Little 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?