"Choose Your Own Adventure with 'Dombey and Son'"

July 13, 2020

Longtime Dickens Universe attendee, Christian Lehmann, hosts a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to Dombey and Son, diving into the mechanics of how to read the novel as a Victorian, or a Modern.



Hello, I'm Christian Lehmann, and I want to welcome you to Dickens-to-Go, brought to you by my beloved Dickens Project from the University of [California] Santa Cruz. Currently, my physical body is in Cleveland, Ohio, but my emotional body is with you. And I'm very excited to get to be with you, at least in this way. As a long time attendee of the Dickens Project, it's very, very sad that this is going to be the first time in 10 years that I don't spend time with you. Or if we haven't met, I don't get to meet you. But I look forward to that experience next year.

Today, I want to talk about one of my very favorite things in a Charles Dickens novel. And that's the moment that happens when you pick it up, and you turn the cover, and you enter it. And so I want to go with you on kind of an adventure today on entering a Charles Dickens novel. And the one that we're going to go to is Dombey and Son. Welcome to "Choose Your Own Adventure with Dombey and Son." I'll be your host, and here we go!

You have to ask yourself a question when you enter a Dickens novel. Are you a Victorian, or are you a modern? Let us begin our adventure as a Victorian. You walk outside, and you make the decision. Are you a serial reader, or are you going to read it in a bound volume all at once? This is the idea that we also have today. Do you want to watch a television episode episodically scene by scene, or do you want to sit down and watch it all at one go? Do you want to experience it unfolding with the little gaps and anxieties and fears and hopes and frustrations in between? Or do you want to rush through?

Well, the Victorians got to have that same decision, popularized largely by Dickens himself. So, let's pretend that we're serial readers of Dombey and Son. October 1846, you come out of your house, the street seller is hawking the latest Charles Dickens. The newspaper stands are saying, "Here it is! Here it is." You're rushing to catch your railroad coach, and sure enough, it's being sold to you. And so, you'd reach deep into your pocket, and you pull out one shilling for this green cover.

And what's on it? A title, certainly--Dombey and Son takes up a prominent position of text--but there are these mysterious images all around as well. These ones happen to be drawn by Hablot Knight Browne, or Phiz, as he was nicknamed. You might wonder what they are, and it's going to be a puzzle that you'll get to unfold as different people are introduced over the course of these monthly installments.

But the name that really matters there is Charles Dickens. That's what's going to draw you in. That's the reason you're going to pick this up most likely. And eagerly, you rip open that first page. And here's what you see. A mountain of advertisements offering any number of things, new books, different exhibitions, certain newly improved deer stalking telescopes, oddities, odds, and ends. It's an enormously vibrant vision of what it felt like to be reading a Dickens novel in the Victorian period, and also be living in the Victorian period.

And it takes a while, page after page are these advertisements before you come to the actual text. And it's even before that, you get two illustrations--because two illustrations accompanied every installment of the novel--and these are also going to be mysterious. When you first open it, you have no idea who these people are. And yet as you read, you'll be able to go back and think about them and how they fit in together.

But say you're a Victorian and you waited so that you could binge the novel. Well, here's an example of what a first edition might look like. And just like with the other one, you open it up because you need to open the book in order to find Dickens. Here, you have a new frontispiece that would also fill your imagination, and then you can go back to. You have a title page with another small image that you can again, go back to, and then you have a preface.
The preface was always written after Dickens had finished the book. Occasionally, he will also write a postscript, but in this case, we have a preface. Again, these are all things that are mediating your entry to the novel.

But say you're a modern. Well, you have any number of covers that you can grab. The text, you'll remember, will largely be the same, except in a few very famous instances the text remains pretty unchanged. But you can ignore some of these images here because they're the images that came up in a quick Google search that showed the first edition, but notice just the number of different covers and then look at your own shelf and all the different covers that you have.

But now we can actually enter the book. For convenience sake, I'm going to use my personal copy of the Penguin [Edition] of Dombey and Son, which I read during the Dombey and Son year and carried with me for an entire year across multiple continents and countries until we arrived in Santa Cruz together for the Dickens Universe of 2016.

Even here, you open it up, and you don't immediately confront Dickens. Instead, you get a biography, a chronology, an introduction, a long introduction, further reading, a bunch of different things that you can read. A note on the text and how it was decided, then it says you get Dombey and Son, but actually what you'll find is the preface as well. And so, so much is in the space between you entering the Dickens novel and encountering Dickens himself.

But now, let's do so. Let us look at this marvelous first paragraph, which is all one sentence. Now a fun party trick is to go to somebody and say a quick few words, right? You go to somebody, and you say, "London. Michaelmas," they'll immediately say, "Bleak House." You go to somebody, and you say, oh, "My father's family name being," and they'll say, "Great Expectations."

So everybody's got a favorite. But here we have one that I particularly love, but most people probably can't quote. Dombey and Son, chapter one, paragraph one.

"Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new."

There are many things that I could share with you about why I love this, but one of the things that I want to emphasize, first of all, is the muffin. It's a completely unexpected simile as placed in this otherwise pretty serious moment that's of a father and a son. It's night. It's dark, and suddenly we have this moment of levity, this humor. This is the kind of thing that you encountered at the beginning of Bleak House with the megalosaurus suddenly rising out of the fog.

But notice how carefully Dickens constructs this sentence. We begin with Dombey, from the title, and son right away. And what happens in between? The mother and the wife is alighted with bedside, right? She's just delivered this baby, and yet we don't get to see her name or have her expressed. And one of the things that happens throughout Dombey and Son, is it's really intense engagement of the role of the Victorian woman. Dombey throughout, we have a great sense of his character, right? He's a person that sits in corners in the dark. His armchair even needs to be great. All of these big words that kind of overpower the son, even though he's in front of the fire and he's done so carefully, he is disposed.

And one of the things that we'll find, is the way that the novel itself will dispose of the son. And so he's warm, he's in a little basket. I've always thought there might be kind of a Moses reminiscence there. And then we get this idea of the muffin. So it's "essential to toast him brown while he was very new." One of the things that we have here then, is the newness of the son and this idea of creating something new versus replicating something from the past and how much Dombey will want his son to carry on the impossibility of that.

A very exciting thing that you can do when you finish Dombey, is to look at the last paragraph, and then look at the first paragraph, and look at where Dombey is in relationship to a child. Pay attention to gender.

So, this is all I wanted to share with you. I want to thank you for coming on this Choose Your Own Adventure. And I really, really hope to see you all next year.


christian-lehmann-portraitChristian Lehmann got his Ph.D. in Classics from the University of Southern California. He currently teaches at Bard High School Early College in Cleveland and is a member of the teaching faculty at the Dickens Universe. Feel free to get in touch with Christian on twitter @BuffyAntiqua.



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