To begin with, I would like to discuss the importance of rhetoric in Dickens’ Dombey and Son. Since the Victorian society valued rhetoric and the power of language, Dickens was always regarded as a master of the rhetoric. His distinctive use of language is perfectly demonstrated in the novel, Dombey and Son. According to Aristotle, ‘[r]hetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion’ (Aristotle 2004, 6). Aristotle presents three categories of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos, where pathos is associated with the emotional appeal, which connects the writer and the reader. In order to be more effective and to make his writing more persuasive, Dickens applies this mode of rhetoric to his works, thus seeking to persuade the readers by appealing to their emotions. In order to establish the desired emotions in his readers and make them receive his ideas, Dickens uses pathos and plays on the emotions of his readers. Howerer, ‘[i]t is not enough to know what to say; we must also say it in the right way’ (Aristotle 2004, 119). The choice of language affects the audience emotionally. As a result, Dickens represents his point of view and feelings in order to evoke the imagination and sympathies of his readers, because the ideas, beliefs, values and understandings of the author are implicit in the text; therefore, Pathos conveys not only emotional but also the imaginative message to the audience. What is more, ‘[p]ersuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make [the audience] think him credible’ (Aristotle 2004, 7). Through his novel, Dombey and Son, Dickens wants to influence his readers by using emotional language and especially powerful rhetorical devices such as parallels, hyperboles, irony, metaphors and others. However, according to Aristotle:
It is the merit of rhetoric that ‘Dickens paid great regard to his readers’; he always tried to predict his readers’ emotions and present his works ‘without making people angry’ (Christie 1974, 138).
In the Victorian age, novel became the most popular genre among people from all social backgrounds, because ‘the novel not only informs, but is a context, part of the texture through which lives are lived and understood’ (Marshall 2002, 1). The solid relationship between the novel and historical context shows that the Victorian values and ideologies were strongly reflected in contemporary writings. During the Victorian period, mother’s personality was not important; Victorians believed in ‘the mother’s presence within the family home, and the farther’s in the workplace’ (Marshall 2002, 1-2). Barbara Thaden affirms that ‘the idealized middle-class mother’s function became providing for the health, happiness, and peace of all family members while appearing to have no needs of her own’ (Thaden 1997, 51). Thaden designates Ruskin as one of the most influential critics in the Victorian period, who ’emphasiz[ed] the importance of the mother’s role in creating this peaceful haven from reality, the new sentimental family (Thaden 1997, 52). John Ruskin discusses this ideology in ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’, where he states:
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‘The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive [â€¦] But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle, – and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. The man, in his rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial [â€¦] But he guards the woman from all this; within his house, as ruled by her, unless she herself has sought it, need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offence. This is the true nature of home – it is the place of Peace. (Twells 2007, 31)
What is more, Marshall says that ‘the briefest of comparisons between Ruskin and any Victorian novel will show us how far he is actually advocating the state he describes, rather than illustrating an existing state of affairs’ (Marshall 2002, 2). So Ruskin’s representation on the role of women can be compared to Dickens’ novel, Dombey and Son, as it represents the same ideas and ideologies. Florence is the main character in Dickens’ novel, so I will try to relate Ruskin’s ideas on the role of women in contemporary society to Dickens representation of Florence in his novel.
In the Victorian age ‘women and men were essentially opposite sexes, and [â€¦] marriage to a man was the chief end of a woman’s existence’ (Marcus 2007, 1). According to Walter Edwards Houghton, there were three main conceptions of women in the Victorian period. The best known and the most conservative one was ‘that of the submissive wife whose whole excuse for being was to love, honour, obey – and amuse – her lord and master, and to manage his household and his children’, while the most radical one was ‘demanding equal rights with men: the same education, the same suffrage, the same opportunity for professional and political careers’ (Houghton 1985, 348). A middle position, which also Ruskin adhered to, was a mediating one. Although agreeing that women should become more educated, there were still serious discussions for their engagement in absolutely the same activities as men, meaning that women and men were created to devote themselves to separate spheres of life. All these views were based on different conceptions on the nature of women, whether women were inferior, equal, or simply different. The truth was that the nature of women and men was different physically and emotionally; women’s function was to complement men. The nature of woman as discussed by Victorians would apply not only to the institution of marriage, but also to the role of woman as a mother, a daughter, a sister and a member of society, to the way she should be educated, and, above all, her status in relation to men.
One of the most popular essays, dealing with the role of women in the Victorian age, is ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ by John Ruskin, which is noted for quite an idealised portrayal of women and praise of ‘Household Gods’ and domesticity (Ruskin 2008, 58). It was important for anyone wishing to discuss the role of women first to establish what their nature was. Ruskin’s lecture ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’, which is a part of a larger work called Sesame and Lilies, is a study in the nature and role of women, in how one ought to define their womanhood and how exactly is a woman to complement a man. Then he goes on further to discuss the general influence women may have on the Victorian society, and even accuses them of not having made this influence on contemporaries in rather strong expressions. Ruskin begins by defining ‘the relations of the womanly to the manly nature’ and rejecting the polarised notions he assumes to be wrong (Ruskin 2008, 45). He deems it impossible to speak of individual rights and mission of woman, because they cannot possibly be separated from those of man. He also rejects ‘the idea that woman is only the shadow and attendant image of her lord, owing him a thoughtless and servile obedience, and supported altogether in her weakness by the pre-eminence of his fortitude [â€¦] As if he could be helped effectively by a shadow, or worthily by a slave’ (Ruskin 2008, 45-6).
Many Victorians would agree, no matter what their position, that ‘woman’s role was to be accepted as divinely willed’ (Norton 2000, 1719). Ruskin reminds his audience that woman was initially created as a helper for man; she was designed simply to be a suitable helper. Her every quality and every aim should be then developed according to her divine call and God-created nature. Ruskin finds his evidence to challenge the contemporary assumptions in the best works of literature. There, nothing is said of male superiority and command as well as those calls for liberation that have nothing to do with woman’s role as a helper. He states that ‘it is the woman who watches over, teaches, and guides the youth; it is never the youth who watches over, or educates his mistress’ (Ruskin 2008, 49). Ruskin claims that ‘in all Christian ages which have been remarkable for their purity or progress, there has been absolute yielding of obedient devotion, by the lover, to his mistress’ (Ruskin 2008, 51-2). That is to say, women were fulfilling their role, and influencing men to good deeds.
According to Ruskin, men and women function in different spheres. The function of woman is to guide, not to determine. She is subjected to her husband in respect of decision-making. She is to order, arrange and decide, not to invent or create. The man faces the world outside and deals with it daily; he is therefore hardened by it. It is for the woman to support and encourage him, to make and guard a home that would be his shelter from the outside world, because she is protected by her man from it. She has a greater capacity for feeling and sympathy, which should be cultivated and applied to ordering and comforting, first at her home, and then in the outside world: ‘Within his house, as ruled by her, need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offence’ (Ruskin 2008, 54). Ruskin justly notices that in order to fulfill this demand on her, she must be ‘incapable of error’, as far as this is possible for a human being (Ruskin 2008, 54). Her wisdom and knowledge should be applied not to self-development or personal achievements, but to assistance and guidance of men, so that ‘she may never fail from his side’ (Ruskin 2008, 54). Her infinite and modest service is to be a mark of her true wisdom. Every woman ought to be a good force behind good deeds of her husband, brother or son.
Ruskin’s view has a double effect. His ideal woman is exalted, the home is her temple – a sacred place where nothing corrupt is allowed to enter, a school of virtue and a walled garden. A woman who does not comply with this role is guilty of not fulfilling her duty and allowing men to be corrupted and contaminated. Yet this concept seems to put enormous pressure on women in real life, if it is to go beyond the sphere of art, where Ruskin’s examples come from. The norm, however innocent, pure and worthy of admiration it represents a woman, is still that her place is at home. She is a priestess of the temple of household gods and ‘wherever a true wife comes, this home is always round her’, ‘home is yet wherever she is; and for a noble woman it stretches far round her, better than ceiled with cedar, or painted with vermillion, shedding its quiet light far, for those who else were homeless’ (Ruskin 2008, 54). This ‘celebratory sanctity’ idealises domesticity, and seems slightly disturbing (Flint 1986, 114). Ruskin’s examples and exultations seem artistic rather than Christian, even if he had based his original ideas on the biblical account of woman’s role. However, the attitude appears to be essentially Victorian and supported by the most popular contemporary critics.
Charles Dickens, years before Ruskin, reflects this idealised approach to both women and domestic life in his novel, Dombey and Son. Florence is portrayed as an ideal, and her qualities seem to illustrate and anticipate Ruskin’s views. As it is mentioned previously, the discussion of woman’s role and duties was not limited to the marital sphere only – her behaviour as a sister, a mother or a daughter was to reflect her nature and place as well. In his portrayal of Florence in Dombey and Son, Dickens focused on making her an undoubtedly ideal daughter, her perfection to be stressed even more by the fact of her rejection on the part of a proud and cold father. Florence is also a devoted sister to little Paul, and later a wife to Walter and a mother of her children, ideal, it seems, in all these qualities. Florence is a character, who, as Ruskin would say, revives where she passes, and although neglected by her father, reaches out lovingly to him again and again (Ruskin 2008, 68). Although the contemporary society believed that ‘[l]ove of home, children, and domestic duties, are the only passions [women] feel’, Florence seeks education (Acton 1867, 145). She is intelligent – it is never really explained in detail who teaches her and how, but she seems to be learning by herself, naturally, just as Ruskin claimed girls would do. She is an innocent and self-renouncing daughter, sister, wife and mother. She seems to be Ruskin’s ideal woman, personified as a gentle spirit who never uttered a word of reproach throughout the whole novel.
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Top of FormDuring the Victorian period, middle-class women were seen as commodities, who had just one task – to raise the family and to represent its welfare. The woman was a symbol of the home, and any step out of it would suggest the instability of the family. In Dombey and Son, Florence ran away from the household, as ‘[s]he saw she had no father upon earth, and ran out, orphaned, from his house’ (Dickens 2002, 721). As a daughter, she is tenderly devoted to her father. Dombey was not interested in his daughter and ‘his feeling about the child had been negative from her birth. He had never conceived an aversion to her […] It was not difficult to perceive that Florence was at as great disadvantage in her farther’s presence’ (Dickens 2002, 42-3). Despite being rejected by him only wishes to find a way to his heart so that they can be close, and she could give him her love. She shows no pride or jealousy at meeting her new mama, Edith, but instead cries out passionately: ‘Oh Papa, may you be happy! may you be very, very happy all your life!’ (Dickens 2002, 443). And when in the end of the book she comes and asks forgiveness of him, never requiring any apologies from his side, and saves him from suicide, Dickens notes that she was ‘[u]nchanged still. Of the entire world, unchanged’ (Dickens 2002, 910). Her personal love, goodness and morality have a saving force, the one Ruskin ascribes to women. Florence saves the home, after all her troubles, and the end is a family idyll. Unquestionably, home would be her first priority and the public sphere would be left to men. And her father, having been ruined by the public sphere, has a home in her, a devoted daughter.
Before Dombey realised the truth, Florence had shown herself a loving sister to Paul, giving him freely of her otherwise neglected love. She was helping him with his studies, after finishing her own, to make his life easier, sometimes staying up half a night – that is, she was using her education or knowledge to aid the men in her life, precisely what Ruskin meant a woman ought to do. Finally, her projected marriage to Walter is represented as positively as possible. She tells him she would be his wife and promises her total devotion from the heart. Sexless, chaste and innocent, passing on from calling Walter her brother to calling him her husband naturally, she is domestic and pure, as opposed to Edith Granger, whose sexuality is portrayed as destructive. Florence is not proud at all. She is eager to be a helper and her innocence makes her unthreatening to a male ego. It also seems that her “goodness” and domesticity are offered as a starting point for transforming her home, and then the society at large, from its pride, vice or weakness. As Ruskin claims that a woman’s public work or duty should be an expansion of her personal duty related to home, so Dickens makes a point of Florence’s kindness and servility to those around her, which, if expanded to a larger society, would undoubtedly do more good than all railways and commercial enterprises altogether.
Although Florence is an idealised character, she is not very successfully realised, in terms of her appeal as a personality. Gissing names Florence ‘too colourless for deep interest’ (Gissing 2004, 45), and makes a true observation that ‘were Florence Dombey anything like so well depicted as her maid, the story, as a story, would greatly benefit by it’ (Gissing 2004, 49). Another point is made by Kate Flint:
‘a reading of Dickens’ works does not turn up a galaxy of believably happy families who serve to support his theoretical celebration of the household gods: the hard work necessary to create or sustain such an environment is thereby stressed’. (Flint 1986, 115)
Oxford Companion to Dickens states that ‘whilst projected marriages [â€¦] are positively represented, actual marriages rarely match the ideal’ (Schlicke 2000, 191).
In conclusion, although the representation of women in Victorian novels reflects reality, it is hard to decide in what way Florence is related to the real world, because she is idealised and portrayed as a little household angel, without any qualities that would make her really interesting as a human being, not just a literary heroine; she is too ‘flat’. This might be precisely the Victorian ideal of a woman, stripped of all dangerous qualities that men may feel uncomfortable with. John Ruskin praised the guiding, supporting and arranging function of women. According to him, a woman should order the domestic sphere and encourage and support her husband, or any other male relative for that matter. Her place was primarily in the private, domestic sphere, while man belonged to the public world. All the positive qualities of a woman as praised by Ruskin are represented also in the character of Florence Dombey. Ruskin’s implications of a ‘saving’ effect a woman ought to have on a man, who is often misled by the world, are realised by Dickens in Florence’s character interacting with that of her father’s and her eventual success in changing him. In Dombey and Son, Dickens stated the same ideals, as Ruskin in his essay, in his representation of Florence. Her character is, however, much less convincing than Ruskin’s statements, but still reflects the contemporary ideas on the role of women. 
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