Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend pops up several times in Lost lore. We first see the book in the Season Two episode “Live Together, Die Alone” in Desmond’s flashback. Desmond checked a copy of the rubber-banded copy of the book into storage while incarcerated in military prison, intending it to be the last book he reads before he dies. Unbeknownst to him, Penny had hidden a love letter in the book because it was “the one place [he] would turn to in a moment of great desperation.” Years later, alone and contemplating suicide, Desmond opened the book in the Swan, presumably to read it before he died. Minutes later, Desmond hears John Locke pounding on the Hatch. The reassurance that someone is alive out there along with finally finding Penny’s note makes Desmond forget his suicidal thoughts. Desmond returned the book to the Swan bookshelf and used it to hide the fail-safe key until he used it to implode the Hatch months later. Later, in the season five episode Dead in Dead, we see that Desmond named his houseboat Our Mutual Friend.
I really enjoyed this book. It wasn’t an easy read by any means, but the story was entertaining – one of those books where the writing isn’t particularly impressive, but the idea is well beyond anything I could come up with. Like Lost, it was written with an ensemble cast – the book jumped back and forth every chapter or two between different characters. This format made it more readable, as the book came in at a hefty 779 pages, small print. Critics have often wondered how much Dickens planned ahead (sound familiar?), and it shows here. Certain characters that appear in the first quarter of the book – e.g. Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, Lady Tippins, and the Podsnaps, pretty much disappear for the remainder of the book.* And it helps, because I wasn’t really hooked on the book until about 300 pages after Dickens got rid of the boring characters and wrote more chapters about the interesting and sympathetic characters. Once Dickens shed the characters I didn’t care about and focused more time on the characters I did care about, the book became a very worthwhile read.
* Mr. Veneering in particular reminded me of the way the Lost writers abruptly wrote out Nikki and Paolo, among others. A “member of society” with no redeeming qualities, Mr. Veneering was an important character for the first 200 pages when he suddenly decided to run for Parliament, wins, and moves to a different part of London, not to be heard from again until showing up at a dinner party in the last scene of the book.
The book opens with Gaffer Hexam, a Thames River boatman, finding the body of John Harmon, heir to the Harmon family fortune. John’s father died earlier in the year, leaving a will that left all his money to John, provided that he marry Bella Wilfer, a young woman that John had met only briefly as a very small child. Because John did not marry Bella before his death, the estate fell to the middle-class Mr. Boffin, the elder Harmon’s longtime assistant. Mr. Boffin feels for Bella, who is unaware that she just missed out on her chance to leave the lower class and become rich. Boffin invites Bella to come live with him and his wife in the elder Harmon’s mansion, much to the chagrin of Bella’s mother.
We find out shortly after that John Harmon isn’t dead at all. Instead of alerting Boffin and the police that he is still alive, he has assumed the name John Rokesmith and is hired by Boffin as a live-in assistant. Harmon finds the idea of an arranged marriage repulsive, but still wants a crack at his father’s money. He tries to make Bella fall in love with him while never breaking character from his poor servant identity. He wants Bella to love him for his personality, not his father’s riches. Bella eventually succumbs to John’s advances and the two marry and have a child. After Bella assures John that she is very happy, he finally tells Boffin who he is. We learn that Boffin was in on it all along and acted to try to get the two together. John and Bella inherit the Harmon estate and the Boffins happily go back to the middle-class life.
At its core, Our Mutual Friend is about the relationship between poor and rich people in society. The reader initially respects Mr. Boffin, who remains unchanged in spite of inheriting the Harmon estate. We are disgusted when Boffin lets the riches get to his head and turns miserly, but are pleased when it turns out to be an act to encourage Bella and John to fall in love. The most appalling characters in the book are Silas Wegg, a poor person who tries to con Mr. Boffin out of his money, and Rogue Riderhood, a waterman that continually tries to blackmail people despite his supposed pride in never taking anything he hasn’t earned. Then there is the most important subplot – attorney Eugene Wrayburn’s attempts to court the desperately poor Lizzie Hexam. Lizzie turns down Eugene’s advances repeatedly, thinking that his advances were disingenuous because an upper social class person could never fall in love with someone as poor as she. Finally, when Eugene is beaten up to within an inch of his life, he sends his friend Mortimer to find Lizzie. Lizzie is touched by this and realizes that Eugene really does love her; they end up getting married and Eugene pulls through.
Lost creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse admired this book for the serial nature. Dickens wrote the complicated plot with elaborate chapter plans – each section was exactly 32 pages and was published in a monthly periodical. In a New York Times article, Cuse said: “He was writing chapter by chapter for newspapers. We often think: ‘How much did Dickens know when he was writing his stories? How much of it was planned out, and how much was flying by the seat of his pants because he had to get another chapter in?’ We can respect what he went through.” Like the Lost writers, I think Dickens had a sort-of general outline but the characters and sub-plots were made up/elaborated on the fly. I wonder how much public reaction drove Dickens’ decisions, as viewers influenced Cuse and Lindelof. Cuse and Lindelof shed unpopular characters like Nikki and Paolo and had to write out Ana Lucia, Libby, and Eko because of questionable personal decisions.* Similarly, Dickens wrote out the aforementioned Veneerings and Podsnaps along with the equally unredeemable con artists Mr. and Mrs. Lammle. None of these characters were particularly important or likable and I think Dickens ditched them because of public reception (or his own hatred of the characters he created).
* Michelle Rodriguez (Ana Lucia) and Cynthia Watros (Libby) were caught driving drunk in Hawaii. They were written out as a result, although the fact that neither character was very popular helped this…I can’t imagine Jack or Sawyer being written out in a similar situation. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje made the even more questionable decision that he didn’t like living in Hawaii and asked to be written out.
In addition to the general format of the story, Our Mutual Friend shares many of the same themes as Lost. The relationships between John and Bella and Eugene and Lizzie are similar to the relationship between Desmond and Penny. Charles Widmore was very opposed to Penny’s relationship with Desmond – he even pointed out that one swallow of MacCutcheon whiskey is worth more than what Desmond made in a month. In John and Bella’s case, Bella’s mother opposed the relationship when she thought John was only a secretary. In Eugene’s case, his friends in “society” scoffed at his courtship with the impoverished Lizzie. Like Charles Widmore in Lost, “society” and Bella’s mother are made to look like jerks for failing to realize that money isn’t the most important thing in a relationship.
Aside from the Desmond/Penny relationship, I kept coming back to Sawyer when thinking about the plot of the book. The characters continuously attempt to pull cons on each other: most obviously, John Harmon’s long con, but also minor characters Silas Wegg, Rogue Riderhood, and the Lammles’ get-rich-quick schemes. Rogue Riderhood makes his living scavenging off what he finds in the river, similar to Sawyer’s ransacking and hoarding in season one.
Finally, we have the various connections between the characters in the book and Lost. The backstories of Lost are riddled with chance encounters between the castaways in their pre-island lives. In Dickens’ book, the mutual friend keeps bringing people together. Seemingly unrelated people are brought together by this one character in a series of what appear to be chance encounters. It’s fitting that Desmond seems to be the mutual friend – or in Lost terms, “the fail-safe” of the island. Prior to coming to the island, he met Jack jogging in the stadium and bought his sailboat from Libby. More importantly, he is the catalyst for bringing everyone together in season 6.
All things considered, despite the length and density of the book, Our Mutual Friend was a good read and one that helped shed light on both the on and off-island storylines.