Our Mutual Friend is the last novel completed by Charles Dickens and is one of his most sophisticated works, combining savage satire with social analysis.
It centres on, in the words of critic J. Hillis Miller (quoting from the character Bella Wilfer in the book), "money, money, money, and what money can make of life." In the opening chapters a body is found in the Thames and identified as that of John Harmon, a young man recently returned to London to receive his inheritance. Were he alive, his father's will would require him to marry Bella Wilfer, a beautiful, mercenary girl whom he had never met. Instead, the money passes to the working-class Boffins, and the effects spread into various corners of London society.
Having made his fortune from London's rubbish, a rich misanthropic miser dies, estranged from all except his faithful employees Mr and Mrs Boffin. By his will, his fortune goes to his estranged son John Harmon, who is to return from where he has settled abroad (possibly in South Africa) to claim it, on condition that he marries a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. The implementation of the will is in the charge of the solicitor, Mortimer Lightwood, who has no other practice.
Before the son and heir can claim his inheritance, he goes missing, presumed drowned, at the end of his journey back to London. A body is found in the Thames by Gaffer Hexam, a waterman who makes his living by retrieving corpses and robbing them of valuables, before handing them over to the authorities. Papers in the pockets of the drowned man identify him as the heir, John Harmon. Present at the identification is a mysterious young man, who gives his name as Julius Handford and then disappears.
By the terms of the miser's will, the whole estate then devolves upon Mr and Mrs Boffin, naïve and good-hearted people who wish to enjoy it for themselves and to share it with others. They take the disappointed bride of the drowned heir, Miss Wilfer, into their household, and treat her as their pampered child and heiress. They also accept an offer from Julius Handford, now going under the name of John Rokesmith, to serve as their confidential secretary and man of business, at no salary. Rokesmith uses this position to watch and learn everything about the Boffins, Miss Wilfer, and the aftershock of the drowning of the heir John Harmon. Mr Boffin engages a one-legged ballad-seller, Silas Wegg, to read aloud to him in the evenings, and Wegg tries to take advantage of his position and of Mr Boffin's good heart to obtain other advantages from the wealthy dustman. Having persuaded Mr Boffin to move to a larger house, he himself takes possession of their former home, in the yard of which stand several mounds of "dust" remaining from Mr Harmon's business. Wegg hopes to find hidden treasure there.