Study Guide

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend Introduction

You know you've gained literary immortality when your name is made into an adjective. Charles, who puts the " Dickens" in " Dickensian," is just such a bigwig.

And what makes a Dickens novel Dickensian, exactly? Well, one key thing is having a huge number of characters. Like approximately a bajillion of them, all with weird names, all interlinked, and all totally memorable.

Get ready to draw up a chart (or refer to your good buddy, Shmoop) because Our Mutual Friend has a ton of characters to keep straight. And it can be a little tricky—not because any of the characters are boring, but because, if anything, they're too dynamic. These characters adopt aliases like they're in the Witness Protection Program. They switch allegiances like they're a blonde in a James Bond movie (always devious, those blondes). And they develop (or devolve) morally. None of these characters stands still, not even for a moment.

Published in 1864 and 1865, Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens' last completed novel—and it shows. When you start reading this novel, you might wonder what happened to the idealistic, sentimental Dickens who wrote Oliver Twist. The early chapters of Our Mutual Friend are jaded, bitter, and sarcastic, and it's tough to find anyone in the novel to root for as a hero.

But that's just Dickens' point: bad guys usually show their cards early (because it's pretty easy to be bad), but it takes a while to realize that someone is good.

The plot of Our Mutual Friend revolves around the murder of John Harmon, a man who was supposed to return to London to inherit a large fortune from his estranged father and marry a woman named Bella Wilfer. Oh well, too bad John Harmon is dead. Or is he…?

The fallout from the Harmon "murder" means that the big inheritance goes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, two naïve servants who tend to think the best of people. But guess what? In the world of Charles Dickens, there are tons of people willing to do anything to take advantage of people like the Boffins. And that means a whole lot of blackmail, a whole lot of murder, and a whole lot of double-crossing.

It may sound strange to think of any of Dickens novels as sleeper hits, but that's exactly what Our Mutual Friend is. It was kind of panned when it came out—Henry James pooh-pooh'ed it—but today it's considered one of his best, most satirical, scathing, and hilarious works.

What is Our Mutual Friend About and Why Should I Care?

Almost everyone in Our Mutual Friend has a secret agenda… and a secret identity to match.

John Harmon pretends to be dead (and invests in a few aliases) in order to learn the truth about love. The Lammles pretend to be rich so they can marry into money. Mr. Fledgeby pretends that he is a gentleman of leisure so he can scam people with his money-lending business on the sly without seeming like a Big Bad.

Seriously—is anyone playing it straight in this novel? Nope. Not really. Because, for Dickens, no one ever is.

But before you start thinking of Dickens as a paranoid freak-o, consider all of our daily interactions. You are one individual, snowflake-special Shmooper. There's no one quite like you. But you're also a bunch of different people depending on what circumstance you find yourself in.

You're a charming granddaughter when you go visit Nana and Gramps. You're a team player in the office when you want to impress your boss. You're a party animal on New Year's Eve when you want to make the night memorable. You're the kind of person who likes long walks on the beach when you're out on a first date with someone super-cute.

Face it: even at your most honest, you're probably play-acting at least part of the time. When you want something (to make Grandpa happy, to get that raise, to have a good time, to kiss someone pretty) you act in a way that will make that something happen. It's human nature.

Is this multi-facedness bad? Sure, absolutely. Just check out the way Bradley Headstone buddies up with Riderhood when he plans to frame him for the murder of Eugene Wrayburn. But is this multi-facedness also good? Yeah, totally. Just check out the way Mr. Boffin pretends to be a jerk so he can make sure that his buddy's ladylove is actually a moral person.

Our Mutual Friend is like a Dickens novel, squared. There are a bajillion characters running around in even the slimmest of Dickens' books, but Our Mutual Friend takes its already huge cast and gives them alter egos, personality facades, and extra masks. Win-win: it's more bang for your buck when it comes to awesome characters, and it also shows us a very important side of humanity… the presentation-happy side.

Our Mutual Friend Resources

Websites

Charles Dickens on Victorianweb.org
Check out this link to find just about everything you'd want to know about Dickens…and maybe even a few things you'd rather not know.

David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page
This page does everything it can to promote the work of Charles Dickens—even his charity work.

Charles Dickens Info
Still searching for that crucial piece of info that brings Dickens to life in your imagination? Well, you might find it here.

Movie or TV Productions

Our Mutual Friend (1998 TV Miniseries)
Hey, it's probably worth checking out if it has an 8.2 rating on IMDB.

Our Mutual Friend (1976 TV Miniseries)
It's not surprising that the miniseries is the medium of choice for Our Mutual Friend. The thing is way too long for just a movie.

Articles and Interviews

My Favorite Dickens: Our Mutual Friend
Check out why one Guardian critic rates O.M.F. above the rest of Dickens' great works.

Our Mutual Friend in the ABC Television Show Lost
For any fans out Lost out there, here's a little post on why the character Desmond always carried around a copy of Our Mutual Friend.

How Dickens Wrote Our Mutual Friend
Yes, you've seen the finished product. But click this link to find out more about how Dickens went about writing the thing. We're not sure why the blogger chose red-on-red font, but just squint your way through the intro and you'll be through to the main article in no time.

Video

Our Mutual Friend 1998 Miniseries (Part 1)
Check out this three-hour long video of Our Mutual Friend brought to life in all its glory.

Our Mutual Friend 1998 Miniseries (Part 2)
Y'all ready for this? It's time for Part 2. And seriously, this miniseries is pretty great at staying true to the spirit of the original story.

Audio

Our Mutual Friend on Audiobook (Part 1)
Not all audiobooks have great readers on them. But we've lucked out with this one, because this woman is great.

Our Mutual Friend on Audiobook (Part 2)
Tired from all that reading? Well O.M.F. is a long book, so kick up your feet for a while and have a listen to this soothing rendition of Chapters 6 through 9.

Our Mutual Friend on Audiobook (Part 3)
Might as well keep it rolling if you like what you've heard so far.

Images

Older Dickens
This is probably what Dickens would have looked like when he wrote Our Mutual Friend.

Middle-Aged Dickens
Yup, he looked pretty much the same when he was younger. Maybe his beard was less grey, but that's it.

Old Book Cover for Our Mutual Friend
Click here for a pic of one of the old book covers of O.M.F. It's hard to tell, but the cover actually shows all kinds of characters and scenes from the book.