The multiple plots of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens's last complete novel, twine around the miser John Harmon's legacy of profitable heaps of refuse ("dust"). Harmon dies and leaves the dustheap operation to his estranged son John, on the condition that he marry Bella Wilfer, a young woman unknown to him. When a body found in the Thames is believed to be the younger Harmon, travelling home to receive his inheritance, the dustheaps descend instead to Harmon's servant Noddy Boffin ("The Golden Dustman").

Boffin and his wife respond to their new status by hiring Silas Wegg, a "literary man with a wooden leg" to teach Boffin to read; arranging to adopt an orphaned toddler from his poor great-grandmother; and bringing the socially ambitious Bella Wilfer into their home, where she is watched and evaluated by John Rokesmith, a mysterious young man employed as Boffin's secretary.

Rokesmith is actually John Harmon, who has survived betrayal and attempted murder and is living incognito so that he can observe Bella. Boffin's negative transformation by his wealth, Bella's moral awakening as she witnesses the changes wealth produces in Boffin and in herself, and the developing love relationship between Rokesmith and Bella form one key sub-plot.

Another is the romance between gentlemanly idler Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of the waterman who finds the drowned body. Class differences and the obsessive love and jealousy of schoolmaster Bradley Headstone threaten their relationship, but they are finally married with the help of the crippled dolls' dressmaker Jenny Wren. The smaller plots that interweave these sensation/romance narratives comment on the hypocrisy of fashionable life ("Podsnappery") and the destruction of the family lives of both rich and poor by an industrialized, materialistic society.


Beginning as it does with a waterman or "dredger" fishing at night for dead bodies (and their valuables) in a murky Thames, Our Mutual Friend's narrative energy is drawn from human materiality in its more troubling and fascinating forms. The dustheap was quite literally in Victorian London a means to make money out of the material refuse of human lives. Various kinds of waste were sorted by "Dusties" and then sold to manufacturers, resulting in handsome profits for contractors like Old Harmon.

The literally dirty gains of the dustheap are reiterated in the work of Hexam the waterman and his rival Rogue Riderhood--who make their living by scavenging dead bodies for valuables and turning them in for rewards--and by Mr. Venus, the "articulator" of human and animal skeletons, who owns Silas Wegg's leg bones. The essential ties between waste and wealth are also figured in the hypocrisy and amorality of the fashionable set. Dickens figures the damage wrought by modernity in a landscape of fragmented and damaged bodies that spans all social classes and states of moral health. Villain-with-wooden-leg Silas Wegg and the sweet, dying toddler Johnny Harmon (the orphan the Boffins want to adopt) are fairly stereotypical examples. A more complex literary use of embodiment occurs in the dolls' dressmaker Jenny Wren, whose back is "bad" and legs are "queer."

The child of an alcoholic, infantile father to whom she is a harsh caregiver, Jenny's crippled body works both as a metaphor for the ravages of the cash nexus and more literally as a representative of Victorian concepts of heredity. Hereditarily "entailed" by her father's alcoholism and ill health, Jenny's body expresses its inherited constitutional weakness in a misshapen frame and limbs.

If Jenny is a metaphoric and material victim of her society, however, Dickens also casts her as a vocal and canny critic of it, and an agent for the small positive changes that occur in the novel. Jenny's imaginative and romantic mind produces greater benefits for Eugene and Lizzie than for herself, however; at the novel's end, Dickens suggests that this engaging, acerbically witty character will be romantically paired off with the intellectually impaired Sloppy, a character with whom she has little in common except poverty and the stigma of disability.

Other interesting threads include Dickens's brief portrait of a children's hospital (he was himself an advocate for the Great Ormond Street Hospital) and the dying of Betty Higden, a grandmother who would rather starve in open country than subject herself to shame and neglect in a Workhouse infirmary.


First published serially in 1864-65, then published in book form in 1865.

Primary Source

The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens


Oxford Univ. Press

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