The Friendly Society Movement and Our Mutual Friend
Charles Dickens's last completed novel Our Mutual Friend
(1864-65) evokes high interest in human bodies in a double sense:
bodies in both meanings of corpses and of collective organisations
of people. The purpose of this paper is to examine the novel from
the standpoint of the body politic: the individual bodies represent
the collective societies. The novel's principal focus on dead
bodies curiously issues challenges to recover the dignity of individual
bodies and to reform the organised bodies of human collectives.
As its title shows itself, the novel holds a close inquiry into
mutuality and friendship. It reveals a quest for a community,
which realises the desire for social transformation. The point
of my argument is that the novel is tied up with the Friendly
Society movement of nineteenth-century England. It is the working-class
people's co-operative movement for the primary purpose of conducting
a respectable funeral after death. By focusing on this earnest
desire of working people, I shall explore how the novel conveys
their impulse towards social reforms and how it masters the problems
overshadowing the society.
The novel is particularly about dead bodies. It opens with the
mysterious scene of the Hexams' scavenging the Thames for corpses.
River-scavengers live by robbing corpses of their belongings and
then by delivering them to the police for the sake of the rewards
sometimes offered. Dead bodies, which drift on the river, guarantee
the lives of people at the lower levels of society, and it could
be said that deaths nurtures lives.
Dead bodies are significantly introduced in the rhetorical connection
with friendship. Gaffer Hexam tells his daughter Lizzie that the
river, which gives them a profit through the medium of bodies,
is their "living," "meat and drink" to them,
and even their "best friend" (3; bk. 1;ch. 1). Henry
Mayhew reports the dredgers' lives in his London Labour and
the London Poor (1861): "[t]he dredgers cannot by any
reasoning or argument be made to comprehend that there is anything
like dishonesty in emptying the pockets of a dead man" (149).
Interestingly, Dickens emphasises Gaffer's moral goodness, as
Gaffer fairly blames Rogue Riderhood for "robbing a live
man" (4; bk. 1; ch. 1). From the very beginning, the novel
incorporates the marginalised voices of the lower classes and
expresses admiration of their genuine virtues.
The theme of dead bodies is bound up with the main focus of the
novel on the inheritance of the dust-heaps, which are left by
the misery contractor Old Harmon. His only son and his designated
heir to the immense wealth, young John Harmon, is first thought
to be murdered and his corpse (in reality it is George Radfoot's)
is mistakenly discovered by Gaffer Hexam. The report of the Harmon
Murder produces a sensation in London:
It was further made interesting, by the remarkable experiences
of Jesse Hexam in having rescued from the Thames so many dead
bodies, and for whose behoof a rapturous admirer subscribing
himself "A Friend to Burial" (perhaps an undertaker),
sent eighteen postage stamps, and five "Now Sir"s to
the editor of the Times. (31; bk. 1; ch. 3)
The two main stories, of the dust contractor who makes money
from refuse, and of the river-scavenger who seeks for corpses
to make money, intersect on the report of the Harmon Murder. As
a result of the sensation, the unburied dead bodies suddenly become
the focus of public attention. The ironical appellation, "A
Friend to Burial," which is supposed to be an undertaker's,
mysteriously illuminates the connection of death, funerals and
friendship. Just as important, the reference to The Times
reminds us of the link between the novel and the actual conditions
of nineteenth-century London. The problem of unburied dead bodies
seems to have been one of the most absorbing topics for readers
in those days, because it was highly relevant for their own lives
The drifting dead bodies are the symbol of the problems overshadowing
the society and threatening the lives. John Harmon, "the
living-dead man" (373; bk.2; ch. 13), highlights an exploration
of a sense of death-in-life. There has been much discussion on
the novel with particular reference to death. Nicholas Royle says,
"There is no life in the novel, there is only the spectral
elusiveness of living on" (49). Catherine Gallagher discusses
that the novel presents us with a thanato-economics: "the
bodies seem to be part of a thoroughly civilised network of economic
circulation" (54). The bodies indicate the social problems
concerning the supremacy of the hierarchical system and the cult
of materialism. The novel warns us against worshipping money and
seeks for a better community which is based on genuine love and
friendship. Consequently, the novel exactly re-forms (re-shapes)
the better body (organisation) than the early-introduced one,
As a result of solving the social problems, the novel establishes
a harmonious community, through two marriages: one is of John
Harmon and Bella Wilfer, and the other is of Eugene Wrayburn and
Lizzie Hexam. The two main stories are concluded with the conversion
from materialism to the spirit of humanity and philanthropy, the
rejection of earlier values and the accomplishment of independence
and co-operation. Genuine trusting relationships are established
among characters and mutual co-operation is confirmed in its true
The novel continuously focuses on the connection of death and
friendship, which indicates a matter of great concern of the period:
the Friendly Society movement. There is a brief reference to this
movement in Pam Morris's argument on the working-class culture
that generates the conception of mutuality (125), but it does
not explain its connection with the novel sufficiently. My immediate
aim is to examine the Friendly Society movement, and then, I shall
investigate how the novel is embedded in its context. It seems
to investigate the concept of mutuality and re-examine the actual
Friendly Societies. Furthermore, I shall explore the possibilities
of social reforms, by focusing on two working-class characters,
whose trades are concerned with bodies: Jenny Wren the dolls'
dressmaker and Mr. Venus the taxidermist. By the shift of the
narrative perspective, the novel has a challenge to subvert the
class structure. It criticises the bourgeois value system and
remodels society on a co-operative basis.
The Friendly Society movement possesses great importance in
the history of the working classes: "Friendly Society development
before 1875 played an important part in fashioning the legislative
and administrative policies to be followed in future by the state
towards working-class organisations in general" (Gosden 8).
This movement prompted other working-class movements, including
trade unions, co-operatives, building societies, loan societies
and local saving banks. Friendly Societies took the initiative
in social reforms urged by working people, and they attained a
widespread growth in the nineteenth century. I shall examine the
background and characteristics of Friendly Societies and consider
the ambiguous evaluations of them.
In the consequence of the rapid progress and industrialisation,
co-operative communities such as Friendly Societies became indispensable
for working people in the nineteenth century. The workers in industrial
England needed to protect themselves against the loss of employment,
due to the failure of their employers, or to sickness, or to a
slump in trade. Employment could be insecure, even for the highly
skilled, and the hazards to workers' health in the new industrial
towns were immense--death rates in towns were far higher than
those in the countryside. So in the absence of social services
of the modern kind, working people had to help themselves. Friendly
Societies came out of the urgent request of working people in
the end of the eighteenth century and expanded rapidly during
the nineteenth century. In 1864, in the same year as Dickens began
the monthly publication of this novel, Samuel Smiles, the author
of Self-Help (1859), took up the topic in Quarterly
Review and acknowledged the significance of working people's
self-help: "[t]he cultivation of the habit of prudent self-reliance
amongst the great body of the people is justly regarded as one
of the principal needs of our time" (318).
The basic aims of Friendly Societies were simple: insurance against
ill health, and a burial grant for a respectable funeral, - something
of great importance to working-class men and women (Hopkins 12).
The Societies function to recover the dignity of workers' bodies
by conducting funerals. The local Burial Societies were the result
of a simple desire among even the poorest to avoid the degradation
of a pauper burial in an unmarked grave: "[h]owever mean
and wretched their [workers'] day-to-day existence, they wanted
to be seen off this earth with some degree of simple dignity"
(Hopkins 22). The Burial Societies expanded in the years after
1830, and this indicates that workers take the dignity of bodies
seriously. It is noteworthy that many subscriptions were paid
by housewives out of their housekeeping money and covered members
of the family, so that it was often said that Burial Clubs were
mostly for women and children (Hopkins 36).
The spirit of independence and self-help is one of the most significant
characteristics that working people have promoted and nourished
in their activities. The members preferred to run their own affairs
without middle-class intervention and supervision. Each society
was very much its own master, and prided itself on its independence.
Such Societies traditionally had their meeting places in local
inns, and their activities are traditionally characterised by
conviviality: "[t]hese early Clubs usually combined conviviality
with business" (325).
It is true, however, that Friendly Societies have had numerous
defects: "[t]here are faults in the details of their organisation
and management, whilst many of them are financially unsound"
(Smiles 319). The problem of the Societies' financial instability
became of great importance, and they increased their efforts to
improve their proper management of expenses. In 1850 Henry Ratcliffe,
the Corresponding Secretary to the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows,
published tables based upon its experiences: "[r]eturns of
the most ample kind for the years 1846-7-8 were required from
all the lodges composing the Unity; and thus was obtained all
the information desirable to be possessed, relative to the sickness
and mortality experienced by the members of the Manchester Unity"
(Preface). The Societies took measures of determining accurately
the right relationship between contributions and benefits, and
it could be said that the working people themselves had a will
to reform rather than lack of knowledge. They have developed their
own consciousness of independence and autonomy and realised the
responsibility of supporting themselves. In other words, the growth
of Friendly Societies indicates the working people's challenge
to recover the dignity of their bodies and of their organisations
for the purpose of reforming the social system with their class
It is necessary to grasp the relationship of the Friendly Societies
and the government. The Old Poor Law was reformed and reorganised
by the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834.2
The result was that great efforts were made to stop all outdoor
relief, and that anyone seeking help from the New Poor Law guardians
would be required to enter the dreaded workhouse. Friedrich Engels
argues how terrible the conditions of the workhouses were, and
describes that it was no different after death: "[t]he poor
are dumped into the earth like infected cattle" (287). The
act was said to have facilitated the Friendly Society movement,
as is shown in the First Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners
made in 1835: "[f]rom the month of August 1833 to August
1834, the number certified by me was 360; but from August 1834
to the present time I have certified nearly 750, being an increase
of 390, or more than double the number certified in the previous
year" (Gosden 205).
The government seems to have promoted the Friendly Society movement
to shift the responsibility onto workers since they were exploitable,
"ideal" organisations for the ruling classes.3
The government appreciated the Societies, for their motto of self-help
was invaluable in keeping down the poor rates. The New Poor Law
formulated the concept that "the non-possessing class exists
solely for the purpose of being exploited, and of starving when
the property-holders can no longer make use of it" (Engels
288). The Friendly Societies movement signifies the transferral
of the responsibility from the ruling classes to the working classes.
There have been two different views on the Friendly Society movement:
one admires the spirit of self-help encouraged among working people,
while the other claims that Friendly Societies are nothing but
a substructure to the ruling classes and a part of economic activities.
As Pam Morris mentions, in 1863, The Times pointed out
the possibility of the Societies' dishonesty: "[t]he mischief
that is done in commercial companies by dishonesty, is done in
these Societies by a misconception of their duties and objects"
(125). Smiles discusses the risk more concretely: "[i]ndeed
their [workers'] very eagerness to enrol themselves in such Societies
has been exposed to the attacks of numerous harpies in the guise
of philanthropy" (338).4
Friendly Societies began under the name of friendship and mutual
help, but several pamphlets of actual Friendly Societies clarify
their risks of separation of idealistic names and their actual
conditions. Their pamphlets explicitly state their spirit of mutual
Lastly, - that peace and quietness may continue in this Friendly
Society, we have mutually agreed,--that if any member hereof
shall offer any abuse, or make any disturbance concerning any
thing that shall be lawfully done according to these articles,
he shall pay for the first default six pence; for the
second one shilling: and for the third shall be totally
excluded from the Society. (Articles to be observed by the
members of a Friendly Society Held at the House of Mr. John Bamford
in Barton in Carpenter, 14)
This article indicates that their mutuality and harmony are
only realised by their strict rules of exclusion. One of their
common rules is about the admission of entrants. The Societies
determine the qualification necessary for entrants: in terms of
good repute, of a sober life, and of the age and good health (Rules
and Regulations to be Observed by the Society at Annan, called
The Trade Society in Carpenter, 3). The Societies determine
the detailed regulations of admission to keep their respectability:
"[h]e [an entrant] shall be a man of credit and reputation,
his earnings not less than twenty-four shillings per week, and
not afflicted with diseases of any kind whatever" (Rules
for a Benefit Society Called the United Philanthropists in
Carpenter, 4). The members fulfil their vigilant functions towards
Should any member on the fund be found working at his business
or any pecuniary employment, gambling, attending convivial meetings,
or in a state of intoxication, his money shall be suspended .
. . ; but if proved guilty of the charge, he shall be excluded
and forfeit all monies paid by him into the society's fund. (United
Philanthropists in Carpenter, 8-9)
It could be said that the Societies have established a model
of the respectable worker. They cultivate such ideal workers who
are acceptable for the ruling classes, and they function as the
substructure which supports the hierarchical system.
As Smiles emphasises that "mutual assurance is economy in
its most economical form" (321), the economic characteristics
have become outstanding since they aimed at their financial stability.
The most significant items in their pamphlets are contributions
and benefits of members. They tell the amounts of payment in detail
for each case of deaths and accidents and in regard to the differences
of members, their wives or other family members. There are ambiguous
evaluations of the Societies, as they might consequently determine
the costs of human beings and internalise the ruling classes'
principle of domination.
The novel inquires into the concepts of mutuality and humanity,
by investigating a working-class community which is embedded in
the context of the Friendly Society movement. The novel not only
reflects the Societies' development as its historical background
but also stimulates their desirable growth for the sake of social
reforms: the community in the novel seems to be more truthful
to their essential spirit than the actual Societies. The novel
handles the Societies' problems and re-examines their possibilities
The moral supremacy of the working class circle is gauged by
comparison with the high society, which is obviously frivolous
and absurd. In the beginning of the novel, the two societies remain
hierarchically ordered, based on the principle of domination or
what Engels calls "exploitation." The lower-classes
are forced to live under the miserable conditions, and from the
perspective of high society, they are things, the refuge itself.
Mary Poovey discusses that "class and gender identities are,
in some sense at least, only metaphorical" (170).
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that "contrasts of class are
appearing under the guise of contrasts of personality and sexuality"
(166). By re-examining the class system and investigating the
possibility of its subversion, however, it seems possible to read
the novel in the context of the contemporary working-class development.
There appears a working-class circle, centred on a local inn
called the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters. Deirdre David argues
that Dickens's description of the Fellowship-Porters serves to
create a bourgeois myth of the working-class culture and that
the tavern is "a small unit of human warmth and connection
set in the vast indifference of sprawling London" (71). The
community is somewhat mystified, but, judging from the descriptions
of this imaginative construct, the novel seems to be tied up with
the Friendly Society movement in the period. According to Adrian
Poole's note, Fellowship-Porters "were members of the Fellowship
of Billingsgate Porters, a form of guild for relatively unskilled
labourers" (809).5 Smiles compares
Friendly Societies with the "Gilds," explaining that
the latter are "associations of similar kinds" which
have been in existence in England since the Middle Ages (322).
There are no decisive factors to determine whether this tavern
is exactly a meeting place of a Friendly Society, but it can be
safely said that it is a place for working people to co-operate
with each other.
The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, Abbey Potterson's Thames-side
tavern, is a utopian space for working people. Its descriptions
consistently emphasise its friendly atmosphere:
The bar of the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters was a bar to
soften the human breast. . . . This haven was divided from the
rough world by a glass partition and a half-door with a leaden
sill upon it for the convenience of resting your liquor; but,
over thishalf-door the bar's snugness so gushed forth, that,
albeit customers drank there standing, in a dark and draughty
passage where they were shouldered by other customers passing
in and out, they always appeared to drink under an enchanting
delusion that they were in the bar itself. (62; bk.1; ch.6)
The tavern is depicted as a place of human warmth. Michael
Miller discusses that the care and generosity of judgement made
in this tavern reveal Dickens's ideal of justice (34).
Abbey Potterson knows all the customers' characters and guards
their physical and mental health by strict vigilance. She has
"the air of a school mistress" and exercises the authority
in the circle, as she says with emphatic expression, "I
am the law here" (63; bk. 1; ch. 6). This working-class circle
has its authority independently of high society. Given that Friendly
Societies traditionally had their meeting places in local inns
and performed their activities under their own rules and authority,
this tavern seems to be one of those meeting places. Moreover,
it has some convivial atmosphere, which is one of the most striking
characteristics of Friendly Societies.
We can see their co-operative activity held in the Fellowship-Porters.
When the villain Rouge Riderhood, nearly drowned by an accident,
is brought to the pub, all the people there unite in making him
recover, though they mostly hate him:
All the best means are at once in action, and everybody present
lends a hand, and a heart and soul. No one has the least regard
for the man: with them all, he has been an object of avoidance,
suspicion, and aversion; but the spark of life within him is
curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest
in it, probably because it is life, and they are living
and must die. (443; bk. 3; ch.3)
Riderhood revives as a result of their co-operative care. This
scene seems to indicate an activity of Friendly Societies for
the insurance against sickness or accident, though there are no
descriptions of monetary transactions. Just as important, this
circle is superior to the actual Friendly Societies on the point
of mutual co-operation, because it saves the villain's life. Such
a villain as Riderhood may not have been admitted as a member
of Friendly Societies: "[s]o far as can be ascertained, men
of good character only are admitted, and members convicted of
larceny, felony, or embezzlement, are expelled" (Smiles 332).
On the other hand, everybody is permitted to come and expects
some help in the Fellowship-Porters.
An active old woman, Betty Higden, embodies the primary idea
of Friendly Societies. She contrives, by keeping a 'minding-school'
(looking after infants while their parents are at work) and taking
in mangling (washing clothes), to keep herself out of the dreaded
workhouse and to take care of her orphaned great-grandchild Little
Johnnie. Higden is independent and refuses much assistance from
"I am in want of nothing. When my strength fails me,
if I can but die out quick and quiet, I shall be quite content.
. . . Sewed into my gown," with her hand upon her breast,
"is just enough to lay me in the grave. Only see that it's
rightly spent, so as I may rest free to the last from that cruelty
and disgrace, and you'll have done much more than a little thing
for me, and all that in this present world my heart is set upon."
(203-04; bk. 1; ch. 16)
Her strong will to conduct her funeral with her own money seems
to express the sincere wish of the contemporary working-class
people and the very purpose of Friendly Societies. She demonstrates
her independence and self-help, which are the essential spirit
of Friendly Societies. Her hatred and anger towards workhouses
indicates the reaction of the contemporary workers. Given the
historical fact that many subscriptions were paid by housewives
to Burial Societies, she represents the female co-operation to
protect her family.
The consciousness of solidarity and autonomy diffuses influentially
among the working-class people. Although she has not visited the
Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, Higden has a profound influence
on others. Individual workers gradually get together and tighten
the co-operation. Although Higden eventually dies in the arms
of Lizzie Hexam, her power of determined will is inherited by
"Her name was Higden. Though she was so weak and old,
she kept true to one purpose to the very last. Even at the very
last, she made me promise that her purpose should be kept to,
after she was dead, so settled was her determination. What she
did, I can do." (694; bk. 4; ch.6)
Higden's strong spirit of independence influences Lizzie: in
the beginning she is entirely dependent on her father, but gradually
she becomes powerful and independent. Although she feels love
for Eugene, she, believing in the social gulf between them, refuses
his proposal and decides to live independent from him. Poovey
discusses Lizzie's independence as "a dangerous female autonomy"
(169). This point is concerned in the context of the Friendly
Society movement, for a sign of female autonomy is realised in
their co-operative activities. While the novel eventually embodies
the spirit of humanity emphatically, the female co-operation assumes
the subversive character to re-examine the fixed idea of class
system, as the extension of the autonomy.
The novel incorporates both voices of the upper and the lower
classes. Stephen Bann uses Foucault's dialectical model of loss
and retrieval and accounts for the fact that nineteenth-century
people have not simply discovered history: they have needed to
discover history, or as it were, to remake history on their own
terms (103). The novel provides the opportunity of discovering
and remaking history relatively.
There is a shift of the value-standard in the narrative level.
The story is narrated from the viewpoint of high society in the
beginning, but as the result of the shift of the value system,
the narrative perspective gradually changes into that of the lower
Veneering's circle represents the bourgeois society. The Veneerings
are parvenus, "bran-new" people, who are artificial
and insubstantial: "[e]verything about the Veneerings was
spick and span new" (6; bk. 1; ch. 2).
High society has the authority to determine the value in the
narrative. We follow Mortimer and Eugene when they go to the riverside
in order to see Gaffer Hexam the river-scavenger:
The wheels rolled on, and rolled down by the Monument, and
by the Tower, and by the Docks; down by Ratcliffe, and by Rotherhithe;
down by where accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed
from higher grounds, like so much moral sewage, and to be pausing
until its own weight forced it over the bank and sunk it in the
river. (20-21; bk. 1; ch. 3)
The narrative perspective spatially moves from the West End
to the East End, from the gorgeous high society located in "higher
grounds" down to the low, dark, muddy alleys in the riverside.
However, it is remarkable that its description is consistently
based upon the bourgeois values, as it regards the lower level
of society contemptuously as "accumulated scum of humanity"
and "moral sewage." The lower classes are things, the
refuge itself, from the value-standard of the narrative perspective
at this stage.
High society insists on its authority as the moral standard of
the novel. It claims the right of censorship, calling itself "Voice
of Society," as is later shown in regard to Eugene's socially
inappropriate marriage to Lizzie (817; bk.4; ch.17).
High society emphasises that theirs is the only authorised voice
in the novel, which exclusively determines the story line. At
the end of the novel, however, the "Voice of Society"
is rebuked by Twemlow, the voice of a gentleman, importantly a
penniless one. He calls Lizzie "the greater lady" and
revises the idea of the gentleman (819-20; bk. 4; ch. 17). Unlike
other members of high society, Twemlow finally sees the true intrinsic
value of Lizzie. High society loses its authority in the narrative
as a result of his criticism. A sign of the burgeoning social
transformation appears from the inside of high society.
The novel suggests the possibility of subversion, the collapse
of the authority insisted by high society, which occurs as a result
of the conversion of the narrative perspective. The novel provides
an opportunity of discovering or remaking history for the working-class
people, from the quite earlier stage of the novel. In order to
please her brother Charley, Lizzie sees pictures of the past in
the fire and remakes her history in her own terms. Her imagination
extends to the future and conjures up "the fortune-telling
pictures" (29; bk. 1; ch. 3). The novel estimates the voices
of working-class people to be strong and creative. It is clear,
however, that her imagination is not subversive but harmless and
rather supportive to the extant hegemony, as she declares her
position before Eugene: "I am removed from you and your family
by being a working girl" (693; bk. 4; ch. 6). Lizzie's attitudes
show her mental strength and independence to refuse the supervision
of the upper classes, but her acceptance of her place reflects
middle-class view of the good worker (Brown 157). Lizzie's attitudes
signify the ambivalence of working-class self-help.
It is Jenny Wren, the dolls' dressmaker, who exploits the possibility
of subversion more effectively. She discovers history in her own
terms by renaming herself Jenny Wren. She subverts the parent-child
relationship and looks after her alcoholic father as his mother.
She gains a great insight into human nature and plays an important
role in realising the marriage between Eugene and Lizzie: when
Eugene is fatally injured by his jealous rival, Bradley Headstone,
Jenny deciphers Eugene's word "wife," "as if she
were an interpreter between this sentient world and the insensible
man" (739; bk. 4; ch. 10).
Jenny uses her imagination not only to soothe her pains, but
also to manage her business as a dolls' dressmaker, putting into
practice "the trying-on by the great ladies" in her
imagination and "making a perfect slave of her" (436;
bk. 3; ch.2). It is remarkable that Jenny watches high society
secretly, being unnoticed and free from blame, and, even though
it claims its authority of censorship, high society is thus subject
to the supervision of the lower classes. By making her dolls'
dresses, she reproduces the world at her own discretion.
We can see the symbolical subversion of the hierarchy of the
higher and the lower classes when Jenny Wren talks to Fledgeby
about her idea of death:
"Ah!" said Jenny. "But it's so high. And you
see the clouds rushing on above the narrow streets, not minding
them, and you see the golden arrows pointing at the mountains
in the sky from which the wind comes, and you feel as if you
The little creature looked above her, holding up her slight
"How do you feel when you are dead?" asked Fledgeby,
"Oh, so tranquil!" cried the little creature, smiling.
"Oh, so peaceful and so thankful! And you hear the people
who are alive crying, and working, and calling to one another
down in the close dark streets, and you seem to pity them so!
And such a chain has fallen from you, and such a strange good
sorrowful happiness comes upon you!" (281; bk.2; ch. 5)
It is remarkable that Jenny Wren now stands higher than the
so-called "high" society and looks down upon the world.
Moreover, she transforms the perspective on death and restores
the dignity of bodies, which is previously sacrificed by the superficial
high society. She symbolically subverts the earlier value system
of high society and generates her own authorised world, repeating,
"Come up and be dead!" (282; bk. 2; ch. 5).
The novel suggests the possibility of subversion. It gropes for
social reforms by representing the working-class community, which
does not support high society as the substructure but discovers
and remakes history on its terms.
The novel seeks for a concrete measure of social conversion
from materialism to the spirit of humanity and philanthropy. It
explores several problems concerning money and, groping for social
reforms, it leads the Friendly Societies movement towards the
genuine love and friendship as a result of the shift of the value
Money is a defining principle for the domination paradigm, in
which the upper classes believe in their moral superiority over
the lower classes. High society esteems the extrinsic value of
money and this value-standard prevails in the novel. In the end
of the novel, we see that this normative definition of money has
largely determined the intrinsic value of the shallow and superficial
members of the upper classes. Value is eventually defined as being
intrinsic: mutuality and co-operation. Money is "devalued"
or redefined by the lower classes: money is seen not as an end
in itself, but only as a tool to serve humanity.
The novel begins with Dickens's vision of money as corrupting
matter in his representation of high society. The significant
activity for the high society is stockbrokerage: "[s]ufficient
answer to all; Shares" (114; bk. 1; ch. 10). Stockbrokerage
and money-speculation characterise the Veneering circle. As Michael
Cotsell remarks, the novel is in the long and familiar literary
tradition of suspicion of the stock market (126).
High society is based on the principle of money-speculation,
which tends to dehumanisation, commodification of other human
beings for the purpose of increasing benefits. The Lammles, who
deceive each other and get married to get money, seek to entangle
young Georgiana Podsnap into a marriage with repulsive Fledgeby
as "a money speculation" (417; bk. 2; ch. 16). It is
remarkable that even the communication of Veneering's circle is
based upon speculation:
Although Mr. Podsnap would in a general way have highly disapproved
of Bodies in rivers as ineligible topics with reference to the
cheek of the young person, he had, as one may say, a share in
this affair which made him a part proprietor. As its returns
were immediate, too, in the way of restraining the company from
speechless contemplation of the wine-coolers, it paid, and he
was satisfied. (134; bk. 1; ch. 11)
The narrative of high society employs the rhetoric of speculation
for even dead bodies. The dignity of bodies is sacrificed, because
bodies become the objects of speculation and commodification.
The market principle of speculation is not confined to the stock-exchange
but infiltrates all areas of society as a social frame of reference
(Brown 149), and the tendency towards dehumanisation is increasing
even in the society of the lower classes. Bodies of workers are
capitalised to materialise the bourgeois value system: "[a]
considerable capital of knee and elbow and wrist and ankle had
Sloppy, and he didn't know how to dispose of it to the best advantage,
but was always investing in wrong securities, and so getting himself
into embarrassed circumstances" (201; bk. 1; ch. 16). We
see the influence of the bourgeois value-standard on working people
in the form of dehumanisation. Sloppy's body is subdivided into
parts each of which is estimated to be a capital at the bourgeois
valuation. The inversion of the subject (Sloppy) and the object
(a capital of his body) signifies the crisis of the subject's
precedence over the object: at last, the capitalistic economy
"has" (possesses) the individuals. The lower classes
internalise the bourgeois value system by utilising their bodies
in accordance with the market principle of speculation. For the
lower classes, the orphan's market is coincided with the Stock
The market was "rigged" in various artful ways.
Counterfeit stock got into circulation. Parents boldly represented
themselves as dead, and brought their orphans with them. Genuine
orphan-stock was surreptitiously withdrawn from the market. (196;
The society of the lower classes is reduced to a human market
in which they commodify and manipulate their bodies. This quotation
curiously reveals the serious problem of Friendly Societies. They
continuously harbour such suspicions of feigning sickness or death
for the purpose of gaining profits, as Smiles fears that "[t]his
is only life insurance of a very humble sort" (336).6
The novel seeks after a solution to such problems overshadowing
the society by incorporating the voices of lower-class people.
The workers' circle has powerful influences upon the Harmon plot,
because it accelerates the mental conversion of John and Bella.
Their mental conversion is demonstrated when they re-examine their
idea of money, and it is geographically proved: after their marriage,
they move away from the City, the financial centre of high society,
through the location of the Fellowship-Porters to Greenwich, a
London suburb on the south bank of the Thames.
John at first hesitates to receive an inheritance from his deceased
father, for he knew only the baleful influences of money. At the
end of the novel he decides to inherit the fortune. Brown argues
that John himself is eventually "a bourgeois apologist"
(162), but John seems to reject his father's values and change
his mind on financial trade, for he implies his intent to use
money for others, as he tells Bella: "[i]f you were rich,
for instance, you would have a great power of doing good to others"
(680; bk. 4; ch. 5). His statement shows the devaluation and redefinition
of money as a tool to serve humanity. He learns the "great
power" of money, which could be used for the purpose of helping
people, rather than its power to dominate and exploit people.
John's mental transformation is enabled by his communication
with the lower-class people. While disguising as Rokesmith, he
meets Betty Higden and learns her strong spirit of independence.
He also meets Pleasant Riderhood, who runs a pawnshop in a very
small way of business. There she insists upon her principle of
"fair trade," and her "tenderness of conscience
and those feelings of humanity" make a favourable impression
on him (356; bk. 2; ch. 12). He learns the "great power"
of money under the influences of the lower classes, and therefore,
after his marriage to Bella and his inheritance of his fortune,
he distributes his money to help the people around him and uses
it for good purposes.
Bella changes her attitudes towards money completely. In the
beginning she is spoiled and petulant, impatient of the family's
poverty. Besides a benign ploy by the Boffins and Harmon, we find
another scene of Bella's conversion, which precedes that of Boffin's
final deployment. It is after listening to Lizzie that Bella reflects
upon her life and regrets her wretched lust for money:
Bella sat enchained by the deep, unselfish passion of this
girl or woman of her own age, courageously revealing itself in
the confidence of her sympathetic perception of its truth. And
yet she had never experienced anything like it, or thought of
the existence of anything like it. (528; bk. 3; ch. 9)
Bella learns the lesson of genuine love and friendship, which
are significant resources of working-class communities as Friendly
The recovery of humanity and mutuality is coincided with the
shift of the narrative's value system. Money, which has embodied
the corrupting value of high society in the beginning, is purged
of the bourgeois influence and reflects the intrinsic value of
humanity: "as if his [Old Harmon's] money had turned bright
again, after a long, long rust in the dark, and was at last beginning
to sparkle in the sunlight?" (778; bk. 4; ch. 14). The novel
eventually re-forms (re-shapes) a community which is based on
the morally desirable distribution of money for the sake of humanity.
This community assumes the possibility of overthrowing the bourgeois
value system and realising social reforms.
This re-formation of a community is symbolised by the re-formation
of a human body. The taxidermist, Venus, criticises the blind
worship of money and embodies the spirit of genuine friendship.
He thwarts Silas Wegg's plot to blackmail Boffin and seize the
Harmons' property. He is rewarded for his genuine virtue with
his marriage to Pleasant Riderhood, who had at first refused him
because of his trade.
Significantly, Venus is an "Articulator of human bones"
(83; bk. 1; ch. 7), and his trade directly indicates the double
sense of bodies and is concerned with the dignity of bodies. Each
part of the human body is given an identity similar to that of
an individual person, as Wegg regards his amputated leg as still
remaining a part of himself: "how have I been going on, this
long time, Mr. Venus?" (79; bk. 1; ch. 7). Venus's assemblage
of human skeletons symbolises that of society as a whole. Significantly,
Wegg recognises Venus as having "the patience to fit together
on wires the whole framework of society" which he alludes
to "the human skelinton" (478; bk. 3; ch. 6). Venus
explains to Wegg his ability to assemble various parts in order
to create one beautiful specimen:
" . . . . I can be miscellaneous. I have just sent home
a Beauty--a perfect Beauty--to a school of art. One leg Belgian,
one leg English, and the pickings of eight other people in it.
Talk of not being qualified to be miscellaneous! By rights you
ought to be, Mr. Wegg." (80; bk. 1; ch.7)
The assemblage of different human parts represents the collective
nature of society. Saying, "I can be miscellaneous,"
Venus insists that he can become also a member of society. The
fact that Wegg's leg cannot fit into this collective ensemble
foreshadows that at the end of the novel he cannot join the harmonious
community later formed by the morally upstanding characters.
Silas Wegg approaches Venus with a proposal of a "friendly
move," an alliance to reap some benefit from the dust-mounds,
because he misunderstands that Venus has obtained Old Harmon's
hidden will. Under the deceptive name of the "friendly move,"
Wegg emphasises that it is "for the cause of right"
(302; bk. 2; ch. 7) and Venus joins him:
The articles of the friendly move are then severally recited
and agreed upon. They are but secrecy, fidelity, and perseverance.
The Bower to be always free of access to Mr. Venus for his researches,
and every precaution to be taken against their attracting observation
in the neighbourhood. (304; bk. 2; ch. 7)
This "friendly move" seems to be a parody of Friendly
Societies. As we have seen, several pamphlets on Friendly Societies
convey their strict rules concerning their independence and co-operation.
In the meanwhile, Venus's collection of skeletons grotesquely
represents the problems overshadowing the novel. The bodies, like
living human beings, witness the secret transactions of Wegg and
Venus and illuminate Wegg's shifty, unscrupulous character and
his wicked lust for money. The bodies indicate the degradation
of human collectives: while Venus is taken away from his trade
and digs the dust-mounds, he is also taken away from his virtue.
Seized with guilt, however, he reveals the plan to Boffin under
the very noses of his skeletons in his Bower. He at last declares
to confine himself to "the articulation of men, children,
and the lower animals" after his marriage (782; bk. 4; ch.14).
He enters into a community of genuine friendship and mutuality,
which had been denied to him at first, through his altruistic
In the quest for a community, which realises social reforms,
the novel is tied up with the Friendly Society movement. It deals
with the dignity of bodies in the double sense. It indicates the
problems of undignified bodies, who occur as a result of dehumanisation
and commodification, and recovers the dignity of bodies, by reforming
the actual Friendly Societies and by challenging the possibility
of subverting the class system. The recovery of the dignity of
bodies represents the reformation of society which realises the
spirit of mutuality and friendship.
* This paper is a revised version of the paper presented at
the 50th General Meeting of the Chubu branch of the English Literary
Society of Japan held at Toyama University on October 23, 1999.
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Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) focuses
on dead bodies. The purpose of this paper is to examine the novel
from the standpoint of the body politic: the individual bodies
represent the human collectives. The unburied bodies drifting
on the Thames represent the problems overshadowing the society.
The novel recovers the dignity of individual bodies and remodels
society on a co-operative basis.
The novel reveals a quest for a community and conveys the impulse
towards social reforms. The point of my argument is that the novel
is closely tied up with the Friendly Society movement of nineteenth-century
England. It is the working-class people's co-operative movement
for the primary purpose of conducting a respectable funeral after
In the first section, I examine the characteristics of Friendly
Societies, which had an extraordinary development until 1875 and
took the initiative in the history of working-class movements.
Their basic aims were the insurance against ill health and a burial
grant for a respectable funeral. They kept the spirit of independence
and self-help, and at their financial crises, they improved their
proper management with enough knowledge and responsibility.
There were ambiguous evaluations of Friendly Societies: they
are claimed to be nothing but a substructure to the ruling class
and a part of economic activities. Their pamphlets rather show
the possibilities that their vigilant activities might determine
a model of ideal workers that is exploitable for the ruling classes,
and that the detailed regulations of payment might lead to dehumanisation.
In the next section, I compare the Friendly Society movement
with the working-class activities presented in the novel. The
novel not only reflects the movement but also re-examines the
risks and problems of the actual Societies. Focusing on the dolls'
dressmaker Jenny Wren, the novel also has a challenge to subvert
the class system by the shift of the narrative perspective.
In the last section, I explore the shift of the value system,
which is at first based on money as the defining principle of
domination. Money is devalued and redefined with the intrinsic
value of humanity by the lower-class circle. The taxidermist Mr.
Venus criticises the blind worship of materialism and embodies
the spirit of genuine friendship and mutuality.
By focusing on bodies, the novel reveals the problems which are
hidden in the Friendly Society movement: the crises of internalising
the bourgeois value system and of supporting the hierarchy as
a substructure to the ruling classes and as a part of economic
activities. The novel re-claims the dignity of bodies by criticising
dehumanisation and accelerates social reforms in a quest for a
community, which is more truthful to the essential spirit of mutuality
and friendship than the actual Friendly Societies.