Tuesday, 26 June 2012



It is one of the striking things about the novel: the way it builds its tension of buried threat, building unfairness, in order to pay it out in the final sections in actual violence. Of the various plotlines that draw their narrative energy from the sense that injustice is slowly growing: that Wegg will succeed in his evil schemes, that Boffin is sinking into actual miserliness; that Headstone’s rival Eugene will seduce and abandon Lizzie—it is the sexual tension last that pays out, symbolically, most striking. As if the sexual tension of the first three books breaks out, in the final quarter, in a flurry of transferred physical beatings—Headstone beating Eugene (‘the blows fell heavily and cruelly on the quiet of the night’ 4:6); Lammle beating Fledgby and making his writhe and cry out; Boffin beating up Wegg. This novel is much less about money, then, and much more about sex. That statement will need a little defending, since Dickens is not often thought of as novelist skilled in the delineation of the sexual life. And so perhaps it would be safer to say that Our Mutual Friend is about the relationship between what can be shown and what ought to be hidden. Between if we want to put it this way, propriety and the improper; between decency and the indecent. On the one hand are all the civilised virtues of the nineteenth-century, the things that are fit subjects for a mainstream Victorian novel. On the other is all the stuff across which the veil of discretion is conventionally drawn: waste; shit; sex; violence; exploitation; deformity; drunkenness; deceit; death. One of the most striking things about this striking novel is the way all its money comes from the latter half.

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