A Newberry Library Adult Education Seminar
Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens’s last completed novel, filled with humor, dark satire, multiple plot lines, and remarkable prose. This seminar considers the book in serial weekly installments (no spoilers) for an engaging in-depth look at Dickens’s literary craft, social criticism, and psychological insight.
Eight sessions via Zoom. Thursday, March 17 to May 5, 2022
For the first session, please read chapters 1-4, and do not read the book’s introduction.
Registration information here.
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-140-43497-2. Please note that this particular edition is highly preferred for class discussion.
Shorter texts, film clips, and works of visual art will be made available to seminar participants.
Dickens’s last completed novel originally appeared in serial installments from May 1864 to November 1865, a period that saw some of the most historic changes in the Victorian era. Technology was transforming the way people lived, traveled, learned about the world, and entertained themselves. Our Mutual Friend reflects many of these changes, and this seminar’s serial-reading format allows participants study and discuss the many dimensions of Victorian Britain and the modern world that are revealed by a close literary reading.
Among the dimensions we will discuss are the turn toward increasingly sophisticated psychological investigation in literature, Dickens’s own innovations in literary form, the author’s troubled personal life at the time of the book’s composition, the vitality of serial publishing, the rise of photography, the popularity of theater and other visual spectacles, and the economic contradictions of the Victorian metropolis.
This seminar, like most of my Newberry seminars, employs the format of serial reading in order to immerse readers in the literary, cultural, and philosophical dimensions of a novel. I begin with two sessions that consider very brief portions of the novel (one original serial installment each, in fact). Thereafter, each session asks participants to read roughly 100 pages (three of the original installments), starting and stopping according to Dickens’s original arrangement. The purpose of this schedule is not to have seminar participants recreate a Victorian reader’s experience (although that issue does come up in discussions), but to help participants focus on the details of the narrative from the very beginning of their experience with the novel.
Sessions will also include spoiler-free excerpts from critical materials and tips on what to look for in subsequent installments. These tips include suggestions for noting particular plot points, character changes, and specific “must-read” sections, among other hints for active reading. PowerPoint slides and film scenes will serve to highlight some of the historical, artistic, and literary references in the novel, offering a kind of “annotated novel” experience prompted by the art of Our Mutual Friend itself.
Chapters 1.1-1.4 To be read ahead of the first class.
Theme: Reading and Serialization
Theme: Money, Profit, and Poverty
Theme: Detective Fiction
Theme: London Theatricals
Theme: Dickens’s Life
Theme: Femininity and Masculinity
Chapters 4.8-4.17 (“chapter the last”)
Theme: Critical Legacies
Image: Illustration (detail) by Marcus Stone for the first installment of Our Mutual Friend (May 1864).