The Private Servant, the Public Servant, and the "Good and Faithful Servant" in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend

Article excerpt

Charles Dickens's 1864-65 novel, Our Mutual Friend, has much to say about servitude: household servants, employees of business, servants of the Crown, and the "Lords and Gentlemen and Honorable Boards" whose role is to serve the poor, but who instead make grandiose speeches. Throughout the novel, these servants serve exceptionally well or ill, honorably or dishonorably. For Dickens, who claimed that his religion was based strictly on the teachings of the New Testament, the standard for a servant's loyalty is Jesus' Parable of the Good and Faithful Servant. In Our Mutual Friend the parable is primarily an exemplum for the business world, but the narrator adds political servants as well: "What is in such wise true of the public master and servant, is equally true of the private master and servant all the world over." (1)

The parable, offered as answer to the question of Jesus' disciples whether the kingdom of God would soon appear, emphasized the responsibility of servants and workers in the intervening time, no matter how brief or how long. In the parable, a man preparing to travel into a far country summoned his slaves, giving them five, two, and one talent, respectively, according to their abilities. The five-talent servant traded upon his allotment, making five more talents, and the two-talent man also increased his master's investment by 100%. But the slave that had been entrusted with only one talent, "went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money." When the master returned and was presented the earnings off the five talents and two talents, he commented, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I make thee ruler over many things: enter into the joy of thy lord." Then the man who had received only one talent said, "Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man.... And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine." To this, his master responded, "Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.... And cast the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (2)

The version of the parable in Luke 19 differs in that the master is no ordinary man but a nobleman going away to inherit a kingdom; the servants not only fear the master, but also despise him; and there are ten servants, compared to three in Matthew. Furthermore, instead of each servant receiving a different amount in trust, each is given the same responsibility of investing a single pound, and upon the day of reckoning the first has increased it to ten pounds, the second to five. These tenfold and fivefold returns contrast the parable in Matthew in which the first two slaves only double their investment. In Luke, the timid servant, instead of digging a hole to bury the master's talent, folds it away in a napkin and hides it in a secret place. In both versions, additional money is given to those who have increased their initial investment, and money is taken from the one who has earned no profit. Only in Matthew is the unprofitable servant cast into outer darkness; in Luke, the nobleman threatens to slay those who will not submit to his rule. Arland J. Hultgren points out that the theme of a wealthy man leaving servants or slaves in charge of his estate or wealth is a recurrent one in the parables of Jesus, that the story in Matthew and that in Luke are two separate parables differing in many details, that the Matthew story places stress on the variation of talents--and therefore responsibility--among the servants, and that the Luke parable has within it another element that some have called the Parable of the Throne Claimant. (3) Dickens blends elements of both Matthew and Luke and alludes to aspects of the Throne Claimant parable as well. The various servants/employees in Our Mutual Friend receive varying "talents," and the fraudulent claimant to a share of the Harmon fortune is thrown into outer darkness. …