Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012
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 decide that Arthur Clennam has insulted them by acting condescendingly toward them, and they refuse to have anything more to do with him. Only Little Dorrit remains unspoiled.
The Dorrit family travels to the Continent, where they can successfully carry out the fiction that they have never seen a debtors’ prison and where they are admitted to the society of expatriate Britons. Fanny Dorrit, Little Dorrit’s older sister, is pursued by Mr. Sparkle, the stepson of Mr. Merdle, who is reputed to be the richest and most influential banker in England. Although not in love with Sparkle, Fanny likes the prospect of marrying into a wealthy family. The Merdles, who see only that the Dorrits have a fortune, agree to the match, even though Mrs. Merdle is well aware of the fact that her son had fallen in love with Fanny when she was only an impecunious dancer in London.
After they are married, Fanny and her husband go to live in London. Mr. Dorrit...
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visits them there and becomes a close friend of Mr. Merdle. The banker even proposes to help Mr. Dorrit increase his already large fortune through shrewd and well-paying investments. Mr. Dorrit, the former debtor, is elated by his new prospects.
Little Dorrit wonders at the changes in her family but remains her old self. She writes to Arthur at intervals, for, in addition to continuing to be grateful for all he has done to help her, she is in love with him.
Arthur remains in London, where he tries to discover the identities of the mysterious people who visit his mother. At the same time, he is trying to keep his own business solvent. Neither task is easy. On two occasions, Mrs. Clennam is visited by a Monsieur Blandois, whom Arthur knows to be a knave and possibly a murderer. He wonders what business his mother could have with such a person. He also distrusts Flintwinch, a grubbing, miserly fellow who mistreats his wife and has taken a great dislike to Arthur.
While trying to unravel the mystery, Arthur becomes bankrupt. Like many others, he has invested all of his and his company’s money in Mr. Merdle’s business ventures, believing them a safe and quick way to make a fortune. When Merdle and his bank fail, Arthur falls into debt and is sent to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, where he is assigned to Mr. Dorrit’s old quarters. Mr. Rugg and Pancks do their best to make Arthur’s imprisonment a short one, but he seems to have lost all desire to live. Only after Little Dorrit returns to England and takes up residence within the prison to comfort him as she had comforted her father does Arthur begin to recover.
Learning that Monsieur Blandois has disappeared from Mrs. Clennam’s house, Pancks tracks the man down and brings him back to London. Mrs. Clennam realizes at this point that she has to reveal the truth unless she is willing to resign herself to paying blackmail to Blandois. Rising from her wheelchair and leaving her house for the first time in almost twenty years, she goes to the prison to tell Arthur that he is not her child and that she has for many years been keeping money from him and from Little Dorrit. Once restitution has been made, Arthur is released from prison. Shortly afterward, he and Little Dorrit are married.