Animal Imagery in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son

Michael J. Gilmour, Providence University College, Canada

 Download PDF Version

 Animals, along with bestial similes and metaphors appear often in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846–1848), providing readers with a way to navigate the moral landscape of the story told. Such zoological imagery is highly emotive. Animals are potentially vulnerable or violent, loyal or indifferent, cute and loveable or hideous and frightening. When writers apply bestial descriptors to human characters, they transfer whatever conventional associations a particular animal carries to the person in question. Such use of bestial imagery also has the potential to carry symbolic meaning as animals figure prominently in various mythological writings, and so it is when describing the austere environment of Doctor Blimber’s school, the narrator notes that when he “made the commonest observation to a nervous stranger, it was like a sentiment from the sphynx [sic]” (163). This simile simultaneously captures various qualities in Blimber: his power in the eyes of students (the sphinx has a lion’s body and the head of a king/god), and his obvious interest in antiquity. Perhaps more to the point, Blimber is stone-like, just as that Egyptian lion, which is consistent with his largely emotionless, sterile surroundings. He rules over a joyless home with sad-coloured curtains, with no sound other than the dull cooing of young students at their lessons murmuring like “melancholy pigeons” (163).

At times, animal imagery in Dombey and Son draws on symbolism found in biblical literature where again the language carries certain associations. Snakes and doves are clear examples. A serpent deceives Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-13) and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove at Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). Among other nonhuman and monstrous terms in the novel with biblical echoes are leviathan (136), dragon (245, 350), and demon (774). Readers’ experiences with certain animals also condition their responses to bestial imagery. Those commonly viewed as pets in Victorian society, for instance, suggest something very different than those considered pariah. When applied to humans, these associations carry over. It means something very different to identify someone as a dove or a rat. Occasionally, negative and positive associations overlap introducing degrees of ambiguity. A cat can be a gentle domestic pet but also a ferocious hunter, a dog can be a loving companion (like Diogenes) or a dangerous predator (like a dog-like wolf; cf. Carker’s “wolf face” [400]). This paper examines Dickens’s use of bestial imagery and considers how this language informs the moral landscape of the story told.

Predators and Their Prey

Dickens clearly anticipates such culturally formed associations with particular animals—whether literary, as in the case of mythological and biblical associations, or experiential, as in the case of pets, pests, and pariah. Many of these are obvious. He often depicts violent and dangerous human characters as large, wild, and predatory animals that evoke fear, and others who are beautiful and vulnerable as small, domesticated, and gentle creatures. Dickens’s characterization goes beyond mere associations of people with certain animals, however. Attention to the widespread use of bestial imagery provides important clues regarding various characters’ developments and their relationships with one another. Such interactions depend on typical responses between species (e.g., cat-mouse, dog-cat, bird of prey-domesticated bird).

            The Dombey children are vulnerable and weak and have limited mobility. Illness confines Paul to home/sickbed and school, and before running away from her father, Florence spends most of her time isolated in the family mansion. They are caged birds. While alone in Doctor Blimber’s house, young Paul is “breasting the window of his solitary cage” (192). Similar imagery applies to the immobile Florence who is also a caged bird (e.g., 766), one injured with “broken wings” (272). Some birds are beautiful and delicate so the recurring bird metaphors also emphasise her positive qualities (e.g., 847). The epithet “dove” suggests her purity (843; cf. the biblical overtones mentioned above). Their father, however, is a “bird of prey” (762) and those charged with caring for Florence wild beasts (847).

Here we see zoological terminology marking the downward trajectories of fallen/falling characters and identifying those representing a threat to the virtuous and vulnerable. Bestial imagery distinguishes those who are domestic, tame, and safe from those who are wild, uncontrolled, and dangerous as in this use of avian imagery to depict members of the Dombey family:

Oh! could he [Mr. Dombey] but have seen, or seen as others did, the slight spare

boy [Paul Jr.] above, watching the waves and clouds at twilight, with his earnest

eyes, and breasting the window of his solitary cage when birds few by, as if he

would have emulated them, and soared away! (192)

‘I left here early,’ pursued Edith, ‘purposely to sit up-stairs and talk with you. But,

going to your room, I found my bird was flown, and I have been waiting there

ever since, expecting its return.’ If it had been a bird, indeed, she could not have

taken it more tenderly and gently to her breast, than she did Florence. (48)

Representations of their father are rather different. He is worse than a bird of prey:

            ‘[. . .] are you aware that the most dreadful circumstances have been happening at

Mr Dombey’s house, and that Miss Dombey herself has left her father, who, in

my opinion,’ said Mr Toots, with great excitement, is a Brute, that it would be

flattery to call a—a marble monument or a bird of prey [. . .]. (762)

We find the phrase “bird of prey” elsewhere in Dickens’s writing, as in the recurring descriptions of Jesse “Gaffer” Hexam in Our Mutual Friend (e.g., 31, 32 [2X], 39). Animal metaphors and similes also provide a means of distinguishing those who are in positions of power from those who are not. Consider Mr. Carker who grins at the suggestively named Mr. Perch “like a shark” (333). Carker is a big and powerful fish in the Dombey and Son business smiling on a small and insignificant one.

Shifts in the animal metaphors used for representing characters, or the introduction of such terms when not previously used, can indicate a moral descent, or fall from positions of power and respect. The introduction of predatory terms to describe Dombey toward the end of the novel, including “bird of prey” (762) and “wild beast” (799), reflect the growing violence of his actions. The first image applies to Dombey after he hits his daughter, forcing her to flee the family home, and the second during his pursuit of Mr. James Carker. Bestial descriptors applying to Carker suggest strength and danger (shark, cat, snake) but when forced to flee from Dombey, this power is gone. He is then “Spurned like any reptile” with “his fox’s hide stripped off ” at which point “he sneak[s] away, abashed, degraded, and afraid” (829). The latter suits a cultural environment familiar with foxhunting; Carker is at this point in the novel a “hunted” animal (829) and dogs eventually sniff his carcass (842). The term “rat,” mere vermin, indicates Carker’s complete fall from dignity and significance (830).

At a crucial moment in Dombey and Son, when Edith leaves the house and encounters Florence on a staircase, characters take on animalistic qualities (716). In most descriptions of Edith, she is beautiful and elegant but in this episode her appearance frightens Florence and her movements suggest those of various creatures: she crouches, crawls, springs up, and flees. Edith recoils and shrieks when Florence surprises her and most startling of all, she passes Florence “like some lower animal” (716). This choice of terms is suggestive given that Edith was about to meet “the man [Carker] whom he [Dombey] had chosen for her humiliation” (720). As much as this is an act of revenge it is also a sexual act and so the use of the term animal is appropriate. Likening inappropriate sexuality to the behaviour of animals is a commonplace trope.

Literature that involves nature/culture polarities may at times reflect so-called Animal Groom stories like Beauty and the Beast, according to Bruno Bettelheim. Such stories “usually function to help listeners and readers assimilate sexuality into consciousness and thus nature into culture” (Gilbert and Gubar 303 [summarizing Bettelheim]). At some level, Dickens’s presentation of Edith Dombey, with this descent from striking beauty and elegance to the animalistic wildness of this scene, seems to equate bestial qualities with the suspicion of illicit sexuality. The relationship between Carker and Edith Dombey seems to remain platonic but what is at issue is the suspicion of sexual impropriety. As Edith moves closer to the already very animal-like Carker, she becomes more animal-like herself.

At one point, the narrator refers to Mr. James Carker as a shark (333) but readers have this image in mind long before. In an earlier description, he has “two unbroken rows of glistening teeth, whose regularity and whiteness were quite distressing” (194-95). These teeth also figure prominently in other descriptions of the man (e.g., 195, 259, 334, 335, 398, 399, 410, 414, 481, 484, 509, 510, 570 [2X], 571, 573, 638, 641, 646, 651, 654, 677, 681, 689, 697, 776, 818, 823, 826, 830, and 838). In addition to these, there is an association between Carker’s mouth and his sinister activities. It suggests falsehood, as in his conversation with Dombey (“false mouth” [641]). When speaking to Edith on one occasion, “His teeth gleamed through his malicious relish of this conceit, as he went on talking” (681). There are other animal-like qualities about Carker’s mouth too (e.g., a mouth recalling “the snarl of a cat” [195]) but the shark imagery recurs most often. It suits this character because sharks are predatory creatures drawn to weakened prey (i.e., the scent of blood), just as Carker attacks Dombey when he is most vulnerable.

            Mr. James Carker is “hunt[ing] men and women” (652) throughout Dombey and Son and several animal metaphors describe this activity. Though shark-like attributes are most common, he is also “catlike.” At one point he “seemed to purr: he was so glad” (344) and is often represented as a feline hunter when focusing on Mr. Dombey. He follows Dombey’s carriage “as if he were a cat, indeed, and its four occupants, mice” (423), and is likened to a cat when manipulating his employer in conversation (641) and contemplating the company’s business affairs which he would soon bring to ruin (686). When entrusted with a very personal commission by his superior, he places his hand on Dombey’s arm “as a cat might have laid its sheathed claws” (648). He interacts with other people in similar ways. In conversation with his brother, Carker speaks with “the snarl of a tiger-cat” (696). He is in the Dombey and Son offices at this point and working diligently to bring his plan against the head of the company to fruition, so the cat-like imagery is still associated with Carker’s hunt for Dombey. By switching away from the dominant shark metaphor of other sections of the novel, Dickens may have been highlighting other dimensions of Carker’s treacherous character. Cats are generally quiet and graceful yet have the resources to be ferocious predators. Feline imagery is therefore more appropriate to the wealthy, sophisticated Carker who has a tendency to refer to his inferiors as dogs. He addresses Rob the Grinder as “You dog!” (335, 639), and calls his brother John a “Spaniel” (695). He calls John and other employees at Dombey and Son “pusillanimous, abject, cringing dogs!” (697).

            Snake imagery appears to be Dickens’s preferred metaphor for Carker when this character deals with Edith Dombey. The connection between snakes and sinister behaviour is a familiar one, reaching back to Genesis, and it is commonplace in Dickens’s novels. The eponymous narrator of David Copperfield uses terms like writhing (224, 356, 586, 584, 711) to depict Uriah Heep’s movements. He refers to “the snaky twistings of his throat and body” (224) and shaking his fishy or frog-like hand repulses him (224, 357, 577). Dickens does not limit his range of metaphors with respect to this character. Uriah Heep is also described as a “monster in the garb of man” (721), “a red-headed animal” (361), a dog (589), and a serpent (677).

            We find snake imagery during a private conversation between Edith Dombey and Mr. Carker in chapter 45, where there is a strong emphasis on their eyes and references to sight. Edith “look[s] down [. . .] at his glistening mouth,” “turn[s] her eyes on the attentive gentleman,” “confront[s] him, with a quick look” (677), and “bend[s] her dark gaze full upon him” (678 [two times]). When averting her eyes away from him she does so slowly (677; cf. the popular belief that snakes have hypnotic powers). The threat many snakes pose is in their teeth, so Edith’s recurring stares, particularly at his mouth, lend to a portrait of Carker as somehow reptilian. He too is constantly looking at her, presumably with lust: he looks at her and thinks “again” about how beautiful she is (677), looks “straight into her kindling eyes,” and does not “shrink beneath her gaze” (679). As the scene progresses they are pictured as gazing at one another—“She watched him still attentively. But he watched her too” (681)—and at this point Edith falls prey to his hypnotic snake-like trap: Carker “unfold[s] one more ring of the coil into which he had gathered himself” (682). Transfixed by Carker, she sits “as if she were afraid to take her eyes away from his face” (682). The threat to her increases again as Carker “unwind[s] the last ring of the coil!” (682). This attack involves the announcement that Edith must withdraw her affections from Florence, something presented in the pages that follow as the final humiliation that drives her away from Dombey and his house (see esp. 711).

Good Mrs. Brown is another predatory character in Dombey and Son, one who resembles Mr. Carker, particularly in her relationships with Mr. Dombey and Rob the Grinder. Both Brown and Carker control Rob through violence and intimidation, even choking him at different points in the story (334-35 and 789-90). As noted above, Carker refers to Rob as a dog and Mrs. Brown does the same: “‘You thankless dog!’ gasped Mrs [sic] Brown. ‘You impudent, insulting dog! [. . .] He’s an ungrateful hound” (790). There is further similarity in their sinister intentions toward Dombey. Both lay a hand on Dombey’s arm in a threatening way when he is visiting their respective homes, Carker “as a cat might have laid its sheathed claws” (648) and Brown “like a claw” (785). She is also a “crouched tigress” (783) immediately before Dombey arrives. This feline imagery also plays off the associations of Rob the Grinder with birds. He possesses pigeons (e.g., 638) and becomes caretaker of Carker’s parrot (786-98). Mrs. Brown even calls him by the pet name “Robin” (788). As a bird, he is therefore vulnerable to the “crouched tigress” Mrs. Brown whose unsheathes her claws in chapter 52 when he is in her home, with a bird (783, 785). These metaphors are not rigid. Mrs. Brown has catlike qualities but also ferrets’ eyes (794) that give a raven’s glance (798).


Dickens’s constant use of nonhuman labels in Dombey and Son, both monstrous[1] and animal, is striking but why does he do this? There are many possibilities. Such language serves to illustrate both the nobility and inhumanity of individuals, for one thing, and it also emphasises the unnaturalness of certain events, as in the narrator’s commentary about Edith Dombey, her husband, and their marriage: “Animals, opposed by nature” (425). Such language depicts ruin and decay, especially with reference to the Dombey house, which is associated with spiders, moths, grubs, black-beetles, and rats (351). Rats, we are told, “fly from” the decaying house (893, 897, 899; cf. 902, 903). Zoological imagery also introduces comedic elements, a quality of Dickens’s novels contributing to their enduring popularity. Consider Major Bagstock who gorges like a boa constrictor (423, 2X), has a horse’s cough (411, 621), and lobster’s eyes (301, 404, 622, 904). Consider also Dickens’s tendency to give names that illuminate something about people’s physical appearance or mannerisms: a preacher named Reverend Melchisedech Howler (233); a seafaring man called Solomon Gills; a man named Perch, who is “hooked [. . .] gently” (259); women named Mrs. MacStinger and Mrs. Chick. This playful use of animal imagery is not unique to Dombey and Son. In Great Expectations, Mrs. Coiler has a “serpentine way” of approaching Pip who recognizes something “snaky and fork-tongued” about her manner (215). In Dombey and Son, actual animals are not prominent—Florence’s dog Diogenes is an exception—and there is no political agenda at work concerned to promote animal welfare causes as see in other contexts.[2] Instead, the bestial imagery in Dombey and Son functions largely as a moral map. This language highlights qualities that distinguish the villainous from the virtuous, and serves to represent their interactions with one another.


[1]In addition to the recurring animal metaphors and similes in Dombey and Son there are numerous references to monsters or the monstrous: e.g., “two Griffins” (65); “hobgoblins” (66); “monster of a ship [. . .] stranded leviathan” (136); “the sphynx” [sic] (163); “monster” (with reference to “old Glubb”; 172); “the  cavern of some ocean-monster” (193); “monster train [. . . .] tame dragons” (245); “the triumphant monster, Death [. . . .] the remorseless monster, Death!” (311, 312 etc.); “a giant” (referring to Major Bagstock; 315); “goblin” (317); “monster of the iron road” (327); “Gorgon-like mind” (350, 352); “dragon sentries” (350); “monstrous fantasy” (350); “Gorgon-like intent” (355); “monstrous cobwebs” (366); “you aggravating monster” (to Major Bagstock; 406); “kindred monster” (417); “a scaly monster” (referring to Carker; 436); “ogre” (494); “the giant” (515); “the monster roaring in the distance” (referring to London; 523); “monstrous thought” (547); “a monster” (562); “the Devil in dark fables” (608); “moody, stubborn, sullen demon” (610); “the idea of opposition to Me is monstrous” (spoken by Dombey; 646); “I was Beast enough” (673); “in would be monstrous in me” (677); “conceived, and born, and bred, in Hell!” (701); “a beautiful Medusa” (705); “in conversation with a ghost” (730); “a good monster” (740); and “the haunting demon” (774). Occasionally, a personification of “Death” refers to its wings (e.g., 829, 830, 839).

[2]In an 1866 article, he questions the practice of vivisection for the purposes of scientific advancement: “Man may be justified—though I doubt it—in torturing the beasts, that he himself may escape pain; but he certainly has no right to gratify an idle and purposeless curiosity through the practice of cruelty” (“Inhumane Humanity,” in All the Year Round XV, 17 March 1866, p.240; qtd. in Preece 416)

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Wordsworth Classics. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1992.

– – -. Dombey and Son. Ed. Andrew Sanders. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2002.

– – -. Great Expectations. Ed. Angus Calder. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 1985.

– – -. Little Dorrit. Ed. Peter Preston. Wordsworth Classics. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2002.

– – -. Our Mutual Friend. Ed. Adrian Poole. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 1997.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale

University Press, 1979.

Preece, Rod. “Darwinism, Christianity, and the Great Vivisection Debate.” Journal of the History of Ideas 64.3 (2003): 399-419.