Not one other word did Bradley utter all that night. Not once did he change his attitude, or loosen his hold upon his wrist. Rigid before the fire, as if it were a charmed flame that was turning him old, he sat, with the dark lines deepening in his face, its stare becoming more and more haggard, its surface turning whiter and whiter as if it were being overspread with ashes, and the very texture and colour of his hair degenerating.
Not until the late daylight made the window transparent, did this decaying statue move. Then it slowly arose, and sat in the window looking out….
… Bradley re-entered the Lock House. So did Riderhood. Bradley sat down in the window. Riderhood warmed himself at the fire. After an hour or more, Bradley abruptly got up again, and again went out, but this time turned the other way. Riderhood was close after him, caught him up in a few paces, and walked at his side.
This time, as before, when he found his attendant not to be shaken off, Bradley suddenly turned back. This time, as before, Riderhood turned back along with him. But, not this time, as before, did they go into the Lock House, for Bradley came to a stand on the snow- covered turf by the Lock, looking up the river and down the river. Navigation was impeded by the frost, and the scene was a mere white and yellow desert.
‘Come, come, Master,’ urged Riderhood, at his side. ‘This is a dry game. And where’s the good of it? You can’t get rid of me, except by coming to a settlement. I am a going along with you wherever you go.’
Without a word of reply, Bradley passed quickly from him over the wooden bridge on the lock gates. ‘Why, there’s even less sense in this move than t’other,’ said Riderhood, following. ‘The Weir’s there, and you’ll have to come back, you know.’
Without taking the least notice, Bradley leaned his body against a post, in a resting attitude, and there rested with his eyes cast down. ‘Being brought here,’ said Riderhood, gruffly, ‘I’ll turn it to some use by changing my gates.’ With a rattle and a rush of water, he then swung-to the lock gates that were standing open, before opening the others. So, both sets of gates were, for the moment, closed.
‘You’d better by far be reasonable, Bradley Headstone, Master,’ said Riderhood, passing him, ‘or I’ll drain you all the dryer for it, when we do settle.–Ah! Would you!’
Bradley had caught him round the body. He seemed to be girdled with an iron ring. They were on the brink of the Lock, about midway between the two sets of gates.
‘Let go!’ said Riderhood, ‘or I’ll get my knife out and slash you wherever I can cut you. Let go!’
Bradley was drawing to the Lock-edge. Riderhood was drawing away from it. It was a strong grapple, and a fierce struggle, arm and leg. Bradley got him round, with his back to the Lock, and still worked him backward.
‘Let go!’ said Riderhood. ‘Stop! What are you trying at? You can’t drown Me. Ain’t I told you that the man as has come through drowning can never be drowned? I can’t be drowned.’
‘I can be!’ returned Bradley, in a desperate, clenched voice. ‘I am resolved to be. I’ll hold you living, and I’ll hold you dead. Come down!’
Riderhood went over into the smooth pit, backward, and Bradley Headstone upon him. When the two were found, lying under the ooze and scum behind one of the rotting gates, Riderhood’s hold had relaxed, probably in falling, and his eyes were staring upward. But, he was girdled still with Bradley’s iron ring, and the rivets of the iron ring held tight.
I’ve never been fond of locks and Dickens in Our Mutual Friend confirms why they might be dangerous places, especially when visited by a man with nothing to lose.
Headstone has always been a man incapable of emotional containment or secrecy, despite the (pathological) decency of his position as a school teacher and the ‘decent’ respectability of his dress. He is a profoundly, suppressed buttoned up’ character who is always exploding inappropriately throughout the novel alienating those who have the humanity to love him, culminating in this nightmarish scene where death is the only solution left for his pitiless predicament.
There is something truly dreadful and biblical in Headstone’s murderous suicide above. Headstone’s final words seem a bleak contract with his nemesis Riderhood- indeed the words ‘Come down’ resonate with hellish invitation and the ‘iron ring’ seals the evil ‘deal’. Headstone has failed to kill his romantic rival Eugene Wrayburn, so all he has left is suicide.
Headstone (as his name suggests) is a death driven figure from the beginning, consumed by passions he is incapable of modifying or controlling. Eros is impossible, only Thanatos holds sway.This scene begins with Headstone literally becoming a burnt out figure, dead before he is literally dead. Headstone kills Riderhood because he could not defeat Wrayburn, so a complex displacement of desire is enacted . the ‘smooth pit’ , the ‘ooozing scum’ and the ‘rotting gates’ are all details which reinforce something unspoken and corrupt about Riderhood’s claustrophobic pursuit of Headstone. Proximity is contaminating, without tenderness and here, remorseless.
Tragically Riderhood’s pursuit of Headstone parodies Headstone’s pursuit of Eugene Wrayburn. Everything recurs until death ends the hellish nightmare of unresolved desire.
Our Mutual Friend is a novel haunted by water, not unlike Coleridge’s poem The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, a tale of dark enchantment , retribution and penance; where water becomes synonymous with death and guilt.
The final image of Bradley Headstone locked into a deadly embrace with Riderhood remains one of Dickens’ most knowingly bleak and pitiful scenes. The recurring theme of the ‘shadow’ in Our Mutual Friend has reached a terrible conclusion, yet perhaps also suggests final liberty and release for one of Victorian Literature’s most tormented and unhappy figures.
How to analyse a text quickly!
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