Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thoughts on Our Mutual Friend

Like most students, I read Charles Dickens in grade school, the classic Great Expectations.  While I'm pretty sure that covers the extent of my practical experience with him, Dickens of course is also well-known for The Adventures of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and numerous other books besides.  In modern culture, he may best be remembered for A Christmas Carol, which has been adapted many times for the stage and screen, the story of how Scrooge rediscovered his love for humanity after spending a regrettable part of his life as, well, a scrooge.

It might be said that Dickens loved to write about the struggles of society to reconcile itself from one level to the next.  His final completed work, Our Mutual Friend, may yet prove to be his definitive statement on the subject, a tapestry of lives ruined and salvaged by a sizable fortune left unclaimed by the apparent death of the heir and instead bequeathed to a working man besieged on all sides by those looking to benefit.

Judging from the merits of the work itself and the footprints I see in later English literature, I think that the book left a sizable impression at the time that history has all but forgotten.  Part of that is no doubt due to the celebrity of one of the most famous novelists in history.  In modern times Our Mutual Friend resurfaced as a reference in the TV series Lost, no doubt for the parallel narrative device of reinvention after disaster.

Dickens emerges in this late work as a talented if bloated writer, endlessly lively in his prose but too unsparing in his admiration for a large cast of characters, sometimes very tenuously expressing useful commentaries to the central plot.  The author famously serialized his stories (something Stephen King attempted to reintroduce with The Green Mile), and perhaps it was this format and his own reputation that prevented him from a more concise version of the story, which itself plays out almost like an alternate and more skilled version of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, although again for some reason neither works as well as it could.

Like Madding Crowd, there's a name that's resurfaced in popular literature (Bella, as in the Twilight saga, whereas Hardy inspired the name for the lead character in The Hunger Games).  That's just to say.

The edition I read ran to eight hundred pages.  I would've been fine with a version that ran half that long.  Once I got to the part where the climax came, I didn't see the point of the book continuing.  The essay at the start of the edition remarks how the arc of John Harmon contrasts that of Bradley Headstone, though the latter is used less than is suggested, and thus his arc has less impact than it could.

In all, it's a story that is greatly fascinating, but even though it's written by an acknowledged master of the form, could easily be improved.  There's even a version I have in mind that would make it a story worthy of Dostoyevsky (much as I admire Dickens, I adore Dostoyevsky).

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