Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040
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. Merdle’s home during a banquet, he imagines himself back at the Marshalsea. The world of social climbing and assumed gentility is a prison, which Dickens uses to create one of his most comic characters, Mrs. General, a warden of social climbing who is brought into the Dorrit entourage to teach the young ladies proper manners. Mrs. Clennam and Miss Wade are among those characters who live in prisons of their own making; the character Tattycoram, for example, in a fit of temper, exchanges her relatively easy life as a servant to the Meagles family for the undisclosed bondage of life with Miss Wade. Both comic and pathetic at the same time is Flora Finching (based on Dickens’s own first love, whom he later met again), whose long-ago engagement to Clennam was broken off at his mother’s insistence before his departure for the East, and who has now become fat and almost incoherently talkative.
By far the greatest prison, and the cause of so many of the smaller ones, is the Circumlocution Office, a mysterious branch of government where nothing gets done, everything is obstructed, and the officeholders receive their positions through family connections. The topicality of the description stems from investigations into Britain’s conduct of the Crimean War. About the time Dickens began writing Little Dorrit, knowledge of the incompetence with which the war was directed had become common, and this incompetence was shown to have stemmed in large part from the tradition of staffing government bureaus and the higher positions in the military through family connections. Dickens includes a scathing exposé of this tradition in his description of one of Merdle’s dinner parties, where Lord Barnacle (supposedly a portrait of Lord Palmerston, Britain’s prime minister at the time) makes arrangements for Merdle’s stepson (who marries Fanny Dorrit) to get a position with the Circumlocution Office. Those most victimized by this office are Clennam’s business partner, Doyce, whose invention is swallowed up by the immense and mysterious bureaucracy; Clennam, who is abused by the office when he tries to find out why Mr. Dorrit has been imprisoned; and Dorrit himself, who has fallen through the cracks of the system. The exact duties of the Circumlocution Office are never described. Here Dickens can be considered to anticipate Franz Kafka’s device of depicting an isolated individual at the mercy of an unfeeling and mysterious bureaucracy.
Social climbing is another prison in which many of the characters are trapped: Fanny Dorrit when she makes an advantageous match with Merdle’s stepson; Pet Meagles when she marries the well-connected Henry Gowan, a dilettante artist who regards it as a matter of course that his in-laws pay his debts; and above all Mr. Dorrit, who is both comic and tragic in his attempts to put a veneer of distinction on his position as “Father of the Marshalsea” and later when he assumes the airs of an English lord. Clennam and Little Dorrit are exempt from this climbing, Clennam perhaps more because he does not care to take the trouble, but Little Dorrit because of her innate goodness and nobility.
Although this novel contains a wealth of memorable characters, Dickens portrays all of his principal ones obliquely. The villain, the blackmailing swindler Blandois, has two other disguises as Rigaud and Lagnier, for example, and in many cases it takes the reader a while to guess the identities of characters. In the opening of book 2, for instance, a group of travelers in the Alps is only gradually revealed to be the Dorrit entourage. Merdle’s suicide, which marks the crash of his financial empire and the ruin of its investors (including Clennam and the Dorrit heirs), is treated with similar obliqueness. The various mysteries are clarified explicitly only in the three final chapters.