Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

From Disney movies to the most recent bestseller, children are born to escape the confines of familial failure. No hero is worth his salt unless and until he casts off the shackles of parental mismanagement. Or so we are often told.

Traditionally, the trajectory of the heroic quest has been the catalyst of the moral, social, and psychological development of the hero. Today, the so-called heroic journey is less a quest and more a selfish flight¯from the family, with no return. An antidote is to be found, not in the neglect of the theme of family collapse, but in the embrace of a more complete understanding of family¯a realism that admits both sin and salvation.

The writing of Charles Dickens provides abundant examples. Long maligned for his supposedly trite sentimentality, the Victorian giant is in fact a model of balanced understanding. With his appreciation of the place and function of the family, Dickens shows us both failure and redemption, and he delves into the essence of a true “happily ever after.” This is possible only because dysfunction, discord, and even extreme violence run rampant through the Dickensian canon on every familial level.

Nearly all Dickens’ novels begin with a broken or precarious home. Oliver Twist opens with a destitute mother who dies after embracing her newborn son. David Copperfield is born “a posthumous child” and is soon cursed with a vicious disciplinarian stepfather. Dombey and Son tells of little Florence, left motherless after her brother’s birth and utterly neglected by her father. In Martin Chuzzlewit old Martin is estranged from his willful grandson, and all of the family buzzards swarm in hopes of capturing the family fortune. Our Mutual Friend displays a host of disturbed families, with a living reenactment of the story of Cain. And the dreary catalogue continues.

This is the world of Charles Dickens. One might well ask: What is the point of all of these distressing details when the end of the novel will, in most cases, be a sentimentalized scene of happy family life? The test of true heroism is how the fruits of human striving play out over the course of a life¯or, at least, eight-hundred-odd pages. Throughout, family remains the overarching paradigm, the original cell of social life, a community of persons. This literary trajectory images, in microcosm, man’s alienation from and return to his Father.

The family¯responsible for nurturing, educating, protecting and loving¯is the point of departure and the human goal. When broken, it is the primary catalyst to heroic growth; when purified through suffering and revitalized by love, it anticipates our ultimate reward. Finding and fostering the love of family is the goal of every true Dickensian hero, and losing it is the tragedy of every villain and victim.

Dickens is rife with failed marriages, from the harshness of Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield to the loveless union suffered by Estella at the end of Great Expectations . In Dombey and Son , Mr. Dombey suffers two failed marriages¯his first wife wastes away after childbirth (seemingly because of a lack of loving support on the part of her husband) and the second, the angry, proud Edith, grapples with him throughout their loveless, fruitless marriage and finally deserts him. The fruitfulness of marriage is a determining factor. Love begets, and, in the case of romantic love, the normal fruit is children.

The modern fixation with sterilized romance would not have it so; it takes two and the clinch is everything. The fantasy of this duet of selfishness is violently exploded in Oliver Twist . The thief Nancy’s all-engrossing love for the brutish house robber Bill Sikes traps her in poverty and debauchery until young Oliver, who might easily have been corrupted like Nancy, spurs her toward a final, bloody redemption. The innocent child, who under another pen might have served as a stabilizing force in the unwholesome romantic dyad, drives it instead to its breaking point. In contrast to this infamous failed relationship, the dozens of happy marriages that conclude most of the novels are not stagnant; the reader is invariably told of the gaggle of young children produced.

But failure to achieve such fruitful happiness need not end in utter despair. The redemptive side of the narrative is always clearly, if indirectly, shown. Mr. Dombey’s is one of the most compelling tales of parental offense. When his second wife leaves him, his fury is extreme. His long-neglected daughter Florence yields “to the impulse of her affection, timid at all other times, but bold in its truth to him in his adversity, and undaunted by past repulse,” and she tries to comfort him. He strikes her violently, denounces his latest wife and, by association, his daughter:

She did not sink down at his feet; she did not shut out the sight of him with her trembling hands; she did not weep; she did not utter one word of reproach. But she looked at him, and a cry of desolation issued from her heart. For as she looked, she saw him murdering that fond idea to which she had held in spite of him. She saw his cruelty, neglect, and hatred dominant above it, and stamping it down. She saw she had no father upon earth, and ran out, orphaned, from his house.

Dickens’ exquisite appreciation of the redemptive power of violence, seen also with the death of Nancy, shows clearly here. The drama of this betrayal scene, which would be easily dismissed today as melodrama, reverberates through the rest of the novel and is the catalyst for Mr. Dombey’s descent into insane jealousy bent on vengeance, then extreme purgative suffering. In the end, he is haunted¯not by the loss of his wife, not by the loss of his business, but by the loss of his daughter.

The novel concludes with a description of Mr. Dombey as an old “white-haired gentlemen” walking along the sea-beach with Florence, his grandson, and his granddaughter, to whom he is passionately devoted. He lives within the revitalized family circle and listens to the waves that “speak to him of Florence and his altered heart; of Florence and their ceaseless murmuring to her of the love, eternal and illimitable, extending still, beyond the sea, beyond the sky, to the invisible country far away.”

The centrality of Florence to Dombey’s redemption is not accidental, and she should not be dismissed as a sweetly pathetic heroine. Her goodness and constancy serve as the counterpoint to her father’s injustice, pride, and selfishness. In fact, they are necessary for his redemption:

And yet¯so proud was he in his ruin, or so reminiscent of her, only as something that might have been his, but was lost beyond redemption¯that if he could have heard her voice in an adjoining room, he would not have gone to her. If he could have seen her in the street, and she had done no more than look at him as she had been used to look, he would have passed on with his old cold unforgiving face, and not addressed her, or relaxed it, though his heart should have broken soon afterwards.

For a proper understanding of the family, there is no Victorian character so necessary as that much-maligned Angel in the House. The mother is the central figure of civilization¯the first relationship, the first contact with humanity¯yet Dickensian mothers are often dead or ineffectual. Surrogate mothers, such as Richards the nurse of Dombey and Son or David Copperfield’s eccentric Aunt Betsey, serve a worthy and important purpose, nurturing children into adulthood.

Beyond these nurses and elderly spinsters, another female type stands out¯the young women who blossom with the fruitfulness of the next generation. They are a diverse breed; many of them are characterized by the meek saintliness that illumines Florence Dombey, while others are more dynamically willful (Bella Wilfer and Estella Havisham are the most vivid example).

None of them are either weak or proto-feminist. Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend rescues Eugene Wrayburn¯literally and spiritually¯when she first pulls his body from a watery grave and later marries him. Bella Wilfer is spoiled, vain, and mercenary; and yet she becomes a heroine of extraordinary worth. Each of them, in the culmination of both plot and womanhood, manifest the family.

These heroines’ purity, charity, and acceptance of suffering manifests their receptivity to grace¯a stance that is not passive (despite the tendency of the women to faint). This is not to claim for Dickens a philosophical or theological training, which would be absurd in the face of his haphazard religiosity and confused beliefs. Rather, it is to identify his sense of the human endeavor, highly simplified on some levels, yet deeply ingrained in the stories he weaves. In the end, he inevitably reasserts that it is within the context of the family that we learn, or fail to learn, what it is to be human and what it is to be happy.

Where is Society (with a capital “S”) in all of this? It is a question often posed by Dickens, and nowhere more ostentatiously than at the end of what is arguably his greatest work, Our Mutual Friend . The novel concludes with retribution for villains and happily-ever-afters for the familial conglomeration. When Mortimer Lightwood goes out to discover Society’s opinion of these happenings, he learns that Society cannot comprehend it in the slightest. Blinded by the false values of a solipsistic, indulgent world view, Society has not the values or the vocabulary to grasp this ending and its anticipation of eternity.

But regardless of Society’s comprehension, the larger picture of the human family is constantly reasserted. Ebeneezer Scrooge is not a Cratchet, but he does become “a second father” to Tiny Tim, and by extension “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” It is from this understanding of family, immediate and extended by friendship and compassion, that Dickens derives his formula for social reform: the virtuous rich independently caring for the virtuous poor.

That is all nice, some might say, but Dickens is too flighty, too loud, too long-winded, too spectacular. Yet, in Dickens there is an exquisite balance that relies utterly on his pervasive sense of humor. Too often modern sensibilities and the penchant for morbid social drama beget a world where life is hell and family is a chariot of despair. It is not merely that no one is saved; it is that hope is spurious and there was no chance of redemption in the first place. With Dickens’ joyous hodge-podge of plot and character, however, we can glory in the absurd.

There are plenty of absurd Dickensian families: the Fezziwigs, the Kenwigs, the Boffins, the Peggottys, the Cheerybles . . . and in them the strangest or most vulnerable characters¯the neglected, the eccentric, the disabled¯are able to find happiness. Dickens takes us again and again to the family. In the end, a true understanding of the family makes reverence and realism possible. The scene of the Cratchets welcoming a reformed Scrooge to their family hearth is more than an image for Christmas cards; it is an embodiment of man’s desire for God expressed in familial love.

Yes¯violence, disruption, estrangement, betrayal¯all of these come into play. Love requires the heroic striving of virtuous men and God’s grace beyond the most horrific scenes of family dysfunction. This virtue-based familial outlook does not stifle individuality, for to read Dickens is to encounter the flood of humanity gloriously and eccentrically delineated. Thus, Dickens posthumously undermines the phenomenon of dysfunction and challenges both the modern author and reader to see beyond the limits of grievance, through the violence of redemption, to familial joy that gestures ever heavenward.

Eleanor Bourg Donlon is an assistant editor for Dappled Things and the Saint Austin Review (StAR). Her website is . This essay is adapted from a paper given at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s annual conference.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles