Study Guide

Our Mutual Friend Analysis

  • Tone

    Sometimes Sarcastic, Sometimes Sentimental

    Lovers of Charles Dickens might be surprised when they start reading Our Mutual Friend because the book is filled with unlikeable characters and Dickens speaks mostly in a dark, sarcastic tone. When he's not talking about the "slime and ooze" (1.1.3) of London, he's presenting us with shallow characters in a mocking, bitter tone:

    Mr. and Mrs. Veneering were brand-new people in a brand-new house in a brand-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All the furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new […] (1.2.1)

    As the novel unfolds, though, good ol' Chucky D's negativity starts to break down. Certain characters become more and more likeable, and by the end of the book, we're back in the tender, sentimental tone that many come to expect from Dickens. We see this tone especially in Dickens' descriptions of love, like when Eugene marries Lizzie Hexam from his sickbed:

    When the ceremony was done, and all the rest departed from the room, she drew her arm under his head, and laid her own head down upon the pillow by his side. (18.11.96)

    D'awww. Yes. This is the kind of feel-good redemption we've come to know and love from Dickens. The kind of warm, fuzzy feeling we get from Eugene's turn to goodness is reminiscent of A Christmas Carol.

  • Genre


    All the good characters we like get married and all the bad characters either die or are sent packing. That's a pretty good indication that we're reading a comedy.

    But we don't necessarily know it from the beginning, because for all its happy endings, Our Mutual Friend also contains its fair share of murder and violence and (shudder) taxidermy.

    Dickens' descriptions of uppercrust British society also make it a fairly satirical novel at times, too. But ultimately, the broad category of "comedy" is the only one large enough to shoulder the full weight of Dickens' multiple storylines… as well as the feel-good ending of this doorstop of a novel.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Our Mutual Friend

    Our Mutual Friend takes its title from the fact that there are a whole bunch of characters in this book whose lives overlap in ways they don't even realize.

    John Harmon, for example, knows all kinds of different people from different social circles, but these people might know nothing about each other outside of their connection to him. The image of John as everyone's "mutual friend" helps us think about how much we're all socially connected, even as we try to distance ourselves from one another with things like money and status.

    Dickens is also being subtly snarky with this title. There's a huge hullabaloo over "marrying within one's class" (imagine us saying that in a nasal, Kristen Scott Thomas kind of accent) that goes on in this book. It's implied that you can't really know someone of a lower station (we're sticking with our accent; it's fun) and thus would do well to make a match with an equal. Really, dahling, you should stick with someone that's been properly vetted—a mutual friend, perhaps?

    And this idea of "mutual friends" being the only safe bet in marriage and in business doesn't just apply to the upper classes. Remember how ticked off Gaffer is when he finds out that his son is (the nerve!) going to school and leaving poor old Pops in the dust? Yup. In the world of Our Mutual Friend, the only accepted form of networking is to stay local—and rely on mutual friends.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    When the company disperse—by which time Mr. and Mrs. Veneering have had quite as much as they want of honour, and the guests have had quite as much as they want of the other honour—Mortimer sees Twemlow home, shakes hands with him cordially at parting, and fares to the Temple, gaily. (9.17.55)

    In the book's final scene, we join one of the Veneerings' dinner parties, where the whole crowd is busy criticizing and condemning the marriage between Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam. Eugene comes from a good London family and Lizzie is the daughter of a riverman… and this (mis)match has all of London's upper crust clutching their pearls, reaching for their smelling salts, and saying "Goodness gracious!"

    All of society seems to condemn the marriage as unnatural until the shy Mr. Twemlow speaks up in defense of love. Get it, Twemlow. You're awesome.

    The whole company eventually gets up and leaves, sickened by Twemlow's unconventional thoughts on love. But Mortimer Lightwood, Eugene's best friend, is happy that Twemlow had the courage to speak up and gives him a figurative pat on the back. As the party ends, we realize that love has scored a victory against pride, since Lightwood and Twemlow have been convinced that love is more important than social status.

    There will always be people who think status is more important, but we don't need to worry about what these people think. They can have their caviar and champagne; we're content with the thought that true love conquers all.

  • Setting

    19th-Century London (and Surrounding Area)

    Throw out your London guidebook vision of bobbies on bicycles, beefeaters, quaint teashops, and nannies flying around with umbrellas. Actually, throw out your London guidebook. Our Mutual Friend will make you want to stay far, far away from Merry Old England.

    Most of this book's action takes place either in the streets of London or along the river Thames. In many of his books, Dickens describes his London setting with painstaking detail, but his focus in Our Mutual Friend lies more with the river, as we find in passages like this:

    [A] boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in. (1.1.1)

    Ooh, who wants to go swimming?

    Dickens goes on to focus on the "slime and ooze" of the river rather than anything beautiful (1.1.3), because let's face it: Dickens didn't think London was the greatest place in the world.

    He was writing during a time when the English thought the British Empire was the center of the universe (just look at the way that most maps literally center on England) and he took any opportunity he could to remind them that London was actually a dirty, polluted city that had been ruined by corruption and greed.

    In fact, the adjective "Dickensian" refers firstly to "relating to or similar to something described in the books of the 19th-century English writer Charles Dickens, especially living or working conditions that are below an acceptable standard," and only secondly to "written by or in the style of Charles Dickens."

    So yeah: squalor (especially London squalor) is kind of Dickens' thing.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Snow Line (8)

    When you think of Dickens, you might think of Oliver Twist or Great Expectations. They're lengthy, sure, but those books are pretty easy reads compared to this bad boy.

    No doubt, the writing in this book can be pretty tough to penetrate, especially when Dickens goes off on wild rants or deep explorations of individual characters' minds. For every ten pages of this book, you might cover a single detail of the book's plot (maybe two, tops).

    But like all good things in life, Our Mutual Friend will reward you if you show discipline and stick with it. And you still get the awesome interwoven plotlines and kooky characterization that makes Dickens so awesomely, well, Dickensian. You just have to feel the burn a little more in order to get to the good stuff.

  • Writing Style

    Wordy and Dense

    Of all Dickens' novels, Our Mutual Friend is one of the toughest to read. And no, it's not just because it's so long, but also because Dickens' writing style is really dense and difficult to follow. Just check out this line from early in the book:

    Whosoever had gone out of Fleet Street into the Temple at the date of this history, and had wandered disconsolate about the Temple until he stumbled on a dismal churchyard, and had looked up at the dismal windows commanding that churchyard until at the most dismal window of them all he saw a dismal boy, would in him have beheld, at one grand comprehensive swoop of the eye, the managing clerk, junior clerk, common-law clerk, conveyancing clerk, of Mr. Mortimer Lightwood, erewhile called in the newspapers eminent solicitor. (3.8.1)

    Are you serious, Dickens? All this line tells us is that there's a young law clerk looking sad as he stares out a window. Dang.

    But all this wordiness serves a purpose for Dickens, because he's constantly making fun of the way that people in London think way too highly of their own intelligence. It's like he's saying here, "Listen, your life ain't as grand and epic as you think it is, Londoners." The side effect of this mockery, though, is language that can be pretty tough to read.

  • Cards

    Back in Dickens' time, you couldn't just walk up to someone's house and expect them to greet you with a friendly, "Howdy-doo, neighbor?" and give you a cup of sugar. Okay, to be honest we don't really do that today… but at least we aren't hung-up on the idea of calling cards.

    The whole social world in 19th-century England was card-based: you left your card with people to let them know your social status. People loved cards almost as much as the guys in American Psycho.

    Dickens makes fun of this "culture of cards" at one point, writing,

    All the world and his wife and daughter leave cards. Sometimes the world's wife has so many daughters, that her card reads rather like a Miscellaneous Lot at an Auction. (5.17.2)

    Dickens uses the symbol of the cards to show just how much people in British society reduce one another to pure social status. They won't even look one another in the eye if their business cards aren't good enough. Talk about judging a book by its cover, right?

    Even a character on the moral up-and-up, like Jenny Wren, knows the importance of having a card:

    "Stop a bit […] I'll give the lady my card." She produced it from her pocket with an air, after struggling with the gigantic door-key which had got upon the top of it and kept it down. (11.2.43)

    What better symbol to portray superficiality than the (almost) literally two-dimensional card? What better was to show the flimsiness of society than to have everyone's personalities boiled down to something that can be ripped in half? That Dickens, he was a symbolically savvy fellow.

  • Dolls

    Don't worry—these aren't the creepy, horror movie kind of dolls. But, in a way, the manner in which doll imagery is used in Our Mutual Friend is even spookier.

    There's a ton of manipulation going on in this novel: people take turns playing the "puppet master" and playing with other characters' lives as if the characters themselves were nothing more than inanimate objects. Villains like Fledgeby constantly use the people around them (like Mr. Riah, for example) to play out their dastardly schemes.

    But there's another spooky layer to the doll symbolism in this novel. We're talking about Jenny Wren: not only does she earn her living making clothing for dolls, but she has to take care of her father. And what toys do children use when they're playacting care-giving? Bingo: they play with dolls.

    Jenny is neglected; her father is a falling-down drunk who not only cannot care for her, but also needs to be "parented" by his own daughter. Sad stuff. But Jenny's no slouch; she's a strong, resourceful girl who copes with having to act wise beyond her years by thinking of her dad as a doll. She even calls him "Mr. Dolls."

    A byproduct of Jenny's unfortunate (and confusing) role as mother to her own father is that she starts to refer to actual dolls in human terms. Maybe it's because the roles of caretaker and cared-for are all messed up in her head, or maybe it's because she's isolated, but she says things like:

    And I made her try on—oh! and take pains about it too—before she got seated. That's Lady Belinda hanging up by the waist, much too near the gaslight for a wax one, with her toes turned in. (11.2.35)

    Cue the ominous string music. But don't worry too much about Jenny. She—like all the awesome characters in this novel—meets with a happy ending.

    Her tendency to treat humans like dolls and inanimate dolls like humans mirrors of a lot of characters' attitudes in this book: they have a tendency to distance themselves from human interaction, and to find comfort in objects. But hey—if you had to deal with the Weggs, Fledgebys, and Mr. Dolls of the world, wouldn't you rather hang out with things than people?

  • Birds of Prey

    That Victorian England sure is a dog-eat-dog world, er, dog-eat-bird world, er, bird-eat-dog world, er, bird-eat-bird world. In any case, it's hunt or be hunted. It's prey or be preyed upon. It's vicious.

    One of the joys of reading Dickens is that the bad guys are really, really bad. You can hate-read to your heart's content… his villains are just so villainous. And Our Mutual Friend is no exception. Dickens makes the game of spot-the-bad-dude really easy: he compares the baddies outright to birds of prey.

    Check out our introduction to Gaffer:

    He was a hook-nosed man, and with that and his bright eyes and his ruffled head, bore a certain likeness to a roused bird of prey. (1.1.12)

    Watch out, everybody. Gaffer's not just hawk-looking—he's roused. Other birds of prey in this book include Mr. Riderhood, Silas Wegg, and Mr. Fledgeby. Yup: the whole cast of Big Bads ain't wolves. They're hawks, eagles, and falcons.

    This says a little something about Dickens view of what evil is. For Dickens, evil isn't tied to strength or ferociousness. It has nothing to do with keeping your temper or flying off the handle. The root of evil in Our Mutual Friend is being predatory: looking for the next opportunity to manipulate, to get a leg up, or to shoot down an opponent.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third-Person Omniscient

    Charles Dickens loves himself some good ol' third-person omniscient narration. It's not just because this was a popular narrative technique during his time, but also because Dickens considered himself to be a pretty good moral center for his books.

    As you read through Our Mutual Friend, you'll find all kinds of characters: some you like and some you hate. Our man Dickens is always there to steer you into liking and hating the right people. Just check out how sarcastic and mocking he is when he describes the superficial Veneerings:

    Mr. and Mrs. Veneering were brand-new people in a brand-new house in a brand-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All the furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new […] (1.2.1)

    Yowch. That's brutal. Dickens could have just dismissed them by calling them "new money," but that wouldn't have been quite as effective, either at establishing the Veneerings as super, super new… or at allowing Dickens to be as fully snarktastic as his capabilities allow. Yup, Dickens can't resist ye olde omniscience.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Shadow of Confusion

      Like most comedies, Our Mutual Friend begins with a big ol' conflict. Comedies are supposed to have happy endings, so if they begin happily, there's really nowhere to go from there, right?

      Anyway, the problem that opens Our Mutual Friend is the murder of John Harmon, a guy who was supposed to return home to London to claim his inheritance. As part of his father's will, John was also supposed to marry a girl he'd never met named Bella Wilfer. But now that John's dead, Bella won't get any of his money and all the inheritance goes to a pair of servants named Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. They're nice enough, but it's fair to say that John Harmon's death has drastically changed the lives of a few people.

      Nightmarish Tangle

      Now that Mr. Boffin has all kinds of money, things start to go wrong. For starters, Boffin becomes increasingly paranoid toward the people he should trust (like his secretary, Mr. Rokesmith), and more trusting of the people he should avoid (like a no-good blackmailer, Silas Wegg).

      Meanwhile, Bella Wilfer starts to feel bad about the fact that she just wants to be rich. She rejects a declaration of love from Mr. Rokesmith because she feels he'll never be wealthy enough to make her happy. Meanwhile, a young lawyer named Eugene Wrayburn gets beaten within an inch of his life by his romantic rival and it looks like he won't make it.

      Revelation and Transformation

      And here's the part where you know you're reading a comedy, because life starts to be sunny, cheerful, and full of rainbows and unicorns for the good guys.

      Mr. Rokesmith lets down his disguise to reveal that he was John Harmon all along. That means he can inherit all his father's money from the Boffins. In the process, he has also gotten Bella to prove her worth by rejecting the Boffin's money in favor of love. This kind of revealed-identity-followed-by-marriage bit is one of the oldest tricks in the comedy book. Basically, John Harmon has spent this entire book acting like the Duke from Shakespeare's comedy, Measure for Measure.

      Meanwhile, Eugene Wrayburn's near-death experience brings him closer to his lover, Lizzie, and the two of them get married. All the bad guys either die or get tossed into garbage carts (the 19th-century equivalent of getting a pie in your face, maybe?) and it looks like our favorite characters will live happily ever after.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      All of London is abuzz after a wealthy heir named John Harmon dies on his way to England. But the plot thickens when everyone realizes that he didn't just die—someone murdered him! So now all of John Harmon's inheritance money goes to a pair of servants named Mr. and Mrs. Boffin.

      This inheritance leaves a woman named Bella Wilfer in the cold, because one of the conditions of John Harmon's inheritance was for him to marry Bella Wilfer and share his life (and fortune) with her. The Boffins feel bad about Bella's poor luck, so they take her on as their adopted daughter anyway. In another part of London, a guy named Eugene Wrayburn develops a crush on a pretty, working-class girl named Lizzie Hexam. The only problem is that Lizzie has another male admirer who hates Eugene's guts.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Once the Boffins have all kinds of money, people start approaching them looking for ways to get in on their cash. A man named John Rokesmith applies to be Mr. Boffin's secretary and succeeds. But over time, Boffin becomes paranoid about his money and suspicious of everyone around him, even the good people.

      He hires a man named Silas Wegg to read to him in the evenings, but Wegg is secretly planning to blackmail Boffin for the lion's share of his fortune. In the meantime, Eugene Wrayburn continues his courting of Lizzie. But his romantic rival Bradley Headstone is stalking him and planning to murder him. Way to handle rejection smoothly, Headstone.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Eventually, Mr. Boffin's greediness and paranoia become so strong that he fires his secretary, Mr. Rokesmith, for no reason. Bella Wilfer is so aghast at Boffin's actions that she decides to walk away from him and his money. She loves Mr. Rokesmith and wants to marry him.

      Oh yeah, and it turns out that Mr. Rokesmith is actually John Harmon in disguise. So John Harmon isn't dead and now he gets to inherit all his father's fortune… if he wants to. Meanwhile, Eugene Wrayburn gets attacked and nearly murdered by his rival, Headstone. But Lizzie finds him left for dead in a river and saves him. The experience brings them closer together and they get married. Aww.

      Falling Action

      There is pretty much a blizzard of falling action in this novel.

      John Harmon and Bella get married, and we learn that Mr. and Mrs. Boffin knew John Harmon was alive all along. Mr. Boffin was just acting mean and greedy to see if Bella would stand up to him.

      In the meantime, Bradley Headstone (the guy who tried to murder Eugene) gets into a tussle with Mr. Riderhood, a guy who knows about the attempted murder and is trying to blackmail him. Both men fall into a river and drown.

      Meanwhile, Silas Wegg steps forward to blackmail Mr. Boffin for his money, but Boffin informs him that the money is John Harmon's now and Wegg gets himself thrown into a garbage cart for his trouble.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      Now that the good people are married and the bad people are wallowing in their moral (or literal, in Wegg's case) filth, we look in on a dinner party where people are criticizing Eugene's marriage to Lizzie Hexam.

      But one shy man named Mr. Twemlow finds the courage to speak up and say that if two people love each other, that's all that matters. The other people at the party try to shout him down, but it's too late. Love has spoken, even if the other high society types don't want to accept it.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      A rich heir named John Harmon gets murdered on his way to London to claim his inheritance. And that's not the only weird thing about the inheritance. Apparently, Harmon could only claim his fortune if he married Bella Wilfer, a girl he'd never met.

      Oh well: none of it matters now because Harmon is dead and the money has been passed on to a pair of servants, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Meanwhile, a guy named Eugene Wrayburn falls in love with a working-class girl named Lizzie and uses every opportunity to insult her other suitor, Bradley Headstone.

      Act II

      Over time, Mr. Boffin gets greedy and paranoid about his newfound fortune. He hires a secretary named Mr. Rokesmith to handle his affairs. Then he takes in Bella Wilfer as a sort of adopted daughter and gives her all the money she wants, since he thinks a good chunk of the fortune is rightfully hers.

      Meanwhile, a guy named Silas Wegg worms his way into Boffin's good graces and plans on blackmailing Boffin for most of his money when the time is right. It seems like Wegg has found an old copy of the Harmon will that leaves all of the money to the government and not Mr. Boffin. On top of all that, Eugene Wrayburn continues to court Lizzie, even though he knows full well that his rival Headstone is stalking him.

      Act III

      In the final act of Our Mutual Friend, we learn that Mr. Boffin's secretary, Mr. Rokesmith, is actually John Harmon. Harmon has been pretending to be dead because he wants to see whether Bella Wilfer would marry him for who he is and not just for his money. Bella passes his test with flying colors and the two get married.

      The reappearance of Harmon basically blows Silas Wegg's blackmail scheme out of the water, and Wegg is sent packing. John and Bella have a baby daughter together and move to a fancy new house in London, prepared to start enjoying life as super-rich newlyweds. Meanwhile, Eugene Wrayburn nearly gets murdered by Bradley Headstone, but the attempted murder only brings Eugene and Lizzie closer together, and the two of them get married. Love conquers all!

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • William Shakespeare (1.2.4)