So how perfect is this timing? Stefan Klein writes this article for the NY Times Op-Ed page just after we finish discussing time in Dombey and Son. And in the article, headlined "Time Out of Mind," he draws a contrast between the "time is money" mentality and the mentality that sees time as "the element in which we exist." The latter phrase, he tells us, comes from the contemporary novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who also said of time, "We are either borne along by it or drowned in it."
His contrast is Dickens's contrast, and Oates's metaphor recalls Dickens's waves. Dombey embodies the time is money mentality, the frame of mind in which we also experience our lives as a race against time. His costly watch symbolizes his objectification of time (similar to his objectification of his son, his wives, Polly - everyone). The racing watches in the opening chapter evoke the race against time.
In the "time is money" mentality, Death is a monster that triumphs over us. For Dombey it's symbolized by the train, that icon of the industrial revolution and its demand that everything move to the same time, and on time.
In the "time is an element" mentality, we hear the waves that roll round the world and, when it is time for us to be launched on them, we go. We are borne along by time.
The "time is money" mentality is one of many features of life in capitalist society that Dickens is appalled by. The objectification of humans is another. The isolation of individuals - whom capitalism encourages to regard as self-sufficient and obligated only to themselves - is a third.
Capitalism is for Dickens an unnatural system. So it's paired with the watch (which is mechanical) rather than the ocean (which is natural). Blimber's "forcing system" is the kind of educational approach that capitalism spawns and requires. It emphasizes rote memorization and regimentation. It robs children of their childhood. ("All the boys blew before their time.")
The type of the natural system - the alternative to capitalism - is the family. Dombey turns his family into a business: the firm of Dombey and Son. The Toodles', by contrast, are a family in which every member is valued as a human being. Sol and Walter and Cap'n Cuttle form another such family.
The type of the natural human relation in Dombey and Son is the nursing mother and child. That's why breasts and nursing get so much attention in Dombey and Son.
The architects of modern capitalism - people like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus - regarded it as the most "natural" way to run an economy. In fact, Smith called unregulated trade the system of "natural liberty." Dickens turns this idea on its head. Unregulated capitalism for Dickens is unnatural in the way it turns humans into objects and isolates them from one another. It produces the unnatural conditions in which the poor lead stunted, deformed, unnatural lives. By contrast, the nurturing environment of the family - and of a nation that cares about the lives of all its inhabitants - is for Dickens what is genuinely natural. Rather than opposing nature to nurture, he suggests that to nurture is in fact our nature.
I am making Dickens sound quite radical. His critique of capitalism is indeed radical. Remember that 1848 was a year of European uprisings and of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto. Dickens's radical critique of capitalism was not uncommon, though the way he delivered it certainly was.
But it would be a mistake to equate Dickens with Marx. Dickens's radical critique of capitalism doesn't lead him to urge revolution. There is nothing in Dickens's writing to suggest that he thought of himself as a socialist or communist. Far from promoting revolution, Dickens thought his critique of capitalism was needed in order to prevent revolution.
What Dickens seemed to want was an improved capitalism. One that would not be based on the (to his mind) fiction that the poor are to blame for their own poverty. One that would balance the power of money against the moral obligation to ensure a decent life to everyone. One in which it would not be necessary to live in a "time is money" mentality. One in which "House" would mean where a family lives - and lives a genuinely human existence - and not mean "business."
I've written on some of these ideas at greater length. (You thought this post was long!). I invite you to read, if you're interested, my 1990 article on Dickens and the Uses of Nature.
Invite - not require.