63 pages 2 hours read

Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1865

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Summary and Study Guide


Our Mutual Friend is a Victorian Realist novel by Charles Dickens, published in serial form from 1864 to 1865. The novel is notable among Dickens’s work for its scathing satire of social conditions in London during the era. Our Mutual Friend has been adapted for film, television, and radio and explores themes of The Tension Between Poverty and Dignity, The Relationship Between Names and Identity, and The Rigidity of Social Class.

This guide uses the 2008 Oxford World’s Classics edition.

Content Warning: Both the novel and guide contain discussions of alcohol addiction, death by suicide, and antisemitism.

Plot Summary

When a miserly old man named Harmon dies in London, the only people by his side are his employees, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Although Harmon is estranged from his family, his will stipulates that his fortune will go to his son, John Harmon, who returns from a foreign country where he has been living. However, there is a catch in the will: To claim the inheritance, John must marry Bella Wilfer, a woman he has never met. Mortimer Lightwood is the will’s executor.

Before John arrives to claim the fortune, he goes missing and is believed to have drowned. A waterman named Gaffer Hexam who frequently retrieves (and robs) corpses finds a body in the Thames bearing papers that identify it as John Harmon. As the body is being identified, a young man named Julius Handford comes to inquire about it but promptly disappears, arousing the police’s suspicion.

Without John as an heir, Harmon’s estate goes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. They make ambitious plans to share the wealth with as many people as possible. They also take in Bella Wilfer, John’s intended bride, and treat her well as their own heir. Meanwhile, Julius Handford, now going by the name of John Rokesmith, offers to serve as their secretary and manage their affairs for free. He uses this position to gather as much information as possible about the Boffins and Bella. Mr. Boffin also hires a ballad seller named Silas Wegg to read to him at night. Silas uses Mr. Boffin’s kindness to take advantage of him, convincing him to move to a larger house so that Silas can move into the Boffins’ old home.

Roger (Rogue) Riderhood, who was once Hexam’s partner in his work on the river, has hopes of getting the reward offered for information about the presumed murder of John Harmon. He accuses Hexam of the murder, which causes friends to reject Hexam. At the time of the accusation, Hexam’s son, Charley, leaves the home of his father to go to school in hopes of becoming a schoolmaster. He receives encouragement from Lizzie, his sister, who remains devoted to her father and stands by him. Hexam is eventually found drowned before Riderhood can cash in on his false accusation. Lizzie becomes a lodger with a girl named Jenny Wren, who earns her living as a doll’s dressmaker. Jenny cares for her father, whom she refers to as her child, as he has an alcohol addiction.

Lizzie attracts the attention of the barrister Eugene Wrayburn, who saw her when he and his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, went to question Hexam. Eugene is not alone in his love for Lizzie, as Charley Hexam’s schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone, is also in love with her. Charley attempts to arrange for Headstone to teach his sister but discovers that Eugene has already found an instructor for Lizzie and Jenny. Headstone proposes to Lizzie, who rejects him. Angry with Eugene and feeling he is responsible for all that is wrong in Headstone’s life, Headstone begins following Eugene around at night. Lizzie fears a confrontation is brewing between the two men and leaves the area to find work north of London.

The Boffins hope to adopt an orphan boy who has so far been cared for by Betty Higden, his great-grandmother. However, the child dies before this can happen. Betty dies shortly afterward; Lizzie happens to be nearby and thus meets the Boffins, as well as Bella Wilfer. Meanwhile, Rokesmith falls for Bella, who rejects him for his poverty. However, when Mr. Boffin becomes miserly in his ways and begins to turn on Rokesmith, it softens Bella’s feelings toward Rokesmith; the pair eventually wed.

Eugene finds out where Lizzie is and tracks her down. Headstone, also trying to locate Lizzie, turns to Riderhood. Eugene and Headstone both head upriver and eventually encounter each other. Headstone attacks Eugene, leaving him for dead, but Lizzie finds him in the river and saves him. Eugene marries Lizzie in an attempt to salvage her reputation, as he believes that he will die soon anyway. He survives and is happy in the marriage, even though she is socially his inferior.

Through a series of incidents, it emerges that John Rokesmith is in fact the missing John Harmon; he had been robbed by the man who later drowned and was thought to have been Harmon. His plan was to keep his identity hidden from Bella to learn more about her before deciding whether to marry her. Since she agreed to marry him believing that he was poor, he is now comfortable dropping his alias. Further, it is learned that Mr. Boffin’s disdain for Rokesmith was an effort to push Bella into defending Rokesmith. The Boffins remain the legal heirs to Harmon’s fortune because of the discovery of a new will, but they decide that John and Bella will be their heirs.

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