Like many of his earlier novels, such as A Tale of Two Cities
and Great Expectations
, Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend
originally appeared in serialized form. The nineteen monthly installments were written in 1864 and 1865, and as a whole are viewed as one of the author’s more sophisticated tomes with its satirical edge and social commentary.
When miserly old Harmon dies in London, he is alone in the world save for his employees Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Although estranged from his family, his will stipulates that his fortune will go to his son, John Harmon, who is returning from a foreign country in which he had settled. There is a catch in that John, in order to claim the inheritance, must marry Bella Wilfer, a woman he has never met. Mortimer Lightwood is the solicitor in charge of the will. Before John arrives to claim the fortune, he goes missing and is thought to have drowned. A waterman Gaffer Hexam, who frequently retrieves corpses for the authorities but robs them of any valuables before turning them over, finds a body in the Thames. Papers on the body in question identify it as John Harmon. When the body is being identified, a young man Julius Handford is in attendance but promptly disappears.
Without John as an heir, the miser’s estate is to go to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, who not only want it for themselves, but plan to share it with others as well. They also take in Bella Wilfer, John’s intended bride, and treat her well while considering her to be their own heir. Julius Handford, meanwhile, offers to serve as their secretary and manage their affairs for free. He now goes by the name of John Rokesmith. He uses this position to gather as much information as possible about the Boffins and Bella. Mr. Boffin hires a ballad seller named Silas Wegg to read to him at night. Wegg uses Mr. Boffin’s kindness as a way to take advantage of him, eventually convincing him to move to a larger house, allowing Wegg to take over the former home.
Roger (Rogue) Riderhood, who had once been Hexam’s partner in his work on the river, has hopes of getting the reward offered for information about the murder of John Harmon. He accuses Hexam of the murder, which causes friends to reject Hexam and finds him banned from the pub they often visited together. At the time of the accusation, Hexam’s son, Charley, leaves the home of his father to go to school with the hope of becoming a schoolmaster. He receives encouragement from his sister, Lizzie. Lizzie remains devoted to her father and stands by him. Hexam is found drowned before Riderhood is able to cash in on his false accusation against him. Lizzie then becomes a lodger with a disabled teen, Jenny Wren, a doll’s dressmaker. Jenny treats her alcoholic father with whom she lived as a child.
Lizzie becomes the object of attraction of the barrister Eugene Wrayburn, who saw her when he and his friend, the solicitor Mortimer Lightwood, went to question Gaffer Hexam. Wrayburn 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 lessons for his sister with Headstone but discovers that Wrayburn has already found a teacher for Lizzie and Jenny. Headstone proposes to Lizzie but is rejected. Angry with Wrayburn for his negative attitude towards him, and feeling he is responsible for all that is wrong in his life, Headstone begins following Wrayburn 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 had been cared for by Betty Higden, his great-grandmother, but the child dies before this can take place. Lizzie sees that Higden is dying and meets the Boffins, as well as Bella Wilfer. Wrayburn finds out where Lizzie is and tracks her down. Headstone, also trying to locate Lizzie, turns to Riderhood. Wrayburn and Headstone both head up-river and eventually encounter each other. Headstone attacks Wrayburn, leaving him for dead, but Lizzie finds him in the river and saves him. Wrayburn marries Lizzie in an attempt to help her reputation, as he figures he will die soon anyway. He survives and is happy in the marriage even though she is socially his inferior. Rokesmith falls for Bella, who rejects him for his lack of money. Mr. Boffin becomes miserly in his ways and begins to turn on Rokesmith, which softens Bella’s feelings towards Rokesmith, and they eventually wed.
Through a series of incidents, it is revealed that John Rokesmith is in fact the missing John Harmon who had been robbed by the man who later drowned and was thought to have been Harmon. His plan had been to keep his identity hidden from Bella in order to learn more about her before deciding to marry her to fulfill the requirements of his father’s will. Since she agreed to marry him under the false belief that he was poor, he is comfortable dropping his alias. Further, it is learned that Mr. Boffin’s new-found disdain for Rokesmith was an effort to determine Bella’s true motives. The Boffins remain the legal heirs to Old Harmon’s fortune because of a new will that exists, but they decide that John and Bella will be their heirs.