John Harmon – Arguably, the protagonist of the novel, John informed that he can inherit his father, Mr Harmon’s estate, only if he agrees to marry Bella Wilfer. He runs away and is believed to be dead for the most part of the novel.
However, he stays under the name John Rokesmith and works as a secretary for the Boffins. All these are done only to get to know Bella better. He also wished to see how people would react at the news of his ‘death’. John’s death and his subsequent resurrection as Rokesmith, corresponds with the recurrent theme of the novel that Dicken’s works on – rebirth from water.
Bella Wilfer – A beautiful girl born in a poverty-stricken family, Bella has a desperate attraction towards money and material possessions. Upon Mr. Harmon’s death, she learns that she is expected to be the wife of his son, which is also a condition for his inheritance of his father’s property. Thus, when the news of John’s death reaches her, she is left hopeless and dejected.
She is taken under the wings of the Boffins family, who have gained their wealth only recently. John Harmon, who has been working there as John Rokesmith proposes to her but, gets rejected at first. However, later she accepts it. Bella undergoes a deep moral change in the course of the novel and is praised for his liveliness and vivacity.
Bella is imparted more compassion and depth of character than most other characters in the novel. Her relationship with her father is also interesting. It almost reflects a mother-son bonding as she dotes upon him as a mother dotes upon her baby. It is in direct contrast to the way she is treated by her mother and sister.
Lizzie Hexam – Lizzie is the daughter of Gaffer Hexam and the sister of Charley Hexam. She is a proposed marriage by both Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone. Although Lizzie loves Wrayburn, she is concerned about the difference in the social position of both the men.
Lizzie is a woman of integrity, compassion and kindness. She has to face hardships and is hurt in several ways throughout the novel. She is treated in an unjust way by her brother Charley, whom she helped to escape from their house. However, once he becomes rich and respectable, Charley denies any relation with her.
Lizzie, however, is consistent in showing moral strength and bravery. She is thus rewarded with marriage with Wrayburn and prosperous life at the end of the novel.
Eugene Wrayburn – Wrayburn is a lawyer. He falls in love with Lizzie at first sight but is indecisive about his feelings. He is shown to be somewhat lazy and foolish. He keeps tormenting Bradley Headstone without realising that he is doing so and inviting problems for himself.
But his near-death experience changes him and makes him more mature than ever. He becomes more grounded and humble and proves his integrity by marrying Lizzie despite being aware of the social gap between each other.
Nicodemus Boffin – Mr Boffin began his life as an employee of Mr Harmon but becomes rich by inheriting the fortune. Nevertheless, he still retains his kindness and goodwill towards everyone.
Noddy Boffin is not well educated but is faithful towards the family, even though sometimes his innocence puts him at risk of being taken advantage of. However, Boffin also proves to be somewhat cunning by deliberately deceiving Bella into believing that he was becoming a cruel man.
Boffin’s inheritance of Mr Harmon’s fortune indicates social mobility because Mr Harmon had also accumulated his wealth by combing the dust heaps. His loyalty and kindness is in contrast with other wealthy characters like the Podsnaps and Veneerings in the novel.
Mrs Boffin – Henrietta Boffin is the wife of Nicodemus Boffin. She seems more socially conscious than her husband and is interested in the changing of their social status. Nevertheless, she is still very kind and unpretentious. Even though she has to children of her own, she is loving and affectionate and treats Bella like her daughter. She also displays social awareness by wanting to adopt a child who can benefit from their fortune.
Charley Hexam – Charley is the son of Gaffer Hexam and brother of Lizzie Hexam. Initially shown to be a loving brother, Charley changes as he climbs the social ladder. Lizzie’s careful planning helps him to get a good education and secure a respectable position in society, but he becomes embarrassed by his humble origins and the kind of life his sister leads.
His character is carefully constructed by Dickens not only to criticize the schooling available to the poor but also the snobbery of those who manage to rise above their original social status. He, therefore, proves to be a morally corrupt person as he forgets his own roots and distances himself from his family.
Mortimer Lightwood – Lightwood is a lawyer whose legal practice is focused on the Harmon family estate and its inheritance. He is a friend of Eugene Wrayburn and is also closely associated with the Veneerings and Podsnaps.
He thus observes the major events of the novels and serves as the narrator as well the voice of conscience. Through his narration, we are able to understand the characters better.
Bradley Headstone – Headstone is a teacher and mentor of Charley Hexam. He meets Lizzie through Charley and falls in love with her. His love for Lizzie however, leads to obsession and jealousy and ferocity when he comes to know that Eugene Wrayburn is his rival.
Although, well educated and an intellectual, Headstone increasingly behaves in a savage and violent manner. He even tries to kill Wrayburn and on realising that he had failed to do, he sees no point in living either.
Thus, although seemingly a villain, Headstone, in a way, is also a victim of the social machinery and deformed educational structure. It is the same machinery and structure that estranged Charley Hexam away from his family. Hence, Dickens uses both the characters to critique the social and the education system.
Jenny Wren – Jenny is a woman who makes her living by stitching clothes for dolls. She cares for her alcoholic father almost like a mother cares for her child. Jenny’s real name is Fanny Cleaver and although crippled by birth she is quite pretty as well as perceptive.
Jenny is a kind woman and most affectionate towards Lizzie. The beauty of her character lies in her strength to live through extreme hardships with a smile on her face. Her fascination with flowers, dolls and fairytales enables her to rise above her immediate circumstances.
Mr Riah – He is the manager of Mr Fledgeby’s money lending business. Riah is a Jew and money lending was typically believed to be a Jewish occupation. Through his help, Fledgeby is able to make profits while also maintaining his social reputation. Mr Riah is very kind and gentle and helps Jenny and Lizzie multiple times in the novel.
Alfred Lammle – Lammle is an ambitious man who wants to climb the social ladder and become an aristocrat, but he is also corrupt to the core. He believes that his marriage will help him to become rich. When he realises that neither he nor his wife has money, he plots with her and Fledgeby to scam others and extract money from them.
Sophronia Lammle – Mrs Lammle, equally ambitious and corrupt like her husband, gets married thinking that her husband is a wealthy man. She joins her husband in tricking people and taking away money from them. She is greedy, manipulative and cold.
Sophronia Lammle, however, suffers a change of heart when she involves in tricking a, innocent girl into a bad marriage. Her conscience prevents her from doing so and she saves the girl at the end of the day.
Mr Venus – Venus is a taxidermist and a collector of bones. He is also in love with Pleasant Riderhood. He gets to know Silas Wegg and initially joins him in blackmailing Mr Boffin. But, in fact, he informs the Boffins of his schemes.
Fledgeby – Mr Fledgeby is a cunning moneylender, who runs his business with the help of Mr Riah. He makes Riah seem like the face of his business while saving his own reputation. In reality, Fledgeby is a trickster and looks to earn money by deceiving innocent people.
Fledgeby unites with the Lammles to trick people into giving away their money. He almost succeeds in marrying Georgine Podsnap and looting her of her wealth but is prevented from doing so by Sophronia Lammle. Fledgeby is, therefore, a foil to Mr Riah’s character who is as kind and Fledgeby is cunning.
Georgina Podsnap – Georgina is a wealthy and naive lady who falls victim to Mr Fledgeby and the Lammle’s trickery. She is, however, saved from this fate by Sophronia Lammle. She remains innocent and naive till the end of the novel, believing that the Lammles was truly her friend.
Jenny Wren nursery rhyme
Fanny Cleaver adopts the name Jenny Wren for herself which is a name associated with the nursery rhyme “’Twas on a Merry Time When Jenny Wren Was Young.” Jenny in Our Mutual Friend is a woman with a crooked spine and crippled leg. She lives in poverty and Dickens, to some extent, explores the issue of the effect of alcoholic adults on children through her character.
Jenny had never had a childhood and had to presume the role of the breadwinner of her family from a very early age because her father was an alcoholic. She, therefore, positioned herself as the authority over the house and her father, who she treated as a child.
Jenny is a fantasist and dreams of flowers and beautiful white dresses even when she lives in the most squalid conditions. It is because of this fantasy that she took her name from a nursery rhyme so that she could experience the bliss of childhood that was otherwise denied to her.
Our Mutual Friend – Bradley Headstone
Bradley Headstone’s character is a complex one in the novel. As an educated and respectable man, Bradley does a lot of services to his community. But he is also deeply insecure and awkward which gives rise to rage and violence in him.
He is also way too worried about the way people look at him. He is insecure about his appearance and this anxiety of his leads him to try to kill Eugene Wrayburn who insults him in more than one ways.
Bradley was born in poverty and had worked hard to raise himself up in the world and earn people’s respect. Unfortunately, this made him feel entitled; so much so that he thought he could force Lizzie Hexam should marry him. In other words, he thought being a hard worker was equal to being a suitable husband. But that is not true.
Dicken’s characters in most of his novels are essentially symbolic of the various layers of society. Deeply critical of the modern industrial city life, Dickens believed that mechanisation and desire for money killed the goodness in people. In Our Mutual Friend, he showcased this idea through characters like Headstone, Charley Hexam and Fledgeby.
However, no matter pessimistic the entire plot seems, Dickens still believed in the natural goodness and kindness of people, and carefully portrayed it through characters like Jenny Wren, Lizzie Hexam and Mr Riah. He was also a believer in the fact that people’s hearts can change for the good and this change is portrayed through Betty Higden and Sophronia Lammle.