of John Harman, his fortune was inherited by the Boffins, who, in contrast, were genuinely benevolent. As a result of their sympathy towards Bella Wilfer, who was originally intended to marry John Harman, they decided to adopt her due to her unfortunate circumstances and rightful claim to the inheritance.
London is the setting for this novel, which focuses on the river Thames.
Lizzie Hexam, along with her dad Gaffer and her brother Charlie, lived in a meager wooden hut while being in extreme poverty. Their means of livelihood relied on the river Thames, where Lizzie and Gaffer engaged in fishing for corpses and looting their belongings. Nevertheless, Lizzie felt remorseful and expressed her reluctance by saying, ‘I cannot bear it. I-I do not like it, father.’
Lizzie handles her lack of money well and supplements her income by crafting dolls clothes with a woman named Jenny. Lizzie demonstrates a strong moral compass and displays deep care, particularly for her brother’s future, as she desires a better life for him. As a result, she sacrifices her own resources and provisions to send him to school, highlighting her kindness and selflessness.
Despite not wanting people to pity her, Lizzie eventually agrees to Wrayburn’s offer to tutor her and Jenny, although she initially declines.
Jenny Wren, together with Lizzie, is a woman who creates dolls’ clothes; she is known for her kindness and sweetness.
Bradley Headstone serves as Lizzie’s brother Charlie tutor, and he develops romantic feelings for her. However, Lizzie does not feel the same way towards him, despite the potential for an increased social status through marriage. This highlights Lizzie’s independent nature, genuineness, and unwavering loyalty.
Lizzie and Gaffer share a deep bond as father and daughter. Despite their inability to express their love verbally, they demonstrate their affection through gestures. In the words of the author, “Lizzie took her right hand from the skull it held, and touched her lips with it, and for a moment held it out lovingly towards him”. This scene portrays their profound love for each other, communicated through non-verbal actions.
Bella Wilfer, the woman who was set to marry John Harman, was unable to do so after he supposedly drowned. As a result, she does not receive John Harman’s fortune as they were not officially married.
Bella is extremely eager to have money due to her background in a poorish and modest family. Coming from the lower middle class, she is captivated by the idea of acquiring wealth.
Bella is welcomed into the Boffins’ family because they have inherited the Harman fortune. The Boffins choose to adopt her to ensure that the rightful recipient of the fortune can enjoy the same lifestyle as they do.
Initially, Bella views the Boffins in a negative light, perceiving them as average. However, her perspective shifts over time and she develops an affection for them. In fact, Bella becomes so attached to the Boffins that she begins neglecting her own family. It is not until John Rokesmith confronts her and evokes guilt within her that Bella recognizes her error.
Bella declines Rokesmith’s proposal to marry her, stating that she insists on having money.
Despite her feelings of affection towards him, she believes that his financial struggles make him an inappropriate choice for a partner.
Mrs Boffin, an uneducated working-class woman, resides in a modest home. She is the spouse of Noddy Boffin, who was formerly employed by John Harman until his death. Harman had amassed a considerable fortune from his dust heaps. Upon his passing, Mr and Mrs Boffin inherited the entire wealth bequeathed by Harman.
Upon acquiring the fortune, they relocated to a mansion, purchased elegant and costly attire, and enlisted Mr. Wegg’s services to enhance their education. Mrs. Boffin consents to this decision as she perceives it necessary to learn to read and speak in the manner befitting a person of considerable wealth, in order to ascend the social hierarchy.
Despite her newfound wealth, Mrs Boffin continues to exude a warm persona. She remains kind-hearted and generous, adamant about sharing the Harman fortune with others to ensure they also benefit from her riches.
Initially, her attempt to adopt a blond-haired boy named Johnny, who is referred to as an angel, fails as he tragically passes away due to illness.
Later on, she shows compassion by welcoming a man named Sloppy into her life. Sloppy is an older boy who possesses limited intelligence, lacks proper education, and is physically unattractive.
According to this, the Boffins are interested in both having an adorable baby and not judging people based on their appearance or wealth.
Despite being willing to sacrifice everything to be with him, at the conclusion of ‘Our Mutual Friend’, Bella Wilfer decides to marry John Harman. Consequently, he discloses his true identity to her.
Twemlow was the only one who defended the couple on the boat, amidst the criticism from the high-class individuals. They believed that marrying someone from a different social class was entirely incorrect, asserting that wealthy individuals should exclusively marry others of high status.
In summary, Dickens suggests that the value of money varies among individuals. He also highlights its power to influence and control people, as some cannot live without it.
The Veneerings resided in the recently constructed houses in London, furnished entirely with brand-new belongings. They were known for their insincerity as they only valued individuals who possessed considerable wealth and held a high social status. The Veneerings themselves epitomized newness and perfection.
The Veneerings, like their servants, were also newcomers. It is noteworthy that all their servants were new as well. The Veneerings’ self-centeredness and obsession with their social status were characteristic of the Victorian era, during which people placed great importance on class distinctions.
This is the reason I believe Charles Dickens dislikes these characters, as well as why the Veneerings lack genuine companions.
In my opinion, Dickens has a favorable opinion of characters like Lizzie Hexam due to her kindness and generosity. However, he disapproves of individuals like the Veneerings who are deceitful and solely focused on attaining high social status by associating with wealthy individuals. I believe Dickens effectively conveys his views through the character ‘Twemlow’.