Little Dorrit has been hailed as one of Charles Dickens’s greatest novels and one of the major novels of the nineteenth century. Despite its prevailingly somber and gloomy character, the book was among the most popular of Dickens’s novels during his lifetime.
The structure of the novel is rather complex, consisting as it does of two books, “Poverty” and “Riches.” The first book comprises the events of the time when Mr. Dorrit is imprisoned for debt; the second, the events that take place after his sudden inheritance of a fortune. Interwoven through both parts are the romantic story of the gradually awakening love between Clennam and Amy Dorrit (which Clennam does not realize until near the end of the novel) and biting social criticism, as in the descriptions of the Circumlocution Office, its officials, and its obstructionism. Dickens originally intended to call the novel “Nobody’s Fault,” with the thesis that social decay, rather than the actions of individuals, is responsible for the misfortunes of the various characters.
Little Dorrit is, next to David Copperfield (1849-1850, serial; 1850, book), the most autobiographical of Dickens’s novels. The author’s father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea in 1823 and 1834, and during his first term the boy Dickens stayed there on weekends while working in a blacking factory during the week, a routine he vividly describes in David Copperfield. Although the Marshalsea had been closed and torn down by the time Dickens wrote Little Dorrit, the atmosphere and geography of the place remained searingly vivid in his memory.
The metaphor of prison dominates the entire novel, not only as represented by the Marshalsea but also in many other incidents and objects. The novel opens with descriptions of the swindler Blandois in prison in Marseilles; a group of English citizens, including Clennam, the Meagles family, and Miss Wade, in quarantine; and the miserable Sunday in London preceding Clennam’s reunion with his mother, which reminds him of his rigid Calvinist upbringing and unhappy childhood. These small prisons all precede the reader’s introduction to the Marshalsea and the Dorrit family.
One of the more striking of the many prison images throughout the novel occurs at the opening of book 2, where the convent of Saint Bernard in the Swiss Alps is compared to a prison. The expatriate English colonies in Italian cities are their own kind of prison. When old Mr. Dorrit has a stroke at Mrs....
(The entire section is 1040 words.)