By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: David Timson
The last is not first in Charles Dickens book, Our Mutual Friend. This is Dickens’ last; not his best novel, but better than most books by authors that call themselves writers. His skill as a writer is well-proven. Dickens’ skill is clearly evident in Our Mutual Friend but caricature begins to cloy by the end of the story.
One can see the commercial serialization and fluid evolution of Dickens’ characters with each chapter. Characters are transformed from imagination to reality but, in the end, become depreciated by caricature. Dickens’ underlying theme is a “send-up” of English society in the mid-19th century. It resonates with caricatures of the rich and poor, ethnic and professional, and working class of all societies. However, Our Mutual Friend’s caricatures are so stereotypical, neither comedy nor tragedy move the reader/listener in the way of earlier Dickens’ books.
Our Mutual Friend is not a finely structured story but a master writer’s showcase of an immense talent for creating characters that tickle one’s interest with a mystery that absorbs one’s attention. A reader/listener meets the best and worst of society in Our Mutual Friend. The problem is the characters are either wholly bad or perfectly good; i.e. caricatures rather than believable human beings. This is not to say there cannot be exceptions to the rule but generally most human beings are both good and bad. In Our Mutual Friend, most of the characters are wholly bad or wholly good (an exception to “most” might be Bella and Wrayburn).
John Harmon, aka John Rokesmith is the perfect personal secretary, rich man, and husband. Bella Wilfer is the perfectly reformed future wife (formerly an acquisitively motivated lower middle class woman) of John Harmon. The Boffins are the perfect nuvo-rich inheritors that give up wealth because they know money is not the most important thing in life. Lizzie Hexam is the perfect poor and uneducated woman who becomes the perfect wife of a reformed lecherous lawyer. Charley Hexam is a totally selfish prestige-driven brother that never understands the goodness of his sister Lizzie Hexam. Eugene Wrayburn is the perfectly reformed lecherous attorney that marries Lizzie because he realizes the importance of true love. Bradley Headstone and Silas Wegg are perfect villains, with one driven by insane passion; the other driven by uneducated utilitarian immorality.
There are many more characters that emphasize the extremes of society. Dickens makes his points about society with heavy-handed caricatures. Each of Dickens’ chapters entertains but the overall story is riddled with characters that are too perfectly evil or too perfectly good. Our Mutual Friend is still a joy to listen to; in spite of its journey away from suspended belief and its anticlimactic reveal of the killers of the wrong John Harmon.