Tag Archives: our mutual friend

Secondary – Our Mutual Friend

Never over till it’s over, syllepsis opens minds as well as grammar, keeps things going and up for grabs. It gives us one syntactic timeline braided together with a syncopated grammatical strand. With closure resisted at the phrasal level, response is held not in check but in expectancy. . . . It keeps difference alive across iteration or ellipsis, implanting the null with surplus. Time and time again, syllepsis abruptly refocuses the other through the lens of the same.

Garret Stewart, “Ethical Tempo of Narrative Syntax: Sylleptic Recognitions in Our Mutual Friend,” 2010


These three vignettes obviously present a range of models for agency, from the abject powerlessness of the waterlogged corpse to the omnipotence of old Harmon’s attempt to enforce his intentions from beyond the grave. In fact, the problem of agency permeates Our Mutual Friend. By using a variety of cases to foreground concerns about the scope and powers of social systems—economic, legal, and educational, as well as classist, gendered, and normative—to control and condition individuals, the novel rehearses one of the pressing issues for mid-Victorian England debates about morality and responsibility, that is, how to disentangle individual motive from social conditioning. Rather than figuring these as mutually exclusive terms, Our Mutual Friend repeatedly emphasizes the impossibility of distinguishing between self- and social determination when it comes to agency.

Connect with JS Mill On Liberty: “A person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character”

Molly Anne Rothenberg, “Articulating Social Agency in Our Mutual Friend” (2004)




Charles Dickens – Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)

John Harmon, Julius Hanford and John Rokesmith are all the same character: namely, our mutual friend. He is “murdered” early on, but is reincarnated as John Rokesmith, a secretary to the Boffins, the erstwhile servants (now heirs) of the miserly Senior Hamron’s dusty fortune. He falls in love with Bella Wilfer, whom he has supposed to marry as part of the will and contrives to stay disguised as a means of testing her. The Boffins are part of the scheme to test her, and Noddy Boffin appears to be entirely corrupted by money (and at great risk of being swindled by the spurious poet-teacher-salesman Silas Wegg).

Eugene Wrayburn falls in love with Lizzie Hexam, the daugher of the boatman (Gaffer Hexam) who discovers John Harmon’s putative body. He does not marry her at first, b/c of social difference, but seeks to better her and court her. Lizzie’s brother Charley goes off to school (at her bidding) and studies under Bradley headstone, who also falls in love with Lizzie and eventually turns violently against his rival Eugene. Eugene almost dies, but not before seeking out Lizzie and marrying her on his almost-death-bed.

Eventually everything works out. A will is found which hands over all the money to the Boffins, who give it over to Harmon and Bella, a once mercenary woman turned good by the lessons directed by Harmon. Harmon is reborn as a rich inheritor but through the tidy circuit of the Boffins, who render the money “clean,” I guess. Eugene does not die.  Bradley headstone kills himself and Riderhood, a good-for-nothing boatman who attempted to falsely accuse Hexam of murder. Mortimer remains single, and Twemlow (and awkward neutral character) gives the final word on marrying across class lines.

Other important characters include the Lammles (who live beyond their means), Fledgeby (who extorts everyone behind the mask of Riah), Venus (the bone articulartor who helps but then abandons Wegg)

Plot: Wild, more wild then Bleak House. Dickens, in the afterward, admits to its emming implausibility, but used a Sherlock Holmes-style explanation: fact is often less plausible then are most highly wrought fictions.

Central Metaphor: the river Thames serves as driver of plot, but also as a reinforcement of narrative repetition —points in the plot that are similar (either foreshadowing or reversals)…begins with a death in the river, but Eugene Wrayburn is reborn in the river.  Also, track river metaphor from Redgauntlet (as murky dividing line between a Scotland partitioned between Royalists and Rebels) to [As I lay Dying, etc.]

Doubles: Not motivated by plot, but rather are imposed by characters—characters as plot making actors (Bradley Headstone tried to turn himself into a double of Riderhood); John Harmon is replaced by a nameless person in the body bag: he likewise becomes a tripel of himself, each character manifesting different aspects of his personality, itself a device for richer characterization.

Child/Parent Reversals – Bella turns her father (Rumpty, cherub, Reginald) into her child, and The Doll Dress Maker Jenny Wren turns her reprobate father into a child while she in turn looks old and wizened. A trope throughout Dickens, most notable in Skimpole.

Eugene Wrayburn is another instantiation of the aimless, listless bachelor.

Education: Dicknes contrives an entire plot within a plot to manage the moral and domestic education of Bella Wilfer. Compare this to what Marianna undergoes in Sense and Sensibility. Both characters are guilty of types of excess, whether monetary or emotive. While her’s is a gradual education, Eugene is literally reborn, and disfigurement becomes the means to his moral revolution.

Violence, not Sickness – Not nearly as pervasive as in Bleak House (think of Jo), but characters are afflicted by more outright and salient violence.

Jews – Riah stands in as the money-lender, but is, in fact, merely a front for Fledgeby, who extorts everyone in money troubles. Dickens is sympathetic to Jews throughout, and spends a while insisting on their hard-working, sympathetic character.

Orphan plot – See Seth Koven here, Mrs. Boffin goes prospecting for picturesque orphans for quite a while before realizing that it’s counter-productive.

Mirrors – besides the persistence of water as a mirror, Bella uses a mirror to interrogate herself, a mirror reflects the feast at Veneerings (themselves a mirror for society), etc.

Concealment and Revelation –

Narration – largely ominiscient third person, but without warning takes on the perspective of a character in the scene, and not always the main person. Decidely modern in its ability to shift around from consciousness to consciousness.

Literalizing metaphors – this can be comic or tragic depending on situation. Track instances throughout and make list.

Life – When Riderhood is coming back to Life, “Life” becomes an objectified force that exists outside of the individual subject.  Read Gallagher, who says that Our Mutual Friend and Unto this Lastwant to denounce British political economy, but end up importing abstract idea of life, vital labor, that animates political economy and it is exchangeable (when Riderhood is no longer who he is, he is merely bare life, that’s what invests anything with value…cf. Arendt, Agamben, etc.).

How alive does John Harmon have to be in order for him to posses value? From the position of being dead that he will recuperate value that has been tainted by social inequality—from iilth into wealth (Ruskin’s terms in Unto this Last)

Connecting to Hardy as valuing the point of death (the fact that he is dead makes it so that you narrate…but in Hardy…that’s when you know the stakes of chance are identical, lovingkindness is like being dead, because it flattens everything; contradiction: dissolve self/other differentiation…[Sanders’ point:] the precondition for that being a value is that there is a self that can appreciate it by a subject…