Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend
Our Mutual Friend  
Cover of serial No. 8, December 1864
Author(s) Charles Dickens
Cover artist Marcus Stone
Country England
Language English
Series Monthly:
May 1864 – November 1865
Genre(s) Fiction; Social Commentary
Publisher Chapman & Hall
Publication date 1865
Media type Print (Serial, Hardback, and Paperback)
Preceded by Great Expectations
Followed by The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Our Mutual Friend (written in the years 1864–65) is the last novel completed by Charles Dickens and is one of his most sophisticated works, combining psychological insight with social analysis. It centres on, in the words of critic J. Hillis Miller, "money, money, money, and what money can make of life" but is also about human values. In the opening chapters a body is found in the Thames and identified as John Harmon, a young man recently returned to London to receive his inheritance. Were he alive, his father's will would require him to marry Bella Wilfer, a beautiful, mercenary girl whom he had never met. Instead, the money passes to the working-class Boffins, and the effects spread into various corners of London society.


Characters in Our Mutual Friend

Like all of Dickens' works, Our Mutual Friend contains many characters (this list is incomplete):

Major characters

  • John Harmon – heir to the Harmon estate, only under the condition that he marries Bella Wilfer; presumed dead throughout most of the novel; in actuality living under the name John Rokesmith and working as a secretary for the Boffins in an attempt to get to better know Bella, the Boffins, and people’s general reaction to John Harmon’s “death”; also uses the alias Julius Handford upon first returning to London. Harmon’s “death” and subsequent resurrection as Rokesmith/Handford is consistent with Dickens’ recurring themes of rebirth from the water,[1] and his upward social mobility through his own means is portrayed as favourable, in contrast with Headstone, Hexam, and the Lammles.[2]
  • Bella Wilfer – born into poverty but retains the hope of marrying into wealth and receiving the inheritance of Old Mr. Harmon until her intended husband, John Harmon, is reportedly killed leaving her without future prospects; learns of the troubles money can bring when taken in by the newly-rich Boffins; rejects Rokesmith’s proposal at first but later accepts. Initially described as a “mercenary young woman”,[3] with “no more...character than a canary bird”,[3] Bella undergoes a significant moral change in the novel. Although originally completely preoccupied with money, her complexity is eventually displayed in her ability to defy the societal pressures in order to achieve happiness unrelated to wealth; praised as a character for her “vivacity and lifelikeness”,[4] with greater complexity than some of the other, more static characters. Her relationship with her father is almost that of a mother and son, as she consistently dotes upon him, calling him her “cherub” [3] and treating him like a child; this provides stark contrast to the strained and resentful relationships between Bella and her mother and sister.
  • Nicodemus (Noddy) Boffin, aka the Golden Dustman – becomes a member of the nouveau-riches when Old Mr. Harmon’s heir is considered dead; illiterate but wants very much to fit the image their money gives him, and so hires Silas Wegg to read to him in hopes of gaining more intelligence and worldliness; nearly blackmailed by Wegg. Assumes the role of a miser in order to show Bella the dangers of wealth but eventually admits this behaviour was an act and leaves his money to Bella and John. Boffin’s innocence, naive curiosity, and desire to learn contrast with his “elaborate performances as Boffin the miser”;[4] critics speculate that Dickens’s decision to have Boffin playing a part may not have been planned, as it was very convincing for a man who has shown his simplistic ignorance on several occasions.[5] Boffin’s wealth by Harmon’s money is appropriate because he attained it by combing the dust heaps, thus suggesting a mobility of class; represents a wholesome contrast to such wealthy characters as the Veneerings and Podsnaps; probably based on Henry Dodd, a ploughboy who made his fortune removing London's rubbish
  • Mrs. Henrietta Boffin – Noddy Boffin’s wife, a very motherly woman; convinces Mr. Boffin to take in an orphan boy called Johnny, which shows “another progressive development for Dickens as his female characters undertake a more active role in social reform”;[6] realizes that Rokesmith is actually Harmon, leading to Mr. Boffin’s pretending to be a miser
  • Lizzie Hexam – daughter of Gaffer Hexam and sister of Charley Hexam; an affectionate daughter, but knows that Charley must escape their living circumstances if he is to succeed in life; gives Charley her money and helps him leave while their father is away; later rejected by Charley after she remains in poverty. Pursued romantically by both Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn; fears Headstone’s violent passion and yearns for Eugene’s love, while acutely aware of the difference in their classes; saves Eugene from Headstone’s attack and the two are married. Lizzie acts as the moral centre of the story; by far the “most wholly good character...almost bereft of ego”;[4] Dickens carries over her moral superiority into her physical characterization. Her “capacity for self-sacrifice...is only slightly more credible than her gift for refined speech”,[7] making her slightly unbelievable as a character when compared to her uneducated father and Jenny Wren. Lizzie’s concern about social class reveals her reasoning for ensuring her brother’s escape from poverty and ignorance, though she remains humble about her own situation. However, the conventions of the moral character attract Eugene and thus her inherent goodness is rewarded with marital happiness.
  • Charley Hexam – son of Jesse “Gaffer” Hexam and brother of Lizzie; originally a very caring brother though this eventually deteriorates as he rises above Lizzie in class and must remove himself from her to avoid the shame of poverty-by-association; born into poverty, receives schooling and becomes a teacher under Headstone’s mentoring; used by Dickens to simultaneously critique the schooling available to the poor (often crowded and noisy, making it difficult to learn anything) [8] as well as the classist tendencies of those who manage to rise in status; portrayed as “morally corrupt” [9] for alienating himself from his past and distancing himself from his loving sister in the name of his own upward movement
  • Mortimer Lightwood – lawyer, acquaintance of the Veneerings and friend of Eugene Wrayburn. It is through him that the reader and the other characters learn about Harmon’s will. Lightwood acts as the “storyteller”;[4] however, under the “mask of irony” [4] he assumes in telling his stories, he feels true friendship for Eugene, respect for Twemlow, and concern for the issues in which he is involved. In addition, he also serves as the “commentator and a voice of conscience” [5] with sarcasm sometimes covering his concern. Through Lightwood’s reason and advice, the reader is better able to judge the characters’ actions.
  • Eugene Wrayburn – seen as the second hero of the novel; barrister and a gentleman by birth, but characterized as roguish and insolent; close friends with Mortimer Lightwood; involved in a love triangle with Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone, both of whom act as foils, Lizzie providing contrast to Eugene’s more negative traits and Headstone making Eugene appear virtuous in comparison; nearly killed by Headstone but, like Harmon/Rokesmith, “reborn” after his incident in the river.[1] Though he appears morally grey throughout most of the novel, by the end he is seen as a moral, sympathetic character and a true gentleman after choosing to marry Lizzie in order to save her reputation, even though she is below his class [10]
  • Jenny Wren – given name Fanny Cleaver; dolls' dressmaker, with whom Lizzie lives after her father dies; crippled with a bad back, though not ugly in her deformities; acts very motherly toward her drunken father whom she calls her “bad child” [3] (somewhat like the nearly mother-son relationship between Bella and her father); later cares for Eugene while he recovers from Headstone’s attack on his life; shares the presumed beginnings of a romance with Sloppy at the end of the book, which the reader may assume will end in marriage. Although her mannerisms give her a certain “strangeness” [4] Jenny is very perceptive, identifying Eugene Wrayburn’s intentions for Lizzie in his small actions. Her role is a creator and a caretaker, and her “pleasant fancies” of “flowers, bird song, numbers of blessed, white-clad children” [5] reflects the mind’s ability to rise above adverse circumstances.
  • Mr Riah – Jewish money-lending manager; cares for and assists Lizzie Hexam and Jenny Wren and has a very kindly relationship with them when they have no one else; portrayed very sympathetically. Critics believe that Riah was meant as an apology for the stereotypical character of Fagin in Oliver Twist, particularly in response to Mrs. Eliza Davis, an upstanding Jewish woman who wrote Dickens to say that “the portrayal of Fagin did ‘a great wrong’ to all Jews.” Some critics still take issue with Riah, asserting that he is “too gentle to be a believable human being.” [11]
  • Bradley Headstone – rose from his childhood as a “pauper lad” [3] to become Charley Hexam’s schoolmaster and the love interest of Miss Peecher, whom he ignores; falls in love with Lizzie Hexam and pursues her passionately and violently, though his advances are rejected; develops an insane jealousy towards Eugene Wrayburn, whom he follows at night like an “ill-tamed wild animal” [3] in hopes of catching Eugene and Lizzie together; dresses as Rogue Riderhood and almost succeeds in drowning Eugene. After Riderhood realizes that Headstone is impersonating him to incriminate him for Eugene’s murder, he attempts to blackmail Headstone, leading to a fight that ends with both men drowning in the river. Described repeatedly as “decent” and “constrained”,[3] Headstone’s personality splits between “painfully respectable” [12] and a “wild jealousy” [13] with “passion terrible in its violence”.[13] The image of an animal in the night contrasts sharply with that of the respectable, “mechanical” [4] schoolteacher during the day; possible explanation for this dichotomy rests in Headstone’s “intellectual insecurity” [13] that manifests in violence after Lizzie’s rejection. This “disguise” [4] is an interesting device, because the “most complex of Dickens’s villain-murderers are presented as double-figures”, casting Headstone as more of a “psychological study and not a whodunit”.[14] As such, Dickens demonstrates the way identity can be manipulated for the public. Headstone also serves as a foil to Eugene, and his evil nature antagonizes Eugene as much as Lizzie’s goodness helps him, as demonstrated in the scene in which Headstone attempts to kill Eugene but he is rescued from the river by Lizzie.
  • Silas Wegg – ballad-seller with a wooden leg; “social parasite”;[15] hired to read for the Boffins and teach Mr. Boffin how to read despite not being entirely literate himself; finds Harmon’s will in the dust heaps and he and Venus attempt to use it to blackmail the Boffins; wishes to buy back his own leg as soon as he has the money which is seen by some critics as an attempt to “complete himself”;[1] Wegg claims to want the leg so that he can be seen as respectable. Some critics find the juxtaposition of Wegg’s villainy and his sense of humor to be inconsistent.
  • Mr Venus– a taxidermist and articulator of bones; in love with Pleasant Riderhood, who he eventually marries. He meets Silas Wegg after having procured his amputated leg and he pretends to join Silas in blackmailing Mr. Boffin in regard to his will while really informing Boffin of Silas’s scheme. Dickens is said to have based Mr. Venus on an actual taxidermist named J. Willis, though Venus’s “defining obsession” [16] make him “among Dickens’s most outlandish, least realistic” [17] characters.
  • Mr Alfred Lammle – married to Sophronia Lammle; each of whom, at the time of their marriage, was under the impression that the other was fairly wealthy. Both were mistaken and are then forced to use their overabundance of charm and superficiality in attempts to make influential acquaintances and gain money through them. They play into the image of the Veneerings, depending upon flattery and plots against their supposed friends in order to achieve their ends.
  • Mrs. Sophronia Lammle – referred to in the first several chapters as “the mature young lady” and portrayed as a proper young woman, though this turns out to be ironic as she is later shown to be greedy, cold, and manipulative; married Alfred Lammle because she believed he had money, and when it turned out he did not, the two of them formed a partnership around conning money from others; conspires to trap Georgiana Podsnap in a marriage with Fledgeby, but repents before this plan can come to fruition
  • Georgiana Podsnap – daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Podsnap; portrayed as very sheltered, shy, trusting, and naïve and, as such, is taken advantage of by the more manipulative upper-class characters such as Fledgeby and the Lammles who scheme to “befriend” her in order to take her money; courted by Fledgeby through Alfred Lammle, though not with honourable intentions, and nearly finds herself trapped in a marriage with Fledgeby until Sophronia Lammle suffers a change of heart.
  • Mr Fledgeby– called Fascination Fledgeby; friend of the Lammles; owns Mr. Riah’s moneylending business; greedy and corrupt; makes his money through speculation; provides contrast for Mr. Riah’s gentleness and underlines the point that “a Jew may be kindly and a Christian cruel”;[18] nearly marries Georgiana Podsnap in order to access her money, but Sophronia Lammle backs out of the scheme and, once Fledgeby is no longer allied with the Lammles, they seek him out and beat him in his apartment.
  • Roger "Rogue" Riderhood – "Gaffer" Hexam’s partner until he turns Gaffer in as the murderer of John Harmon in hopes of receiving a reward. Later, Riderhood becomes a lock-keeper, and Headstone attempts to frame him for the murder of Eugene Wrayburn. After attempts to blackmail Headstone, the two men fall in the river Thames during a fight and both drown. In his “literally irredeemable villainy”,[16] Riderhood represents an opportunistic character that will change his behaviours according to whatever suits his needs best at any given moment.
  • Reginald Wilfer – Bella Wilfer’s doting father; gentle, innocent and kindly despite his querulous wife and daughter and thankless work as a clerk; described by Dickens in nearly childish terms; often called “the Cherub”; It is possible his exceptionally affectionate relationship with Bella was Dickens’s attempt to live vicariously after his own daughter cut him out of her life after her marriage [19]

Minor characters

  • Mr Inspector – a police officer; acts as a witness to several important events, such as when the corpse from the river is mistakenly identified as John Harmon, when Gaffer Hexam is taken into custody, and when the real John Harmon is named.[20] In general, he is “imperturbable, omnicompetent, firm but genial, and an accomplished actor”;[21] commands authority but does not prove particularly effective in his administration of the law, giving rise to doubt about the justice system in the novel.
  • Mr. John Podsnap – a pompous man of the upper middle class; married to Mrs. Podsnap and the father of Georgiana; smug and jingoistic. Some critics believe that Dickens used Podsnap to satirize John Forster, a similarly pompous acquaintance of Dickens,[22] or that Podsnap was used to represent the views of “Society,” as evidenced in his disapproval of Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn’s marriage [23]
  • Mrs Podsnap – the mother of Georgiana Podsnap. Though she embodies the materialistic ideals of her husband and daughter, Mrs. Podsnap is the least prominent of the family. She is described as a “fine woman” [24] in her embodiment of the typical upper-class wife.
  • Mrs Wilfer – Bella's mother, a woman who is never satisfied with what she has. Her haughtiness is apparent in the way she acts at the Boffins’s home and when Bella and Rokesmith return after their wedding. Her animosity toward her husband, her greed and discontent contrast with her husband’s good nature and provide an image of what Bella could become, should she not change.
  • Lavinia Wilfer – Bella’s younger sister; George Sampson's fiancee; vocal and opinionated, the only character who will stand up to Mrs. Wilfer by matching her derisiveness and audacity. In some ways, she acts as a foil to Bella; while Bella overcomes her desire for money and appreciates other aspects of life, Lavinia remains resentful in her poverty.
  • George Sampson – Lavina Wilfer’s suitor; originally in love with Bella; used mostly as comic relief and to provide a contrast to the idyllic relationship between Bella and Rokesmith/Harmon.
  • Mr. Melvin Twemlow – the well-connected friend of the Veneerings; often used for his influence with powerful people, such as Lord Snigsworth. Mrs. Lammle tells him about their plot to marry Georgiana Podsnap and Fledgeby, to whom Twemlow owes money. Though Twemlow is introduced to the reader as being like the table at the Veneerings’ dinner party, he comes to reflect a wise way of thinking. His dress of collar and cravat suggest an image that is “picturesque and archaic”,[16] and he proves himself a “true gentleman in his response to Wrayburn’s marriage”.[16]
  • Mrs. Betty Higden – a child-minder; takes in poor children and cares for them, including Johnny, the orphan who the Boffins adopt; old and poor; sympathetically portrayed as pitiable; so terrified of dying in the workhouse that, when she begins to grow sick, she runs away to the country and ends up dying in Lizzie Hexam’s arms; used by Dickens to call attention to the miserable lives led by the poor, and the need for social reform
  • Johnny – the orphan great-grandson of Betty Higden. The Boffins plan on adopting Johnny, but he dies in the Children’s Hospital before they can.
  • Sloppy – foundling who assists Betty Higden in taking care of children; raised in the workhouse; appears to have a learning disability but is nevertheless adept at reading the newspaper for Mrs. Higden; portrayed as inherently innocent because of his disability; carts away Wegg at the end of the novel; shares the beginnings of a romance with Jenny Wren, though some critics take issue with this,[who?] believing that Dickens only paired the two together because of their disabilities
  • Jesse "Gaffer" Hexam – a waterman and the father of Lizzie and Charley; makes a living by robbing corpses in the river Thames. His former partner, Rogue Riderhood, turns him in for the murder of John Harmon after his body is supposedly dragged up from the river. A search is led to find and arrest Gaffer, but his body is discovered dead in his boat. Gaffer’s opposition to education prompts Lizzie to sneak Charley away to school, though she stays with her father; as a result, Gaffer disowns Charley as a son. In a sense, Gaffer predicted the alienating effect education would have on Charley.
  • Pleasant Riderhood – daughter of Rogue Riderhood; works at the pawn shop; is, like Jenny Wren and Lizzie Hexam, another daughter caring for her abusive father as though he were her child and trying in vain to steer him along the path of right, keeping in the Dickensian theme of daughter selflessly nurturing their fathers;[25][26] eventually marries Mr. Venus
  • Mr. and Mrs. Veneering – a nouveaux-riche couple whose main preoccupation is to advance in the social world. They invite influential people to their dinner parties where their furniture gleams with a sheen that they also put on to make themselves seem more impressive; they wear their acquaintances, their possessions, and their wealth like jewelry in an attempt to impress those around them.
  • Miss Abbey Potterson – mistress of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters; keeps the inn respectable and under control, only allowing patrons to drink as much as she sees fit; humorously likened to a schoolmistress as a way for Dickens to link her to the themes of education in the novel [27]
  • Miss Peecher – a school teacher who is in love with Bradley Headstone; a “good and harmless” character though she displays an “addiction to rules and forms”.[16] In addition, she shows a “naive confidence in the outward appearance of things”,[16] as demonstrated by her love of Headstone, the villain of the story who gives the impression of being good.
  • Mr Dolls – Jenny Wren’s alcoholic father; Jenny calls him her “bad child” and treats him accordingly, which is consistent with the themes of daughters infantilizing and caring for their fathers [25][28] His real name is not known, the pseudonym "Mr Dolls" being given to him by Eugene for want of another name.

Plot summary

A rich misanthropic miser who has made his fortune from London's rubbish dies, estranged from all except his faithful employees Mr and Mrs Boffin. By his will, his fortune goes to his estranged son John Harmon, who is to return from where he has settled abroad (putatively in South Africa, though this is never stated) to claim it, on condition that he marries a woman he has not met, Miss Bella Wilfer. The implementation of the Will is in the charge of the solicitor, Mortimer Lightwood, who has no other practice.

Before the son and heir can claim his inheritance, he goes missing, presumed drowned, at the end of his journey back to London. A body is found in the Thames by Gaffer Hexam, a waterman who makes his living from retrieving corpses and robbing them of valuables before rendering them to the authorities. The body is identified from papers in the pockets as that of the heir, John Harmon. Present at the identification is a mysterious young man, who gives his name as Julius Handford and then disappears.

By the terms of the miser's will, the whole estate then devolves upon Mr and Mrs Boffin, naive and good hearted people who wish to enjoy it for themselves and to share it with others. They take the disappointed bride of the drowned heir, Miss Wilfer, into their household, and treat her as their pampered child and heiress. They also accept an offer from Julius Handford, now going under the name of John Rokesmith, to serve as confidential secretary and man of business, at no salary. He uses this position to watch and learn everything about the Boffins, Miss Wilfer, and the aftershock of the drowning of the heir John Harmon. A one-legged ballad seller, Silas Wegg, is engaged to read to Mr Boffin in the evenings, and he tries to take advantage of his position and Mr Boffin's good heart to obtain other advantages from the wealthy dustman.

Gaffer Hexam, who found the body, is accused of murdering John Harmon by a fellow-waterman, Roger "Rogue" Riderhood, who is bitter at having been cast off as Hexam's partner on the river and who covets the large reward offered in relation to the murder. Hexam is shunned by his fellows on the river, and excluded from The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, a public house frequented by them on the river. Hexam's young son, the clever but priggish Charley Hexam, leaves his father's house in order to better himself at school, and train to be a schoolmaster, encouraged by his sister, the beautiful Lizzie Hexam. Meanwhile, Lizzie stays with her father, to whom she is devoted.

Before Riderhood can claim the reward for his false allegation against Hexam, Hexam is found drowned himself. Lizzie Hexam becomes the lodger of a doll's dressmaker. But she has caught the eye of the briefless and languid barrister, Eugene Wrayburn, who noticed her when accompanying his friend, the Harmon solicitor Mortimer Lightwood, in pursuit of Gaffer Hexam upon the accusation of Riderhood. Wrayburn falls in love with her. However, he has a violent rival in Bradley Headstone, the schoolmaster of Charley Hexam, who is set on marrying her, and believes that Wrayburn will make her his mistress but not his wife. Lizzie Hexam flees both men, getting work up river outside London.

Mr and Mrs Boffin adopt a young orphan, previously in the care of his grandmother, Betty Higden. Mrs Higden minds children for a living, assisted by the gangling foundling known as Sloppy. She has a terror of the workhouse. When Mrs Higden is found dying by Lizzie Hexam, Lizzie is thereby introduced to the Boffins and to Bella Wilfer. But Lizzie has been tracked down by Eugene Wrayburn and also by Bradley Headstone. Headstone assaults Wrayburn and leaves him for dead but Lizzie finds and rescues him. Wrayburn, thinking he will die anyway, marries Lizzie to save her reputation. When he survives, he is glad that this has brought him into a loving marriage, albeit with a social inferior. He had not cared about the social gulf between them but Lizzie had and would not otherwise have married him.

Rokesmith has clearly fallen in love with Bella Wilfer but she cannot bear to accept him, determining that she will marry only for money. Mr Boffin appears to be corrupted by his wealth and becomes a miser. He also begins to treat his secretary Rokesmith with contempt and cruelty. This rouses the sympathy of Bella Wilfer and both she and Rokesmith are turned out of the Boffin household. They marry and live happily although poor.

Meanwhile, Bradley Headstone has tried to put the blame for his assault on Wrayburn on Rogue Riderhood, now working as a lock gate keeper by dressing in similar clothes when doing the deed. Riderhood realizes this and also knows of the assault, and he attempts to blackmail Headstone. Headstone, overcome with the hopelessness of his situation, is seized with a self-destructive urge and flings himself into the lock, pulling Riderhood with him so that both are drowned.

The one-legged parasite Silas Wegg has with Venus, the articulator of bones, discovered a will subsequent to the one which has given the Boffins the whole of the Harmon estate. By the later will, the estate goes to the Crown. Wegg and Venus decide to blackmail Boffin with this will.

It becomes clear to the reader that John Rokesmith is the missing heir, John Harmon. He had been robbed of his clothes and possessions by the man later found drowned and wrongly identified as him. Rokesmith/Harmon has been maintaining his alias in order to see Bella Wilfer before committing himself to marry her as required by the terms of his father's will. Now that she has married him believing him to be poor, he can throw off his disguise. He does so and it is revealed that Mr Boffin's ill treatment of him and his miserliness was part of a scheme to test Miss Wilfer's motives and affections.

When Wegg (abandoned by Venus) attempts to clinch his blackmail on the basis of the later will disinheriting Boffin, Boffin turns the tables by revealing a still later will by which the fortune is granted to Boffin even at young John Harmon's expense. The Boffins are determined to make John Harmon and his bride Bella Wilfer their heirs anyway so all ends well, except for the villain Wegg, who is carted away by Sloppy.

Themes and analysis

Rebirth and renewal

One of the most prevalent symbols in Our Mutual Friend is that of the River Thames, which becomes part of one of the major themes of the novel, rebirth and renewal. Water is seen as a sign of new life, used by churches during the sacrament of Baptism as a sign of purity and a new beginning. In Our Mutual Friend, it has the same meaning. Characters like John Harmon and Eugene Wrayburn end up in the waters of the river, and come out reborn as new men. Wrayburn emerges from the river on his deathbed, but is ready to marry Lizzie to save her reputation. Of course, he surprises everyone, including himself, when he survives and goes on to have a loving marriage with Lizzie. John Harmon also appears to end up in the river through no fault of his own, and when Gaffer pulls his “body” out of the waters, he adopts the alias of John Rokesmith. This alias is for his own safety and peace of mind; he wants to know that he can do things on his own, and does not need his father’s name or money to make a good life for himself.[29]

Throughout Our Mutual Friend, Dickens uses many descriptions that relate to water. Some critics refer to this as “metaphoric overkill,” and indeed there are numerous images described by water that have nothing to do with water at all.[30] Phrases such as the “depths and shallows of Podsnappery,” [31] and the “time had come for flushing and flourishing this man down for good” [31] show Dickens’s use of watery imagery, and help add to the descriptive nature of the book.

Expectations of society

Dickens also explores the conflict between doing what society expects of you, or being true to yourself in Our Mutual Friend. Much of what society expects of a person may be shown through the influence of one’s family. In many of Dickens’s novels, including Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit, parents try and force their children into arranged marriages, which, although suitable in terms of money, are not suitable in other ways.[29] John Harmon, for example, was supposed to marry Bella to suit the conditions of his father’s will; initially, he refused to marry her for that reason, although he later caved and married her for love. Rokesmith goes against his father’s wishes in another way too, simply by taking the alias of John Rokesmith. By taking this new identity, he refuses his inheritance.[32] Bella is also swayed by the influence of her parents. Her mother wishes her to marry for money to better the fortunes of the entire family, while her father is perfectly fine with her marrying John Rokesmith for love. Bella’s marriage to Rokesmith goes against what is expected of her by her mother, and at first displeases her, but eventually she accepts the fact that Bella has at least married someone who will make her happy. Bella fails to be true to herself later on in the novel though, through her acceptance of the everyday duties of a wife and her effective renunciation of her independent spirit once she is married.[33] She refuses to be the “doll in the doll’s house” [31] she is not content with being the type of wife who rarely leaves her home without her husband. She reads up on the current events so she can discuss them with her husband, and she is actively involved with all of the couple's important decisions.

Lizzie Hexam also objects to her marriage to Eugene Wrayburn. She is unwilling to marry Wrayburn even though she would be elevated in society simply by marrying him, which almost any female would have done at the time. Lizzie feels that she is unworthy of him, while Wrayburn feels that he is unworthy of such a good woman; plus, he feels that his father would disapprove of her low social status.[29] Both of them end up going against expectations by marrying each other.

Lizzie also ends up going against her brother Charley’s wishes when she refuses to marry Bradley Headstone. He would have technically been an excellent match for her, according to societal norms of the time; however, Lizzie did not love him or care for him, which made her unwilling to accept the match.[32] She spends most of the book unselfishly doing what others expect of her, doing things like helping Charley escape their father to go to school, and living with Jenny Wren. Marrying Wrayburn is the only truly selfish act Lizzie commits in Our Mutual Friend, and even that is debatable, since she only did it because Wrayburn appeared to be on his deathbed.

Original publication

Our Mutual Friend, like most Dickens novels, was published in 19 monthly instalments, each costing one shilling (with the exception of the nineteenth, which was double-length and cost two). Each issue featured 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Marcus Stone.


  • I – May 1864 (chapters 1–4);
  • II – June 1864 (chapters 5–7);
  • III – July 1864 (chapters 8–10);
  • IV – August 1864 (chapters 11–13);
  • V – September 1864 (chapters 14–17).


  • VI – October 1864 (chapters 1–3);
  • VII – November 1864 (chapters 4–6);
  • VIII – December 1864 (chapters 7–10);
  • IX – January 1865 (chapters 11–13);
  • X – February 1865 (chapters 14–16).


  • XI – March 1865 (chapters 1–4);
  • XII – April 1865 (chapters 5–7);
  • XIII – May 1865 (chapters 8–10);
  • XIV – June 1865 (chapters 11–14);
  • XV – July 1865 (chapters 15–17).


  • XVI – August 1865 (chapters 1–4);
  • XVII – September 1865 (chapters 5–7);
  • XVIII – October 1865 (chapters 8–11);
  • XIX-XX – November 1865 (chapters 12–17 (Chapter the Last)).

Historical contexts

Dickens and Our Mutual Friend

In writing Our Mutual Friend, Dickens was possibly inspired by the 1850 Household Words piece “Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed” by R. H. Horne, which contains a number of situations and characters to be found in the later novel. These include a dust heap in which the legacy of a fortune lies buried,[34] a man with a wooden leg and an acute interest in the dust heap (Silas Wegg), and another with “poor withered legs” (Jenny Wren).[35] The clearest genesis of the novel dates from 1862, when Dickens jotted down in his notebook: “LEADING INCIDENT FOR A STORY. A man—young and eccentric?—feigns to be dead, and is dead to all intents and purposes, and... for years retains that singular view of life and character”.[34] Additionally, Dickens's longtime friend John Forster was the likely model for the wealthy, pompous John Podsnap.[36]

Our Mutual Friend was published in nineteen monthly numbers in the fashion of many earlier Dickens novels and for the first time since Little Dorrit (1855–7).[37] A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860–1) had been serialized in Dickens's weekly magazine All the Year Round. Dickens remarked to Wilkie Collins that he was “quite dazed” at the prospect of putting out twenty monthly parts after more recent weekly serials.[38]

Our Mutual Friend was the first of Dickens's novels not illustrated by Hablot Browne, with whom he had collaborated since The Pickwick Papers (1836–7). Dickens instead opted for the younger Marcus Stone and, uncharacteristically, left much of the illustrating process to his discretion.[39] After suggesting only a few slight alterations for the cover, for instance, Dickens wrote to Stone: “All perfectly right. Alterations quite satisfactory. Everything very pretty”.[40] Stone's encounter with a taxidermist named Willis provided the basis for Dickens's Mr. Venus, after Dickens had indicated he was searching for an uncommon occupation (“it must be something very striking and unusual”) for the novel.[41]

Staplehurst rail accident

Dickens, who was aware that it was now taking him longer than before to write, made sure he had built up a safety net of five serial numbers before the first went to publication for May 1864. He was at work on number sixteen when he was involved in the traumatic Staplehurst rail crash. Following the crash, and while tending to the injured among the “dead and dying,” Dickens went back to the carriage to rescue the manuscript from his overcoat.[42] In the resulting stress, from which Dickens would never fully recover, he came up two and a half pages short for the sixteenth serial, published in August 1865.[43] Dickens acknowledged his close brush with death that nearly cut short the composition of Our Mutual Friend in the novel's postscript:

On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr. and Mrs. Lammle at breakfast) were on the South-Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage—nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn—to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt. [...] I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book:—THE END.

Sales of Our Mutual Friend opened at 35,000 for the first number, but declined thereafter, dropping 5,000 by the second number and to 19,000 by the concluding double number.[44]

Jews in the time of Dickens and Our Mutual Friend

The way Dickens challenged the stereotypical portrayal of Jews in Our Mutual Friend was revolutionary for its time.

"[Dickens's] works of the 1850's and early 1860's continue to display occasional antagonism, but there are no full-scale Fagin-like portraits and there are fewer slurring references.[45] Jews still appear as repellent moneylenders, old-clothes dealers, and peddlers, but such appearances are fleeting and tangential." Before Our Mutual Friend, Jews were generally portrayed as thieves and cheats, as in Dickens's novel Oliver Twist. Early Victorian plays generally depicted Jews as either clothing dealers, staggering under huge bags or rags, or as moneylenders, who wore large cloaks and broad-rimmed hats. Jews' facial features were stereotypically long, hooked noses, red hair, and red whiskers.[46]

The hostility towards Jews was caused by their jobs. In London, most Jews were not allowed to open shops or attend college. This forced them to become money lenders and clothes dealers. Church laws prevented Christians from lending money at interest, but these laws did not apply to Jews. The phobia surrounding Jews led to public opinion that every Jew was scary, mean, money hungry, and would not hesitate to cheat a Christian. Jews were also separated as a result of their religion. They were treated as foreigners and persecuted because they held fast to their religion and traditions by refusing to become Christians during a time when Christianity was the dominant religion.[47]

Sir Robert Peel, an avid anti-Semitic and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, articulated the period's feelings towards Jews: "The Jew is not a degraded subject of the state; he is rather regarded in the light of an alien- he is excluded because he will not amalgamate with us in any of his usages or habits." [48]

The attitude of early to mid-nineteenth century Victorians from the 1830s to the 1850s caused a dramatic change in the social opinions of Jews. With the growing literary trend of a sympathetic treatment of Jews, many individuals modified their traditional views. These changing social patterns and Dickens's communication with Mrs. Davis, a Jewish woman, directly influenced Our Mutual Friend. Mrs. Davis wrote to Dickens in June 1863 stating, "that Charles Dickens the large hearted, whose works please so eloquently and so nobly for the oppressed of his country . . . has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew." Dickens responded by stating that he had always spoken well of Jews and held no prejudice against them. Fagin, in Oliver Twist, was a Jew "because it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers that class of criminal almost invariably was Jewish." Mrs. Davis replied by beseeching Dickens to "examine more closely into the manners and character of the British Jews and to represent them as they really are."[49]

In his article, "Dickens and the Jews," Harry Stone claims that this "incident apparently brought home to Dickens the irrationality of some of his feelings about Jews; at any rate, it helped, along with the changing times, to move him more swiftly in the direction of active sympathy for them."[50]

While in Oliver Twist, Dickens portrayed his main Jewish character Fagin as money hungry and ruthless, Dickens showed his changed attitude towards Jews with his creation of the character Riah in Our Mutual Friend. Riah's occupation as a moneylender could be construed as an early Victorian stereotype; however, as Harry Stone argues, "Riah's stereotype was not a stereotype, but a means of reversing it."[51]

Challenging Jewish stereotypes in Our Mutual Friend

  • Riah's relationship with Lizzie and Jenny Wren. Instead of being their assailant, he becomes their protector. Jenny calls him her "fairy godmother" and Lizzie refers to Riah as her "protector."[52]
  • Instead of being stingy and mean, Riah shows his charity by helping Lizzie find a job in the country.
  • Riah is not out only for himself like Dickens's previous depiction of Jews. Riah risks his own welfare to keep Lizzie's hidden location a secret from Fledgeby.
  • Riah "the Jew" is not money hungry; his Christian master Fledgeby is.

Women's power in the household

Because of the rapid increase in wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, women gained power through their households and class positions. It was up to the women in Victorian society to display their family's rank by decorating their households. This directly influenced the man's business and class status. Upper class homes were ornate, as well as packed full of materials.[53] "A lack of clutter was to be considered in bad taste." Through handcrafts and home improvement, women asserted their power over the household.[54]

"The making of a true home is really our peculiar and inalienable right: a right, which no man can take from us; for a man can no more make a home that a drone can make a hive."(Frances Cobbe)[55]

Ways Dickens mocks the upper classes' obsession with material possessions in Our Mutual Friend

  • "The camels are polishing up in the Analytical's pantry for the dinner of wonderment of the occasion of the Lammles going to pieces."[56]
  • The Lammles go from being one of the Veenerings' oldest friends to simply a topic of gossip, because of their lack of money and possessions
  • Lady Tippins refers to the Lammles as "what's-their-names." [57]


In the middle half of the Victorian Era, the earlier conduct books, which covered topics such as “honesty, fortitude, and fidelity,” were replaced with more modern etiquette books. These manuals served as another method to distinguish oneself by social class. Etiquette books specifically targeted members of the middle and upper classes; it was not until 1897 that a manual, specifically Book of the Household, by Casell, addressed all the classes. Not only did the readership of etiquette manuals show class differences, but the practices prescribed within them became a starch view by which one could locate a member of the lower class.[58]

Most etiquette manuals addressed calling cards, the duration of the call, and what was acceptable to say and do during a visit. One of the most popular etiquette books was Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was published in 1861. In this book, Beeton claims that a call of fifteen to twenty minutes is "quite sufficient" and states, "A lady paying a visit may remove her boa or neckerchief; but neither her shawl nor bonnet."[59]

Beeton goes on to write, "Of course no absorbed subject was ever spoken about. We kept ourselves to short sentences of small talk, and were punctual to our time."[60]

Etiquette books were constantly changing themes and ideas so this also distinguished who was an “insider” and who was an “outsider.”[61]

Ways Dickens challenges etiquette in Our Mutual Friend

  • Both Bella and Rokesmith's and Eugene and Lizzie's marriages. It was not thought proper to marry outside of one's class.
  • Both couples have meaningful and personal conversations, which are not timed or kept to "small talk."
  • Eugene refuses to leave Lizzie with Riah and openly touches her in public.
  • Both couples do not present calling cards when they visit one another.

Critical reaction

"He happens to be one of those 'great authors' who are ladled down everyone's throat in childhood. At the time this causes rebellion and vomiting, but it may have different after-effects in later life."

George Orwell (1939)

"Mr. Dickens must stand or fall by the severest canons of literary criticism: it would be an insult to his acknowledged rank to apply a more lenient standard; and bad art is not the less bad art and a failure because associated, as it is in his case, with much that is excellent, and not a little that is even fascinating."

George Stott (1866)

Dickens’s contemporary critics

Our Mutual Friend was not regarded as one of Dickens's greatest successes at the time of its original publication. During Our Mutual Friend's first round of publishing, fewer than 30,000 copies were sold.[62] Though The New York Times November 22, 1865 article concerning Our Mutual Friend conjectured, "By most readers...the last work by Dickens will be considered his best,"[63] direct evidence of how readers responded to Dickens's novels is scarce. Because Dickens burned his letters, the voices of his nineteenth-century serial audiences remain elusive.[64] Thus, evidence of the reactions of his Victorian era readers must be obtained from reviews of Our Mutual Friend by Dickens's contemporaries.

The first British periodical to print a review of Our Mutual Friend, published April 30, 1864 in The London Review, extolled the first serial installment, stating, "Few literary pleasures are greater than that which we derive from opening the first number of one of Mr. Dickens's stories"[65] and "Our Mutual Friend opens well".[66]

Dickens had his fans and detractors just like every author throughout the ages, but not even his most strident supporters like E.S. Dallas felt that Our Mutual Friend was perfect. Rather, the oft acknowledged "genius" of Dickens seems to have overshadowed all reviews and made it impossible for most critics to completely condemn the work, the majority of these reviews being a mixture of praise and disparagement.

In November 1865, a review in The Times by E.S. Dallas lauded Our Mutual Friend as "one of the best of even Dickens's tales,"[67] but was unable to ignore the flaws. "This last novel of Mr Charles Dickens, really one of his finest works, and one in which on occasion he even surpasses himself, labours under the disadvantage of a beginning that drags...On the whole, however, at that early stage the reader was more perplexed than pleased. There was an appearance of great effort without corresponding result. We were introduced to a set of people in whom it is impossible to take an interest, and were made familiar with transactions that suggested horror. The great master of fiction exhibited all his skill, performed the most wonderful feats of language, loaded his page with wit and many a fine touch peculiar to himself. The agility of his pen was amazing, but still at first we were not much amused."[68] Despite the mixed review, it pleased Dickens so well that he gifted Dallas with the manuscript.

  • Plot

Many critics found fault with the plot. In 1865, The New York Times disapproved of Dickens’s complicated conduct of his story, describing it as an "involved plot combined with an entire absence of the skill to manage and unfold it".[63] In an unsigned review published in the London Review in 1865, the anonymous critic felt that "the whole plot in which the deceased Harmon, Boffin, Wegg, and John Rokesmith, are concerned, is wild and fantastic, wanting in reality, and leading to a degree of confusion which is not compensated by any additional interest in the story"[69] and he also found that "the final explanation is a disappointment."[69] Typical of the conflicting reviews, the London Review also thought that "the mental state of a man about to commit the greatest of crimes has seldom been depicted with such elaboration and apparent truthfulness."[70]

  • Characters

Many reviewers responded negatively to Dickens's creation of his characters in Our Mutual Friend. The 1865 review by Henry James in The Nation described every character put before the reader as "a mere bundle of eccentricities, animated by no principle of nature whatever"[71] and condemned Dickens for what he saw as a lack of characters in the novel who represent "sound humanity".[72] James maintained that none of the novel's characters add anything to the reader's understanding of human nature, and asserted that Dickens's characters within Our Mutual Friend, whom he referred to as "grotesque creatures"[71] were not representative of actual existing Victorian types.

Like James, the 1869 article "Table Talk" in Once a Week did not view the characters in Our Mutual Friend as realistic depictions either. The article states: "Do men live by finding the bodies of the drowned, and landing them ashore 'with their pockets allus inside out' for the sake of the reward offered for their recovery? As far as we can make out, no. We have been at some trouble to inquire from men who should know; watermen, who have lived on the river nigh all their lives, if they have seen late at night a dark boat with a solitary occupant, drifting down the river on the 'look out,' plying his frightful trade? The answer has uniformly been 'No, we have never seen such men,' and more, they do not believe in their existence."[73]

The reviewer in the London Review in 1865 denounced the characters of Wegg and Venus, "who appear to us in all the highest degree unnatural—the one being a mere phantasm, and the other a nonentity,"[74] but he applauded the creation of Bella Wilfer. "Probably the greatest favourite in the book will be—or rather is already—Bella Wilfer. She is evidently a pet of the author's, and she will long remain the darling of half the households of England and America."[75] E.S. Dallas, in his 1865 review, concurred that "Mr Dickens has never done anything in the portraiture of women so pretty and so perfect"[76] as Bella.

Dallas also admired the creation of Jenny Wren—who was greeted with contempt by Henry James—stating that, "The dolls’ dressmaker is one of his most charming pictures, and Mr Dickens tells her strange story with a mixture of humour and pathos which it is impossible to resist."[77]

In an Atlantic Monthly article "The Genius of Dickens" written by critic Edwin Percy Whipple in 1867, he declared that Dickens's characters "have a strange attraction to the mind, and are objects of love or hatred, like actual men and women."[78]

  • Pathos and sentiment

Edwin Whipple also appreciated the sentiment and pathos of Dickens's characters, stating "But the poetical, the humorous, the tragic, or the pathetic element is never absent in Dickens's characterization, to make his delineations captivating to the heart and imagination, and give the reader a sense of having escaped from whatever in the actual world is dull and wearisome."[79]

In October 1865 an unsigned review appeared in the London Review stating that “Mr Dickens stands in need of no allowance on the score of having out-written himself. His fancy, his pathos, his humour, his wonderful powers of observation, his picturesqueness, and his versatility, are as remarkable now as they were twenty years ago."[80] Similar to other critics, after praising the book this same critic then turned around and disparaged it. "Not that we mean to say Mr Dickens has outgrown his faults. They are as obvious as ever—sometimes even trying our patience rather hard. A certain extravagance in particular scenes and persons—a tendency to caricature and grotesqueness—and a something here and there which savours of the melodramatic, as if the author had been considering how the thing would 'tell' on the stage—are to be found in Our Mutual Friend, as in all this great novelist’s productions."[74]

In 1869 George Stott condemned Dickens for being overly sentimental. "Mr Dickens’s pathos we can only regard as a complete and absolute failure. It is unnatural and unlovely. He attempts to make a stilted phraseology, and weak and sickly sentimentality do duty for genuine emotion."[81] But in the manner of all the other mixed reviews, Stott states that "we still hold him to be emphatically a man of genius."[82]

The Spectator in 1869 concurred with Stott’s opinion, writing "Mr Dickens has brought people to think that there is a sort of piety in being gushing and maudlin," and that his works are heavily imbued with the "most mawkish and unreal sentimentalism"[83] but the unsigned critic still maintained that Dickens was one of the great authors of his time.


In his 1940 article "Dickens: Two Scrooges", Edmund Wilson states, "Our Mutual Friend, like all these later books of Dickens, is more interesting to us today than it was to Dickens’s public. Certainly the subtleties and profundities that are now discovered in it were not noticed by the reviewers."[84] As a whole, modern critics of Our Mutual Friend, particularly those of the last half century, have been more appreciative of Dickens's last work than his contemporary reviewers. Although some modern critics find Dickens's characterization in Our Mutual Friend problematic, most modern critics tend to positively acknowledge the novel's complexity and appreciate its multiple plot lines. G. K. Chesterton, one of Dickens's critics in the early 20th century, expressed the opinion that Mr. Boffin's pretended fall into miserliness was originally intended by Dickens to be authentic, but that Dickens ran out of time and so took refuge in the awkward pretence that Boffins had been acting. Chesterton argues that while we might believe Boffin could be corrupted, we can hardly believe he could keep up such a strenuous pretence of corruption: "Such a character as his—rough, simple and lumberingly unconscious—might be more easily conceived as really sinking in self-respect and honour than as keeping up, month after month, so strained and inhuman a theatrical performance. . . . It might have taken years to turn Noddy Boffin into a miser; but it would have taken centuries to turn him into an actor."[1] However, Chesterton also praised the book as being a return to Dickens's youthful optimism and creative exuberance, full of characters that "have that great Dickens quality of being something which is pure farce and yet which is not superficial; an unfathomable farce—a farce that goes down to the roots of the universe."

  • Form and plot

In his 2006 article "The Richness of Redundancy: Our Mutual Friend," John R. Reed states, "Our Mutual Friend has not pleased many otherwise satisfied readers of Dickens's fiction. For his contemporaries and such acute assessors of fiction as Henry James, the novel seemed to lack structure, among other faults. More recently, critics have discovered ways in which Dickens can be seen experimenting in the novel."[85] Reed maintains that Dickens's establishment of "an incredibly elaborate structure" for Our Mutual Friend was an extension of Dickens's quarrel with realism. In creating a highly formal structure for his novel, which called attention to the novel's own language, Dickens embraced taboos of realism. Reed also argues that Dickens's employment of his characteristic technique of offering his reader what might be seen as a surplus of information within the novel, in the form of a pattern of references, exists as a way for Dickens to guarantee that the meaning of his novel might be transmitted to his reader. Reed cites Dickens's multiple descriptions of the River Thames and repetitive likening of Gaffer to "a roused bird of prey" in the novel's first chapter as evidence of Dickens's use of redundancy to establish two of the novel's fundamental themes: preying/scavenging and the transformative powers of water. According to Reed, in order to notice and interpret the clues representing the novel's central themes that Dickens gives his reader, the reader must have a surplus of these clues. Echoing Reed's sentiments, in her 1979 article "The Artistic Reclamation of Waste in Our Mutual Friend," Nancy Aycock Metz claims, "The reader is thrown back upon his own resources. He must suffer, along with the characters of the novel, from the climate of chaos and confusion, and like them, he must begin to make connections and impose order on the details he observes."[86]

In his 1995 article "The Cup and the Lip and the Riddle of Our Mutual Friend", Gregg A. Hecimovich reaffirms Metz's notion of reading the novel as a process of connection and focuses on what he sees as one of the main aspects of Dickens's narrative: "a complex working out of the mysteries and idiosyncrasies presented in the novel."[87] Unlike Dickens's contemporary critics, Hecimovich commends Dickens for Our Mutual Friend’s disjunctive, riddle-like structure and manipulation of plots, declaring, "In a tale about conundrums and questions of identity, divergence of plots is desirable."[88] Hecimovich goes on to say that in structuring his last novel as a riddle-game, Dickens challenges conventions of nineteenth-century Victorian England and that the "sickness" infecting Dickens’s composition of Our Mutual Friend is that of Victorian society generally, not Dickens himself.

  • Characters

Hecimovich refers to Jenny Wren, Mr. Wegg, and Mr. Venus, all seemingly minor characters in Our Mutual Friend whom Henry James dismissed as "pathetic characters" in his 1865 review of the novel, as "important riddlers and riddlees."[89] Hecimovich states, "Through the example of his minor characters, Dickens directs his readers to seek, with the chief characters, order and structure out of the apparent disjunctive 'rubbish' in the novel, to analyze and articulate what ails a fallen London... Only then can the reader, mimicking the action of certain characters, create something 'harmonious' and beautiful out of the fractured waste land."[90]

Harland S. Nelson's 1973 article "Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor" examines Dickens’s inspiration for two of the novel’s working class characters. Nelson asserts that Gaffer Hexam and Betty Higden were potentially modeled after real members of London's working class whom Mayhew interviewed in the 1840s for his nonfiction work London Labour and the London Poor. Unlike some of Dickens’s contemporaries, who regarded the characters in Our Mutual Friend as unrealistic representations of actual Victorian people, Nelson maintains that London's nineteenth-century working class is authentically depicted through characters such as Gaffer Hexam and Betty Higden.[91]

However, not all modern critics of Our Mutual Friend regard the novel's characters in a positive light. In her 1970 essay "Our Mutual Friend: Dickens as the Compleat Angler," Annabel Patterson declares, "Our Mutual Friend is not a book which satisfies all of Dickens's admirers. Those who appreciate Dickens mainly for the exuberance of his characterization and his gift for caricature feel a certain flatness in this last novel..."[92] Deirdre David claims that Our Mutual Friend is a novel through which Dickens "engaged in a fictive improvement of society"[93] that bore little relation to reality, especially regarding the character of Lizzie Hexam, whom David describes as a myth of purity among the desperate lower-classes. David criticizes Dickens for his "fable of regenerated bourgeois culture"[94] and maintains that the character Eugene Wrayburn's realistic counterpart would have been far more likely to offer Lizzie money for sex than to offer her money for education.

  • Themes

Aside from examining the novel’s form and characters, modern critics of Our Mutual Friend have focused on identifying and analyzing what they perceive as the main themes of the novel. Although Stanley Friedman's 1973 essay "The Motif of Reading in Our Mutual Friend" emphasizes references to literacy and illiteracy in the novel, Friedman states, "Money, the dust-heaps, and the river have been seen as the main symbols, features, that help develop such themes as avarice, predation, death and rebirth, the quest for identity and pride. To these images and ideas, we may add what Monroe Engel calls the 'social themes of Our Mutual Friend—having to do with money-dust, and relatedly with the treatment of the poor, education, representative government, even the inheritance laws.'"[95]

According to Metz, many of the prominent themes in Dickens's earlier works of fiction are intricately woven into Dickens's last novel. She states, "Like David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend is about the relationship between work and the realization of self, about the necessity to be 'useful' before one can be 'happy.' Like Great Expectations, it is about the power of money to corrupt those who place their faith in its absolute value. Like Bleak House, it is about the legal, bureaucratic, and social barriers that intervene between individuals and their nearest neighbours. Like all of Dickens's novels, and especially the later ones, it is about pervasive social problems-poverty, disease, class bitterness, the sheer ugliness and vacuity of contemporary life."[96]

Adaptations and influence



In 2011, The Young Shakespeare Players of Madison, Wisconsin, staged a 10 and 1/2 hour adaptation of the novel, much like the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby, which the company has also done. The script was adapted from the novel and was written by the director of the theater, Richard DiPrima.


In November 2009, BBC Radio 4 broadcast Mike Walker's adaptation.[97]


  • At one point, the Royal Shakespeare Company considered a very long stage adaptation of the novel, featuring every last subplot and character, but shied away as there were simply too many drownings or near drownings which would have been too complicated to do on stage. They opted instead to do Nicholas Nickleby.[citation needed]
  • T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land had, as a working title, "He Do the Police in Different Voices", praise that Betty Higden gives to Sloppy.
  • In 2005, Paul McCartney released a song "Jenny Wren" on his Chaos and Creation in the Backyard album about the character of Jenny Wren.
  • Sir Harry Johnston wrote a sequel to Our Mutual Friend, titled The Veneerings, published in the early 1920s.
  • Lizzie Hexam is a supporting character in the comic book series The Unwritten


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  97. ^ BBC Radio 4 Our Mutual Friend: Adaptation by Mike Walker of Charles Dickens's classic novel

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