top of page

2 of Water - Lizzie Hexam & Eugene Wrayburn


Lizzie Wrayburn née Hexam;

Eugene Wrayburn.


Our Mutual Friend

    The first time we see Lizzie Hexam, she is in a boat with her father on the Thames at night looking for a corpse. For a living, her father, Gaffer, scavenges what items he can find from dead bodies and other detritus that floats down the river. His daughter is a humble, courteous, self-sacrificing girl who knows her lowly place at her father's side and in society. Interested in learning how to read and write, she nevertheless refuses to as it would cause a distance and divide between her father and herself. Instead, unbeknownst to her father, she saves enough money to send her young brother to school so that he may make something more of himself than what lies in store for him on this filthy river.


 Not only does Lizzie have compassion and a strong moral compass, she has an innate understanding of things – when her father is killed and suspected himself of murder, she knows he is innocent, even though her thoughts on the matter lead in the opposite direction. What “reading” and “studying” she does, of past, present, and future, she accomplishes intuitively, almost mystically, by staring into the fire. When Eugene Wrayburn meets Lizzie, on the muddy bank of the Thames, standing over her father's corpse, he becomes immediately enchanted with her. Later, through the dirty window of her pathetic hovel, he stares at her as she stares into the burning rays of a fire.


 Eugene Wrayburn is an aimless, briefless barrister. If he weren't so sober in his discontent, he would almost be a fop. When he becomes infatuated with Lizzie, his associate Mortimer Lightwood assumes – as does Wrayburn himself – that his interest in the girl is an idle trifle. Lizzie Hexam is so far beneath Eugene Wrayburn in social class that any kind of relations between them would be ludicrous even to entertain. Yet entertain it Wrayburn does, seemingly ignorant of what he's feeling, or perhaps unwilling to say outwardly until he is absolutely certain inside.


 The character of Eugene Wrayburn indicates a change in Dickens' sympathies. Early in Dickens' writing career, a desultory upper-class character like Wrayburn would've been the subject of humour or ridicule. Here, with his sarcasm, abstract intentions, and social upper hand, he is portrayed in a romantic, heroic light against the earnest, self-made schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone. Headstone is tutor to Lizzie's brother Charley, and in Dickens' namesake and his hard-working mentor we can see the kind of characters the author spent most of his professional life championing - as in many ways we can see the hard-working self-made author himself. Here, as Charley and Bradley's baser instincts come to the fore, they register in Dickens a disenchantment with the middle-class. With the outré figure Wrayburn, meantime, Dickens displays a kinship.


 As an author in part isolates and emphasizes certain aspects of their own personality to sculpt a fictional character, so Wrayburn and Headstone signify two aspects of Dickens at war with himself. Similarly, Lizzie Hexam and Bella Wilfer of Our Mutual Friend signify two contrasting aspects of Dickens' secret mistress, Ellen Ternan. Wrayburn takes it upon himself to see to Lizzie's education, emulating the father-figure role Dickens played with Ternan. Lizzie, in turn, intensely aware of the social impossibility of their union, rebuffs Wrayburn, emulating Ternan's questionable social status and her rebuff of the older, married Dickens. Headstone's anger and attempted destruction of Wrayburn signifies the steadfast, lower-middle-class aspect of Dickens, spiteful of his own position in society. With Headstone's violent demise, we can read the author's attempt to kill not only this aspect in himself, but also society's condemnation of the love of Wrayburn/Dickens for Lizzie/Nelly.


 Only when Wrayburn has been crippled and left for dead is society's structural divide between the would-be lovers smashed. Here, at the outset of the first female suit, Water, the male ego, enterprise, and civilizing structure represented by Wrayburn is burnt out, razed, and yearns for dissolution. Being brought low, Wrayburn suggests how - if an emotional bridge is to be made between humans – the mighty must fall. Lizzie, in turn, is lifted from her brackish submersion, and permitted to give expression to the deep wellspring of her emotions. Her callous father and callow brother have been replaced by a gentleman; what remains to be seen is if he is man enough to stand up to the challenge.


 Like John Harmon at the outset of Our Mutual Friend, Eugene Wrayburn is reborn through water at the novel's end. Like his thematic counterpart Bella, Wrayburn understands everything's price. Now he must learn its value.


Shorthand : real passion - emotional affinity - sympathy - understanding - water seeking its own level - mutuality - mutability - a reconciliation of opposites - new sensations - jealousies - irresponsibility - the solution to discord - the end of a rivalry - throwing away an invaluable gift - hidden intentions - a longing which cannot be denied - friendship - a treaty - an entreaty - truth and beauty in simplicity - washing away impurity - a baptism of love.

bottom of page