The Dombey House

April 12, 2021

Dickens Project Director John Jordan returns with a passage about the slow and incremental changes tracked within the Dombey household while Mr. Dombey is away. It centers on how the Dombey mansion "becomes almost another character in this wonderful novel."



Hello, my name is John Jordan, and I’m the Director of the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz, here with another favorite passage of mine from Dickens as part of our Dickens-to-Go series. As you may know, one of the activities that the Dickens Project sponsors, in addition to our Dickens-to-Go videos, is a book club, called the Pickwick Club, that meets once a month to discuss a novel by Dickens or, occasionally, a novel by some other 19th-century writer. These days, because of the pandemic, we’ve been meeting virtually over Zoom.

The novel we have been reading lately is Dombey and Son, and at one of our most recent meetings, I said that I think Dickens’s prose in this novel reaches a new level of maturity and power, especially in his descriptions of houses—and of the London mansion of Mr. Dombey in particular. The passage I want to share with you today is one of those descriptions. It comes from near the beginning of chapter 23, which is entitled “Florence solitary, and the Midshipman mysterious.”

At this point in the story, little Paul Dombey has recently died, and his father, Mr. Dombey, has gone away from London on the railroad in the company of his new friend, Major Bagstock, leaving his grand mansion behind—empty, except for Paul’s sister Florence, her servant Susan Nipper, and her dog Diogenes. The passage is an extended description of that empty house and of Florence’s place within it. Here is the passage:

"The spell upon it was more wasting than the spell that used to set enchanted houses sleeping once upon a time, but left their waking freshness unimpaired. The passive desolation of disuse was everywhere silently manifest about it. Within doors, curtains, drooping heavily, lost their old folds and shapes, and hung like cumbrous palls. Hecatombs of furniture, still piled and covered, shrunk like imprisoned and forgotten men, and changed insensibly. Mirrors were dim with the breath of years. Patterns of carpets faded and became perplexed and faint, like the memory of those years’ trifling incidents. Boards, starting at unwonted footsteps, creaked and shook. Keys rusted in the locks of doors. Damp started on the walls, and as the stains came out, the pictures seemed to go in and secrete themselves. Mildew and mould began to lurk in closets. Fungus trees grew in corners of the cellars. Dust accumulated, nobody knew whence nor how; spiders, moths, and grubs were heard of every day. An exploratory black beetle now and then was found immovable upon the stairs, or in an upper room, as wondering how he got there. Rats began to squeak and scuffle in the night time, through dark galleries they mined behind the panelling."

"For Florence lived alone in the deserted house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone, and the cold walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone."

"The grass began to grow upon the roof, and in the crevices of the basement paving. A scaly crumbling vegetation sprouted round the window-sills. Fragments of mortar lost their hold upon the insides of the unused chimneys, and came dropping down. The two trees with the smoky trunks were blighted high up, and the withered branches domineered above the leaves. Through the whole building, white had turned yellow, yellow nearly black; and since the time when the poor lady died, it had slowly become a dark gap in the long monotonous street."

"But Florence bloomed there, like the king’s fair daughter In the story. Her books, her music, and her daily teachers, were her only real companions, Susan Nipper and  Diogenes excepted: of whom the former, in her attendance on the studies of her young mistress, began to grow quite learned herself, while the latter, softened possibly by the same influences, would lay his head upon the window-ledge and placidly open and shut his eyes upon the street, all through a summer morning; sometimes pricking up his head to look with great significance after some noisy dog in a cart, who was barking his way along, and sometimes, with an exasperated and unaccountable recollection of his supposed enemy in the neighbourhood, rushing to the door, whence, after a deafening disturbance, he would come jogging back with a ridiculous complacency that belonged to him, and lay his jaw upon the window-ledge again with the air of a dog who had done a public service."

It’s a marvelous passage—I hope you agree—rich in its detailed description of the slow process of passive deterioration and decay, but also with its wonderful description of Diogenes at the end. (I have a dog who behaves exactly the same way.) It’s also a passage that resonates powerfully for us today during this strange pandemic year when time somehow seems suspended and social isolation and loneliness have become the norm. (I don’t know about you, but these days, balls of dust seem to accumulate overnight in my house, as if by magic or as if they had a life of their own.)

Two things stand out for me about the process of change described here. One is the absence of human figures or indeed of any human observer, other than the impersonal narrative voice and the cold walls that stare down at Florence. Florence’s teachers are mentioned in passing, but it’s as if they are not really there in person—an uncanny anticipation of the remote instruction all too familiar to students today.

Notice the use of passive verbs. That exploratory black beetle “was found,” we learn, but there is no mention of any person doing the finding. And it is the beetle himself, not a housemaid or some other servant, who is surprised and “wonder[s] how he got there.” Active verbs and agency belong to material objects and vegetation, not people. Curtains lose their fold; carpets fade; boards creak; keys rust in their locks; grass begins to grow on the roof. It’s not until the end of the passage that Florence, Susan, and Diogenes appear, and action, even if it’s just Diogenes rushing to the door and barking at his supposed enemy, resumes.

A second distinctive feature of the passage is its treatment of time. When Mr. Dombey returns home in the novel’s next monthly number, we learn, or at least we can infer, that he has been away from home only a relatively short time, perhaps, if narrative time and story time are commensurate, for as little as a month. And yet the changes described—mirrors growing dim, mortar losing its hold, paint turning black—require a much longer passage of time, many months or even years. Clearly, the novel has moved beyond any naturalistic reckoning of time and has passed into the realm of fairy tale or mythic temporality.

In the absence of its usual human inhabitants, the Dombey mansion has turned into a haunted house or prison, with Florence as its resident ghost and prisoner. It is also a house of death, containing “hecatombs” of furniture and memories of little Paul, and of his and Florence’s mother, the “poor lady [who] died” in the novel’s opening chapter. And yet the passage manages not to be morbid or depressing, at least not to me—in part, I think, because of the way it turns at the end toward comedy, with the anecdote about Diogenes, Florence’s faithful companion and guardian, but also because of the way it builds on fairy tale motifs—sleeping beauty, the house as an enchanted domain—that suggest the possibility of a happy ending.

Despite her isolation and despite the intrusion of menacing subhuman forces—beetles, rats, and fungus—into her world, Florence nevertheless “blooms.” Her beauty and freshness remain unimpaired. If anything, her time alone in the empty house corresponds to her emergence from childhood into adolescence and her development toward a more adult sexuality.

At one point a little later in the novel, Florence’s aunt, Mrs. Chick, who has a wonderful talent for surprising and often inappropriate metaphor, says, “We must expect change. . . . What is there that does not change! even the silkworm . . .” Change is one of the important themes in Dombey and Son. There is sudden change, like that brought about by the railroad; but there is also slow and incremental change, of the kind we see in this passage. The change that Florence undergoes is more like that of the silkworm: a retreat into isolation followed by emergence and transformation into something new and beautiful. Even the mention of Susan Nipper growing “quite learned herself” is an indication that she too is growing during this period.

The Dombey mansion is an excellent example of what the Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, calls a “chronotope,” a place (a topos) where time and space intersect and work together to advance the story. In a chronotope, time becomes spatialized, and space becomes a way of measuring the passage of time. In this passage from chapter 23, the house functions like a kind of clock, but not a mechanical device—more like a living organism that tracks the progress of the Dombey family, or what we might more properly think of as the Dombey house-hold—its past, present, and even its future. Here and in other places throughout the story, the house becomes almost another character in this wonderful novel.

Well, thanks for listening. I hope you’ll check back again for another installment of Dickens-to-Go.



Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

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