The Fire in Florence
Florence’s Internal Strength and Power in Dickens’ Dombey and Son
Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son was serialized over a period of eighteen months as readers ached for each installment of this story that describes the impossibility of separating the family and business spheres. Critics have offered various interpretations of the relationship between the dominating father and his refined daughter in all her perfect imperfections. Various critics have suggested that Florence should be interpreted as a meek and feeble damsel in distress, tortured by her father’s inability to love her. Florence’s refusal to stand up to her father and unending quest for his love are represented as weaknesses that deem her a “fairy-tale princess.” While her angelic nature and diffident personality contribute to this claim, understanding Mr. Dombey’s hatred for his daughter and recognizing the effects that abusive relationships have on women allows for the perception of Florence as an emblem of strength and power rather than a timid figure on a quest for a non-existent entity.
In order to appreciate Florence’s strength and internal power, one must first comprehend the reasoning behind Mr. Dombey’s genuine hatred towards her. Dickens writes, “such a child was merely a piece of a base coin that couldn’t be invested- a bad Boy- nothing more” (Dickens 13) to describe young Florence in the economy of her father’s household. Critic Lynda Zwinger investigates this relationship and the atypical nature of its function and denotes that Mr. Dombey’s animosity towards his daughter is rooted in his fear of her and the unpredictability she possesses. Much like the railroad- a symbol of modernity and mystery that frightens Mr. Dombey- Florence depicts the instability of change and possibility of revolution. Florence’s younger brother Paul is the symbol of permanence and evokes the comfort in habit; he demonstrates the inheritance of Mr. Dombey’s business and the continuation of the Dombey name. When Paul passes away, the only heir to the Dombey throne passes with him and thus Mr. Dombey becomes infuriated that “the successful rival of his son” (Dickens 285) is embodied in female form, which is useless to him and inept for the continuation of his legacy. As Zwinger notes, a son can “help Dombey cheat time” (429) by allowing him to perpetuate the family business, while a daughter “stands for impotence” (429). Florence can easily disrupt the circularity of business and family and destroy the bridge between them by swaying from the pre-destined path that Mr. Dombey has set for Paul. In a novel structured by circularity, Florence not only possesses the power to disrupt the family, but to destroy the appropriated path the novel embarks on.
Not only does Florence represent a rival for Mr. Dombey’s attention, and the successful rival at that, but she embodies a matriarchal leader of the league against him: the league of women formed from herself and Edith. Soon after his marriage to Edith, it becomes abundantly clear to Mr. Dombey that Florence holds the power to form a “new alliance” (Zwinger 425) that would act against him and consequently, against his business. Additionally, as critic Louise Yelin notes, Florence both undermines and confirms Mr. Dombey’s power, a contradictory task that threatens Mr. Dombey’s abilities as the head of his household and leader of his business. Moreover, Florence evolves, as Zwinger supports, from the rival of her father’s attention, to the first domino in a line directed towards Mr. Dombey’s fate. Florence’s stunning physical beauty and innate lovability allow her to hold the power that makes her father feel fearful and threatened by her. No character of this novel is immune to this power- not even Mr. Dombey in all his strength and sternness. In a scene of the novel in which Mr. Dombey pretends to sleep as he watches Florence, he almost conjures up the ability to redeem himself with her, until Edith enters the room, completely altered from the stern woman he believed he married. Edith’s ability to release her hair and soften her appearance demonstrates that the unchangeable product Mr. Dombey believes he purchased is fully capable of alteration. Visualizing her ability to change and recognizing Florence’s capacity and guarantee that she could and would do the same terrifies Mr. Dombey into refraining from such redemption and only hardens him against her further. Florence, much like Edith, in her ability to change and alter beyond the form of a stamped coin, severely threatens Mr. Dombey’s pride and his reign as the “Head of the Home-Department” (Dickens 33).