Descriptive Language in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son

Dombey and Son is a novel rich in descriptive detail, with both the exteriors and interiors in which its many characters feature being vividly realized. However it is arguable that such detail isn’t intended to be merely decorative but instead perform a range of elaborate functions within the vast and intricately plotted story.

The Dombey residence is situated “on the shady side of a tall, dark, dreadfully genteel street” (p.23). It is a large corner house whose interiors are depicted with an overriding sense of bleakness – the words “dark”, “dismal” and “grim” abound – creating an atmosphere that borders on the funereal. The fact that Mr. Dombey appears unable to separate familial matters from his business affairs is evinced in the title of the third chapter, where the father is described as being “at the head of the home-department”, and “the various members of Mr. Dombey’s household subsided into their several places in the domestic system” (p.23). This particular detail subtly highlights another aspect of the Dombey abode, in that it vaguely resembles a prison, with his son’s nurse Polly Toodle (or ‘Richards’ as Mr. Dombey has arbitrarily renamed her) being “established upstairs in a state of honourable captivity” (p.23).

It is clear from the outset that Mr. Dombey only views people as commodities, a facet of his personality which ultimately proves to be his downfall. The small selection of rooms that Polly’s employer has allocated for his own private purposes is significant to the story, particularly the glass conservatory or ‘chamber’, where he summons the nurse to “walk to and fro with her young charge” (p.24). Glass performs an important metaphorical function within the narrative. It has been noted that a particularly common use for the large expanses of glass whose manufacture only became possible towards the middle of the nineteenth century was the display of goods in shop windows. Mr. Dombey would appear to be regarding his son in such a manner, his interests in the boy solely motivated by his plans for him in his firm.

Dickens makes use of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ by depicting inanimate objects as distinctly anthropomorphized. This can be compared with the portrayal of certain characters in a dehumanized form. For example, when Polly glimpses Mr. Dombey watching her with his son through the glass, the narrative is focalized through her, and seen from this perspective her employer is described in relation to “the dark heavy furniture” (p.25) he occupies as opposed to any physical description of him. Such an approach also occurs in Mr. Dombey’s daughter Florence’s conception of him – to her he appears merely a collection of parts: “The child glanced keenly at the blue coat and stiff white cravat, which, with a pair of creaking boots and a very loud ticking watch, embodied her idea of a father” (p.3). By way of contrast, the descriptions of the Dombey house delineate its facade as if it were a human face always “lowering on the street” (p.337), containing cellars which are “frowned upon by barred windows, and leered at by crooked-eyed doors” (p.23). Such details are not limited to the building’s exterior either as each of the covered chandeliers is said to look like a “monstrous tear depending from the ceiling’s eye” (p.24) – it is as if the house itself were visibly weeping on account of Mr. Dombey’s lack of grief at his recently deceased wife. This particular technique serves to enhance the portrayal of Mr. Dombey becoming a commodity himself through the ceaseless reification of his own surroundings.

Some have contended that the kernel of Dombey and Son is Florence’s quest for her father’s love. As a character, Mr. Dombey’s daughter is essentially non-realist, possessing qualities typical of heroines from eighteenth century sentimental writing, such as innocence and kindness. However melodrama isn’t the only convention the narrative invokes when chronicling Florence’s attempts to affiliate herself into her father’s affections, as the Gothic is also evident in these scenes: “the dreary midnight tolled out from the steeples”, as well as the “dropping of the rain”, “moaning of the wind”, “shuddering of the trees” (p.270). However any feelings of ‘terror’ on Florence’s part are quashed by one overriding emotion: love, and it is this that drives her down to “making her nightly pilgrimage to his door” (p.270). The glass that had appeared to separate Mr. Dombey from his son’s nurse is apparent here also, “The rain dripped heavily on the glass panes in the outer room” (p.271). The repetition of the phrase “Let him remember it in that room, years to come” (p.272) much later on when the adult Florence returns to her father when his second wife has left him and his business faces bankruptcy, is effective in linking these two scenes. Florence finally succeeds in gaining her father’s love and saving him from the house which appears to be consuming him: “The great house, dumb as to all that had suffered in it… stood frowning like a dark mute on the street” (p.892).

Descriptive language in Dombey and Son forms a vital function within the story. We are able to see that through the implementation of several techniques, such as ‘symbolism’, ‘metaphor’ and ‘comparison’, and the invoking of other literary conventions – such as Melodrama and the Gothic – into its essentially realist construction, as well as the adoption of literary strategies, such as the ‘pathetic fallacy’, Dickens’s descriptions serve many functions within his narrative, making considerable enhancements to his portrayal of characters and development of plot, ultimately enriching the overall effect of his novel.