The various ways Charles Dickens employs railways as image and plot device in Dombey and Son well represent both the range of effects they had on Victorian Britain and its usefulness as image and analogy. On the one hand, Dickens, unlike many contemporaries, recognized the ways this new transportation technology could effect Victorian cities for the better, ridding them of their worst slums and leading to the construction new housing for the poorer classes. Similarly, in Carlylean fashion he also presents those who work on the railway, particularly engine drivers, as valued members of society — solid citizens. On the other hand, like J. M. W. Turner in Rain, Steam, Speed (1844), he often associates locomotives and the trains they pull with monsters, cacophony, and even death. Thus when Dombey travels home on the train after his beloved son's has died,

He found no pleasure or relief in the journey. . . . The very speed at which the train was whirled along, mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its foredoomed end. The power that forced itself upon its iron way — its own — defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.

The following paragraph draws upon the popular nineteenth-century topos of the roaring, shrieking locomotive violating nature — what Leo Marx has taught us to call "the machine in the garden" —

Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death! [Ch. 20. "Mr. Dombey goes upon a Journey"]

Of course, in the novel the railway also serves — as it did in reality — to move people quickly between widely separated cities and other places, here London and Brighton for the Dombeys and around France for the defeated Carker, who "remembered a certain station on the railway, where he would have to branch off to his place of destination, and where there was a quiet Inn. Here, he indistinctly resolved to tarry and rest." Yes, he finds his much-wanted "retired spot." but the railway, which should have brought him to peace and rest, brings only fear, for when awakened by a passing train, "he started up and listened, in a sudden terror."

The ground shook, the house rattled, the fierce impetuous rush was in the air! He felt it come up, and go darting by; and even when he had hurried to the window, and saw what it was, he stood, shrinking from it, as if it were not safe to look.

A curse upon the fiery devil, thundering along so smoothly, tracked through the distant valley by a glare of light and lurid smoke, and gone! He felt as if he had been plucked out of its path, and saved from being torn asunder. It made him shrink and shudder even now, when its faintest hum was hushed, and when the lines of iron road he could trace in the moonlight, running to a point, were as empty and as silent as a desert.

Unable to sleep, he leaves the inn and becomes a train watcher, waiting until he heard "a trembling of the ground, and quick vibration in his ears; a distant shriek; a dull light advancing, quickly changed to two red eyes, and a fierce fire, dropping glowing coals; an irresistible bearing on of a great roaring and dilating mass; a high wind, and a rattle — another come and gone, and he holding to a gate, as if to save himself!" And then he "waited for another, and for another," walking to and from the station always looking "for these approaching monsters," and when one stops to take on water, he gazes at "its heavy wheels and brazen front, and thinking what a cruel power and might it had. Ugh! To see the great wheels slowly turning, and to think of being run down and crushed! (Ch. 55. "Rob the Grinder loses his Place"). Fascinated by the trains, drawn to them like a moth to the flame, he in fact dies under one, though Dickens presents it as an accident: Seeing "the man from whom he had fled," Carker staggers backwards, ends up on the tracks, and

felt the earth tremble—knew in a moment that the rush was come—uttered a shriek—looked round—saw the red eyes, bleared and dim, in the daylight, close upon him—was beaten down, caught up, and whirled away upon a jagged mill, that spun him round and round, and struck him limb from limb, and licked his stream of life up with its fiery heat, and cast his mutilated fragments in the air. [Ch. 55. "Rob the Grinder loses his Place"]

Dickens, so often a master of description, is at his best when conveying that form of the technological sublime produced by sudden intrusion of a racing locomotive, which suddenly appears in the distance and rushes past, shaking the observer before it disappears into the distance: the night before his death, Carker cannot pull himself away from the iron monster, and "when he felt the trembling and vibration, got up and went to the window, to watch (as he could from its position) the dull light changing to the two red eyes, and the fierce fire dropping glowing coals, and the rush of the giant as it fled past, and the track of glare and smoke along the valley." The giant devours him at last.

Related Material


Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America . New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Victorian Railways

Last modified 1 September 2009