Why Our Mutual Friend Has Become My Favorite Classic
Contains spoilers for "Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens
“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.” - Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens' last finished novel, and it’s been said that it's also the one where his serious humor shines through the most. Like most of Dickens’ novels, there are several underlying comments on London society and the hard life that the lower class faced. This is actually the first thing I’ve read from Dickens (I completed it within a month), which has piqued my interest in delving into his other novels.
Connected With a Memory
”No one is useless in this world... who lightens the burden of it for any one else.” - Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
We’ll get into all of the specifics with this masterpiece, but aside from that, this book is connected with happy memories for me. I remember turning through these pages during a road trip with my family to Connecticut. We had planned just a short lake house getaway and, after watching the adaptation of Our Mutual Friend from the BBC, I knew which book I was taking for the ride.
There were long nights sitting around a campfire by the glistening lake, and there I’d be with my book, learning about this crazy tale and all of its twists and turns. I can still smell the wood smoke in the pages, and I absolutely love it.
Maybe I’ll always love this book because of the good times I had on that trip; I was in a happier state of mind. But I can’t ignore the masterful art that went behind this novel either.
“And O there are days in this life, worth life and worth death.” - Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
The novel starts out with Lizzie and Jessie ‘Gaffer’ Hexam rowing in their boat on the Thames river. Gaffer, Lizzie’s father, makes a living off the dead - quite literally. After dragging the dead bodies out of the river, he picks their pockets for spare money and valuables.
Lizzie is quite ashamed of their way of living and dreams of a better life frequently. Instead of going off on her own, she uses all of her savings to help send her brother Charlie off to school. This, of course, brings up a new set of problems later on.
Now, one body Gaffer fishes out takes the name of John Harmon, a gentleman who had just received his father's fortune made from dust mounds. With his death comes speculation within higher society and someone new in town - John Rokesmith. John Rokesmith is essentially the mutual friend as referenced in the title. He ties all of these crazy characters together. He becomes the accountant to the man who inherits the Harmon fortune - Mr. Boffin. The Boffins are a poor couple, living amongst the dust mounds, and were very close friends with the Harmons.
Because Mr. Boffin cares so very much about the death of John Harmon, he is willing to give out a generous sum of money to whoever can find the man who murdered him. This gets two other people involved: Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, our lawyers in this story.
Mortimer and Eugene are best friends; one very interested in solving the Harmon case, and the other quite uninterested in just about everything. I must admit Eugene’s utter sarcastic and drab attitude made me take a liking to him almost immediately. He didn’t have time for ridiculous people or false pretenses (high society as a whole) and I was here for it.
As soon as Mortimer finds out about John Harmon’s death, they know who to go to - Gaffer Hexam. He was the one to hoist his body out of the Thames, so they hope he will have information. So off they go to visit Gaffer. They learn very little from their visit, with the exception of Eugene keeping his notice on Lizzie the whole night.
Later, however, a man named Riderhood goes to Mortimer hoping to tip the lawyers that Gaffer himself is the culprit. Riderhood is Hexam’s main competitor; he also makes a living off the dead. Naturally, he wants to see Gaffer in ruin and take all the reward money to rub in his face. To everyone’s surprise, though, Gaffer ends up dead in the river the next night, having committed suicide.
So, what next? Eugene feels that Lizzie needs help all on her own now and vouches to get her further education in hopes of her having a better future. While this happens, Charlie comes to check up on his sister along with his schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, who also takes a liking to Lizzie and becomes quite jealous of Eugene providing her teaching.
While this is going on, the Boffins decide they want to do some good with their money. They have Bella Wilfer stay with them, the widow who never got to marry John Harmon.
I can’t really go into that side of things much further without completely giving away the plot and mystery, so let me just say I don’t exactly like the way some of the characters go about things involving Bella. What I do love is her friendship with Lizzie. Lizzie and she seem to be the only two to keep in contact throughout the whole book despite the lack of interactions between the two, and I love to see it.
Where Things Get Interesting
So you thought you’ve read love confessions, didn’t you? You thought you were swept away by Mr. Darcy and his use of the word 'ardent', weren’t you? Well, look here. Charles Dickens decides he’s going to give us two (three, actually) completely different love confessions that are unparalleled. I’m absolutely blown away that I can feel disgust, giddiness, and uneasiness between the three.
The first doesn’t go well at all with Lizzie. She ends up turning the man down. With her place in society, this is extremely surprising, even though it might be for the best. But I had some serious respect for her because of it. This makes the proposer, Bradley Headstone, furious for being turned down. And for worse, because Lizzie loves Eugene.
This goes into a spiral when Lizzie runs away, fearing for Eugene’s safety. Eugene decides to follow her despite being stalked himself by Headstone. As Eugene confesses his love for Lizzie but an unwillingness to do anything about it, Headstone attempts to murder him the same night! There’s literally so much happening!
And what about the Boffins, Charlie, John Rokesmith, and Bella Wilfer? What about the unresolved death of John Harmon? What about the fortune and the beggars and the watermen? Society as a whole!
In the end, everything works itself out; Eugene at least had some sense knocked into him. He and Lizzie are in love, as are John and Bella. Money and class are actually the main roots of both couple‘s problems. Dickens definitely did this on purpose. He was constantly trying to shed light on lower-class life and the obsessive views society had on money and who deserved to relish in riches.
Even though the world has changed since Victorian times, there are still principles that stay much the same. This book makes you take a step back and think. It’s all about deceit, death, our background, and the grip money has on us. It’s scary to think money can motivate us in such strong, destructive ways. To marry for money, lie for money, kill for money. There are still many in the world today who have.
That’s why this book has become my favorite. It gets your gears turning. But not only that. The characters are the most complex I‘ve come across in a while. I love almost all of them; they all have significance to the story in some way, and you can tell that each one has a personality. That’s a hard thing to do when you have nearly twenty characters inter-weaved into the plot.
I could honestly go on and on about everything I love about this book. I’m not kidding. I would do an in-depth character synopsis for all of them if you asked me. In the meantime, you simply need to add this novel to your reading list. This story needs more love and recognition for what it’s worth! But maybe that’s part of the charm. Don’t take it from me, though. Join the party and see for yourself!