Little Dorrit

little dorritLittle Dorrit is divided into two sections. The first is Poverty, and the second is Riches. Is this all you need to know about its imagery? Of course not — but if you add the title of the first chapter, “Sun and Shadow,” and its location, a prison, you will be nearly there. Dickens supports this complex, interesting, mature novel of 800 or more pages with his usual frenzied and ecstatic characterization, and by ringing the changes in an almost unbelievably varied way on these few ideas: light and dark, sun and shadow, imprisonment, confinement, riches, poverty, material and immaterial wealth.

Little Amy Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea Prison, where her father has been imprisoned for debt for the last twenty-three years. She is, therefore, twenty-two years old when the story begins, a grown woman, but often mistaken for a child: “little” because she has been emotionally and physically malnourished during her time devoting herself to her egregiously ungrateful family. Arthur Clennam, recently returned from China, meets Little Dorrit in his grim mother’s home, and immediately suspects that his parents may have wronged her in some way; he sets about to right the suspected injustice.

Dickens plays with his ideas like so many tiles in a game. Characters both major and minor are imprisoned in various ways: sometimes in an actual prison, like Little Dorrit’s father; other times, like Clennam’s mother, in her own disabled body; other times by social class or expectation. Dan Doyce and his invention are imprisoned for a while by the Circumlocution Office (a near, dear relation of Jarndyce and Jarndyce) and their eternal red tape, but some prisoners are clever enough to escape.

Characters gain wealth and lose it, both materially and psychologically. Miss Wade, for instance, is a character entirely built to take riches and turn them into rags: the chapter in which she narrates her own life story is as chilling a description of a personality disorder as I’ve read in some time. Henry Gowan is another such: he taints the happiness, talent, and tranquility of everyone around him with his careless nihilism. Even Arthur Clennam, our hero, is more complex than many Dickens heroes: he goes in for typical Dickensian benevolence, to right a wrong, and he fails, and riches turn to poverty in his fingers, and sunshine into shadow. (The entire concept of benevolence is a mini-theme in this book. Mr. Casby, the Patriarch — anti-figure of the Father of the Marshalsea — is like a wicked Santa Claus, and we all know how Dickens felt about Christmas. The fact that he gets his comeuppance is infinitely satisfying.)

The novel teems with outstanding minor characters that help bring out these themes. My own favorite was Flora, with her hilarious run-on sentences, and Mr. F.’s aunt, with her mysterious but settled antagonism toward Clennam (“Bring ‘im for’ard, and I’ll chuck ‘im out ‘o winder!”) But Mr. Pancks, Tattycoram, Fanny, Mr. Meagles, and the Merdle clan (the name of whom reminded me of Mr. Murdstone, from David Copperfield, so I was warned in advance of the dreadful fate that awaited me) are all marvelous. The only truly insipid character is the horrid Pet Meagles, and she’s just your ordinary Dickens girl, like a Hitchcock blonde.

I must admit that I had expected Little Dorrit to be a splendidly null Dickens girl, too, and in fact for the first part of the book, she more or less is. She has been trained up in the way she should go: self-denial to the point of disappearance. Toward the end, Mr. Meagles shows Little Dorrit to Tattycoram as an exemplar of duty, and it would be easy to mistake her constant attendance on her family for her sense of duty. But Mr. Meagles is not always the clearest-eyed character, is he? Little Dorrit does not do what she does from duty, she does it from love, and it is love (and Dickens’s genius) that makes her into an interesting character in the second half of the book. She, too, goes from poverty to riches to poverty (to riches, to poverty); from shadow to sunshine. But unlike her father, she is always free. Her choices are her own, and when her duty is taken from her — she is no longer able to be a caretaker for her father — it is her love that sustains her, makes a vivid human being out of her, and gives her a voice and power she lacked at the beginning of the novel. By the end, we can see she always had intelligence and integrity, but now she can stand in the light.

I wanted to note that back when we did our blogiversary post, someone asked whether Teresa and I ever disagreed on books, and if so, what we did about that. I couldn’t think of anything we disagreed on at the time, but in fact, Dickens is probably the answer. Teresa has never really been much of a Dickens fan, though she generally loves 19th-century literature. I can’t put it down to her not having read much Dickens, either, because I think she’s read several of his novels, and they just haven’t clicked with her. She prefers Eliot, Hardy, the Brontes, Trollope — you know, trashy stuff like that. I, on the other hand, love Dickens. I haven’t tried to convince Teresa! I can have Dickens all to myself!

I don’t know why Little Dorrit isn’t more… what? More read? More popular? It’s one of Dickens’s later novels, like my very favorites, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, and in some ways (in its themes and imagery) it is quite like it. It is wonderful, complex reading. I now have only a few Dickens novels left to read: Hard Times, Barnaby Rudge, and Martin Chuzzlewit. (I have attempted The Old Curiosity Shop, but haven’t finished it; I’m leaving that one out of my reckoning for now.) Any suggestions?

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35 Responses to Little Dorrit

  1. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I recently re-read Bleak House after many years (really so I could then read Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s, which I haven’t done yet), and I am on your side – I love Dickens. I didn’t read any for the anniversary last year, but now I’ve got myself back into it, I fancy a lot more re-reading and – isn’t it lucky one leaves some for later?! – some first readings.

    • Jenny says:

      Bleak House is probably my very favorite, and I am lucky enough to still have a few left as well. I really love Dickens, and I’m planning to read a biography of his, too.

  2. Laurie C says:

    I’ll have to try this. I don’t know why it doesn’t have as high a reputation as some of the others, but if you say it’s as good as Bleak House…well, then, OK!

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Bleak House, but I would say it forms an interesting kind of trilogy with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. It was excellent.

  3. Karen K. says:

    I read both Barnaby Rudge and Chuzzlewit last year, and they were okay. I actually preferred Barnaby Rudge — there are some parts that are excellent, reminiscent of A Tale of Two Cities.

    However, I suggest you run the other way if you see Hard Times. It’s just awful, bleak, preachy, no interesting characters. It’s the shortest novel because he left all the good parts out. Seriously.

    I still haven’t made it through TOC either. I just started an audio of Drood yesterday, then I just have TOC and Pickwick and I’ll have finished all of Dickens’ major works. Bleak House and Oliver Twist are my favorites though I did enjoy Little Dorrit.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for the recommendations! Bleak House is my favorite, too, along with Our Mutual Friend and Dombey and Son.

    • I read Hard Times and I liked it enough, but didn’t love it as I’ve loved the other Dickens books I’ve read. But I agree with you – it’s short because all the good stuff was left out! What I love most about Dickens is his humor. All the descriptions and asides and tangents that so infuriate some readers, I find hilarious. And there was none of that in Hard Times.

      • Jenny says:

        I agree with you about the asides and tangents (a reason I love Trollope, too.) Hmmm. Well, Hard Times is on my list for the next time I read Dickens. We’ll see!

  4. Scott W. says:

    Was it a really a whole year ago when I was living and breathing Little Dorrit? This was the first Dickens I’d read in some years, and I read it in installments, the way it was written. And frankly, I don’t care what it may reveal about my social life in noting that for a matter of months, my daily Little Dorrit installment was certainly the highlight of my evenings. Our Mutual Friend is next, a bit later this year.

    • vanbraman says:

      I think that reading it in installments would be very interesting. I can just imagine people waiting for the next installment of their favorite books. I believe that it would be much like how people today wait for the next episode of their favorite TV show. Imagine the discussions people would have between installments.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ll willingly admit that my reading is often far more interesting than my usual social life (which frankly often consists of reading.) You will love Our Mutual Friend. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  5. Hey, we used the same quote from Mr. F’s aunt! I guess she is kinda repetitive.

    The way Dickens develops, or really, reveals, Little Dorrit is brilliant. I remember being worried for a long stretch of the book – another dim Dickens heroine! But no, not at all. A unique, difficult heroine who is given a unique ending. People who have not read the novel should probably not read my series on Little Dorrit, since I give away the ending not once but five times, although I do carefully label each one with a spoiler alert.

    Lionel Trilling, back in 1952, used the neutral word “established” – why isn’t LD more established? It is a good question. You sure remind me how interesting this book is.

    Karen K. is mostly incorrect about Hard Times. The villains are excellent and the use of the setting is well-done, as are other passages here and there (the famous anti-Utilitarian first chapter, for example). And of course “bleak” is not an aesthetic criticism. “Preachy” is accurate – this is a book where it is helpful to know your Carlyle. And your Gaskell – I think the book is partly a Dickensian response to Gaskell.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know Carlyle at all (perhaps he should be my summer’s Long Classic one of these years) but have read several by Gaskell. When I read Hard Times, I will keep my eyes open for the Dickensian response (rebuttal? hat-tip?) to her.

    • Long Classic? Carlyle only seems long – about three times longer than the actual word count.

      The actual long book, The French Revolution, is a dazzling companion to A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens openly steals passages from Carlyle, and then transforms them in startling ways.

      Better accompaniments to Hard Times are the short book Past and Present and the long essay “Chartism.”

      Gaskell is full of Carlyle, too – there is a scene in North and South where the protagonists spend several pages, in the form of an argument, summarizing Carlyle.

      • Jenny says:

        Hmmm. I can do several short books as a composite Long Classic. I am flexible. This summer is the Shahnameh and Dead Souls, but if I’m granted more summers, Carlyle will have to be a strong contender.

    • Oh, you’re right about the villains! I keep quoting Josiah Bounderby and comparing him to various current political figures who think that the poor are greedy for wanting luxurious things like food and shelter. Hard Times is worth reading for that character alone.

  6. Teresa says:

    Yeah, you’re right I’m not a great Dickens fan, although I love Bleak House and Great Expectations and do intend to read more. I didn’t like David Copperfield or Oliver Twist, and I fall asleep every time I try to read A Tale of Two Cities (that happened at least three times, years apart). I’m sure there are other Dickens novels out there that I’d like, but my enjoyment is enough of a crap shoot that I’d rather read Trollope or Eliot or Wilkie Collins.

    All that said, I read the Dickens novels I didn’t like at least 15 years ago, so my opinion of them might be entirely different today.

    • Jenny says:

      A Tale of Two Cities I’ve loved since I was a teenager, though it does have one of Dickens’s Hitchcock blondes in it. (So does David Copperfield, though I like that one better than Great Expectations.) I think you’d like Our Mutual Friend and Dombey and Son. Those would be my recommendations for you.

    • cbjames says:

      How can you fall asleep reading Tale of Two Cities? That book kept me up for two days of intensive reading.

      You’ve made me think of an episode of the old Dick Van Dyke show. The central joke of the show was that he went to see The Guns of Navarone and claimed to have slept through it. ;-)

      • Jenny says:

        I was wondering that, too, James — I really love that one and it has some great creepy moments (knitting… restored to life…). I like the Dick Van Dyke gag!

      • Teresa says:

        I’ve no idea how, but it happens every time. I think there must be some phrase in the early chapters that’s like a soporific trigger that knocks me right out. If I could get past that point, maybe I’d love it!

  7. Lisa says:

    Dickens was my introduction to the Victorians, and I’d have put Bleak House on my desert-island list (though Nicholas NIckleby sneaks in as my favorite). But once I really settled in with Trollope, I found Dickens much less appealing or interesting, though I still have some of his books on the shelves. I have never read Little Dorrit, though, and you make a very good case for it.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought Nicholas Nickleby was a hoot, but its total lack of structure kind of made me crazy. Bleak House is still my favorite!

  8. Ed says:

    I did not really like Little Dorrit the first time I read it. However the recent TV series did motivate me to read it a second time, and I enjoyed it a lot, and it is now a real favourite of mine. I really liked a lot of the minor characters such as Mr F’s aunt, anf Flintwinch and Affery.

    I agree with Amateur Reader about Hard Times (though I am unfamiliar with Carlyle). It is a very passionate book and it is preachy. That does seem to turn a lot of people off, but I found that it really worked for me. Martin Chuzzlewit is mix of very good and very bad in my opinion. I do not want to give too much of the plot away, but I did find the American chapters there to be heavy handed.

    • Jenny says:

      Preachy doesn’t bother me; it’s the life’s work of a lot of 19th-century authors (and many others, too), and I’ve acquired the taste, like olives or very strong espresso. It’s the other things, like structure and imagery and humor and excellent characterization, that you don’t always find lying around everywhere.

  9. Christy says:

    Hm, I’d heard middling things about Little Dorrit in the past – I’m not sure from who. I did watch the miniseries of it, which I thought was overall okay. But you’re making me think I should get around to reading it. Great Expectations is already locked in as my next Dickens. I love Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House and don’t expect any of the other Dickens novels to beat them.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not sure any other Dickens novels do beat them. Thanks for the thumbs-up on the Little Dorrit miniseries! I think I can watch it on Netflix, but I hadn’t wanted to until I’d read the book.

  10. readerlane says:

    You’ve prompted me to reread Little Dorrit after many years (read it in college), and I’m enjoying Dickens’ richness of atmosphere and characters as the plot gathers steam. Of course, now, I have to go back and reread Dorothy Sayers to see why Lord Peter called his car Mrs Merdle….

    • Jenny says:

      I’m pretty sure it was because she (the car) had a formidable bosom…

      Enjoy Little Dorrit! Let me know how it goes!

  11. I’m interested to see you didn’t finish The Old Curiosity Shop – it’s the one Dickens which I hated, and Little Nell tops my list of the most irritating heroines ever. Hard Times is darker than some of the others, and Martin Chuzzlewit is wonderful. I think Barnaby Rudge is the only one I haven’t read. I’ve picked it up several times, but somehow it always ends up back on the shelf.

    • Jenny says:

      My mother assures me that the villain in The Old Curiosity Shop makes up for any deficiencies, and I do plan to go back to it and try again. I assume the flaws are in me, not Dickens. But I just couldn’t do it at the time. Hard Times is next (are next?)

    • Your mother is right. “Makes up for” is a little strong I guess.

      This is the villain. Go to the bottom illustration and enlarge it – you don’t want to know what’s going on there? Pure lunacy. Curiosity Shop Is Dickens most purely improvised novel.

      Hey, that reminds me, some advice – if do you return to The Old Curiosity Shop illustrations are a must. Only Dombey and Son has comparably useful, complementary illustrations.

      • Jenny says:

        I’ll keep that in mind. Well do I remember your posts on Curiosity Shop, by the way. An excellent month, April 2008, also containing your posts on Appreciationism and the phrase A Watched Plot Never Spoils, and I’m not tired of it yet.

  12. cbjames says:

    You have me thinking about re-reading Little Dorrit. Why isn’t it more ‘established’? I’m with Tom on Hard Times. I think it’s a darn good read. I also enjoyed Old Curiosity Shop. It’s got so much wonderful stuff in it, wild and weird stuff. And it really does feel like Dickens was making it all up as he went along, too, which made it fun to read. C.J. and I loved it.

    • Jenny says:

      That quality was one of the things that made me like Nicholas Nickleby. I’ll go back to it someday. It probably just wasn’t the right book at the right time.

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