Charles Dickenss Our Mutual Friend
He uses a kaleidoscope of characters to illustrate the various kinds of education, or lack of, and there is an underlying irony in his depiction of many of his middle class characters.
One of the greatest contrasts Dickens’ draws upon during the novel is between education and money. In the London society Dickens describes, for many, education does not matter as much as money. As mercenary Bella Wilfer exclaims at the end of Book III: ‘And yet I have money always in my thoughts and my desires. and the whole life I place before myself is money, money, money, and what money can make of life!’1 Through his characterisation of individuals, such as Mr and Mrs Veneering, Dickens reveals how money can by you material possessions and social status but it cannot buy you education:
Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, and their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new" (OMF, 5)
The Veneerings are described as faintly ridiculous. They epitomise the ‘frenzy of Victorian commodity culture’.2 Newness is the defining feature of the Veneerings. They are associated with surfaces and their nouveau riche world which is starkly contrasted to that of the riverside, described in the novel’s opening scene. (Chavez, 20) The middle classes are satirized by Dickens’s description of Podsnap, his ‘analogous arch-bourgeois’.3 Podsnap is defined by routines and restraints: ‘Getting up at eight, shaving close at a quarter past, breakfasting at nine, going to the City at ten, coming home at half-past five and dining at seven’. (OMF, 121) Podsnap is an example of one whose wealth and arrogance separates him from the rest of society: ‘He never could make out why everybody was not quite satisfied, and he felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself’. (OMF, 120) Dickens reveals that despite being well off, ‘Mr Podsnap’s world was not a very large world, morally. no nor even geographically’. (OMF, 121)
Due to the consumerism of Victorian society, Dickens does not depict education as a means of giving the working class a chance, especially if they are only being taught to abide by an erroneous set of rules. Instead, Dickens would appear to prefer a more humanistic form of education. During a speech he gave in 1844, Dickens stated: ‘If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education – comprehensive liberal education – is the one thing needful, and the one effective end’.4
Dickens uses a number of characters to illustrate this view of education. Characters such as Bella Wilfer, Silas Wegg and Eugene Wrayburn are all lacking in social and moral education. Bella is obsessed about marrying money but is reformed through her ‘education’ from Mr Boffin. The Boffins are humble people whose inheritance causes