‘“I ought to die, my dear!”’: The ‘Good Death’ and the Penultimate Instalment of Our Mutual Friend

Brett Beasley is a Graduate Student Instructor in the Department of English at Loyola University Chicago.

Penultimate: pene + ultimate; the last one before the last one, the end just before the end, finality – but with a qualifier. Such is the curious quality of any penultimate instalment of a novel. The author, having stretched a narrative across many iterations, now pauses and gathers the strands of the narrative, not yet for the end but for one final deferral.

In the case of Our Mutual Friend, the penultimate instalment is especially important because it is a deferred ending in a novel about deferred endings, specifically deferrals of death. On its broadest level, the narrative follows the effects of the [non-]death of John Harmon, his afterlife as John Rokesmith, and his final resurrection as John Harmon once again. The novel’s minor characters and sub-plots manifest this leitmotif as well: the Boffins’ fortune is born out of discarded materials as are the scraps Jenny Wren reclaims for her dolls’ dresses and Mr. Venus turns bones and bodies into what he calls the ‘“trophies of his art.”’ Critics have identified this curiously undead quality variously as ‘postmortem consciousness’, ‘death in abeyance’, ‘suspended animation’, or simply, ‘limbo’, and have taken correspondingly varied takes on the theme’s ethical, political, religious, and economic implications.

One thing is clear: whatever we decide about the theme of deferred death in Our Mutual Friend, we must take into account Eugene’s part in it in the novel’s penultimate instalment. His near death is the major event that drives the instalment’s plot, and it drives it directly into the theme of the deferred ending. Dickens highlights this fact by invoking traditional symbols both of matrimony and mortality. Bradley Headstone, encountering the Reverend Frank Milvey, asks if (and indeed hopes) some ‘“bereavement has befallen [Lizzie],”’ only to discover, to his horror, that Milvey is going to perform a wedding not a funeral. (It is worth nothing that Eugene attended the Lammles’ wedding with an ‘air upon him of having presupposed the ceremony to be a funeral.’) Those in attendance at the wedding resemble watchers at a deathbed, and ‘the shadow of death’ is even included among their number. The masterstroke of the penultimate instalment comes, fittingly, in its final lines as Eugene utters words that are either the first words of his married life or the last words of his mortal life. He declares that he ‘can’t summon the vanity’ to think that he will live to reform his behaviour and become a husband of ‘purpose and energy.’ He goes on:

‘How can I think so, looking back on such a trifling wasted youth as mine! I humbly hope it; but I daren’t believe it. There is a sharp misgiving in my conscience that if I were to live, I should disappoint your good opinion and my own—and that I ought to die, my dear!’ (735)

But these words – the last of the instalment – do not end Eugene’s life the way they ‘ought’ to. His life, like so many other things and people in Our Mutual Friend, continues on in a state of suspended animation due to the serial format itself. Dickens first readers were forced to pause and to consider all of the interpretive problems Eugene’s words highlight. Because they did not yet know the ending, they had to ask whether Eugene ‘ought to die’ in a meta-narrative sense: ought he die in terms of the story itself, its themes, structures, and concerns? And 150 years later as we read Eugene’s enigmatic words many of the same questions are still with us. Why does Eugene live, and what does it mean for the narrative of Our Mutual Friend?

Our first question about Eugene’s ‘last words’ on his ‘deathbed’ is whether they indicate a change in character or a return of his old character. Although Eugene is ostensibly decrying his lifestyle hitherto, statements about his boredom and uselessness are part of his carefree lifestyle. Why should we be convinced that he is being sincere rather than jocose? When he first says ‘“I have been thinking whether it is not the best thing I can do, to die”’, the narrator indicates that he is ‘rallying more of his old manner than he had ever yet got together’, seeming to suggest that Eugene is returning to his previous tendency to make light of (ahem) grave matters (735). But there are also indications throughout the novel that Eugene feels a true sense of guilt with regard to Lizzie and that this guilt pushes him toward definite goals and ambitions. His statement that he ‘ought to die’, comes directly after his realisation that it ‘“It would require a life […] to pay all”’ he owes to Lizzie. In this sense, he seems to be facing a day of reckoning and a true change of heart. But the scene does not seem to favour one interpretation over the other and we are left wondering whether Eugene’s baptism by water and near death will be effectual or whether, like Riderhood’s ‘drowning’ earlier in the novel, it is a missed opportunity.

One common way to deal with the difficult interpretives issue at play at the end of this instalment is to attribute our questions to Dickens himself. In a sense, this approach would allow us to avoid the questions we have raised altogether by suggesting that the text is the record of contradiction or indecision. A close investigation of the number plans and manuscript evidence led Ernest Boll to wonder whether ‘Dickens by not have been in doubt over whether Eugene Wrayburn was to live or die.’ Boll’s evidence was never conclusive, as he himself admits, but his claim to detect ‘an impulse to let Eugene die’ has often been repeated by other readers of the novel (100). Apart from its attractiveness as an explanation, his claim does have a kind of basic plausibility. We as readers feel that Dickens makes his novel intentionally porous and open for eventualities from his present to shape the novel’s outcomes. It is well known that the characters of Riah and Mr. Venus were shaped by Dickens’s interactions with friends and readers as was the postscript mentioned above. G. K. Chesterton was even convinced that Dickens changed his mind about Mr. Boffin, turning his descent into miserliness into an act only as an afterthought. And in a more general sense, we get the feeling that the narrative orients itself toward a lack of finality and that it, as Mikhail Bakhtin put it, ‘comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present’ (27). This would imply that Eugene, as a novelistic hero, is pulled by the novel’s ‘imperishable and […] forever contemporary’ form, unlike ‘the epic and tragic hero […] who, by his very nature, must perish’ (36).

But if we appeal to Dickens’s ‘impulse[s]’ we take a serious risk. We may confuse careful misdirection and designed deception for simple indecision. Indeed, the language of the novel goes far beyond an ‘impulse’. In fact, it seems to operate intentionally under the assumption that Eugene will die. For instance, in pulling Eugene from the river, Lizzie sees his body, (called ‘it’ not ‘him’) as ‘virtually dead’; their marriage, as we have seen, is attended by ‘the shadow of death’; Eugene refers to the attack as a ‘“murder”’; and finally, the chapter title ‘Better to be Abel than Cain’, in addition to suggesting Bradley Headstone’s torment as ‘a fugitive and a vagabond’, also places Eugene as a murdered man. Further, these moments are part of a larger theme of seeing Eugene [mis]recognised as dead. After pulling his body from the river Lizzie waits to see whether the surgeons will drop Eugene’s hand, a signal she would take to mean that he is dead. But even the surgeons themselves do not have final verdict. One says to the other that ‘“it is much to be feared that she has set her heart upon the dead.”’ Even Mortimer Lightwood becomes convinced, as he reports to Jenny and Riah, that ‘“My dear friend Mr Eugene Wrayburn is dying.”’ Are we prepared to claim that, after carefully deploying all of this foreboding language and staging the scenes of misrecognition, Dickens simply changed his mind after letting a competing ‘impulse’ win out?

But there is an even larger context within which to place Eugene’s non-death and that is the set of artistic, narrative, and social conventions of the Victorian ‘good death’. For an image of this ‘good death’ we can look to the Reverend William Hett whose Miscellanies on Various Subjects (1823) provides a ‘Device for an Engraving’ of such a scene. Hett’s ‘device’ reads as follows:

The good man’s sick chamber. – He is sitting in the middle of the bed, his back supported, – His wife hanging over the bed side, his left hand grasped in her two hands, her eyes fixed upon his face in a silent agony of distress. – The children near the mother all in tears: the two little ones clinging to her, and attentive to her only: the larger ones dividing their grief between each parent. The servants, male and female, standing in a group, at a small distance from the bottom of the bed, in a mute and serious attention to the last good words of their dying master, which he is in the act of uttering. In the features of his countenance, the inward sentiments of hope and joy rising, as far sa is possible, superior to the appearance of languor and debility. – His medical friend, at a small distance from the wife, in an attentive posture, his face full of thought indicating this sentiment, ‘How nobly a Christian can die!’ – In the window an hourglass nearly run out. – Upon a small round table, near the bed, on the right hand of the sick man, a Bible open at this passage of Job, which is legible, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth.’ A prayer-book open at the Burial Service, with these words legible, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ (21-22)

Eugene’s bedside conforms in important ways to the model that Hett’s ‘device’ is meant to supply. Indeed, Marcus Stone’s illustration of the scene seems to work almost like an engraving that Hett would have had in mind. The image shows Lizzie (now Eugene’s wife) dutifully at the bedside clasping his hand as Hett recommends, in place of the children and servants we have Mortimer and Jenny Wren along with the Reverend Frank Milvey. A table with medicines stands by with Jenny’s doll, lacking only the Bible and prayer book suggested by Hett. But Jenny fulfills its function (along with the function of the absent ‘children’) in part with her ‘Divine’ fancies of the ‘“long bright slanting rows of children, who used to bring me ease and rest”’; Eugene asks for Jenny to stay, not just to ‘“help to nurse [him]”’ but also because, as he says, ‘“I should like you to have the fancy here, before I die”’ (718).

The presence of these watchers and their their mixture of the familial, the divine, and the erotic are all standard parts of a particular approach to ideal deaths that developed in the nineteenth century, as is the notion of ‘last words’ in general (many Victorians valued the latter so highly owned books that anthologised them). The historian Philippe Ariès identified this approach as ‘the death of the other’, or, literally, ‘the death of you’ (la mort de toi). Ariès employment of the second person pronoun is intentional; whereas the concern with the loss of selfhood in death (what Ariès calls la mort de soi, or the death of the self) becomes a dominant concern during the Renaissance, he sees a rapid shift in death culture in the wake of Romanticism. This shift moved the focus of death from the loss of the self to the loss of the beloved. This death became exalted, passionate, even beautiful, through it sublimation of the Romantic and the erotic. Patricia Jalland has argued that Ariès overgeneralizes the experience of Catholic France and suggests that rather than the ‘beautiful death’, the ‘good death’, occupied the consciousness of English Protestants. She shows how the English middle class bore the influence of Evangelicalism and revitalised the tradition of the ars moriendi or art of holy dying. Thus Jalland emphasises not just the beauty and exalted sentimentality of the ‘good death’, but also ‘piety and fortitude in the face of suffering’, as well as the role of the larger familial love in addition to romantic love.

We might assume that since Eugene’s death, resulting from an attack and not a prolonged illness in old age, would seem incompatible the ‘good death’ tradition. This is only partly true. While ‘good deaths’ were associated with old age and with peaceful rather than violent causes of death, the amount of time expended while dying is key. A bad death was a sudden death as from suicide or an agonising and dehumanising death as was so often the result of contracting cholera. But the protracted nature of Eugene’s stay in bed allows it to become more like a good death than a murder. He makes amends, is attended by those close to him, and achieves a kind of focus and rest. Dickens achieved the same effect in more unlikely circumstances in Sydney Carton’s death in A Tale of Two Cities. He, like Eugene, meets with violence after an essentially aimless and wasted life, but Dicken protracts the scene and gives access to his consciousness in such a way as to supply a kind of calm around him – and even to give him some of the most famous last words in English literature.

Whether we follow Jalland or Ariès, we must admit along with Andrew Sanders that the scene ‘seems set out to be an extended and classic Dickensian death-bed’ (177). So, why does Eugene, whose name means ‘good birth’ not receive the good death he seems prepared for by so many social, narrative, and artistic conventions? The answer seems to be, perhaps paradoxically, that the conventions surrounding Eugene’s fate do not indicate a death simply because they are just that – conventions. In a novel so concerned with ‘the voice of society’, the more heroic action is to confront that voice by making mésalliance with a ‘female waterman’ than to satisfy it by dying well. Eugene’s acceptance is a bit too ready, too much another product or performance of his class and his sense of gentlemanly leisure. A good death would make for Eugene a respectable end and a way out of his obligations.

Ruth Richardson has argued that the Victorian preoccupation with the ‘good death’ cannot be understood apart from Victorian fear of the shame associated with a bad death. She shows that a kind of ‘symbiosis’ was at work between those who profited from the sale of corpses, i.e. bodysnatchers or ‘resurrection men’, and undertakers who sold tombstones and grave goods. She writes, ‘During roughly the same era in which the human corpse became an article of commerce, so also did the “respectable” funeral’ (112). The Anatomy Act of 1832, which effectively made the bodies of the poor available to anatomy schools, a circumstance that could partly explain Betty Higden’s desperate avoidance of the workhouse, exacerbated this fear of vulnerability to dissection after death.

Could it be that Dickens exhibits an awareness of this social and economic system? Certainly in Our Mutual Friend, perhaps more than anywhere else in Dickens’s oeuvre, the interconnectedness of all people through economic systems that define status in life and death come to the fore. And, in this regard, it is important to remember that Eugene’s struggle with life and death is not the only one in the penultimate instalment of Our Mutual Friend. Rather the instalment also portrays the death and funeral of Mr. Dolls. And Jenny Wren is an important link between the decidedly humble death of Mr. Dolls (Jenny admits to ‘“not being able to hire a lot of stupid undertaker’s things for my poor child”’) and the more peaceful deathbed scene of Eugene Wrayburn. The ever-shrewd Jenny even gets a business idea her father’s burial where she says ‘“it came into my head while I was weeping at my poor boy’s grave, that something in my way might be done with a clergyman,”’ and even this idea is necessitated and perpetuated by the very expense of mourning: ‘“I have many extra expenses to meet just now,”’ Jenny explains (716).

In the end, Eugene’s non-death may simply be a signal that the ‘good death’ no longer served as a viable ideal for Dickens (as would increasingly be the case for the rest of his culture in the decades to come). But Dickens’s answer to this problem is complicated than a simple demand for justice. As the narrator apostrophises at Betty Hidgen’s funeral, ‘“For, we turn up our eyes and say that we are all alike in death, and we might turn them down and work the saying out in this world, so far”’ (507).

Works cited

Aries, Philippe, The Hour of Our Death, trans. by Helen Weaver (Vintage, 2013).

Bakhtin, M. M., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. by Michael Holquist and trans. by Caryl Emerson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).

Boll, Ernest, ‘The Plotting of “Our Mutual Friend”’, Modern Philology (1944), 96-122.

Dickens, Charles, Our Mutual Friend, ed. by Adrian Poole (London: Penguin, 1998).

Hett, William, Miscellanies on Various Subjects in Prose and Verse (1823).

Jalland, Patricia, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Richardson, Ruth, ‘Why was Death so Big in Victorian Britain?’, in Death, Ritual, and Bereavement, ed. by Ralph Houlbrooke (London: Routledge, 1989), 105-17.

Sanders, Andrew, Charles Dickens, Resurrectionist (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982).


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