Study Guide

Our Mutual Friend Themes

  • Family

    Aww, the fam. Making our lives miserable and awesomesauce since time began. The bonds of family shape nearly all the action in Our Mutual Friend—after all, the only reason John Harmon has returned to England is because he needs to claim his inheritance from his estranged father.

    He also needs to start his own family by marrying Bella Wilfer, which is one of the stipulations in his father's will. In the meantime, the childless couple Mr. and Mrs. Boffin want to find themselves an orphan so they'll have someone to leave their money to once they're dead. Yup: money is a family matter to our man Dickens.

    Questions About Family

    1. Are there any characters in this book who are good fathers? What about good mothers? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Charley Hexam get so mad at his sister Lizzie for turning down Bradley Headstone's proposal?
    3. Why did John Harmon first split with his father? Was it a reasonable split? Why or why not?
    4. Describe the family dynamic in the Wilfer house. Is it a healthy dynamic? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens shows us that being in someone's family is no guarantee of being close to them.

    Our Mutual Friend reminds us that "family" means the people you love, not just the people you're biologically connected to.

  • Jealousy

    There is a whole lot of romance and a whole lot of money in Our Mutual Friend. Unfortunately, there's only so much of both to go around, so some characters are bound to get jealous of other ones. The green-eyed monster strikes again.

    Take Bradley Headstone, for example. This guy is in love with Lizzie Hexam, but he's tortured by the fact that Lizzie likes Eugene Wrayburn more than him. His jealousy gets so bad that he tries to murder Eugene. But Dickens doesn't have much sympathy for people who give into jealousy. If you're a jealous Dickens character, chances are pretty dang good that you'll meet with a sticky—and untimely—end.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. How does Eugene's behavior toward Bradley Headstone increase the man's jealousy? Does Eugene realize how dangerous his mocking is?
    2. How does Silas Wegg react when Mr. Boffin hires Mr. Rokesmith as a secretary? Is his reaction justified? Why or why not?
    3. What sends Bradley Headstone over the edge when he decides to murder Eugene? Does Headstone ever show remorse for what he's done?

    Chew on This

    In Our Mutual Friend, we find that jealousy is really just the angry flipside of pride.

    In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens shows us that jealousy can be a healthy emotion if it's coming from a good place.

  • Marriage

    Your grandfather's favorite crooner, Frank Sinatra, said that, "Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage." Dickens might amend that to something like "Love and money, and marriage and money, go together like Winnie the Pooh and honey." We're poets over here in Shmoopland.

    Dickens asks difficult questions about whether one should marry for love or for money. Old Man Harmon's will states that John needs to marry some girl named Bella Wilfer if he wants to inherit his dad's fortune: it's a total money-based transaction. Eugene Wrayburn, on the other hand, completely ruins his social reputation by marrying his working-class sweetheart, Lizzie Hexam.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. How does Bella feel about the death of John Harmon, considering that she was supposed to marry him? Try supporting your answer with evidence from the book.
    2. What are the circumstances of Eugene and Lizzie's wedding? Do you think they're romantic? Why or why not?
    3. Who objects to Eugene's wedding to Lizzie? How does Mr. Twemlow defend the marriage? (Think of the final chapter of the book.)

    Chew on This

    In Our Mutual Friend, we learn that marriage isn't always about love. It's often about money, status, and respect.

    In Our Mutual Friend, we find that you should never marry someone unless you're sure they love you for you (and not for your money).

  • Manipulation

    Schemers and liars and blackmailers, oh my! Machiavelli would be super-proud of a bunch of these machinating characters.

    Most of the plot in Our Mutual Friend revolves around the question of leverage. Whoever has the most information about other people tends to hold the upper-hand. Just look at Silas Wegg's blackmail of Mr. Boffin, or Mr. Riderhood's blackmail of Bradley Headstone. When it comes to getting ahead, the cast of this novel doesn't dream—they scheme.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. How does Silas Wegg plan on blackmailing Mr. Boffin?
    2. What ends up happening with Wegg's plot to blackmail Boffin? Is it a convincing end?
    3. What comes from Riderhood's attempt to blackmail Headstone? What does it tell us about blackmail in general?
    4. What kind of father forces his son to marry a girl he's never met in order to get his inheritance? Does Old Man Harmon have a good reason for this, or is he just power-tripping?

    Chew on This

    In Our Mutual Friend, we find that people's attempts to manipulate others always tend to backfire.

    In Our Mutual Friend, John Harmon's testing of Bella shows that this book's entire message is based on being skeptical of women.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    It's tough to find a 19th-century book from England that doesn't mention alcohol abuse at some point. More specifically, these books almost always have a character (usually a man) that has ruined his life with drinking. Our Mutual Friend is no exception—Jenny's dad, for one, is perma-shmammered.

    Make no mistake, the Brits had a strong moral disgust with drunks back in the day, and you can hardly blame them. It's hard to see an entire household ruined just because the dad has decided he'd like to spend more time in the pub than with his family.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. In this book, does Dickens come across as a teetotaler (no booze ever), or does he suggest that alcohol is fine in moderation? Where's the evidence for either?
    2. Which character in this book dies from booze? How does his alcoholism define his character for us?
    3. How does Riderhood make sure he drinks more from a liquor bottle than John Harmon? What does it tell us about his character?
    4. How often does a discussion between two male characters begin with the offering of drinks? Is it the same with female characters? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Our Mutual Friend, we find that alcohol is just an irresponsible escape from life's tougher predicaments.

    Our Mutual Friend shows us that alcohol isn't so bad. It's just that drunks give it a bad name.

  • Society and Class

    Ugh. If we lived in the stifling world of Our Mutual friend, we'd be tempted to fake our own deaths—like John Harmon—rather than deal with all the perpetual status-seeking and social-climbing.

    There are few things that 19th-century British novels preoccupy themselves with more than questions of class. And for good reason: class determined everything back then, from the person you married to the kind of job you had. There was pretty much no part of your daily life that wasn't affected by class, and Charles Dickens' books show us this (gross) reality on every page.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Do you approve of Eugene Wrayburn's marriage to Lizzie Hexam? Why don't many of the characters in the book approve of this union?
    2. How does social class affect Bella Wilfer's decision to live with the Boffins? Why does she eventually leave them, and what are the consequences?
    3. Does Dickens tend to idealize poverty in this book? Please support your answer with evidence from the book.
    4. Why would John Harmon pretend to be dead and give up his ticket into the upper class?

    Chew on This

    In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens suggests that worrying about social status and class is the root of all immorality.

    Our Mutual Friend shows us that social class doesn't matter when it comes to determining which people are good and which people are bad.

  • Religion

    Most 19th-century British novels would involve a lot of references to Christianity, but in a bold move, Dickens makes Judaism the main concern of Our Mutual Friend. During Dickens' time, a lot of people would have been anti-Semitic and believed that all Jewish people were greedy and cruel.

    But Dickens criticizes this belief when he shows how the character Fledgeby exploits this bigotry in order to pin all of his shady dealing on a kind old Jewish man named Mr. Riah. People's readiness to give into their prejudice is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to Mr. Fledgeby's manipulations. In the end, prejudice is a type of blindness that hurts way more people than it protects.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why does Mr. Riah go along with Fledgeby's exploitation of him? What does he realize about anti-Semitism by the time it's all over?
    2. Does Dickens do a good job of undercutting the religious prejudices of his time? How so (or how not so)?
    3. How does the Reverend Milvey stack up as a representative of Christianity? Is he good, bad, or just kind of blah?

    Chew on This

    In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens exposes the anti-Jewish prejudice of his time as being founded on ridiculous myths.

    Our Mutual Friend shows us that religion—like anything in life—is either good or bad depending on whose hands you put it in.

  • Education

    Folks in Britain in 1865 didn't have the same access to school that many people enjoy today. For that reason, education was a huge marker of social status, and it tended to determine all of your opportunities for the rest of your life.

    If you weren't born with much money, your best shot at climbing the social ladder was to get the best education you could… kind of like today. In Our Mutual Friend, we see all kinds of examples of education's importance, but probably none more central than the Hexams—Lizzie, Charley, and Gaffer—for whom the issue of education is powerful enough to split up an entire family.

    Questions About Education

    1. How does education split up the Hexam family? What division does it cause between Charley and Gaffer, or Charley and Lizzie?
    2. Why does Eugene Wrayburn offer to give Lizzie an education? Who else offers her the same thing?
    3. Is education as important today as it was in Dickens' time? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Our Mutual Friend, we learn that education is the best possible way for a person to improve their life.

    Our Mutual Friend shows us that education is good, but it can't make a bad person into a good one. People are either mean or kind in Dickens' eyes.