Our Mutual Friend Discussion Questions

The Pickwick Book Club is a community of local bookworms, students, and teachers who meet monthly to discuss Victorian novels. From September 2018 – January 2019, we will study Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens.

Many thanks to Tara Thomas, Literature Ph.D. Candidate at UC Santa Cruz, for organzining the book club meetings. 

Date Questions

October 14

Book I:
The Cup and the Lip
(Ch. I-XVII)

Book II: Birds of a Feather
(Ch. I-XVI)

EMBODIMENT IN THE VICTORIAN NOVEL

Questions about Twemlow:

  1. J. Hillis Miller, in Victorian Subjects,observes that the “emptying out of human beings” in Our Mutual Friend occurs as characters become “more and more alienated from reality” (71). How does the initial presentation of Twemlow as “an innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard in Duke street, Saint James’s,” orient Twemlow in the reality of the novel? 

  2. In describing the use of Twemlow the table, the narrator writes, “it always happened that the more Twemlow was pulled out, the further he found himself from the centre.” How might this description speak to Twemlow’s relationship with his own material body, and the material world around him?

  3. How does the narrator recall the table metaphor throughout Books 1 and 2, after it is casually dropped? Consider: the adjectives used to describe Twemlow, the social concerns that occupy his mind, and especially his gestural performance.

Questions about Wegg:

  1. What information is given to the reader regarding Wegg’s injury, his background, or details of his present personhood (age, appearance, clothing)? How does the lack of a character history affect your perception of Wegg and his relationship with his disability?

  2. How does the narrator establish Wegg as a “woody” character through physical description? How do these descriptions compare to the material descriptions of Twemlow?

  3. Wegg shares the tendency of others to think of his body parts as entirely separate from his whole makeup. He asks Mr. Venus, “And how have I been going on, this long time?” in reference to a leg that he hopes to acquire from another amputee. He refers to this hypothetical leg with the “I” pronoun, as if his complete identity exists in the individual part. How do conversations which repeatedly center around Wegg’s wooden leg, and Wegg’s descriptions of his own dispersed parts, create a synechdoche of his wooden leg? How does this synechdoche affect our perception of his motivations and actions?

Synechdoche: a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa

Many thanks to Sienna Ballou, Literature Ph.D. Candidate at UC Santa Cruz, for providing the October questions and for facilitating our discussion!




November 11

Book III:
A Long Lane
(Ch. I-XVII)

In reading the works of Dickens, the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson often come to mind:   “What can we see, read, acquire but ourselves. Take the book, my friend, and read your eyes out. You will never find there what I find.” This month's discussion will revolve around the simple yet challenging question:  What did you find?

One way of approaching such an all-encompassing theme can be to think in terms of particular characters. Here are some of the questions we may consider together:

  1. Which characters do you find yourself most drawn to -- perhaps because you admire their qualities or actions, perhaps because you'd like to be more like them, perhaps because they serve as reflections of your own "better angels," those qualities in yourself that you consider most worthwhile.   

  2. Which characters do you find yourself least drawn to -- perhaps because their qualities or actions seem repellent or distasteful, perhaps because they are the ones you would prefer not to be like. This can be a useful inquiry, for sometimes when we describe precisely what we dislike about a character, we come across faint traces of our own faults or shortcomings! What we find most offensive can also serve to illuminate our own deeply-held values (so that a cruel or heartless character, for instance, may reveal how much we value the practice of compassion).

  3. If you could have dinner with any two or three characters, who would you choose? Think in terms of who you'd most like to talk to, not necessarily those whom you most like or dislike. What questions might you have for them?  What would you like to have a chance to say to them? 

  4. Reading Dickens, it can often seem as though we are reading about our own era, rather than 1865, more than 150 years ago now. Are there any characters who remind you of our times, who perhaps seem ready to step off the page and assume contemporary form - someone known for their work in politics, the arts, the sciences, technology, philanthropy, popular culture, contemporary literature, or any other fields?

  5. Charles Dickens is quoted as urging us to: "Treasure the one who lightens the burden of anyone else." Are there any characters that you particularly treasure for that reason? Whose burdens do they seem to lighten? Does anyone lighten their burdens in return?

To help with our discussion, a list of key characters in Book III will later be emailed, and will be available at the meeting as well.

And for those who have finished the whole book, here are a few pieces I came across which might interest you, and which speak in various ways to the question of what we each may find in reading Our Mutual Friend. No need to look at these in order to participate in the discussion - they are simply food for thought, perhaps to whet the appetite for our next conversation. 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/sep/23/charles-dickens-favourite-mutual-friend

http://medhum.med.nyu.edu/view/1529

http://entertainment.time.com/2012/02/01/counting-down-dickens-greatest-novels-number-5-our-mutual-friend/

Handout: Our Mutual Friend Book III Characters (PDF)

Many thanks to Wendy Martyna for the November questions and for facilitating the discussion! Wendy has recently retired after teaching at UCSC for forty years (offering courses in Psychology, Sociology, the College Core Courses, and Literature).

 


December

TBA


January 13

Book IV:
A Turning
(Ch. I-XVI)