Little Dorrit Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Amy Dorrit, who is better known as Little Dorrit, was born in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. Although her mother died soon after, the little girl and her older brother and sister have continued to live in the prison with their bankrupt father; he is the only member of the family not permitted to leave the prison. As she becomes older, Little Dorrit works as a seamstress. One of her clients is Mrs. Clennam, a widow who is also a businesswoman, although she has been confined to her room by illness for fifteen years. Mrs. Clennam’s forty-year-old son, Arthur, had gone to the East twenty years earlier to join his father, who looked after the company’s business there. After his father’s death, Arthur Clennam returns. He tells his mother that he will take his part of the inheritance and fend for himself; he does not want to remain in the business with his miserly, grasping, and rather inhuman mother. Mrs. Clennam thereupon takes her old clerk, Flintwinch, into partnership with her.

While he is staying at his mother’s house, Arthur notices Little Dorrit and is struck by her retiring disposition and sweet appearance. He learns that she lives in the Marshalsea prison, and he goes there and tries to help the Dorrit family. When he raises the possibility of getting Mr. Dorrit out of prison, everyone thinks such a thing is impossible, for Mr. Dorrit’s affairs are in hopeless confusion; some of his debts are owed to the Crown through the Circumlocution Office, a place of endless red tape.

Arthur finds that he has a confederate in his endeavor to help Mr. Dorrit in a clerk named Pancks, an odd creature who collects rents for a landlord who is the father of Arthur’s former fiancé, Flora. Pancks is aided in turn by John Chivery, the son of a turnkey at the Marshalsea, who is in love with Little Dorrit, and by Mr. Rugg, an elderly lawyer. In addition to helping Little Dorrit by trying to help her father and getting her brother out of trouble, Arthur helps her to get more sewing clients and provides small amounts of money to the Dorrit household in the prison.

Pancks discovers that Little Dorrit’s father, who has been in prison for more than twenty years, is the only surviving heir to a large fortune, and when he collects that inheritance, he is finally released. Mr. Dorrit immediately sets himself up as a man of fortune, and he and his two older children are determined to live up to their new social position and try to forget the past. They...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)

Little Dorrit Chapter Summaries

Part 1, Chapters 1-4 Summary

In a prison cell in Marseille in southern France lie two prisoners. John Baptist Cavalletto is awaiting his trial on smuggling. He listens uneasily to the pronouncements of his cellmate, Monsieur Rigaud. The prison guard brings them their noonday meal. Cavalletto looks enviously at Rigaud’s fine dinner while he eats his dry bread. The guard tells Rigaud that he is to be brought before the magistrates at a little past noon. While he waits, Rigaud tells Cavalletto that he is charged with murdering his wife, stating that it was during an argument in which she tumbled off the cliff. Rigaud is soon called for and, as he watches out the cell door, Cavalletto hears shouts from down below.

Mr. and Mrs. Meagles are among those travelers quarantined in Marseille, having come from the Orient. They are joined by their daughter, Pet, and her maid Tattycoram. Arthur Clennam has come to know them and is especially interested in Pet. Miss Wade, another Englishwoman, is self reliant and distant. On their last day of quarantine, Mr. Meagles looks back and thinks that in time he might come to love his “prison,” but Miss Wade questions this. As Miss Wade goes to her room, she overhears Tattycoram sobbing. She tries to comfort her, but Tattycoram says that she hates the Meagles, especially Pet, because they treat her badly. She plans to run away, she tells Miss Wade, who shows sympathy and interest. Tattycoram calms down and tells Miss Wade to ignore her rant, that she loves the Meagles and they treat her well.

Arthur Clennam arrives in London on a Sunday, which brings back memories of the strict and bleak Sabbaths of his childhood. He returns to his mother’s home, which is literally tumble-down and being propped up by support beams. He is met at the door by Flintwinch, his parents' old servant. Affery, his wife, still functions as the housekeeper, but is clearly under the thumb of her husband and mistress. Mrs. Clennam meets her son coldly. They discuss the watch that Mr. Clennam had asked Arthur to return to his mother. Affery prepares a room for Arthur, explaining that she had been forced to marry Flintwinch, since Arthur could not imagine that two so unlikely people would join together.

That night Affery has a strange experience. She awakens and notices that Flintwinch is not in bed. She goes downstairs and sees him seated by the fire, looking at his double, asleep in another chair. The double wakes up, asks for another drink, picks up an iron box, and leaves. Affery is terrified from seeing two of her husband. Flintwinch comes upon her standing in the hall. He grabs her throat, tells her that she has been dreaming, and orders her back to bed.

Part 1, Chapters 5-8 Summary

The next morning, Arthur tells his mother that he is withdrawing from the family business. She takes offense at this, as Arthur knew she would. He also asks her if there is something that his father did that would cause the remorse that he saw in Mr. Clennam’s last days.

At this, Mrs. Clennam calls in Flintwinch to report her son’s failings and accusations. Flintwinch has stood between Arthur and his mother before. Mrs. Clennam says that she is making Flintwinch a business partner in Arthur’s place, which pleases Flintwinch very much. Arthur notices Amy Dorrit, known as Little Dorrit, who serves as her mother’s seamstress. She does not fit in with the gloomy atmosphere. He wonders if she is somehow involved in the business that caused his father’s sadness and self-guilt. Arthur announces that he will not be living in his mother’s home but will be lodging elsewhere.

Mr. William Dorrit entered the Marshalsea prison for debtors, accompanied by his pregnant wife, son, and daughter. He is a quiet, retiring man, who comes to be known as the Father of the Marshalsea. His wife gives birth to a girl, Amy. Over the extent of his twenty-year imprisonment, visitors form the tradition of leaving some money for Mr. Dorrit as a kind of tribute. One poor man attempts to leave halfpence, which offends Mr. Dorrit. The man assures him that he would leave more if he could, but he meant well. What is more, he would even come to visit him after he himself left the prison. This touches Mr. Dorrit, and he asks for the halfpence back, vowing to leave it unspent.

As Mrs. Dorrit dies, Little Dorrit becomes the family manager, keeping track of whatever money comes their way and finding schooling, even though meager, for herself and her brother Tip and sister Fanny. She convinces a dancing master, one of the other prisoners, to give Fanny dancing lessons. When Fanny achieves some accomplishment in this area, she leaves the Marshalsea to...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 9-11 Summary

Arthur awakens the next morning in the Marshalsea. He leaves a message for Amy, asking her to meet him at her uncle’s. When she arrives, they go to the Iron Bridge as a place to talk in private. Arthur questions her again about her association with his mother but learns nothing in connection with how she came to Mrs. Clennam’s attention. She does not know if Mr. Clennam had any responsibility for her father being in debtor’s prison.

Although Mr. Dorrit has many creditors, the primary one is Mr. Tite Barnacle of the government's Circumlocution Office. When Arthur expresses interest in finding out how Mr. Dorrit may be released from the Marshalsea, Amy says that she does not think it is possible. She also has doubts of his being able to survive outside of the protection of prison. She is interested in getting her brother released. As Amy and Arthur walk back, they meet Maggy, who is the granddaughter of Amy’s old nurse. Amy explains that Maggy suffered brain damage from a fever at the age of ten and has not progressed any since that age. Maggy addresses Amy as “Little mother” and willingly runs errands for her.

For several days, Arthur tries to see Mr. Tite Barnacle at the Circumlocution Office but is consistently turned away. At last, he is told to see Mr. Barnacle, Junior, who tells him that Mr. Tite Barnacle is at home with the gout. He gives Arthur the address and recommends that he go there. Arthur does so, and Mr. Tite Barnacle tells him that he must apply at the right department.

Arthur returns to the Circumlocution Office and is sent from department to department without success. He is told to keep trying, especially in writing. Thoroughly discouraged, Arthur leaves. He sees Mr. Meagles, who is in the company of Daniel Doyce, an inventor. Mr. Doyce has had a similar experience with the Circumlocution Office, where he was treated as a public offender. Arthur is invited to Doyce’s factory, which is Bleeding Heart Yard.

In Chalons, France, a traveler arrives at the Break of Day Inn. He hears the other residents talking of the murderer Rigaud, who was released from prison in Marseille because of insufficient evidence. The traveler, who is in fact Rigaud himself, asks to be shown to a room, which he will have to share with another person. He is surprised to find that it is his former cellmate, John Baptist Cavalletto. The Italian is terrified at finding himself in the company once again of Rigaud, who tells him to call him Lagnier. Discovering that Cavalletto is going to Paris and then England, Rigaud/Lagnier announces that he is going to Paris and England as well, so they will be traveling companions. In the early hours of the morning, Cavalletto slips away and escapes from Rigaud.

Part 1, Chapters 12-14 Summary

Arthur Clennam goes to Bleeding Heart Yard to search for Mr. Plornish, who he learned was responsible for Amy Dorrit’s employment with his mother. He finds the Plornish family in poverty, despite their efforts to rise above it, as with most of the inhabitants of the Yard.

Plornish explains that Amy, along with her sister Fanny, did not want their father to know that they were working outside of the prison. Amy had asked Plornish if she might give his address in her notice desiring work. Plornish gives one of the notices to Mr. Casby, who is the landlord of the Yard. Arthur notes that he knew Mr. Casby a long time ago. It is from Mr. Casby that Mrs. Clennam learned about Amy and thus hired her as a seamstress.

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(The entire section is 515 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 15-18 Summary

Affery, Mrs. Clennam’s servant, thinks she is dreaming when she hears movement upstairs. She overhears her husband, Flintwinch, arguing with Mrs. Clennam, saying that she has no control over him and he will not be subdued by her. He tells her that she did not do right when she refused to clear her husband to Arthur, instead speaking about herself. Flintwinch says that he has found out where Amy Dorrit leaves, but Mrs. Clennam refuses to listen to him, stating that Amy may keep her secret.

Affery scurries back to the kitchen to catch her breath. When she does not answer the bell, Flintwinch comes to check on her. She tells him that she has been dreaming about noises upstairs. Arthur arrives to talk to Affery, but she...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 19-22 Summary

Frederick Dorrit visits his brother in the Marshalsea. Ironically, it is the prisoner, William, who is healthy, optimistic, and friendly, while the free brother, Frederick, is unkempt and depressed. William tries to get his brother to take more care of his appearance. As William walks Frederick to the gate at the end of the day, he notices that Chivery, the turnkey, is short with him, saying that he wished Young John would not spend money on cigars for Mr. Dorrit since nothing comes of it. Sensing the reason, Mr. Dorrit begins to tell a story to Amy about a turnkey’s brother who was in love with a prisoner’s sister, but he becomes so confused that he gives up. He breaks down and laments that he is not of any worth to anyone....

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 23-25 Summary

Arthur Clennam and Daniel Doyce become business partners, though Doyce at first was against the idea, fearing that Arthur thought he was trying to manipulate him into the partnership when they first met. The name of the firm is changed to Doyce and Clennam, and Arthur attends to his new job in the Bleeding Heart Yard. Flora Flinching and Mr. F’s aunt come to see him. Flora continues to call him “Arthur,” then corrects herself to “Mr. Clennam,” though she objects to his calling her “Mrs. Flinching.” She wants to know whether Amy Dorrit would be able to come to her house as a seamstress. Mr. Casby and Pancks arrive, learning of Flora’s mission. Pancks hints that it was he who had the idea. After the others leave,...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 26-29 Summary

Arthur has decided, he tells himself, not to fall in love with Pet Meagles. He does not join Doyce when he goes to Twickenham. On his return, Doyce confesses his dislike of Henry Gowan. Arthur tries to assume disinterest, even stating his belief that they should give Gowan the benefit of the doubt. Doyce disagrees and reserves his right to dislike him because of Mr. Meagles’ unhappiness at his daughter’s adoration of the artist. Gowan invites Arthur to go with him to visit his mother. Arthur agrees reluctantly. He finds Mrs. Gowan and her Barnacle relations snobbish and arrogant. Mrs. Gowan quizzes him about Pet, asking him about her beauty and personality. Arthur assures her that Pet is beautiful inside and...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 30-32 Summary

The stranger is M. Rigaud, but he introduces himself as Blandois. Flintwinch greets him and shows him up to Mrs. Clennam at his request. Blandois is gallant toward Mrs. Clennam, who is taken in by the letter that Blandois presents to her, requesting that money be given to him. Blandois is interested in the watch by Mrs. Clennam’s side, especially the initials “D.N.F.” Mrs. Clennam explains that this means “Do Not Forget,” some message from her deceased husband. Blandois asks Flintwinch to show him around the house. Affery is upset by the appearance of Blandois, but Flintwinch explains that she is an idiot. Blandois asks Flintwinch to show him a place to stay, so Flintwinch takes him to a nearby coffee house. Blandois...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 33-36 Summary

Mrs. Gowan unwillingly concedes to the marriage of Henry and Pet, especially after Mr. Meagles agrees to pay all of Henry’s debts. She consults with her friend, Mrs. Merdle, about the situation. Henry and Pet will be going to Italy for the sake of Henry’s art, which unsettles his mother, as it is not the fashionable sort of art. Mr. Merdle wanders about the house and accidentally enters the room where Mrs. Merdle is sitting. She tells him that he thinks too much of business and not enough of society. He is too concerned about his health, even though the physician can find nothing wrong with him. His indifference has been noticed even by Edmund Sparkler, Mrs. Merdle’s son. Mr. Merdle goes on wandering about the house.

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(The entire section is 456 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 1-4 Summary

Mr. Dorrit, his brother Frederick, Tip (who now wants to be known as Edward), Fanny, and Amy are traveling through Switzerland on their way to Italy. They meet Henry and Pet Gowan there, along with Blandois (Rigaud). They are joined by a military widow, known only as Mrs. General. At dinner, Pet faints and she is carried to her room. Henry explains that she fell off of her donkey earlier that day, and her fainting spell most likely is due to that. Amy goes to check on her, finding her asleep. As Pet sleeps, Amy looks at her and compares her to herself, thinking of Arthur’s revelation that he was in love with her. Pet awakens and remembers that she has a letter from Arthur to give to Amy. Amy tells Pet that she promised to write...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 5-7 Summary

Mrs. General reports to Mr. Dorrit that Amy does not have any self-confidence or strength of character. When confronted with this, Amy says that she is still getting used to their new life in Venice. Her father chides her that she alone of all the family still carries the air of the Marshalsea, which shames everyone. When the entire family is together, Edward announces that he has seen Henry and Pet Gowan at an art gallery. Mr. Dorrit and Fanny are not impressed and do not wish to seek their company until Edward points out that they know Mr. Merdle, who at the moment has a great deal of influence in the business world. Amy especially wants to be friends with Pet, so it is decided to pursue their acquaintance. Uncle Frederick...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 8-11 Summary

Daniel Doyce continues to try to get government support for his invention through the Circumlocution Office, but without success. Arthur Clennam, now that the Dorrits have gone, has time on his hands and offers to do battle with the office for Doyce. Arthur continues to visit Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, feeling like a widowed son-in-law in relation to them, having convinced himself that he is too old to look for a romantic attachment. Yet he misses Little Dorrit, more than he had anticipated. He is grateful for any news he hears from her. One day at the Meagles’ home, Mrs. Gowan arrives to visit her “near family,” as she calls them. She is anxious for news about her son. Her tone reveals that she still blames Mr. Meagles for...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 12-14 Summary

Mr. Merdle’s influence continues to grow throughout the business and social world of England. People view dinner at the Merdle home as a step into his lofty plain. At one such dinner, Lord Decimus Barnacle mentions the change in fortune of William Dorrit. Mr. Tite Barnacle relates what a difficult time the Circumlocution Office had when Mr. Dorrit wanted to pay his debt. There was paperwork that required several months before the office could accept the money. It is discovered that Mr. Merdle’s stepson, Edmund Sparkler, was friends with the Dorrits, especially one of the daughters. Not long after this dinner party, the news is spread that Edmund has been made one of the Lords of the Circumlocution Office. People become even...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 15-18 Summary

Mr. Dorrit receives the news of Fanny’s engagement to Edmund Sparkler with a great deal of pride. He visits Mrs. Merdle, who says that she is charmed personally, though she did not imagine her son as the marrying kind, nor is she sure what Mr. Merdle will think of it. Mr. Dorrit also thinks it is proper to announce the engagement to Mrs. General, though Fanny does not see the point. Mr. Dorrit, however, does and also tells her that her duties are now cut in half. Fanny talks with Amy about the timing of her wedding, whether to wait or to get married soon. Amy answers that it would be wiser to wait, but Fanny thinks that it will be better to marry immediately to pull one over on Mrs. Merdle. She also mentions that Amy will be left...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 19-22 Summary

Amy tells her Uncle Frederick how much younger he has seemed since Fanny’s marriage. Frederick tells her that it is due to her and her kindness. Mr. Dorrit returns and comments how much Frederick has gone downhill, but it is Mr. Dorrit himself who seems to be weakening. He spends much time in his room. Mrs. Merdle is returning to England, so a going-away dinner is held for her. At the dinner, Mr. Dorrit thinks he is back in prison and addresses the party as the Father of the Marshalsea once again. Amy takes him home, staying by his bedside for ten days. Frederick is also there and grieves when at last Mr. Dorrit dies. Amy takes Frederick back to his room to get some sleep, but in the night, he returns to his brother’s deathbed...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 23-26 Summary

Arthur goes to his mother’s home to find out what she knows about Blandois. He had hoped to find her alone, but he discovers that Mr. Casby and Flora are there. He tells her that Blandois is really Rigaud, an accused murderer. Mrs. Clennam is horrified, but she will not tell Arthur anything she knows about Blandois or about his purpose for seeing her. Arthur gets Flora to ask Affery to show her around the house so that he can talk to the servant. Mr. Flintwinch follows, so Arthur is unable to ask her anything. Flora is also hanging onto him, especially in the dark corners. When Flintwinch goes to answer the door, Arthur asks Affery what is going on in the house. Affery will not tell him, stating only that the house is full of...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 27-29 Summary

Arthur Clennam’s mind is numb as he settles into his rooms at the Marshalsea. Mr. Chivery is very kind to him and tells him that Young John insists on bringing up Arthur’s trunks himself. John does so, but refuses to shake Arthur’s hand. Arthur rejects John’s offers of food and drink since he does not have an appetite, but John tells him that this is the time to eat. He invites Arthur down to his own rooms for tea, and Arthur accepts, since he knows that resistance at this point is futile. Arthur asks him why he is angry with him, and John tells him that Arthur refuses to see that Amy Dorrit is in love with him. As much grief as this causes Young John, he wants Amy to be happy, and Arthur’s ignorance of her true feelings...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 30-31 Summary

Pancks and Cavalletto escort Rigaud to Mrs. Clennam’s house. Pancks tells Mrs. Clennam that he is to blame for Arthur’s speculating in Merdle’s business, but Mrs. Clennam does not care to hear about her son and dismisses both Pancks and Cavalletto. She confronts Rigaud with his crime, but he dismisses it. He demands two thousand pounds for the information that he has. He is in possession of some papers that Mrs. Clennam wants returned to her. Rigaud begins to tell the story of the Clennam family, but Mrs. Clennam takes it up to tell herself, confessing first that she is not Arthur’s mother. Arthur’s father was raised by a very strict uncle, Gilbert Clennam, who commanded his nephew to marry a woman raised as strictly as...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 32-34 Summary

Arthur lies ill in the Marshalsea, and Pancks blames himself for this as well as for Arthur's being imprisoned to begin with, since he had advised him to invest in Merdle. He becomes fed up with Mr. Casby’s pressuring him to squeeze the rent out of the poor people of the Bleeding Heart Yard. He is also displeased that his daughter is spending so much time with Mrs. Clennam, who has been truly confined to her wheelchair and unable to speak since her house crumbled. When Mr. Casby orders him to go back and squeeze them again, Pancks breaks. He cries out to the people of the Yard that although they thought of him as the source of their misery, he proclaims that it is Casby who forced him to do so. The people rally around Pancks, who...

(The entire section is 473 words.)