Classical Education and Charles Dickens

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Dombey and Son

Excerpts from Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens:

[Paul Dombey was the son of a very wealthy businessman. His mother had died shortly after his birth. He had a sister Florence who was 6 years older. Mr. Dombey had great plans for his son Paul. At this point in the story, Paul and Florence were living with Mrs. Pipchin, a woman who trained rich people’s children.]


Mrs. Pipchin had kept watch and ward over little Paul and his sister for nearly twelve months. They had been home twice, but only for a few days; and had been constant in their weekly visits to Mr. Dombey at the hotel. By little and little Paul had grown stronger, and had become able to dispense with his carriage; though he still looked thin and delicate; and still remained the same old, quiet, dreamy child that he had been when first consigned to Mrs. Pipchin’s care. One Saturday afternoon, at dusk, great consternation was occasioned in the castle by the unlookedfor announcement of Mr. Dombey as a visitor to Mrs. Pipchin.


‘Mrs. Pipchin,’ said Mr. Dombey, ‘How do you do?’


‘I can’t expect, Sir, to be very well,’ said Mrs. Pipchin, taking a chair and fetching her breath; ‘but such health as I have, I am grateful for.’

Mr. Dombey inclined his head with the satisfied air of a patron, who felt that this was the sort of thing for which he paid so much a quarter. After a moment’s silence he went on to say:

‘Mrs. Pipchin, I have taken the liberty of calling, to consult you in reference to my son. I have had it in my mind to do so for some time past; but have deferred it from time to time, in order that his health might be thoroughly reestablished. You have no misgivings on that subject, Mrs. Pipchin?’


‘I purpose,’ said Mr. Dombey, ‘his remaining at Brighton.’

Mrs. Pipchin rubbed her hands, and bent her grey eyes on the fire.

‘But,’ pursued Mr. Dombey, stretching out his forefinger, ‘but possibly that he should now make a change, and lead a different kind of life here. In short, Mrs. Pipchin, that is the object of my visit. My son is getting on, Mrs. Pipchin. Really he is getting on.’

There was something melancholy in the triumphant air with which Mr. Dombey said this. It showed how long Paul’s childish life had been to him, and how his hopes were set upon a later stage of his existence. Pity may appear a strange word to connect with any one so haughty and so cold, and yet he seemed a worthy subject for it at that moment.

‘Six years old!’ said Mr. Dombey, settling his neckcloth perhaps to hide an irrepressible smile that rather seemed to strike upon the surface of his face and glance away, as finding no restingplace, than to play there for an instant. ‘Dear me, six will be changed to sixteen, before we have time to look about us.’


… at all events, Mrs. Pipchin, my son is six years old, and there is no doubt, I fear, that in his studies he is behind many children of his age or his youth,’ said Mr. Dombey, quickly answering what he mistrusted was a shrewd twinkle of the frosty eye, ‘his youth is a more appropriate expression. Now, Mrs. Pipchin, instead of being behind his peers, my son ought to be before them; far before them. There is an eminence ready for him to mount upon. There is nothing of chance or doubt in the course before my son. His way in life was clear and prepared, and marked out before he existed. The education of such a young gentleman must not be delayed. It must not be left imperfect. It must be very steadily and seriously undertaken, Mrs. Pipchin.’


‘There is a great deal of nonsense and worse talked about young people not being pressed too hard at first, and being tempted on, and all the rest of it, Sir,’ said Mrs. Pipchin, impatiently rubbing her hooked nose. ‘It never was thought of in my time, and it has no business to be thought of now. My opinion is “keep’em at it.”‘

‘My good madam,’ returned Mr. Dombey, ‘you have not acquired your reputation undeservedly; and I beg you to believe, Mrs. Pipchin, that I am more than satisfied with your excellent system of management, and shall have the greatest pleasure in commending it whenever my poor commendation’ (Mr. Dombey’s loftiness when he affected to disparage his own importance, passed all bounds) ‘can be of any service. I have been thinking of Doctor Blimber’s, Mrs. Pipchin.’

‘My neighbour, Sir?’ said Mrs. Pipchin. ‘I believe the Doctor’s is an excellent establishment. I’ve heard that it’s very strictly conducted, and there is nothing but learning going on from morning to night.’

‘And it’s very expensive,’ added Mr. Dombey.

‘And it’s very expensive, Sir,’ returned Mrs. Pipchin, catching at the fact, as if in omitting that, she had omitted one of its leading merits.

‘I have had some communication with the Doctor, Mrs. Pipchin,’ said Mr. Dombey, hitching his chair anxiously a little nearer to the fire, ‘and he does not consider Paul at all too young for his purpose. He mentioned several instances of boys in Greek at about the same age. If I have any little uneasiness in my own mind, Mrs. Pipchin, on the subject of this change, it is not on that head. My son not having known a mother has gradually concentrated much too much of his childish affection on his sister.


It was plain that he had given the subject anxious consideration, for he had formed a plan, which he announced to the ogress, of sending Paul to the Doctor’s as a weekly boarder for the first half year, during which time Florence would remain at the castle, that she might receive her brother there, on Saturdays. This would wean him by degrees, Mr. Dombey said


Mr. Dombey finished the interview…. he withdrew to his hotel and dinner: resolved that Paul, now that he was getting so old and well, should begin a vigorous course of education forthwith, to qualify him for the position in which he was to shine; and that Doctor Blimber should take him in hand immediately.

Whenever a young gentleman was taken in hand by Doctor Blimber, he might consider himself sure of a pretty tight squeeze. The doctor only undertook the charge of ten young gentlemen, but he had, always ready, a supply of learning for a hundred, on the lowest estimate; and it was at once the business and delight of his life to gorge the unhappy ten with it.

In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hothouse, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boys blew before their time. Mental greenpeas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.

This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. Moreover, one young gentleman, with a swollen nose and an excessively large head (the oldest of the ten who had ‘gone through’ everything), suddenly left off blowing one day, and remained in the establishment a mere stalk. And people did say that the Doctor had rather overdone it with young Toots, and that when he began to have whiskers he left off having brains.

The Doctor was a portly gentleman in a suit of black, with strings at his knees, and stockings below them. He had a bald head, highly polished; a deep voice; and a chin so very double, that it was a wonder how he ever managed to shave into the creases. He had likewise a pair of little eyes that were always half shut up, and a mouth that was always half expanded into a grin, as if he had, that moment, posed a boy, and were waiting to convict him from his own lips.


Miss Blimber, too, although a slim and graceful maid, did no soft violence to the gravity of the house. There was no light nonsense about Miss Blimber. She kept her hair short and crisp, and wore spectacles. She was dry and sandy with working in the graves of deceased languages. None of your live languages for Miss Blimber. They must be dead, stone dead, and then Miss Blimber dug them up like a Ghoul.

Mrs. Blimber, her mama, was not learned herself, but she pretended to be, and that did quite as well. She said at evening parties, that if she could have known Cicero, she thought she could have died contented. It was the steady joy of her life to see the Doctor’s young gentlemen go out walking, unlike all other young gentlemen, in the largest possible shirtcollars, and the stiffest possible cravats. It was so classical, she said.

As to Mr. Feeder, B.A., Doctor Blimber’s assistant, he was a kind of human barrelorgan, with a little list of tunes at which he was continually working, over and over again, without any variation. He might have been fitted up with a change of barrels, perhaps, in early life, if his destiny had been favourable; but it had not been; and he had only one, with which, in a monotonous round, it was his occupation to bewilder the young ideas of Doctor Blimber’s young gentlemen. The young gentlemen were prematurely full of carking anxieties. They knew no rest from the pursuit of stonyhearted verbs, savage nounsubstantives, inflexible syntactic passages, and ghosts of exercises that appeared to them in their dreams. Under the forcing system, a young gentleman usually took leave of his spirits in three weeks. He had all the cares of the world on his head in three months. He conceived bitter sentiments against his parents or guardians in four; he was an old misanthrope, in five; envied Curtius that blessed refuge in the earth, in six; and at the end of the first twelvemonth had arrived at the conclusion, from which he never afterwards departed, that all the fancies of the poets, and lessons of the sages, were a mere collection of words and grammar, and had no other meaning in the world.

But he went on blow, blow, blowing, in the Doctor’s hothouse, all the time; and the Doctor’s glory and reputation were great, when he took his wintry growth home to his relations and friends.


‘Now, Paul,’ said Mr. Dombey, exultingly. ‘This is the way indeed to be Dombey and Son, and have money. You are almost a man already.’

‘Almost,’ returned the child.

Even his childish agitation could not master the sly and quaint yet touching look, with which he accompanied the reply. It brought a vague expression of dissatisfaction into Mr. Dombey’s face; but the door being opened, it was quickly gone.

‘Doctor Blimber is at home, I believe?’ said Mr. Dombey.

The man said yes; and as they passed in, looked at Paul as if he were a little mouse, and the house were a trap.


The Doctor was sitting in his portentous study, with a globe at each knee, books all round him, Homer over the door, and Minerva on the mantelshelf. ‘And how do you do, Sir?’ he said to Mr. Dombey; ‘and how is my little friend?’

The little friend being something too small to be seen at all from where the Doctor sat, over the books on his table, the Doctor made several futile attempts to get a view of him round the legs; which Mr. Dombey perceiving, relieved the Doctor from his embarrassment by taking Paul up in his arms, and sitting him on another little table, over against the Doctor, in the middle of the room.

‘Ha!’ said the Doctor, leaning back in his chair with his hand in his breast. ‘Now I see my little friend. How do you do, my little friend?’

‘Very well, I thank you, Sir,’ returned Paul,

‘Ha!’ said Doctor Blimber. ‘Shall we make a man of him?’

‘Do you hear, Paul?’ added Mr. Dombey; Paul being silent.

‘Shall we make a man of him?’ repeated the Doctor.

‘I had rather be a child,’ replied Paul.

‘Indeed!’ said the Doctor. `Why?’

The child sat on the table looking at him, with a curious expression of suppressed emotion in his face, and beating one hand proudly on his knee as if he had the rising tears beneath it, and crushed them. But his other hand strayed a little way the while, a little farther farther from him yet until it lighted on the neck of Florence. ‘This is why,’ it seemed to say, and then the steady look was broken up and gone; the working lip was loosened; and the tears came streaming forth.

‘Mrs. Pipchin,’ said his father, in a querulous manner, ‘I am really very sorry to see this.’


‘Never mind,’ said the Doctor, blandly nodding his head, to keep Mrs. Pipchin back. ‘Never mind; we shall substitute new cares and new impressions, Mr. Dombey, very shortly. You would still wish my little friend to acquire’

‘Everything, if you please, Doctor,’ returned Mr. Dombey, firmly.

‘Yes,’ said the Doctor, who, with his halfshut eyes, and his usual smile, seemed to survey Paul with the sort of interest that might attach to some choice little animal he was going to stuff. ‘Yes, exactly. Ha! We shall impart a great variety of information to our little friend, and bring him quickly forward, I dare say. I dare say. Quite a virgin soil, I believe you said, Mr. Dombey?’

‘Except some ordinary preparation at home, and from this lady,’ replied Mr. Dombey, introducing Mrs. Pipchin….’except so far, Paul has, as yet, applied himself to no studies at all.’

Doctor Blimber inclined his head, in gentle tolerance of such insignificant poaching as Mrs. Pipchin’s, and said he was glad to hear it. It was much more satisfactory, he observed, rubbing his hands, to begin at the foundation. And again he leered at Paul, as if he would have liked to tackle him with the Greek alphabet on the spot.

‘Permit me,’ said the Doctor, ‘one moment. Allow me to present Mrs. Blimber and my daughter, who will be associated with the domestic life of our young Pilgrim to Parnassus.

Mrs. Blimber, in an excess of politeness,….turned to admire his classical and intellectual lineaments, and turning again to Mr. Dombey, said, with a sigh, that she envied his dear son.

‘Like a bee, Sir,’ said Mrs. Blimber, with uplifted eyes, ‘about to plunge into a garden of the choicest flowers, and sip the sweets for the first time. Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Plautus, Cicero. What a world of honey have we here.


‘But really,’ pursued Mrs. Blimber, ‘I think if I could have known Cicero, and been his friend, and talked with him in his retirement at Tusculum (beautiful Tusculum!), I could have died contented.’

Cornelia looked at Mr. Dombey through her spectacles, as if she would have liked to crack a few quotations with him from the authority in question.

‘If Mr. Dombey will walk up stairs,’ said Mrs. Blimber, ‘I shall be more than proud to show him the dominions of the drowsy god.’


‘And you’ll try and learn a great deal here, and be a clever man,’ said Mr. Dombey; ‘won’t you?’

‘I’ll try,’ returned the child wearily.

‘And you’ll soon be grown up now!’ said Mr. Dombey.

‘Oh! very soon!’ replied the child. Once more the old, old look passed rapidly across his features like a strange light.



AFTER the lapse of some minutes, which appeared an immense time to little Paul Dombey on the table, Doctor Blimber came back. The Doctor’s walk was stately, and calculated to impress the juvenile mind with solemn feelings. It was a sort of march; but when the Doctor put out his right foot, he gravely turned upon his axis, with a semicircular sweep towards the left; and when he put out his left foot, he turned in the same manner towards the right. So that he seemed, at every stride he took, to look about him as though he were saying, ‘Can anybody have the goodness to indicate any subject, in any direction, on which I am uninformed? I rather think not.’

Mrs. Blimber and Miss Blimber came back in the Doctor’s company; and the Doctor, lifting his new pupil off the table, delivered him over to Miss Blimber.

‘Cornelia,’ said the Doctor, ‘Dombey will be your charge at first. Bring him on, Cornelia, bring him on.’

Miss Blimber received her young ward from the Doctor’s hands; and Paul, feeling that the spectacles were surveying him, cast down his eyes.

‘How old are you, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.

‘Six,’ answered Paul, wondering, as he stole a glance at the young lady, why her hair didn’t grow long like Florence’s, and why she was like a boy.

‘How much do you know of your Latin Grammmar, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.

‘None of it,’ answered Paul. Feeling that the answer was a shock to Miss Blimber’s sensibility, he looked up at the three faces that were looking down at him, and said:

‘I hav’n’t been well. I have been a weak child.


‘Ha!’ said the Doctor, shaking his head: ‘this is bad, but study will do much.’


Cornelia took him first to the schoolroom, which was situated at the back of the hall, and was approached through two baize doors, which deadened and muffled the young gentlemen’s voices. Here, there were eight young gentlemen in various stages of mental prostration, all very hard at work, and very grave indeed. Toots, as an old hand, had a desk to himself in one corner: and a magnificent man, of immense age, he looked, in Paul’s young eyes, behind it.

Mr. Feeder, B.A., who sat at another little desk, had his Virgil stop on, and was slowly grinding that tune to four young gentlemen. Of the remaining four, two who grasped their foreheads convulsively, were engaged in solving mathematical problems; one with his face like a dirty window, from much crying, was endeavouring to flounder through a hopeless number of lines before dinner; and one sat looking at his task in stony stupefaction and despair which it seemed had been his condition ever since breakfast time.

The appearance of a new boy did not create the sensation that might have been expected. Mr. Feeder, B.A. (who was in the habit of shaving his head for coolness, and had nothing but little bristles on it), gave him a bony hand, and told him he was glad to see him which Paul would have been very glad to have told him, if he could have done so with the least sincerity. Then Paul, instructed by Cornelia, shook hands with the four young gentlemen at Mr. Feeder’s desk; then with the two young gentlemen at work on the problems, who were very feverish; then with the gentleman at work against time, who was very inky; and lastly with the young gentleman in a state of stupefaction, who was flabby and quite cold.

Paul having been already introduced to Toots, that pupil merely chuckled and breathed hard, as his custom was, and pursued the occupation in which he was engaged. It was not a severe one; for on account of his having `gone through’ so much (in more senses than one), and also of his having, as before hinted, left off blowing in his prime, Toots now had licence to pursue his own course of study: which was chiefly to write long letters to himself from persons of distinction, addressed `P. Toots, Esquire, Brighton, Sussex,’ and to preserve them in his desk with great care.

Regularly, after that, Florence was prepared to sit down with Paul on Saturday night, and patiently assist him through so much as they could anticipate together, of his next week’s work. The cheering thought that he was labouring on where Florence had just toiled before him, would, of itself, have been a stimulant to Paul in the perpetual resumption of his studies; but coupled with the actual lightening of his load, consequent on this assistance, it saved him, possibly, from sinking underneath the burden which the fair Cornelia Blimber piled upon his back.

It was not that Miss Blimber meant to be too hard upon him, or that Doctor Blimber meant to bear too heavily on the young gentlemen in general. Cornelia merely held the faith in which she had been bred; and the Doctor, in some partial confusion of his ideas, regarded the young gentlemen as if they were all Doctors, and were born grown up. Comforted by the applause of the young gentlemen’s nearest relations, and urged on by their blind vanity and ill considered haste, it would have been strange if Doctor Blimber had discovered his mistake, or trimmed his swelling sails to any other tack.

Thus in the case of Paul. When Doctor Blimber said he made great progress, and was naturally clever, Mr. Dombey was more bent than ever on his being forced and crammed. In the case of Briggs, when Doctor Blimber reported that he did not make great progress yet, and was not naturally clever, Briggs senior was inexorable in the same purpose. In short, however high and false the temperature at which the Doctor kept his hothouse, the owners of the plants were always ready to lend a helping hand at the bellows, and to stir the fire.

Such spirits as he had in the outset, Paul soon lost of course. But he retained all that was strange, and old, and thoughtful to the in his character: and under circumstances so favourable to the development of those tendencies, became even more strange, and old, and thoughtful, than before.


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1 Comment

  1. Kristen B.

    I enjoyed reading the excerpts.
    I recently started reading the book!



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