Places: Our Mutual Friend

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1864-1865; book, 1865

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*River Thames

*River Our Mutual FriendThames (tehmz). England’s most important river serves as the central thread of the novel, tying together both character and incident. When the novel opens, the river offers both life and death. In a surreal, night scene, Gaffer Hexam is shown making his living from the bodies he finds in the river. During the course of the novel, the river is the setting for seven drownings or near-drownings, including the apparent drowning of young John Harmon, the “mutual friend” of the title.

Upriver, Rogue Riderhood and the schoolmaster, fatally embracing, drown each other in the river. In contrast, Betty Higden finds a peaceful and longed-for death on its shores in Oxfordshire, and it is the scene of Eugene Wrayburn’s regeneration after he is left for dead in the upstream shallows. Lizzie Hexam, who has always been ashamed of her father’s boat-handling lessons, is able to now use these skills to save Wrayburn from death.


Dustheaps. Mounds of dust that collect in public streets provide a second literal and symbolic portion of the novel’s landscape. These are actual representations of the Victorian heaps of soot, cinder, broken glass and crockery, paper and rags, bones, and possibly even human waste, as well as jewels, coins, and other valuables. Dickens’s periodical Household Words included mention of such heaps, not as fantasy, but as fact. They are evidence of Victorian recycling, for their contents were sifted, sorted, and then sold to brick-makers and road-builders, as well as to makers of soap, fertilizer, and paper.

Marxist critics have suggested that Dickens is making a moralizing connection between capitalist money and dust, trash, refuse, even excrement. In the novel, contents of the mounds were accumulated by a nasty and miserly Old John Harmon who used this wealth to manipulate his family. Also, the dust heaps provide comic scenes of scheming greed as Silas Wegg’s wooden leg gets stuck in the refuse when he searches for treasure. However, the “Golden Dustman,” Boffin, remains uncorrupted by their wealth. Overall, as with the river, these dust mounds provide unity and coherence in this expansive and complex novel.

Boffin’s Bower

Boffin’s Bower. Mansion formerly belonging to Old John Harmon that has been inherited by the faithful Boffins. Formerly called Harmony Jail, it is located adjacent to the dustheaps. Although Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, are content with each other, they feel some discomfort in these wealthy surroundings. Their drawing room reflects this displacement, for Mrs. Boffin’s somewhat gaudy attempts at fashion are jumbled together with Mr. Boffin’s more homely sawdust floor, his comfortable footstool and his nearby well-stocked pantry shelves. Nevertheless, this generous couple graciously shares with others, including the pouting Bella. Later, chastened and enlightened after her secret marriage and content to live in Blackheath in a small dollhouse, Bella proves herself worthy and capable of handling wealth well. Eventually, the Boffins turn over their house to her, her husband John, and their new baby.

Veneering house

Veneering house. The “veneer” of this nouveau riche household consists in the ostentatious display and the tasteless money-grubbing, name-dropping guests. This setting is juxtaposed to the opening, elemental river scene, and thus impresses the reader with its garish opulence. The guests at the Veneerings are dehumanized as body parts: aquiline noses and fingers, nostrils like a rocking horse, a face like one in a tablespoon. Also, they are shown to be unreal and shallow, mere reflections in the great looking glass over the Veneering sideboard: rags, wig, and powder make up Lady Tippins another guest is merely “gingery whiskers and teeth”; others are identified as “Boots” or “Brewer.” Their dining room is praised for being as glorious as those of the genies in The Arabian Nights, and ironically prove to be just as ephemeral, for the author announces in his closing chapters that the household will soon experience “a resounding smash” when found out by the Insolvent Fates.

BibliographyAckroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. An exhaustive, critical coverage of Dickens’ life and work.Cockshut, A. O. J. The Imagination of Charles Dickens. New York: New York University Press, 1962. Contains an insightful chapter on Our Mutual Friend, which focuses on the symbolic meanings of the river and the dustheaps.Cotsell, Michael. The Companion to “Our Mutual Friend.” London: Allen and Unwin, 1986. Contains factual annotations on every aspect of the text and notes on historical allusions to current events, and intellectual and social issues and customs, etc. An excellent accompaniment to the novel.Herst, Beth F. The Dickens Hero: Selfhood and Alienation in the Dickens World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A good study of Dickens’ protagonists. Views John Harmon as one who moves “from alienation through self-discovery to a new sort of alienation.”Romano, John. Dickens and Reality. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Discusses realism in Dickens, using Our Mutual Friend as one of the primary examples. Despite its realist nature, the novel makes no effort to conform to our “real” world, which contributes to its overall success.
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