Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Pursuing Perfection: 'Dombey and Son,' Female Homoerotic Desire, and the Sentimental Heroine

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Pursuing Perfection: 'Dombey and Son,' Female Homoerotic Desire, and the Sentimental Heroine

Article excerpt

If Dombey and Son is a novel about men improperly perceiving women, not correctly employing them to do their assigned work in the ordering of home and commerce, it is also and equally a novel about how women perceive each other. Even as the novel's women are improperly (or not at all) mobilized as objects of male desire or acquisition, the same women manage to become fully integrated into the normative vision of the novel and, simultaneously, to generate alternative spaces for their language, bodies and desires--including female homoerotic desire.(1)

Typically for a Dickens novel, Dombey and Son emphasizes the necessity of the bourgeois nuclear family by first lengthily orchestrating its near collapse and then (peremptorily) sketching out its triumphant resurrection. The mechanism for this dynamic of collapse and resurrection is the novel's construction of sentimental feminine flawlessness, specifically in the figure of Florence Dombey. Sentimentality performs a double movement here: within the narrative frame it both constructs the perfect (always subordinate, passive, and structurally heterosexual) female subject of ideology and electrifies that narrative's potential for framing, at that same moment, eroticized relations between women.

Paul Dombey, Sr. is a wealthy and ambitious shipping merchant. His dream that his young son will become the powerful heir to the Dombey name and business is crushed when Paul, Jr. dies at a young age. Dombey's disappointed bitterness is particularly magnified because his daughter, Florence, has had the bad taste to remain both healthy and alive. Pompous and cruel, Dombey believes that "the earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in," and he famously values his daughter as "merely a piece of base coin that couldn't be invested--a bad Boy--nothing more."(2) The novel constructs Dombey as deeply perverse, and at the root of this perversion is located his devaluation of Florence and his refusal to acknowledge the crucial place held by women in the system he strives to maintain. Caught in his own version of separate spheres, Dombey's failure--as man, as parent, and as capitalist--is repeatedly located in his inability to properly value and use his daughter.

Florence Dombey, the young, beautiful, typically Dickensian heroine, is the crux of a representational network of which "romance heroine" plays only a small part. Her father's hostility and neglect highlight Florence's connection to both Dombey and the "family business" that he represents. She constitutes the space upon which rests the continuation of the family and the continuation of the business; only she can reproduce both Dombey and son (the people) and Dombey and Son (the firm that epitomizes the glory of British capitalism). Hence Florence occupies a passive but powerful place as linchpin across the narrative's constructed gap between male and female, public and private, between the firm that makes money for the family and the family that makes children for the firm. Dombey's refusal to recognize this link pushes the narrative forward toward a crisis of both home and marketplace. And, when Florence assumes her role as Dombey's recognized child and Walter Gay's dutiful wife at the conclusion of the novel, she has successfully been maneuvered into upholding nothing less than (the nineteenth-century, middle-class) Home and (commercial, imperialist British) Empire.

Florence herself is the perfect Victorian female; beautiful to the point of otherworldliness, selfless to the point of invisibility. She is not the representation of desire so much as she is the expectation of desire. Her desirability is the recognized sign of the heterosexual romance plot, which--in its broadest definition as the cultural force that constitutes women as acquirable and acquired--must be deployed in order to move her into her crucial position at the center of family and business. However, it is the presupposition of heterosexual desire, not the representation of that desire, which operates as the moving force: The heterosexual "plot" is announced at the novel's beginning and summarily fulfilled at its conclusion. …

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