Skip to main content

Silkworms and Shipwrecks: Sustainability in Dombey and Son

Parkins, Wendy J. (2016) Silkworms and Shipwrecks: Sustainability in Dombey and Son. Victorian Literature and Culture, 44 (03). pp. 455-471. ISSN 1060-1503. E-ISSN 1470-1553. (doi:10.1017/S1060150316000115) (KAR id:62013)

PDF Author's Accepted Manuscript
Language: English
Download (387kB) Preview
Official URL


Seeking to prepare her friend Lucretia Tox for the revelation of Mr Dombey's engagement, Louisa Chick, Dombey's sister, turns to the natural world to illustrate the inevitability of change:

It's a world of change. . . .Why, my gracious me, what is there that does not change! Even the silkworm, who I am sure might be supposed not to trouble itself about such subjects, changes into all sorts of unexpected things continually. (434; ch. 29)

For Mrs Chick, the silkworm seems to exemplify the truism that change is a natural and inevitable part of life but, in the context of global sericulture, her example is perhaps more apposite than she realizes. Silk production not only radically terminates the natural metamorphosis from caterpillar to moth, it also constitutes an industry subject to the volatilities of global trade and regulation, the cycles of fashion, the impact of new technologies, not to mention the vagaries of disease, climate and habitat. While Britain had been importing raw silk from China in limited supplies from the eighteenth century onwards, by the time Dombey and Son was written, the devastation of sericultural crops in France and Italy by a disease which had been spreading since the 1820s allowed Britain to benefit from the treaty port system (established as a result of the Opium Wars) and re-export raw silk to the Continent (Ma 332–3). Thus, silk – circulating around the world, and linking producers of the raw material in India, China, or Japan with child labourers in Macclesfield, handloom weavers in Spitalfields, textile designers in France, and wealthy consumers in London – positions the humble silkworm within complex and dynamic networks of uncertain sustainability.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1017/S1060150316000115
Subjects: P Language and Literature
Divisions: Faculties > Humanities > School of English > Centre for Victorian Literature and Culture
Faculties > Humanities > School of English
Depositing User: Wendy Parkins
Date Deposited: 08 Jun 2017 14:49 UTC
Last Modified: 29 May 2019 19:08 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
  • Depositors only (login required):


Downloads per month over past year