Dorothy van Ghent long ago pointed out that "Many of what we shall call the "signatures" of Dickens' people — that special exaggerated feature or gesture or mannerism which comes to stand for the whole person — are such dissociated parts of the body, like Jaggers' huge forefinger which he bites and then plunges menacingly at the accused, or Wemmick's post-office mouth, or the clockwork apparatus in Magwitch's throat that clicks as if it were about to strike" (more of this discussion). The novelist similarly uses overrriding obsessions, often in the form of occupational associations, to create memorable minor characters and important supporting ones.

This merging of occupation and character, collapsing one into the other, appears throughout Dombey and Son. Captain Cuttle, for instance, does not so much use nautical analogies as simply see everything he encounters through the lens of his former life as a sailor. Similarly, the husband of Paul's wetnurse, "Mr Toodle, cindery and swart," takes form before the reader's eye as a railwayman in several senses: first of all, Dickens describes him terms of the effect that his occupation has had upon him, and the narrator tells us that (like Wemmick in Great Expectations) Toodle lives a bifurcated life, one part spent on his job, the other in his home:

He was either taking refreshment in the bosom just mentioned, or he was tearing through the country at from twenty-five to fifty miles an hour, or he was sleeping after his fatigues. He was always in a whirlwind or a calm, and a peaceable, contented, easy-going man Mr Toodle was in either state, who seemed to have made over all his own inheritance of fuming and fretting to the engines with which he was connected, which panted, and gasped, and chafed, and wore themselves out, in a most unsparing manner, while Mr Toodle led a mild and equable life. . . .

Unlike Wemmick, who creates his little castle as a way of keeping out the work-a-day world and preserving his humanity, he sees his strenous work outside the home as enriching rather than destroying his life.

When we come upon him playing with his youngest children, he is "conveying the two young Toodles on his knees to Birmingham by special engine." Nothing surprising here. We'd expect a train driver — railroad enginerr in American usage — to play this way with his children. But when Dickens's narrator describes Toodle eating his supper, he begins to transform him into a locomotive, into a machine, as we read about him "shovelling in his bread and butter with a clasp knife, as if he were stoking himself." When he tells his children the proper way to live, he does not just rely upon a railway vocabulary but sees everything from a locomotive's point of view: "'You see, my boys and gals,' said Mr Toodle, looking round upon his family, 'wotever you're up to in a honest way, it's my opinion as you can't do better than be open. If you find yourselves in cuttings or in tunnels, don't you play no secret games. Keep your whistles going, and let's know where you are." This last speech takes place in his questioning of his wayward eldest son, Rob the Grinder, and when his wife objects, he explains how he approaches important questions: "'Polly, old ooman,' said Mr Toodle, 'I don't know as I said it partickler along o' Rob, I'm sure. I starts light with Rob only; I comes to a branch; I takes on what I finds there; and a whole train of ideas gets coupled on to him, afore I knows where I am, or where they comes from. What a Junction a man's thoughts is,' said Mr Toodle, 'to-be-sure!'" Mr. and Mrs. Toodle, unlike their son, never go off the track.

[All quotations come from chapter 38, "Miss Tox improves an Old Acquaintance," of the Project Gutenberg e-text of Dombey and Son produced by Neil McLachlan, Ted Davis, and David Widger].

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Last modified 1 September 2009