When Arthur Clennam returns to England after many years abroad, he takes a kindly interest in Amy Dorrit, his mothers seamstress, and in the affairs of Amys father, William Dorrit, a man of shabby grandeur, long imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea. As Arthur soon discovers, the dark shadow of the prison stretches far beyond its walls to affect the lives of many, from the kindly Mr. Pancks, the reluctant rent-collector of Bleeding Heart Yard, and the tipsily garrulous Flora Finching, to Merdle, an unscrupulous financier, and the bureaucratic Barnacles in the Circumlocution Office. A masterly evocation of the state and psychology of imprisonment, "Little Dorrit" is one of the supreme works of Dickenss maturity.
The characters are wonderful, as is usual with Dickens. I think John Chivery is my favorite. He proves that heroism doesn't have to be dashing. More often than not, it's humble. I also love the Plornishes, especially Mrs. Plornish's linguistic abilities. Flora is also so much fun... I know people just like her, who never use punctuation in either their speech or writing. She drove me crazy at first, especially with her constant silly references to her previous love for Arthur. But she grew on me and I started to enjoy her scenes. Dickens can be so funny!
Little Dorrit herself is so sweet and selfless that she is a little hard to believe, though most people will be able to empathize with her when she is walked over by her family. She is a character that I would seek to emulate, rather than immediately identify with. I don't know anyone in real life who would be so patient with selfish, thoughtless family members; I know I couldn't!
The villains are as varied as in real life. Rigaud Blandois, that "gentleman," is insufferable. His speeches of self-justication and self-satisfaction are just sickening. Miss Wade is simply mesmerizing... so much of what she says *could* have a basis in reality, but is so twisted. Is it really okay to adopt an orphan and raise her to be a servant to one's own daughter? But it's all in the interpretation of reality, and her bitterness is clearly wrong. It's the same with Mrs. Clennam, that merciless, religious woman. She is legalism personified.
And who could forget Mr. Merdle! I knew we were setting up for a big fall when Dickens was hyping him so much, but I didn't suspect what actually happens. Other "public" villains include the family Barnacle, who cling stubbornly and uselessly to the ship of State, and also what Dickens is pleased to call the "Circumlocution Office." This is his name for all the bureaucracy in English government that ever stifled good sense and public well-being — and he is not kind to it.
Unfortunately for this novel, I have been reading it since May (it's now August), due to various life circumstances and general busyness. I usually read very quickly and it's unusual for me to spend over two months in one book. And so I felt that this story dragged, and my emotional involvement with its characters was less than it might have been.
I have enjoyed many of Dickens' books and am used to his sprawling plots, but this one had so many subplots going in so many different directions, it rather faltered at the end. So much was left unresolved. It isn't that everyone has to have a happy or at least satisfying ending. They just need to have an ending, period!
Also, the plot device by which Little Dorrit becomes possessed of her fortune is so convoluted. I was shamefacedly thankful for the breakdown in my Penguin Classics copy which explained all the events that transpired before the story started. Arthur Clennam's intuition that there was some dark dealing in his family's past that wronged the Dorrits was also a little too precipitate; how could he have known?
There were moments when I was overtaken by the mastery of Dickens' storytelling, like when the businesslike Pancks betrays a fondness for the happy little Italian, Baptiste Cavalletto. It is also very poignant when Arthur keeps trying to convince himself he is not in love with Pet and when Mr. Meagles tells him about Pet's dead twin sister. I was rather in awe of Dickens right there; it was perfectly put. I felt so much for the Meagles and for Arthur at that moment.
However, despite its great characters and moments of genius, Little Dorrit is not one of my favorite Dickens novels. In fact, it's probably my least favorite thus far. That isn't to say that I did not enjoy it, but it just didn't have the overmastering, unifying idea that it needed to bring everything together at the end. It was just about too many things. Sometimes it was about the asinine abuses of the Circumlocution Office; sometimes it was about feminism and the unspeakable insult of charity; sometimes it was about financial devastation by swindlery; sometimes it was about the deterioration of personality brought about by imprisonment.
At the end, I felt that I was left still holding the strings of some of the subplots. I wasn't sure how to put them down and Dickens did not gently take them from my hands and lay them to rest. This is a good novel, but flawed. I would not recommend this as one's first foray into Dickens.
The Marshalsea Prison also illustrates the power of the wealthy in that it was run for profit and clearly favored the well-established. The article about the Marshalsea in Wikipedia is quite enlightening. The brilliance of Dickens is shown in how he parallels the lives of the prisoners of Marshalsea and the prisoners of Society. Of course Dickens indicated this duality by dividing the novel into two books: Poverty and Riches.
I was very much taken by how this novel speaks to our present condition; the English and increasingly the American senior civil services seem to be reserved for the Barnacles and the Stiltstockings. The disregard for progress in engineering is certainly prevalent in the U.S. and probably England. In today's CBS News Money Watch section on the internet, there is much information about the banks' loan modification programs which seem to be run by the Office of Circumlocution. The character of Merdle appears again regularly in the news media. Suicide is no longer required.
Of course we must remember that the reason we read Dickens is that he always has a compelling story; I became quickly involved in the affairs of Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit and fascinated again by the great eccentric characters always present in a Dickens novel.
Dickens does an interesting flip from Hard Times as he is now siding with industry, defending its innovations against government red tape. He's still a far cry from neglecting the downtrodden. A highlight for me were the scenes of unrequited love, very well portrayed for my male gaze at least. It's belatedly occurred to me that Dickens' idealized women, like Amy Dorrit for example, are robbed of the ability to feel or express anger. They can be mortified or shamed by injustice, but they can never get mad about it and that lends a hollow note to their characterization in any modern reading. Possibly it's suiting, then, that (with honourable mention of Young John Chivery) my favourite character was Miss Wade, despite her negative portrayal. Dickens has never so conflated dignity and self-respect with the sin of pride. I thought Tattycoram made the right choice to try her, after I was beginning to grit my teeth every time Mr. Meagles asked her to start counting.
And then there's poor, forgotten Cavalletto. What happened to that guy?
My second observation was that perhaps if Mr. Dickens had been able to see both halves of humanity as being equally human he wouldn't have been so imprisoned in his own bigotry and perhaps would have been less cynical. There's not a fully realized, psychologically healthy woman in the whole 895 page (Penguin edition) book.
There's the Good Mother, Mrs. Meagles(who serves no other purpose), the Bad Mother, Mrs. Clennam - imprisoned in her unrelentingly, impersonal Calvanism; the romantically deluded Minni Meagles; the haughty Fanny, imprisoned though not at all unhappily, by her social climbing; the pitiful Affery imprisoned by both class and sex; the Strong Woman - Miss Wade - very accurately depicted as a pre-Freudian paranoid; Mrs. Merdle, The Boosom; and the poodle-named Tattycoram who could have been whole, and would have been had she been an adopted orphan boy named Fido, but as a mere female needed only to fight the temptation to consider herself anyone's equal. Oh, and let us not forget Little Doormat herself. One sentence from the book gives a complete description: "Little Dorrit yielded willingly." That she did, to everyone in everything. There's not an ounce of self preservation about the little woman. The interplay of the need for self preservation and the urge toward altruism makes for human drama. There's no drama in this character, because she has no self, only the urge to be of service.
If one is willing to overlook Dickins' sexism, as one must overlook other authors' racism, we can appreciate the book as excellent social commentary and for the perfect construction of the Circumlocution Office - the epitomy of bureacracy, and a wonderful foreshadowing of our financial collapse and the effects of Bernie Madoff in the person of Mr. Merdle.
I secretly rather enjoy the more melodramatic bits of Dickens, but Rigaud was just so pantomime villain – complete with his
Then, it is quite notorious that Dickens could not do sexuality. So, though we are told that Little Dorrit is head over heels in love with Clennam, and that he in turn is besotted with Pet Meagles, it just does not really ring true. And, as Orwell noted, Dickens does not allow romance to cross class boundaries, so Clennam and Dorrit can only be brought together when circumstances have brought them social equality.
Then the fact that Clennam has spent his life in China just does not convince for a moment. No one but Flora (confusedly) asks him a bout China; he never speaks of it himself, and his twenty years in a distant continent have just left no mark.
Of course there are a lot of good things in the book, which is why I came to read it four times in the first place. The sad, funny father of the Marshalsea, the comedy of the Circumlocution Office, and the faux grandeur of the Gowans, combine to make a sharp satire on the whole concept of aristocracy. But it is definitely an object of weaknesses as well as strengths.
I thought a lot about Charlie while reading Little Dorrit.
I'm not going to dwell on the main themes in this novel. Firstly, because I have nothing to add that hasn't already been covered in the previous reviews. The imprisonment motif, the dysfunctional families, the criticism of Victorian society and of government incompetence - they're all there, and they're probably what the novel is about, mostly. But they didn't exactly surprise me - rather, those are topics one can always count on Dickens for covering in his, at the same time, sarcastic and empathic style. In this respect, the book delivers better than almost any Dickens I've read to date. The whole subplot concerning the fictional Circumlocution Office is borderline Kafkian, and the family melodrama gets dark. Like, really dark.
But that is not the novel I have read. Which is embarrassing, because it's the novel all of the scholars have read, and all of GR's reviewers too. Meaning what I'm going to say now is going to sound, really, really pretentious. Okay, here I come: that's not what Little Dorrit really talks about. *ducks*
I don't know if it was intentional on Dickens's part or just a result of his criticism of Victorian society, but if you pay close attention to the character development, you'll realize what I mean. Almost every main character in this novel (and a good portion of the secondary ones as well) are bent on deceiving themselves as methodically as possible. Sure, there are a couple of people here and there who pretend in front of other people, but they aren't believing their own lies. Still, pretty much everybody else is investing so much energy on self-deception, and making such a point of believing their own lies, I sometimes felt exhausted just watching them.
There's of course the Dorrit family, with their airs of self-importance and wounded pride, overcompensating for the fact that they've been penniless for the last 25 years. Flora Finching insists on behaving like the 15-year old she once was, in the hopes that her old lover will propose to her again. Arthur insists on shutting off his feelings for Minnie Gowan, even after it becomes obvious that he's feeling deeply disappointed - the whole subplot is told in the third person, in a way that strongly reminded me of a depersonalization episode once recounted to me by a schizophrenic patient. And on, and on, and on.
Of course I'm not claiming to know Dickens's mind better than the Harold Blooms of this world. But trust me - if you're at all interested in why people do what they do, you'll find Little Dorrit isn't just about bureaucracy and poverty. In fact, it might be that it's about the power of the human nature for believing its own lies, and how everyone else is just too polite to tell you to shut up.
I read some Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Steinbeck and Hemingway with mixed success before reading Great Expectations. I liked it enough to read David Copperfield, and I was hooked. A Tale of Two Cities followed and then Oliver Twist (not my favorite), Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Pickwick Papers and Dombey and Son before taking on this door stop of a novel.
Many of Dickens’s works tend to be lengthy and excessively wordy, perhaps due to their nature of having been serialized prior to being printed in a single volume. Truth be told, after having read Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Tale of Two Cities I confess to being disappointed with several of the following Dickens novels, particularly Bleak House, Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son. This novel however restored my faith. While Dickens is certainly famous for character development, and I’ve found no one better, the novels that I’ve truly enjoyed have been those that also feature an advancement of story line and this one is no different in that regard. It is simply an outstanding story, with all of the outrageous characters that you’ve come to expect in any Dickens work.
As in other Dickens works, a period of acclimation is required to become comfortable with the vocabulary and social conventions of the era. Having read almost all of Dickens’s work, I would have to rank this as my third favorite, after David Copperfield and Tale of Two Cities.
Charles Dickens, for all his flaws, knew how to create a compelling novel. While there's no denying that he created some hefty tomes (my edition of the novel comes in at 860 pages), they are filled with rich characters and expansive and intricately detailed plots. In this novel, Dickens begins with a mystery that slowly unravels over the course of the narrative, shedding new light on relationships and characters but always leaving the reader wondering just where the plot might be going. The characters are vivid from Amy Dorrit's diminutive stature to Pancks and his hair that defies gravity to Rigaud with his terrifying smile. And while Little Dorrit is very demure as all of Dickens' idealized heroines are, she still has an independent spirit that is never quite subdued regardless of her circumstance. In addition to the plots and characters, Dickens includes some truly delightful turns of phrase. His wit comes through in a multitude of places, whether he be ranting about the general ineffectualness of government or describing a character with a healthy dose of snark. Full of sympathetic characters and a plot that pulls you on to discover what will happen to all of them, Little Dorrit also explores the long-term effects of imprisonment and poverty on the psyche with pathos. A delight throughout, the novel will leave you with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when you reach the final page.
Little Dorrit is a small woman who was born in a debtors' prison and, until she is in her early 20s, has spent every night of her life there. Her beloved father is the prisoner. She and her brother and sister are free to come and go as they please, but it pleases Amy (Little Dorrit) to stay with her father each night.
Arthur Clennam, who may actually be the novel's main character, is a middle-aged man who returns to England after many years away to find that his mother and her butler have taken over the family business after the death of his father. Their actions are mysterious, but he has no intention of interfering. Arthur notices a tiny servant girl working for his mother who eats little and disappears mysteriously every evening. He calls her Little Dorrit, and he learns that she saves her food to give to her father and that she spends every night with him in the prison.
Through Arthur's efforts, Mr. Dorrit is not only released from prison but receives a very large inheritance that makes him a wealthy man who doesn't like to be reminded of his many years in prison. Because Arthur Clennam is a reminder, Mr. Dorrit keeps him at a distance both from himself and his daughter, who secretly loves Arthur.
The novel has many subplots and multiple characters. It is a complicated love story (Little Dorrit is not the only woman who loves Arthur, who loves somebody else, and somebody else loves Little Dorrit), a mystery (what are Mrs. Clennam and her butler up to and what secret is she hiding?), a social commentary on business, government and the imprisonment of debtors and an outrageous satire.
Published in monthly instalments between 1855 and 1857, first reactions from the critics were not very favourable. They
Much of Dickens’ ire in Little Dorrit is focused on government bureaucracy. He brings it to life with the wonderfully imaginative invention of the Circumlocution Office. It’s a government department run entirely it seems by the incompetent and the inept (ring any bells???). Its sole purpose is to frustrate and obstruct anyone who has the temerity to ask for information or assistance. Forms need to be filled in just to request permission to fill in more forms to ask for an appointment.(the Soviets learned a thing or two from the Circumlocution Office methinks).
Some of his greatest anger is directed at debtors’ prisons such as the notorious Marshalsea in which people who owed money were imprisoned until they repaid their debts. It was an impossible situation because they were not allowed to work so had to rely on family or friends to help pay bills and to provide food and clothing. Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls, becoming a true child of the Marshalsea.
But even in prison the appearance of gentility and the gradations of class and status must be maintained. The Marshalsea inhabitants refer to themselves as “collegians” rather than prisoners; Papa Dorrit pretends ignorance about the fact his daughters go out to work every day to put food on the table, and openly solicits financial gifts from visitors, masks their true nature by calling them “tributes” and ‘testimonials’. As his status within the prison rises and he becomes the longest-serving resident, so his consciousness of his status increases, going into orbit when he is released upon discovery that he is in fact a very wealthy man.
What Dickens shows is the personal cost of such esteem for one’s position in life. Mr Dorrit is so blinkered by his sense of his own importance that he fails to connect with the one person who loves him without question – his daughter Amy. Though she has loved him without question for decades, cared for him and undergone personal suffering so that he would be spared, he does not recognise the debt he owes her. Instead he subjects her to criticism over petty mistakes and castigates her when she doesn’t wholeheartedly welcome and adopt the trappings of the family’s new-found wealth. Does he repent on his deathbed as characters do in so many novels? I won’t spoil the plot by disclosing that; you’ll just have to read the novel yourself.
The Dorrits are a far cry from the epitome of the happy loving families found in Dickens’s earlier works. None of the families in Little Dorrit actually fit that particular description being neither loving nor happy. They’re all rather dysfunctional in fact. When Arthur Clenhome, one of the book’s good guys, returns to London from China where he ran the family business for twenty years he gets as much of a welcome from his mother as if he’d just returned from a weekend in Brighton.
Like most of Dickens’ big novels, the plot does require attention to keep all the threads intact but this book isn’t anywhere as complicated as Bleak House. It also relies on a remarkable series of coincidences – the first two characters we meet in a prison in France not only turn up again in London many many chapters later and somehow manage to play key roles in the plot. But it wouldn’t be Dickens without coincidence would it. Nor would it be Dickens without a wildly extravagant female character. Just as Dombey and Son has the dippy Miss Lucretia Tox, and Martin Chuzzlewit has the drunken nurse Sarah Gamp, in Little Dorrit Dickens serves up the garrulous Flora Finching to entertain with her gushing and breathless simpering talk of nothing in particular. A brilliant invention.
So in case you haven’t twigged by now, yes I did enjoy this book. And yes I would definitely read it again.
This book was originally written in magazine installments, and so it does seem to last longer than necessary. For my taste, Dickens wastes too much time attacking his favorite targets: Society and Bureaucracy. Whole chapters are devoted to satirizing them, and although admittedly humorous, most of the characters thus employed play no other part in the novel except to be the butts of his jokes. Still, the story is a pleasant journey for anyone who likes to be immersed in a complex human tale that ultimately ties up every one of its dozens of plot threads.
Little Dorrit is a classic tale of imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, while Dickens' working title for the novel, Nobody's Fault , highlights its concern with
Given my unabashed love for all things Dickens, I am absolutely
However, there are still some very Dickensian things to love about this story. His descriptions of 1850s London remain absolutely stunning. The reader can all but smell the streets, hear the sounds of the horses' hooves as they clatter down the street and feel the despair of life in debtors' prison rising up from the pages. The picture he paints of London is very raw and real, and in a historical context, more accurate for what an everyday person's life was like than anything by Austen, the Bronte sisters or other English authors from a similar period who focused only on upper class society.
Staying true to form, Dickens has several pointed critiques of society he brings forward with Little Dorrit. Given his own personal history of life in the workhouse with a father who lived in a debtors' prison, Dickens typically mentions the downtrodden and the poor in his work. This time, he attacks the government and the idea of locking people away for failure to pay their bills and does so with gusto. From the not-so-tongue-in-cheek discussions of a bureaucracy that prides itself on doing absolutely nothing to the mindless following of the masses of the advice of the supposedly very wealthy to the discussions of life inside a debtors' prison, Dickens does not pull any punches in his critique of them all. Through his eyes, the reader understands that those government forms one has to fill out in triplicate are there only to keep you busy while preventing any actual work from occurring, that in London at that time, one could be imprisoned for failure to pay back one pound or one hundred pounds, and that money or piety does not buy happiness. It seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
I have debated with myself for the last few days on whether I truly enjoyed this novel or not. I cannot say definitively one way or the other. There was a lot to learn about society back then, as there always is in his works. However, nothing took me by surprise, and I had to remind myself that I needed to continue to read it. The idea of a debtors' prison definitely had me thinking about that entire system, why it was ever created, and wondering if we are really much better off without it. There are only a few minor characters which are truly memorable, but most, I feel, are just caricatures of what they could have been. In the end, I would recommend it to others, but I would do so with the utmost caution. While it does have topics that last throughout the ages, it really is not a book for someone who has never before read a classic. I have to say that I am glad I read it, yet even happier I finished it.