The Bioeconomics of Our Mutual Friend
Our Mutual Friend draws on an antithesis that John Ruskin had named in Unto This Last (1862) a few years before the novel appeared: that of wealth and illth. In developing this antithesis, Ruskin began with a question and an anecdote, both of which anticipated in striking detail the opening chapter of Dickens's novel. Ruskin's question was, “[I]f we may conclude generally that a dead body cannot possess property, what degree and period of animation in the body will render possession possible?”1 In the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend, Gaffer Hexam also insists on the absurdity of the idea that a dead man can possess property. He raves, “Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible for a dead man to have money? … How can money be a corpse's? Can a corpse own it, want it, spend it, claim it, miss it?”2
Gaffer seems to think that these questions automatically call for a negative reply: “No, a dead body cannot possess property.” The novel, however, not only leaves this issue open but also goes on to ask Ruskin's more complicated question, the one that introduces the possibility of “illth”: what degree of health, of life, of animation, is necessary before the body can no longer be properly said to possess something? Ruskin's question turns into an anecdote, like the one that opens Our Mutual Friend, of drowning and dredging up. Ruskin writes,
[L]ately in a wreck of a California ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt
about him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found
afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking—had he the gold? or had
the gold him?
And if, instead of sinking him in the sea by its weight, the gold had struck
him on the forehead, and thereby caused incurable disease—suppose palsy
or insanity, —would the gold in that case have been more a “possession” than
in the first? Without pressing the inquiry up through instances of gradually
1“Unto This Last” and Other Essays on Art and Political Economy, ed. Ernest Rhys (New York: E. P.
Dutton, 1932), 169. All quotations from Ruskin are from this edition, and subsequent page numbers
are given in the text.
2Our Mutual Friend (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 4. All subsequent quotations from
the novel are from this Oxford University Press edition, and page numbers are given in the text.