Ritual purification in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend



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In Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) Dickens criticizes his contemporaries' tendency to purify themselves of spirit in attempting to become respectable. Disconcerted by the rootlessness of a society without rigid class lines, characters create new, fixed standards such as the Harmon Mounds. But precisely because this new standard is a marketplace, and because everything placed on the market is liable to be bought, characters add only tokens of their true selves to the general heap, reserving their essential selves apart. Ironically, fear of moral flux causes characters to retain merely the shell of mechanized matter, projecting fluid spirit, or inner fire, onto either a communal pool of alienated fire or an external double. Dickens endorses the reincorporation of this fire—a true act of purification in which a character is cleansed of his malignant, material double, healing the split between body and spirit encouraged by society. Reincorporation of fire allows mutuality to replace self-interest as the dominant social standard, although Dickens implies that regeneration occurs on an individual basis, and that society as a whole is not as easily reformed