Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend

Clarendon Edition





The Monthly Wrapper of Our Mutal Friend and the Wheel of Fortune

by Rhonda Crockett

Dickens's fascination with the possibilities of fortune - both in terms of worldly wealth and the future - with human freedom and with morality can be seen throughout his works.  One way in which he could organise and concretise his ideas about the interweaving of these concepts was through the Wheel of Fortune.  The Wheel of Fortune was equally a literary and a visual image, used by writers and artists to construct and interweave particular concepts of time, money, power and morality.  In the monthly wrapper to Our Mutual Friend, Marcus Stone was therefore able to exploit the inheritance of visual images of Fortune's Wheel to hold a dialogue with Dickens's text about its constructions of wealth, power and moral action.

            It was during the Middle Ages that the Wheel of Fortune was developed as a full-fledged image.  Human figures, usually four in number, were often attached to the rim of the wheel, and were sometimes labelled, from the left and moving clockwise, regnabo (I will rule, or will be in power), regno (I am in power), regnavi (I have been in power), and sum sine regno (I am without power).  The Wheel of Fortune imagined an individual's history (and, if that individual were a king, also a state's history) as dynamic, cyclic and catastrophic - that is, oscillating between poverty and prosperity.  The trope also acted as a moral lesson: it served as a reproof to the mighty that their present status was not guaranteed for the future.  The fall from power and prosperity was, to the medieval mind, unpreventable.  The movement of the wheel, governed by Fortune's hand, would progress mechanically towards it, despite what humans might try to do.  Fortune, however, was not completely omnipotent: she only had power when, by pursuing her gifts of worldly wealth and power, an individual submitted him/herself to the wheel.  The usual path taken to avoid Fortune's power was through the pursuit of the summum bonum, the highest moral good.  Under these circumstances, Fortune had no power over one's fate: unlike worldly goods, the benefits of moral action could not be taken away by the movement of history or by changes of status.

            During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Fortune's image was increasingly conflated with that of Occasio, another goddess/abstraction who represented the idea of opportunity, usually the opportunity for profit.  Human action now became the driving force behind the dynamic passage of time.  By watching the present keenly, and using wealth and resources wisely when opportunity arose, people could take control both of their wealth and their future.  The Fortune/Occasio image was adopted by the emerging merchant classes, who saw in it a symbol of their own rise to prosperity and power, and an endorsement of the newfound prominence of business and trade.

            Throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, these two tropes - the inexorable movement of the wheel, and the figure of Fortune/Occasio who was open to human control and action - existed side by side, embedded in literary and artistic discourses about power, morality, wealth, trade, and history.  Furthermore, the Fortune-figure had appeared extensively in the art of Hogarth, who adapted her wheel for the emerging institutions of the stock exchange and manias of financial speculation.  Thus Fortune and her wheel became involved in contemporary discourses about the new financial capitalism.  Fortune also appeared in the street literature of the nineteenth century, as a fairy-tale benefactress in the various chapbook versions of the Fortunatus story, who gives Fortunatus a magic purse from which he can draw all the gold he needs.

The idea that history followed a pattern, such as the Wheel of Fortune, which could be recognised and traced through the ages, was popular with the Victorians.  They were fascinated with time, with both the grand scale of the new geological time and the private time of memory and biography.  Victorian discourse therefore constructed its own models of the passage of history and the changing circumstances of human life.  Cyclic models, similar to Fortune's Wheel, were used by several schemes of historical movement in the nineteenth century.  Saint-Simon, for example, read history as an oscillation between ages of synthesis and ages of analysis.  Auguste Comte adjusted this model of historical movement in his cycle of "organic", "metaphysical" and "positive" stages.  More importantly, considering Fortune's long-established links with discourses about wealth, Victorian economists worked with a model of development which was cyclical: Adam Smith's boom-and-bust cycle, and Thomas Malthus's predictions about population growth and decline.

The Wheel of Fortune itself, however, was not particularly favoured by the Victorians.  At mid-century, the model of historical movement preferred by the ascendant middle classes was providential and progressive: "In a nation that chose to view its official economic destiny as under God's providential care, [.] The glorification of a pagan female deity, however metaphorical her existence, smacked of retrogression and sacrilege, as well as a lack of gentility" (Campbell 13-14).  In Victorian discourse, civilisation - particularly its British manifestation - could only improve and prosper.  Decline or regression to a previous condition was regarded as an aberration, and a failure to obey the historical imperative.  Thus the medieval, cyclical model clashed with the popular Victorian view of their age.

 This urge to construct tropes and patterns to explain or represent historical movement is examined in Mikhail Bakhtin's essay "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel" (Bakhtin 84-258).  Bakhtin explores various artistic techniques for constructing and representing the interrelationships between time and space.  He names such techniques "chronotopes".  The chronotope (or more usually, chronotopes) of a novel provide a structure for the narrative events in the novel; but they also organise the ideas with which the novelist is engaged, and are fundamental to the production of the imagery in which these ideas are embodied:

            the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, [.]  All the novel's abstract elements - philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect - gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. (Bakhtin 250)

            Bakhtin does not mention Fortune or her wheel, but it is clear that they fit with his idea of the chronotope.  Time is constructed as cyclical, if the wheel-trope is adhered to, or as an arena of opportunities, if Fortune/Occasio is preferred.  Riches, worldly goods and power are moved about from individual to individual, and nation to nation.  Fortune's imagery is embedded in the market-place, in the structures of government, in religious institutions, in the "high" literature of Shakespearean tragedy and philosophical discourse, and in the "low" literature of chapbooks and the fairy tale of Fortunatus. 

In Our Mutual Friend, when Dickens wished to engage in his age's dialogue about wealth and the future, the chronotopes of Fortune's Wheel and Fortune/Occasio provided him with images, both ancient and modern, of time, power, money, morality and human agency.  Stone's monthly wrapper (seen on the right) therefore negotiates with Dickens's constructions of Fortune's Wheel within the novel.  Many critics have, of course, noted the circular pattern of the monthly wrappers for Dickens's novels, and how these wrappers worked to illustrate both the events and themes of the novels concerned; Elizabeth Campbell links this circular pattern specifically with the Fortune's Wheel image of the Middle Ages.  She observes that the wrappers usually illustrate good fortune on the left-hand side, with bad fortune on the right (Campbell 6); similarly, the medieval illustrations of Fortuna's Wheel placed the rising regnabo figure on the left and the falling regnavi on the right.

Overall, the wrapper of Our Mutual Friend may appear to follow the Wheel of Fortuna as traditionally understood.  On the left side are positioned well-dressed wealthy people, the Podsnaps and Veneerings of the novel; on the right are the poor, Jenny Wren and Lizzie Hexam, with the Dust Contractor, Death, placed above them.  The very top of the wrapper is dominated by an arched bridge, suggestive of the top of a circle, which spans between two boats: on the left is a paddle steamer, a symbol of prosperous industry and commerce, and on the right is Gaffer Hexam's boat, the symbol of the riverside underclass who must scavenge for a living.

            However, several key elements upset the traditional equilibrium.  The circle is fragmented; it runs backwards in some places, pulls apart at the top, clashes with itself at the bottom, and some of its elements have been transposed to the "wrong" side.  For example, the wealthy people depicted on the left ought to be ascending; instead they are descending.  Perhaps this is to represent the moral decline which Dickens associates with the pursuit of wealth in Our Mutual Friend.  Immediately above these wealthy individuals is a shadowy, violent-looking figure who seems to have escaped from the right-hand side of the wheel/wrapper-pattern.  Presumably this is Bradley Headstone disguised as Rogue Riderhood, but it may also symbolize the aggressive drive to suppress or throw down others in order to mount up Fortune's Wheel.  The wealthy ostensibly belong on the left side of the wheel/wrapper-pattern, but like Bradley Headstone, they are morally degenerate and so are heading downward.

There is another way to interpret the descent down the supposedly rising side of the wheel-pattern, which can be found in the confrontation of the doppelganger figures at the bottom of the wrapper, who presumably represent Harmon/Rokesmith.  Harmon, the heir to a great fortune and supposedly rising to the regnabo/regno position, is actually placed in a sum sine regno position by his father's will.  He becomes Rokesmith the secretary, who appears to be in the regnavi/sum sine regno position, but in actual fact his selfless surrender of the fortune liberates him to take control of his life.   The confrontation between the doppelgangers illustrates this struggle over what is meant by regnabo and sum sine regno.  The wealthy figures on the left, still attached to the old interpretation, have an invested interest in this struggle and seem to be coming down in order to watch it.   Their descent could also represent their symbolic defeat by the Boffins, who privilege the opportunity to do good over the selfishness and inevitability associated with the wheel.

In contrast to this face-to-face confrontation, the steam-paddler and Gaffer's boat are moving away from each other; the circle pulls apart at the top but then collides at the bottom.  This may be intended as a visualisation of the "apparent" separation between those with fortune/fortune and those without, and the eventual revelation of their "real" proximity.  It may also suggest that the chronotopes of the novel (the wheel-pattern, the Boffins' use of opportunity for moral good) split apart into their own regions of control (the Harmon fortune, the Veneerings' dining room) and yet simultaneously conflict with each other in individuals seeking to form a concept of power, time and money: the image of a Bakhtinian dialogue.

Furthermore, Stone places an image of the Boffins in their wealth on the supposedly falling, right-hand side of the wheel/wrapper-pattern, when according to the tradition they ought to be on the left-hand side.  Perhaps Stone's locating them on the right is a reminder of their working class, regnavi/sum sine regno roots; but their position opposite the Bradley Headstone figure suggests the opposition of their "desire to do right" to the aggressive principle of the traditional wheel-pattern.  In addition, they are placed above the Death as Dust Contractor figure.  Perhaps it is to remind us that it was Old Harmon who established the Boffins' wealth; but it also suggests their (moral) dominance over him and the Wheel of Fortune, which he represents.  Their exclusion from the left-hand side, however, implies that they cannot overthrow the traditional wheel-pattern everywhere; the Podsnaps and Veneerings remain untouched, and wealth and power continue to be pursued by the suppression of others.


Bakhtin, Mikhail.  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.  Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.  U of Texas P Slavic Series 1. 12th pbk printing.  Austin: U of Texas P, 2000.

Campbell, Elizabeth A.  Fortune's Wheel: Dickens and the Iconography of Women's Time. Athens: Ohio UP, 2003.

Rhonde Crockett is a PhD student at Queen's University, working under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack, on a project on the themes of fortune and prophecy in Dickens.



Monthly Wrapper for part 1(May 1864), from the Henry Collection in the Charles Dickens Museum




This project gratefully acknowledges the support of the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy.