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Little Dorrit Charles Dickens

The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel Little Dorrit (1857). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Christmas Carol Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Our Mutual Friend Criticism, and Hard Times Criticism.

Judged Dickens's worst novel by...

(The entire section contains 144010 words.)

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Little Dorrit Charles Dickens

The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel Little Dorrit (1857). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Christmas Carol Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Our Mutual Friend Criticism, and Hard Times Criticism.

Judged Dickens's worst novel by many nineteenth-century critics, Little Dorrit has been reevaluated in the second half of the twentieth century and is today considered a masterpiece by many scholars who praise its criticism of the modern world's corrupt social and political institutions.

Biographical Information

Charles Dickens, the second of eight children, was born in 1812 in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, to John and Elizabeth Barrow Dickens. His childhood was spent on the southern coast of England where he attended a good school until his family moved to London when he was eleven. Dickens's father was a minor government official who habitually lived beyond his means, and in 1824 he was sent to the Marshalsea debtors' prison, the same institution that became the setting for Little Dorrit. Although the rest of the family took up residence in the prison along with him, young Charles was sent to work in a factory, living on his own in a state of near starvation. When his father was released from prison a few months later, Dickens returned to school in London, but the humiliating experience had a lasting effect on his life and his writings. Although he did not attend college, Dickens was admitted as a reader to the library of the British Museum, where he immersed himself in the study of literature, particularly Shakespeare. He worked as a clerk in a law office, as a shorthand reporter, and eventually as a journalist before he started producing sketches and novels for a variety of London periodicals.

Dickens published Sketches by Boz in 1836 and it was an immediate success with both readers and critics. His first novel, Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), was published, as were all of his novels, in serial form. By the time the fourth monthly installment appeared, Dickens was the most popular author in England. He produced many successful novels over the course of his writing career, many of them containing images or characters inspired by his brief unhappy experience involving the debtors' prison and the blacking factory, among them Oliver Twist (1838), David Copperfield (1850), and Great Expectations (1861). In none of these is the image of the prison as ubiquitous as it is in Little Dorrit, which many critics have termed Dickens's most harrowing novel, the product of his late or “dark” period. In 1870, while working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens suffered an aneurysm in the brain and died the next day. He was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Plot and Major Characters

The title character of the novel, Amy Dorrit, or Little Dorrit as she preferred to be called, was born inside the walls of the Marshalsea debtor's prison; her family's home because of her father's financial failings. Amy's mother died shortly after her birth, but Amy and her siblings continued to live inside the prison until they were grown. Trained as a seamstress by one of the other inmates, Amy left the prison every day to sew for Mrs. Clennam, a widowed invalid confined to her home. Mrs. Clennam's son Arthur had spent twenty years in the Orient working with his father and when Mr. Clennam died, Arthur returned to England. He refused to join his cold, miserly mother in her business, preferring to take his portion of the inheritance and go off on his own.

Impressed by Little Dorrit's sweet nature, Arthur tried to help the girl by working to secure her father's release from prison, by helping her to obtain more customers for her needlework, and by sending her small amounts of money. In the course of the investigation into William Dorrit's debts, it was discovered that he was the sole surviving heir of a large estate, which he promptly claimed. Dorrit paid his creditors and left the prison that had been his family's home for twenty years. Ungrateful for Arthur's efforts on their behalf, the Dorrits, with the exception of Amy, refused to speak to him any longer.

Determined to put the past behind them, and indeed, to deny that the past had ever existed, the Dorrits traveled to the continent where they gained admission to the community of wealthy Englishmen living abroad. Amy's older sister Fanny was pursued by Mr. Sparkle, the stepson of Mr. Merdle, a wealthy and influential banker. Both families were motivated by greed in agreeing to the match. Although Fanny didn't love Sparkle, she was anxious to marry into a wealthy family, and while Mrs. Merdle was aware of Fanny's past as a dancer, she was impressed with the Dorrit fortune. The couple married and returned to London where Mr. Merdle offered to invest Mr. Dorrit's money and make his estate even larger. Only Little Dorrit remained unspoiled by the family's newly-found wealth; she continued to correspond with Arthur, grateful for his assistance to the family.

Still in London, Arthur was investigating a mystery involving some unsavory characters and his mother. While trying to determine what business his mother could possibly have with these rogues, Arthur lost his inheritance, which he had invested with Mr. Merdle, and was sent to debtors' prison. When Little Dorrit returned to England, she again took up residence in the Marshalsea to care for Arthur just as she had for her father for so many years. Mrs. Clennam was being blackmailed and to avoid payment she decided to reveal the truth to her son. She visited him in prison to tell him that she was not his real mother and that for many years she had been withholding money from him and from Little Dorrit. Arthur was released from prison and shortly thereafter he and Little Dorrit were married.

Major Themes

The most common image and theme of Little Dorrit is that of the prison. Dickens, thoroughly humiliated and deeply scarred from his own family's experience in the Marshalsea, used images of prison life in several of his novels, but in Little Dorrit they pervade the entire book. In addition to the literal use of the prison—that is, the plot elements involving the jail at Marseilles and the Dorrit family's long residence in the Marshalsea—it is also used metaphorically to represent the constraints and inhibitions of Victorian society, the rigid bonds inherent in the class system, and the inescapable maze of red tape associated with governmental bureaucracy.

The family provides another prominent theme of the novel. In contrast to some of the happy, loving families of Dickens's earlier works, those featured in Little Dorrit appear as pathological case studies. Parents are self-absorbed and incompetent at best, greedy and cruel at worst. Again, the corruption and distorted values of Victorian culture are reflected on a smaller scale within the dynamics of the family. Material concerns completely govern human affairs and the normal parent/child relationship is reversed, the children bearing the responsibilities their elders have abdicated. For characters embroiled in such perverted family relationships, it becomes essential that they never acknowledge the reality of their situation; thus the importance of maintaining appearances and illusions of normalcy and gentility at all costs becomes another prominent theme of the novel. The inhabitants of the debtors' prison, for example, refer to themselves as “collegians” rather than prisoners; Mr. Dorrit denies the source of the income he receives from his daughters' employment and from the “tributes” granted him by other prisoners; and once they leave England, the Dorrits attempt to obliterate their prison experience from their personal histories.

Victorian society's corruption is also rendered metaphorically by the many references to disease and ill health in Little Dorrit. From the fetid air of the prison to the filthiness of the streets, conditions in the nineteenth-century city make for inhabitants who suffer from nameless infections and infirmities, both physical and psychological.

Critical Reception

In the nineteenth century, Little Dorrit was not well received by critics if, in fact, it was mentioned at all. It was widely considered Dickens's worst novel. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, scholars have reassessed the work and many now believe it is a masterpiece, even in some cases, the author's best work. Robert Barnard (1971), for example, claims that to many modern critics, it is “the crowning achievement of Dickens's maturity”; he describes Little Dorrit as “a despairing plea to a whole people to find out how it had gone astray, how it had entrapped itself in decaying institutions and perverted modes of thinking.” George Bernard Shaw's published criticism of the novel, praising it as a revolutionary work that exposed the corruption and abuses of Victorian society, is often credited with the reevaluation of Little Dorrit. Where earlier scholars had concentrated on perceived flaws in plot and character development, later critics either followed Shaw's lead in focusing on social and political themes or they examined Dickens's imaginative use of images and metaphors.

Some modern critics have even objected to the original negative assessment of Little Dorrit's plot and characters. Tom Linehan (1976) takes issue with the nearly unanimous critical belief that the novel's plot is incoherent and its characters two-dimensional and unbelievable. While Linehan acknowledges the limitations of the plot, he maintains that an understanding of it is essential in order to appreciate the moral virtues Dickens revered and articulated within the events of the narrative. Other scholars, however, have pointed out ambiguities in Little Dorrit and have criticized the novel's unsatisfactory and inconclusive ending. Sylvia Manning (1991), for example, claims that the Circumlocution Office, a government bureaucracy Dickens employs to satirize British inefficiency, “becomes an (unintended) figure of the novel itself.” According to Manning: “In the Circumlocution Office secrets are buried, information is obscured, and in consequence an endless flow of language—most of it on paper—is generated. So, too, in the novel.” George Holoch (1978) suggests that Dickens's overall vision of society is also ambiguous as evidenced by the dilemma of characters who share “the social bitterness” of the author/narrator. For Holoch, “the attempt to reconcile moral imperatives with social judgment is one of the sources of tension in the novel, a tension which is left unresolved at the conclusion.”

Principal Works

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Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People [as Boz] (sketches and short stories) 1836

*Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (novel) 1837

Oliver Twist (novel) 1838

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839

Barnaby Rudge (novel) 1841

The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841

American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842

A Christmas Carol in Prose (short story) 1843

The Chimes (short story) 1844

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844

The Cricket on the Hearth (short story) 1845

Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son (novel) 1848

The Haunted Man, and The Ghost's Bargain (short stories) 1848

The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Bleak House (novel) 1853

Hard Times for These Times (novel) 1854

Little Dorrit (novel) 1857

A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859

Great Expectations (novel) 1861

The Uncommercial Traveller (sketches and short stories) 1861

Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865

No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (drama) 1867

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870

*All of Dickens's novels were originally published serially in magazines, usually over periods of one to two years.

Robert Barnard (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: Barnard, Robert. “The Imagery of Little Dorrit.English Studies 52, no. 6 (December 1971): 520-32.

[In the following essay, Barnard examines recurring images and motifs in Little Dorrit as clues to Dickens's worldview.]

To many critics Little Dorrit is the crowning achievement of Dickens's maturity. Born out of depression and disillusion, it is a hideous vision of imprisonment and disorder, a despairing plea to a whole people to find out how it had gone astray, how it had entrapped itself in decaying institutions and perverted modes of thinking. The revolution which has occurred in Dickens criticism since the publication of Edmund Wilson's great essay has added a new dimension to our understanding of this novel in particular, and the revaluation which has followed would, on its own, justify the high esteem in which Wilson's essay is generally held. That Wilson's insights have sometimes been pursued uncritically by others, and that a reaction has now set in against seeing these novels primarily as symbolic representations of mid-Victorian society must be admitted. But it is surely wrong to pretend, as Robert Garis does in his stimulating book The Dickens Theatre, that much of the criticism of the past decades, which he calls the ‘overemphatic and misleading excitement about Dickens's symbolic structures’ is ‘a means of evading the issue’.1 In fact, our increased awareness of the organisation of these books as symbolic structures is surely a necessary preliminary to an understanding of Dickens both as artist and as social critic. The reiterated motifs, the attitudes and delusions which are shown emerging in every milieu, penetrating the fabric of society, destroying the self-respect and the will, had certainly not been fully understood before Wilson wrote, and it is a hardy critic who pretends that an awareness of them is nothing more than ‘misleading’, or that the revaluation of Dickens as craftsman which has resulted is to be regretted.

So completely integrated is the material used in Little Dorrit that an analysis of the imagery and recurrent references throws a great deal of additional light on Dickens's view of the world at this period. Certain ideas, and certain sources of metaphor are used insistently, and an awareness of them enormously enriches our understanding of the novel as a whole: in particular I would instance the frequency of mechanical imagery to describe persons and institutions, the use of ‘pagan’ comparisons to suggest the nature of the hold men like Merdle and Barnacle have over a credulous public, and the continual suggestions of ‘false balances’, and of a reversal of the normal and natural order of things. A study of these and other sources of imagery adds significantly to the exclusively ‘symbolic’ interpretations of the novel.

In his interesting analysis of the novel J. Hillis Miller concentrates on what he regards as the three basic patterns in the imagery and symbolism: firstly ‘physical imprisonment and imprisoning states of soul’; secondly the labyrinth; thirdly the image of ‘travellers on the pilgrimage of life’.2 Let us take the last of these patterns first. Certainly Hillis Miller is right that the rather conventional image of life as a road, of destiny as a complex of roads bringing a variety of people to meet, part, influence each other, even destroy each other, is here used more insistently and elaborately than any of the similar metaphors in the other novels. Dickens, says Forster, loved to dwell ‘on the coincidences, resemblances, and surprises of life … The world, he would say, was so much smaller than we thought it; we were all so connected by fate without knowing it …’3 To Dickens one's fate depended very largely on accidental happenings and meetings, on impersonal forces, and he loved including in his books ironical strokes of ‘fate’—such as Esther Summerson seeing the handwriting of her father on her first visit to Krook's shop—even if they could not be perceived by anyone reading the novel for the first time, or even if they were far from vital to the plot. In this novel especially, thance and impersonal forces play a large role, since the characters are lethargic, devoid of will and incapable of shaping their own destinies: in jail and out of jail, in society and out of society, they feel themselves driven by a power over which their control is minimal, and they passively give themselves up to the whims of fate.

That Dickens was consciously using this metaphor of roads and travellers as a binding force in this novel we know from what he told Forster:

It struck me that it would be a new thing to show people coming together, in a chance way, as fellow-travellers, and being in the same place, ignorant of one another, as happens in life; and to connect them afterwards, and to make the waiting for that connection a part of the interest.4

That he did not find it possible to work out this idea fully must be obvious;5 one or two small inconsistencies suggest that he may have changed slightly the details of the plot of the novel (i.e. the Clennam-Dorrit secret discovered by Blandois) in the course of writing, though he can hardly have changed it for the better. At any rate the idea of travellers coming together by a variety of roads remains with him from the moment he gives it such emphatic utterance in the second chapter (the speaker is Miss Wade, and she is aiming her remarks at Pet Meagles):6

In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us, from many strange places and by many strange roads … and what it is set to us to do to them, and what it is set to them to do to us, will all be done … you may be sure there are men and women already on their road, who have their business to do with you, and who will do it. Of a certainty they will do it. They may be coming hundreds, thousands, of miles over the sea there; they may be close at hand now; they may be coming, for anything you know, or anything you can do to prevent it, from the vilest sweepings of this very town.

(I, ii, p. 25).

A theme announced with such portentous clarity is unlikely to be forgotten by the reader, especially as it is endorsed by the author at the end of the chapter, and that endorsement repeated again word for word much later in the novel when Dickens wonders whether the light in Mrs. Clennam's room could be a beacon, summoning someone to that spot:

Which of the vast multitude of travellers, under the sun and the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and re-act on one another, which of the host may, with no suspicion of the journey's end, be travelling surely hither?

(I, xv, p. 179, echoing p. 27).

Examples of the use of this metaphor are legion: we are ‘wayfarers on the road of life’ (I, xii, p. 137); or we are on ‘the darker road of life’ (I, xxvi, p. 318), and life itself is a matter of ‘stumblings and wanderings’ (II, xix, p. 651). Many of the examples occur in connection with Clennam, which is natural enough, since he is the character whose will has been most brutally broken. But even so strong-willed a character as Fanny Dorrit feels ‘driven’, feels that her marriage with Sparkler and the ‘long avenue of wrack and ruin’ (II, xv, p. 610) that it entails are all she is fitted for. ‘Other nuptial carriages … have gone the same road, before and since’ (II, xv, p. 610), says Dickens feelingly, and we are reminded that the despondent tone of the novel and the self-doubts of the main character are in part at least attributable to the author's mood of frustration and despair as the inevitable break-down of his marriage approaches.

The image of the complex of roads, bringing together a variety of people and tangling their destinies leads naturally to the image of the world as a labyrinth, which Hillis Miller deals with very fully. From the examples he gives (a mere selection from the many uses of the word in this novel) we can see the differing reactions of the various characters to it. Arthur feels lost in it, Frederick Dorrit has given up trying to understand it, Mrs. General drives her vehicle through it with the assurance one would expect of her. The Circumlocution Office becomes the epitome of the labyrinth in which all mankind is involved, and late in the novel Dickens himself endorses the labyrinthine view of life: Mr. Merdle, he says, sheds not ‘the feeblest farthing-candle ray of light on any path … among the multiplicity of paths in the labyrinth trodden by the sons of Adam’. (II, xii, p. 556).

In order to give a more concrete force to the symbol of the road and the labyrinth Dickens takes particular care to describe in detail and to individualise the streets of London in which most of the story is set. The streets where Little Dorrit has her ‘party’, the streets around Mrs. Clennam's house which are ‘depositories of oppressive secrets’ (II, x, p. 542), the ‘labyrinth’ of ‘parasite streets’ with ‘parasite little tenements’ (I, xxvii, pp. 324-5) near Park Lane where Miss Wade lives (the superb description of this area embodies most of the themes of the novel in microcosm)—all are magnificently realised and utterly appropriate. Many of the streets, such as Casby's and Tite Barnacle's, are blind alleys, to reinforce the labyrinth image. ‘Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets’, says Dickens appropriately, when Clennam first returns to London and feels again the imprisoning influence of the place. ‘Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets’ (I, iii, p. 28).

And through these streets goes the crowd mentioned so frequently in this novel: always noisy, chafing, often menacing. It is this crowd which John Chivery dreams of shutting out when he and Little Dorrit set up house in the Marshalsea; it is this crowd among which Little Dorrit and Arthur pass at the end of the book, symbolically refusing to cut themselves off from the deluded and the self-seeking. One of the fatal attractions of the Marshalsea after a time is that it gives its inmates an escape-route from the cares and disruptions and disappointments involved in being part of the crowd: ‘Peace. That's the word for it. Peace’ (I, vi, p. 63), says the surgeon. Mr. Dorrit's life in jail is the most poignant illustration of the attraction of that peace.

That such peace is a dangerous delusion Dickens makes clear by his symbolic use of the river near Twickenham, where Mr. Meagles has his cottage. It represents for Clennam the seductive attractions of ‘contracting out’, of cultivating the sort of insensibility to the world and its troubles that Mr. Dorrit has selfishly cultivated in the Marshalsea. Dickens acknowledges, in the many references to the river, the strength of the instinct: ‘And he thought—who has not thought for a moment, sometimes?—that it might be better to flow away monotonously, like the river, and to compound for its insensibility to happiness with its insensibility to pain’ (I, xvi, p. 200). It is the same instinct which prompted the self-tormenting Miss Wade in childhood to want to take her loved friend in her arms and plunge to the bottom of a river. Hillis Miller confuses the issue by associating the river with the appallingly feeble natural descriptions in this novel, and talking about attempts to ‘imitate the “divine calm”’7 of nature. The way of the river is the way of alienation and self-destruction.

The other prominent symbol in the novel which every modern critic has noted is the prison. More than enough has been written about this, and one may agree with John Wain that Dickens makes so many references to it that he must have been ‘determined that no reader should overlook it’.8 References are piled up to ensure that we do not imagine that imprisonment is merely a matter of being in the Marshalsea, or the Marseilles Prison, or in quarantine. Mrs. Clennam's house is an ‘infernal old jail’ (II, xxx, p. 786), her room a ‘cell’ (II, xxxi, p. 787) where she is ‘in prison, and in bonds’ (I, v, p. 50). Hampton Court is a red-brick dungeon, the Convent of St. Bernard ‘something like a prison’ (II, i, p. 442), and the Gowan's house in Venice is over a ‘jail for criminal rats’ (II, vi, p. 491). The relationship of the Circumlocution Office to its supplicants is compared to that of janitor and pick-pocket. One would not complain of this insistence (which is the sort of insistence which serial publication forced on him) but one may feel that it is certainly not Dickens's fault if the reader misses the point.

As a consequence of the weight laid on this theme, houses—places of imprisonment of one sort or another—play a large part in the novel. All are minutely, evocatively described, down to the least important that the reader enters only once: Tite Barnacle's, Frederick Dorrit's, Miss Wade's. Many of them have family resemblances to each other: they are crippled, they have peculiarly unpleasant smells, they are festooned with drying clothes. All jails are alike.

And above all, prison and prisoner become alike, indistinguishable. Mrs. Clennam's house leans on ‘gigantic crutches … overgrown with weeds’ (I, iii, p. 31), and ‘never knew a healthy or a cheerful interval, let what would betide’ (I, xv, p. 178). Inside are the grim old invalid and the crabbed old man who looked ‘as if his foundations had yielded at about the same time as those of the house, and he ought to have been propped up in a similar manner’ (I, iii, p. 32). Even the furniture is ‘maimed’ and ‘crippled’ (I, iii, p. 38). The Barnacles' house, the miniature Circumlocution Office, is, like them, its inhabitants, one of many ‘abject hangers-on to a fashionable situation’ (I, x, p. 109). The houses of Mr. Merdle's Harley St.

were very grim with one another. Indeed, the mansions and their inhabitants were so much alike in that respect, that the people were often to be found drawn up on opposite sides of dinner-tables, in the shade of their own loftiness, staring at the other side of the way with the dulness of the houses.

(I, xxi, p. 246).

(There follows a lengthy comparison between types of houses). Henry Gowan lives at Venice in a collection of houses ‘at odds with one another and grotesquely out of the perpendicular, like rotten pre-Adamite cheeses cut into fantastic shapes and full of mites’ (II, vi, p. 490), a description which reinforces Dickens's view of Gowan and his family. Mr. Meagles' house even has different portions to represent each member of the family, down to a suitably dependent conservatory to represent Tattycoram. Blandois may well call this story ‘the history of a house’ (II, xxx, p. 771).

One is far from suggesting, of course, that this is the only novel in which Dickens uses a house to symbolise the state of mind of the person within it. Satis House and Krook's shop spring immediately to mind. What is unique is the constant reiteration, and eventually the total confusion between character and dwelling. The effect is aimed at not just for the eccentric, grotesque, self-imprisoned characters, but for all the characters, and all their houses, however temporary. In Dickens, says Dorothy Van Ghent, ‘environment constantly exceeds its material limitations. Its mode of existence is altered by the human purposes and deeds it circumscribes’.9 But what was an occasional effect in the earlier novels has here become the general rule, and the desire to dehumanise the characters in this and other ways seems quite conscious. It is often noted that this novel is lacking in vitality, that there are signs of fatigue or depression. But what Dickens does is to capitalize on his own low vitality and lack of zest so that they become a haunting part of his vision of life. His characters, accordingly, are devoid of human vigour, only half-alive, almost automata. The other means he uses to convey this impression are the insistence on the feebleness of the human spark in them, and the use of mechanical images to describe their physical and even their mental movements. Man, he seems to be saying, is being robbed of everything that makes him an individual.

The insistence on feebleness in this novel begins in the first chapter, with one of the many comparisons between men and their prison:

The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men, were all deteriorated by confinement. As the captive men were faded and haggard, so the iron was rusty, the stone was slimy, the wood was rotten, the air was faint, the light was dim.

(I, i, p. 3).

But in comparison with other characters in the novel Blandois and Cavaletto are paragons of energy and individuality. Many of the characters are barely living creatures at all. Frederick Dorrit is a ‘pale phantom of a gentleman’ (I, xx, p. 236), capable only of ‘faintly lighting up’ (I, viii, p. 83), and of a ‘little trickling of enjoyment’ (I, ix, p. 93). The young Barnacle looks ‘half fledged like a young bird’ (I, x, p. 108), and ‘limp’ and ‘feeble’ are the key words describing him whenever he appears: even when he smokes, he does it ‘feebly’ (I, xvii, p. 208). Mr. Nandy is a ‘poor little reedy piping old gentleman, like a worn-out bird’ (I, xxxi, p. 364). The phantom faces Clennam sees on his return home in the windows of houses opposite his coffee shop—faces which quickly fade away as if they had ‘seen enough of life and had vanished out of it’ (I, iii, p. 30)—are a foretaste of the listless, phantom characters who people the novel, characters who are bewildered or defeated by life, whose will is broken, or who have given up their consciences and most of their individuality into the keeping of others. In Dickens the fire in the grate usually symbolises the state of mind of the person by it. In Little Dorrit the fires are always low, cheerless, on the point of going out.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when describing his characters the imagery Dickens draws on is usually of a mechanical nature. In Great Expectations the characters are associated with dogs, birds, insects. Here birds are half-fledged or worn-out, and the characters are more likely to be described as a ‘little, broken barrel-organ’ (I, xxxi, p. 364), a ‘little labouring steam-engine’ (I, xiii, p. 148), or an ‘ill-adjusted alarum’ (II, v, p. 480). Life in this novel is thus depicted as pitifully lacking in spontaneity, creativity or free will; it is a dismal round of preordained actions.

Mechanical imagery is, of course, the key-note in all the descriptions of Pancks: he is a ‘little coaly steamtug’ (I, xiii, p. 150) (with Casby as the ‘unwieldy ship’ (I, xiii, p. 149) in tow) who ‘took in his victuals much as if he were coaling’ (I, xiii, p. 158), though there is sometimes ‘labouring on the part of (his) machinery’ (I, xxiii, p. 275). Pancks, by becoming the instrument of Casby, has forfeited his humanity, and he is conscious of it: ‘Pancks is only the Works; but here's the Winder’ (II, xxxii, p. 800) he says, when he unmasks his master to the deluded inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Yard. But hardly any of the characters escape this process of mechanisation (except Flora Finching—there was no way of mechanising her). The inhabitants of the Casby household, like the house itself, all tick, or ‘(strike) into the conversation like a clock’ (I, xiii, p. 158). Mrs. General, whose manner was ‘perfect, considered as a piece of machinery’ (II, i, p. 435), forms the minds of her charges by setting second-hand opinions on ‘a little circular set of mental grooves or rails’—so that they ‘never overtook one another, and never got anywhere’ (II, ii, p. 450). Rugg is a ‘professional machine’ (II, xxviii, p. 741) and even the lively, appealing Cavaletto is a ‘mechanical toy’ (I, xxv, p. 304). One of Mrs. Gowan's guests, obviously a relation of Sir Leicester, who is similarly characterised, is a ‘noble Refrigerator’ (I, xxvi, p. 313), and the young Miss Barnacles are guns, ‘double-loaded with accomplishments and ready to go off’ (I, xxxiv, p. 404). Mrs. Clennam (‘no limbs and wheels instead’ (II, xvii, p. 624), as Flora perceptively describes her) has, by the perverse strength of her will, reduced herself to a machine, and her life to a series of unvarying mechanical motions:

The house in the city preserved its heavy dulness through all these transactions, and the invalid within it turned the same unvarying round of life. Morning, noon, and night, morning, noon, and night, each recurring with its accompanying monotony, always the same reluctant return of the same sequences of machinery, like a dragging piece of clockwork.

(I, xxix, p. 339).

Even in the rare moments when she can express emotion, as with Little Dorrit, for example, that emotion resembles ‘hydraulic pressure’ (I, v, p. 52). For the most part she is merely a piece of clockwork acted upon by Flintwich ‘like some eccentric mechanical force’ (I, xxix, p. 339), and the image of the two machines contending in some almost impersonal duel is a strange and terrifying one.

Machinery is, after prison, the most insistent image in the novel, and the abundance of comparisons with mechanical things (only a few of which have been quoted) gives the best indication of how Dickens, at this period, was regarding his own life, the people around him and also many of the larger social organisms within which men worked. For example, the Circumlocution Office goes on ‘mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion’ (I, x, p. 105). The Clennam family firm is a piece of machinery as well, with Mrs. Clennam as its ‘moving power’ (I, v, p. 49). Clearly to Dickens human beings have become machines within machines, and life in general has become a regular series of clockwork movements, purposeless, meaningless, mere automatic responses to a series of stimuli. In the earlier novels—and later, to some extent, in Great Expectations as well—human emotions, whether fruitful or destructive in intention, had been unnaturally strong; now they are pitifully low-keyed.

Every possible device is used to back up this hideous vision of mechanised man, and to minimize the humanity of the characters in the novel. Mrs. Merdle is merely a ‘jewel-stand’ (I, xxi, p. 253), Mr. F's aunt is a ‘staring wooden doll’ (I, xiii, p. 157). Icy and stony images constantly surround Mr. F's aunt, Mrs. Merdle, Mrs. General and Mrs. Clennam. Mrs. Merdle is a ‘woman of snow’ (I, xx, p. 240). Mrs. General's ‘retirement for the night was always her frostiest ceremony; as if she felt it necessary that the human imagination should be chilled into stone, to prevent its following her’ (II, xv, p. 610). Mrs. Clennam is ‘sheathed in brass’ (I, iii, p. 36), gives ‘glassy’ (I, iii, p. 33) kisses to her son, and is often compared to the statue which she almost literally becomes at the end of the novel. And though we need not take Flora's description of herself as a ‘statue bride’ (I, xxiv, p. 285) too seriously, she is not far out when she suggests that she would have guessed that Arthur spent his years of exile in the polar regions (I, xxiii, p. 270).

But Dickens' use of imagery in this novel suggests a two-sided view of the world: on the one hand we have the vision of humanity de-humanized, merely objects, mechanical or inanimate; on the other we have the constant presentation of the world as a savage place, where false and hideous gods are worshipped. One is reminded of some of Waugh's early novels, where ‘civilised society’ and savagery are juxtaposed, and found to be similar in nature. We are in a cruel, tribal world, with no logic, only ritual, no mercy, only polite forms. References to tribalism, feudalism, grotesque rites and customs abound. The Arab world and the East in general provide much material for comparison, and the Arabian Nights is referred to more than once, creating an atmosphere of casual cruelty and moral indifference. The irony of Mrs. Merdle's regrets that, being in Society, she and her kind cannot behave like ‘Savages in the Tropical seas’ (I, xx, p. 239) is that Society does in fact resemble nothing so much, in Dickens' eyes, as a savage tribe. As Mrs. Merdle recognises, it is ‘arbitrary’ and ‘exacting’ (I, xx, p. 239). Social pretensions involve one in a series of rituals and incantations: the Dorrit family's pride is a ‘miserable Mumbo-Jumbo’ (I, xviii, p. 214); Mrs. General recommends her prunes-and-prism rosary as an infallible spell to make one presentable in Society; Mrs. Merdle is a ‘Priestess of Society’ (I, xxxiii, p. 394) and Mr. Merdle is constantly presented as an object of uncouth superstitious veneration. Society falls ‘flat on their faces’ (I, xxxiii, p. 390) to worship his wealth, and at the mention of his name Mrs. General bows her head ‘as if she were doing homage to some visible graven image’ (II, v, p. 483). The worship spreads outwards from Society, though nothing whatsoever is known about the man except that he has made a lot of money:

and, for that reason alone, (people) prostrated themselves before him, more degradedly and less excusably than the darkest savage creeps out of his hole in the ground to propitiate, in some log or reptile, the Deity of his benighted soul.

(II, xii, p. 556).

To emphasize the abjectness of the superstition, and the completeness of his victory over traditional beliefs, Dickens also associates Merdle with perversions of the Bible, particularly the New Testament: he had ‘revised the New Testament, and already entered into the kingdom of Heaven’ (II, xvi, p. 614); he is ‘one of the greatest converters of the root of all evil into the root of all good’ (I, xxi, p. 251); as well as ‘the new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts’ (II, xxv, p. 710). The technique is a development of that used on Gradgrind and the Hard Fact men, even more daringly close to blasphemy.

Trilling rightly emphasizes the theme of false or inadequate parents in the novel; we may widen this and say it is about false idols and false chieftains: Mr. Merdle and Lord Decimus conduct their negotiations for an alliance like ‘two chieftains’ (II, xii, p. 567), and homage is offered to the ‘presiding Idol of the Circumlocution Office’ (I, x, p. 117) in the form of bundles of paper. Mr. Dorrit is the ‘Chief of the important tribe’ (II, i, p. 434), and is several times compared to a medieval baron exacting feudal homage. People in general will follow anything that has an appearance of authority or benignity. The inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Yard accept without question the pretensions of the ‘Patriarch’ Christopher Casby; when in Rome the English, descendents of the ‘Island Savages’, deliver over their personal tastes and opinions to the safe keeping of the guide-book writer Mr. Eustace:

The whole body of travellers seemed to be a collection of voluntary human sacrifices, bound hand and foot, and delivered over to Mr. Eustace and his attendants, to have the entrails of their intellects arranged according to the taste of that sacred priesthood.

(II, viii, p. 512).

We can now see, I think, why Dickens, in the first chapter of the book set in England (Chapter 3), takes care to mention the South Sea gods in the British Museum, who ‘might have supposed themselves at home again’ (I, iii, p. 28). This is a nation, an age, in retreat towards barbarism, whoring after false gods, as grossly superstitious as any savage islander, and quite as willing to believe in absurd miracles, observe empty rituals, mutter meaningless incantations. The contempt expressed by Meagles in Chapter 2 for the antics of foreigners is, in retrospect, ironic in intention. His own country acts in a much more flagrantly illogical, even suicidal, manner. It is a nation gone mad.

Hence, perhaps, the many ‘false balances’ struck in this novel. Mrs. Clennam's ‘balance’ is the most famous of these, the balance she strikes by her self-immolation, retribution for a wrong she committed and is too stubborn to undo. But the striking of false balances, intended to deceive oneself or others, is characteristic of many people in this book. Arthur sees his whole family as ‘idolaters’ (I, iii, p. 30), and particularly prone to this form of self-deception.

‘I am the only child of parents who weighed, measured, and priced everything; for whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced, had no existence. Strict people as the phrase is, professors of a stern religion, their very religion was a gloomy sacrifice of tastes and sympathies that were never their own, offered up as a part of a bargain for the security of their possessions’.

(I, ii, pp. 20-1).

(It is worth noting, in this connection, how the severity of Mrs. Clennam's self-discipline is continually undercut by Dickens's luscious, almost voluptuous descriptions of the food she eats. In addition her ‘austere air of luxuriousness’ (I, v, p. 45), and her self-conscious theatricality, suggest that, like Miss Havisham, she gains pleasure from her self-inflicted retribution.) Dickens goes out of his way to emphasize that Mrs. Clennam is not alone in ‘balancing her bargain with the Majesty of heaven’:

She was only remarkable in this, for the force and emphasis with which she did it. Thousands upon thousands do it, according to their varying manner, every day.

(I, v, p. 50).

Gowan, for example, constantly indulges in ‘that characteristic balancing of his which reduced everything in the wide world to the same light weight’ (I, xvi, p. 310). In Chapter 6 of Book II Dickens analyses in detail Gowan's habit of mind, continually trying to ‘bring deserving things down by setting undeserving things up’ (II, vi, p. 488). Mrs. Merdle attempts a slightly different sort of conjuring trick, for she is ‘accomplished in the art of seeming to make things of small account, and really enhancing them in the process’ (II, xiv, p. 587). In her conversations with Mr. Dorrit the two manage to create a sort of conversational see-saw, alternately sending each other up and down. Fanny, totting up the advantages of marriage to Sparkler compensates for his unendurable feebleness by ‘her sense of superiority (which) seemed to counter-balance that opposite side of the scale’ (II, xiv, p. 593). Mr. Meagles, whose ‘scale and scoop’ habits of mind make him such an apparently scrupulous person, is entirely overbalanced by his worship of Barnacledom, and Mr. Merdle, too, in an ironical phrase, is shown as casting ‘the weight of his great probity and great riches into the Barnacle scale’ (II, xii, p. 557). The ‘balances’ sought by the characters in this book are always false, false as the gods worshipped, false as the sums done by Pancks, which, ‘regarded as a question of figures’ (II, xxx, p. 765), prove Clennam to be worth from three to five thousand pounds when in fact he is bankrupt. In this novel everything is distorted from the true, everything has an imposing appearance and a hollow inside.

For we are in a topsy-turvy world, where the right and natural order of things is reversed. In the Preface Dickens mentions talking to the ‘smallest boy I ever conversed with, carrying the largest baby I ever saw’ (p. xvii), and in Bleeding Heart Yard Clennam sees ‘light children nursing heavy ones’ (I, xii, p. 136). One need not labour the echoes here of the youngest child who is head of the family, bearing the weight of worry and responsibility which should have been borne by the father: ‘she knew well—no-one better—that a man so broken as to be the Father of the Marshalsea, could be no father to his own children’ (I, vii, p. 72). The point is further emphasized by the scenes—often so unfortunate and embarrassing in tone—between Little Dorrit and Maggie, the child woman caring for the woman child.

But the natural order is not only reversed in the strange world of the Marshalsea. In Society, where one must feign ignorance of everything that is not proper, placid and pleasant, whatever one's background, the pretenders become prisoners to their servants: Mr. Dorrit to Mrs. General, Mr. Merdle to his butler, Little Dorrit to her maid—‘that oppressive maid, who was her mistress, and a very hard one’ (II, iii, p. 466). So topsy-turvy does this life become that Little Dorrit's real life of freedom seems merely a dream, and prison and poverty become for her the only realities.

Both prison and Society are seen as upsetters of the natural order of things: both insulate their members from reality. Mr. Dorrit's fatuous delusions of universal paternity are fostered by the collegians, who half mock him and half accept his pretensions. It is Frederick Dorrit, still in the great world, who pines away:

Frederick the free, was so humbled, bowed, withered, and faded; William the bond, was so courtly, condescending, and benevolently conscious of a position; that in this regard only, if in no other, the brothers were a spectacle to wonder at.

(I, xix, p. 221).

But the view of prison as a satisfying or desirable world is one for escapists and defeatists. Dickens contrasts throughout this book the busy, chafing world outside with the delusive calm within. In the words of the most eloquent defender of escapism:

‘It's freedom, sir, it's freedom! … Elsewhere, people are restless, worried, hurried about, anxious respecting one thing, anxious respecting another. Nothing of the kind here, sir. We have done all that—we know the worst of it; we have got to the bottom, we can't fall …’

(I, vi, p. 63).

Seductive as his logic is, vexatious and full of delusions as life among the crowd outside is, Dickens is still in no doubt which is the only conceivable life. At the end of the novel Arthur and Little Dorrit go out among ‘the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain’ (II, xxxiv, p. 826), to lead their modestly useful life, Little Dorrit, as always, helping those still imprisoned—Fanny by Society, Tip by the Marshalsea again.

But if Dickens is not, finally, completely despairing, he has no delusions about this world Little Dorrit and Arthur are going out into. It is a world which he has summoned up all his genius, all his extraordinary verbal and visual talents to convey. Critics are right to concentrate on the prison symbol in Little Dorrit, for it is rendered with a quite astonishing mastery and variety. The Marshalsea, in all its sad, seedy vigour is, of course, central to the novel, but Dickens very cleverly makes it seem less of a prison, in many ways, than most of the other milieus: Mrs. Clennam's imprisonment is more rigorous—her mental imprisonment in the narrowness of a creed which was degenerated to mere superstition being mirrored by her physical imprisonment in the four walls of her decaying house; Mrs. Gowan's stately imprisonment in Hampton Court and in the rigid requirements of an absurd ‘society’ is infinitely worse than William Dorrit's, and it prepares us for the forlorn grandeur of the Dorrits' condition after they have been ‘released’ from one captivity to another. We must remember that Dickens had been working all his life towards such a use of his childhood experiences, and that almost all the novels had contained ‘trial runs’—not just those with actual prisons in them (Pickwick, Barnaby Rudge etc) but those with prison-like houses and institutions (the workhouse, Dotheboys Hall, Dombey's mansion) and characters imprisoned by extreme obsessions or psychological perversions Rosa Dartle, Dombey, Mr. Gradgrind).

Standing against this world we have Arthur, Little Dorrit and Flora Finching. To complain about the lack of ‘character’, in the conventional sense—the blankness, as it were—of the first two is rather to miss the point. Arthur is the reader, or rather he is representative mid-nineteenth-century man. Little Dorrit is an idealisation, but one which is necessary if we are to keep in our mind the wider human possibilities of selfless love and service which are so continually ignored by all the major characters in the novel.

But the fact that these two are, necessarily, somewhat blank throws on Flora a greater weight in the overall structure than is always recognised. The mastery of her breathless monologues, which scoop up armfulls of unrelated subjects and poke casual daggers into innumerable targets, has been adequately appreciated. What is not so often noticed is her combination of good-nature and shrewdness, a shrewdness which periodically extends to herself as well as to others. All her actions testify to a lively benevolence: her patronage of Little Dorrit; her visits to the unresponsive Mrs. Clennam; her acceptance of the burden of Mr. F's aunt. Her shrewdness comes out in the casual yet killing descriptions of other people, many of which have already been quoted with appreciation, and in her underlying realisation throughout the novel that the childhood romance with Arthur was merely a childish whim of which nothing would have come: ‘I don't know after all whether it wasn't all nonsense between us though pleasant at the time (II, xxxiv, p. 820). Flora, implicitly, makes her own comment on the nature of contemporary life whenever she is placed in conjunction with other characters more weighed down with the burden of existence or more thoroughly mechanised—for, as we have noticed, Flora is the one character who triumphantly stands outside the machine. Thus, her scenes with Arthur, with Mrs. Clennam and with Mr. Dorrit are all crucial, and the subtlety of our response to the blending of laughable and lovable characteristics in her comes to be a serious element in our appreciation of the meaning of the novel as a whole. Flora, in other words, is a touchstone.

The feeling that her role is crucial is augmented when we realise that she is the one character in the novel who displays a healthy sexuality, rendered, of course, in a riotously comic mode—the only way sexuality could be fully rendered in a Dickens novel. Her girlish amorousness, her tender pressures on Arthur's arm as he reluctantly squires her round the family mansion, her undoubted eye for a matrimonial prospect testify to the truth of her own description of herself—‘being of a lively disposition’ (II, xxxiv, p. 820)—and provide a measuring rod for the diminished vigour of all those around her. Flora is Regency, she is unimprisoned, and paradoxically she calls our attention back time and again to the prisons inhabited by her relations, her friends, and her would-be lover.

But though one comes back to the prison, the view of life in Little Dorrit has many other angles, for it is the view of a man of immense experience in a state of comprehensive disillusion. He has seen through the impostures of false parents and false patriarchs, the cruel rituals of ‘Society’, the ineffectualness of government which does not govern, leaders who will not lead; he has seen all the social pressures which reduce man to a mere automaton, a shadow of humanity without will or zest for life. It is the grimmest of all his visions, and one can hardly avoid the feeling that his personal troubles at the time of writing contributed to the mood of depression which all readers from Forster onwards have perceived in the book. But his depression does not result in feebleness or repetition. Indeed, he turns it, as I have tried to show, into a positive advantage. Though the plot remains an excrescence, a grotesque irrelevance—and one would not wish to minimize the magnitude of such a drawback to a novel—all else in the book coheres: characters, theme, symbols and imagery all contribute towards a vision of the world as corrupt, deluded, devoid of vitality and true principle, a crazy, upside-down world, a dispiriting chaos.


  1. Garis (Oxford, 1965), p. 187.

  2. See Hillis Miller [Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958; rpt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969], p. 229 et seq.

  3. Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (Everyman ed.), I, 59.

  4. Forster, II, 182.

  5. In fact Forster makes it clear that the idea only occurred to Dickens in this form after writing the first number.

  6. All references are to book, chapter and page in Little Dorrit, The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens (London: O.U.P., 1966).

  7. Miller, p. 237.

  8. Gross & Pearson, eds., Dickens and the Twentieth Century (London, 1966), p. 182.

  9. Ford and Lane, eds., The Dickens Critics (Ithaca, New York, 1961), p. 218.

Mike Hollington (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7543

SOURCE: Hollington, Mike. “Time in Little Dorrit.” In The English Novel in the Nineteenth Century: Essays on the Literary Mediation of Human Values, edited by George Goodin, pp. 109-25. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Hollington claims that while Little Dorrit seems to be unconcerned with time, temporal matters are of central importance in the novel.]

The purpose of this essay is to suggest the importance of temporal process in Little Dorrit, both as a theme and as an aspect of Dickens's narrative technique. The topic is neither new nor recondite, but it is, I believe, vitally important, especially so because Little Dorrit easily gives rise to the impression that it is not very much concerned with time at all. When we read John Wain's round assertion that “it is his most static novel; its impact is even less dependent on plot than is customary throughout Dickens's work; its development is by means of outward radiation, rather than linear progression,” we recognize the overt “spatial” emphases of the New Critics—the tendency to look for an “expanded metaphor” as the principal of organization. Certainly Little Dorrit, with its ubiquitous prison, yields considerable rewards to such an approach. But if some aspects of the novel can be described as static, the novel as a whole is certainly also pessimistic about stasis; it has none of the “spatial rapture” that metaphoric critics normally uncover in the works, recent and ancient, that they admire. Its authorial perspective, I want to argue, upholds the importance of change and growth, even if these are felt to be almost entirely absent in the society that the novel describes and analyzes.

To ask ourselves at the outset whether the stasis belongs to this society or to Dickens's imagination, we enter the critical debate about the nature of Dickens's creative power in Little Dorrit. If we follow the trend that started with Forster but received its most important recent charge from Trilling, and perceive in the novel an augmented power of abstraction, a diminished vitality of imaginative detail, we are more likely to be satisfied by “spatial” accounts of the novel. We can, on the other hand, respond to the arguments put forward in the chapter on Little Dorrit in Dickens the Novelist by F. R. and Q. D. Leavis, indebted though the chapter is, more substantially than it acknowledges, to the insights gained by that tradition. It invites us to see, within the novel itself, the abundant evidence of an imagination concerned with the particularities of reality, by its presence defining what the society portrayed inhibits and destroys. Thus we are also likely to seek positive signs of an alternative attitude toward time.

It seems important, then, to note straight away that the “redeemed” characters of Little Dorrit, those in whom imaginative vitality is not suppressed or is only superficially distorted, differ from other characters in their perception of time. There are two kinds of difference—one between precision and imprecision about time, the other between a sense of history and an absence of that sense. The first contrast is established very distinctly between John Baptist Cavalletto and Rigaud in the very first chapter, when Rigaud asks to be told what time it is: “‘Say what the hour is,’ grumbled the first man. ‘The mid-day bell will ring—in forty minutes.’ When he made the little pause, he looked round the prison-room, as if for certain information. ‘You are a clock. How is it you always know?’ ‘How can I say? I always know what the hour is, and where I am’” (I, i, 4). Cavalletto has an instinctive sense of time that he can't explain. He displays a keen and resourceful attentiveness to the scanty means of telling the time at his disposal, patiently checking the state of the faint prison light as a means of verification. What is apparent is a sensitive attunement to natural process; the contrast with Rigaud is brought out when Rigaud curses the hostile autumnal wind and darkness on his road to Chalons (I, xi, 124), betraying an egoistic sense of being slighted by natural elements. At another level the contrast is between the relations of perceiving subject and surrounding reality; Rigaud, for whom anything outside himself is mere matter, can regard Cavalletto only as an object, and calls him a clock.

Cavalletto is not a clock; his capacity to tell the time accurately signifies his hold upon reality. We are made aware of it on another occasion much later in the novel, when he confers with Arthur Clennam about the chronology of Rigaud's disappearance into the mysteries of London: “In his passionate raptures, he at first forgot the fact that he had lately seen the assassin in London. On his remembering it, it suggested hope to Clennam that the recognition might be of later date than the night of his visit at his mother's; but Cavalletto was too exact about time and place, to leave any opening for doubt that it has preceded that occasion” (II, xxii, 677-78; my italics). Mysteries and doubts are clarified by Cavalletto's accuracy; his capacity to remember events in clear and ordered sequence establishes the reality of things.

This precision about time is reminiscent of Doyce's professional painstaking in another sphere, and it is through him that we may introduce the second aspect of the creative response to temporal process in Little Dorrit: a historical imagination, a capacity to imagine and envisage other times, past and future, besides one's own. Doyce understands that his frustrations at the Circumlocution Office belong in historical perspective; others have suffered before, and more will suffer after him: “You see, my experience of these things does not begin with myself” (I, i, 121). Doyce is able to make projections into the future, basing them on the probabilities of individual and historical outcomes. He expresses, in contrast to Clennam's hesitations, his own gloomy certainties about the marriage of Pet Meagles and Henry Gowan:

“I see him bringing present anxiety, and, I fear, future sorrow, into my old friend's house. I see him wearing deeper lines into my old friend's face, the nearer he draws to, and the oftener he looks at, the face of his daughter. In short, I see him with a net about the pretty and affectionate creature whom he will never make happy.”

“We don't know,” said Clennam, almost in the tone of a man in pain, “that he will not make her happy.”

“We don't know,” returned his partner, “that the earth will last another hundred years, but we think it highly probable.”

[I, xxvi, 307-8]

As his last remark implies, time for Doyce is an objectively real and shared phenomenon; his projections are not inspired divinations but appeals to a logic of sequential probability. When we first meet him outside the Circumlocution Office, he is presented “looking into the distance before him, as if his grey eye were measuring it” (I, xi, 121).

Likewise Little Dorrit herself, during her visit to Italy, is imaginatively stirred by a realization that the places she visits have had an existence previous to her own: “One of my frequent thoughts is this:—Old as these cities are, their age itself is hardly so curious, to my reflections, as that they should have been in their places all through those days when I did not even know of the existence of more than two or three of them, and when I scarcely knew of anything outside our walls” (II, xi, 553). Little Dorrit is here countering the idealist perceptual notions of Rigaud and many other characters by recognizing the separate existence of other phenomena, independent in time and space of herself as a necessary perceiving object. She feels life going on before and after and outside herself.

The contrasting state, the absence of any sense of history and change, is perhaps most emphatically stated in Mrs. Clennam. In one passage we find Dickens analyzing her “subjective time”—from a perspective entirely different from that of Proust or Mann:

The wheeled chair had its associated remembrances and reveries, one may suppose, as every place that is made the station of a human being has. Pictures of demolished streets and altered houses, as they formerly were when the occupant of the chair was familiar with them; images of people as they too used to be, with little or no allowance made for the lapse of time since they were seen; of these, there must have been many in the long routine of gloomy days. To stop the clock of busy existence, at the hour when we personally were sequestered from it; to suppose mankind stricken motionless, when we were brought to a standstill; to be unable to measure the changes beyond our view, by any larger standard than the shrunken one of our own uniform and contracted existence; is the infirmity of many invalids, and the mental unhealthiness of almost all recluses.

[I, xxix, 339]

The perspective is first sensed in the hint of irony in the withheld omniscience; Dickens as narrator has to “suppose” even the limited amount of contact with past reality that is outlined here. But the imagery of size is the most telling and characteristic feature; the vast extent of time and space outside here and now is reduced to the compass of the self and its preoccupations. Habitually, self-centeredness in Little Dorrit is manifested in a denial of history, a contraction of its scope to make it an instrument of selfish desire. So the Bohemians of Hampton Court await a private apocalypse for the irritating Sunday visitors, expecting “the earth to open and swallow the public up … which desirable event had not yet occurred, in consequence of some reprehensible laxity in the arrangements of the Universe” (I, xxvi, 312).

Ultimately, the alternative to this private fantasy is provided by the attempt, in the linear structure of Little Dorrit, to make the novel a real “history.” For the moment, however, we must substantiate the varieties of subjective experience of time; the extreme dissociation from reality of Mr. F's aunt, for instance, is accompanied by an equally “original” sense of time. When Clennam follows Miss Wade to the Casby house, appearing there for the first time in three months, she exclaims, “Drat him if he an't come back again!” Dickens, pointing the theme even at this grotesque—but illuminating—distance from Mrs. Clennam, offers the supposition that she is “measuring time by the acuteness of her own sensations and not by the clock” (II, ix, 534). More poignantly, perhaps, there is William Dorrit's bitter complaint to Clennam as he waits impatiently to be released from prison, “‘A few hours, sir!’ he returned in a sudden passion. ‘You talk very easily of hours, sir! How long do you suppose, sir, that an hour is to a man who is choking for want of air?’” (I, xxxiii, 421). The affront is that Clennam appears incapable of projecting himself into Dorrit's personal time; clock time, as something objective and shared, is vigorously and ominously repudiated.

Increasingly in the novel we feel that “subjective time” is the equivalent of the experience of time in dreams, and perhaps the fundamental contrast is that between living in a dream and living in reality. No doubt Dickens's own sense of time in dreams provided the basis of this theme. Not many years before writing Little Dorrit, he had noted in a letter to his doctor how his dreams followed their own peculiar temporal laws: “My own dreams are usually of twenty years ago. I often blend my present condition with them, but very confusedly. …” Likewise, the dreamers of Little Dorrit both habitually revert to the past and mingle different phases of development in their reveries. Clennam, “dozing and dreaming” in his Marshalsea imprisonment, just before he is awakened by Little Dorrit's nosegay of flowers, is “without the power of reckoning time, so that a minute might have been an hour and an hour a minute” (II, xxix, 755). The condition is elaborated upon by Mrs. Tickit, in the marvelous eccentric monologue explaining how Tattycoram appeared at the Meagles house when she was “what a person would strictly call watching with my eyes closed”: “As I was saying, I was thinking of one thing, and thinking of another, and thinking very much of the family. Not of the family in the present times only, but in the past times too. For when a person does begin thinking of one thing and thinking of another, in that manner as it's getting dark, what I say is, that all times seem to be present, and a person must get out of that state and consider before they can say which is which” (II, ix, 529; my italics). Mrs. Tickit's dream associations are not about herself but about “the family”; her evident unselfish devotion to them cancels any temptation to consider this disquisition as merely ludicrous. She is talking, significantly, to Arthur Clennam, the central dreamer of Little Dorrit, afflicted by a traumatized fixation on the past and impeded in his dream from action and progression: “It was like the oppression of a dream, to believe that shame and exposure were impending over her and his father's memory, and to be shut out, as by a brazen wall, from the possibility of coming to her aid” (II, xxvii, 720). Thus Mrs. Tickit, a minor character in the novel, points to a major theme—the development of Clennam. Her wisdom is trustworthy; in order to wake up, Clennam has eventually to “get out of that state and consider.” He does so in the Marshalsea at the end of the novel. Experiencing a “marked stop from the whirling wheel of life,” he at last finds a vantage point from which he can separate present and past: “he could think of some passages in his life, almost as if he were removed from them into another state of existence” (II, xxvii, 720).

Another dreamer in the novel, Affery, illuminates a very similar progress. In her dream state she is a “Heap of confusion,” uncertain of her own identity, and very vague about time; “she looked at the candle she had left burning, and, measuring the time like King Alfred the Great, was confirmed by its wasted state in her belief that she had been asleep for some considerable period” (I, iv, 41). Once she eventually wakes up in the novel, she is capable of progressive action and development: “I have broken out now, and I can't go back. I am determined to do it” (II, xxx, 766).

Thus dreaming in the novel implies inertia, a blurred sense of time, an inability to find any sequence in events; Dickens's critical analysis of the society of Little Dorrit establishes this as the state induced by the practitioners of fraud and injustice. The labyrinthine images in the novel, noted by J. Hillis Miller, have as their temporal equivalent the absence of intelligible temporal relationships. Plornish, turning “the tangled skein of his estate about and about, like a blind man who was trying to find some beginning or end to it” (I, xii, 143), reflects in a direct way the confusions fostered by Casby's thumb-twirling, “so typical to Clennam of the way in which he would make the subject revolve if it were pursued, never showing any new part of it nor allowing it to make the slightest advance” (II, ix, 539). The circular imagery is pervasive; for the natural linearity of events in time, the confidence tricksters of the novel have substituted a confusing cyclical perpetuum mobile.

Timelessness, then, is analyzed and placed in the novel; again a clear alternative attitude is discernible. History for Dickens followed a linear pattern, its natural tendency being toward progression; he never tired of repeating that the “good old days” were really the “bad old days.” The approved image of history is conveyed, revealingly, in a comparison where its rightful onward flow is related to the cheer from the Bleeding-Heart Yarders that accompanies Doyce's departure to the country that “knows how to do it”: “In truth, no men on earth can cheer like Englishmen, who do so rally one another's blood and spirit when they cheer in earnest, that the stir is like the rush of their whole history, with all its standards waving at once, from Saxon Alfred's time downwards” (II, xxii, 675). There is undoubtedly something disagreeable in the naive “heartiness” of this image, and yet the stress on a collective historical momentum does effectively function as a contrast to “subjective time.”

The private and fictional versions of history that hold sway in Little Dorrit perpetuate superseded stages of its progression, mingle them in confusing juxtaposition with their advanced sharp practices, and impede forward movement. Thus it is that “the ugly South Sea Gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again” in the enlightened taboos of the Victorian Sunday (I, iii, 28). The expatriate society in Rome may still be described as “Island Savages” (II, xv, 609), as at the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. Indeed, the fiercely sarcastic treatment of Mrs. Merdle's lament that she and her fellow members of society cannot, alas, behave as primitive savages stresses that they in fact do. Footmen lounge around like “an extinct race of monstrous birds” (I, xxvii, 327), and the “Spartan boy with the fox biting him” still presides as a model, in this society, for the repressive upbringing of children (I, xxiv, 284). In imitation, the feudal society within the Marshalsea is out of phase with the times, its father patronizing it “like a baron of the olden time” (I, xxvi, 425) and dispensing platitudes on Christian fortitude “like Sir Roger de Coverley going to Church” (I, xxvvi, 428). The pitiable passivity of the Plornishes is expressed in their adherence to a vision of the past, of a renewed innocence, “the Golden Age revived” (II, xiii, 574).

Such anomalous hangovers are bolstered by entrenched rationalizations. Historical reality is blurred over with mystifying abstractions; evading any recognition of cause and effect, and blocking progress, the Circumlocutory powers erect false historical inevitabilities. By inventing abstract “nobodies” who are hypocritically presented as determinisms—Society, Precedent, Fate—responsibilities are evaded and initiative effort stifled. “If we could only come to a Millennium, or something of that sort,” sighs Mrs. Merdle (I, xx, 242); but Society prevents it, and she, like Mrs. Gowan, resigns herself “to inevitable fate” (I, xxxiii, 388). “Treasury” is similarly wistful in contemplating future possibilities—more mundane though their object is (the entry of Merdle into Parliament)—and trusting to “accident”: “If we should ever be happily enabled, by accidentally possessing the control over circumstances, to propose to one so eminent to—to come amongst us …” (I, xxi, 250). Against these supernatural agencies determining the course of history, “mere actions are nothing”—the phrase and the theology are Mrs. Clennam's (I, xxx, 357), but rationalization of stasis is the habit of the whole society.

Throughout Little Dorrit the conception of historical movement forms an impressive unity with the conception of individual growth, and this applies equally to their perversion. Fictions about historical determinism have their counterparts in fictions about the necessity of one's nature; in Fanny Dorrit, for instance, they are to be found side by side. Little Dorrit urges her to consider love as a relinquishing of self; “if you loved anyone, you would no longer be yourself, but you would quite lose and forget yourself in him.” But for Fanny these are “degenerate impossibilities” (II, xiv, 591)—she echoes the lament of the Hampton Court Bohemians over the “degeneracy of the times” (I, xxvi, 313)—that the conditions of history will not permit. To lose herself would be to fly in the face of her “fated” personality: “Other girls, differently reared and differently circumstanced altogether, might wonder at what I say or may do. Let them. They are driven by their lives and characters; I am driven by mine.” These justifications are in some sense compensatory; they register the habitual Dorrit insecurity about the Marshalsea disgrace, which also governs her father's pathetic boasts about his adaptation to “Necessity”: “Consider my case, Frederick. I am a kind of example. Necessity and time have taught me what to do” (I, xix, 223). And so they do engage our sympathy. But a cruder instance, the running commentary of Rigaud on the “fatalities” of his character, makes the point obvious; these fictions insulate their perpetrators from any form of self-scrutiny that might lead to a change in their behavior. Personal development, like historical development, is negated; these characters remain statically imprisoned within themselves.

At this point it is necessary to shift focus somewhat and develop some other aspects of the contrast between characters bound within themselves and characters receptive to experience outside themselves. As I noted earlier in discussing Mrs. Clennam's imprisonment, the imagery of size is characteristic. For the ego-bound characters of Little Dorrit, other experience is felt to be an unfortunate encumbrance, to be crushed or reduced in size. The most extraordinary instance of this is Fanny's outburst at Sparkler, in their London house: “You look so aggravatingly large by this light. Do sit down. … Oh, you do look so big!” (II, xxiv, 694). But it is apparent not only in the way of treating other people but in a careless insensitivity toward things, especially little things. Gowan kicks stones in a way “that Clennam thought had an air of cruelty in it. Most of us have more or less frequently derived a similar impression, from a man's way of doing some very little thing; plucking a flower, clearing away an obstacle, or even destroying an insentient object” (I, xvii, 201). Likewise Rigaud, staying at the coffee-house near Mrs. Clennam, displays his nature in the way he violates the furniture: “His utter disregard of people, as shown in his way of tossing the little womanly toys of furniture about, flinging favourite cushions under his boots for a softer rest, and crushing delicate coverings with his big body and his great black head, had the same brute selfishness at bottom” (I, xxx, 352).

The importance of size in this novel is announced by the stress of its title, Little Dorrit. All its redeemed characters are small in stature: Cavalletto is a “sunburnt, quick, lithe, little man” (I, i, 4); Doyce is short, “not much to look at, either in point of size or in point of view” (I, x, 118); Pancks is a “short dark man” with “a scrubby little black chin” (I, xiii, 148). Their size has metaphoric significance; they are in consequence more responsive to the vastness of everything outside themselves. By contrast, many of the fraudulent impostors and hypocrites in the novel are very large: Merdle has “large unfeeling handsome eyes” and a “broad unfeeling handsome bosom” (I, xx, 238); Casby has “a shining bald head which looked so large because it shone so much” (I, xiii, 145) and moves around like a “heavy selfish drifting booby” with a history of “unwieldy jostlings against other men” (I, xiii, 149). The imagery of clumsiness in Casby suggests a trampling disregard of anything not related to his selfish concerns.

Likewise, moral perceptiveness in Little Dorrit is a matter of a capacity to discriminate carefully between minutely different signals. The coarse mind, like Gowan's, sees humanity only as an indiscriminate lump and reduces distinctive features to the same scale. Rigaud serves him equally well as an artist's model for a large number of entirely different human types. Rigaud himself boasts of making “few weak distinctions” (I, xi, 132); this is so, for instance, when he fails to perceive any difference between the way the jailor's daughter reacts to him and to Cavalletto (I, i, 5). Finer and more practiced observers of behavior, like Pet Meagles and Little Dorrit herself, notice something slightly special in Rigaud's manner of behaving toward them: “The difference was too minute in its expression to be perceived by others, but they knew it to be there. A mere trick of his evil eyes, a mere turn of his smooth white hand, a mere hair's-breadth of addition to the fall of his nose and the rise of his mouth in the most frequent movement of his face, conveyed to them equally a swagger personal to themselves” (II, vii, 509). The narrative voice, too, is always attentive to subtle nuances of change in behavior, even in such an apparently impenetrable person as Mrs. Clennam: “As there are degrees of hardness in the hardest metal, and shades of colour in black itself, so, even in the asperity of Mrs. Clennam's demeanour towards all the rest of humanity and towards Little Dorrit, there was a fine gradation” (I, v, 52).

With these images in mind, I think we can now press home the importance of the precise calculation of time in Little Dorrit. To do things “inch by inch,” to take painstaking care over detail in the specification of time and change, is the corollary of finely tuned moral sensitivity, and of meticulous concern with real, other life. When Pancks announces his discovery of the inheritance that is owed to the Dorrits, he dwells upon the gradual stages of his investigations: “How he had felt his way inch by inch, and ‘Moled it out, sir’ (that was Mr. Pancks' expression), grain by grain” (I, xxxv, 410). When Tattycoram has emancipated herself from the perverse gratifications that Miss Wade can offer, she signals her release by resolving on patient effort in small stages of time: “I shall get better by very slow degrees” (II, xxxiii, 811). When Fred Dorrit makes a real (and not illusory, as in the case of his brother) transformation from his old self, the change expresses itself in “a certain patient animal enjoyment” of the world about him (II, iii, 457); he passes “hours and hours” in front of historic Venetians and venerates them “with great exactness” (II, v, 481).

Patient exactness is the key virtue in Little Dorrit, the essential condition of lasting change and real development. When Cavalletto goes searching for Rigaud in London, he follows the “moling-out” tactics of Pancks and expresses the moral attitudes that lie behind them:

“But!—After a long time when I have not been able to find that he is here in Londra, some one tells me of a soldier with white hair—hey?—not hair like this that he carries—white—who lives retired secrettementally, in a certain place. But!—” with another rest upon the word, “who sometimes in the after-dinner, walks, and smokes. It is necessary, as they say in Italy (and as they know, poor people), to have patience. I have patience. I ask where is this certain place. One believes it is here, one believes it is there. Eh well! It is not here, it is not there. I wait patientissamentally. At last I find it. Then I watch; then I hide, until he walks and smokes. He is a soldier with grey hair—But!—” a very decided rest indeed, and a very vigorous play from side to side of the backhanded forefinger—“he is also that man you see.”

[II, xxviii, 743]

Cavalletto's method of narration harmonizes with the patient watchfulness and minute attention to slender detail (Rigaud is betrayed only by “walking and smoking”) that the discovery displays. It is a careful unfolding of the stages of the process of discovery, with significant pauses at the points of change. His suffixes (“patientissamentally”) convey finer shades of meaning than a more standard English provides; his gestures add enriched nuances of suggestion.

I want to say more about patience as a theme in Little Dorrit a bit further on, but the time has come to examine Dickens's own method (which is very much like Cavalletto's) of conducting the temporal flow of his narrative. Not only is Little Dorrit about patience; it also, by means of its narrative technique, attempts to make its readers aware of the necessity of patience, and of its moral significance, by very gradual unfoldings and very frequent withholdings. Future outcomes are very often anticipated in oblique or ironic ways, but they are held back in a regard for proper sequence, and the reader is returning to a still-developing plot. Like Cavalletto's investigations, the plot will eventually clear up the “mysteries” proliferated by Circumlocution, and gives continual promise of its intention to do so. But the mysteries are of so convoluted and deep-seated a nature that no sudden revelation will suffice to show their full extent or effect.

The way in which this technique operates locally can best be suggested by exploring some of Dickens's narrative anticipations. The introduction of Merdle's mysterious complaint occasions one of them: “Had he that deep-seated recondite complaint, and did any doctor find it out? Patience. In the meantime, the shadow of the Marshalsea wall was a real darkening influence, and could be seen on the Dorrit family at any stage of the sun's course” (I, xxi, 254). Narrative expectation is aroused, but satisfaction is deliberately withheld. The appeal for patience is an urging of essential priorities; the circumlocutory plot mystification (“deep-seated recondite complaint” is a cunning euphemism) is ironic, and the word “real” consequently receives a powerful stress. The real offense, the existence of the Marshalsea, is available for inspection “at any stage of the sun's course.” The phrase makes overt reference to the novel's own trajectory and justifies its gradual patient unfoldings by linking them to natural process.

The deliberateness of Dickens's narrative art is once more apparent when he makes a second ironic reference to the still unrevealed outcome of Merdle's career: “At dinner that day, although the occasion was not foreseen and provided for, a brilliant company of such as are not made of the dust of the earth, but of some superior article for the present unknown, shed their lustrous benediction upon Mr. Dorrit's daughter's marriage” (II, xvi, 618-19). Merdle's end is by no means “unforeseen and unprovided for” by the art of the novel; the “superior article” of which Merdle is made will be revealed when the Star of Bethlehem following him stops “over certain carrion at the bottom of a bath” (II, xxv, 710)—dust to dust, with savage new overtones, despite the pretentious detour. The care of Dickens's art is in conscious contrast to the hypocritical laissez-faire kowtowing to the “unforeseen.” The gradual and “natural” revelation of the actuality beneath the pretense protests against the illusory shimmer of Merdle's revelation, “sprung from nothing, by no natural growth or process” (II, xxv, 709-10).

The experience of reading the novel is therefore in part the experience of a succession of present moments, linked with others before and after, but not transcending time, and clearly of importance in themselves as distinct stages of a process. Despite what John Wain says, plot is indeed important in Little Dorrit, and another of Dickens's narrative foreshadowings—of the death of William Dorrit—provides what is perhaps the fundamental reason for this: “Only the wisdom that holds the clue to all hearts and all mysteries can surely know to what extent a man, especially a man brought down as this man had been, can impose upon himself. Enough, for the present place, that he lay down with wet eyelashes, serene, in a manner majestic, after bestowing his life of degradation as a sort of portion on the devoted child upon whom its miseries had fallen so heavily, and whose love alone had saved him to be even what he was” (I, xix, 231).

The metaphoric connections between this lying-down and his final lying-down are clear enough—the self-pitying legacy he offers here, “a life of degradation,” anticipates what he will actually bestow on her after his death, at a point in the plot where expectation is entirely different. But the temporal connection isn't; only God, the narrative voice asserts, can know when this mystery will be revealed, and the reader is returned to “the present place.” The plot of Little Dorrit, in its gradual unraveling of mysteries, imitates the way in which Divine Providence is revealed; individual outcome and historical destiny are withheld until the scheme is completed.

To amplify this point, a passage in one of Dickens's letters, dating from 1863, is helpful: “What these bishops and suchlike say about revelation, in assuming it to be finished and done with, I can't in the least understand. Nothing is discovered without God's intention and assistance, and I suppose each new knowledge of his works that is conceded to man to be distinctly a revelation by which men are to guide themselves” (Letters, III, 351; to Cerjat, 21/5/63). In Dickens's conception of the divine plot, then, “revelation” is not limited to the Book of Revelation; it is the gradual, piecemeal process of discovery, continuous and progressive, and not a sudden enlightening. The plot of Little Dorrit imitates the providential scheme, deliberately and purposefully leading the reader in a process of gradual enlightenment.

Once again there is essential contrast in the novel; this passage about revelation helps us to understand the critical eschewal of false and premature millennia in Little Dorrit. They are distinguished by a transcendent flight from the medium of time and history in which the plan of creation is to be fulfilled. The messianic Merdle, “the rich man who had in a manner already entered the Kingdom of Heaven” (II, xvi, 616), represents an obvious perverse short-circuiting of temporal process. So does Mrs. Clennam, who mounts “on wings of words to Heaven” (I, xxvii, 319), disdaining action and involvement in the temporal world. Dorrit's millennial “castles in the air” attempt a more pitiable flight; his attempt to effect a discontinuity—“sweep that accursed experience off the face of the earth” (II, v, 479)—displays a shakier Old Testament rhetoric than Mrs. Clennam's. With tragic irony he achieves separation from himself: up above, the fastnesses of imaginary satisfactions; down below, the threatening contingencies of a real past and a real world; in between, a paranoid schizophrenic.

In opposition to these chimera, Dickens's novel concerns itself with minute details of real growth and change. “To combine what was original and daring in conception with what was patient and minute in execution” (I, xvi, 188)—the phrase describes Daniel Doyce's habit of working, but it also intentionally suggests what Dickens himself was trying to achieve in Little Dorrit: to reflect, in the careful and precise notation of a specific stage history, the continuing presence of a divine scheme. The novel frequently refers to itself as a history, implying thereby a particular narrative stance and a particular relation to its readership. The narrator stands firmly in the present of the mid-1850s, recording the changes and legacies of thirty years ago: the Marshalsea “is now gone, and the world is none the worse without it” (I, vi, 57); the Adelphi Terrace is a place where “there is always, to this day, a sudden pause … to the roar of the great thoroughfare” (II, xi, 531). He shares the present with his readers and, as Leavis perceives—my indebtedness to his essay will be particularly apparent here—seeks to engage “colloborative” contemplation of that present. He appeals to shared experience of historical realities—experience of frustration at the Circumlocution Office, accounts of which “we all know by heart” (I, x, 120), experience of mournful dinners at houses like the Merdles': “Everybody knows how much like the street, the two dinner-rows of people who take their stand by the street will be” (I, xxi, 246).

Of course, “everybody” doesn't know. The assumption of a readership whose members all attend Merdle dinners is ironic, but if the carte d'entrée is limited, imaginative understanding need not be. The appeal to everybody establishes a corrective to the more common appeal in the novel to “nobody.” The version of artistic vocation that Dickens portrays in Daniel Doyce involves a special respect for intelligent self-projection: “No man of sense, who has been generally improved, and has improved himself, can be called quite uneducated as to anything. I don't particularly favour mysteries” (I, viii, 515). Doyce thus sets himself up against the sacred abstract professionals like Treasury and Bar, for whom the rest of the world is a collection of jurymen: “In my calling … the greater usually includes the less” (I, xvi, 194).

The “greater” is perhaps in the first place, then, the vast audience of whom Dickens was always aware. But it is also the complexity and variety of reality, of individual lives and their changes—hence the sarcastic dismissal of a “host of past and present abstract philosophers, natural philosophers, and subduers of Nature and Art in their myriad forms” (II, xv, 605). And, finally, it is certainly God and the vast providential scheme of history—hence the hatred of such notions of relative scale as Mrs. Clennam's “process of reversing the making of man in the image of his Creator to the making of his Creator in the image of erring man” (I, xiii, 165).

If God is greater, then everything else, novelist and novel included, is less—hence the egalitarian relation of novelist and reader. The novelist can see to the end of his novel, but he can't see to the end of the creation which it attempts to render and upon which is depends. As the reader is to the novel, as the plot unfolds, so the novelist is to God; both can only see that segment of time and space that is immediately about them, and only God can perceive the whole scheme. But not to be able to see the rest, does not mean that it doesn't exist; it is the function of the imagination to make present what is in reality absent. To fall into the temptation of Mrs. Clennam, “the whimpering weakness and cruel selfishness of holding that because such a happiness or such a virtue had not come into his little path, or worked well for him, therefore it was not in the great scheme, but was reducible, when found in appearance, to the basest elements” (I, xiii, 165), is to be wanting in historical and moral imagination.

And so, to return to this theme in the novel, the redeemed characters of Little Dorrit are often to be found stationed at windows, looking out at the “overwhelming rush of reality” (II, xxxi, 787). Affery goes at the House of Clennam “to the ripped-up window, in the little room by the street door, to connect her palpitating heart, through the glass, with living things beyond and outside the haunted house” (I, xv, 180). And Little Dorrit in Rome, as earlier at Venice, sits at an irregular bay window “commanding all the picturesque life and variety of the Corso, both up and down” (II, xiv, 594). As a child she perceived “that it was not the habit of all the world to live locked up in narrow yards surrounded by high walls with spikes on the top” (I, vii, 69). She exhibited already the capacity of projection and the capacity to make distinctions, of which many characters in the novel seem incapable.

These windows in the novel are treasured for being a source of light: Little Dorrit as a child sits in the lodge of the Marshalsea “looking up at the sky through the barred window, until bars of light would arise” (I, vii, 69), and Pet Meagles in Rome is discovered by Little Dorrit “looking up at the sky shining through the tops of the windows” (II, xi, 550). Though not simple and single in its meaning, the light imagery of Little Dorrit is certainly connected with revelation, and the yearning may be felt as a looking for redemptive deliverance from the present blight that the novel analyzes. But what the windows illuminate is real life; the fake messiah Merdle is a mere “shining wonder.” The true millennium is a much more distant phenomenon, to be reached only through patient effort in time: “We must be patient, and wait for day” (I, xiv, 173) is Little Dorrit's symbolic appeal to Maggie when they are out on the streets for a night.

Thus it is, at this symbolic level, that in the Alps only “unaccustomed eyes” mistake the distance between themselves and the luminous mountaintops, “cancelling the intervening country … slighting their rugged height for something fabulous … [measuring] them as within a few hours' easy reach” (II, i, 431). Their eyes are akin to those of speculators, who represent a kind of secularized false prophecy, “conditionally speculating, upon this that and the other, at uncertain intervals and distances” (II, xxxiii, 813), and they contrast with Doyce's, “looking into the distance before him as if his grey eyes were measuring it” (I, x, 121). Progression in time toward real and not illusory fulfillment can only be achieved in the novel through Doyce's method of “making everything good and everything sound, at each important stage, before taking his hearer on a line's breadth further” (II, viii, 515-16). Thus it is that the liberating morning sun in the Alps is illusory: “The bright morning sun dazzled the eyes, the snow had ceased, the mists had vanished, the mountain air was so clear and light, that the new sensation of breathing it was like the having entered on a new existence. To help the delusion, the solid ground itself seemed gone, and the mountain, a shining waste of immense white heaps and masses, to be a region of cloud floating between the blue sky above and the earth far below” (II, iii, 452). The betraying touch is the disappearance of solid ground. The progress of Little Dorrit is along the ground—“restitution on earth, action on earth: these first, as the first steep steps upward” (I, xxvii, 319)—and not through the air. If the static present of Little Dorrit appears hopelessly unalterable, it is nonetheless only through the medium of time that it will be cast away.

“But you know we always make an allowance for friction, and so I have reserved space to close in” (II, xxxiv, 824). These are Doyce's words once more, following an orderly three-point exposition of his rehabilitation of Arthur Clennam at the end of the novel. They reflect the flexibility that goes with Dickens's concern for precision and careful deliberation, and they permit me to attempt a slight correction of my approach in this essay. In this case the space must be filled with a few more words about Dickens's imaginative vitality in Little Dorrit, in order to avoid a subtler kind of utilitarian view of the imagination than that which Dickens satirizes in Gradgrind or Podsnap. In perceiving the theme of growth and change in Little Dorrit, we are liable to misleading abstraction and to neglect of an inventiveness of mind beyond explanation and appreciation in terms of its moral purpose. In the scene where John Chivery protests at what he takes to be Arthur's feigned ignorance of Little Dorrit's love, the theme stands out obviously enough: “… that can't make it gentlemanly, that doesn't make it honourable, that can't justify throwing a person back upon himself after he has struggled and strived out of himself like a butterfly” (II, xxvii, 727). But if we pin the thematic specimen without regard for the sheer playful exuberance with which Dickens creates the absurd rhetorical redundancies of his indignation, we miss the poise of the passage altogether.

Indeed, time is not really felt primarily as an abstract theme in the novel at all. We are conscious of time, first and foremost in the texture of the novel: in the extraordinary improvisatory swiftness of Dickens's imagination, in its quick and deft linking of incongruities. It is the capacity to move with lightning speed between spheres of experience and registers of language that makes the rendering of the “myriad forms” of nature in Little Dorrit something other than solemn cliché. In a sentence like this one describing Mrs. Merdle we have a characteristic example: “And if ever there were an unfeeling handsome chin that looked as, for certain, it had never been, in unfamiliar parlance, ‘chucked’ by the hand of man, it was the chin curbed up so tight and close by that laced bridle” (I, xx, 238). The sentence moves from circumlocutory style, with a hint or two of anachronism—appropriately enough, in the phrase “unfamiliar parlance”—through the familiar and vulgar present of “chucked” with its feel of genuine affection, and back out again by way of the disembodied “hand of man” to the language of horseriding in “curbed up” and “bridle.” The sentence closes with an oxymoron reminding us that restraint chokes the society of the novel not only by means of prison bars but also by means of lace. Nothing appropriate about the powerful moral charge of the sentence can be said without a realization of its fluidity of movement.

A similar swiftness is to be felt in metaphor as it establishes connection between disparate worlds. On one page, where John Chivery makes his nervous attempt to woo Little Dorrit, the items of clothing include “pantaloons so highly decorated with side-stripes, that each leg was a three-stringed lute,” and a great hat turning in John Chivery's hand “like a slowly twirling mouse-cage” (I, xviii, 215). It is not surprising, then, that there is such admiration in the novel for the rapid movements of mind and body in characters of small stature, or for “a woman's quick association of ideas” in Flora Finching (II, xxvii, 732). Only the energies of the imagination are capable of challenging static inertia in Little Dorrit, and of setting the world in motion again.

Avrom Fleishman (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5370

SOURCE: Fleishman, Avrom. “Master and Servant in Little Dorrit.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 14, no. 4 (autumn 1974): 575-86.

[In the following essay, Fleishman examines class inequality and the way it determines character in Little Dorrit.]

In these people, the social will, the will to status, is the ruling faculty. To be recognized, deferred to, and served—this is their master passion.

—Lionel Trilling

The human relationship most frequently found in the world of Little Dorrit is that of master and servant. Often these are the stated roles of the characters: Casby and Pancks, the Meagles and Tattycoram, Mrs. Clennam and the Flintwinches. The activities of several other important personages consist mainly in giving and receiving service. Rigaud/Blandois' bullying employment of Cavalletto is merely the extreme case of a relation that governs almost all life. It includes the central situation in the plot: the life-long dedication of the heroine to her father's maintenance. Indeed, we can say that the normal behavior of men in Dickens' image of society is governed by money and power—two words for the same force—and that these place men inevitably in positions of superiority and inferiority, dominance and obligation. Little Dorrit is our most telling study of a human condition so pervasive as to seem to us almost natural, until objectified and called into question by artistic portrayal. This is the condition described by the sociological term, “class.” It is Dickens' almost unique genius to tell us not only how it feels to be alive in a class society but also how people shape their own character under the spell of inequality.

The general form of the relations between masters and servants has been set out in a philosophical treatise which Dickens is not likely to have known, for it was little read outside philosophical circles in nineteenth-century England. To revert to Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, moreover, for an explanation of events in a novel might appear to some to show undue deference to a self-contained and specialized system. Yet at least one of Hegel's chapters, entitled “Herr und Knecht,” master and servant, is widely regarded by European intellectuals as a kind of master-key to the pattern of modern history from the French Revolution down. It can provide us with suggestive terms in which to consider the generic similarities of widely different situations in the novel—to discover, if possible, the unifying theme of an otherwise diffuse plot.

Hegel begins his account of one stage of the development of the human spirit by defining master and servant in the most elementary terms: “The one is independent, and its essential nature is to be for itself; the other is dependent, and its essence is life or existence for another. The former is the Master, or Lord; the latter the Bondsman [or servant].” All situations, then, in which one person labors for another's good come into this discussion: knight and vassal, conqueror and conquered, employer and worker, God and man, loved one and lover. Hegel's main effort is to trace the dialectic of independence and dependence in the minds of those involved in such relationships. His great discovery is to find in them an invariable process of displacement at work. The master becomes dependent on the servant for his service, and loses his own independence, while the servant grows in strength through his activity itself, and becomes master of his own creative powers:

Just where the master has effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but a dependent consciousness that he has achieved.

… in fashioning the thing, [the servant's] self-existence comes to be felt explicitly as his own proper being, and he attains that consciousness that he himself exists in its own right and on its own account (an und für sich).1

When the difficulties of Hegel's special terminology are dissolved, his insight can be extended—as Marx extended it—to the rising of revolutionary movements in modern times, to the evolution of a secular culture replacing traditional religious authority, and to the development of personal freedom through an awareness of the inhibitions placed on or created by the individual in his psychological relations with others. It is my purpose to trace the latter process of personal liberation as it occurs in Little Dorrit, but this process has an inevitable bearing on social and religious questions as well.

The rise of freedom may take various forms, according to the kind of service rendered. In some cases liberation may be concurrent with the service itself and need not necessarily end it. The most outspoken of rebellions is, of course, Tattycoram's refusal to heed her master's urging that she “count twenty-five”—her usual means of self-suppression. It is noteworthy that this Dickensian orphan's rebellion does not take place because the Meagles treat her badly but precisely because they treat her so well. It is not ingratitude that Tattycoram expresses, but the ignominy of inferiority, conveyed in the coyly deprecating nickname given her by her benefactors. “She would take no more benefits from us,” says Meagles, evidently paraphrasing her own words. It is equally remarkable that her return to her masters is as abject a self-surrender as her declaration of independence had been imperious: “Dear Master, dear Mistress, take me back again, and give me back the dear old name!” (p. 811).2 What she has discovered is that liberation can be as imprisoning as the servitude she has fled. Miss Wade proves a more domineering master than Meagles had ever been.

The perfect type of the unrebellious servant is, on the other hand, Cavalletto. From the opening scene in the Marseilles prison to the denouement in which he discovers Rigaud/Blandois and brings him to Clennam in the Marshalsea, the little Italian is portrayed as a comic but pathetic innocent, unwilling to cooperate with evil but powerless to resist it (his only act of rebellion is to run away from the villain at a French inn). When the finally cornered Rigaud/Blandois turns on his pursuers and demands service from Cavalletto, the latter performs his habitual role with little hesitation, but with his innocence preserved: “The blending, as he did so, of his old submission with a sense of something humorous; the striving of that with a certain smouldering ferocity, which might have flashed fire in an instant … and the easy yielding of all, to a good-natured, careless, predominant propensity to sit down on the ground again; formed a very remarkable combination of character” (p. 746).

If Cavalletto is an abased form of humanity, he nevertheless knows now to keep his revolt smouldering and thereby preserve his moral integrity. The most dehumanized servant of the lot is not he but Affery, the housemaid of Mrs. Clennam taken to wife by Flintwinch in order to keep her bound to the house and its secrets. When she explains her marriage to Clennam, she offers the traditional excuse of the slave: “How could I help myself? … It was no doing o' mine. I'd never thought of it. I'd got something to do, without thinking, indeed!” (p. 38). So completely does Affery renounce responsibility for her thoughts, deeds, and will that she refuses even to acknowledge her own perceptions, and stores them up in her memory as dreams, untrustworthy even to herself. It is true that she manifests a spate of rebellion when Rigaud/Blandois confronts her masters with his discovery of their wrongdoings, but she adds nothing material to the information the blackmailer extorts. The measure of her mortal nature is to be taken from her refusal to help Clennam in his quest after the secrets of his birth: “… do you get the better of 'em afore my face; and then do you say to me, Affery tell your dreams! Maybe, then I'll tell 'em!” (p. 690). She will follow power, whoever wields it—the fortune of the slave.

The most spectacular instance of rebellion in the novel is Pancks's, a rebellion founded on a more acute awareness of his condition than that of any other servant in the novel. Pancks is a potentially tragic figure in his ironic denigration of Casby's rapacity, while remaining powerless to do anything other than his bidding. The poignancy of his assumption of his master's voice is as compelling as its irony: “You're not going to keep open house for all the poor of London,” he tells the amiably agreeing Casby; “You're not going to lodge 'em for nothing. You're not going to open your gates wide and let 'em come free. Not if you know it, you ain't” (p. 156). The gusto with which Pancks eventually conducts a public humiliation of the landlord among the denizens of Bleeding Heart Yard is less a social revolution than an act of personal redemption, and we can say that it is not only from Casby that Pancks liberates himself but from the degradation he has imposed on himself.

The ultimate in rebelliousness is the life-long war against society conducted by Miss Wade. The neurotic and homosexual elements in her personality should not lead us away from the more basic facts of her life: she is a bastard seeking to cancel her social inferiority by proclaiming, like Shakespeare's Edmund, her natural equality. The pattern of the experiences she relates in her “History of a Self-Tormentor” (Book II, Chap. XXI) is that of a consistent refusal of sympathy and help from others. Any acceptance of good from another is an admission that one lacks that good and is therefore inferior. But the more Miss Wade rebels and asserts her independence, the more she cuts herself off from others, isolates herself, and mismanages her life. To take the process a step further: the more she claims equality with the masters by spurning them, the more she proves her inferiority, her inability to live a normal life among them. Therein lies the defeat of the social inferior's—and of many a servant's—rebellion: hers is not a free choice of freedom but a compulsive drive to be free which only increases her bondage and her bitterness.

The most complicated case of servitude and revolt is that of William Dorrit. It can readily be seen that prison, especially the debtor's prison, is a form of servitude, in which not only the freedom but the dignity of the human person are surrendered, forfeit by law. Dorrit responds to this dehumanization by a self-delusion so absolute as to draw his entire community into a complicity of mystification. All agree that he is not only the Father of the Marshalsea but also a gentleman, irrespective of his temporary pecuniary embarrassment. Delusion turns into ironic inversion: not only is he a gentleman, a member of the master-class, but they, his fellow-prisoners, are servants, patronized and protected by their master, the lowliest debtor of them all. The web of illusion takes the form of a charade of feudal obligations: even when Dorrit is tipped by his more fortunate colleagues, the pretense of rendering him tributary dues is observed.

So much is clear from our initial meetings with the strange world of the Marshalsea. What emerges only gradually is the degree to which Dorrit employs both his servility and his pretended mastery as means of aggression, even going beyond his original motives of self-preservation in an alien environment. He not only uses his daughter as a servant, accepting her work and other sacrifices as his due, but also—without a thought of the self-contradictions involved—erects himself as a martyr of self-sacrifice, a servant to his family, by virtue of his imprisonment per se. When he notices Clennam's interest in Amy, he is not adverse to playing the pander, demanding that she encourage Clennam in order to keep him as a soft touch for loans. When she shrinks from this ignominy, Dorrit pursues her with his aggressive servility: “What does it matter whether I eat or starve? What does it matter whether such a blighted life as mine comes to an end, now, next week, or next year? What am I worth to any one? A poor prisoner, fed on alms and broken victuals; a squalid, disgraced wretch?” (p. 227). Dorrit shows himself a master of the fine art of creating guilt-feelings in others, and with guilt a sense of obligation. By turning himself at such times into a servant, he makes others his servants: “… whatever I have done for your sake, my dear child, I have done freely and without murmuring” (p. 230). It is this false self-abnegation that is exposed in the novel by the creation of the image of a genuine servant, Little Dorrit.


The multifarious prison, which has been widely observed to be the central symbol of Little Dorrit, is to be seen in this context as the object which most firmly presents the condition of mastery and servitude. The debtor is the man who has committed the cardinal sin in a “commercial society”: he has used money—which is the instrument of social dominance—to be a master, but has mastered others more than his money permits him legally to do. The appropriate penalty for such presumption is to make him the servant of his creditors, and this servitude is exacted from him in the form not of work but of literal bondage. For the prisoner is nothing but a slave without work: he has lost his power to do what he wills, to be a member of the free community. It is this or such-like reasoning which prompts the heroine of the novel to make an otherwise incomprehensible departure from Victorian moral judgment. When Little Dorrit expresses the wish that her father not be obliged to pay his debts in money, after his accession to wealth, Clennam finds her mind “tainted” by the “prison atmosphere.” But she understands that incarceration is not, as the law pretends, simply a restraint on the debtor from enjoying his creditors' money in freedom, but is the commensurate payment of the debt by making the debtor assume the position of his creditors' servant. It is for this reason that she equates payment in money with payment in freedom: “It seems to me hard … that he should have lost so many years and suffered so much, and at last pay all the debts as well. It seems to me hard that he should pay in life and money both” (p. 422).

Little Dorrit's penetrating view of her father's servitude is given her as a result of her own assumption of the servant's role to her father. A large part of the novel is given over to an excruciating record of Dorrit's degradation of his daughter, his exploitation of her work and self-sacrifice with only sporadic recognition of her merits and of his own obligations to her. We are to find in this parabolic tale a modern instance of the Christian ideal of humility, expressed in dialectical terms. Little Dorrit is the servant of servants, the last and the least. In the words of the Gospel, “He who would be first among you, let him be the servant of all.” By the spiritual inversion of worldly values, the lowest is most high, the servant is master. Her heroic strength lies in her very weakness, and readers who are dissatisfied with her feebleness have missed Dickens' ethical revaluations.

Little Dorrit is given her peculiar grace—the power known by the New Testament word agape, the love that Christ had for man—by virtue of being placed at a limit of human experience. She is not of the children of this world: she is the Child of the Marshalsea, the lowest of the low, and therefore of the blessed poor, of whom is the Kingdom of Heaven. Her name itself is love—Amy, from the French aimée—and her power is to lead the wretched, the servants, the prisoners, to bear their degradation with love. When she offers herself to Clennam as a servant in his imprisonment, she pleads not only for herself but for him: “… do not turn from your Little Dorrit, now, in your affliction! Pray, pray, pray, I beg you and implore you with all my grieving heart, my friend—my dear!—take all I have, and make it a Blessing to me!” (p. 759). When he asks that she not visit him in his affliction, she pleads for herself alone: “O! you will never say to me … that I am not to come back any more! You will surely not desert me so!” (p. 761). We may interpret these exchanges in simple Christian terms—it is more blessed to give than to receive—as Dickens himself would likely have seen them. But we may also find in them the hallmark of the servant's triumph: by making himself indispensable to his master, he makes his service a power and his master a conquest. These scenes, where Clennam is conquered by Little Dorrit's love, are among the most beautiful in the entire literature of love, for the heroine wins her romantic suit for the hero by the force not of her attractiveness but of her submissiveness: eros triumphs by agape.3

Little Dorrit is the heroine of a novel of masters and servants because she reaches an absolute of servitude itself: she is the perfect servant, who loves those she serves, and indeed serves them only because she loves them. When her “master” can learn to love her in return, as Clennam does, the gulf between master and servant can be bridged, establishing a model for similar social dichotomies to be resolved. There is little doubt that Dickens intended this plot—the transcendence of master and servant relations by the relationship of love—as his explicit moral in the tale. But its application cannot be socially repressive. Meagles extracts from Little Dorrit's servitude a lesson to instruct the penitent Tattycoram: Little Dorrit's “young life has been one of active resignation, goodness, and noble service. … Duty, Tattycoram. Begin it early, and do it well …” (pp. 812-813). But Little Dorrit herself teaches that it is not to worldly masters that we are to submit, but to the only true one, the master of masters, when she tells Mrs. Clennam: “Be guided only by … the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities” (p. 792).

When the servant learns to serve God and individual worthy men with love, he may be tempted to abandon his power to judge. The moral flaw in an otherwise revelatory novel is that its heroine fails to condemn the injustices which author and readers join in excoriating. We all feel the outrage of the Dorrits' treatment of Clennam, among others, after their accession to wealth. Yet for Little Dorrit, her father's snobbery is to be pardoned because it can be understood: “She felt that, in what he had just now said to her [about conforming to Mrs. General's standards of gentility], and in his whole bearing towards her, there was the well-known shadow of the Marshalsea wall. … She had no blame to bestow upon him, therefore: nothing to reproach him with, no emotions in her faithful heart but great compassion and unbounded tenderness” (p. 478). It is an emotion which we are asked to admire but cannot share. Dickens' own feelings are most often with the rebels, furiously engaged against the exactions of the masters. Throughout his life, he—like many of his contemporaries—was attracted by Christian quietism, the patient acquiescence in evil as of the divine will, the forgiveness of enemies in awareness of one's own sinfulness. These were the virtues which Nietzsche found the hallmark of the Christian slave-psychology: unable to defeat the masters of the world, the slave makes a virtue of his own powerlessness, his own servitude. It was this ideal that Dickens portrayed in the person of Little Dorrit, but his searing image of a class-subordinated society cannot be subsumed in the vision of grace, and the servant's revolt against his unjust masters remains an imaginative option in the novel's denouement: Little Dorrit is complemented by Pancks.


At the exact center of Little Dorrit—between the indignant portrait of a “commercial society” and the transcendent loving-kindness of the heroine—stands the hero of the novel, Arthur Clennam. In his development lies a modus vivendi between the extremes of mastery and servitude, between domination and self-abnegation. Clennam has been slighted by most critics and he is admittedly an unlikely prospect to play the heroic role in so grand an ethical drama as this novel presents. Much of the action is, however, narrated from his point of view and his reflections on the world around him are closest to the informed observer's—that is to say, to Dickens' own. It is this very mediocrity that is his limitation and his strength as a hero: we have here to do with one of the first exemplars of a character-type that has come to dominate contemporary literature, the anti-hero. Clennam is, to be sure, a mixture of two earlier Dickensian protagonists, the innocent fronting a mysterious and hostile adult world, and the good father-figure or benefactor who can obviate the innocent's difficulties with his money. Although he combines elements of Dickens' stock-in-trade, Clennam nevertheless initiates a new type of Dickensian hero: the melancholy searcher after a meaning in life—to be followed by Sidney Carton of A Tale of Two Cities, Pip of Great Expectations, and John Harmon of Our Mutual Friend. In their status as seekers, they can be seen as modifications of the typical nineteenth-century hero, “the young man from the provinces” who comes to the metropolis to seek his fortune and is led through disillusioning experiences at all levels of society. Yet Dickens' disappointed middle-aged men represent a more advanced stage of the innocent youth's induction into the fallen world.

Their condition may best be described in terms provided by the French sociologist of literature, Lucien Goldmann: they are engaged in a “degraded research” (une recherche dégradée—the translation is best kept close to the original), a quest for authentic values in a degraded world, while themselves sharing in the degradation of that world. Such a hero—whether he be animated by abstract idealism like Don Quixote and his successors, by a labyrinthine psychology like Dostoyevsky's heroes, or by an educational curiosity about life like the heroes of Balzac and Stendhal—is always “a problematic personage whose degraded—and by the same token inauthentic—research of authentic values in a world of conformism and convention, constitutes the content of that new literary genre which writers have created in an individualist society, and which is called ‘the novel.’”4 Considered in this way, Dickens' erection of Clennam as hero gives further ground for placing Little Dorrit in the great tradition not merely of English but of European fiction.

Clennam is introduced to us as a British colonial merchant, returning to England after twenty-five years in China (which seem to have passed without leaving any noticeable imprint on him), and anxious to create a life for himself out of the scattered fragments of his past. On the one hand he is met by the coldest mother in the history of the novel (a mother-surrogate who derives from fairy-tale), and on the other by a gushing former love who pursues him relentlessly with the flow of her manic language. Depressed by the former and frightened—often absurdly embarrassed—by the latter, he sets out to solve the fundamental problems of life: the finding of a mate, the choice of a vocation, the problems of self-knowledge and social orientation. In every way he meets failure: the girl he first falls in love with marries a scoundrel, while patronizing Clennam tenderly but cruelly; he ruins his promising business enterprise with Doyce by investing all their funds in the Merdle house-of-cards; and he is frustrated in his attempts to wheedle information about his origins—and about the guilt which he feels attaches on his family fortune—out of his implacable mother. His course lies, in sum, steadily downward, from his initial renunciation of his position in the family business, to his compromising of his business affairs by futile engagement in the toils of the Circumlocution Office, to the destruction of his fortunes by naive speculation. In total defeat, he experiences the sickness unto death: his thoughts turn frequently to suicide as he watches the Thames flow to the sea, and his favorite characterization of himself is “nobody.”

Yet Arthur Clennam is not merely the hapless non-entity he makes himself out to be. Dickens endows him with an elementary humanity rare in the world of the novel:

He was a dreamer in such wise, because he was a man who had, deep-rooted in his nature, a belief in all the gentle and good things his life had been without. Bred in meanness and hard dealing, this had rescued him to be a man of honourable mind and open hand. Bred in coldness and severity, this had rescued him to have a warm and sympathetic heart. Bred in a creed too darkly audacious to pursue … this had rescued him to judge not, and in humility to be merciful, and have hope and charity.

(p. 165)

The best thing to be said for Clennam is that Little Dorrit loves him from the first, and that his worldly limitations and spiritual gifts make him an appropriate object of her love.

Why is it, then, that Clennam must go through a sort of purgatorial process which brings him as low as the Marshalsea before he can recognize Little Dorrit's and his own mutual attraction and finally join together with her? All sorts of explanations have been offered: the plotting of the novel in two books, entitled “Poverty” and “Riches,” demands an ironic inversion which brings the gentleman hero to the bottom while the outcast heroine is thrust to the pinnacle of the social scale; the hero's adventures are like the trials of the heroes of medieval romance, and he must be rescued by the beneficence of his maiden fair; the repressed sexuality of their relationship must be led to a crisis in order to bring it to the surface; etc. These observations are all in point—indeed, one of the guarantees of the novel's greatness is the accessibility of its plot to complementary symbolic interpretations—but the dialectics of mastery and subordination can help to integrate them and show the formal order of the denouement.

Little Dorrit comes to Clennam in her old, worn dress, comforts him in the room where her father lived, and calls herself, “Your own poor child come back!” (p. 756). It is not enough to observe that Clennam takes for her the place of her recently-dead father, just as she performs the role of a nurturing mother such as he has never known. The subsequent lines are quite explicit on their psychological sources: “… drawing an arm softly round his neck, [she] laid his head upon her bosom, put a hand upon his head, and resting her cheek upon that hand, nursed him as lovingly, and God knows as innocently, as she had nursed her father in that room when she had been but a baby, needing all the care from others that she took of them.” Just as her child-like innocence fits her for a higher realm, so she is able to bring up others, to educate and prepare them for a higher life. The child becomes parent. This deeply rooted convention is made relevant here to the transvaluation of values the novel effects.

Amy is both child and mother to her lover, as she had been to her father; but Clennam proves a better object of love than Dorrit, rejecting her attempts to abase herself to his level by refusing to let her join him in prison. Clennam has been degraded to the same condition as Dorrit—even Rigaud/Blandois greets him as a “fellow jail-bird”—but he is given a chance to affirm his freedom from both mastery and servitude by refusing to become a new Dorrit for Amy. The train of subordinations must have an end; the pattern of competitive self-denial must cease. He refuses to allow her to sacrifice her fortune for him: “‘I am disgraced enough, my Little Dorrit. I must not descend so low as that, and carry you—so dear, so generous, so good—down with me. God bless you, God reward you! It is past.’ He took her in his arms, as if she had been his daughter” (p. 760). When Clennam refuses to let Amy become merely a substitute mother to him, they are well on the way to a new relationship, that of equals in married love. When Clennam has reached this point, when he can refuse Amy's sacrifice, he has passed through the prison of the world to a higher freedom. The triumph of Clennam's degraded research is to be able, on the strength of his observation of Dorrit's and others' degradation, to refuse the servile system of the prison and to strip himself bare, neither having nor being a servant.

One further liberation is, however, necessary. Amy, in her turn, must dispense with her two fortunes, if the pattern of inequality and dependence is not to be revived. The Dorrit inheritance is, fortunately, lost in the Merdle crash, and she then voluntarily surrenders the Clennam bequest which would come to her on publication of the concealed codicil. Only when Little Dorrit announces the loss of her fortune can they marry: for her it is a chance to divest herself of material superiority, while for him it represents the end of their initial disparity of class, which had colored their relations throughout their growing love. This marriage—along with Clennam's other equal partnership, with Doyce—is the only fully human relationship in the world of Little Dorrit. The closing image contrasts their equilibrium in equality and the world's instability in its competition for mastery: “They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar” (p. 826).


  1. The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (London and New York, rev. ed., 1931), pp. 234, 236-237, 239.

  2. All quotations are from the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition (which reprints the Charles Dickens and Nonesuch Editions' text), and references will be made parenthetically.

  3. It should nevertheless not be overlooked that Little Dorrit employs her father's aggressive-submissive psychological tactics when her own deepest interests are at stake. In her timid love for Clennam, she is an ingenious competitor for his affection, while consciously renouncing the possibility and even the propriety of winning him. Her two letters from Italy are unmistakably love-letters, and Dickens used them to close two installments of the periodical publication as romantic climaxes. They are reports of Pet's marriage calculated to disturb Clennam, perhaps into renouncing his love for Pet, but certainly into emotional dependence on the reporter of the disturbing news. So chilling is her report that she is forced to explain “why I have resolved to tell you so much even while I am afraid it may make you a little uncomfortable without occasion. … She is so true and so devoted, and knows so completely that all her love and duty are his for ever, that you may be certain she will love him, admire him, praise him, and conceal all his faults, until she dies” (p. 552). Only later on in the same letter does she remember to add that Pet has had a baby! Still further on, she deftly informs him, “I have no lover, of course.” Thus Amy can portray herself as a devoted friend serving Clennam, while actually manipulating his feelings in her own behalf. But these are lapses into the wiles of romantic love; Little Dorrit's powers in other forms of love are even more effective in pursuit of the loved one, and she has ultimately no need to revert to the ways of lesser mortals.

  4. “Introduction aux problèmes d'une sociologie du roman,” Revue de l'Institut de Sociologie (Brussels, 1962-1963), pp. 225ff. Reprinted in Goldmann's Pour une sociologie du roman (Paris, 1964).

Janice M. Carlisle (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9261

SOURCE: Carlisle, Janice M. “Little Dorrit: Necessary Fictions.” Studies in the Novel 7, no. 2 (summer 1975): 195-214.

[In the following essay, Carlisle examines the relationship between Little Dorrit as a work of fiction, and the various fictions or illusions created within the novel by its characters.]

On the last page of Little Dorrit (1855-57), Dickens describes the wedding of Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. Literally the last words accorded to a character are spoken by the most minor of them all, “the sexton, or the beadle, or the verger, or whatever he was”1 of Saint George's Church. He explains the “special interest” that observers take in Little Dorrit's wedding:

“For, you see,” said Little Dorrit's old friend, “this young lady is one of our curiosities, and has come now to the third volume of our Registers. Her birth is in what I call the first volume; she lay asleep on this very floor, with her pretty head on what I call the second volume; and she's now a-writing her little name as a bride, in what I call the third volume”

(p. 826).

The implications of this comment justify the place of distinction it is given. Little Dorrit is an inquiry into the moral status of fiction; and here Dickens makes a final self-conscious reference to his own literary form. It is an obvious parody of the conventional narrative pattern which opens with a birth in the first volume and ends with a marriage in the final volume. The primary function of the passage is to juxtapose the actions of individual characters against the ultimate realities of birth and death. Yet it also provides a comic perspective on Little Dorrit itself: the official unwittingly compares the biography of Amy Dorrit to the fictional form it assumes, the actual novel that the reader is holding. His displacement of the conventional order of the three elemental human experiences—birth, death, and union—traces sequentially the three main events of Little Dorrit's life: her birth, her father's death, and her marriage to Clennam. An even more complicated reference is involved: the functionary's concern for his three volumes is a witty allusion to the form of publication that was the major rival of Dickens's twenty-number serials. With a few sentences, Dickens has created an analogy between the novel he has written about Amy Dorrit's life and the pattern that Saint George's three Registers impose on her life.

This analogy might suggest a certain uneasiness on Dickens's part. Throughout Little Dorrit he repeatedly draws attention to the moral ambiguities involved in any attempt to present life in a fictional form. The nameless, functionless church appendage embodies one of these ambiguities. He is both kind and insensitive to Little Dorrit: he finds her a place to sleep when she has been locked out of the Marshalsea earlier in the novel, yet here he regards her as an object, merely “one of [his] curiosities.” As Dickens had good occasion to know, the term “fiction” is itself weighted with moral ambiguity: it shares a common root with “feign” and means literally something fashioned or invented, something artificial rather than real. In its most derogatory sense, it is a lie, a deception, an attempt to hide or disguise facts. (The OED documents the use of the word “fiction” to define both the “action of ‘feigning’ … whether for the purpose of deception or otherwise” and “fictitious composition” throughout the nineteenth century. It cites, for example, Bulwer-Lytton's Devereux [1829]: “Old people like history better than fiction.” The word “fictionist” used in place of “novelist” is recorded for 1829, 1836, and 1875.) Unlike the morally neutral term “novel,” “fiction” implies an unfavorable comparison with the concepts of reality and history. When Dickens refuted the Edinburgh Review attack on Little Dorrit, he ironically described the Circumlocution Office as an “idle fiction”:2 such a use of the word presumes an awareness of its pejorative nature. This awareness would have come naturally to a novelist who listened to Thomas Carlyle as attentively as Dickens did. If Carlyle had little patience with readers of novels—he thought they should be separated along with the insane from the serious readers in the British Museum—he had even less for novelists themselves. He was not above charging the “fictionist” with outright moral irresponsibility: “Oh my friend, you will have to think how perilous and close a cousinship it has with lying.”3 The social criticism of Little Dorrit owes a great deal to Carlyle's thought, and Dickens embodied one of his teacher's concerns, the questionable moral status of fiction, its cousinship with lying, within the form of the novel. He develops a correlation between the fictions, the lies, that the characters tell each other or themselves and the novel he is writing—at its center is the unlikely figure of Little Dorrit. She is not at all the conventional heroine: the equivocal nature of her actions qualifies her for the title role in a novel replete with deceptions. The way in which this correlation defines fiction as one of the arts of How Not to Do It is the subject of the present essay.

Little Dorrit presents formidable critical problems. It is so complex that even the most convincing descriptions of it seem reductive. Yet it is also a novel built on the idea of simple and radical contrasts, as every critic writing on the novel has noticed. One of the first, John Forster, spoke of Dickens's “clear design … of contrasting, both in private and in public life, and in poverty equally as in wealth, duty done and duty not done.”4 Dickens himself tirelessly insists on the contrasting elements in his novel. To begin on the most familiar note: Little Dorrit is divided into two books, “Poverty” and “Riches,” and it explores two modes of existence, freedom and imprisonment. There are two Dorrits, Proud William and Humble Frederick, two manifestly contrasted sisters, and twin Flintwinches. Two radically different types of motion typify action in the novel: the linear journey along the highroad of life and the labyrinthian circularity of bureaucracy and imprisonment. This development by antithesis is so obvious as to be misleading. Critics usually deal with this aspect of the book in one of two ways. Either the polarities merge in an ironic statement—the social world does not contrast with the prison: it is a prison. Or one polarity disappears completely in the resolution reached by the novel—the state of imprisonment is conquered by Little Dorrit's liberating love. But such basically reductive approaches simply do not do justice to the complexity of Little Dorrit. This point becomes especially evident in any consideration of what has been called the major polarity of the novel, the problem of appearance and reality. In many ways, tracking down this dichotomy is an old and rather obvious critical tactic: very little ingenuity is needed to discern the theme of seeming and being in practically any work of literature. Commentators on this particular novel tend to treat Dickens's version as if it were a rather straight-forward rendition of the same old theme. By using such conspicuous examples as the broad expanse of flesh that constitutes the Bosom of Society or Mrs. General's “surface and varnish, and show without substance” (p. 504), they are able to claim that appearances are false and therefore bad and that the destruction of appearances, the emergence of reality, is the highest moral good. To be morally effective, therefore, the action of the novel must invalidate the sham of seeming and reveal the essence of being to the reader.5Little Dorrit is thus Dickens's most “profoundly optimistic” novel because, in the end, love stands as the only reality,6 or it is profoundly grim because misery is “that great reality lying behind genteel illusion.”7 As one critic sees it, the final chapters of the novel present “an end to surfaces for good and all,” and the “life of surface and sham” is “set aside” for a “new and valid” life of reality.8 But Little Dorrit is a novel that can be more justly characterized by ambiguity than by such simple resolutions. To see how Dickens uses simple contrast to develop cases of rather startling complexity, one need only look at one aspect of the contrast: the instances in which characters create “fictions” to hide the “reality” of their feelings or social positions.

Dickens continually emphasizes the role that the creation of fictions plays in the world of Little Dorrit. Involved “legends” surround the name of Bleeding Heart Yard or explain Frederick Dorrit's odd behavior in the theater where he plays the clarinet, and “stories” account for Edmund Sparkler's dim-wittedness. According to Tite Barnacle, Dorrit is the subject of “‘a good story, as a story’”: he is granted his freedom when “‘the fairy [comes] out of the Bank and [gives] him his fortune’” (p. 565). This penchant for fictionalizing experience or identities is apparent in the names the characters give others or assume for themselves. The villain uses names as a disguise: he is, variously, Rigaud, Lagnier, and Blandois. The Meagleses deny Harriet Beadle's essential equality to their daughter by calling her Tattycoram. Flora calls Clennam “Doyce and Clennam” in a preposterously halfhearted attempt to disguise her early attachment to “Arthur.” Dickens develops this theme most extensively and effectively when he catches characters in the act of fictionalizing their own experience in self-consciously created, sustained narratives. His use of the first person in the memorandum book which he began to keep six months before he started writing Little Dorrit suggests that he was increasingly anxious to let his characters present themselves in their own voices. In Little Dorrit, characters often use narrative frameworks to explain themselves. Flora falls back on various literary sources—including the myths of Cain and Pygmalion, Wordsworth's Prelude, and The Winter's Tale9—to re-create the past in the present: she even manages to persuade Little Dorrit that Clennam is still in love with her. Young John Chivery, that “pining shepherd” in his “tuneless groves” of laundry (pp. 297, 258), composes epitaphs for his own gravestone that plot the course of his love for Little Dorrit: at the end of the novel, his imagined tomb triumphantly proclaims that he “for the sake of the loved one … became magnanimous” (p. 734). Clennam can only express his feelings by creating an objectified version of himself, “Nobody.” After he “decides” not to fall in love with Pet Meagles, his references to “Nobody's State of Mind” constitute a futile attempt to deceive himself about his own state of mind. Meagles fosters this self-deception with his own fiction of the continued growth of Pet's dead twin; the idea is so powerfully conceived that Clennam imagines himself as the twin's widower. When Dickens is finally ready to reveal the events surrounding Arthur's birth, he notes in his number plans, “Tell the whole story, working it out as much as possible through Mrs Clennam herself.10 What is remarkable about the way Dickens tells “the whole story” is his emphasis on it as narrative. Blandois confronts Mrs. Clennam and offers to tell a “‘ravishing little family history’” (p. 771). He assumes the role of entertainer: “‘I perceive I interest you. I perceive I awaken your sympathy’” (p. 772). But Mrs. Clennam will not accept the “glass” in which Blandois offers to present her: “‘I will tell it myself! … I will be known as I know myself’” (pp. 774-76). Her version of events, weighted down by vindictive Calvinistic language, is simply a modern Old Testament story: God's righteous fury works itself out through his human instruments. Miss Wade's story is the most conspicuous example of a character's use of his own experience as the source of fiction. Her autobiographical account is an interpolated narrative with its own grandiose, self-advertising title, “The History of a Self Tormentor,” its own plot, characters, moral. Dickens describes this History in his memorandum for the chapter: “From her own point of view. Dissect it” (Plans, p. 50): the narrative is to be Miss Wade's “own” peculiar paranoid reconstruction of events. She uses both Clennam, her audience, and the narrative itself as a “looking-glass” to reflect the version of reality she wants to see. That both Mrs. Clennam and Miss Wade explain their activities by referring to a mirror is not accidental: their fictions are appropriately defined by the traditional symbol of art.

According to conventional critical approaches and the moral assumptions behind them, all such acts of fictionalization are clearly immoral. A fiction in this sense is a lie. Throughout Little Dorrit, Dickens insists upon this interpretation of the word. The narrator's disgust with Dorrit's pretensions to the status of a gentleman is transparent: he speaks of “the miserably ragged old fiction of the family gentility” (p. 213); as Dickens knew too well, debt is not genteel, and he is angered by any attempt to pretend it is. The “little fiction” that Mrs. Plornish creates by having her shop wall “painted to represent the exterior of a thatched cottage” is a “most wonderful deception” (p. 574); wonderful, but still a deception. Yet this version of the problem of appearance and reality goes beyond the narrow definition of fiction as a lie. One need only realize the extent to which Little Dorrit herself is intimately involved in analogous acts of fictionalization, of deception and lying, to recognize the complexity and subtlety with which Dickens formulates this problem.

Little Dorrit is a good woman. She is a dutiful daughter, a loving sister, and presumably she will be a dutiful and loving wife. No one can fail to notice Amy's goodness: she is, as one critic puts it, the image of “composed spiritual health.”11 F. R. Leavis exults in Little Dorrit's goodness:

Her genius is to be always beyond question genuine—real. She is indefectibly real, and the test of reality for the others. … The characteristic manifests itself in her power to be, for her father and brother and sister, the never-failing providence, the vital core of sincerity, the conscience, the courage of moral percipience, the saving realism, that preserves for them the necessary bare minimum of the real beneath the fantastic play of snobberies, pretences and self-deceptions that constitutes the genteel life in the Marshalsea.12

This description of Little Dorrit's role is eloquent, indeed moving; and it does conform to one's sense of her status in the moral hierarchy of the novel. There is only one problem: it is patently inaccurate. Leavis's comment refers to Amy specifically when she and her family inhabit the Marshalsea. Is she the “saving realism” or does she cooperate to create and sustain “the fantastic play of snobberies, pretences and self-deceptions that constitutes the genteel life in the Marshalsea”? Of course, Dorrit himself creates the fiction that he is a gentleman, a public figure with a public duty among the Collegians. But Little Dorrit—not her father or brother or sister—is the character who “preserves” the “genteel fiction that they [are] all idle beggars together” (p. 74). She is the one who tells her father stories to conceal the shaming fact that Fanny dances for a living. She never questions the “family fiction” that she knows nothing of the world beyond the prison (p. 234). She is the one who maintains the “pious fraud” that her brother Tip is a visitor, not an inmate, in the debtors' prison. Tip himself demonstrates some healthy skepticism about the need for all this prevaricating: he tells Clennam that he is a prisoner; “‘only my sister has a theory that our governor must never know it. I don't see why, myself’” (p. 87). Little Dorrit is not particularly pleased with her role—she does not like “becom[ing] secret with” Mrs. Clennam (p. 86)—but she insists that her role is necessary. She explains to Clennam that, in order to see Fanny in the theater, she must “pretend” that she is going to a party: “‘I hope there is no harm in it. I could never have been of any use, if I had not pretended a little’” (p. 169). At the end of the chapter, the narrator presents his own bitter evaluation of such pretenses: “This was Little Dorrit's party. The shame, desertion, wretchedness, and exposure, of the great capital; the wet, the cold, the slow hours, and the swift clouds, of the dismal night. This was the party from which Little Dorrit went home” (p. 177). The disjunction between the “white lies” Little Dorrit tells and the reality she experiences could hardly be more complete.

As long as Little Dorrit can sustain the fiction of her father's love and concern, she and the rest of the family can survive. She is utterly defeated by any event which reveals the true nature of his feelings. In two scenes in the Marshalsea, Dorrit confronts her with the reality of his position. When Little Dorrit fails to humor John Chivery, Dorrit rebukes her and describes himself as a “‘poor prisoner, fed on alms and broken victuals; a squalid, disgraced wretch’” (p. 227). This line literally brings Amy to her knees. Later, he is “cut to the soul” because she has been seen in public with the pauper Old Nandy, and he sobs while Fanny tells her exactly what she is, “‘you Common-minded little Amy. You complete prison-child!’” (p. 368). Again, she kneels before her father and begs his forgiveness. The fictions that little Dorrit sustains are among the most morally debilitating in the novel: like Tip, the reader may wonder whether she actually helps her father by fostering his self-deceptions. Throughout the second book, Little Dorrit deserves Leavis's praise: when confronted with the unreality of social conventions, she asserts her human reality, her inability to deal in fictions. She becomes “the test of reality for the others.” Yet, in Book the First, while she still inhabits the Marshalsea, she is what Fanny labels her, a “‘prevaricating little piece of goods’” (p. 369).

If, in the second half of the novel, Little Dorrit's presence invalidates the fictions on which her family depends, she maintains, in persistent and baffling ways, some extraordinary fictions about herself. This point explains her repeated insistence that her name is Little Dorrit, not Amy. As Flora perceptively comments earlier in the novel, it is “‘of all the strangest names I ever heard the strangest, like a place down in the country with a turnpike, or a favourite pony or a puppy or a bird or something from a seed-shop to be put in a garden or a flower-pot and come up speckled’” (p. 270). One expects a “little dorrit” to come up speckled: it is hardly a human name. And Little Dorrit uses it to conceal the human potentiality of her relationship with Arthur Clennam. Throughout the two chapters which recount her early history, Dickens refers to her either as Amy or as the Child of the Marshalsea, but he prepares for her later deception of Clennam by reserving the name Little Dorrit until Clennam sees her enter the Marshalsea at the end of chapter 7. Clennam has a tendency to think of her as “his adopted daughter” (p. 188), and Little Dorrit uses her diminutive name to sustain that fiction. She writes him about her friendship with Pet: “she speaks to me by my name—I mean, not my Christian name, but the name you gave me. When she began to call me Amy, I told her my short story, and that you had always called me Little Dorrit. I told her that the name was much dearer to me than any other, and so she calls me Little Dorrit too” (p. 552). Though Clennam has accepted the practice of calling her Little Dorrit, he is not responsible for giving her that name—Affery first mentions it when he asks who she is. Amy herself prefers the name of a “poor child” because it conceals the fact that she is old enough to love Clennam. This deception persists through the last chapter of the novel. Arthur refers to her as Amy, and she responds by correcting him: “‘Little Dorrit. Never any other name’” (p. 822). Even their mutual protestations of love do not dissolve the fiction of her daughterliness. As the church functionary says on the last page, Little Dorrit signs her “‘little name’” into the Marriage Register.

Just as Miss Wade tells her “History of a Self Tormentor,” Little Dorrit tells her own story in the guise of the fairy tale with which she entertains Maggy.13 This interpolated narrative is the counterpart of Clennam's conception of himself as Nobody. A “‘poor little tiny woman’” (p. 293) spins in her cottage while she mourns the loss of “‘Some one who had gone by long before’” (p. 294). Eventually the little woman dies and the shadow of “Some one” descends into her grave. The little woman is obviously Little Dorrit; Clennam is “Some one”—in a curious way both of their tales reduce him to an indefinite pronoun.14 Just as Clennam turns himself into a ghost wed to Pet's dead sister, Little Dorrit's storytelling makes a grotesque comment on her sense of identity: she becomes a corpse united to a shadow. The fairy-tale quality of his narrative reinforces the fiction that Little Dorrit is somehow unsubstantial, unreal. It is consistent with Fanny's calling her “‘Amiable and dear little Twoshoes!’” (p. 698) and with Flora's addressing her as an “‘industrious little fairy’” (p. 284). When Clennam later proclaims that he is beyond the age of marriage and Little Dorrit conceals her feelings, Maggy refers to the story of the little woman. Little Dorrit has said, “‘I have no secret,’” but Maggy senses the truth: “‘It was the little woman as had the secret’” (pp. 382-83). She begs Little Dorrit to tell the story, but Amy refuses by dismissing it as “only a Fairy Tale.” The irony is apparent: if she did tell the story, her story, she and Clennam might have a chance to comprehend the reality of their feelings for each other.

The ambiguity of Little Dorrit's role in the creation of fictions within the novel is definitely and finally established in the last scene between Clennam and herself. Dickens's memorandum—“Scene (reserve carefully till now) between Little Dorrit and Arthur” (Plans, p. 60)—suggests the particular importance of this scene within the narrative pattern of the novel. On the morning they are to be married, Amy joins Arthur in his room at the Marshalsea. She has told him that she is poor again, and Doyce has returned from the Barbaric Power with the money needed to free him. Amy has sent Meagles to the Continent to retrieve the original copy of the codicil which proves that Mrs. Clennam had cheated her of a legacy of one thousand guineas. Tattycoram has saved the papers, and Little Dorrit can maintain the fiction that Arthur's suspicions about his mother were unfounded: “The secret was safe now! She could keep her own part of it from him; he should never know of her loss” (p. 812). In this last scene, Little Dorrit asks Clennam to burn a piece of paper, the codicil he is never to know about:

“My dear love,” said Arthur. “Why does Maggy light the fire? We shall be gone directly.”

“I asked her to do it. I have taken such an odd fancy. I want you to burn something for me.”


“Only this folded paper. If you will put it in the fire with your own hand, just as it is, my fancy will be gratified.”

“Superstitious, darling Little Dorrit? Is it a charm?”

“It is anything you like best, my own,” she answered, laughing with glistening eyes and standing on tiptoe to kiss him, “if you will only humour me when the fire burns up.” …

“Does the charm want any words to be said?” asked Arthur, as he held the paper over the flame. “You can say (if you don't mind) ‘I love you!’” answered Little Dorrit. So he said it, and the paper burned away

(pp. 824-25).

The surface sweetness of this dialogue belies its essential meaning. John Holloway has said that the last chapters of the novel constitute “an end to surfaces for good and all.”15 In this scene, however, Little Dorrit merely continues to maintain surfaces and sustain fictions. Clennam asks, “Is it a charm?” and she responds with a patent deception, “It is anything you like best”—her answer is certainly an interesting case of the transforming powers of the imagination. Their life together is begun with the inception of a new fiction, a new instance of secrecy. Only by withholding the “reality” of their legal relation—Clennam, through his “mother,” stands in debt to Little Dorrit—can their emotional relation survive. Little Dorrit assumes that by burning the paper she can destroy the past. From the very opening of the novel, Clennam has suspected that his mother is guilty of some wrong. Here he is deprived not only of the opportunity to make reparations, but also of the very knowledge that reparations are at all appropriate. Little Dorrit assumes that in destroying the evidence of the “curse” of the past she can transform that curse into a “charm” to bless the opening of their life together. This scene is the enactment of a lie, a crucial deception: here Little Dorrit creates her ultimate fiction, her last “odd fancy.”

But Little Dorrit and Arthur are blessed; they are, as Dickens tells us, “inseparable and blessed.” And we know that Little Dorrit, that “prevaricating little piece of goods,” is good.16 On the one hand, questioning the wisdom or the moral implications of her fictions lies at the center of perceiving the meaning of the novel; on the other hand, such questioning is rendered pointless by her irrevocable status as the embodiment of the novel's moral values. It is true of the novel as a whole, as it is true of what Clennam calls his “poor story,” that Little Dorrit is “its vanishing-point. Everything in its perspective led to her innocent figure. … it was the centre of the interest of his life; it was the termination of everything that was good and pleasant in it; beyond there was nothing but mere waste and darkened sky” (p. 733). Little Dorrit's role can be both ambiguous and unquestionably moral because of the context, the novel, in which she appears. Her lies are peculiarly like the “lies” that the novelist tells:17 she deals with Clennam in much the same way in which Dickens deals with the reader. Like Little Dorrit, Dickens fails to confront certain facts, he ignores certain problems and suggests that others cannot be solved. But such acts of deception do not undercut the moral status of the novel. They are not open to questioning on moral grounds: they are acceptable simply because they are necessary. Telling the “truth” necessarily involves such deceptions, such failures to tell the whole story.

The kinship between Little Dorrit and her creator becomes evident after an examination of Dickens's handling of the plot. From the earliest reviewers such as Fitzjames Stephen to the most recent critics of the novel, readers have complained of the complexity of its plot.18 John Holloway, in his recent edition, has even felt it necessary to include a two-page explanation of the events behind the dénouement. In his article on the political implications of the novel, William Myers dissents from this conventional judgment: he insists that “proper recognition must be given to the plot, which is still too frequently dismissed or undervalued.” According to Myers, the plot “unfolds freely and yet with the inevitability of a well-told story … in a way which … must, if the novel has any value at all, relate centrally to its meaning.” To accord the plot this much praise, however, Myers isolates and dismisses its “deliberate mystery element.” The “secrets of Arthur Clennam's birth, of Mrs. Clennam's connection with the Dorrits, and of Blandois's association with Flintwich's [sic] brother and Miss Wade” are conventional and insignificant aspects of the plot: they are “not … the ‘story.’”19 Yet Dickens's careful handling of this “mystery element” suggests that it does “relate centrally” to the meaning of the novel.

As Dickens repeatedly affirmed and as Forster emphasized in his account of Little Dorrit in the Life, Dickens hoped to do something new with the plot and its effect on his readers. His memorandum for the first number explains his intentions: “People to meet and part as travellers do, and the future connexion between them in the story, not to be shewn to the reader but to be worked out as in life. Try this uncertainty and this not-putting of them together, as a new means of interest. Indicate and carry through this intention” (Plans, p. 23). Dickens repeated this intention to Forster in a somewhat more conventional manner: he would “‘connect [the characters] afterwards, and … make the waiting for that connection a part of the interest.’”20 The common assumption—made first by Forster and echoed by K. J. Fielding and Paul Herring21—is that Dickens failed to follow this plan. In one sense, that is true: by presenting one group of travellers in quarantine in chapter 2 of the first book and another group in the monastery of the Great Saint Bernard in the first chapter of Book the Second, Dickens has already made “connections” between them. Yet, in another sense, his plan, originally developed merely to excite the reader's curiosity about specific events, became his ultimate narrative strategy. In the second chapter, Miss Wade delivers an oracular comment that seems to promise that the patterns of the novel will work themselves out in a neat imitation of fate: “‘In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us, from many strange places and by many strange roads … and what is set to us to do to them, and what it is set to them to do to us, will all be done’” (p. 25). In his remarks at the end of the chapter, the narrator adopts Miss Wade's metaphor of life as a journey: “And thus … journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life” (p. 27). The narrator here promises that the characters will meet and act and react on one another. According to this definition, the “connections” Dickens speaks of in the number plans are the primary, vital connections of human responsiveness. The reader ultimately learns that both the narrator and Miss Wade have issued empty promises. Sixteen numbers later we discover that Miss Wade's manipulations, not the workings of blind chance, have brought her into proximity with the Meagleses. At the end of the novel, the reader realizes too well that the narrator's intentions have been equally deceptive. The entire action of the novel might be described as an attempt to get answers, allay suspicions, and establish connections. Dickens develops supposedly solvable mysteries and he suggests potential relationships; but, in the end, he refuses to fulfill the expectations he arouses. He does not provide the conclusive statements characteristic of a conventional narrative pattern.

The mystery element in Little Dorrit is nothing if not “deliberate.” It carries more emphasis than considerations of plot line or the need to elicit the reader's interest would justify. Because of its baffling complexity, the plot cannot serve simply as a way of “reassuring the reader, of promising that some, at least, of the novel's problems can be solved like a puzzle—simply by persistence and ingenuity.”22 Clennam is the focus of the suspicions and secrets which pervade the novel. He is always asking questions. He is always assuming that the concerns of other characters relate to his own. His persistence borders on the neurotic: “‘I want some light thrown on the secrets of this house’” (p. 689); “‘I want that suspicion to be cleared away’” (p. 744). His first confrontation with his mother emphasizes his role: “‘I want to ask you, mother, whether it ever occurred to you to suspect—’” (p. 48). Although his father's deathbed behavior serves as a partial pretext for his uneasiness, Clennam suffers from an exacerbated sensitivity to suspicion: even his father's portrait, “earnestly speechless on the wall,” seems “to urge him awfully to the task” (p. 54). There is no logical reason why he should connect his mother's silence with Little Dorrit's presence; but “involuntary starts of fancy” take “possession” of him, and the connection becomes so vivid that he can hear his mother's voice justifying the actions he attributes to her. First for Dorrit and then for Doyce, he attempts to fathom the secrets of the Circumlocution Office. His first visit there is an allegorical journey through the levels of bureaucracy: Christian had been replaced by the persistent inquirer. He repeats his request, “‘I want to know,’” twice to Barnacle Junior, once to Barnacle Senior, then to Wobbler, to the four storytelling clerks, and finally to his fellow pilgrims, Meagles and Doyce. But he gets nowhere: by trying to search out a mystery, he only manages to become, in Clarence Barnacle's eyes, the “mysterious Clennam” (p. 208). When he is not actually pursuing other characters' mysteries, he is busy suspecting that they might relate to him. Little Dorrit is peopled with characters, from Merdle and Miss Wade to Tattycoram and Maggy, who constantly entertain paranoid suspicions. Even the extremely minor character who makes up Clennam's bed in the Snuggery suspects that the governor of the prison is defrauding him of three and ninepence a week. Clennam stands at the head of this group of characters. His insistence on following clues and revealing secrets is neither entirely normal nor very effective. What happens to his efforts epitomizes what happens to many of the secrets in the novel. His attempts are rendered useless: instead of removing secrets, he becomes involved in creating them. When he reveals to his mother that Blandois is a murderer, she retorts, “‘It is you who make this a secret. … you, Arthur, who bring here doubts and suspicions and entreaties for explanations, and it is you, Arthur, who bring secrets here.’” As Arthur realizes only too well, Mrs. Clennam succeeds in the “turning of his intelligence, and of his whole attempt and design against himself” (p. 685). Later in the novel, his ineffectuality is even more apparent: his imprisonment for debt renders him literally motionless as the time for the final confrontation between Blandois and his mother approaches—he cannot “stir hand or foot” (p. 746).

An examination of Dickens's number plans for Little Dorrit suggests that his conscious narrative strategy was to retard the events or withhold the connections that might ease Clennam's perplexity. The effect he wanted to create was a sense of “Strengthening mystery” (Plans, p. 49). By beginning with such a large number of characters and so many complicated events, Dickens could reserve a major portion of the action for long sections of the narrative. Thus, as Paul Herring notes, there are three numbers early in the novel that do not contain any references to the Clennam secret (Plans, p. 32). The notes for chapter 30, Book the First read: “Pursue Rigaud, and the beginning of his influence over Mr Flintwinch and Mrs Clennam Suspend it all. Hanging Sword” (Plans, p. 38). By withholding developments in certain segments of the plot, Dickens could make the narrative approximate a hanging sword, a sword that might or might not fall. Similarly, he delays telling Miss Wade's story throughout most of the novel. In the memoranda for number 3, Dickens asks himself, “Miss Wade in the prison?” and answers, “Not yet.” While planning Number IV, he suggests that he could tell her history—“Miss Wade. Her surroundings and antecedents?”—and the answer is an emphatic “No.” This pattern is repeated in the memoranda for Numbers V, VI, and VII. Finally, in the plans for Number VIII, the answer is “Yes,” and Miss Wade again appears. But it is not until Number XVI that Miss Wade tells her story: twelve numbers have intervened since Dickens first saw the possibility of revealing her “antecedents.” He withholds the crucial revelation of her motivation until the action of the novel is almost completed.

The fate of this story once it is told demonstrates the way in which Dickens refuses to make significant moral connections between his characters. He has promised that his figures will “meet and act and react” on one another. Yet the reader is rarely granted the satisfaction of witnessing the fulfillment of this promise. Clennam has gone to Calais to ask Miss Wade if she knows where Blandois might be, but she refuses to give him any information.23 Instead she offers him her “History of a Self Tormentor.” Clennam leaves Calais with this history in hand; and, in the following chapter, the narrative itself appears. It is a powerful, almost explosive document; but, after its actual appearance, it is never mentioned again. One presumes that Clennam has read it. His ideals of conduct, we are told, are “Duty on earth, restitution on earth” (p. 319); it would be interesting to discover what he thinks of a woman whose entire existence is motivated by passion and vindictiveness. But the reader never does find out what Clennam thinks. In the following chapter, he is back in London, and he has resumed his search for Blandois. Miss Wade has acted, but the reader never sees Clennam react. It is as if the history had disappeared into thin air. Of course, one might suggest that Dickens is to blame for his failure to present Clennam's response: he has complicated the plot to such an extent that he simply has more material than he can handle. But such an explanation clearly is not satisfactory: a line or two might have supplied Clennam's opinion of Miss Wade.

Dickens's treatment of this history is completely consistent with other instances in which he refuses, throughout the second half of the novel, to show one character reacting to another. In the plans of Number XVII, he asks himself if he should “close with a Letter from Little Dorrit?” His answer is emphatic, “No—Not to weaken her next appearance” (Plans, pp. 52-53); the reader therefore never knows how Little Dorrit reacts to the most radical change in her life, the deaths of both her father and uncle. She does not appear again until the end of the next number; there her role is not that of the grieving child but that of the comforting nurse: her loss is never mentioned. The fate of Clennam's mother is a similar case: we are told that she lives for three years after the collapse of her house; yet, in the scenes that take place between Clennam and Little Dorrit, she is never mentioned. How does Little Dorrit explain what has happened? The house collapses, and the reader is never given the chance to see the dust settle. This strategy extends to various minor elements in the story. We know what the Nation thinks of Merdle's death, but how does Fanny respond to the use her father-in-law has made of her pen-knife? Or in the case of the Gowans: we know that Blandois suspects Little Dorrit of delivering a love letter from Clennam to Pet. Does he share this information with Gowan? If so, how does Gowan react? And, of course, we never see Clennam respond to the truth about his birth. Little Dorrit promises to tell him—“in time to come, he should know all that was of import to himself” (p. 812)—but, for all the reader knows, that time might never come. Clennam may never be given the opportunity to understand the reality of his relationship to Mrs. Clennam—indeed, the writer of one recent essay on the novel simply assumes that “Arthur never learns the secret of his origins.”24 Forster thought that a major fault in Little Dorrit was “the want of ease and coherence among the figures of the story.”25 Dickens's handling of the events in the second half of the novel suggests that this “want of ease and coherence” is not an oversight, but a consistent plan of narrative presentation. Dickens does not forget to inform the reader of certain events: he purposely excludes them so that he can demonstrate the lack of “connections” between his characters.

The care with which Dickens planned the ending of Little Dorrit is obvious. Before determining what to include in the final double number, he reconsidered all the previous action: he reread parts of the novel and made notes in two separate sets of “Mems: for working the Story round” (Plans, p. 56). The nature of the resolution reached by the end of the novel suggests the limitations involved in what fiction can ultimately reveal to the reader. Because there is so much “story” in Little Dorrit, it is possible to forget just how much of it Dickens chooses not to tell.26 Merdle's business dealings are never explained. Arthur's question—“How connected with the Dorrits?” (Plans, p. 58)—is answered, but not for him. Most of the Dorrit story remains a mystery. Tite Barnacle cannot remember the nature of Dorrit's original business: it could have been “‘spirits, or buttons, or wine, or blacking, or oatmeal, or wollen, or pork, or hooks and eyes, or iron, or treacle, or shoes, or something or other that was wanted for troops, or seamen, or somebody’” (p. 565). This question is never resolved. The reader never even finds out how Dorrit gets into debt or, for that matter, how he gets out: where that fortune had been resting for all those years remains a mystery concealed in Pancks's “hand.” Nor do we ever understand the nature of Doyce's invention—though he explains it to Clennam with the utmost clarity, that courtesy is never extended to the reader. Nor do we learn the nature of his business with the Barbaric Power: as Meagles points out, Doyce must “‘hide’” his works and labors “‘under lock and key’” (p. 822) when he returns to England. And, as J. Hillis Miller has noted, Clennam's attempt to get Doyce some recognition at the Circumlocution Office reaches no conclusion: it “remains at the end of Little Dorrit like a loose thread of the plot dangling unresolved.”27 Just before the collapse of the Clennam house, Flintwinch promises that he will explain his theft of the codicil in twenty-four hours. This elucidation, however, is withheld: “his taking himself off within that period with all he could get, was the final satisfactory sum and substance of his promised explanation” (p. 795). By the end of the novel, the narrator, who has pledged earlier that he will be explicit, leaves such points open to speculation. This effect is playfully underlined in the last appearance of Mr. F's aunt. Throughout the novel, she has been the source of “mysterious communication” (p. 158). In the last chapter, she sits in the kidney-pie shop, “addressing the following Sibyllic apostrophe. … ‘Bring him for'ard, and I'll chuck him out o' winder!’” (p. 820). The narrator refuses even to guess the meaning of this invective: “it has been supposed that this admirably consistent female intended by ‘him,’ Arthur Clennam. This, however, is mere speculation; who the person was, who, for the satisfaction of Mr. F's Aunt's mind, ought to have been brought forward and never was brought forward, will never be positively known” (p. 821). “Mere speculation,” in even this most minor of matters, is all that remains.

Long before writing Little Dorrit, Dickens had established a characteristic formula for his endings. By dating the action of his novels before the period of their publication, he could use the last chapter to trace the course of his characters' lives after the close of the action proper. The past-tense narrative yields to the present tense: the characters exist in a future already realized, and their fates coexist with the reader's experience of the novel. Dickens ends both Pickwick Papers (1836-37) and Oliver Twist (1838-39) with a final paragraph in the present tense, but Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) is the first novel in which he uses the form that Humphry House treats as characteristically Dickensian.28Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50), and Bleak House (1852-53) all conclude with a chapter in the present tense. Dombey “makes” merry with Sol Gills and Captain Cuttle; Mr. Dick “plays” with David Copperfield's children; and Esther Summerson tells the reader how happy she “is” after seven years of marriage. The main purpose of these endings is simply to convey information. As House noted, “Dickens was enough of a pure story-teller to want to answer the child's insistent question, ‘What happened next?’”29 The reader therefore learns “what happens” to most of the major and to many of the minor characters. In the novel that immediately preceded Little Dorrit, Hard Times (1854), Dickens varies this practice, but only slightly: he conveys this information by allowing his characters to see into the “futurity” he has planned for them.

One measure of the “newness” of Little Dorrit is Dickens's handling of the form of its closing chapter. The events of the novel sufficiently antedate its appearance to allow him to follow the procedure he had established. Dickens, however, chooses to do otherwise. He concludes his narration when the action proper is completed: the novel ends with the marriage of Little Dorrit and Clennam, not with the history of how many children they had or how many of the other characters they could include in their happy family. What would have been a present-tense narration in an earlier novel is a continuation of the conventional past tense. The actual information Dickens offers is scant. We learn that Fanny will neglect her children. We learn that Amy will nurse the dying Tip. The narrator notes, in parentheses, that Pancks will become chief clerk, then partner, of Doyce and Clennam. But all this information is subordinated to the main action of the wedding. Dickens seems less interested in narrating the fates of Amy and Clennam than he is in including the dog Diogenes in the final tableau of Dombey and Son. An entire chapter of sustained promise in Dombey and Son shrinks to two paragraphs of vaguely projected events in the later novel. The figures of Woodcourt, Esther, and Ada in Bleak House are comparable to Clennam, Amy, and Pet: we know a great deal about “what happens” to the former and practically nothing about what will happen to the latter. This sense of relative incompletion extends to details of presentation. The last paragraph begins with an incomplete sentence: Dickens has relinquished even the desire to sustain the normal patterns of grammar. Although these paragraphs are a masterpiece of balanced tone, they constitute something less than a neat conclusion: indeed the resonance of this ending depends on Dickens's ability to balance the inconclusiveness of the information he offers against his use of the conventionally “tidy” marriage ending.

“And they lived happily ever after”—Dickens has no such comforting assurance to offer the reader. His handling of the last chapter is more tentative than it had been previously because his conception of what fiction can accomplish is more limited. The conclusion of Little Dorrit is the novelist's exercise in How Not to Do It. Dickens refuses to tidy up the plot. He is not Mrs. General: he does not believe in varnishing the narrative's surface, and he will not “cram all articles of difficulty into cupboards, lock them up, and say they had no existence” (p. 450). Despite Miss Wade's prophecy characters remain “unconnected.” If their fates seek them out, the reader is allowed only a vague and general understanding of what those fates involve. The relative uncertainty embodied in this ending is appropriate. The characters in Little Dorrit are confronted with a world that is incomprehensible. When Plornish tries to understand his poverty, he becomes like a blind man with a “tangled skein” of yarn: he is futilely “trying to find some beginning or end to it” (p. 143). Clennam complains that the world is a labyrinth. If Dickens had chosen to simplify the plot, he would have sacrificed the verisimilitude that its very labyrinthian quality creates in the experience of reading the novel. Both character and reader must live with the “contradictions, vacillations, inconsistencies, the little peevish perplexities of this ignorant life, mists which the morning without a night only can clear away” (p. 639). Final answers are not to be found on earth, and the conclusion of the novel enacts in concrete terms the conditions of this “ignorant life.”

Little Dorrit, then, is a thorough exploration of the concept of fiction from its original root meaning to its modern use as a label for a literary form. If it is a novel “about the moral imagination,”30 it is more specifically a novel about the moral limits of the imagination. Fiction is principally defined by what it cannot do: it cannot divulge secrets; it cannot provide an all-encompassing pattern of meaning; it cannot create connections between people in a world which precludes such connections. Like Little Dorrit herself, it cannot tell the whole truth. Dickens portrays a world in which not only the most immoral, but also the most innocent are forced to lie for their survival. In such a world—indeed by creating such a world—the novel cannot maintain a straightforward and conventionally “moral” posture. Dickens might well join Amy Dorrit in saying, “I could never have been of any use, if I had not pretended a little.” Morality necessarily involves taking one's stand, a realistic stand, among the “perplexities of this ignorant life.” Yet the conclusion that Dickens reaches carries with it no sense of defeat: he embodies within a particular novel an understanding of fiction in general that is comprehensive enough to include its moral ambiguities without allowing them to undercut its moral utility. The tone of the church official's comment at the end of the novel is proof of this point: it is, after all, a joke, a literary game. And it is immediately followed by the extraordinarily restrained and balanced tone of the closing lines: “They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar” (p. 826). If Dickens refuses to give his readers the kind of ending they expect from him, if he refuses to offer final assurances or a sense of ultimate clarity, he brings Little Dorrit in its last page to a conclusion worthy of the complexity and profundity that precede it.


  1. Little Dorrit, intro. Lionel Trilling, New Oxford Illustrated Dickens (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953), p. 176. Subsequent references to this edition appear in the text.

  2. “Curious Misprint in the Edinburgh Review,Household Words (1 Aug. 1857); rpt. Miscellaneous Contributions, Standard Edition XIX (London: Gresham, n. d.), p. 442. He applies the same ironic description to the Barnacles and the Circumlocution Office in the preface to the 1857 edition (p. xvii).

  3. Quoted by K. J. Fielding, ed., The Speeches of Charles Dickens (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), p. 374.

  4. The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. A. J. Hoppé (1872-74; rpt. London: Dent, 1966), II, 185.

  5. This moral measuring-stick is also used to evaluate specific characters: “Through their misuse of language they encourage appearances and suppress reality” (Jerome Meckier, “Dickens's Little Dorrit: Sundry Curious Variations on the Same Tune,” Dickens Studies, 3 [1967], 61).

  6. Harvey Peter Sucksmith, The Narrative Art of Charles Dickens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 337-38.

  7. Monroe Engel, The Maturity of Dickens (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959), p. 131.

  8. John Holloway, Introduction, Little Dorrit (rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), pp. 26-29.

  9. Holloway, “Notes,” Little Dorrit, p. 906, n. 4.

  10. Paul D. Herring, “Dickens' Monthly Number Plans for Little Dorrit,Modern Philology, 64 (1966), 60. Subsequent references to Dickens's number plans are included in the text and designated by “Plans.”

  11. Edwin B. Barrett, “Little Dorrit and the Disease of Modern Life,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 25 (1970), 214.

  12. “Dickens and Blake: ‘Little Dorrit,’” in Dickens: The Novelist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970), p. 226.

  13. Barbara Hardy uses the fairy tale that Little Dorrit tells Maggy as an example of the stories that Dickens's characters frequently create (“Dickens's Storytellers,” Dickensian, 69 [1973], 71-78). Mrs. Hardy suggests that the “forms of narrative [used by Dickens's storytellers] draw our attention to the nature of his story-telling, and to story-telling in general” (p. 72), but she does not discuss the moral ambiguity involved in Little Dorrit's story. Rather, she analyzes the psychological implications of the relationship between listener and teller that the fairy tale creates.

  14. Throughout the period in which he was writing Little Dorrit (originally entitled Nobody's Fault), Dickens was fascinated by the expressive quality of pronouns. In a major article in Household Words, he commented that England needed “Somebody who shall be no fiction” (“Nobody, Somebody, and Everybody” [30 Aug. 1856], rpt. Miscellaneous Contributions, p. 414).

  15. Joseph Gold speaks of Amy's “unshakeable integrity and wholeness” and does not find that aspect of her character inconsistent with her decision to “destroy” the information about Arthur's birth (Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist [Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1972], pp. 226-27).

  16. Perhaps this paradox is what J. Hillis Miller refers to when he says, “Little Dorrit centers on the secrecy, the otherness, of Little Dorrit herself. … the mystery of incarnate goodness” (Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958; rpt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969], p. 244).

  17. James R. Kincaid assumes that Dickens takes a negative attitude toward the “lying” implicit in any creative activity: “In this black world, the work of the creative imagination is likely to be seen simply as lying” (Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971], p. 198). This point is overstated, as I hope the following discussion will show.

  18. Fitzjames Stephen called the plot “singularly cumbrous and confused” (“The License of Modern Novelists,” Edinburgh Review, 215 [July 1857], 126). Meckier finds it “neither extremely clear nor overly convincing” (“Dickens's Little Dorrit,” p. 56). K. J. Fielding complains that it “contains far too many mysteries” and then attempts to ignore the fact that Dickens “fell down on the plot” (Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction [London: Longmans, 1965], pp. 176, 179). And, in a more recent study of Dickens, Angus Wilson concludes that “the culmination of the novel is to a great extent lost, swallowed up in an overcomplicated plot” (The World of Charles Dickens [New York: Viking, 1970], p. 245).

  19. William Myers, “The Radicalism of ‘Little Dorrit,’” Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century, ed. John Lucas (London: Methuen, 1971), pp. 77-78.

  20. Life, II, 182.

  21. See Fielding, Charles Dickens, p. 179; and Herring, “Number Plans,” p. 24.

  22. Myers, p. 77.

  23. One might say that an archetypal activity in Little Dorrit is seeking out information and coming up empty-handed; for example, Clennam goes to Casby for information about Miss Wade and to Miss Wade for information about Blandois; Dorrit asks Mrs. Clennam about Blandois; Meagles goes to the Continent to get documents from Miss Wade; and Clennam makes seemingly endless visits to his home to interrogate Affery. In each case, the attempt proves unsuccessful.

  24. Gold, p. 226.

  25. Life, II, 184.

  26. G. K. Chesterton refers to the residing mystery he perceives in “grisly figures” such as Mrs. Clennam: “When the book closes we do not know their real secret” (Charles Dickens, intro. Steven Marcus [1906; rpt. New York: Schocken, 1965], p. 168).

  27. Miller, p. 234.

  28. The Dickens World (1941; rpt. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 27-28.

  29. Ibid., p. 27.

  30. Barrett, p. 200. I agree with Barrett's emphasis on the role played by the moral imagination in Little Dorrit and his recognition of the importance of Amy Dorrit's involvement in this question. He concludes, however, that Duty provides the answer to the Condition of England and that Dickens “proposes the cure” for the condition in the act of describing it (pp. 212, 215). Such conclusions do not do justice to the complexity of the problems Dickens raises in the novel.

Tom Linehan (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7219

SOURCE: Linehan, Tom. “The Importance of Plot in Little Dorrit.Journal of Narrative Technique 6, no. 2 (spring 1976): 116-31.

[In the following essay, Linehan refutes the common critical claim that thematic concerns in Little Dorrit are of much greater importance than plot.]

Criticism has rarely been in more agreement about a Dickens novel than in the common opinion that plot in Little Dorrit can be dismissed as unimportant. Regardless of the context in which discussion occurs, critics generally demote plot to the level of cumbersome intrigue and stagy, sentimental melodrama. The principal characters in the main plot, Amy Dorrit and Clennam, are viewed as wooden and unconvincing, the least memorable figures in the novel. Orwell's observation in “Charles Dickens” has acquired almost prescriptive force in criticism of Little Dorrit: “The last thing anyone ever remembers about these books is their central story.”1 John Wain implies that even Dickens would endorse such neglect:

Of course Dickens's plots are always the weakest point in his novels, so much so that one is generally driven to push them to one side and go ahead with a purely thematic analysis. In Little Dorrit, for the most part, Dickens seems to be co-operating fully with any wish of this kind; “theme” is so much in the foreground, “plot” so much in the background.2

While the plot may contain “incidental felicities,” it is burdened, according to Wain, with “pallid ingenuities” and can be characterized as “tedious and artificial.” Such views have become commonplace. In his recent study, John Carey writes: “Dickens's plots are his most discardable properties, and often have to be pushed aside to let the strange poetry of his imagination emerge.”3 Elsewhere in Carey's book, we discover reasons for the task of pushing aside:

We notice … how the writing deteriorates once the violence becomes virtuous. … Hopelessly dignified, the good characters brandish their sticks or fists, and the villains tumble. Dickens beams complacently. It is a dutiful, perfunctory business. Riot, murder, savagery have to be there before Dickens' imagination is gripped.4

From this account, it appears that Dickens cannot “imagine” good characters; since these characters are prominent in the main plots, we must push aside these “discardable properties” if we are to discover Dickens' supreme gift, imagination.

Even if these opinions are persuasive, further discriminations should be considered. Wain's observations about Little Dorrit and Carey's more general comments are addressed to the quality of the plot, not its importance as an informing or structuring feature. The creaks in the main plot are audible to everyone, but why should this recognition compel us to dismiss plot as irrelevant? In some instances, the dismissal involves a prior rejection of the moral values which lie at the center of the main plot: no writer of Dickens' stature, the argument runs, could proclaim (for over eight hundred pages) the moral supremacy of quiet industry, self-effacing duty, and personal responsibility, especially if such virtues are embodied in so angelic and passive a figure as Little Dorrit. No one would deny Dickens often said these virtues were preeminent, but by a strange logic some critics have begun to assume that Dickens really believed something quite different—probably just the opposite of what he said in his fiction, letters, journalism, even his will. Yet for Dickens himself the values and ideas he expressed in the plot of Little Dorrit were charged with intensely serious feeling and moral significance. The moral virtues may not be invested with the energies of Dickens' imagination but they are central to his mature vision of personal and social salvation.

Of course, biography alone could show the virtues close to Dickens' heart. The strictly critical purchase of such knowledge is meagre. Are such virtues, expressed almost entirely in the main plot, close to the heart of Little Dorrit? An affirmative answer rubs against most critical opinion. In a general way, Garrett Stewart accurately describes the direction of much recent criticism: “Most readers soon sense what recent critics tend to play down: that the whole of a Dickens novel is seldom greater than the sum of its parts.”5 Since Edgar Johnson's biography and Lionel Trilling's influential preface to the novel, most critics stress the achievement of the whole and find the book's integrity in its unified vision or theme, which Dickens articulates chiefly through the prison as an image, symbol or metaphor. Thus Little Dorrit discloses what we regard as a “poetic” form of organization. One of the most extreme statements in this tradition can be found in an essay by Christopher Ricks:

If the critic quiets his conscience, more or less ignores “scenes, actions, stuff, people,” and turns instead to symbols and theme, he does at any rate know where he is. Naturally such an approach can tap more of some novels than others—or rather leave less untapped. Not a very great deal about Little Dorrit has to be left unsaid if the prison is comprehensively discussed.6

Yet in the same volume another critic observes that “most readers would acknowledge that Dickens can tell a story compellingly. And, if this is so, then clearly a great deal remains to be said about the economics of his narrative.”7

My discussion cannot hope to say a great deal about even a single feature of so complex a novel; but I do hope to establish that plot is important in the structural design. By stressing plot, I hope to explore Dickens' art as a story-teller, learn more about how he tells his stories, and say something, to use Gabriel Pearson's language, “about the economics of his narrative,” without forgetting the valuable insights furnished by those who focus on parallels in thematic material, imagery and symbolism, all of which, as a number of critics have pointed out, also help to unify the novel.8

As a critical term, plot has had an extremely varied status. While my preoccupation is with practical criticism, not theoretical definition, an essay with “plot” in its title cannot ignore some preliminary discussion. For my purpose, Ricks' “scenes, actions, stuff, people” will not serve as a description of plot. Preparing a detailed chronology of these items would produce a volume as hefty as a telephone directory of a medium size city. It might be useful to know this happened, that happened, but the compilation would possess no critical value. Our imaginary yellow pages would not enable us to understand why certain “scenes” or “stuff” occur when they do, why they involve some characters and not others, and what artistic end or purpose is served by their inclusion. My idea of plot would include answers to these important questions.

In this discussion, plot refers to an ordered system of episodes which bear on the process of change in the main characters.9 Any episode directly or indirectly relevant to the possible direction of this process forms part of the plot. The end of the plot is not simply the end of the book. The former consists of the creation and interaction of all the episodes which take place in the process. The system of episodes produces desires and expectations which enable us to form opinions about the main characters and to acquire a sense of the likely direction or outcome of the story. No account of plot should omit these responses or the incidents and characters which produce them. Only by analyzing these details can we learn the specific power, moral and emotional quality, or possible unity of the plot.

The application of this idea of plot to the novel encounters immediate critical opposition. A process of change in the main characters forms part of the idea of plot, but John Wain says that for “all the scurry of event on its surface, [Little Dorrit] never for a moment suggests genuine movement.” He adds that “development is by means of outward radiation, rather than linear progression.”10 But for Arthur Clennam, the protagonist, movement is all too genuine, all too ominous. The basic problem in his life is the prospect that no movement can be achieved, or, if movement does occur, it will be helplessly downward, toward lonely old age and death. Throughout much of the novel, especially in the first book, Arthur struggles with his conscience about this problem. Movement demands a motive for changing from something to something else. As Arthur searches for a motive and direction, we discover that the real crisis is a loss of will and identity. Early in the book, Pancks explains to Arthur his total devotion to business.

“What's a man made for?” Pancks asks.

“For nothing else?” said Clennam.

Pancks puts the counter question, “What else?” It packed up, in the smallest compass, a weight that had rested on Clennam's life; and he made no answer.11

Arthur cannot answer Pancks's question until the end of the book, when he is rescued into a nobler, fuller life by his union with Amy Dorrit. From the outset, Dickens emphasizes that the major internal barrier to their union lies in Arthur's disabling feelings of guilt and unworthiness and his mistaken conception of his relationship with Amy Dorrit. The novel can end only when these barriers are removed, and the incidents, situations and characters in the plot form part of a system which discloses Clennam's movement toward his ultimate destiny.

From the very beginning, Arthur appears to be in an advanced state of emotional crisis. To Mr. Meagles, his companion in quarantine, Arthur says, “I have no will” (I,2). The source of his aimlessness lies deep in his personal past. He has been reared by the grimmest of parents, especially his mother, taught that the sole aim of religion is to expiate the unlovely fact of his own birth, and sent off, unconsulted, to exile in China to toil in the family business. At forty, he returns home to end the crippling influence of his whole past and to achieve self-renewal. But so daunting is the prospect of confronting his mother that Clennam journeys alone to the Middle East for a whole year before returning home. Even quarantine provides a convenient delay. Though Arthur's deepest being prompts him to find new directions and cancel his oppressive past, his will seems unequal to the task.

But from part of his past, Clennam refuses to escape. The determination to solve a family mystery provides him with his only motive for action. From numerous signs he believes the Clennam family has committed a wrong which he must correct, even if he must sacrifice money and reputation. One condition for his self-renewal involves the settlement of this supposed mystery. The only clue he turns up, however, is the presence of Little Dorrit, whom Mrs. Clennam engages as a seamstress. Arthur soon persuades himself that the Dorrits are the wronged family and sets out to make reparation. It is thus through the initial mystery that Clennam meets Little Dorrit.

Critics have often deplored Dickens' management of the “mystery” plot. The reasons for critical disapproval are convincing enough but few have explored the uses to which Dickens put these stagy conventions. As related to plot, the status and function of the mystery depend on where we are in the novel. Late in the second book, when Arthur's suspicions of wrongdoing are reawakened by Blandois' presence, the reappearance of the mystery serves to remind us of the futility of Arthur's well-intentioned efforts. After all this time, has there been no movement? Midway through book two, he is no closer to a solution than when he first confronted Mrs. Clennam with his suspicion. In the early chapters of book one, however, the mystery enables Dickens to explore Clennam's moral and psychological condition.

Whether the mystery finally turns out to be real or imaginary, Arthur's response to the situation is what matters. His active pursuit of the truth can earn only admiration and sympathy. He is prepared to sacrifice much, even when he can incur no moral or legal blame for actions committed by his family long ago. In spite of his self-disparagement, he discloses a keen sense of personal responsibility. Thus Clennam is immediately linked to an idea that lies at the moral center of Little Dorrit. As the book progresses, as we learn more about the dimensions of personal and social irresponsibility in the world of the novel, what Arthur embodies and values becomes more important. His personal fate matters more because without his survival one of the very few sources of moral responsibility would almost disappear from the book.

As Arthur enters Mrs. Clennam's house for the first time in twenty years, Flintwinch tells him that his “figure is filled out, and set” (I,3). Arthur has little regard for his physical appearance: his obsessive concern is that the pattern and direction of his life are “set” for good. Much of the action in the first book demonstrates that Clennam's concerns are well-founded for, just about everywhere he turns, he meets with failure or incomplete satisfaction. From his point of view, the profound renewal he needs is unattainable.

Yet Dickens makes clear that the unique bond formed between Arthur and Little Dorrit carries the potential for redemption. In Little Dorrit alone can he find renewal. From the very beginning, Dickens confers a special status on their friendship. Each has a singular capacity to ease the solitariness of the other. To Clennam, Little Dorrit embodies a virtue which is painfully absent from his own life. She becomes “the weak figure with its strong purpose” (I,14). He quickly senses that her best qualities—compassion, loyalty and affection—are unappreciated by her family. When Clennam learns of her situation in the Marshalsea, he determines to become her protector. To this, Little Dorrit responds with gratitude and, though the signs are initially ambiguous, with a love which Clennam does not recognize. Once we perceive that Arthur's estimate of himself and Little Dorrit causes her pain, and once Arthur's recognition of the true value of Little Dorrit becomes a condition of his regeneration, we can only desire—and desire intensely—the removal of the obstacles which inhibit their union. Critics sometimes describe the structure of the novel as an “intricate labyrinth,”12 a metaphor which locates the position of many characters, including Clennam; but Dickens ensures that this is not the reader's position: we are above Arthur and see the way out long before he does.

He never thought that [Little Dorrit] saw in him what no one else could see. He never thought that in the whole world there were no other eyes that looked upon him with the same light and strength as hers.


It is this initial condition in their relationship which forms the affective and generative source of the continuing problem in the plot.

Early in the book, Arthur makes a series of mistaken choices or places himself in situations in which his depletion threatens to become total and permanent. He seems entirely cut off from fresh hopes, and thus distant from the saving influence of Little Dorrit. His first disappointment comes when he meets his childhood sweetheart after an absence of twenty years. Dimly hoping that she retains her youthful promise, he soon discovers that she is transformed beyond recognition. He is in no condition to bear disappointment easily. Seeing Flora resolves all doubt about her, but the experience only intensifies his doubt about himself: “Was it possible that Flora could have been such a chatterer, in the days she referred to? Could there have been anything like her present disjointed volubility, in the fascinations that had captivated him?” (I,13)

Arthur's feeble courtship of Pet Meagles is designed to expose him to the maximum possible injury. During Arthur's visits to the Meagles' home, the narrator refers to him several times as “nobody,” e.g., “In that state of mind which rendered nobody uneasy. …” The word echoes the original title of the novel (“Nobody's Fault”) and, while it may have a slightly comic edge, “nobody” precisely reflects Arthur's opinion of himself—a cipher, a personal nullity about whom no woman could possibly care. Such extreme diffidence ensures the victory of a rival. In Henry Gowan's successful courtship, Clennam can witness the triumph of all the qualities he holds in contempt. Gowan is cynical, frivolous, insincere, and even cruel—just the opposite of the virtues to which Arthur clings. Gowan rejoices that he and his fellow painters are shams, their craft nothing more than a racket. He can dismiss Arthur's “generous visions” of the seriousness of work by relegating them to a world of “rose-colored mist” (I,34).

Already stung by defeat, Arthur is now taken beyond depression to a condition in which he is prepared to renounce life itself. Gowan's triumph ensures Arthur's moral and psychological self-extinction. For him, the peace and calm he sought in Flora and Pet can become realities only in the grave. Thus, about a third of the way through the book, Arthur Clennam, a compound of virtues and frailties, imagines himself descending inexorably into old age and death.

This account, however, hardly does justice to the details of the early stages of the plot. In the midst of his courtship, Arthur joins Doyce's firm as a partner. This is no minor event: through Doyce he finds a purpose he can respect. But how does the experience form part of the plot? Arthur's devotion to work shows, of course, that he is capable of beneficial movement. It should be stressed, though, that such renewing purpose taps only part of his being. However fulfilling the work, the deeper yearning for calm and stability remains unassuaged. This does not diminish the value of Arthur's absorption in business. As is often the case in Dickens, work is valued for its moral significance because it possesses a kind of “truth” which draws man into life, away from egotism and purposeless self-absorption. All these virtues are concentrated in Daniel Doyce, whose nature is completely fulfilled by unselfish devotion to work. While this association leads to almost joyful satisfaction in Arthur's life, he remains a profoundly unhappy man. For all its value, work cannot touch the deepest source of his malaise. Only Little Dorrit and what she represents can do this. As a result, Arthur's experience in the firm of Doyce and Clennam can only elevate her value and strengthen the conviction that she alone provides the key to Arthur's redemption.

If the relationship between Clennam and Little Dorrit figures prominently in the plot throughout much of the first book, much of the action in the second seems to have little direct bearing on their problem. Hero and heroine part when Mr. Dorrit is released from prison, and they are not reunited until late in the second book. Clennam pursues his business interests in London, while Amy endures life with her family on the Continent. Their separation for almost half the book has persuaded some critics that Little Dorrit has two plots. Taylor Stoehr, for example, observes that “the novel suffers … by the split in its structure.”13 There is, he says, “a gulf between the stories of Little Dorrit and Clennam, one which becomes especially apparent at the end of the first half of the novel. …”

While in a sense there are two distinct stories, there is still essentially only one plot. The situations Dickens creates in the second half enable him to expand his plot enormously, but such expansion does not split the structure. The separation of the main characters simply forms the most serious complication in the plot. In spite of his renewing industry, Arthur still retains an unexplained “vacancy” in his heart. While in the Marshalsea, Little Dorrit was unappreciated and exploited, but never really unhappy. But with her family's release from prison and Mr. Dorrit's prosperity, she becomes genuinely miserable. She is even further isolated (without Clennam as protector) and, more important, she is exposed to real threats. Her best qualities are ignored, even condemned, and her father and Mrs. General conspire to inflict an unwanted marriage on her.

In discussing plot, the central point to remember is that any threat to Little Dorrit is also a threat to Arthur Clennam. One depends upon the other. However distant they are physically, the affective and even spiritual bond established between them should never be forgotten. J. Hillis Miller says that a “passage in a novel is a moment in that perpetually ongoing movement and draws its meaning from its multiple temporal relations to what comes before and after, just as in music a given note or chord has meaning only in relation to what precedes and follows.”14 Memory thus impinges upon our sense of the meaning of any present incident. If we are alert to the care and intensity with which Dickens develops the relationship between Amy Dorrit and Clennam,15 we should recognize the real danger for Clennam in any threat to Little Dorrit, as, for example, in Mr. Dorrit's effort to marry off his younger daughter. Such an event would have the gravest consequences—misery for Amy Dorrit and the waste of Arthur's best qualities. In this sense, then, Dickens' two stories really constitute an experiment in plot, similar to the dual narrative in Bleak House. Events in Lady Dedlock's story can and do have a profound impact upon Esther Summerson. Much the same is true in Little Dorrit. In Esther's case, she must confront and transcend the meaning of her relationship with Lady Dedlock. Similarly, Arthur must transcend his old self—be drawn from the sense that he is emotionally used up—but he can do so merely by recognizing and embracing the “truth” of Little Dorrit.

When the novel does end, the potential each possessed for the other is fully realized. But it is difficult to characterize the precise quality of the plot. The conclusion is certainly “romantic” in the sense that Clennam and Little Dorrit love one another and are married, and Dickens seems careful to stress that Little Dorrit's more womanly appearance forms part of Arthur's recognition of her true value.16 Yet their union hardly seems like the standard conclusion of a love story. There is a disparity between the romantic conventions and the deeper meaning of the relationship. Dickens can neither wholly accept nor reject the conventional demands of a love story, and the resulting confusion produces a rather imperfect resolution.

Yet it is clear what Dickens wants to do even if he does not do it very well: Little Dorrit represents a spiritual solution to a spiritual problem. It is precisely their unique suitability that makes a threat to one a threat to the other. Clennam always seeks a profound calm above the “uproar” mentioned in the novel's final paragraph, but before the union with Little Dorrit that search often takes morbidly disturbing turns. Sometimes he transforms nature into an image of his own languid desire. In the midst of his courtship of Pet Meagles at Twickenham, he

softly opened his window, and looked out upon the serene river. Year after year so much allowance for the drifting of the ferryboat, so many miles an hour the flowing of the stream, here the rushes, there the lilies, nothing uncertain or unquiet.


After his arrest, Arthur acquires an “unnatural peace” (II,23) and sinks into a “desolate calm” (II,29). To all these portents Dickens opposes Little Dorrit. When Arthur leaves her presence in the Marshalsea, he emerges “carrying the quiet with him into the turbulent streets” (I,35), even though at this early stage he is a man who sees but does not understand. Thus the process of change which the plot accomplishes is basically spiritual, from a calm portending dissolution to a calm ensuring self-renewal and redemption.

Both conditions are in sharp contrast to the world outside the central relationship. From Circumlocution's “political perpetual motion” (I,34) to Fanny's “burning restlessness” (II,14), the novel abounds in instances of furious motion. Such motion, however, rarely has a direct effect on the outcome of the plot. Strictly speaking, Fanny's marriage to Sparkler and vindictive life in society do not make the union of Arthur and Amy more or less likely. The episodes involving Fanny do not make for a sustained complication in the plot. Much the same is true of the public aspects of the novel. The merger of the Barnacles and Merdle leads to extensive speculation, a sort of epidemic which infects even Arthur. His landing in prison leads to a sense of guilt and a serious loss of confidence. The incident is important, but who would claim that Dickens' satire of bureaucratic mismanagement and rampant speculation is present in the novel solely to complicate the plot? It is the presence of such satire, of course, which has led critics away from considering plot as important. There may be a plot, but is it not active only in the interstices, in between unrelated minor stories and indignant social satire?

Two observations by Barbara Hardy state the problem concisely. In The Appropriate Form, she writes that in Dickens “the story line does not always coincide with moral criticism or social satire.”17 Later she says: “Henry James is almost always telling a single story, while Dickens and George Eliot and Tolstoy are telling several.”18 In Little Dorrit, one consequence is that much that goes on in the novel does not happen to either Arthur or Amy. If this is true, and if we remember the definition of plot, how can such elements—much of the social satire and those episodes which neither involve nor affect the main characters—form part of a system designed to produce a completed process of change in the protagonists? Dickens devises a variety of techniques which enable him to invest apparently extraneous features with relevance to the plot. Many of the minor stories, for example, acquire relevance because they broaden the perspective on the central problem which afflicts Arthur Clennam. If the main dilemma he faces is his inability to achieve profound, redemptive change, many other characters and episodes reveal a similar failure. The net result of such repetition is not merely to multiply prison symbols and metaphors, but to show that, in addition to the internal barriers with which Clennam must cope, he must also overcome external barriers.

In other words, Dickens creates a world in Little Dorrit in which the possibility of even surface change for the better seems remote. The normal condition is unchanging rigidity and the numerous episodes which show this to be the case furnish ominous commentary on Arthur's prospects. The episodes involving Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, Tattycoram, and Miss Wade, for example, form something of a story in their own right, yet strictly speaking the outcome does not affect the plot: Arthur and Little Dorrit are not united because Tattycoram leaves Miss Wade or returns to the Meagles; the reconciliation in no way determines Arthur's success or failure. Like Clennam, Tattycoram wants to negate an inhibiting past and find new directions. But her choice of tutor and companion means instant disaster. The change she achieves is infinitely worse than her original condition, and she is even further away from learning the “truth” of her relationship with the Meagles family. In this world, one pays for mistakes.

Miss Wade's condition bears an even more ominous resemblance to Arthur's. If any character in the book is imprisoned, it is surely this obsessive young woman. Critics have been most troubled by the awkward chapter titled “The History of a Self-Tormenter,” in which Arthur reads Miss Wade's autobiographical account of her difficult life. To Northrop Frye the chapter is an instance when we

notice that when [Dickens] is most actively pursuing his plot he is careless, to the verge of being contemptuous, of the inner logic of the story. … Clennam … manages to discover where Miss Wade is living … She did not expect him to ferret out her address, nor had she anything to say to him when he arrived; but just in case he did come, she had written out the story of her life. … The outrage on probability seems almost deliberate.19

In one sense Frye is right. The episode is implausible and is never assimilated into subsequent action. Arthur never comments on Miss Wade's “case”; he merely reads about it. Yet Dickens himself offers insight into the “inner logic of the story.” In his much-quoted letter to Forster, he explained the “logic” of the episode:

In Miss Wade I had an idea, which I thought a new one, of making the introduced story so fit into surroundings impossible of separation from the main story, as to make the blood of the book circulate throughout both.20

Thus, however awkwardly inserted, the inset story does possess a logic which becomes manifest once we remember that it is Arthur to whom the account is given. Clennam's situation is surely the heart of the “main story,” and Miss Wade's condition furnishes still another perspective on the problem of change. Blind to her own best interest, she cannot and will not change. It may be true, as Lionel Trilling says, that we cannot read her history “without an understanding that amounts to sympathy,” but whether right or wrong, she has closed herself off entirely from the possibility of renewal. She judges everyone harshly and feels unappeasable resentment. Since Arthur reads her history, it seems plausible that Dickens is inviting the reader to compare the two. And Arthur, Dickens makes clear, though bred “in coldness and severity,” still possessed the saving ability to dream, a faculty which

had rescued him to have a warm and sympathetic heart. Bred in a creed too darkly audacious to pursue … [his ability to dream] had rescued him to judge not, and in humility to be merciful, and have hope and charity. …


While the contrast could not be sharper, Arthur himself is no closer to final redemption than Miss Wade, even though the former preserves a measure of hope. Thus at the same time that Arthur's virtues intensify a desire in the reader to see him saved, the similarity of his condition to Miss Wade's can only strengthen the expectations that his position is hopeless. In this sense, the autobiography of a self-tormentor does constitute an incident in the Clennam plot.

Fanny Dorrit's passionate efforts to improve her condition speak even more grimly about the prospect of change. She hardly lacks the will, yet her fate in the end is a spectacle of bitterness and frustration. If we focus on just one relationship in Fanny's life, we can measure the extent to which renewal is possible. Throughout the first book, Fanny's relationship with her sister is strained and ugly. Since Little Dorrit can never fully appreciate the exalted dignity of the family, Fanny is always quick to abuse her unmercifully. Frederick Dorrit protests against this shabby treatment of the family's “devoted guardian” (II,5). Shamed by the reproach, Fanny tries to change her attitude. Instead of regarding Amy with contempt, Fanny now treats her with the kind of genial disdain reserved for an erring child who is invincibly ignorant. Fanny's attitude does change, but she can never acknowledge the virtues of her sister. Beneath surface change, there is fundamental rigidity, and the fault lies entirely in Fanny's inability to see the truth.

It is not necessary to discuss in detail the ways in which other episodes acquire relevance to the plot. But it should be stressed again that Dickens is not simply elaborating a pattern of rigidity, frustration and failure for the sake of showing that mid-century Victorian England is a prison house. Dickens surely wants us to feel concern for the fate of Clennam and, in our reading experience of the novel, we should also respond to such episodes by sensing that Arthur's prospects for happiness are meagre. In this world, fundamental change is almost miraculous. J. Hillis Miller suggests that a “passage in a novel … draws its meaning from its multiple temporal relations to what comes before and after. …” Passages in Little Dorrit acquire meaning in precisely this way.

To be more specific, however, passages in the novel can be understood fully only when we look across the novel from one story to another. The point need not be unduly stressed: some of the minor stories possess a kind of semi-autonomous interest and not all of them are mirror reflections of the major situation in the plot. But when, in addition to the episodes discussed above, Dickens shows us John Chivery trying to end his unhappiness by becoming a shepherd in the middle of London, shows us the Plornishes coping with poverty by retreating into the pastoral illusion of Happy Cottage, or makes it impossible for William or Tip Dorrit ever to escape the shadow of the Marshalsea, should we not feel concern from these and other instances that Arthur's efforts are similarly doomed to failure? So while Dickens is telling the story of, say, John Chivery's hopeless romance, he is also telling Arthur Clennam's story. Arthur does encounter Chivery's miserable condition, that is, it is something that happens to him when he visits the Chivery home; but the full significance of the incident as part of the plot lies in its relationship to the continuing problem in Arthur's life.

Even if it is conceded that the minor stories form part of the plot, there still remain those satirical features, major and minor, which do not seem part of any story. Dickens' treatment of the Circumlocation Office is certainly the most indignant and sustained satire in the novel, but I would like to focus initially on a minor target of Dickens' anger, with special emphasis on whether story line and social satire coincide. As explained by John Butt,21 Dickens had a longstanding opposition to so-called Sunday Laws, those restrictions which, in the name of piety and religion, sharply reduced the poor's opportunity for harmless diversion on their one day of rest. Dickens concentrates almost all of his indignation against such laws into a single chapter, the one in which Arthur spends his first night back in London after an absence of over twenty years. Since it is Sunday, Arthur finds the metropolis bolted as firmly as a prison, with a leaden church-bell summoning a non-existent congregation. The atmosphere is penitential, and for Arthur the whole experience recalls a succession of melancholy childhood Sundays spent enduring his mother's barbarous religion. The scene is very instructive because it shows Dickens trying to meet the demands of plot and at the same time extend the reach of his topical social satire. Amidst Clennam's personal reflections, the narrator describes the general conditions endured by the poor:

Ten thousand responsible houses surround him, frowning heavily on the streets they composed. … Fifty thousand lairs surrounded him where people live so unwholesomely, that fair water put into their crowded rooms on Saturday night, would be corrupt on Sunday morning; albeit my lord, their country member, was amazed that they failed to sleep in company with their butcher's meat.


The point of Dickens' observation is that those who oppress the working population six days a week by exacting unremitting toil and permitting noisome slums also succeed in denying them the simplest pleasure on their one day of rest.

But all this has little to do with Arthur's morose condition. He has never been poor—quite the contrary—and he has never seen a slum, much less lived in one. True, Mrs. Clennam and the oppressors of the poor share an identical harshness of spirit, but Dickens is still pursuing two apparently different ends in the passage. Yet if the general social criticism could not form part of Arthur's perceptions or personal experience, Dickens does not neglect the demands of plot. The “penitential garb of soot” worn by the buildings and streets fits Arthur's mood exactly and the conditions described furnish objective verification of Arthur's morbid feelings. A mood of hopelessness is strengthened in both the reader and the character. The entire passage looks outward to a world of social injustice in Victorian London, but it also looks inward to the extent that it bears significant relevance to the specific fictional situation. While Dickens indulges a tendency to discursive social commentary, he also exercises unusual restraint. We look beyond Arthur to objective social conditions but in part these same conditions exist as a personal datum in the ongoing history of Arthur Clennam. To this extent, Dickens does achieve coincidence of plot and social criticism.

In considering the connection between plot and other aspects of the satire, we should recall the passage in Dickens' letter to Forster in which he explained that “Society, the Circumlocution Office, and Mr. Gowan, are of course three parts of one idea and design.”22 Since Forster does not quote the entire letter, we cannot know whether Dickens spelled out the “one idea and design.” But all three radiate corruption and irresponsibility, a description which also fits Merdle and the world of financial speculation. Indeed, the design of the novel shows that society, government and high finance constitute one world, a single network of power and influence united by common aspirations and values. Political and social eminence are identical.

Between these aspects of the book and the main characters there is a very strong thematic link. Clennam and Little Dorrit are the very embodiment of personal responsibility. Everything they represent stands in complete opposition to the Barnacles, Mrs. Merdle, and the master spirit of the age, Mr. Merdle himself. Thematic contrasts are so pervasive that the satire is fully assimilated into the moral substance of the novel. But individual scenes and episodes are well in excess of even loose demands of plot. In the chapter “Containing the Whole Science of Government,” it matters very much that it is Arthur who is being initiated into the mysteries of How Not To Do It. When Arthur enters the Circumlocution Office, the reader already knows that his flickering hopes of doing something worthwhile will be extinguished by a Barnacle. But Dickens explains much more about the science of misgovernment than exposition of his story requires. Satire and plot glance at one another and interact, but they hardly coincide. The two are even more distant in the chapter in which the forces of Merdle and Barnacle unite. Though neither Arthur nor Little Dorrit is present, the great conference has results which seriously affect their lives. In the most rudimentary fashion, this scene—“In which Great Patriotic Confernse is Holden”—is causally linked to the outcome of the plot, but Dickens' energy is devoted to exposing criminality in high places, not to advancing his main story.

This discussion of Dickens' anatomy of political and social corruption should indicate that plot is not equally important in all parts of the novel. But if interest or tension is not continuous, this does not mean plot should be dismissed. The novel is bound together in a variety of ways. Recurrent themes and patterns of symbols and images play a significant part, but so does plot. Those who emphasize the prison imagery obviously say a great deal, yet how thorough can such discussions be if they omit or barely mention Clennam and Little Dorrit, neither of whom is imprisoned in the sense most often used? Indeed, those who explain how stationary the novel is sometimes forget that some characters (Pancks and Tattycoram, for example) escape from their prisons by the end of the book. Since there is a process of movement, I cannot agree with John Wain that it “does not matter at what point we enter this labyrinth.”23 Because plot is important, it matters very much whether we encounter Arthur before or after his courtship of Pet Meagles, during his struggle to find modest renewal through work, or at the point of complete moral exhaustion in the Marshalsea. All along the way one of our concerns should be with a fundamental question: how will it all turn out? Will Clennam's “pilgrimage” be spent on a treadmill? If Dickens seems preoccupied with telling other stories, we must remember that, in most of these, characters are enacting (or reenacting) Arthur's basic problem. Dickens ensures a broad perspective on a human dilemma. Profound change will never come easily in this world, and if such minor episodes do not, strictly speaking, form decisive complications in the plot, they help to indicate the gravity and dimensions of the problem which lies at the center of the plot of Little Dorrit.


  1. “Charles Dickens,” in A Collection of Essays by George Orwell (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1954), p. 89.

  2. “Little Dorrit,” in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, ed. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966), p. 177.

  3. The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), p. 90.

  4. Carey, p. 29.

  5. Dickens and the Trials of Imagination (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. xviii.

  6. “Great Expectations” in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, p. 199.

  7. Gabriel Pearson, “Dickens: The Present Position,” in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, p. xxi.

  8. See, for example, J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958), pp. 242-247, and H. M. Daleski, Dickens and the Art of Analogy (New York: Schocken Books, 1970) pp. 191-236. Miller explains how the situation of many characters is reflected in the images of a labyrinth, a prison cell, and of life as a journey or pilgrimage. For Daleski the common situation of almost all the characters shows that English society is in a state of paralysis. With this emphasis it is only natural that Amy and Clennam would figure only marginally in Daleski's discussion. While my argument draws on similar observations, the emphasis is on how parallel themes and cognate situations acquire relevance to the economy of the plot, a feature of the novel which does not interest Miller or Daleski.

  9. This definition owes much to two discussions of plot: Norman Friedman, “Forms of the Plot”: Journal of General Education, 8 (July 1955), 241-253, and R. S. Crane, “The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones,” in Critics and Criticism, ed. R. S. Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 616-647.

  10. Wain, p. 175.

  11. Book I, Chapter 13. All references in the text are to book and chapter numbers.

  12. Wain, p. 175, and Miller, p. 232.

  13. Dickens: The Dreamer's Stance (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1965), p. 182.

  14. The Form of Victorian Fiction (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), p. 6.

  15. Of course, for most twentieth century readers, Dickens' inflated language often inhibits the serious response he would have wanted. See, for example, the passage in which Arthur confesses to Little Dorrit his inability to love. The narrator comments: “O! if he had known, if he had known! If he could have seen the dagger in his hand, and the cruel wounds it struck in the faithful bleeding breast of his Little Dorrit!” (I,32)

  16. “She looked something more womanly than when she had gone away, and the ripening touch of the Italian sun was visible upon her face.” (II,29)

  17. The Appropriate Form (London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1964), p. 2.

  18. Hardy, p. 11.

  19. “Dickens and the Comedy of Humors,” in Experience in the Novel, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. Selected Papers of the English Institute (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), p. 51.

  20. John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (London: J. M. Dent and Company Ltd., 1927), II. 184-185.

  21. “The Topicality of Little Dorrit,University of Toronto Quarterly 24 (October 1959), p. 9.

  22. Forster, II, 183.

  23. Wain, p. 175.

H. M. Page (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3230

SOURCE: Page, H. M. “‘A More Seditious Book Than Das Kapital’: Shaw on Little Dorrit.Shaw Review 21, no. 3 (September 1977): 171-77.

[In the following essay, Page discusses George Bernard Shaw's appraisal of Little Dorrit as a masterpiece, which inspired a marked change in the novel's evaluation by scholars.]

In the last century, most critics were indifferent or hostile to Little Dorrit, which was often regarded even by Dickens' admirers as the worst of his works. In contrast, since 1950 many critics have thought it a masterpiece, perhaps Dickens' greatest novel. A pioneer of this change of attitude was Shaw, who, at intervals throughout his long career, continued to insist on the profundity of Dickens' art in Little Dorrit, its truthfulness to human character, and its value as a portrayal of and revolt against the corrupt political and social system of the modern world. Shaw's criticism was epigrammatic and fragmentary, expressed in private letters, public speeches reported with uncertain accuracy by others, short paragraphs in periodicals, and introductions to novels other than Little Dorrit. But it was nevertheless an important contribution to the twentieth-century revaluation of the later Dickens, and is of enduring critical interest.

Shaw is best known as a critic of the political and social aspects of Little Dorrit. His first recorded reference to these came as early as 1887, in a letter in which he mentions Lord Decimus and Mr. Casby as still-topical representations of a persisting social abuse, slum-landlordism.1 That abuse was the major theme of his first play, Widowers' Houses, which pays tribute to Little Dorrit by showing signs of its influence.2 However, when Shaw first published critical comments on Little Dorrit, he praised the novel not simply because it attacked particular abuses but because, like the other novels of Dickens' maturity, it revealed the essential sickness of the entire political and social system, and was therefore revolutionary. Shaw remained constant to this view of Little Dorrit, and expressed it always vigorously, though often summarily, on various occasions over a period of nearly forty years.

In 1908 Shaw declared in a speech that Little Dorrit was “… One of the greatest books ever written in the English language …,” adding that “… as soon as Englishmen realised that Little Dorrit was true there would be a revolution. …” He himself had become a “revolutionist” because he had read the novel as a small boy.3 In 1914, Shaw wrote in a published letter that “… if you put Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend into the hands of an experienced man of the world who is deeply interested in social questions and behind the scenes in politics, he is startled by the penetration and accuracy of the study of English politics and the picture of governing class life which he finds there. …”4 And in 1912, in answer to an enquiry from the editor of the Bookman as to which he thought Dickens' greatest novel, he replied, “… the tremendous series of exposures of our English civilization which began with Hard Times in 1854, and ended with Our Mutual Friend, throw his earlier works, entertaining as they are, into the shade. Little Dorrit is the work of a prophet—and no minor prophet: it is, in some respects, the climax of his work. …”5

As opinions such as these are now the common currency of criticism, it is easy to forget how extraordinary they were before the First World War. Little Dorrit had traditionally been regarded by nearly all English critics as more or less a failure. Matthew Arnold, for example, dismissed it as Philistine literature,6 and even Gissing, the critic who had done most to defend the novel against the consensus, had also found much to condemn.7 Against this background, Shaw's unqualified claim that the novel is one of the greatest books in the language was an innovation. Also new, and even more important, was Shaw's sense of the depth and comprehensiveness of Dickens' social and political concerns in Little Dorrit and the other later novels. Previous critics had seen no difference between Dickens' earlier and later works, assuming that he had continued to insert occasional and perhaps rather incongruous attacks on isolated social abuses into his books. So, for example, A. W. Ward, an admirer of Dickens and author of the English Men of Letters volume on the novelist, thought the Circumlocution Office chapters of Little Dorrit a well-deserved assault on contemporary English administration, but suggested that they were “out of place in a pathetic and humorous fiction. …”8 In contrast, Shaw insisted that the social and political elements in the later works were not incongruous diversions and conventional reformist satires on particular abuses, but were integral to novels which criticized English civilization so widely and deeply as to be revolutionary.

It seems likely that Shaw's unconventional opinions were not much regarded in the years around 1914. No other critics echo his views, although there was much interest in Dickens' radicalism.9 One admirer of Little Dorrit did record that he had been heartened by Shaw's praise of the novel.10 But another, noting that Shaw had “lavished praise upon it as one of the greatest books in the English language …” commented that it all seemed like “studied contrariety” on Shaw's part,11 so testifying to Shaw's unfortunate reputation for “paradoxical high kicks” as the “Nation's Jester.”12 Perhaps understatement would have been more persuasive, though Shaw may have judged correctly in thinking that resistance would best be overcome by vigorous emphasis. What is certain is that when he made his first detailed comments on Little Dorrit more than twenty years later in the very different and much more receptive atmosphere of the years preceding the Second World War, Shaw had not renounced the use of paradox, though on this occasion it is the Marxists who are teased. In 1937, in an introduction to Great Expectations, Shaw made that most memorable of critical comments on the novel, “Little Dorrit is a more seditious book than Das Kapital. …”13

Shaw does not attempt to justify this claim, or his other assertion that “All over Europe men and women are in prison for pamphlets and speeches which are to Little Dorrit as red pepper to dynamite. …” (p. xi) But he does explain why he considers Dickens a revolutionary writer, as contrasted with Thackeray and Trollope, who are essentially “bourgeois”:

… The difference between a revolutionist and what Marx called a bourgeois is that the bourgeois regards the existing social order as the permanent and natural order of human society, needing reforms now and then and here and there, but essentially good and sane and right and respectable and proper and everlasting. To the revolutionist it is transitory, mistaken, dishonest, unhappy, pathological: a social disease to be cured, not to be endured. …

(p. viii)

This definition as applied to Dickens presents an obvious difficulty—that, in Shaw's words, “… Marx knew he was a revolutionist while Dickens had not the faintest suspicion of that part of his calling … It never occurred to him to found a Red International, as Marx did, or even to join one out of the dozens of political reform societies that were about him. …” (pp. ix, xii)

Shaw has, of course, overlooked Dickens' membership in the Administrative Reform Association, the society set up after the revelations of administrative disaster in the Crimean War. But that involvement was an exception to Dickens' general rule, and it is certainly true that he did not found a Red International. Shaw's explanation of this omission by Dickens is that “… On the positive side he had nothing to say …” because “… Marxism and Darwinism came too late for him …” and “… he might have been a Comtist, but was not. …” (p. xiv) However, this does little to resolve the apparent paradox that an author capable of writing a book more seditious than Das Kapital should nevertheless have failed to draw the correct revolutionary conclusions from it.

Perhaps the explanation is that Shaw traps himself in an over-simple disjunction between the “bourgeois” and the “revolutionist.” He does not admit the possibility that society may be recognized as “… transitory, mistaken, dishonest, unhappy, pathological …” and yet inevitably so, because human defects are essentially irremediable, or not remediable by any obvious means, or only partly remediable for a few. And yet in some ways such a view may appear to suit the mood of Little Dorrit, whose ending with its limited and hard-won satisfactions for a few in an otherwise hostile and distasteful world, is more like a quiet celebration of individual survival than a call to the barricades. Indeed, Shaw's hyperbolic epigram may be true in a sense he did not intend. Little Dorrit may in fact be more seditious than Das Kapital because it combines a profound criticism of modern society with a gravely tragic acceptance of human destiny and a refusal to accept the remedies offered by the theorists of revolution. In that sense, the novel is as much a critique of Das Kapital as it is of capitalist civilization. But whether or not this is true, it is clear that Shaw's political views equip him well as a critic of the darker side of Little Dorrit, and there is no doubt that the seriousness and intensity of his account of its social and political elements is appropriate to the novel. At the least, Shaw deserves credit as a pioneer of a major tendency in the twentieth-century criticism of the later Dickens, and for confronting honestly the difficulties involved in any attempt to see Dickens as a revolutionary artist.

Shaw's interest in the political and social concerns of Little Dorrit is, however, only one element in his criticism. Perhaps even more important and certainly less well known, are his comments on Dickens' methods of characterization, and his contribution to the problematic area of biographical criticism. In a fascinating letter addressed to G. K. Chesterton, commenting on the latter's Charles Dickens (1906), Shaw anticipated Santayana's famous “realist” defence of Dickens' characterization, with an appropriate change of emphasis:

… In them [the later novels] Dickens recognizes that quite everyday men are as grotesque as Bunsby. Sparkler, one of the most extravagant of his gargoyles, is an untouched photograph almost. Wegg & Riderhood are sinister and terrifying because they are simply real, which Squeers & Sikes are not … Dickens doesnt care what he makes Wegg or Riderhood or Sparkler or Mr. F's aunt say, because he knows them & has got them, and knows what matters & what doesnt …14

Though as unfashionable now as it was when first expressed, this view may be correct; it certainly deserves pondering by anyone who sees Dickens' extreme characters as caricatures or “symbols.” More important still is Shaw's discussion of his reasons for thinking Little Dorrit “an enormous work,” and why Dickens is at his greatest after the “social awakening” which produced Hard Times:

… The change is partly the disillusion produced by the unveiling of capitalist civilization, but partly also Dickens's discovery of the gulf between himself as a man of genius & the public. That he did not realize this early is shewn by the fact that he found out his wife before he married her as much too small for the job, and yet plumbed the difference so inadequately that he married her thinking he could go through with it. When the situation became intolerable, he must have faced the fact that there was something more than “incompatibilities” between him and the average man & woman. Little Dorrit is written, like all the later books, frankly & somewhat sadly, de haut en bas.

(p. 647)

This theory, though necessarily speculative, is at least plausible, and has the virtue of bringing together in a coherent explanation phenomena otherwise disparate—Dickens' failed marriage, with its crisis so near to the composition of Little Dorrit, the change in his later novels, especially in the comprehensiveness and depth of his social criticism, and the gap between Dickens and his readers so evident and marked in the misunderstanding and lack of sympathy shown by nearly all contemporary critics of Little Dorrit. It may also suggest an explanation for the weakest parts of the novel, the villain Blandois and the accompanying mysteries and excitements—they are intended to provide an appeal at the level of what Shaw calls the “average man,” and are perhaps an unsuccessful attempt to emulate Shakespeare's method of providing entertainment for all while usually not compromising the highest artistic standards.

More interesting still, however, is Shaw's discussion of the relation between Arthur Clennam and his creator:

… There is a curious contrast between Dickens's sentimental indiscretions concerning his marriage & his sorrows & quarrels, and his impenetrable reserve about himself as displayed in his published correspondence. He writes to his family about waiters, about hotels, about screeching tumblers of hot brandy and water, and about the seasick man in the next berth, but never one really intimate word, never a real confession of his soul. David Copperfield is a failure as an autobiography because when he comes to deal with the grown-up David, you find that he has not the slightest intention of telling you the truth—or indeed anything—about himself. Even the child David is more remarkable for the reserves than for the revelations: he falls back on fiction at every turn. Clennam and Pip are the real autobiographies. …

(pp. 646-647)

These remarkable insights are no doubt epigrammatic in form, and too summary to be acceptable as they stand, but they embody valuable truths in a striking manner, and they anticipate by a generation the biographical approach to Dickens of Edmund Wilson. No one, I suppose, is likely now to deny that Dickens' published correspondence does display an “impenetrable reserve about himself,” but we should remember that the hostile explanation of Dickens' reticence, prevalent in the nineteenth century and not unheard in the twentieth, was that he had no deeper self to reveal. Readers who believe an author's character shallow and superficial are not likely to notice deeper qualities in his writing. But Shaw recognized that the Dickens of the published letters was not the whole Dickens, and could see his more profound character expressed in his art. That insight is the foundation of Shaw's criticism, and is essential to any criticism of Dickens which aspires to deal successfully with the whole of his work. In comparison with that, it doesn't matter if Shaw does less than justice both to the element of self-revelation in David Copperfield and to Dickens' attempt to generalize an emotional predicament of his generation in that novel.15 Further more, Shaw's claim that “… Clennam and Pip are the real autobiographies …” is true in an important sense, though no doubt misleading in others. One could rightly object that Dickens himself had not been subjected to a Clennam upbringing, and that although his father was in some sense the original of William Dorrit, there is no character in Little Dorrit who plays a role like that of the young Charles Dickens. But that would be to miss the point. Shaw is concerned not with external biographical details, but with Dickens' inner life. The inner lives of Pip and Clennam, who both achieve a partial victory against overwhelming odds, have more in common than their external circumstances would readily suggest. And what Shaw's epigram does, very successfully, is to bring sharply to our attention the claim that Clennam, whose character is so unlike that of Charles Dickens, the vastly energetic, ebullient and successful public figure, nevertheless was in some sense representative of the novelist's inner life.

Of course we may well doubt this assertion. How can we know that Clennam and Pip are Dickens' “real autobiographies?” Is it safe to claim more than that Dickens can empathize with the characters as much as his art requires? And even if we did know that Clennam represented Dickens' inner life, would it assist our understanding of Little Dorrit? The contest of Shaw's remarks suggests an answer to these questions. He is vigorously though politely controverting Chesterton's views. Chesterton had argued that although Dickens improved “as an artist” in his later works, he did not always improve “as a creator,” and that Little Dorrit was “not a good novel” because it was untypical of its author, the product of a passing moment of depression in which Dickens' “. … old hilarious and sentimental mood seems for a moment dimmed. …”16

In particular, Chesterton thought that Arthur Clennam, being “… very much older than Mr. Pickwick …”, was merely part of the “fugitive grey cloud” of Little Dorrit, and therefore uncharacteristic of Dickens' work (p. 230). In contrast, Shaw insists that Dickens is at his best after Hard Times, that Little Dorrit is an “enormous work,” and that Clennam and Pip are truly representative of their creator because they derive from Dickens' deeper self. No doubt Shaw's formulation of this insight in biographical terms is speculative and questionable. But the essence of his argument, that Clennam and Pip are not peripheral and untypical figures in the Dickens world, but are characteristic elements in Dickens' greatest work, is much harder to dispute. Indeed, in recent years it has hardly been disputed at all, but that should not blind us to Shaw's originality in radically changing critical perspectives on Dickens. Nor should his habitual exaggeration and over-emphasis detract from the valuable insights which pervade his important and varied work as a pioneer of the twentieth-century revaluation of Little Dorrit and the later Dickens.


  1. 8 June, to W. T. Stead, the crusading journalist, in Collected Letters, 1874-1897, ed. Dan H. Laurence (London, 1965), p. 173

  2. See Robert E. Rockman, “Dickens and Shaw: Another Parallel,” Show Bulletin, 2 (January 1957), 8-10

  3. “Charles Dickens and Little Dorrit,Dickensian, 4 (1908), 323.

  4. “On Dickens,” Dickensian, 10 (1914), 150. cf. the Preface, written in 1910, to The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (London, 1913), in which Shaw stated that Little Dorrit “… remains the most accurate and penetrating study of the genteel littleness of our class governments in the English language. …” (p. 298)

  5. “Charles Dickens. Some Personal Recollections and Opinions,” Bookman, 41 (1912), 247. Cf. Shaw's Preface, written in 1911 and published in 1913, to the Waverley edition of Hard Times (London, undated), in which he argues that Dickens' masterpieces are Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend “… for their mercilessly faithful and penetrating exposures of English social, industrial and political life. …” (p. x)

  6. v Preface to Essays in Criticism (London, 1865), pp. xiii-xiv.

  7. v Charles Dickens, A Critical Survey (London, 1898), pp. 86, 96, 99, 159.

  8. Dickens (London, 1882), p. 137.

  9. See, for example, E. W. Pugh's Dickens: The Apostle of the People (London, 1908), and W. W. Crotch's Charles Dickens, Social Reformer (London, 1913), in which Dickens is treated in the traditional way, as a reformer, not a revolutionary.

  10. See W. Matchett, “The Neglected Book,” Dickensian, 6 (1910), 98.

  11. W. Kent, “Little Dorrit and the Edinburgh Review,Dickensian, 15 (1919), 64.

  12. Spectator, 19 April 1913, p. 643, commenting on the founding of the New Statesman, under the editorship of Shaw and Sidney Webb.

  13. Printed in Edinburgh for the Members of the Limited Editions Club (p. xi). Republished, with some minor changes, by Hamish Hamilton in London, 1947.

  14. 6 September 1906, in Collected Letters, 1898-1910, ed. Dan H. Laurence (London, 1972), p. 647. Shaw expresses similar views in his 1937 Introduction to Great Expectations, in which he describes Mr. F's Aunt as “… a first-rate clinical study of senile deficiency in a shrewd old woman …,” and praises her and Pancks and Casby as “… authentic …,” with the reservation that Dickens' humor runs away with him when such characters collide (p. vi).

  15. I accept Q. D. Leavis' argument in ch. 2 of F. R. and Q. D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist (London, 1970).

  16. Charles Dickens (London, 1906), pp. 81, 229-230, 233.

George Holoch (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7316

SOURCE: Holoch, George. “Consciousness and Society in Little Dorrit.Victorian Studies 21, no. 3 (spring 1978): 335-51.

[In the following essay, Holoch discusses the relationship between the individual and the social system in Little Dorrit.]

The later novels of Charles Dickens are often concerned with the ways in which character and action are determined by the internalization of sometimes contradictory sets of social values. Plots turn on the conflicts between individuals and hostile social forces, but individual values are themselves shaped by social contexts, so that the conflict is often between two variants of the same set of beliefs. These conflicts generally arise over questions of respectability or gentility, and one of the great accomplishments of the late novels is to uncover the economic foundations of what had become by the middle of the nineteenth century an apparently disinterested ethical and social code.

In Dombey and Son, for example, the rigid character of Dombey is a straightforward representation of depersonalization brought about by his total absorption in his public role. Dombey's devotion to business leads him to envision all human relations according to the pattern of the market, to the extent that everything is considered from the point of view of property and power. It is only when he is financially ruined, removed from any significant social role, that it becomes possible for him to establish direct human contacts, unmediated by the cash nexus.

Richard Carstone in Bleak House provides an example of a similar phenomenon. His moral and physical decline and eventual death are the direct consequences of his single-minded pursuit of a legacy in the Court of Chancery; he is the victim of a belief that justice can be found in the operations of a public institution, a belief variously held by many characters in the novel. The domestic order and happiness established at the novel's conclusion are a conscious assertion of the necessity to retreat from what is normally understood as society in order to maintain human values.

Dombey and Carstone are rather simple representations of the destructive effects of a thorough adherence to the explicit values of the society in which they exist: the pursuit of wealth, in an acceptable fashion, as the basis for a respectable position in society. Little Dorrit provides the most complete development in Dickens's work of the relationship between the individual consciousness and the social system. It sets out with depth and complexity an exploration of the relationships among the self, the economic and social system, and the society's ideological expressions and, in the process, radically questions the vision of domestic retreat that provides the happy end of both Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.

Little Dorrit has, in fact, no Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House who, with disinterested benevolence, can serve as a buffer between the individual and society and thus permit the creation of a self-sustaining private world (benevolence itself, in the person of Mr. Casby, is nothing but a fraudulent disguise for exploitation). Indeed, the action of the novel constantly reinforces the point that the whole social order is founded on an interlocking series of mystifications, all revolving around the idea of gentility; and the function of gentility is to provide a morally acceptable justification for the class relationships it so thinly disguises, just as Mrs. Clennam's religion “justifies” the rapacity of her past economic behavior or Gowan's disappointed expectations “justify” his cynicism. As I shall attempt to demonstrate by focusing on the two central actions of the novel, in Little Dorrit ideological fictions govern perception at every level of society; their purpose is to conceal the sources of wealth and the past histories of the characters; and the series of exposures with which the novel concludes are symbolic representations of social collapse. The social vision of the novel, however, is much more complex than this would suggest, for the revelation of moral or social fraud leads to no general transformation: exploded ideologies reconstitute themselves, and oppressive institutions remain.

The connection between Clennam's history and that of the Dorrit family provides the novel's principal focus. For purposes of analysis, I shall concentrate first on Clennam's encounters with the world, then on the Dorrit family's evolution through society, and finally on Clennam's last crisis and its resolution.


In the first part of the novel, Clennam encounters various symptoms of social disorder, all either directly or symbolically connected to his own condition. On his return to London, the present social reality is a large-scale version of his individual sense of childhood repression: the vision of the city on Sunday as a prison, analagous to the prison of his past, points to Mrs. Clennam's relation to the society. The context established by the oppression of the population of the city, which is justified by religious dogma, suggests that she incarnates one of the ideological foundations of the whole culture. The fact that the population of London “could want nothing but a stringent policeman” (bk. II, chap. 3) and the fact that Mrs. Clennam's religious beliefs are associated with metaphors of imprisonment are two manifestations of the same phenomenon. As the narrative unfolds, however, the apparently unambiguous condemnation of the more obvious manifestations of rigid puritanism is subject to an important qualification. The rigors of Clennam's childhood repression create in his imagination the sense of an indefinable guilt and an abiding sense of personal responsibility that are the foundations of his moral being. In the immediate context, the primary emphasis is on the economic and ideological expressions of psychic imprisonment, most strikingly manifest in Mrs. Clennam's paralysis.

It is a commonplace of Dickens criticism that “the informing symbol” of Little Dorrit is the prison,1 and Mrs. Clennam is the first fully developed figure that suggests the complexity of that symbol. The anonymous inhabitants of London are innocent victims: “Melancholy streets in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency” (bk. I, chap. 3). But Mrs. Clennam's imprisonment is clearly a perverse manifestation of her will: “‘But let him look at me, in prison, and in bonds here. I endure without murmuring, because it is appointed that I shall so make reparation for my sins’” (bk. I, chap. 5).2 It is clear that the language of Calvinist religion functions as a device of self-inflicted punishment, as well as a means of repressing her awareness of the internal contradiction between her knowledge of personal responsibility and her will to be an instrument of divine wrath. Her isolation from the world permits her to maintain a self-serving ignorance of anything that could challenge her vision of order; the archaic and failing character of her business (whose details are characteristically left vague) suggests that Mrs. Clennam's condition, and the particular moral code for which she provides a rationale, are literally survivals from the past and apparently not representative of the movement of the times. But, as Clennam's subsequent encounters suggest, the social order reproduces everywhere a similar condition of domination justified by moral abstraction.

Clennam's vision of society is based on the recognition of symbolic connections, the real content of which never becomes fully clear to him. Thus, when he moves from the metaphoric prison of his mother's room to the real prison of the Marshalsea, he is possessed by the intuition that his mother's condition is literally a penance for Mr. Dorrit's. The meaning of the connection thus established is one of the central mysteries of the novel, and it is important to note that Clennam never discovers what it is. What is significant in his moral and intellectual development throughout the novel is his assumption of responsibility and his recognition of connections that do not depend on the kind of moral bookkeeping represented by his mother, even though he shares certain basic moral assumptions with her.

Clennam's vague suspicion of some personal responsibility for the imprisonment of Dorrit leads him to a confrontation with the Circumlocution Office, a satiric representation of the bureaucratic evasion of responsibility and consequent paralysis of activity; this is an echo on the institutional level of Mrs. Clennam's physical paralysis. The Circumlocution Office is a self-perpetuating machine whose real social function is to provide sinecures for the emblematic Barnacles and to bury any direct question under a mountain of paper. Tite Barnacle's mystifying official language, Barnacle Junior's “failure and helplessness,” and Ferdinand Barnacle's knowing cynicism all point to the function of institutions to serve class interests in the guise of the public interest. The point is further emphasized by the explicit connection established between the condition of Bleeding Heart Yard and the conduct of government business.

The demand that is implicit in the social satire is for the recognition of personal responsibility that the very organization of government seems designed to deny. The perpetuation of the system depends upon the successful mystification of its victims, most evident in Mr. Plornish's confused resignation:

Why, a man didn't know where to turn himself, for a crumb of comfort. As to who was to blame for it, Mr. Plornish didn't know who was to blame for it. He could tell you who suffered, but he couldn't tell you whose fault it was. It wasn't his place to find out, and who'd mind what he said, if he did find out? He only know'd that it wasn't put right by them what undertook that line of business, and that it didn't come right of itself.

(bk. I, chap. 12).

If the social order is apprehended as an inextricable maze, and if its repressive hierarchy is justified by the habit of deference, it is clear that any significant public action is impossible. Lionel Trilling points out that “it is part of the complexity of this novel which deals so bitterly with society that those of its characters who share its social bitterness are by that very fact condemned” (“Introduction,” p. xi). This seems to me an accurate description, and it points to a fundamental ambiguity in the novel's vision of society: for if lucidity leads to bitterness, but action based on that bitterness is morally unacceptable, then the only alternatives are confusion or retreat. The attempt to reconcile moral imperatives with social judgment is one of the sources of tension in the novel, a tension which is left unresolved at the conclusion.

The one element in Clennam's past that has escaped the general desolation is the memory of his passion for Flora, and the destruction of that memory confirms on the personal level the grim vision of society that has already been established. By severing any positive connection with his past, Clennam is thrown wholly into the present, which in the immediate context of the scene is represented by Casby's hypocritical surface, the unmotivated and terrifying malevolence of Mr. F's aunt, and the ambiguous figure of Pancks. The painful comedy of Flora's language, which is a futile attempt to resurrect the past by a sheer effort of the imagination, is ultimately harmless precisely because the attempted disguise is so ineffective. Flora's making of fictions can be associated with the pastoral fantasies of John Chivery and Mrs. Plornish as an activity necessary for personal survival, as distinguished from the various forms of self-serving manipulation of language that make up much of the social surface of the novel.

In being awakened from his daydream, Clennam not only loses an image of the past, but he is also brought to full consciousness of the emptiness of his present. In the dialogue with Pancks after he meets Flora, there is the following exchange: “‘But I like business,’ said Pancks. … ‘What's a man made for?’ ‘For nothing else?’ said Clennam. Pancks put the counter-question, ‘What else?’ It packed up, in the smallest compass, a weight that had rested on Clennam's life; and he made no answer” (bk. I, chap. 13). Pancks's question makes explicit the real basis of the social order, and Clennam's lack of response suggests his involuntary complicity in the system whose nature has been suggested by the image of the prison of London and by the mystifying rhetoric of public institutions. Pancks further generalizes his position: “‘Keep me always at it, and I'll keep you always at it, you keep somebody else always at it. There you are with the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country’” (bk. I, chap. 13). The disjunction between the moral capitals and the activity they refer to ironically reinforces our sense of the mystifying function of the language of principle: personal ambition is justified by an appeal to moral abstraction. Pancks is offering a condensed representation of the endlessly self-perpetuating activity of getting money, which is one of the open secrets of the novel, and whose negative analogue is the self-perpetuating paralysis of prison, of the Circumlocution Office, and finally of unchanging attitudes about class. It is important to emphasize that Clennam's awakening is not simply a romantic disillusionment created by the passage of time but is accompanied by a particularly stark vision of life in society. (It is part of the irony of the novel that Pancks himself escapes from the logic of his own argument. It should be noted as well that Flora is primarily defined by her capacity for genuine feeling and is thus, by the end of the novel, redeemed.)

Another variety of mystification that Clennam encounters in the first part of the novel is the self-serving cynicism of Gowan, who is a “very distant ramification of the Barnacles” (bk. I, chap. 17). If Mrs. Clennam's repression of feeling in the name of moral principle represents one extreme of the culture, then Gowan's irresponsible attitude toward art clearly represents the other, and his characteristic tactic of self-deprecation is a transparent device to justify his failure. As a “ramification” of the Barnacles, his vocation is clearly to be a parasite, and the whole of his activity as an artist is in conformity with that vocation. But there is another significant dimension to his role. As one of the representatives of gentility, he possesses a claim to recognition—simply because of his connections—that is one of the symptoms of the social irrationality which pervades the novel. Clennam renounces his daydream of falling in love with Pet Meagles because she has already chosen Gowan, thereby emphasizing the seductive power of surface appearances. Whatever the apparent distance between Gowan and his mother on the one hand and Mrs. Clennam on the other, they participate in the same process of concealment.3

In Clennam's various encounters with Gowan, what is constantly stressed is the personal usefulness to Gowan of his apparently lucid critique of the mystifications of social existence. When he says, “‘Give almost any man I know, ten pounds, and he will impose on you to a corresponding extent. So great the success, so great the imposition’” (bk. I, chap. 26), he is apparently uncovering the material basis of social pretense. But his cynicism is a justification for participating in the fraud he denounces, and he thus reiterates the contradiction between social appearance and personal motive that is true of so many characters in the novel. Gowan is finally accepted by the Meagles only because they accept the pretense of gentility, whose fictitious nature is emphasized by the description of the “establishments” of Hampton Court, which contain “many objects of various forms, feigning to have no connection with their guilty secret, a bed” (bk. I, chap. 26).

Immediately after his exposure to Mrs. Gowan's hypocritical manipulation of the family name as her only bargaining counter in the marriage market, Clennam's moral code is formally presented:

As the fierce dark teaching of his childhood had never sunk into his heart, so the first article in his code of morals was, that he must begin in practical humility, with looking well to his feet on Earth, and that he could never mount on wings of words to Heaven. Duty on Earth, restitution on earth, action on earth; these first, as the first steep steps upward. Strait was the gate and narrow was the way; far straiter and narrower than the broad high road paved with vain professions and vain repetitions, motes from other men's eyes and liberal delivery of others to the judgment—all cheap materials costing absolutely nothing.

(bk. I, chap. 27).

This passage represents an apparently unconditioned set of principles founded on the renunciation of self, a personal moral counterweight to the various masquerades of self-interest which constitute the world he has encountered. But, in spite of the disclaimer of the first sentence, the very language in which the principles are formulated indicates that this code is a barely secularized version of his mother's, although it has different motives and different ends. His code, though, is turned entirely inward and thereby precludes any action based on a negative judgment of others. Clennam's activity in the first part of the novel consists in a series of renunciations which all manifest a determination to exact a price from himself—a simple reversal of the social practice followed by others in the novel of making someone else pay; the economic metaphor is constant, only its object has changed. Finally, with his renunciation of Pet, and the “miraculous” liberation of the Dorrits, Clennam is left in a condition of apparently permanent emotional sterility. His “active and promising career” with Doyce provides the only direct engagement with the world; and it is clearly an impersonal activity, as Flora's habit of addressing him as Doyce and Clennam suggests.4 Only the process of acting out his fantasy of guilt by going to prison toward the end of the novel and the intervention of Little Dorrit make it possible for him to develop an adequate sense of his own identity.


The major action that alternates and sometimes intersects with Clennam's career is the history of the Dorrit family, which can be read as a series of variations on the theme of gentility. William Dorrit is the most obvious and, at the same time, the most complex incarnation of the fictions that sustain the social order, of the self-deception that is the personal counterpart to the institutional mystification practiced by the Circumlocution Office. His pretense of gentility in prison provides an acceptable justification for begging as well as a means of exacting deference. When the Plasterer (later identified as Plornish) fails to observe the polite forms in offering money to the Father of the Marshalsea, the pretense momentarily breaks down: “The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in copper yet. His children often had, and with his perfect acquiescence it had gone into the common purse, to buy meat that he had eaten, and drink that he had drunk; but fustian splashed with white lime, bestowing halfpence on him, front to front, was new” (bk. I, chap. 6). The reversal in status suggested by the shift from “tribute” to “bestowing,” the insistence on directness in “front to front,” and the concreteness of “copper” and “halfpence” force on him a momentary recognition of the reality of his position as a beggar dependent on the charity of others. But he immediately reconstitutes the fiction of gentility which is literally necessary for his survival. The scene enacts in miniature the revelation of the guilty secret that lies behind the language of social intercourse everywhere in the novel; what must be disguised is the source of money. The corruption which Dorrit manifests is thus, in part, a corruption of language. He uses certain words to transform an unacceptable reality into an occasion for acting out the social virtues of gentility and deference and, thus, to justify a situation he is powerless to change.5

In the context established by the prison of London, the prison of the Marshalsea, and the kinds of suppression they represent, Little Dorrit is an incarnation of unconditioned virtue: “Born and bred, in a social condition, false even with reference to the falsest condition outside the walls; drinking from infancy of a well whose waters had their own peculiar stain, their own unwholesome and unnatural taste; the Child of the Marshalsea began her womanly life” (bk. I, chap. 7). There is an absolute disjunction between her moral character and her social surroundings; her immunity to corruption stands at the outset as a bold narrative assertion of the possibility of liberation from the prison of society which can be based only on some pre- or extra-social principle. Although the narrative establishes her timidity and self-doubt as consequences of her birth and upbringing, the unselfish love which is the guiding principle of her action in the novel is simply given, like Clennam's “belief in all the gentle and good things his life had been without” (bk. I, chap. 13). It is her freedom from the social corruption which infects almost all the characters in the novel that has given rise to a religious interpretation of her significance, but her role as judge of the moral quality of others' actions, though it sometimes involves the rhetoric of the New Testament, finally comes to fulfillment in purely secular terms.

In the consciousness of her family, as interpreted by Clennam, she is “in her necessary place … holding a position towards them all which belonged to her age” (bk. I, chap. 9). The relationship is one of simple exploitation, in both economic and emotional terms, but as the moral and psychological characteristics of prison become progressively darker, the possibility of a more frightening form of exploitation comes to the surface. Dorrit's position in the prison is in part dependent on his public recognition by the turnkey, and when Little Dorrit's rejection of young John Chivery's courtship threatens that recognition, her father invents a transparent story to encourage her to “lead him on” (bk. I, chap. 19). It is the moment at which the corruptions of the prison have reached their lowest point, for he is suggesting that she engage in a polite form of prostitution. In the immediately subsequent action, the point is both reinforced and its significance enlarged.

It is important to trace the narrative sequence of this scene in some detail, because it provides one of the most clearly articulated examples in the novel of the active presence at all levels of society of similar moral and emotional disguises. The private and public realms intersect to reveal similar visions of emptiness and corruption. The sense that he has revealed the extent of his degradation (to himself as well as to his daughter) leads Dorrit to an unsparing description of his own position: “‘What am I worth to any one? A poor prisoner, fed on alms and broken victuals; a squalid, disgraced wretch!’” (bk. I, chap. 19). But, as before, his very survival depends on his capacity to reconstitute the myth of his own gentility, and the dialogue between them concludes with a sinister parody of the assertion of paternal responsibility: “‘whatever I have done for your sake, I have done freely and without murmuring’” (bk. I, chap. 19). Up to this point in the novel, the prison of the Marshalsea has appeared in Little Dorrit's imagination as home and refuge from the “cruel streets” of the city.6 But the threat to her innocence and the degradation in her father lead her to another perception: “The spikes had never looked so sharp and cruel, nor the bars so heavy, nor the prison space so gloomy and contracted. She thought of the sunrise on rich landscapes, of the sunrise on great forests where birds were waking and the trees were rustling; and she looked down into the living grave on which the sun had risen, with her father in it, three-and-twenty years” (bk. I, chap. 19). The pastoral alternative to prison in this passage reinforces by contrast the negative aspect of the description, and the vision of the prison as a grave points to the spiritual death of the whole society.

Fanny's manner of upholding the family dignity is to use herself as Dorrit would have used her sister, to use the language of social status to justify her transformation of herself into a high-priced commodity. In allowing herself to be bought off by Mrs. Merdle, she exacts the only price her situation permits for the social humiliation she is obliged to accept. It is a particularly stark variation on the guiding principle of social relations—bargain and sale and payment—that pervades the novel, as the following dialogue makes explicit: “‘Would you let a woman like this … put her foot upon your family, and thank her for it?’ ‘No, Fanny, I am sure.’ ‘Then make her pay for it, you mean little thing. What else can you make her do? [my emphasis] Make her pay for it, you stupid child; and do your family some credit with the money!’” (bk. I, chap. 20). That this is a repetition of her father's practice is clear from the insistence on their similar behavior: “she threw the table implements about and was angry with her bread, much as her father had been last night” (bk. I, chap. 20). For both, the assertion of the family dignity involves their participation in the fundamental processes of society: affirmation of personal value is ultimately based on exchange value, but the language of social intercourse forbids the explicit recognition of that fact. Only Fanny's incipient warfare with Mrs. Merdle provokes lucidity, which quickly becomes blurred by her return to the vocabulary of gentility. Most ways of gaining money and status cannot bear detailed and sustained scrutiny; they must be described in a language that obscures.

The movement of the narrative from the crises of the Dorrit family to the presentation of Merdle suggests by juxtaposition a connection that the subsequent action will work out in detail. Here it is sufficient to note that at the heart of the social order is a void, a character who is the creation of the collective imagination and whose economic activities are described in terms like these: “It was one of those instances of a comprehensive grasp, associated with habitual luck and characteristic boldness, of which an age presented us but few” (bk. I, chap. 21). The very vagueness of the honorific vocabulary, the absence of any particularizing detail is an ironic indication that the function of this kind of language is analogous to Dorrit's pretense of gentility: the creation of an acceptable surface to conceal the disjunction between ideological statement and social practice. Given this context, it is clear that the miraculous liberation of the family from prison implies no significant change; it merely provides the occasion for them to enact their social fantasy on a larger scale.

In their new situation the primary preoccupation of the family becomes the suppression of the past and the constant reaffirmation of their fragile sense of dignity. What was in prison a transparent fiction, dependent for its survival on the complicity and tolerance of the others, becomes on their European voyage the very basis of their participation in society. In the process of identifying the family with its position, Dorrit points to the repressive consequences of the very notion of gentility: “‘Now it is incumbent upon all people in an exalted position, but it is particularly so on this family, for reasons which I—ha—will not dwell upon, to make themselves respected. Dependents, to respect us, must be—ha—kept at a distance and—hum—kept down. Down’” (bk. II, chap. 3). The necessity of concealing any trace of the past leads to a particularly rigid adherence to the values of social status and an acute terror of displaying any sign that will reveal the guilty secret. It is a secular analogue to Mrs. Clennam's religious ideology based on a similar act of suppression.

The satiric presentation of Mrs. General makes explicit what social appearances are designed to hide. The fiction of her gentility is dependent on the “delicacy” which forbids her to discuss payment for her services to the Misses Dorrit “‘as a companion, protector, Mentor, and friend’” (bk. II, chap. 2), although she simultaneously manages to reveal how much she is to be paid. As a glorified governess, her function is to act as a standard of propriety. She is a specimen of magical thinking, a particular incarnation of the institutional mystification of the Circumlocution Office. Her association with the Dorrits suggests that they are attempting to enact the dreams of an entire class, but the price of gentility is the simultaneous repression of the self and others. Mrs. General's prudery has a social function: to maintain undisturbed the order of society by using the language of abstract cultural values to justify economically motivated social practices. In criticizing Little Dorrit for looking attentively at vagrants, she says, “‘A truly refined mind will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid, and pleasant’” (bk. II, chap. 5). The function of the code of propriety is transparent: Mrs. General crystallizes in her language the fictions society tells itself in order to maintain its good conscience.

As participants in the social world of which Mrs. General is the satirized voice, the family is obliged to perform the rituals appropriate to its station, which involves the assumption of more elaborate socially defined identities. The figures of Mrs. General and the Merdles suggest that society is constituted by the stifling of particular identity. The process by which this is accomplished is delineated in the steps leading up to Fanny's marriage to Merdle's stepson, an act necessary both to consolidate the family's still uncertain social position and to permit Fanny to exercise her will to vengeance. For Dorrit the marriage represents simply one further means of obliterating his past because the association with Merdle is a perfect guarantee of respectability, and it offers the promise of yet greater wealth. For Fanny, on the other hand, marriage to the buffoon Sparkler is an assertion of self in the only form she can imagine; in engaging in social warfare with Mrs. Merdle, she is in effect accepting the enemy's terms. To attain the kind of freedom suggested by “the latitude as to dress that she [Mrs. Merdle] has, being married” (bk. II, chap. 4), she must suppress anything other than that purely ornamental identity. Any self-assertion necessarily involves the surrender of personal autonomy in submitting to a social role: Fanny is in the process of becoming Mrs. Merdle.

In order for the marriage to consecrate fully the status of the family, Dorrit must be assured of two things: that the fiction of social equality will be respected and that there be an equitable financial arrangement. The first demand can be more or less clearly articulated: “that his [Dorrit's] daughter would be received on that footing, which her station in life and her dowry and expectations warranted him in requiring that she should maintain in what he trusted he might be allowed, without the appearance of being mercenary, to call the Eye of the Great World” (bk. II, chap. 15). But the second must be disguised in code: according to Mrs. Merdle, “‘Edmund's public position I think you know. His private position rests wholly with Mr. Merdle’” (bk. II, chap. 15). Piecing together the various elements that make the arrangement socially acceptable, we arrive at something like the following: Edmund's randiness renders his marriage necessary; his mental debility is counterbalanced by Fanny's dubious past; his appointment to the Circumlocution Office matches her dowry; and the connection will facilitate an enlargement of Merdle's capital. The marriage brings together the Dorrits, the Merdles, and the Circumlocution Office in the common exercise of mystifying rhetoric. But, ironically, the secret of his past that Dorrit struggles so desperately to conceal is no obstacle to the alliance, and, of all the parties to the arrangement, he is the only one unaware of the purely formal character of the pretense. If, as he says in an earlier episode, “‘Mr. Merdle is the man of this time. The name of Merdle is the name of the age’” (bk. II, chap. 5),7 then Dorrit is an anachronism, ignorant of the change in meaning that the concept of gentility has undergone. At the very moment when he is about to complete the obliteration of his past by consummating his marriage to society in his grotesque courtship of Mrs. General, the internal contradictions of his project lead to his breakdown. Europe has become at this stage of the narrative a refuge from any reminder of his past, and because he is engaged in the impossible enterprise of internalizing social forms as adequate representations of personal value, and thus enacting another variety of imprisonment, the past inevitably returns. Psychologically the episode can be read as a simple representation of the return of the repressed; at the same time, it is an exposure of social fraud. For it is obviously not the facts of Dorrit's past which are mortifying to Mrs. Merdle, but their public proclamation. The return of Dorrit's identity as Father of the Marshalsea (itself, of course, another fiction) poses a direct challenge to the fictions that constitute social intercourse. His vision of the company at Mrs. Merdle's dinner as new arrivals in the Marshalsea (bk. II, chap. 19) echoes Little Dorrit's earlier perception of the society in which they move as “a superior sort of Marshalsea” (bk. II, chap. 7). This reinforces the sense of all life in society as a series of variations on imprisonment, in which all the prisoners enter into a tacit conspiracy to deny that reality by surrendering their personal autonomy in a purely social identity. Dorrit's breakdown is the first of a series of exposures that make up the complex denouement of the novel and lead to a tentative and paradoxical affirmation of the possibility of liberation.


While the Dorrits have been moving through the dream of prosperity, crowned by the association with Merdle, Clennam himself has become infected with the disease of speculation, which the narrative characterizes as a “moral infection” and “a plague” (bk. II, chap. 13). His unwitting involvement in Merdle's fraudulent enterprises provides the occasion for a concrete act of expiation for the obscure sense of guilt that has occupied him from the outset. The mysterious activities of Blandois, and his apparent disappearance, lead Clennam to a suspicion of his mother which he experiences as personal guilt: “As though a criminal should be chained in a stationary boat on a deep clear river, condemned, whatever countless leagues of water flowed past him, always to see the body of the fellow-creature he had drowned lying at the bottom” (bk. II, chap. 23). It is immediately after the frustration of Clennam's final attempt to overcome his sense of paralysis that Merdle commits suicide and the bubble of speculation bursts. The narrative sequence points to the analogy between Merdle's secret and Mrs. Clennam's and suggests that Clennam's public assumption of responsibility is a transposition of his private sense of guilt. If “the name of Merdle is the name of the age” then the revelation of his fraudulent practices is clearly an emblematic exposure of general social delusion. But the effect of the exposure is to reinforce that delusion by affirming Merdle's personal villainy and thereby concealing the fact that he is a purely social creation. When the whispers that circulate assert, “He had sprung from nothing, by no natural growth or process that anyone could account for” (bk. II, chap. 25), they point to Merdle's lack of any identity beyond that attributed to him by the representatives of society; even the money he dealt with was not his own.

Clennam's public avowal of responsibility is, in the context of the execration heaped on Merdle, an assertion of his moral independence from the social system that has created Merdle; and his determination to be incarcerated in the Marshalsea is a conscious violation of the social code of hierarchy, as well as a dramatic enactment of his sense of guilt and impotence.8 In making himself into a scapegoat, Clennam is acting according to his mother's rigid moral system of strict accountability and thereby accepting as binding the language of social obligation, which elsewhere in the novel is used as a camouflage for self-interest. The fact that Clennam's behavior is both extraordinary and severely limited in its effect is emphasized in his dialogue with “the best and brightest of the Barnacles,” who, in response to Clennam's hope that Merdle's collapse will prevent the recurrence of similar phenomena, says: “‘The next man who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling, will succeed as well’” (bk. II, chap. 28). Whatever the personal moral significance of Clennam's voluntary imprisonment, it has effectively nothing to do with the self-perpetuating mechanism that society has become. When the devil-figure Blandois asserts their moral equivalence, “‘I sell anything that commands a price. … How do you live? How do you come here? Have you sold no friend?’” (bk. II, chap. 30), Clennam, in fact, has no response, for those are the terms in which he has condemned himself.

Within the social world constructed by this novel, there is no solution to Clennam's difficulty. The threatened revelation of the evidence that would confirm his mother's guilt is averted only by her miraculous recovery from paralysis: “It was … almost as if a dead woman had risen” (bk. II, chap. 30). Her resurrection and the collapse of the house are symbolic representations of the destruction of a false relationship to the past, false because it is founded on the suppression of the secret of Arthur's birth. But, at the same time, that very suppression is also in part responsible for whatever moral strength Clennam may have: “‘I have seen that child grow up; not to be pious in a chosen way … but still to be just and upright, and to be submissive to me’” (bk. II, chap. 31). Although part of Mrs. Clennam's effort of self-justification, it also points to the moral continuity between mother and son—Clennam's voluntary imprisonment is clearly analogous to her own, but it is made morally acceptable by his refusal to judge anyone but himself. Clennam's sickness is a symbolic purgation of his participation in the “moral infection” of speculation, a process that enacts his essential detachment from the social world, which has been the case for Little Dorrit from the beginning.

The marriage of Little Dorrit and Clennam which concludes the novel is then an alliance between the two principal characters who throughout have consistently abstained from self-assertion; their essential identity is one each freely grants to the other.9 Their marriage takes place outside society, for neither in fact has a social identity. This is not a sentimental evasion of the vision of society that the rest of the action incarnates, for several reasons. First, their personal happiness stands clearly as an isolated phenomenon the exemplary value of Esther's marriage at the end of Bleak House has no echo here. Further, it is precisely on the basis of the human values that Amy and Clennam embody that society has been implicitly judged.10 Finally, the social order has in no way been transformed by the various revelations of secrets and frauds: Pancks exposes Casby's fraudulent benevolence and explicitly associates him with Merdle, but it is merely a symbolic victory; Merdle's crash leads to a final self-serving social mystification in which Mrs. Merdle is defended from what is now the taint of her association with her husband by those who had been responsible for his rise to power. Against the persistence of the order of society, whose imprisoning and corrupting force dominates the action and whose voice is heard in the “usual uproar” of the last paragraph, the figures of Clennam and Little Dorrit can offer only “a modest life of usefulness and happiness” (bk. II, chap. 34).

The final resolution maintains the contradiction between human values and the social order that is present from the beginning of the novel. No spiritual transcendence would resolve the contradiction, nor does the action suggest the possibility of any political solution, for the condition of society in this novel is not susceptible to change. The “social criticism” that the action incarnates is directed less at particular institutions than at the whole ideological system that safeguards the perpetuation of parasitism, injustice, and oppression.11 But so pervasive and powerful is the ideology of gentility and deference, that it succeeds in mystifying its victims, who participate in their own oppression. By a radical rejection of this social order, Amy and Clennam succeed in creating an identity outside of it. But the process which Clennam has gone through suggests that he has created an adequate identity, at least in part, by acting on his own version of his mother's religious ideology. The social vision enforced by the novel's conclusion is that moral action is possible only by retreat from society, but, paradoxically, the moral values the characters have internalized are those explicitly asserted in hypocritical fashion by society. Clennam gains his moral stature by his complete adherence to a code affirmed by his society, and Dickens uses society's own ideological pretenses as the most powerful weapons in his attack.


  1. See Lionel Trilling's “Introduction” (p. vi) to the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition for the most concise and illuminating formulation of the point. One critic, in a perverse but suggestive article, argues that disease rather than prison is the governing metaphor. The element of truth in the argument points to the inadequacy of any single pattern to account for the complexity of the novel. See Edwin B. Barrett, “Little Dorrit and the Disease of Modern Life,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 25 (1970), 199-215.

  2. This is immediately followed by the explicit affirmation that Mrs. Clennam is remarkable only for “the force and emphasis” with which she expresses the economic basis of her religious consciousness.

  3. The distinction is, of course, between half-conscious self-deception and pure hypocrisy, between the fiction of a moral order and the keeping up of appearances. Mrs. Clennam is at the heart of the complex moral problems of the novel, the Gowans a sign of a pervasive social disease, which in their case often expresses itself in trivial deceptions.

  4. There is even something sinister in the countinghouse where he works: “a shaft of light … which brought to Clennam's mind the child's old picture-book, where similar rays were the witnesses of Abel's murder” (bk. I, chap. 23). The comparison suggests that Clennam sees himself as Cain, his identity constituted entirely by guilt.

  5. A minor instance of an analogous use of language is provided by the doctor who delivers Little Dorrit, when prison becomes its opposite and failure the cause of congratulation: “‘Nobody writes threatening letters about money to this place. It's freedom sir, it's freedom! … we know the worst of it; we have got to the bottom, we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the word for it. Peace!’” (bk. I, chap. 6).

  6. See especially book I, chapters 7, 14.

  7. The excremental associations of the name look forward to the elaborate development of the waste-money analogy in Our Mutual Friend.

  8. His lawyer objects in these terms: “‘It's as well to keep up appearances. As your professional adviser, I should prefer your being taken on a writ from one of the Superior Courts, if you have no objection to do me that favour. It looks better’” (bk. II, chap. 26).

  9. It might also be read as a symbolic and ironic union of two sides of the past (puritanism and gentility) coming after the expulsion of Blandois, the European devil, and suggesting a muted private victory over the eminently English and excremental Merdle. There seems to be a historical paradigm discernible in the action, with Blandois as a development out of Dorrit's gentility and Merdle the ultimate truth of Mrs. Clennam's puritanism. Mutual destruction comes about when past and present representatives of apparently opposed cultural values come into contact.

  10. Cf. William Myers, “The Radicalism of Little Dorrit,” in John Lucas, ed., Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1971), pp. 77-104, especially p. 103.

  11. Cf. Raymond Williams, “Social Criticism in Little Dorrit,Critical Quarterly, 6 (1964), 217-219.

Elaine Showalter (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8410

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “Guilt, Authority, and the Shadows of Little Dorrit.Nineteenth-Century Fiction 34, no. 1 (June 1979): 20-40.

[In the following essay, Showalter characterizes the shadow motif in Little Dorrit as emblematic of the spiritual darkness of Victorian society.]

As J. Hillis Miller has observed, “shadow” is the “most frequently recurring” of certain key words in Little Dorrit, a term which links “physical imprisonment and imprisoning states of soul”:

It is used most obviously to express the literal shadow of the Marshalsea, but it appears, often metaphorically, in connection with almost all the characters and eventually we understand that the real shadow here is “a deeper shadow than the shadow of the Marshalsea Wall” (II, 19), and that to be “shadowed” by some sadness or blindness or delusion or deliberate choice of the worse rather than the better course is the universal condition of all the dwellers in this prison of a lower world.1

The unity of Little Dorrit has generally been argued in terms of universal moral symbolism, but I think that a thorough exploration of the novel's shadows can help us understand its coherence in the more specific terms of psychological realism and sociological observation. The shadows of Little Dorrit are more than words or metaphors of spiritual darkness; they represent the world of psychic turbulence which lies beneath the brilliant “surface” of Society cultivated by the financial authority of Merdle, the political authority of the Barnacles, and the social authority of Mrs. General. Not only institutions but also people have their shadows—doubles who enact their repressed roles and desires. For Dickens, the subtle techniques of shadow provide a way to create a three-dimensional fictional world, with depth as well as surface, without asserting the intrusive direct authority of omniscience. In this essay I would like to examine Dickens's use of shadow as figure, theme, and imaginative principle in order to get at some of Little Dorrit's classic puzzles: the prison's centrality, the hero's guilt, and the sense of an ending.

The figure of the shadow as omniscient narrator, as secret self, and as protective imagination occurs first for Dickens in conjunction with the problem of authority. It was civil authority that closed in upon Dickens's father when he was arrested for debt and taken to the Marshalsea, where, he told his broken-hearted little son, the sun had set upon him forever.2 John Dickens's descent into the twilight world of the debtor, sinking below the equatorial line of the Thames and out of the cycle of Victorian social mobility, provides the biographical source for one of Little Dorrit's dominant motifs. In this darkest of Dickens's novels, with its pensive imagery of labyrinths and prisons, we see the underside of Victorian authority, the shadows behind the sunny promise of bourgeois self-help, parliamentary democracy, and private charity. It was for this reason that Shaw called Little Dorrit “a more seditious book than Das Kapital” and a book which challenged the inertia, elitism, hypocrisy, and morbidity of the Victorian state.3

Dickens entitled his first chapter “Sun and Shadow”; the title page of the first edition shows Little Dorrit in a broad ray of sun coming through the shadowy Marshalsea gate. The Marshalsea, where dusk falls “sooner than elsewhere,”4 is a kind of permanent shadow world, whose inhabitants have endured the eclipse of ambition and ego which John Dickens so lamented to his son. Psychologically, too, it functions as a kind of spectral world of the Victorian unconscious, the shadowy other side of the frenzied pursuit of money, status, and power which characterizes the world of Merdle and the government. In the Marshalsea prisoners lose their social selves, roles with all their attendant paraphernalia of gesture, accent, posture, and costume, but new roles and new hierarchies must replace them. In this sense, the shadow world of the prison comes to mirror and parody the bright authoritative surface. Here, too, self-esteem requires a tireless maintenance of the façade, an endless series of staging problems. Dickens both distrusts the authoritarian structure which constantly threatens and exposes this fragile and pathetic enterprise, and yet, through his own authority as narrative observer, perpetually exposes it himself. He is fascinated with the behavior of prisoners, with the marginal ways people find to sustain their individuality in institutions.

The surrender to the institution—to the Marshalsea, or to the workhouse—was an acknowledgment of social failure, and modern sociology can help us understand its mechanisms. Asylums, Erving Goffman's account of the total institution, provides a vocabulary and a theoretical framework for the study of the social situation of inmates. Goffman is interested in the assaults upon the self within institutions and the manner in which inmate culture, with its privileges, territories, networks, patronage, and hierarchies, functions to maintain personality. Such a culture is essential, because entrance into the institution is a process of stigmatization, involving a series of mortifications designed to strip the inmate of external status. The total institution is above all “a milieu of personal failure in which one's fall from grace is continuously pressed home.” In some cases, Goffman explains, the ego is already so weak or strained that the surrender to failure comes as a tremendous relief. In order to preserve minimal self-esteem, inmates construct protective fictions, “sad tales,” and false histories, which allow self-pity to dominate their relations with others.5

The real Marshalsea was a mild prison, much more tolerant in its regime than Newgate or the Bastille, better administered than the other debtors' prisons, the King's Bench and the Fleet. Discipline was so casual that smugglers, who were supposed to be in a higher security section of the building, regularly consorted with the debtors, an arrangement obviously to the advantage of both groups. Marshalsea prisoners were allowed a great deal of leeway in maintaining their personal fictions of gentility and innocence; they wore no uniforms and suffered none of the penitentiary disciplines of silence and isolation.6 The turnkey in Little Dorrit keeps tactful silence when Mr. Dorrit, like all inmates, maintains that he is “going out again directly.” It is only by gradual stages that Dorrit divests himself of the remnants of his preprison identity and takes on the gratifying alternative role of “Father of the Marshalsea.” The mode of prison exchange is barter of goods and services, and Little Dorrit herself becomes skilled in using the system to get training for herself, Fanny, and Tip. Despite the relatively benign and “normal” quality of Marshalsea life, its inhabitants sustain a precarious identity by systematically denying the reality of their situations. They call themselves “collegians” rather than prisoners, avoid the gate at locking time, praise the good air and the company. Mr. Dorrit must pretend not to know that his daughters are employed, must deny that the “testimonials,” “subscriptions,” and “tributes” he solicits from departing inmates are crowns and shillings.

Dickens reminds us that similar pretenses exist outside the prison walls. The players in Fanny's theater call themselves “professionals”; Mrs. General will accept no vulgar remuneration but allows Mr. Dorrit to pay a quarterly sum to her credit at her bankers. The cramped Hampton Court apartments where Mrs. Gowan lives require an intense conspiracy on the part of visitors and inhabitants if the fictions of genteel privacy are to be maintained. “Callers looking steadily into the eyes of their receivers, pretended not to smell cooking three feet off; people, confronting closets accidentally left open, pretended not to see bottles; visitors, with their heads against a partition of thin canvas and a page and a young female at high words on the other side, made believe to be sitting in a primeval silence” (I, 26).

As a novelist, Dickens is in a position akin to that of the observer in the tower of a panoptical prison, who can see each prisoner in his cell, who takes in the entire cellular structure simultaneously, and is thus aware of all the human actors as actors in a systematic drama. Drawing on Michel Foucault's Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison, Jonathan Arac has discussed the emergence of principles of social organization and inspection in the nineteenth century which connected the authority of the capitalist, the prison warden, and the novelist; for the latter omniscient narration becomes “a principle of novelistic social control … in which an unseen knower achieves panoptical authority over a mass of individuals.” This authority, Arac points out, “was needed to integrate an imaginative view of the city” but “in its panoramic privilege … omniscient narration was one more facet of Victorian inspectorial surveillance, the process of centralization carried on by capitalists in the factories and Utilitarians in the state.”7

Dickens's sense of the narrator's position as ethically compromised is expressed in a number of famous passages about the shadowy secrets of the city. As the inquirer, the novelist, he felt frustrated by the “profound secret and mystery” of the human personality.8 To be aware, as one walks through the city, that every house contains a myriad of secrets—a persistent theme in Dickens's later novels—is to be constantly teased by what Hillis Miller calls “the opacity of other people.”9 Yet Dickens also feels a horror of the surveillant, of the intimate intruder who violates individual privacy. In the novels, the characters who invade the secrets of others are sinister presences such as Mr. Tulkinghorn in Bleak House or Jaggers in Great Expectations: representatives of an authority which uncomfortably exposes and controls others. Even Physician in Little Dorrit, whose profession took him to the “darkest places” and at whose table “guests came out so surprisingly … that they were almost natural” (II, 25), is a figure of ambiguous power. Miss Wade, who cannot be at peace with closed doors and who restlessly and compulsively interprets the world as a conspiracy against her, is a paranoid version of the inquisitive novelist: “From a very early age,” she announces, “I have detected what those about me thought they hid from me” (II, 21).

Dickens's need to understand the omniscient novelist as a benevolent figure, rather than an agent of relentless surveillance, was expressed in his 1848 proposal of “The Shadow” as the unifying theme of a new magazine:

Now to bind all this together, and to get a character established as it were which any of the writers may maintain without difficulty, I want to suppose a certain Shadow, which may go into any place, by sunlight, moonlight, starlight, firelight, candlelight, and be in all homes, and all nooks and corners, and be supposed to be cognisant of everything, and go everywhere, without the least difficulty, which may be in the Theatre, the Palace, the House of Commons, the Prisons, the Unions, the Churches, on the Railroad, on the Sea, abroad and at home: a kind of semiomniscient, omnipresent, intangible creature. I don't think it would do to call the paper The Shadow: but I want something tacked to that title, to express the notion of its being a cheerful, useful, and always welcome Shadow. I want to open the first number with this Shadow's account of himself and his family. I want to have all the correspondence addressed to him. … I want him to loom as a fanciful thing all over London; and to get up a general notion of “What will the Shadow say about this, I wonder?”10

The figure of the shadow had occurred frequently to Dickens in the 1840's, but always in a negative form, and not as this popular and amiable reporter. In The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), the “great shadow of the stranger” which falls on Dot Peerybingle brings suspicion, jealousy, and violence into her husband's heart; or as a more modern interpretation might have it, embodies the negative feelings which he has repressed. In the 1848 Christmas book, The Haunted Man, the shadow takes the form of a phantom double of the hero Redlaw. It appears to him out of the gloom—“an awful likeness of himself”—and offers to remove his memories of pain, trouble, and sorrow. Like Mr. Hyde or the portrait of Dorian Gray, the shadow incorporates this negative experience and separates it from its human context. Without memories, Redlaw becomes an automaton. Everywhere he goes, he destroys the memories of others, and they too become harsh and insensitive to each other. Without memory, the characters visited by Redlaw break out of their emotional secrecy, and begin to say what they really think and feel. When little Johnny loudly rebels against nursing his infant sister, when Mr. Tetterby notices that his wife is fat and ugly and grumbles that poor people ought not to have children at all, when the invalid student tells his self-sacrificing nurse to stop fussing and preaching, they cease to be Christmasy figures of sentiment, and begin to sound astonishingly convincing and alive. The “haunted man” who tours the city is thus a kind of realistic or naturalistic novelist; and the glaring pitiless world he exposes and documents is Dickens's nightmare.

Dickens's ambivalence about the shadow world, the darkness which protectively harbors the chaos of identity, is manifested in Little Dorrit in a series of strongly contrasted landscapes and cityscapes. The novel begins with a description of Marseilles in the blaze of high noon, a passage which critics have found perplexingly resonant, or even strident and pretentious. A. E. Dyson finds in it a resemblance to a “symbolist poem”; John Lucas concludes that “not even Dickens himself entirely knows what the language of this passage is trying for.”11 For Dickens, Marseilles is a haunted, unshadowed landscape, which mercilessly exposes all nuance and reduces the merely human to insignificance; only the lizard and the cicala flourish in its heat and dust. Timeless, polyglot, and harsh, this city of sun has a peculiar stillness and stagnancy. Dickens emphasizes its abrupt and precise divisions, the visible line of demarcation between the black “abominable pool” of the inner harbor, and the blue of the “pure sea … with which it never mixed.” The key word of the passage is “stare”: “Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away” (I, 1). As Randolph Splitter has noted, “the fear of exposure inherent in this obsession with staring seems like agoraphobia, fear of open spaces, of being exposed to people's stares, fear of the light instead of the child's fear of the dark.”12

Vividly, assertively, even stunningly described, the landscape of Marseilles is unparticularized. This is perhaps because it exists primarily in the mind as an alien space. For Dickens, a landscape without shadow seems to be the most threatening imaginable, a place in which the self is disclosed and imperiled. There is something primitive and deadly about Dickens's vision of Marseilles which connects it to other agoraphobic nightmare landscapes of the English imagination: E. M. Forster's Marabar Hills, Graham Greene's Mexico, T. E. Lawrence entering Jeddah Harbor when the heat of Arabia came out and smote him like a sword; even the red sun that hangs low in the sky of H. G. Wells's dying planet. The city of sun offers no refuge, no concealment, no fantasy, no transforming generosity. Thus, to cite another twentieth-century text, it seems imaginatively right that Evelyn Waugh's Tony Last, in A Handful of Dust, faces an appalling lifetime captivity of reading Little Dorrit to Mr. Todd in the jungle of Amazonas.

The structural and symbolic parallel to Marseilles in Little Dorrit is the monastery of the Great St. Bernard in Book II. Here a cold Alpine clarity and the abrupt division between day and night strip the environment of shadow. The travelers make their ascent through a terrain as blasted and desolate as that of Marseilles: “No trees were to be seen, nor any vegetable growth, save a poor brown scrubby moss, freezing in the chinks of rock.” At the top of the mountain, frozen into tableaux, are the corpses of travelers lost in bygone storms: “The mother, storm-belated many winters ago, still standing in the corner with her baby at her breast; the man who had frozen with his arm raised to his mouth in fear or hunger, still pressing it with his dry lips after years and years” (II, I). With its arched galleries, huge staircase, and dark corridors, the monastery too is a kind of romantic prison, a Piranesian arena of suspended animation.

In contrast to these two still and exposed places is London, the city of turbulent shadow. Here there is constant motion: the river flows ceaselessly; the people are in transit, “restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life” (I, 2). Every dark corner conceals a dense and humming life: “miserable children in rags … like young rats, slunk and hid, fed on offal, huddled together for warmth, and were hunted about” (I, 14); homeless people lay “coiled up in nooks” (I, 14); “the dim streets … [seem] all depositories of oppressive secrets” (II, 10).

For Dickens, this ceaseless activity and motion, for all that he paints it dark, is the source of life and human values. Tranquility reminds him of death. To be still is to sink into despair, to surrender to the moral rot of apathy. Dickens approves of an active anxiety: “It is much better to go on and fret, than to stop and fret.”13 Thus London is a dark city, but it has a swarming vitality. In this novel of travelers, of trips to Paris, Venice, Switzerland, and Rome, only London has the power of renewing life. The revitalizing energy of London lies in its acceptance, even celebration, of endless change, struggle, and flux. For Dickens, the resistance to transformation is futile, self-deceptive, and finally deadening; it is the source of the pretense he describes in Rome, “where everything seemed to be trying to stand still for ever on the ruins of something else—except the water, which, following eternal laws, tumbled and rolled from its glorious multitude of fountains” (II, 7). The Marshalsea itself was to disappear, for as Dickens tells us in his preface to the 1857 edition, he finds the outer front courtyard of the old prison “metamorphosed into a butter shop” and the rooms turned into lodgings. Such precariousness made memory all the more precious, individuality the more poignant and unstable.

To be shut away from the sun in a London house of shadows is to inhabit an intensely active world of memories and secrets. Mrs. Clennam's house is modeled more on Plato's Cave than any London terrace; its reality is only the exaggerated projection of her own darkness:

The varying light of fire and candle in Mrs. Clennam's room made the greatest change that ever broke the dead monotony of the spot. In her two long narrow windows, the fire shone sullenly all day, and sullenly all night. On rare occasions, it flashed up passionately, as she did; but for the most part it was suppressed, like her, and preyed upon itself evenly and slowly. During many hours of the short winter days, however, when it was dusk there early in the afternoon, changing distortions of herself in her wheeled chair, of Mr. Flintwinch with his wry neck, of Mistress Affery coming and going, would be thrown upon the house wall that was over the gateway, and would hover there like shadows from a great magic lantern. As the room-ridden invalid settled for the night, these would gradually disappear: Mistress Affery's magnified shadow always flitting about, last, until it finally glided away into the air, as though she were off upon a witch excursion.

(I, 15)

The effectiveness of this scene depends as much on Dickens's brilliant verbalization of the visual effects of chiaroscuro as on its psychological and metaphysical echoes. In 1842 he had written enthusiastically of Daniel Maclise's Hamlet: “What an extraordinary fellow he must be who so manages the lights in this picture, that on the scene behind, is an enormous shadow of this group—as if the real murder were being done again by phantoms.”14 In Little Dorrit Dickens frequently adapts such painterly conventions, as in his introduction of Miss Wade, sitting in a shadow which fell “like a gloomy veil across her forehead” (I, 2), and his picture of Rigaud in the Alps, drinking his wine “with a monstrous shadow imitating him on the wall and ceiling” (II, 1). As we see also in the story of the Princess and the shadow, which Little Dorrit tells Maggy, people's shadows incorporate their secret inner lives. Little Dorrit too inhabits the shadow world of secrecy, repression, and fantasy. Her love for Clennam is a “treasured shadow,” which she keeps hidden in “a very secret place,” and which she intends to take with her to the final secrecy of the grave (I, 24).

Northrop Frye describes “a hidden and private world of dream and death” in Dickens's novels as the source of “renewed life and energy” for those heroes who can survive knowledge of its depths.15 This world, Frye suggests, surfaces in the half-light of dawn and twilight. Perhaps this is why so many scenes in Little Dorrit are set at sunrise or dusk. While Dickens's sunsets tend to be “poetic” scenes in the Turner-Ruskin tradition, many of the sunrises in the novel are seen from the windows of the prison; the rays of the sun which waken the hopeless to another day are only the “bars of the prison of this lower world” (II, 30). In contrast to the romantic sunsets are the many sunrise passages in which characters have been up all night, troubled and frightened: Little Dorrit locked out of the Marshalsea, Physician and Bar after Merdle's suicide. Cavalletto's escape from Rigaud takes place at dawn from an inn called the Break of Day; Dickens noted it in his number plan as “sunrise picture. Cavalletto making off in the red light down the long road.”16 Superficially the most cheerful of the sunrise pictures, this turns out to be a Miltonic image of a damned soul escaping from hell: “a black speck moved along the road and splashed among the flaming pools of rainwater” (I, 11). Clennam's vigil in the Marshalsea is a night watch leading to a dawn which brings no renewal but only “a blurred circle of yellow haze” (II, 29). When Maggy and Little Dorrit spend the night sleeping outside in the streets, morning comes with similar anticlimactic indistinctness, in sound rather than dramatic or beautiful light:

No day yet in the sky, but there was day in the resounding stones of the streets; in the waggons, carts, and coaches; in the workers going to various occupations; in the opening of early shops; in the traffic at markets; in the stir of the river-side. There was coming day in the flaring lights, with a feebler colour in them than they would have had at another time; coming day in the increased sharpness of the air, and the ghastly dying of the night.

(I, 14)

The human analogues to these scenes of painful exposure are the nobodies, characters who are permanent inhabitants of the half-light. Dickens reserves his most astonishing poetry for the anonymous dispossessed who have lost even their sustaining fictions, “perhapsers” (like George Moore's Alfred Nobbs), whose identities have totally broken down, who have given up the effort to play even their roles. Such feeble and eroded personalities as Frederick Dorrit (“in private life, where there was no part for the clarionet, he had no part at all” [I, 20]) and Old Nandy, upon whom Mr. Dorrit projects his own humiliation, seem to arouse Dickens's deepest narrative sympathies. Although he calls the shabby crowd of “messengers, go-betweens, and errand-bearers” at the Marshalsea gate the “nondescripts,” he musters on their account all his resources of language and metaphor; they are supremely described, with that Dickensian art of the necessary detail that contradicts Orwell:

Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker's. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on door-steps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction.

(I, 9)

Poverty and the workhouse are institutions more effective than the Marshalsea in destroying the self, the “Spirit” (as Mr. Dorrit calls it) that sustains ego and individuality. While the entire novel is permeated by an aching awareness of psychic entropy, of personality running down and out, Dickens analyzes it most exactly in the nondescripts, whose utter vulnerability and lack of secrecy perhaps liberates his own authorial omniscience. Like the prisoners, the nobodies have been stripped of their personal history. In their shapeless coats, baggy trousers, and obdurate hats, the little old men of the workhouse, “every one of whom smells of all the others” (I, 31), are reduced to an animal helplessness; measured against their fate, even Dorrit's selfishness has some redeeming energies. It is only with the nondescripts, however, who have no shadows and nothing to lose, that Dickens is so brutally direct. With his central characters he seems to feel more guilt about an omniscient invasion.

Because Dickens is so reluctant to expose the psyches of his main characters, Hillis Miller has concluded that the novel asserts the essential mystery of personality: Little Dorrit, like A Tale of Two Cities, has at its center a recognition of the inalienable secrecy and otherness of every human being. Here Dickens makes explicit his repudiation of the idea that another person can be a kind of transparent alter ego whom I can know and possess without the intervention of any shadow of mystery or strangeness.”17 But it is through the technique of doubling—the creation of pairs of characters, one of whom embodies the “mystery and strangeness” of the other—that Dickens attempts to penetrate the secrecy of personality. This strategy allows him to exercise narrative authority without surrendering his own fiction of benevolence towards his heroes and heroines. In Little Dorrit the obvious doubles—identical twins such as the Meagles sisters, or the Flintwinch brothers; and couples such as Miss Wade and Tattycoram, Casby and Pancks—echo the relationships of paired characters whose bond is more obscure, but who seem connected nonetheless: Arthur Clennam and Rigaud; Little Dorrit and Maggy; Flora and Mr. F's Aunt. These pairs might be described as characters and their shadows. In Jungian analysis, the Shadow is an archetypal aspect of the psyche, an instinctual self of the same sex, which represents spontaneity, creativity, and strong emotions, but also lust, criminality, and violence. The shadow characters in Dickens are sometimes amiable companions, like the roving reporter he had imagined in 1848. Sometimes the encounter with the shadow—as in Clennam's meeting with Rigaud in the Marshalsea—is guilt-laden and intense.

In a psychoanalytic interpretation of A Tale of Two Cities, Albert D. Hutter sees Dickens's characteristic “splitting,” of which the double or shadow is one expression, as a “fundamental mode of psychological defense. … part of a normal adaptive strategy for coping with any intense relationship.”18 His analysis is immensely useful for an understanding of Little Dorrit, especially since the two novels were written consecutively and contain many similar themes and images. It seems more productive to view these shadowed characters in Little Dorrit, however, in literary as well as psychoanalytic terms, as the result of Dickens's solutions to narrative problems and to the ethical problems of authority. The shadows function as dramatizations of the repressed self, yet allow Dickens a kind of narrative charity towards his characters.

Alexander Welsh has suggested that “if Rigaud is Clennam's double, the plot of Little Dorrit makes a little more sense,” since “the substantially motiveless Rigaud, who is likened to Cain, behaves as if he obeyed motives that logically belong to the hero.”19 In the encounter of Clennam and Rigaud in the Marshalsea, Welsh sees a parallel to the famous meeting between Pip and Orlick in Great Expectations; somehow Clennam is morally accountable for the other's crimes. Taylor Stoehr, too, has noticed that once Clennam is in the Marshalsea, Rigaud seems free to carry out aggressive action: “As happens frequently in Dickens (Darnay's imprisonment is an exact parallel), the confinement of the hero produces an eruption of violence elsewhere in the novel.”20

We have been educated to look for patterns of guilt and expiation in Dickens when a “hero” and a “criminal” are thus doubled. Pip, in Julian Moynahan's well-known reading of Great Expectations, is “a very dangerous young man” whose violent fantasies are enacted in the text.21 Charles Darnay, in Hutter's reading of A Tale of Two Cities, is also engaged in a guilty rebellion. In both of these novels, the hero's guilt has to do with father-son conflict, with his relationship to “the British world of business,” and with sexual dread.22 The same configuration can be seen in Little Dorrit. Clennam too is a dangerous young man, who is responsible for Mr. Dorrit's release from the Marshalsea into a world he can no longer inhabit, for Doyce's financial ruin, for Little Dorrit's love and Flora's disappointment, and for Mrs. Clennam's paralysis. In Dickens's original plan the novel was to be called “Nobody's Fault,” and the central figure was to be a man “who should bring about all the mischief in it, lay it all on Providence, and say at every fresh calamity, ‘Well, it's a mercy, however, nobody was to blame you know!’”23 Clennam, who is repeatedly identified in the novel as “nobody” (e.g., in Bk. I, chs. 16, 17, 26, 28: “Nobody's Weakness,” “Nobody's Rival,” “Nobody's State of Mind,” “Nobody's Disappearance”) is still this mischievous individual; but the addition of Rigaud, a truly murderous figure, gives the novel a violent dimension that allies it to Dickens's other novels of the period. Like Orlick, Rigaud is the instrument of vengeance against the women the hero fears.

Although Clennam rarely betrays his own potential rage, sexuality, and violence, his real emotion is never very far from the surface. In his very first speeches (to Mr. Meagles during the quarantine), Clennam's anger towards his parents' business values erupts in an impulsive confession: “I am the son … of a hard father and mother. I am the only child of parents who weighed, measured, and priced everything.” But the resentment towards the father who kept him “always grinding in a mill I always hated” (I, 2) is also a kind of displaced resentment of the mother who ruled them both.24 As we learn late in the novel, Mrs. Clennam has destroyed the romances of both her husband and of his son; yet to confront her immense sexual power directly terrifies Arthur. His dread of her is the secret he keeps from himself.

In Clennam, Dickens dramatizes a disembodied self—one in whom the sexual impulses, the ambitious desires, and the rebellious energies that would identify him as an adult male in conflict with Mrs. Clennam's power are all repressed and denied. Interestingly, Clennam cherishes an image of himself as aged and impotent, identifying strongly with the weakness of his own father and with the Father of the Marshalsea. Immediately attracted to Little Dorrit, he names his feelings to himself as paternal and protective and encourages her to think of him as a “good father” (I, 14). When he feels attracted to Pet Meagles, he quickly persuades himself that he is unqualified to win her for a host of curious reasons, including having “no kind sisters to present to her” (I, 16). In fact, Clennam will not compete sexually for any woman until Mrs. Clennam's defeat and the collapse of her house of shadows. He will not compete strenuously in the world of business, either. Frightened as he is by his night in the prison, Clennam seems strangely attracted by its spurious “peace” (I, 8). For the noncompetitor, the milieu of failure offers a kind of refuge. But his passivity conceals massive anger. At one point in his desperate struggle to become Nobody, the throbbing insistent self is so painful that he thinks of suicide (I, 16). When he walks through London's deserted streets, past the lonely church vaults, the empty countinghouses and banking houses, Clennam imagines his mother at the very center of the oppressive system, “inflexible of face, indomitable of will, firmly holding all the secrets of her own and his father's life, and austerely opposing herself … to the great final secret of all life” (II, 10). She is the darkest shadow of all, and the deadliest. Described as both Sphinx and Medusa, Mrs. Clennam is presented as a stony and omnipotent figure; her power is quite simply emasculating, and in this she is connected to other mother surrogates in Dickens's fiction: Mrs. Gargery, Miss Murdstone, and (as we shall see) Mr. F's aunt. When Clennam thinks about her, “his sense of helplessness” is intensified; “his advice, energy, activity, money, credit, all his resources whatsoever, were all made useless. If she had been possessed of the old fabled influence, and had turned those who looked upon her into stone, she could not have rendered him more completely powerless” (II, 23).

Having internalized the image of the adult and powerful woman as sexually threatening, Arthur, like Dickens's other heroes, can only love a woman who is physically like a child. All his love objects—Flora, Pet, and Little Dorrit—attract him when they are young, delicate, and slight. It is impossible to imagine him caring for a forty-year-old Flora, or for any physically mature woman. Thus Rigaud, the sadist who hates and acts against women, comes into the novel to release some of the suppressed violence of Clennam's psyche. Rigaud has murdered his own wife; he bullies Mrs. Clennam and spies on Pet Meagles after her marriage to Gowan. Clennam is an irresolute dreamer; Rigaud is an activist, a man who “can't submit … [and] must govern” (I, 1). Clennam is a self-tormentor; Rigaud torments and pursues others.

In the figure of Little Dorrit, as in Clennam, Dickens evades all the negative impulses of the female psyche: anger, jealousy, and desire. Janice M. Carlisle has pointed out that her tale of the Princess and the shadow—a simultaneous confession and denial of her love for Clennam—“is the counterpart of Clennam's conception of himself as Nobody.”25 Yet she too can be seen as a dangerous young woman; indeed, Welsh has argued that she is an angel of death whose marriage to Clennam “is the culmination of the hero's life, but also the end of it.”26 Dickens brings out the ambiguity, if not the deadliness, of Amy's character by giving her as Shadow a retarded young woman of approximately her own age but with a mental age of ten. Whereas Amy Dorrit is little, Maggy is large: “large bones, large features, large feet and hands, large eyes” (I, 9). Maggy's constant good humor is the fixed smile of an idiot; and she is blind in one eye.

If Maggy's deficiencies suggest that Little Dorrit too is blind to reality (Fanny calls her sister “Mole” and “Miss Bat”) and that her goodness is a kind of moral stupidity, their doubling also brings out other aspects of the heroine's behavior. Like the other shadows in the novel, Maggy embodies Little Dorrit's physical, aggressive, and uninhibited self. She is present at many meetings between Little Dorrit and Clennam, as a kind of chaperon and catalyst combined. She comes to Clennam's rooms the night that they are locked out of the Marshalsea; she is along, with her big cap and basket, when Little Dorrit visits Clennam in the Marshalsea; she is doing needle-work “in her old place” when they decide to marry. In these situations, Maggy betrays the appetite and the competitiveness which Amy has struggled to extinguish. One of Little Dorrit's characteristics, for example, is her “extraordinary repugnance to dining in company” (I, 5). She is so self-denying that she appears never to eat. Initially, this abstemiousness is a ruse enabling her to smuggle her dinner back to the prison for her father. Witnessing Mr. Dorrit's supper in the Marshalsea, Clennam understands that Little Dorrit's frailty is the result of years of deprivation and “insufficient food” (I, 8). But it is also part of her angelic incorporeality never to be hungry or thirsty, a trait especially attractive to Clennam, who is horrified by Flora's healthy appetite. Maggy, on the other hand, is ravenous. Her fondest memory is of the “chicking” she enjoyed as a hospital patient; when we first meet her she is carrying potatoes and learning to read signs in the grocer's window. When Clennam offers them both refreshment, Little Dorrit of course refuses; Maggy gloats “over the fruit and cakes with chuckles of anticipation,” drinks her wine “in a series of loud smacks,” and loads her basket “with every eatable thing upon the table” (I, 14). Maggy is similarly assertive about emotions, and her innocent communications are always significantly timed. It is Maggy who speaks up when Clennam is obtusely pleading with Little Dorrit to tell him her romantic secrets; unfortunately, Maggy's version of the tale of the princess and the tiny woman is so garbled that Clennam fails to understand it. And when the couple finally manage an engagement, it is Maggy who rushes out joyously to share the good news with rivals: Flora and Mr. F's Aunt.

As Rigaud shadows Clennam, and as Maggy shadows Little Dorrit, so Mr. F's Aunt shadows Flora. Although she is a minor character in the novel, Mr. F's Aunt has attracted a good deal of baffled critical attention. George Bernard Shaw called her “a first-rate clinical study of senile deficiency in a shrewd old woman.”27 But many critics since have seen her as a symbolic rather than a realistic madwoman. To John Lucas she is “an unknowable comic mystery … reminiscent of some of Wordsworth's studies of incommunicability”; to William Myers, she is “formless hatred,” her violence an arbitrary “fact of nature.”28 Alan Wilde sees the relationship between Mr. F's Aunt and Flora as typical of the “fearfully parasitic relationships which pervade the novel,” the relationships between Miss Wade and Tattycoram, Rigaud and Cavalletto, Casby and Pancks. “In each case,” he writes, “the more powerful is the more self-seeking, devious, and corrupt, drawing nourishment, vampire-like, from the good, the silly, and the weak.” Mr. F's Aunt is “all the irrationality of the world, all of its aggression and hostility breaking out under the mark of eccentricity.”29

But in my opinion Mr. F's Aunt is a more readable character than these interpretations suggest, and her relation to Flora is more particularized and comprehensible than it is exemplary of a universal condition. Mr. F's Aunt is best understood as the embodiment of Flora's repressed anger at Arthur's rejection. Like Little Dorrit, Flora behaves with admirable and, indeed, inhuman selflessness. But Clennam has in fact hurt and betrayed Flora in ceasing to love her, in dodging her embraces, and in pretending not to understand her hints about the future. While Dickens atones for his authorial guilt in exposing the silliness of the adult Flora by making her kind, he also gives us her shadowside, externalized as her constant companion.

Mr. F's Aunt's interjections and imprecations are not random or irrational but carefully timed to coincide with Clennam's displays of “heartlessness” to Flora. Her first performance comes at the Casbys' dinner party. Arthur has been frantically evading Flora's advances, her “grotesque revival,” as it seems to him, of their past romance. At the dinner table he avoids her eyes. Meanwhile Mr. F's Aunt “sat silently defying him with an aspect of the greatest bitterness.” When she speaks, she announces “I hate a fool!” a remark pointedly addressed to Arthur. “What he come there for, then?” she asks Flora on the way out (I, 13). If he has not come to court Flora, why has he come indeed? Clennam then stays away, and so Flora and Mr. F's Aunt come to find out why. “I am far from blaming you or any one,” Flora tells him generously; but Mr. F's Aunt observes “with the deadliest animosity” that “you can't make a head and brains out of a brass knob with nothing in it” (I, 23). It is typical of Clennam's inability to acknowledge his own motives and actions that he should be bewildered at his effect on Mr. F's Aunt and ask Pancks to explain it. Mr. F's Aunt makes her final and most furious appearance after Arthur's engagement to Little Dorrit. At this point, even “Flora's eyes were a little red, and she seemed rather out of spirits,” but she manages to wish Little Dorrit well, “and find no fault with either.” In fact, she is disappointed and hurt, and Mr. F's Aunt is correspondingly enraged, “so stiffened that she had the appearance of being past bending, by any means short of powerful mechanical pressure.” She wishes to be avenged on Arthur for his desertion of Flora, and is ready to sit in the “pie-shop parlour” forever, awaiting his appearance so she can “chuck him out o' winder!” (II, 34).

Like other Dickensian shadows, Mr. F's Aunt is not only the suppressed and violent alter ego of a main character but also Dickens's critique of that character's power. Rigaud makes us aware that Clennam rationalizes his passivity; Maggy leads us to question Little Dorrit's infantilization. Mr. F's Aunt dramatizes Flora's omnivorous and man-eating capacities. What chiefly terrifies and repels Clennam about the adult Flora is her appetite. Like her father, she is “a mighty eater”; Clennam notes at their reunion meal “that she was very fond of porter, that she combined a great deal of sherry with sentiment, and that if she were a little overgrown, it was upon substantial grounds” (I, 13). Flora's characteristic speech, with its “unslackened volubility” and fecundity, is verbally engulfing; she leaves Clennam no space.

The encounter with the adult Flora revives Clennam's childhood fears of being consumed and confined, fears which he has associated with his mother; at their reunion, too, he has watched her consume a meal. Dickens connects Flora with Mrs. Clennam through the stony images he heaps on Mr. F's Aunt. She is wooden and rigid, with “a stiff yellow wig perched unevenly on the top of her head” (I, 13), and she carried a “stony reticule (an appendage of great size, and of a fossil appearance)” (I, 23). This fossilized reticule is mentioned again in the text; after Mr. F's Aunt learns of Clennam's engagement to Little Dorrit, “her stony reticule was as rigid as if it had been petrified by the Gorgon's head, and had got it at that moment inside” (II, 34).

The reticule or purse functions as a female sexual symbol in Victorian art, and its innuendos are clearly understood in Victorian pornography.30 In David Copperfield, Miss Murdstone (whose name means what we would now call a “ballcutter”) carries a “hard steel purse … which … shut up like a bite.” The reticule of Mr. F's Aunt is also a kind of vagina dentata, as indicated by its associations with the Gorgon. In his note on “Medusa's Head,” Freud explained “the terror of Medusa” as “a terror of castration that is linked to sight … of the female genitals … and essentially those of his mother.”31 As we have seen, Mrs. Clennam too is a Gorgon, whose “hard granite face” (I, 5) and “stony head-dress” (I, 3) emphasize her unnatural power. In Clennam's world, it seems, adult women are potentially entrapping, engulfing, and sexually omnivorous.

It can thus be seen that the prisons of Little Dorrit, and especially the Marshalsea, have strongly sexual connotations. Like the Gorgon, they paralyze, engulf, and emasculate. In the debtor's prison, cut off from the money-making activity which defines their masculinity in Victorian terms, Dorrit and Clennam are impotent, dependent (whether they admit it or not) on the energy and the nurture of women. The prison imposes on its male inhabitants a form of infantile pre-Oedipal regression; when Dickens compares Little Dorrit's tenderness for her father to the “classical daughter” who nurtured her imprisoned father with the milk of her breasts (I, 19), and when he dramatizes Amy's prison relationship to Clennam as maternal (II, 29), there is a jarring note of surrender and engulfment. Sinking totally into this helplessness and experiencing it fully (as Dorrit never does), Clennam reaches the depths of his own shadow fantasies.

Yet it is Clennam's willingness to experience the confining illness of the Marshalsea—he chooses it over less claustrophobic prisons (II, 26)—to become, in fact, “the pupil of the Marshalsea” (II, 27)—that releases him from his paralysis. In the prison he studies himself, and meditates upon his suppressed feelings for Little Dorrit. Unlike Mr. Dorrit, he refuses to let himself be drawn into the inmate culture. His time is spent in the cultivation of his own memory, the “right kind of remembering”32 which is a precondition of growth. “Do Not Forget”—the message which he carries to England from his father's deathbed—becomes the theme of a moral meditation on self-knowledge.

In the Marshalsea, Clennam finally undergoes a regressive illness, like Pip's brain fever; and in his breakdown the long-repressed emotions of entrapment erupt: “His dread and hatred of the place became so intense that he felt it a labour to draw his breath in it. The sensation of being stifled sometimes so overpowered him, that he would stand at the window holding his throat and gasping. At the same time a longing for other air, and a yearning to be beyond the blind blank wall, made him feel as if he must go mad with the ardour of the desire” (II, 29). The scene looks back to Clennam's memories of having been locked in a dark closet by his parents as a punishment (I, 3) and to his stifled childhood rage as the silent, helpless witness of their loveless marriage. It is this claustrophobic confrontation with the ardent self that seems to precipitate the novel's final upheavals: total calcification and paralysis of the Gorgon-like Mrs. Clennam; the crushing of Rigaud under the collapsed house; the shearing of the “sacred locks” of Casby, the symbolic patriarch. Having destroyed the sexually emasculating “mother” and the professionally emasculating “father,” and having purged the murderous inner shadow, Clennam is free to leave the prison and to go with Little Dorrit into the “roaring streets” (II, 34). It is significant that before their marriage, Little Dorrit must nonetheless give up her “purse”—the fortune that endows her with the excessive and emasculating power of the mother.

Even with this qualification, I read the ending of Little Dorrit as one of resigned and mature optimism. Arthur and Amy leave the prison to enter a society which can never be a haven for the passive and the innocent. The world of shadows has been encountered but not dispelled; the lovers pass along “in sunshine and shade,” and around them the noisy and the eager, the arrogant and the vain, continue to fret. It is, however, the “usual uproar” (II, 34) of human conflict, rather than the poisoning unhealthy silence of the Marshalsea, which represents vitality, imagination, actuality. It is the clamor in which Dickens finds his own peace, in which he hears (to reverse George Eliot's famous line) the silence on the other side of roaring.


  1. [J. Hillis Miller,] Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 230, 229.

  2. John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. A. J. Hoppé (London: Dent, 1966), I, 16.

  3. Bernard Shaw, Preface to Great Expectations (Edinburgh: R. and R. Clark, 1937), p. xi. See also William Myers, “The Radicalism of Little Dorrit,” in Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century, ed. John Lucas (London: Methuen, 1971), pp. 77-104.

  4. Little Dorrit, New Oxford Illustrated Dickens (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953), Bk. I, ch. 20. References to Little Dorrit are to this edition and are given parenthetically in my text by book and chapter.

  5. [Erving Goffman,] Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Chicago: Aldine, 1961), p. 67.

  6. See “Report from the Committee of the House of Commons on the Kings Bench, Fleet, and Marshalsea Prisons,” The Pamphleteer, 6 (1814), 474-519.

  7. [Jonathan Arac,] Commissioned Spirits: The Shaping of Social Motion in Dickens, Carlyle, Melville, and Hawthorne (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, forthcoming 1979), ch. 1. I am indebted to Professor Arac for allowing me to see this section in manuscript.

  8. A Tale of Two Cities, New Oxford Illustrated Dickens (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949), Bk. I, ch. 3.

  9. Miller, p. 243.

  10. Quoted in Forster, Life, II, 63-64.

  11. Dyson, The Inimitable Dickens: A Reading of the Novels (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 203; Lucas, The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens' Novels (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 248.

  12. [Randolph Splitter,] “Guilt and the Trappings of Melodrama in Little Dorrit,Dickens Studies Annual, ed. Robert B. Partlow, Jr., VI (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1977), 128.

  13. Quoted in Forster, Life, II, 198.

  14. Quoted in Angus Wilson, The World of Charles Dickens (New York: Viking Press, 1970), p. 194.

  15. [Northrop Frye,] “Dickens and the Comedy of Humours,” The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 236, 238.

  16. Paul D. Herring, “Dickens' Monthly Number Plans for Little Dorrit,Modern Philology, 64 (1966), 28.

  17. Miller, p. 243.

  18. [Albert D. Hutter,] “Nation and Generation in A Tale of Two Cities,PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], 93 (1978), 455.

  19. [Alexander Welsh,] The City of Dickens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 135.

  20. [Taylor Stoehr,] Dickens: The Dreamer's Stance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1965), p. 178.

  21. [Julian Moynahan,] “The Hero's Guilt in Great Expectations,” in Victorian Literature: Selected Essays, ed. Robert O. Preyer (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967), p. 137.

  22. See Hutter, pp. 452-55. George Holoch attributes Clennam's sense of “indefinable guilt” to “childhood repression” in “Consciousness and Society in Little Dorrit,” Victorian Studies, 21 (1978), 337.

  23. Forster, Life, II, 179.

  24. Splitter, p. 124, comments: “Beneath the pale shadow of father-son rivalry lies an even more primitive and more serious conflict between mother and child.”

  25. Little Dorrit: Necessary Fictions,” Studies in the Novel, 7 (1975), 202.

  26. Welsh, p. 209.

  27. Shaw, Preface to Great Expectations, p. vi.

  28. Lucas, The Melancholy Man, p. 268; Myers, pp. 95-96. See also Holoch, p. 339; and Richard Stang, “Little Dorrit: A World in Reverse,” in Dickens the Craftsman, ed. Robert B. Partlow, Jr. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1970), p. 158.

  29. [Alan Wilde,] “Mr. F's Aunt and the Analogical Structure of Little Dorrit,NCF, [Nineteenth-Century Fiction] 19 (1964), 37-39.

  30. See G. Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke (New York: Grove Press, 1968), pp. 378-79; and “Walter,” My Secret Life (New York: Grove Press, 1966), pp. 525-26.

  31. [Sigmund Freud,] “Medusa's Head,” Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey et al., XVIII (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 273-74. See also Hutter's comments on the Gorgon's head, pp. 449-50.

  32. Barry Westburg, The Confessional Fictions of Charles Dickens (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1977), p. 172.

Sarah Winter (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4992

SOURCE: Winter, Sarah. “Domestic Fictions: Feminine Deference and Maternal Shadow Labor in Dickens' Little Dorrit.” In Dickens Studies Annual 18 (1989): 243-54.

[In the following essay, Winter examines the issue of deference in the character of Amy Dorrit and its relationship to Dickens's criticism of British society.]

In his essay on Dickens' Little Dorrit (1855-57), Lionel Trilling argues that in this novel “the desire for money is subordinated to the desire for deference.”1 In Victorian society rituals of deference—a wife's deferring to her husband's wishes, a child's deferring to adult discipline and expectations, or a servant's deferring to a master's or mistress's orders—played an important role in the maintenance of gender and class hierarchies. The crucible of hierarchical relationships and of the deferential strategies for acting out and coping with them is the Victorian “Home”—domestic hierarchies, materially and spiritually supported by feminine domestic labor, perpetuate the bonds which construct patriarchal society as one big “Family” where everyone has his or her appointed place. The desire for deference Trilling describes is most dramatically fulfilled by Little Dorrit herself, the novel's exemplary performer of social deference and domestic labor. Yet Little Dorrit's deference and domestic labor serve far more numerous and ambivalent purposes in the novel than simply to support her imprisoned father and “fallen family”.2 In fact, I will be arguing that while Little Dorrit embodies and carries out Dickens' novelistic project of reform, her deference also defers this project, so that Dickens's social criticism becomes another “circumlocution.” Although Dickens wants his readers to follow Little Dorrit's example of serving others, he also demonstrates how desirable and comforting it is to be served, even how serving others ultimately serves one's own best interests.

Dickens claims that Little Dorrit is “inspired to be something … different and laborious, for the sake of the rest” (111). What is different about Little Dorrit and her work? Her difference for Arthur lies both in her special treatment by his mother, and also in her double life, the secret of which he learns when he visits her at home in the Marshalsea prison. Little Dorrit is both the breadwinner and the housewife in the Dorrits' nineteenth-century single-parent household: she both works outside the prison—keeping the location of her home secret from her employers—and she also works at home, where she must conceal both her outside work and the necessity for it from her father: “over and above her other daily cares, the Child of the Marshalsea had always upon her the care of preserving the genteel fiction that they were all idle beggars together” (114). Thus she takes upon herself not only the physical labor of housework and let[ting] herself out” (93), but also the “emotions work” of maintaining her family's illusions of “gentility” within the prison. Little Dorrit's most important “difference,” then, is her refusal to make any difference: her unobtrusive domestic labor purposely obscures the contrasts between “genteel” life inside and outside the prison.

I take the term “emotions work” from Arlie Russel Hochschild's The Managed Heart, an impressive study of the exploitation by modern capital of the worker's emotions in service-sector jobs.3 Hochschild defines “emotions work” or “emotion management” as labor which “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (7). Hochschild also explains that even acts of emotion management which seem only to serve an individual's personal interests are actually formulated within a context of socially defined “feeling rules”:

Acts of emotion management are not simply private acts; they are used in exchanges under the guidance of feeling rules. Feeling rules are standards used in emotional conversation to determine what is rightly owed and owing in the currency of feeling. Through them, we tell what is “due” in each relation, each role.


Following this economic concept of emotion payment and emotional indebtedness, we could extend Trilling's observation about Little Dorrit to say that deference becomes the most desired source of “wealth” and status in the novel. The deference of the “Collegians” can make the indebted Mr. Dorrit (at least in his own mind) into a beneficent patriarch—he may not be rich, but he can still afford to be “magnanimous” (274). Later in the novel, Mr. Dorrit needs to receive deference from innkeepers and servants in order to confirm the social value of his long-deferred wealth. Most instrumental to the maintenance of his “genteel” patriarchal fiction, however, is Little Dorrit's emotion work. In Dickens' novel, feminine domestic labor and emotion management provide the deferential capital needed to “liberate” the emotional debtor from the “prisons” of diminished patriarchal power and fallen families.

Hochschild believes that women have traditionally made more use of emotion management than men, principally because:

women in general have far less independent access to money, power, authority or status in society, [and therefore,] lacking other resources, women make a resource out of feeling and offer it to men as a gift in return for the more material resources they lack.


Hochschild goes on to explain that women have been obliged to make the best of the limited leverage these emotional resources have offered, both in personal relationships and in society at large; they do not passively allow their emotions to run their lives, nor secretly manipulate those around them, but rather “adapt feeling to a need or purpose at hand, and they do it so that it seems to express a passive state of agreement” (167). Thus women perform an almost invisible labor of emotional accommodation, which may improve their situation without, however, radically redistributing power:

The emotion work of enhancing the status and well-being of others is a form of what Ivan Illich has called “shadow labor,” an unseen effort, which, like housework, does not quite count as labor but is nevertheless crucial to getting other things done. … In fact, of course, when we redefine “adaptability” and “cooperativeness” as a form of shadow labor, we are pointing to a hidden cost for which some recompense is due.4

(167, 70; my emphasis added)

Dickens does not ignore the emotional debts which Little Dorrit's shadow labor creates, but rather spends a great deal of narrative time and anxiety attempting to repay her.

Little Dorrit's emotion management is directed both inward and outward; she simultaneously manages both her own feelings and desires and attempts to satisfy the desires of others. She represents her management of her own desires in the story of the “tiny woman” and the “Princess” (341-43). Her fictional account of the tiny woman's love for a man whom she cannot have (presumably Arthur) is embedded in a larger fantasy of a perfect father-daughter family, that of the powerful and rich King and his daughter the Princess. If Little Dorrit's father had been a “King,” (a real Patriarch, instead of the father of the Marshalsea), then she might have been the Princess, and her management of her desires would have been as unproblematic as their fulfillment. Little Dorrit imagines that if she were the Princess, she would already know everything that the “masters” of the world had to “teach,” and thus she would never need to perform the deferential shadow labor of the “tiny” domestic worker. Instead, she would be able to ride out in her carriage and openly practice an omniscient charity. Little Dorrit's fantasy of feminine wisdom and altruistic power, however, depends on the model of the aristocratic, patriarchal family: in order for her to be a Princess her father must first be a King. Moreover, Little Dorrit's Princess-role neither frees her to desire, nor to fulfill her desires, but rather takes her beyond desire to a removed and beneficent curiosity. The Princess is Little Dorrit's ideal precisely because she does not need to control her desires. The tiny woman's predicament demonstrates that performing emotion management creates desire, even if only for a “shadow.” Members of the ideal, aristocratic family are charitable and wise, but the “head” of a “fallen” family must defer and control the hidden and painful desires constantly generated by her shadow labor.

Little Dorrit's perfect application of Victorian feeling rules seems to have more in common with the Princess's wisdom than with the tiny woman's self-denial, yet her story-telling reveals that even she cannot live up to the Victorian code of feminine emotional self-control and lack of self-interested desire. Little Dorrit's deference, therefore, as well as her fictions about herself, also allow her to manage and diminish her desires so that they make no demands upon their already lost objects: “nobody missed it, … nobody was the worse for it” (342). Seen through the tiny woman's eyes, Little Dorrit's emotion work has a double purpose: by devoting herself to other people's desires she can both try to forget her own, and also spare others the pain of having to “treasure” a shadow. Although the tiny woman is “proud” of her beloved shadow, Little Dorrit can only cry and attempt to resign herself to prospects from which even her imagination cannot remove the “inescapable brand” of her domestic prison (337-38). Fortunately, however, her deference and selfless service will not be in vain, even though she seems unaware that her very stance of laboring on while suppressing her love will ultimately earn her its object.

Little Dorrit's outward-directed emotion management functions to keep secrets and preserve illusions. Little Dorrit is the object of desires for a deference which, because of her “difference”—her ideal character—she can guarantee as genuine. When her father, and later Arthur, look into “her earnest face” and “clear true eyes” (433), they need not suffer the slightest doubt or fear that there is anything but authentic loyalty and love behind her deference. In her mediation of other characters' desires, Little Dorrit becomes the standard against which all emotional or domestic behavior is measured, so that any character who desires love, or deference, or even power, in some sense “borrows” from Little Dorrit's emotional capital, and thus ends up indebted to her. Because she is the novel's ideal and source of its emotional-economic legitimacy and solvency, (she guarantees that Dickens's novel, and his moral message, will pay off in the end), Little Dorrit becomes the implied third term in every relationship. As Arthur finally realizes, she is the “vanishing point” of his own story: “Every thing in its perspective led to her innocent figure” (801).

Little Dorrit's mediations in the novel bring her both between men and between women.5 Her deference and emotion management “erase” the incestuous content of her relationships with her father and Arthur, so that no matter how maternally, conjugally or filially she behaves toward them, she can maintain her status as innocent child, rather than woman.6 Little Dorrit comes between her father and the standards of the outside world, helping him to believe that the Father of the Marshalsea receives from his fellow prisoners the deference due to a true patriarch. At the end of the novel, Little Dorrit's devotion also inspires Arthur to accept the position she has engineered for him with the help of Mr. Meagles and Daniel Doyce. Thus Little Dorrit uses her prodigious (and painfully won) skill at emotion management to serve the men she loves: she succeeds in reinstating them in positions of conventional (if diminished) masculine authority, despite their failures.

If Little Dorrit is Dickens' exemplary “managed heart,” then Miss Wade is her negative double or shadow, “an unsubduable nature” (62): “I am self-contained and self-reliant; your opinion is nothing to me; I have no interest in you, care nothing for you, and see and hear you with indifference” (62). Miss Wade is a former domestic worker (a governess) who, unlike Little Dorrit, refuses to perform shadow labor or put up with what she sees as the “fool's” role of maintaining domestic fictions by giving or accepting deference: “If I could have been habitually imposed upon, instead of habitually discerning the truth, I might have lived as smoothly as most fools do” (725). Although Dickens calls Mr. Dorrit's patriarchal delusions “self-imposition” (276), he also implies that Little Dorrit is actually responsible for her father's state: “[her] love alone had saved him to be even what he was” (276). Thus Miss Wade seems to voice Dickens' ambivalence about Little Dorrit's emotion management: according to Miss Wade's discernment, deference supports a system of “swollen patronage and selfishness calling themselves kindness, protection, benevolence, and other fine names” (734). Miss Wade's much resented category of “[l]ittle images of grown people” (726) clearly includes Little Dorrit.

Even though Dickens presents Miss Wade as a woman whose grievances are in some sense justified by her illegitimate birth and resulting lack of social status, he finally judges her and decides her fate in the novel according to the standards set by Little Dorrit. Miss Wade's “unhappy temper” (727) is her own fault after all—Dickens entitles her autobiographical letter to Arthur, “The History of a Self-Tormenter” (725). Thus Miss Wade's discernment of the truth and her indictment of social hypocrisy, despite Dickens' own similar criticisms, finally are shown to result merely from her bad attitude. Miss Wade's fate demonstrates what seems to be the novel's message of domestic accommodation: in order to achieve and maintain a reasonably “happy” temper, one must learn to accept the imposition of domestic fictions. Miss Wade also threatens the patriarchal family by her attempt to reproduce herself and her desires through Tattycoram. However, as Mr. Meagles warns her, in Dickens' world such a feminine desire for self-reproduction, along with its erotic component, is a perversion: “If it should happen that you are a woman, who, from whatever cause, has a perverted delight in making a sister-woman as wretched as she is (I am old enough to have heard of such), I warn her against you, and I warn you against yourself” (379). Mr. Meagles is also quick to dispel the last attractions of such a sisterhood by pointing to Little Dorrit as a positive example for Tattycoram:

“You see that young lady who was here just now—that little, quiet, fragile figure passing along there, Tatty? Look. The people stand out of the way to let her go by. The men—see the poor, shabby fellows—pull off their hats to her quite politely. … I have heard tell, Tattycoram, that her young life has been one of active resignation, goodness, and noble service. Shall I tell you what I consider those eyes of hers … to have always looked at, to get that expression?”

“Yes, if you please, sir.”

“Duty, Tattycoram.”


Here Tattycoram learns part of the secret about how Little Dorrit is repaid for her deferential emotion work: it is a simple exchange—when you give deference you get deference back. Thus Dickens represents a kind of utopia of perfectly managed hearts, within the prison. Yet this ideal of reciprocal deference obscures the very nature of the deferential relationship—an exchange between two people of unequal status. Tattycoram receives this egalitarian domestic fiction as a fringe benefit of her domestic labor, in addition to her “wages” of duty (another word for shadow labor), which she promises to count perpetually, even up to “five and twenty thousand” (880).

Therefore, Little Dorrit's emotion management and her status as feminine ideal in the novel reveal a further function of her domestic labor and deference: coming between, and separating, women. Little Dorrit's mediation does not enable women to work together and create empowering bonds through common experience. Rather, Dickens uses Little Dorrit's “ideal” example to encourage women to work alone at home, and to hope for the same kind of “success” she achieves at the end of the novel through emotional accommodation and shadow labor in service of the patriarchal family. In the world of Dickens' novel, no political movements or class or gender consciousness-raising are possible, because men and women are encouraged to think of their own familial and personal experiences as unique and unrelated to the situations of others, even though the novel's plot should bind together all the individual characters' stories. The much put-upon and “squeezed” Bleeding Hearts also fail to live up to the metaphorical connotations of their nickname: they neither revolt, nor even “torment themselves” over their poverty and unemployment, but rather, symptomatically, they build “Happy Cottages” (630). Even the proletariat is satisfied with the facades of domestic fictions.

In the end, the novel's exemplary “managed heart,” Little Dorrit, does receive her heart's desire: marriage to Arthur. Little Dorrit's desire is fulfilled precisely because she simultaneously denies and nurtures it through shadow labor, like the precious but precarious resource it is. Little Dorrit's service ultimately wins her the love and domestic happiness, if not the disinterested mastery, she desired. Finally, then, Dickens' novel proposes complementary strategies to its female and male readers: Little Dorrit promises women that if they practice self-management and dedicate themselves to the service of the patriarchal family they, like Little Dorrit, will ultimately get what they want, while it counsels its males readers to control their desires, and, more importantly, to accept and make use of feminine domestic labor and emotion management.

Before she proposes marriage to Arthur (828), Little Dorrit comes into possession of a secret whose revelation could explode his already unstable domestic fiction: she knows the true meaning of the mysterious inscription in Arthur's father's watch, “Do Not Forget” (406). Rigaud's theft of the box with the family documents forces the domestic “Nemesis” to reveal her own theft and false position in the Clennam household: Mrs. Clennam is not Arthur's real mother and she has withheld the fortune that should have belonged to Little Dorrit, the niece of Arthur's real mother's patron. Mrs. Clennam has not only assumed the rights and privileges of maternity, but she also attempts the ultimate usurpation of paternal authority—she makes her own will into the will of God. According to Jeremiah Flintwinch, however, she has only succeeded in becoming God's dark shadow: “I call you a female Lucifer in appetite for power!” (851). Despite Jeremiah's harangue, Mrs. Clennam does not seem to fear divine judgment. Yet she rises from her chair “as if a dead woman had risen” (853), when Rigaud threatens to reveal her false maternity to Arthur, and she asks Little Dorrit to keep the truth from him until after she is dead: “Let me never feel, while I am still alive, that I die before his face, and utterly perish away from him, like one consumed by lighting and swallowed by an earthquake” (860). Although Little Dorrit promises not to tell Arthur the truth, Mrs. Clennam's apocalyptic nightmare of domestic punishment still comes true: the Clennam house collapses, and Mrs. Clennam becomes a living “statue” (863). Dickens implies that this latter state was a logical possible development of her “rigid” and “Bumptious” character (851), yet Mrs. Clennam's final silence and paralysis are in fact “enforced upon her” (863). Who is the “enforcer” here?

In her discussion of Mrs. Clennam as an “emasculating” mother, Elaine Showalter connects her to the image of the mother in Freud's “Medusa's Head” essay; she concludes that ‘[i]n Clennam's world, … adult women are potentially entrapping, engulfing, and sexually omnivorous.”7 While I agree that for Arthur Mrs. Clennam functions as a maternal “Gorgon,” I also believe that she meets her own Nemesis in Little Dorrit herself. Little Dorrit is also a “Medusa,”: the petrifying power of her role as feminine ideal effectively paralyzes any woman who fails to live up to her standard. Yet Little Dorrit's “enforcement” of Victorian gender roles within the novel does not make her an unambiguously powerful nor oppressive figure—she neither “castrates,” nor tyrannizes, nor manipulates, in fact, as we have seen in the story of the tiny woman, she too must defer her own desires. Rather, Little Dorrit is the “vanishing point” of the novel's enforcement of patriarchy—her shadow labor covers patriarchy's tracks. She is also the ideal “Sphinx” who never asks Oedipus the riddle of origins, and thus spares him the knowledge of his father's and mother's true names.

Little Dorrit's role as vanishing point in his own story also causes Arthur a great deal of distress and guilt during his feverish days and nights of self-torment in the Marshalsea prison:

None of us clearly know to whom or to what we are indebted in this wise, until some marked stop in the whirling wheel of life brings the right perception with it. … It came to Clennam in his adversity, strongly and tenderly. … “If I, a man, with a man's advantages and means and energies, had slighted the whisper in my heart, that if my father had erred, it was my first duty to conceal the fault and to repair it, what youthful figure with tender feet going almost bare on the damp ground, with spare hands ever working, … would have stood before me to put me to shame? Little Dorrit's.” … Always, Little Dorrit. Until it seemed to him as if he met the reward of having wandered away from her, and suffered anything to pass between him and his remembrance of her virtues.


Arthur is in prison not only for bankruptcy, but also for his emotional debt to Little Dorrit. This passage seems to me exemplary of the function and consequences of Little Dorrit's shadow labor and emotion management in the novel. All Dickens' readers should ideally come to this “right perception” of the Little Dorrits in their lives, and should feel to some extent “put to shame.” Arthur makes Little Dorrit his inspiration in his search for his father's fault; her emotion management of Mr. Dorrit teaches Arthur to create domestic fictions in order to “conceal” paternal weaknesses. Moreover, Little Dorrit's suppression of Arthur's real mother's identity and his parents' adultery allows Arthur finally to repay his debt to her by marrying her: if he had known that Mrs. Clennam had deprived Little Dorrit of her fortune, Arthur's guilt would probably have made marriage to her a virtual emotional bankruptcy, distressing to his masculinity. Dickens never tells us what Arthur believes about the fall of his house and his mother's final paralysis; presumably marriage to Little Dorrit also dissolves his obligation to find out the truth about his origins—he has a new domestic fiction to keep him “happy.”

By marrying Little Dorrit, however, Arthur also, unknowingly, makes some reparation for that paternal fault to his real mother, with whom Little Dorrit has been associated since her first appearance in the novel. According to Affery, a “shadowy figure of a girl” has been haunting the Clennam house: “Who else rustles about it, making signals by dropping dust so softly? Who else comes and goes, and marks the walls with long crooked touches when we are all a-bed?’” (854). These nocturnal activities are shadow labor beyond the grave, the haunting of a martyred mother to whom “some recompense” is still due. Although Dickens later discredits Affery's interpretation of these mysterious phenomena (863), he does not deny that the house collapses under the pressure of maternal secrets, almost as if it had been sucked into the vacuum left by Mrs. Clennam's revelations, despite Little Dorrit's prompt cover-up. When the Clennam house falls following the limited identification of Arthur's real mother, (the reader never learns her name, nor the contents of her “mad” letters), it crushes and buries not only the domestic blackmailer and wife-killer, Rigaud, but also the shadow of a repressed, guilt-producing maternity.

Little Dorrit, the novel's universal emotion banker, takes on Arthur's emotional debts to his real mother, and Mrs. Clennam's debts to Arthur and to herself, and then burns the “IOUs” in the fire (893). By burning the lost codicil, Little Dorrit once again chooses to keep family secrets and to preserve domestic fictions. Thus Little Dorrit is also the novel's ideal emotional creditor and Mother—she extends a limitless credit of domestic devotion and of “forgiving and forgetting” (881), and she never asks for repayment. With Little Dorrit in charge of emotional indebtedness, no debtor should have to face his or her domestic prison.

In fact, the only characters in the novel who do end up paying their emotional debts dearly, are two women who only become indebted because they refuse to extend or to accept unlimited emotional credit. Dickens describes Mrs. Clennam as a merciless judge of emotional “defaulters”: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors was a prayer too poor in spirit for her” (86). Miss Wade refuses to take credit for not having any improper intentions toward the friend of her fiance, and she interprets her future mother-in-law's advice as the condescension of an employer: “Her other servants would probably be grateful for good characters, but I wanted none” (773). Thus these negative doubles of Dickens' heroine become the “petrified” objects of the resentment—“an inward protest and feeling of antagonism” (134)—which Little Dorrit's infinite emotional credit provokes.

Dickens also repays Little Dorrit by not paying her back. All the negative and violent feelings generated by the “impositions” of her emotion management and shadow labor are redirected at her own shadows, Mrs. Clennam and Miss Wade. Dickens attempts a partial resolution of this ambivalent attitude toward guilt-producing maternal devotion by illuminating (as on the title page of the 1857 edition of the novel) the ideal figure of the “Little Mother.” He reminds his readers not to forget her, but his warning also applies to Little Dorrit's threatening, abused doubles, laboring almost unnoticed in the domestic shadows.

Little Dorrit, the novel, also carries out Dickens' project of emotion management through its own domestic fiction. Despite Dickens' criticism of hypocritical “Patriarchs” and aristocratic, family-run bureaucracies like the Circumlocution Office, he finally falls back on the patriarchal model of marriage, supported by feminine domestic labor and deferential emotion work. If something does go wrong with the Family, individuals like Mrs. Clennam and Miss Wade, and even Mr. Dorrit, will be the guilty parties, and not the patriarchal family structure itself. Thus Little Dorrit proposes a “practical”8 alternative to the “self-torment” of rebellion or of constant dwelling-upon the faults of those with whom one is forced to live: Dickens' readers should create and take comfort in domestic fictions like Arthur's and Little Dorrit's marriage, “a modest life of usefulness and happiness” (895).9 Little Dorrit even promises readers concerned with the duration of her emotional credit that she will “lovingly close [their] eyes on the Marshalsea and all its blighted fruits” (895). Little Dorrit's offer of maternal devotion and forgiveness may not change “Society,” but hopefully it will reform a few emotional debtors.

As for the prison, in all its connotations, Dickens seems finally to reject Miss Wade's revolutionary impulses once again: “If I had been shut up in any place to pine and suffer, I should always hate that place and want to burn it down, or raze it to the ground” (61). Instead, the novel concludes in favor of Mr. Meagles's “practical” and charitable speculation: “I dare say a prisoner begins to relent towards his prison after he is let out” (60). If anyone is ever “let out” of prison in Dickens' world, then she or he might no longer need to call it home.


  1. Lionel Trilling, “Little Dorrit,” in The Opposing Self (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950), p. 51.

  2. Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (New York: Penguin Books, 1967) 112. Subsequent references to the novel are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text by page number.

  3. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) 7. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically in the text by page number.

  4. My use of Illich's term “shadow labor” follows Hochschild's limited use; I intend “shadow labor” to represent metaphorically (following the novel's own representations) the capital yet repressed status of feminine and maternal domestic labor, and the economy of “diminished” desire, (a desire whose expression or fulfillment in the real world seems impossible, but which is nevertheless—or correspondingly—powerful and “treasured,” like the tiny woman's desire for the “shadow”), which underlies Little Dorrit's emotion management. For critiques of the sexism in Illich's constructions of gender see Gloria Bowles, et al. “Beyond the Backlash: A Feminist Critique of Ivan Illich's Theory of Gender” Feminist Issues 3 (Spring 1983): 3-43.

  5. I am indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) for her analysis of male homosocial bonding, which challenged me to question more closely the position of a female mediator like Little Dorrit.

  6. Only the prostitute, who at first confuses the identities of Maggy and her Little Mother, reminds Little Dorrit that there are some domestic and social “falls” that her deferential shadow labor cannot redeem or clean up (218). This “woman” (as Dickens euphemistically [?] calls her) sees something in Little Dorrit's eyes that Arthur and Mr. Dorrit cannot see, perhaps a glimmer of the tiny woman's desires. Little Dorrit's sexuality cannot be entirely idealized away, although it seems that only a “woman” can see Little Dorrit's own vulnerability to a fall.

  7. Elaine Showalter, “Guilt, Authority and the Shadows of Little Dorrit,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 34 (June 1979): 39.

  8. The Meagles's seemingly idiosyncratic use of the word “practical”—which in their vocabulary seems to mean “charitable,” or “kind” or “sentimental”—also demonstrates the usefulness of service in Dickens's novel: it is “practical” for the Meagles to be kind to Tattycoram because in return she will be loyal to them. Their practicality also extends to employing attractive female domestics: “why not have something pretty to look at, if you have anything at all?” (241).

  9. Dickens also identifies Little Dorrit's marriage as a passage out of the “death” of her sexually ambiguous earlier life:

    this young lady is one of our curiosities, and has now come to the third volume of our Registers. Her birth is in what I call the first volume; she lay asleep, on this very floor, with her pretty head on what I call the second volume; and she's now a-writing her little name as a bride in what I call the third volume.


    The second volume is the burial register (219); Little Dorrit's rite of passage takes her from birth, to death, to marriage, as if her shadow labor finds its eternal life in the roles of wife and mother.

Nancy Aycock Metz (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8974

SOURCE: Metz, Nancy Aycock. “Little Dorrit's London: Babylon Revisited.” Victorian Studies 33, no. 3 (spring 1990): 465-86.

[In the following essay, Metz discusses Dickens's use of images of the city of London in Little Dorrit.]

We usually think of urbanization as a process associated with growth, expansion, construction, and burgeoning population. More vividly than any other Victorian novelist, Dickens has chronicled such changes. But as the rate of urban expansion increased toward the middle of the century, Dickens increasingly turned his attention to the unevenness of these transformations and to the psychological effect on city-dwellers as the metropolis changed shape and purpose. I see Little Dorrit (1855-57) as an important statement of these concerns, and the London it represents as central to the novel's exploration of human memory, imagination, and identity as they are distinctively shaped by the city experience.

Little Dorrit's London differs in important respects from its counterpart in Bleak House. Nominally a novel about the recent past, Bleak House repeatedly confronts its contemporary readers with landscapes they might theoretically see for themselves on any evening's slumming expedition; the novel thus freezes time for readers and characters alike on the threshold between a threatening present and an apocalyptic future. With its unambiguous opening reference to the Marseilles of “thirty years ago,” Little Dorrit seems similarly poised at a generation's remove from the experiences of the novel's original readers. But if Bleak House leaps ahead to the millennium, Little Dorrit lingers over the traces of a London that seems at times more ruin than real. The accreted past speaks to the characters of this novel through a pervasive and enigmatic architecture of decay. Thus, while the sense of place is as strongly rendered in this novel as in any of Dickens's books, the distinctive atmosphere of Little Dorrit owes more to the generalized evocation of decline than it does to the immediacy with which particular scenes are rendered. If Bleak House borrows its urgency and topographical detail from the bluebooks and journalism of sanitary investigation, Little Dorrit sometimes reads like a museum guide to “lost” London.


To a certain extent, of course, Dickens's novels typically appeal to antiquarian interests. John Henry Raleigh, commenting on Dickens's “long-standing prediliction for the old, the quaint, the ancient,” notes that from the beginning he was driven “to immortalize in print the old twisted by-ways of the huge City that obsessed his imagination but which he knew was, like everything else, at the mercy of time.”1 Walter Bagehot once claimed, in what has become a much quoted phrase, that Dickens described London as might a “special correspondent for posterity.”2 And Dickens himself, as early as Sketches By Boz exhibits a joking self-consciousness about precisely this role. Concluding a little essay tracking the “advance of civilization” into sleepy, out of the way Scotland Yard, he imagines his text in the hands of an “antiquary of another generation,” who despite great learning would be helpless to discover the whereabouts of any of the landmarks he has described.3 He could imagine himself on the other side of that temporal/geographical gulf as well. Dickens clearly draws on his own perpetually renewed sense of wonder when he has David Copperfield, having freshly arrived from his foreign travels, muse on the transformations time has wrought:

I have often remarked—I suppose everybody has—that one's going away from a familiar place, would seem to be the signal for change in it. As I looked out of the coach window, and observed that an old house on Fish-street Hill, which had stood untouched by painter, carpenter, or bricklayer, for a century, had been pulled down in my absence; and that a neighbouring street, of time-honoured insalubrity and inconvenience, was being drained and widened; I half expected to find St. Paul's Cathedral looking older.4

But if the impulse to record a London whose landmarks were even then passing away is nothing new in Dickens's fiction, what is new in Little Dorrit is the increased seriousness with which Dickens registers these changes, his heightened sensitivity to their impact on the individual's sense of order, predictability, and growth, and his fictional extension of absence, transformation, and ruin into tropes for cultural decay.

That civilizations did decay and leave behind them only the enigmatic signs of their once flourishing state was a fact brought vividly before the popular imagination in the 1850s by Victorian travellers and archaeologists, two of whom were important influences on Dickens. The legendary figure of Giovanni Battista Belzoni fascinated him. Belzoni had died when Dickens was eleven years old, but before his early death (of dysentery on the road to Timbuktu), he had made a romantic name for himself by his impressive Egyptian accomplishments: opening the second pyramid and discovering the buried temple of Abu Simbel, six royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and the lost city of Berenice. Treasures from these excavations were displayed in 1821 on a grand scale at the Egyptian Hall, Picadilly—their arrival well-publicized by the release of Belzoni's Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids. Richard Altick compares the public stir accompanying these events to the sensation created in London and the United States in the 1970s by the splendid travelling display of treasures from Tutankhamen's tomb.5 That interest was still very much alive in 1851 when Household Words told “The Story of Giovanni Belzoni.” As the journal interpreted it, it was a very Dickensian story indeed, stressing Belzoni's early struggles as “the son of a humble barber,” his “devouring” of Robinson Crusoe, his “truant spirit” and inventive, energetic disposition, and his early career as a “Hercules in tinsel,” delighting audiences at Astley's circus with his gymnastic feats. The centerpiece of the essay was an excerpt from Belzoni's book, describing in compelling detail his discovery of an Egyptian burial vault in the Valley of the Kings:

Of some of these tombs many persons could not withstand the suffocating air, which often causes fainting. A vast quantity of dust rises, so fine that it enters the throat and nostrils, and chokes the nose and mouth to such a degree, that it requires great power of lungs to resist it. … The blackness of the walls, the faint light given by the candles or torches for want of air, the different objects that surrounded me, seeming to converse with each other, and the Arabs with the candles or torches in their hands, naked and covered with dust, themselves resembling living mummies, absolutely formed a scene that cannot be described.6

The year this account was published, Austen Henry Layard returned triumphantly to London, two months after the opening of the Great Exhibition. Layard had made extensive excavations in Asiatic Turkey, culminating in the (mistaken, as it turned out) discovery of the site of biblical Nineveh. With his arrival, Assyrian subjects and artifacts, previously the domain of the biblical scholar or archaeologist, became household words. Schools awarded prizes for essays on Nineveh, and books on the subject were displayed prominently at the Great Exhibition. Layard himself—whose undertakings had gone long unsupported—was accorded celebrity status. The Duke of Wellington lionized him. He was made a Citizen of London and given the keys to the city. At the Gothic Hall, a panorama of Nimrud enjoyed a long run, and in Lower Grosvenor Street, Layard's travelling artist lectured nightly to diorama audiences. The arrival and installation of the famous “winged bulls” at the British Museum fueled the sensation. Meanwhile, Layard's published account of his quest, Nineveh and Its Remains (1848-49), sold well and was widely reviewed. The Times went so far as to declare it “the most extraordinary work of the present age.” A shortened version, sold primarily at railway bookstalls, was even more successful. According to Kenneth Hudson, it is “entitled to the honour of being the first genuinely popular book on archaeology ever written.”7

Dickens had good reason to second the general chorus of praise for these accomplishments. Layard was his personal friend and a man whose energy, love of adventure, and curiosity suited his own restless temperament well. “Among the best and greatest of … travellers,” Dickens once called him, and though the remark was made in a professional context to a group of commercial travellers, Dickens had experienced at first hand the qualities of which he spoke so highly. With Layard, Dickens wrote to Forster in 1853, he had “ascended Vesuvius in the sunlight and [come] down again in the moonlight, very merrily.” Dickens had a genuine literary appreciation for Layard's published narratives, ranking them with the work of Macaulay, Herschel, Faraday, and Tennyson as the best texts for working men to read “in these bad times.” It is easy to see why he felt this way. Layard's readable, exciting account of his dealings with quarrelsome Arab tribes is the stuff of which classic adventure fiction has been fashioned, but the theme of the book, the patient surmounting of daunting obstacles—physical, financial, logistical—makes his a Victorian success story at once exotic and eminently instructive.8

If the Smilesian themes of Layard's narrative especially recommended it to the newly literate, it was probably to other elements that Dickens himself responded most strongly. As Belzoni had done earlier, Layard called up in striking chiaroscuro the spectacle of ancient relics suddenly disentombed before the eyes of awed witnesses. Here is his account of the discovery of Sennacherib's palace:

The excavations consisted … of a perfect labyrinth of subterranean passages, lighted by wells sunk from the surface of the mound. It would be difficult to convey any idea of the peculiarly solemn appearance of these underground galleries. The colossal human-headed monsters scarcely emerging into the dim light; the long lines of bas-reliefs recording the ancient glories of Assyria; the Arabs wandering to and fro through the gloomy passages, formed a picture which the imagination could scarcely realise, and which once seen could never be forgotten.9

More conscious than Belzoni of the symbolic value of his discoveries and of his own role as an interpreter of culture, Layard frequently called attention to the textual status of his relics, as in the case of the pair of human-headed figures found “in perfect preservation,” guarding the steps of the palace:

I used to contemplate for hours these mysterious emblems, and muse over their intent and history. What more noble forms could have ushered the people into the temple of their gods? What more sublime images could have been borrowed from nature, by men who sought, unaided by the light of revealed religion, to embody their conception of the wisdom, power, and ubiquity of a Supreme Being? They could find no better type of intellect and knowledge than the wings of a bird. These winged human-headed lions were not idle creatures, the offspring of mere fancy; their meaning was written upon them.

The sudden resurrection of these artifacts after long obscurity prompts an exclamation on the strange paradoxes of time and history: “For twenty-five centuries they had been hidden from the eye of men, and they now stood forth once more in their ancient majesty. But how changed was the scene around them!”10 In the “recovery of the metropolis of a powerful nation from the long night of oblivion” might not also the future history of the modern Babylon be read? The analogy was implicit in much contemporary archaeological discussion; it is explicitly worked out in Rossetti's “The Burden of Nineveh” (1856), where the shadow of the massive figures on the streets outside the British Museum darkly forecasts England's coming fall. And in Household Words, “The Nineveh Bull,” speaking in dramatic monologue, is made to warn: “They say I am far from my violated home, in a city prouder, greater, more glorious than my native realm; but boast not, ye vain glorious creatures of an hour. I have outlived many mighty kingdoms, perchance I may be destined to survive one more.”11

For Dickens, predictions of national ruin were set firmly within a political context, one that was being shaped in great measure by Layard's campaign for administrative reform. Punch's “Mr. Bull,” the “Bedouin of Parliament,” occupied center stage in a series of complex political agitations Dickens followed with acute interest between 1854 and '55. As M.P. for Aylesbury and a staunch critic of inefficiency during the Crimean War and of corruption in the civil service, Layard articulated a political position which Dickens fully supported in public speeches and in the pages of Household Words. The effect of Dickens's political activism on the composition of Little Dorrit has been well documented.12 To it we owe the striking conception of the Circumlocution Office and the broad caricatures of the Barnacles and Stiltstalkings. But the influence on his thinking of the “Ninevite question,” in both senses of Dickens's playful phrase, does not end with topical satire. The very atmosphere of the city and the sombre, meditative tone of the novel owe something to Belzoni, Layard, and the renewed cultural consciousness of “ruin” their discoveries prompted.


Lost London, never far beneath the surface of the city to which Clennam returns, presents to the most casual observer odd and troubling dislocations. Vestiges of the past are everywhere present—in the remaining tall chimneys and large rooms of Bleeding Heart Yard, in the deserted warehouses Clennam passes on his way home, in the “ruin” his own home has become. But the apparent stability of these structures is disconcerting, for while they have remained, the context around them has been gradually redefined. Clennam finds his mother's house exactly as he had left it—“nothing's changed”—but undeniable change in the outer world has rendered it now “a mere anomaly and incongruity … out of date and out of purpose” (p. 45). Few structures can make a grander claim to antiquity than Bleeding Heart Yard; its remote origins are the subject of legend and vigorous scholarly dispute. But not only in its cramped and subdivided apartments is it “much changed in feature and fortune,” it stands in an altogether transformed relationship to surrounding London:

As if the aspiring city had become puffed up in the very ground on which it stood, the ground had so risen about Bleeding Heart Yard that you got into it down a flight of steps that formed no part of the original approach, and got out of it by a low gateway into a maze of shabby streets, which went about and about, tortuously ascending to the level again.

(p. 129)

The metaphor and persona employed here recall Dickens's memorable description of the approach to Todgers's—“you groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards, and passages”13—but the hypothetical wanderer in this maze finds himself trapped in a labyrinth that is as much temporal as spatial. He is lost in history, or at least in the peculiar and incomprehensible metropolitan expression of it, with its uneven stratifications and surprising architectural holdovers. The physical experience of these impressions is more than just disorienting. For while individuals track their lives in more or less linear stages, time moves with apparent lawlessness among the urban landmarks that signpost growth. Without any effort of will, often without any consciousness of the process, individuals write their autobiographies in city dust and mud, in brick and mortar. Only in retrospect do they learn how unstable such texts prove. For Mrs. Clennam, emerging after long seclusion to confront the contrast between her mental images “of demolished streets and altered houses, as they formerly were” and the “overwhelming rush of reality,” the discovery is quite literally maddening (pp. 333, 766).

Against this background of change within permanence, familiarity within strangeness, Little Dorrit's characters maintain an uneasy poise. Lacking any organic connection to the past, they are nonetheless strongly influenced by it, experiencing it as inconvenience, as vague sentiment or vague guilt, or simply as enigma. Nor do they fully possess the present. Consider the ludicrous situation of the “Hampton Court Bohemians,” who live across the grain of a rich past they refuse to acknowledge or even see. Against the massive scale of Henry VIII's palace, they interpose flimsy screens and partitions, failing spectacularly to domesticate their apartments to the most basic requirements of comfortable housekeeping. While the stage is obviously set for high historical drama, the scenarios they enact before puzzled visitors are nothing if not broadly farcical: “Callers, looking steadily into the eyes of their receivers, pretended not to smell cooking three feet off; people, confronting closets accidentally left open, pretended not to see bottles; visitors, with their heads against a partition of thin canvas and a page and a young female at high words on the other side, made believe to be sitting in primeval silence” (p. 304). To occupy space is necessarily to occupy time, and in throwing the whole weight of their trivial, arrogant lives against the implications of this unalterable fact, the Bohemians open the way for innumerable contradictions. But only in the absurd lengths to which all this is carried are their living conditions unique. Elsewhere too, the architecture of the past overshadows those who must live from day to day within its familiar precincts, so that the simple business of inhabiting inherited structures is presented as no easy or natural thing. Clennam comes upon Miss Wade, in a neighborhood of “horrors that came into existence in some wrong-headed time, still demanding the blind admiration of all ensuing generations … until they tumbled down,” surrounded by stray furniture and trunks, “as she might have established herself in an Eastern caravanserai” (pp. 316, 318). And in Bleeding Heart Yard, the poor linger on, year after year, in a permanent arrangement of temporary accommodation, “as Arabs of the desert pitch their tents among the fallen stones of the Pyramid” (p. 129). Gypsies all, these characters simply camp out on the ruins of the past, their pitiful makeshifts dwarfed by the evidence everywhere of a history with which they share no thread of meaningful connection.

For Little Dorrit's serial readers, making connections through the text with a London at the margins of living memory, topographical descriptions provisionally recreate a world that can never be reclaimed. But the tone and distance of the narrative voice repeatedly underscore just how provisional this recreation is intended to be. Readers of the novel are never allowed to forget that this city has been verbally reconstructed for them. They do not enter it through some invited suspension of disbelief; rather, they typically stand outside, on the perimeter of their own time, and with its more vivid reality as a constant frame of reference. At a further remove from the characters, they too must find their way among structures which have changed beyond recognition, or have been emptied of their original life, or have vanished altogether. Thus, any pretension to permanence can only evoke satire. Tip's office in the Palace Court is but one “of a considerable list of everlasting bulwarks to the dignity and safety of Albion, whose places know them no more” (p. 73). Dickens's readers might look in vain for Mr. Casby's street in the Gray's Inn Road; though it had “set off from that thoroughfare with the intention of running at one heat down into the valley … it had run itself out of breath in twenty years” and “there is no such place in that part now” (p. 138). The most precise guidebook directions trace the route to the novel's central symbolic setting, the Marshalsea prison, “a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the Borough of Southwark, on the left hand side of the way going southward.” Any reader might pace it out. But all this expense of careful detail finally leads nowhere. The Marshalsea “is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it” (p. 58). The effect of this narrative stance is to hold at a distance even those scenes which are most vividly and precisely described. The gaps themselves, rather than the verbal bridges which span them, come into focus, sketching in the dimensions of an urban backdrop within which neither characters nor readers are fully integrated. In the description introducing the rendezvous between Tattycoram and Rigaud at the Adelphi, Dickens develops at length this aspect of Little Dorrit's symbolic landscape. Clennam is walking along the Strand at dusk, when a sudden stoppage of coal-wagons causes him “to look freshly about him.” The narrator frames his reactions this way:

There is always, to this day, a sudden pause in that place to the roar of the great thoroughfare. The many sounds become so deadened that the change is like putting cotton in the ears, or having the head thickly muffled. At that time the contrast was far greater; there being no small steamboats on the river, no landing-places but slippery narrow stairs and foot-causeways, no railroad on the opposite bank, no hanging bridge or fish-market near at hand, no traffic on the nearest bridge of stone, nothing moving on the stream but watermen's wherries and coal-lighters. … At any hour later than sunset, and not least at that hour when most of the people who have anything to eat at home are going home to eat it, and when most of those who have nothing have hardly yet slunk out to beg or steal, it was a deserted place and looked on a deserted scene.

(p. 514)

The whole description is built on distances—Clennam's physical distance from Tattycoram and Rigaud, the sudden interruption of his train of thought, the elliptical nature of the conversation between the two interlocutors. The syncopated throb of deafness the pedestrian feels in crossing under the arches comes to stand for a broader register of disrupted expectations and failed connections. The Adelphi physically punctuates the surrounding scene, causing those who pass under it to feel momentarily lightheaded. But as a remembered artifact, it gives “pause” as well. At first anchored to the reader's present reality by the phrase “to this day,” the landscape slips by stages into the inaccessible past as the narrative lens filters out, one by one, its recognizable features. Readers look as through a stereoscope at a postcard view of a familiar London landmark, but as the series of negatives accumulates the effect is subtly changed.14 Each transparent overlay is in turn removed, the composite picture dissolves, and the viewer is left stranded across a gulf of time only imagination can close.

It is entirely appropriate to the atmosphere of this novel that the abandoned City district should be the point of entry to the London experience, and its moral and symbolic touchstone. There, to the wanderer of a thoughtful cast of mind at mid-century or later, time's “gulf” would have been most impressively felt. By then, the rapid increase in the population of London had begun to follow dramatically inconsistent patterns. While the slums filled up and outlying areas encroached on neighboring countryside, the population of central London, the ancient City district, decreased markedly. According to Alexander Welsh, in The City of Dickens, “the process known today as ‘depopulation of the urban core’ was underway in London by the first decades of the nineteenth century.”15 By 1837, the area was largely inhabited by shopkeepers, clerks, and laborers; wealthy homeowners had taken flight in significant numbers. To contemporary observers, the abandonment of the city churches signalled most dramatically a decay that had been underway in less obvious ways for some time. The continuity of ritual these churches represented and their visibility as monuments to English architectural tradition imbued their decline with symbolic significance. According to Walter Besant:

The City churches are all ancient as regards their site; most of them are Wren's churches, there is, about every one, a mass of associations, a long history of Rectors, Vicars, Preachers, Monuments, Chantries, charitable emoluments, and the remembrance of past worthies who were baptized and confirmed, and received the Communion, who were married, and were buried in them.

Once venerable, wealthy institutions, these churches testified forcefully to the mutability of all things; at mid-century, in some of them, “literally two or three [worshippers] met together to make their common supplication.”16

To follow Arthur Clennam down vacant and inert streets, past empty churches, on a Sabbath deserted even by worshippers, is to follow a different route from Dickens's most memorable urban pilgrimages. Clennam's discoveries are negative and disillusioning; in the general deadness of all things, the mechanical proliferation of places (“streets, streets, streets”) and people (“a million or so of human beings”) keeps all individual impressions at a numbed distance. But compare his dulled sensations to those of the innocent Oliver, stupefied by the highly particularized sights, sounds, and smells of Smithfield; or of Snagsby, shaken to the core by the inferno of suffering fellow-mortals through which he is led unwillingly; or of Florence, lost among London's “wild confusion.” While previously in Dickens's fiction, the crowd has been the defining focus of the urban encounter (the crowd is the city's new “institution” according to F. S. Schwarzbach), in this novel, the thoughtful pedestrian as often confronts scenes whose vacancy and stillness enforce a different perspective.17

To be sure, the crowds are always there in the background, and from time to time they emerge to take on a demonic life. We see them mobbing Cavalletto's litter, erupting around the apparition of the horribly resurrected Mrs. Clennam, and most notably contributing their “usual uproar” to the wedding prospects of Amy and Arthur. But against these conventional readings of the city as densely and threateningly energetic, as a vortex, are counterpointed the structurally important Iron Bridge scenes and the extended surrealist rendering of Amy's wanderings in eerie, nocturnal London. Browne's illustration for this episode captures well this new tone and perspective. The plate carries the same symbolic weight as does his “Tom-All-Alone's” in Bleak House, to which it is thematically parallel. But while the first etching depicts a cluttered, rubbish-filled background from which human beings are completely absent, “Little Dorrit's Party” shows two small human figures dwarfed by the enormous and imposing structures of prison and church. Clearly, the subject of the illustration is the relationship between these overshadowed figures and the awesome scale of the vast city under the indifferent stars.18 In the background, patterns of light faintly but cleanly illuminate—as far as the eye can see—the “empty and silent” streets emphasized in the text.

In scenes like these, London is not meant to represent any large Victorian city. Though slums like Tom-All-Alone's might be discovered by unwary pedestrians anywhere—that is the point of Snagsby's shock and horror—the full irony of Amy's lonely vigil becomes apparent only when its specific location is made melodramatically clear: “This was Little Dorrit's party. The shame, wretchedness, and exposure of the great capital” (p. 171). This is London viewed from a somber, prophetic distance, its thronging life for the moment suspended by a narrator who views and judges it as the crowning achievement of a failed culture. The same kind of distancing effect is achieved by presenting the city through the eyes of an exile like Clennam and by having him track his course down depopulated streets and among fallen monuments. To the returned traveller, mesmerized by the dull enchantment of a London Sabbath, the city appears drained of life or haunted, a relic or a vast necropolis. Clennam, listening to the maddening cacophony of bells calling an absent population to a deserted church or “passing … the mouldy hall of some obsolete Worshipful Company … the illuminated windows of a Congregationless Church,” typifies a narrative approach to the city, not as an exotic dark continent, but as, literally and figuratively, a ruin. Everywhere, vestiges in brick, paint, and mortar—the “silent warehouses and wharves,” the gloomy arches of the Adelphi, the “piece of antiquity” Clennam's own house has become—seem to be waiting “for some adventurous Belzoni to dig [them] out and discover [their] history” (p. 31).

In the decades preceding the writing of Little Dorrit, London was, of course, being dug and re-dug. Between 1837 and 1854, improvements were made in Eastcheap, Little Tower Street, and Gracechurch Street; Upper Thames Street was widened from Eastcheap and Fish Street Hill, the Thames Tunnel was opened, the Fleet prison was demolished; Moorgate Street was constructed, 428 miles of sewers were laid, Canon Street was widened, Basin Lane was removed, New Oxford Street was built and the surrounding slums pulled down (Besant, pp. 137-139). Though these excavations were carried out by engineers and city planners rather than “adventurous Belzoni's,” even such modern improvements as the building of railroads, the laying of sewers, and the demolition of slums brought before residents of the capital an increased awareness of London as an archaeological artifact. If the depopulation of central London showed to the romantic imagination a city in picturesque and gradual decline, metropolitan improvements wrought, visibly, instant “ruin” on whole neighborhoods. Such sudden upheavals in the known and ordered features of the streets inevitably evoked comparisons to the “lost” cities of the ancient world. Dickens, who took an enlightened interest in the suffering caused by this shortsighted removal of entire slum populations, found himself fascinated by such scenes of devastation. They figure vividly in his letters, receive memorable and explicit treatment in Dombey and Son, and color the whole later view of the city as junkyard Sahara.19

Yet however vulnerable to annihilation may be the remembered neighborhood or the structure made luminous through personal association, the city's collective past survives beyond the capacity of individual memory to contain or fathom it. In ordinary middle-class houses as well as in businesses and institutions, innumerable domestic dramas—ghosts of the city's long human history—vaguely overshadow the struggles of present occupants. As Clennam sits brooding in the coffee-house on Ludgate Hill, the generalized sense of their manifold nameless presence hangs suspended in the heavy atmosphere. “Looking at the dull houses opposite,” he muses, “if the disembodied spirits of former inhabitants were ever conscious of them, how they must pity themselves for their old places of imprisonment” (p. 31). The company of these invisible fellow prisoners makes Clennam feel somehow diminished and unreal, a “ghost” himself as he revisits the scenes of his own dead past. Visiting one of those deserted City churches Dickens makes focal points of Clennam's London, the Uncommercial Traveller would later remark:

Not only in the damp February day, do we cough and sneeze dead citizens, all through the service, but dead citizens have got into the bellows of the organ. … We stamp our feet to warm them, and dead citizens arise in heavy clouds. Dead citizens stick upon the walls, and lie pulverized on the sounding-board over the clergyman's head, and, when a gust of air comes, tumbles down upon him.20

The translation of this kind of choking physical reality—playfully conceived here—into the oppressive atmosphere of Little Dorrit is one of the novel's defining characteristics.

“Dead citizens” threatened the health of the living; the dangers posed by this silent population in the ordinary press of daily life had been sensationally documented by George Walker in 1839 and in annual statistics and periodical essays ever since.21 But though the sanitary threat had made the dead newsworthy in the forties and fifties, it was not to the recent and specific horrors of overcrowded cemeteries and acquisitive burial practices that Dickens now turned his attention. An 1860 “Uncommerical Traveller” essay reminiscent of G. A. Sala's “The Key of the Street” reflects his new orientation. Here Dickens creates the character of “Houselessness,” whose object, like Amy's earlier trial outside the Marshalsea gate, is simply to “get through the night.” The “immensity of London” is powerfully evoked in this essay; fearful characters—the whining, snapping savage “Houselessness” nearly steps upon on the dark street, the man who stabs his pudding “like a mortal enemy”—stand out in sharp relief against a background chiefly compelling for its emptiness. But as impressive as the scale of this nocturnal desert, or as the solitary grotesques who sparsely populate it, is the awareness that comes upon the narrator of its buried life:

in these houseless night walks … it was a solemn consideration what enormous hosts of dead belong to one old great city, and how, if they were raised while the living slept, there would not be the space of a pin's point in all the streets and ways for the living to come out into.

Equally “residents” of London, Dickens's dead swell a census that defies enumeration. Their imagined resurrection would flood the streets and “overflow the hills and valleys … God knows how far” and would make of every house a prison.22

To secure one's own identity among the citizenry of the dead, then, becomes one of the challenges that courageous and inquiring minds accept; its attendant risks are paralysis and suffocation. In Little Dorrit Dickens represents the undertaking paradigmatically as a process of archaeological exploration. Clennam, re-entering the long-abandoned rooms of his mother's house, might as well be leading an expedition into an Egyptian tomb:

Dull and dark he found it. The gaunt rooms, deserted for years upon years, seemed to have settled down into a gloomy lethargy from which nothing could rouse them again. The furniture, at once spare and lumbering, hid in the rooms rather than furnished them, and there was no color in all the house; such color as had ever been there, had long ago started away on lost sunbeams—got itself absorbed, perhaps, into flowers, butterflies, plumage of birds, precious stones, and what not. There was not one straight floor, from the foundation to the roof; the ceilings were so fantastically clouded by dust and smoke, that old women might have told their fortunes in them, better than in grouts of tea; the dead cold hearths showed no trace of having ever been warmed, but in heaps of soot that had tumbled down the chimneys, and eddied about in little dusky whirlwinds when the doors were opened. In what had once been a drawing-room there were a pair of meager mirrors, with dismal processions of black figures carrying black garlands, walking around the frames, but even these were short of hands and legs, and one undertaker-like Cupid had swung round on its axis and got upside down, and another had fallen off altogether.

(p. 54)

In old Mr. Clennam's office, Arthur comes across the culminating artifact for which these lesser icons have been preparation, his father's portrait, insistently demanding and simultaneously thwarting interpretation, “dark and gloomy, earnestly speechless on the wall.” At the end of the novel, when all the secrets foreshadowed here have been disentombed, the rubble of the house is literally sifted “by parties of diggers … formed to relieve one another in digging among the ruins” (p. 772). And though rumors linger that Flintwich's body lies hidden “somewhere among the London geological foundation,” this ritual carting and shovelling, and the final discovery of “the dirty heap of rubbish that had been the foreigner” (p. 772), symbolically close the central strand of the plot.


Clennam's story, brought to closure by this last in a series of revelations, can be fully understood only in terms of the Italian episodes of Book II. Through a process of doubling and intensification, they redefine the context of the London scenes, which are now seen as predictive; with the rest of the pattern in place, it is clear that England's capital is firmly set on a path that can only lead to a fate like ruined Rome's. “How Not To Do It” proves a disastrous course, leading in this case not to apocalypse (Bleak House's metaphor) but to the steps of a ruined Capitol, to the death of the future and the reincarnation in its place of an oppressive, sterile past. Michael Cotsell has shown that between Pictures from Italy (1846) and Little Dorrit, Dickens's thinking about the meaning of the Italian landscapes he had witnessed underwent a “major alteration of emphasis.” In the 1840s, Dickens was content to make the contrast between Protestant, progressive England, and crumbling, backward, despotic, and Catholic Italy. … It is not contrast, but similarity, that Dickens suggests in Little Dorrit: Italy gives images of what England is becoming” (p. 194). In the description of the Dickens family's arrival in Rome, Pictures from Italy (1846) offers the first foreshadowings—comic but also ominously suggestive—of an analogy that Dickens will later explore with complete seriousness:

When we were fairly off again, we began, in a perfect fever, to strain our eyes for Rome; and when, after another mile or two, the Eternal City appeared, at length, in the distance; it looked like—I am half afraid to write the word—London! There it lay, under a thick cloud, with innumerable towers, and steeples, and roofs of houses, rising up into the sky, and high above them all, one Dome. I swear, that keenly as I felt the seeming absurdity of the comparison, it was so like London, at that distance, that if you could have shown it me, in a glass, I should have taken it for nothing else.23

In Little Dorrit comparisons between the two capitals are enforced at every turn, underscoring by implication the novel's social and political message. For example, London's “gypsies of gentility,” and the less genteel gypsies of Bleeding Heart Yard, forecast the unbroken series of barren encampments in Venice and Rome. The unreality of the Dorrits' new existence is measured out in the bare passages and massive stone galleries of the various palaces that swallow them. And on the road to Venice, Amy perceives that the family's situation fits into a far more troubling pattern:

they would come to whole towns of palaces, whose proper inmates were all banished, and which were all changed into barracks: troops of idle soldiers, leaning out of the state-windows, where their accoutrements hung drying on the marble architecture, and showing to the mind like hosts of rats who were (happily) eating away the props of the edifices that supported them, and, must soon, with them, be smashed on the heads of the other swarms of soldiers, and the swarms of priests, and the swarms of spies, who were all the ill-looking population left to be ruined, in the streets below.

(p. 453)

Just so, the narrator had warned of Covent Garden's scavenging children, “look to the rats young and old, all ye Barnacles, for before God they are eating away our foundations, and will bring the roofs on our heads!”24

If in London, churches and counting-houses have been abandoned, warehouses gape open, buildings tumble down; in the Italian scenes decay fills every horizon, never more vividly rendered than in Dickens's existential images of “ruinous enclosures, yawning window-gap, and crazy wall, deserted houses, leaking wells, broken water-tanks, spectral cypress-trees” (p. 617). “Ruin” has become the natural condition and context for change itself. Thus the travellers come upon a “church with hoarding and scaffolding about it, which had been under supposititious repair so long that the means of repair looked a hundred years old, and had themselves fallen into decay” (p. 474). And this spectacle anticipates the family's arrival in Rome, “a city where everything seemed to be trying to stand still forever on the ruins of something else” (p. 497). In ghost-ridden Rome, with its much longer and more remote history, the past is the only reality. In this city of the dead, not only famous men and events—long passed into history—still cast their shadows, but inglorious visitors to their shrines and monuments have themselves come and gone in bewildering succession. So Amy explains the depressing effect of Minnie Gowan's little apartment, not in terms of its dirt or gloom, but with respect to the obscure, inescapable human texts which surround and diminish her: “the walls have been drawn over with chalk and charcoal by others who have lived there before—oh, I should think for years!” (p. 534). However much Dickens drew on his own Italian travels in descriptions like these, it is clear that he drew even more on his increasingly jaded view of home. “Like the Goths reversed,” the “Island-Savages” of Book II are shown “beating at the gates of Rome” (p. 617), just as in the novel as a whole Dickens looks to the past in order to locate the future rhetorically for his readers.

This way of positioning the reader with respect to the familiar, contemporary capital was not original with Dickens, of course. Romantic landscape painters had experimented with the same premise in the twenties and thirties, depicting well-known London landmarks as they might one day appear to sightseers at the fallen city. The perspective artist, Joseph Michael Gandy, for example, chose the Rotunda at the Bank of England as the focus for a colored drawing he suggestively entitled “Architectural Ruins—A Vision.” Interestingly, the relationship between the imagined future and the present-as-past ran in both directions. The painter John Martin was best known for his apocalyptic landscape visions of the Pyramids, the ruins of Palmyra, and the Caves of Elephanta; The Fall of Nineveh (1827) is probably the best known of these large canvases. … In his secondary career as an engineer and metropolitan planner, he translated these architectural fantasies into cast-iron and masonry, so that railway stations, bridges, and viaducts were actually built to resemble his artistic conception of Egyptian ruins. According to F. D. Klingender, Martin's influence was great: “So completely did [he] express the mood of his time that he was widely regarded as the greatest English artist after Turner.”25

Macaulay appealed to the same sensibilities in 1840 with his powerfully resonating image of the New Zealander “in the midst of a vast solitude” standing “on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.” Long after the context for this rhetorical vision had been forgotten (Macaulay's point was that the invincible Catholic Church might remain even under such hypothetical conditions of general ruin), the image lingered on, inspiring, most notably, Trollope's curious work of political and social analysis, The New Zealander, and the concluding panorama of Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Dore's London. … In numerous pieces of popular journalism, too, “fallen” London was made the subject of romantic appeal. Sala's Household Words piece is typical in its evocation of a future when

the race of this huge London world-city shall be run—when the millstone shall have been cast into its waters, and the word … gone forth that Babylon the great is fallen—when the spider shall weave his web amidst the broken columns of the Bank; the owl shriek through the deserted arcades of the Exchange; and the jackel prowl through labyrinths of ruins and rubbish, decayed oyster shells and bleached skeletons of the dogs of other days, where once was Regent Street.26

Thus Dickens's “sources” for the image of ruined London were broadly diffused through the culture. But his treatment of the trope in Little Dorrit is distinctive. Never simply the panorama seen through the mist, the proper subject for picturesque sketch or romantic effusion, the ruins of Little Dorrit stand as the most compelling objectification of the human past—suffused through place—as an artifact of individual consciousness. Amy's musings on the ancient sights of Rome, like Dorothea's honeymoon despair in the “city of visible history,” have their sources in the perceived analogy between “the oppressive masquerade of ages”27 and a deep consciousness of personal loss:

The ruins of the vast old Amphitheatre, of the old Temples, of the old Commemorative Arches, of the old trodden highways, of the old tombs, besides being what they were, to her were ruins of the old Marshalsea, ruins of her old inner life—ruins of the faces and forms that of old peopled it—ruins of its loves, hopes, cares, and joys. Two ruined spheres of action and suffering were before the solitary girl often sitting on some broken fragment; and in the lonely places, under the blue sky, she saw them both together.

(p. 591)

Amy is the chief shrine of memory in a novel which, as much as David Copperfield, faces compulsively backward into the generative experiences of childhood. But if Copperfield hymns the recovered past, artistically whole and health-giving, Dorrit pauses over its broken fragments and lonely places with a more ambivalent and jaded eye. No David, who can call up childhood events palpably before him, Clennam complains often of the barrenness of his early years, of retrospectives composed of blank spaces, imagination grasping empty air. But he keeps climbing down what for him is a blighted tree, because like Dickens's other autobiographers, Clennam believes that memory makes meaning, that past and present link causally, and that the way out of the labyrinth is as much behind as before him. His urge to come to terms with the past, to clear up its mysteries and make reparations, to close it off and so restrict its capacity to harm, motivates most of his actions in the plot. In pursuit of these goals, Clennam returns home, befriends Amy, and attempts to reopen the Dorrit case.

But these assumptions about the coherence and integrity of lived time are not borne out by experience. For Clennam, as for most of the novel's other characters, discontinuity rules, and old selves “vanish” without a trace, only to be, in the cruel caprice of things, suddenly, inauspiciously resurrected. William Dorrit's cry of self-pity to Amy (“I was young, I was accomplished, I was good-looking, I was independent—by God I was, child!” [p. 221]), echoes through the novel in Clennam's own grief for his dead youth, and in Flora's rhapsodic clinging to “old times forever faded never more to bloom” (p. 263). Here, characters forever collect and arrange souvenirs as a way of saving some slight remembrance out of the annihilating waste of time and change. Flora preserves the last dress Amy makes for her; Amy, her Marshalsea frock and her uncle's clarionet; the Meagleses, whole roomsful of treasure, “mute witnesses to the lives they had lived together” (p. 395).

The most powerful and potentially dangerous of these memorials are the scenes of past misfortune or suffering, over which the novel repeatedly hovers with fascinated attention. London itself is such a scene for Clennam in chapter 3, and his subsequent exploration of the old house establishes a motif that is repeated in Tattycoram's furtive return to the Meagleses' house, and in William Dorrit's conflicted near-return to the Marshalsea. Thus when Dickens came to write the preface to the novel in 1857, it was particularly fitting that he chose to highlight a personal pilgrimage to the ruins of the old prison so closely associated with his own early and intense pain. His anecdote sums up with wonderful subtlety and distance the novel's final attitude toward a past at once inescapable and irrecoverable. Midway through the preface, he remarks in an offhand, footnoting way: “Some of my readers may have an interest in being informed whether or not any portions of the Marshalsea prison are yet standing.” As he answers his own hypothetical question, documentation yields to dramatization. The narrator becomes a character in curious dialogue with a peculiarly urban Sphinx:

I found the outer front courtyard … metamorphosed into a butter-shop; and I then almost gave up every brick of the jail for lost. Wandering, however, down a certain adjacent “Angel Court” … I came to Marshalsea Place, the houses in which I recognized not only as the great block of the former prison, but as preserving the rooms that arose in my mind's eye when I became Little Dorrit's biographer. The smallest boy I ever conversed with, carrying the largest baby I ever saw, offered a supernaturally intelligent explanation of the locality in its old uses, and was very nearly correct. How this young Newton … came by this information, I don't know; he was a quarter of a century too young to know anything about it himself. I pointed to the window of the room where Little Dorrit was born, and where her father lived so long, and asked what was the name of the lodger who tenanted that apartment at present? He said “Tom Pythick.” I asked him who was Tom Pythick? and he said, “Joe Pythick's uncle.”

Like the novel it telegraphically recapitulates, this characteristic instance of Dickensian flanerie traces a journey both lateral and temporal. The narrator finds the prison, at last, both “preserved” and “transformed.” He is ultimately surprised into a recognition of artifacts so solid in their reality that they recall the past in its very texture and detail and so frame neatly the imaginative act of bringing the past to life in fiction. But his final, absurd exchange with his urchin interlocutor firmly reinstates the present—and with it irony and paradox—into the absorbing tableau of the past. The episode stands as an appropriate frame for the novel it introduces, dramatizing in little its pull between engagement and detachment, memory and desire, fictive and experiential truth. In its good-humored, ironic acceptance of the truth that one must finally learn to live as a ghost—inhabiting a city haunted by the past, haunting a city from which the past has been swept away—Dickens comes to a qualified provisional peace with the abundant anomalies and dislocations of Little Dorrit's London.


  1. John Henry Raleigh, “The Novel and the City: England and America in the Nineteenth Century,” Victorian Studies 11 (1968), 323.

  2. Walter Bagehot, “Charles Dickens,” National Review (October 1858), qtd. in Dickens: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 394.

  3. Charles Dickens, “Scotland Yard,” in Sketches By Boz (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 66, 68.

  4. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ed. Trevor Blount (1849-50; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 892.

  5. The earliest reference to Belzoni in Dickens's writing is in “Seven Dials”: “The stranger who finds himself in ‘The Dials’ for the first time, and stands Belzoni-like, at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity and attention awake for no inconsiderable time” (Sketches By Boz, p. 69). Altick discusses Belzoni in The Shows of London (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 244.

  6. [W. H. Wills and Mrs. Hoare,] “The Story of Giovanni Belzoni,” Household Words, 22 February 1851, p. 550. Author attributions to Household Words articles are taken from Household Words: A Weekly Journal, ed. Anne Lohrli (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973).

  7. Arnold C. Brachman, The Luck of Nineveh: Archaeology's Great Adventure (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978), p. 270; Altick, p. 182; The Times, 9 February 1849, p. 5; Kenneth Hudson, A Social History of Archaeology (McMillan: London and Basingstoke, 1981), p. 73. See “Reception of Nineveh Sculptures in the British Museum,” Illustrated London News, 28 February 1852, p. 184. Drawings in the Illustrated London News article depicted the cumbersome process of setting in place what was called “the largest monolith which has reached England from the buried city of the East” (The Times, 9 February 1849, p. 5).

  8. “Commercial Travellers' School,” The Speeches of Charles Dickens, ed. K. J. Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), p. 220; Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 2 vols. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952), II, 787. The best recent account of Layard's impact on Little Dorrit is Michael Costell, “Politics and Peeling Frescoes: Layard of Nineveh and Little Dorrit,Dickens Studies Annual 15 (1984), 181-200.

  9. Austen Henry Layard, The Nineveh Court and the Crystal Palace (London: Bradley and Evans, 1854), p. 26.

  10. Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains (New York: Putnam, 1849), pp. 75-76.

  11. Edward Robinson, Introduction, Nineveh and Its Remains, p. ii. D. G. Rossetti, “The Burden of Nineveh,” in Poems and Translations, 1850-1870 (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 12-17; [W. H. Stone,] “The Nineveh Bull,” Household Words, 8 February 1851, p. 469. For further information on the analogy in contemporary archaeological discussion, see Carl Woodring, “The Burden of Nineveh,” Victorian Newsletter (Spring 1983), pp. 12-14.

  12. For a summary of the evidence in letters and speeches, see Harvey Peter Sucksmith, Introduction, Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, ed. Sucksmith (1855-57; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. xviii. All quotations from Little Dorrit are from this edition.

  13. Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. P. N. Furbank (1843-44; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 185. Dorothy Van Ghent discusses this passage in “The View From Todgers's,” Sewanee Review (Summer 1950), rpt. in The Dickens Critics, ed. George Ford and Lauriat Lane (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961), p. 228.

  14. The London Stereoscope Company was founded in 1854, its motto “No home without a stereoscope.” According to Altick, the little hand-held viewer “was the cosmorama and diorama finally domesticated” (p. 233).

  15. Alexander Welsh, The City of Dickens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 20.

  16. Walter Besant, London in the Nineteenth Century (London: A. and C. Black, 1909), rpt. as The Rise of Urban Britain (New York: Garland, 1985), p. 7.

  17. F. S. Schwarzbach, Dickens and the City (London: Athlone Press, 1979), p. 49.

  18. See the analysis of these two plates in Michael Steig, Dickens and Phiz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 150-152, 164-165.

  19. See, for example, the All the Year Round account of the St. Pancras Road project in [Joseph Charles Parkinson,] “Attila in London,” 26 May 1866, p. 466. Author attribution taken from Ella Ann Oppenlander, Dickens' All the Year Round: Descriptive Index and Contributor List (Troy: Whitston, 1984).

  20. [Charles Dickens,] “The Uncommercial Traveller,” All the Year Round, 5 May 1860, p. 86.

  21. George A. Walker, Gatherings from Graveyards (1839; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1977).

  22. [Charles Dickens,] “The Uncommercial Traveller,” All the Year Round, 21 July 1860, p. 351.

  23. Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1911), p. 106.

  24. P. 159. For a suggestive analysis of these passages as representative of Dickens's “defensive and challenging social and political attitudes,” see William Myers, “The Radicalism of Little Dorrit,” in Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century, ed. John Lucas (London: Methuen, 1971), pp. 89-90.

  25. Francis D. Klingender, Art and the Industrial Revolution, ed. and rev. by Arthur Elton (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968), pp. 120-126.

  26. Macaulay's New Zealander makes his appearance in “Ranke's History of the Popes,Edinburgh Review 145 (October 1840), p. 228. As N. John Hall has pointed out in his introduction to Trollope's New Zealander ([Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972], p. xii), Macaulay took the image of the New Zealander from Walpole. Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold, London: A Pilgrimage (1872; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968), p. 188. G. A. Sala, Gaslight and Daylight (London: Chapman and Hall, 1859), p. 66.

  27. George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 205.

Sylvia Manning (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9560

SOURCE: Manning, Sylvia. “Social Criticism and Textual Subversion in Little Dorrit.Dickens Studies Annual 20 (1991): 127-47.

[In the following essay, Manning examines the way Dickens undermines the narrator in Little Dorrit and the ideological contradictions that this causes.]

Little Dorrit proffers a deal of ideological discourse, some of it ironic explication in the service of the novel's satirical stance, such as the analysis of How Not To Do It, and some of it wholly solemn expostulation to the same moral purpose, such as the narrator's commentary on Little Dorrit's suggestion that, because her father has paid with his life, he should not also have to repay his debts in money. Apparently congruent with this discourse are the Christian ideology implicit in the tale and the ideology of the novel form itself, which is the epistemological ground for the moral implications.

The ideology implicit in the story is constituted of a collection of comforting, radical eventualities: that the good shall be rewarded, that the mighty shall be cast down, that the lame shall walk (Mrs. Clennam) and the blind see (Arthur Clennam), that the prodigal daughter shall return (Tattycoram). The more fundamental ideology of novelistic plot assumes or asserts that events mean and tend towards larger outcomes; that individual action and chance combine into narratable history; that there are beginnings and endings; that there come points at which it is possible to say, “This happened and it was good [or bad].”1

What I hope to show, however, is that the narrator's discourse is repeatedly undermined; the resulting contradictions constitute the ideology of the book, distinct from and less radical than the narrative stance. The ideology inherent in the conventions of narrative form, on the other hand, is also steadily undermined, but here the effect is to radicalize. These are the conventions that allow us to create meaning, believing that we are finding it, extracting it, not falsifying to reach it. As these are disrupted, the text presents the possibility of a world in which all we are really doing is circumlocuting. That prospect is truly frightening, and we can see its terror in the outrage of contemporary reviewers. The reviewers expressed two kinds of outrage: at the narrator's satire—one side of the book's constitutive ideological contradictions—and at the contraventions of form.

The narrator's comment on Little Dorrit's proposition occurs just at the end of Book 1, prior to the departure from the Marshalsea. Little Dorrit has asked Clennam if the debts must be paid from the newly inherited estate, he has said that they must, and she has responded that it seems unfair. The narrator comments:

The prison, which could spoil so many things, had tainted Little Dorrit's mind no more than this. Engendered as the confusion was, in compassion for the poor prisoner, her father, it was the first speck Clennam had ever seen, it was the last speck Clennam ever saw, of the prison atmosphere upon her.

(Book 1, chapter 35)

The narrative voice of that paragraph and the voice of Mrs. Merdle's parrot, which doesn't parrot but counterpoints its keeper, seem hardly a continuous sensibility, yet they are presented as on the same side of the novel's social critique. To overstate it somewhat, the problem is that the narrator, like the parrot, is supposed to be right. He is the moral center that calibrates the satiric universe represented: he exposes, excoriates, mocks, derides folly when it is pernicious, and laughs more kindly at it when it is harmless. Moreover, by this point in the novel he has established certain specific values and valuations. These include: that the system of imprisonment for debt is foolish; that wealth is hollow, self-serving, and greedy; and that the building of human relations on a cash nexus is abhorrent. Little Dorrit's notion that perhaps an extent of suffering might annual a cash bond may strike us as consistent with these values. If they do, the narrator's comment—the paragraph I just cited—comes like a slap. It tells us that cash relations are not to be confused or re-shaped by human suffering.

Worse yet, the notion of the prison's taint on Little Dorrit that the narrator introduces here will be picked up, and carried as something of a motif, by three not very admirable characters, most notably Fanny, but Mr. Dorrit and Tip as well. It is the taint of the prison that accounts in their minds for such failures as Amy's attempt to assist the fainting Pet Gowan directly rather than sending her maid. And Amy herself accepts the idea that it is her prison-taint that prevents her from enjoying the sights of Venice and Rome and the daily social round.

This association of the narrator with the targets of his own satire may suggest that the ideological position of the novel is not where the satirist-narrator would have us believe. For a more extended instance of the same problem, we may consider Arthur's bankrupting of Doyce by his investment in Merdle's enterprises. The moral tone that surrounds this episode is established by the elaborated (one might argue, belabored) metaphor of illness and contagion leading to this crux and conveys a narrative valuation that finds it right for Arthur to suffer imprisonment in consequence. By the time Arthur arrives as a prisoner at the Marshalsea, in fact, the essential stupidity of the system seems to have been forgotten. Within hours, Arthur begins to sink into moral lassitude:

In the unnatural peace of having gone through the dreaded arrest, and got there,—the first change of feeling which the prison most commonly induced, and from which dangerous resting-place so many men had slipped to the depths of degradation and disgrace by so many ways—…

(Book 2, chapter 27)

“So many men” fall to degradation because they are weak and weary. The brief views we have of the inmates remind us that at the beginning of the story too, except for Amy and Plornish they were no better than they should be; they may not have deserved the prison, but they suit it. Arthur, we are told in Chapter 28 (Book 2), remains throughout his stay aloof from his fellow-prisoners; to be saved for a better end, he must be different. The note of stupidity is struck only further on, at the end of Chapter 32, when Mr. Casby pronounces, “Let him pay his debts and come out, come out; pay his debts, and come out.”

Not only is there no protest against Arthur's incarceration, but something hallowing has begun to hover around this particular prison. When Rugg urges Arthur to take his opportunity to go to the King's Bench instead, Arthur declines (Book 2, Chapter 26). From the moment he reaches the Marshalsea, the aura of Little Dorrit supervenes. When she herself returns, the place becomes virtually sanctified. The scene is worth looking at. Arthur has fallen into a feverish state of dozing and dreaming, has become aware of a bouquet of flowers without being able to focus on how it got there, has attempted some movements but given up:

When the first faintness consequent on having moved about had left him, he subsided into his former state. One of the night-tunes was playing in the wind, when the door of the room seemed to open to a light touch, and, after a moment's pause, a quiet figure seemed to stand there, with a black mantle on it. It seemed to draw the mantle off and drop it on the ground, and then it seemed to be his Little Dorrit in her old, worn dress. It seemed to tremble, and to clasp its hands, and to smile, and to burst into tears.

(Book 2, chapter 29)

The string of seemed's marks the ghostly benign, the mistiness of vague religious feeling, something so much too good to be true that we and Arthur alike must be brought to it through the mediating possibility that it is only a dream. The passage continues in this vein. Within a paragraph Little Dorrit is in Arthur's arms and he is exclaiming upon her and the beloved old dress. The dress is important because it marks the restoration of a prior, somehow more desirable, state. Lest we miss the point, Dickens provides a second marker as Little Dorrit continues:

“I hoped you would like me better in this dress than any other. I have always kept it by me, to remind me: though I wanted no reminding. I am not alone, you see. I have brought an old friend with me.”

Looking round, he saw Maggy in her big cap which had been long abandoned, with a basket on her arm as in the bygone days, chuckling rapturously.

(Probability is utterly abandoned. If Amy kept the dress, we have to assume a secret closet and a secret trunk, or what did her maid make of it? And she kept it to remind herself, though she needed no reminding.) Like Amy, Maggy has gotten herself up for the occasion—has as improbably retrieved the old cap as Amy retrieved the old dress. Maggy has no role in this scene, unless one can imagine Little Dorrit in need of a chaperone. Her function is to emphasize the note of restoration.

Restoration of what? Of the days of innocence, in which a love like Amy's and Arthur's could grow. Of the days before the Dorrits' fall to wealth and Arthur's sins of speculation. For Little Dorrit and Arthur, the Marshalsea has become a purgatory, a vale of suffering that will purify them for each other. That is why Arthur holds to the notion, grotesque if viewed rationally, of staying in the prison right up to the moment of his marriage. They must go directly from the prison to the church, from purgatory to heaven. That Amy was better off without her wealth fits the novel's satiric program, but that by imprisonment Arthur is purged of his economic error and his soul brought to recognize its mate, does not. It sits awkwardly with how the prison appears to stand in the first part of the novel, as well as with the rest of the prison metaphor as it is generally understood.

Yet the scene gets more complex. After Little Dorrit has hung the old bonnet in the old place, after her modest head has bowed to sew a curtain for his room, after they have sat hand in hand and one bright star has risen in the sky, Little Dorrit offers Arthur her money to obtain his release. He responds with one of the most convoluted lover's speeches on record:

“If, in the bygone days when this was your home and when this was your dress, I had understood myself (I speak only of myself) better, and had read the secrets of my own breast more distinctly; if, through my reserve and self-mistrust, I had discerned a light that I see brightly now when it has passed far away, and my weak footsteps can never overtake it; if I had then known, and told you that I loved and honoured you, not as the poor child I used to call you, but as a woman whose true hand would raise me high above myself and make me a far happier and better man; if I had so used the opportunity there is no recalling—as I wish I had. O I wish I had!—and if something had kept us apart then, when I was moderately thriving, and when you were poor; I might have met your noble offer of your fortune, dearest girl, with other words than these, and still have blushed to touch it. But, as it is, I must never touch it, never!”

He does not stop here, but it gets no more lucid. Though others might not, as I do, have difficulty sorting out the respectable arrangement between declaring love and accepting money, the precise nature of that arrangement is less important than the fact that there is one. The implication is that the banker's scales and scoop take human relationships and coin together, and that that is as it should be. The marriage of Arthur's and Little Dorrit's true minds is as subject to the impediments (and impulses) of cash as are the marriages of Gowan and Pet or Fanny and Edmund Sparkler. And just as with Gowan's and Pet's marriage, the enabling banker is Mr. Meagles, retired but still able to straighten out such affairs.

Compare Arthur's speech to another on the subject of love that can no longer be:

“Ask me not … if I love him still or if he still loves me or what the end is to be or when, we are surrounded by watchful eyes and it may be that we are destined to pine asunder it may be never more to be reunited not a word not a breath not a look to betray us all must be secret as the tomb wonder not therefore that even if I should seem comparatively cold to Arthur or Arthur should seem comparatively cold to me we have fatal reasons it is enough if we understand them hush!”

(Book 1, chapter 24)

Flora may fail a test of syntax, but there is a level at which her values are closer to those the novel touts than what the narrative gives, with tacit admiration, to Arthur. The novel claims the moral ground that holds love and charity superior to the ledgers of cash transactions, but the truest exemplar of these values is Flora, fat and prolix in a world where the best are thin and laconic, her sentences running over as her flesh runs over, an object of laughter more harsh than affectionate. There is no contradiction here: Flora is a pariah because the narrative subscribes to love and charity but bows to proper relations and proper-ty. (Flora is incapable of taking proper tea: she eats too much and prefers the nip of the wrong beverage.)

Another derided female worth considering in this regard is Fanny. The following dialogue takes place on a tired afternoon in Venice. Fanny is speaking first:

“… Come! Has it never struck you, Amy, that Pa is monstrously polite to Mrs. General.”

Amy, murmuring “No,” looked quite confounded.

“No; I dare say not. But he is,” said Fanny. “He is, Amy. And remember my words. Mrs. General has designs on Pa!”

“Dear Fanny, do you think it possible that Mrs. General has designs on any one?”

“Do I think it possible?” retorted Fanny. “My love, I know it. I tell you she has designs on Pa. And more than that, I tell you Pa considers her such a wonder, such a paragon of accomplishment, and such an acquisition to our family, that he is ready to get himself into a state of perfect infatuation with her at any moment. And that opens a pretty picture of things, I hope? Think of me with Mrs. General for a Mama!”

Little Dorrit did not reply, “Think of me with Mrs. General for a Mama;” but she looked anxious, and seriously inquired what had led Fanny to these conclusions.

“Lord, my darling,” said Fanny, tartly. “You might as well ask me how I know when a man is struck with myself! But of course I do know. It happens pretty often: but I always know it. I know this in much the same way, I suppose. At all events, I know it.”

(Book 2, chapter 7)

Amy continues with a series of doubting questions: “You never heard Papa say anything?” “And you never heard Mrs. General say anything?” “At least, you may be mistaken, Fanny. Now, may you not?” Fanny treats these questions with increasing contempt, but we may note that the contempt is not merely characteristic but, in this instance, perhaps called for. Though the text directs our sympathy as usual away from Fanny and toward Amy, as with the notation of the retort Amy did not make (“Think of me with Mrs. General for a Mama”), the fact is that Fanny is right and Amy is obtuse.

The narrative takes Fanny's part in so far as it accepts the notion that it is wrong for Mrs. General to marry Mr. Dorrit. One might ask why. Does he deserve better? No. Would he be unhappy with her? No. What is wrong is that she aspires. She is absurd as Young John Chivery is absurd in his aspiration for Little Dorrit's hand. In both instances the laughter or disapproval is based upon notions of appropriate matches that are essentially the same as those that chafe the dowager Mrs. Gowan and reconcile Mr. Meagles in their children's marriage. The disjunction between the tone that continues to disparage Fanny as she discusses Mrs. General's aspirations and the narrative's sharing of her perspective upon them signals a moment of tension in the ideological strands of the novel. Although every moment at which we feel dissonance may not indicate such a point of tension, the points of tension all seem to carry some such surface sign.

This sort of ideological crux also attends Little Dorrit's reappearance in the Marshalsea wearing the old plain dress and the old bonnet. The moment was prepared at the close of Book 1, when Amy is carried out to the departing family coach in the arms of Clennam. The perspective is not the narrator's, but Fanny's:

“I do say,” she repeated, “this is perfectly infamous! Really almost enough, even at such a time as this, to make one wish one was dead! Here is that child Amy, in her ugly old shabby dress, which she was so obstinate about, Pa, which I over and over again begged and prayed her to change, and which she over and over again objected to, and promised to change today, saying she wished to wear it as long as ever she remained in there with you—which was absolutely romantic nonsense of the lowest kind—here is that child Amy disgracing us to the last moment and at the last moment, by being carried out in that dress after all.”

Amy's steadfastness to the dress, of course, is intended to display her rejection of the material values of the rest of her family and her steadfastness to—to what? To her love for her father, perhaps, to a life in which duty is harsh but clear, but could it be also to her own centrality, to stasis, to the familiar? Again the text directs our sympathy wholly to Little Dorrit, and again there remains some unacknowledged validity to Fanny's critique of “romantic nonsense of the lowest kind.”

If we set aside that sense of Amy deserving criticism as too perverse a claim, we remain with the dress as a revered icon. The true and the good cling to the shabby dress, the superficial and vain glory in bright new clothes. Consistent with this iconography, Young John is presented setting out upon his ill-fated courtship:

He was neatly attired in a plum-coloured coat, with as large a collar of black velvet as his figure could carry; a silken waistcoat, bedecked with golden sprigs; a chaste neckerchief much in vogue at that day, representing a preserve of lilac pheasants on a buff ground; pantaloons so highly decorated with side-stripes that each leg was a three-stringed lute; and a hat of state very high and hard. When the prudent Mrs. Chivery perceived that in addition to these adornments her John carried a pair of white kid gloves, and a cane like a little finger-post, surmounted by an ivory hand marshalling him the way he should go; and when she saw him, in this heavy marching order, turn the corner to the right; she remarked to Mr. Chivery, who was at home at the time, that she thought she knew which way the wind blew.

(Book 1, chapter 18)

So far, so consistent. It turns out, however, that pretension is not the only unacceptable mode. Here are the people who offer services to the inhabitants of the Marshalsea:

The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking-sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people's individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart.

(Book 1, chapter 9)

There is a curious problem in the clause “were made up of patches and pieces of other people's individuality.” The syntax of the sentence suggests that the three clauses are re-statements of one another: “[1] All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, [2] were made up of patches and pieces of other people's individuality, and [3] had no sartorial existence of their own proper.” The middle clause thus confirms brutally the synecdoche of the clothes for the person: if you wear other people's clothes you are made up of other people's individuality. Does the narrator—Dickens—anyone—really mean to imply that one's individuality resides in one's clothing? By the logic of this description, Fanny's plunge into a sea of fine clothing, first at the family's liberation, but again, more assertively still, upon her marriage, is the expression of her individuality, her sartorial existence to reflect her selfhood. Now we can patch at this fault. For one thing, we know from our sojourns in the Dickens world that what is probably wrong with the attendants' clothes is not that they are old and threadbare and second-hand, but that they are not neat. Where they neat, these would be a better class of people. (Amy's “shabby dress … being so neat” virtually enhances her “delicately bent head, … tiny form, [and] … quick little pair of busy hands” [Book I, Chapter 5]). But I think that for all our patching the fault will remain, and the telltale failure of tone is in the passage describing the shabby attendants. Beneath the fault is the tension between a simple moral philosophy of clothes and something that shares the dandyism of Young John. Perhaps after all what is wrong about his finery is not that it is finery but that he does not know how to do it right: the difference between a fop and a pretentious fop, not foppery itself.

The narrative commentary is marked by ideological bits that seem regularly to cross purpose with other explicit or implicit ideological stances in the text. Similar contradictions appear around ideological bits carried implicitly by the action. For example: as a moment of high drama, as a reprieve from punishment achieved through a sudden impulse of regard for her stepson or perhaps through the release of long-pent guilt, Mrs. Clennam rises from her chair and walks through the streets of London. The action carries, implicitly, a Christian note of renovation in the motif of the lame walking. In the upsweep of events rapidly moving to a close that must be triumphant for Arthur and Amy, we are likely to succumb to the sentimental gratification afforded by this miracle. Rigaud must be defeated and, since Mrs. Clennam has repented (albeit rather suddenly), and since Arthur so much wants her to love him, perhaps, too, she may be redeemed—and perhaps the walking is the sign of that redemption. Her meeting with Little Dorrit is so powerful an image that we are likely to forget, soon after the book is closed, that this redemption is short-lived. Mrs. Clennam gets to walk from her house to the Marshalsea, and back, but not further. What she has willed, the narrative puts aside: the trauma of the collapsing house sends her into a paralytic stroke. This novel is of sterner stuff than the sentimentality that inclines toward redemption. In a novel in which the last farthing of debt must be repaid, in which human suffering has no place in the ledgers of cash transactions, and in which strict properties govern the mingling of cash and love, Mrs. Clennam cannot go unpunished. The lame shall walk only if they deserve to.

Repeatedly, conflicting ideological bits undermine satiric or radical stances assumed by the narrative, revealing a text paradoxically enmeshed in the system it is trying to criticize. The novel's maneuvers within the ideology of plot may seem at first surprisingly different. The story presents two initial strands: the Dorrits in the Marshalsea and the somewhat amorphous mystery Arthur is trying to solve—or perhaps trying to find in order to solve. One might expect that the solution to Arthur's mystery would somehow be entwined with the liberation of Mr. Dorrit, especially since Little Dorrit's employment at Mrs. Clennam's tells us that she has something to do with Arthur's dilemma. One might expect so because this is a novel and the more because Dickens assures us that things will indeed be fully linked:

And thus ever, by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.

—at the end of Chapter 2, and again in Chapter 15, at Mrs. Clennam's:

Strange, if the little sick-room fire were in effect a beacon fire, summoning some one, and that the most unlikely some one in the world, to the spot that must be come to. Strange, if the little sick-room light were in effect a watch-light, burning in that place every night until an appointed event should be watched out! Which of the vast multitude of travellers, under the sun and the stars, climbing the dusty hills, and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another; which of the host may, with no suspicion of the journey's end, be travelling surely hither?

And more:

Time shall show us. The post of honour and the post of shame, the general's station and the drummer's, a peer's statue in Westminster Abbey and a seaman's hammock in the bosom of the deep, the mitre and the workhouse, the woolsack and the gallows, the throne and the guillotine—the travellers to all are on the great high road, but it has wonderful divergencies, and only Time shall show us whither each traveller is bound.

But it does not come out that way. Mr. Dorrit is freed by the solution of a very different mystery, which is of no broader interest at all. And the mystery surrounding Arthur is entirely moot as to any effect it might have or any action anyone might take, except perhaps that Mrs. Clennam owes Little Dorrit 1,000 guineas. The confusion of the denouement enforces an impression that all the threads are being pulled together, but if we pause to unravel the detail we see that the convergence is not there. The conventions of plot, that we very much expect Dickens to uphold and that are expressed in the passages I just quoted, require signification in the juxtaposition of events. At the end of Little Dorrit the story breaks loose from this ideology.

The divergence of the two plot strands—Arthur's mystery and Little Dorrit's story—may be further masked, or confused, by the forced joining of their two iconic figures, Amy and Mrs. Clennam. Rigaud is a savvy operator who has laid his last trap with great care. Yet, almost spontaneously, Mrs. Clennam fools him. She gets away, gets out, and foils his fail-safe stratagem by confronting Little Dorrit, while he sits smugly in the window-seat awaiting her return. Why does she succeed? Perhaps because it is so irrational a move that Rigaud cannot anticipate it. What she achieves is that she gets the box of papers back from Little Dorrit, who otherwise would have followed Rigaud's instructions and handed them over to Arthur, thus betraying his step-mother's perfidy to him. But for one thing, as Mr. Meagles figures out right away, there remain the originals of the papers, hidden somewhere but still liable to cause mischief (especially without Rigaud's death, a happy event Mrs. Clennam could not have expected). For another, her sudden passion for saving her living image before Arthur is dramatically out of character. She also intends to bring Amy back to the house to display to Rigaud that Amy is not an alternate customer for his blackmail, but this would serve only a purpose of driving down Rigaud's price, not of suppressing the story, which he would be quite capable of revealing out of sheer spite were his plans for profit spoiled.

What I suggest is happening here is that iconographic representation is deforming plot and character to its purposes, and that these purposes turn out to be the representation of the novel's—though not the narrator's—ideology. Here is the narrator's, a doctrine of right and wrong, of a figure of light and a figure in shade:

In the softened light of the window, looking from the scene of her early trials to the shining sky, she [Little Dorrit] was not in stronger opposition to the black figure in the shade than the life and doctrine on which she rested were to that figure's history. It bent its head low again, and said not a word. It remained thus, until the first warning bell began to ring.

The warning bell stirs Mrs. Clennam to action, and she and Little Dorrit set off to the house. Dickens shifts to a language of reconciliation:

It was one of those summer evenings when there is not greater darkness than a long twilight. The vista of street and bridge was plain to see, and the sky was serene and beautiful. People stood and sat at their doors, playing with children, and enjoying the evening; numbers were walking for air; the worry of the day had almost worried itself out, and few but themselves were hurried. As they crossed the bridge, the clear steeples of the many churches looked as if they had advanced out of the murk that usually enshrouded them, and come much nearer. The smoke that rose into the sky had lost its dingy hue and taken a brightness upon it. The beauties of the sunset had not faded from the long light films of cloud that lay at peace in the horizon. From a radiant centre, over the whole length and breadth of the tranquil firmament, great shoots of light streamed among the early stars, like signs of the blessed later covenant of peace and hope that changed the crown of thorns into a glory.

(Book 2, Chapter 31)

Not a sentence of this paragraph fails to underline the point: peace returns as the lion and the lamb hasten through the streets together. It is not simply peace, however: the novel acknowledges the values of only one, only the figure of light, but it participates in both. Little Dorrit's life and doctrine have been woven of devotion, loyalty, generosity; so have the novel's. Mrs. Clennam's history has been one of strictly told ledgers, long-nurtured vengeance, smug self-righteousness; so has the novel's. The two come together not in the triumph of one but in an impure mixture, the inconsistent, contradictory compromises wrought of the constitutive tensions of a popular art.

Despite the discomfort of some early reviewers, notably Fitzjames Stephen,2 the novel is not seditious because it attacks the Circumlocution Office. If it is seditious at all, it is because it refuses to develop properly. The background plot is close to chaos (prompting such aids to the reader as the Penguin edition's summary in Appendix A), the hints about roads of life converging do not pan out, and the ending does not reach closure. The description I just read of the streets as Little Dorrit and Mrs. Clennam return to the house has the sense of ending we recognize—but there are two chapters yet to go Mrs. Clennam, Amy and Arthur alike seek rest, stability, resolution. Mrs. Clennam gets it in the punitive form of paralysis. What Amy and Arthur achieve finds no resonance in the world around them, natural or human. These are the last lines of the novel:

They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

The page goes blank, but it was not the falling note we expected. The story completes its break from the ideology of plot: having not quite brought action and chance into coherent history, it does not quite close. There are still lumps in the paste.

Within the two strands of the plot—Arthur's mystery and Little Dorrit's story—other strands are identified but not developed. Peter Brooks, following Benjamin, reminds us that “traditional storytelling [is] allied with travel, with the reports of those coming from afar, and with the marvellous” (155) because the narratable must be beyond the ordinary. Little Dorrit, however, presents the potential for plot in exotic places only to reject it. Flora, ever of literary sensibility, recognizes this locus for story as she urges Arthur to an account of his experience:

“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora: “but of course you never did why should you, pray don't answer, I don't know where I'm running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don't they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don't they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances. Instantly she went on again, as if he had spoken in reply for some time.

“Then it's all true and they really do! good gracious Arthur!—pray excuse me—old habit—Mr. Clennam far more proper—what a country to live in for so long a time, and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are!”

(Book 1, Chapter 13)

Arthur is no more capable of responding than he was the first time she paused for breath, but the problem is not merely the impossibility of talking to Flora. Whatever Arthur's exploits in China were, they are not narratable. They seem, indeed, not to have had any bearing on him. The twenty years are a blank, a void that closes when Arthur returns to London, to take up the unchanged relationship with his mother in the unchanged house of his childhood.

Similarly, Daniel Doyce's experience abroad is not narratable. It offers one paragraph of contrived contrast to the dominion of the Barnacles, and beyond that only a place to get Doyce off to so Arthur can fail and back from so that Arthur can be revived.

One might argue, however, that the motif of travel is centered on neither of these two but on the Dorrit family in Book 2. But what turns out to be narratable in their experience is only the continuation of the internal family dynamics that form the subject of Book 1. The purpose of their journey is to tell a false tale, to efface the narrative of Book 1. The effect of their journey is to return them unchanged to its starting-point: the futility is etched in the pathos of Mr. Dorrit's reversion to the Marshalsea in his last conscious hours. For the Dorrits, travel is just what Mr. Meagles, the inveterate traveller with nothing to tell, who never learns a language and stares at all he meets (Book I, Chapter 14), calls it: just “trotting about the world,” a deal of motion that may serve purposes of various sorts, but not narration.

The promises of a tightly-knit plot were made in the metaphor of journey, and broken. The travels themselves do not produce narrative. And the sense of non-ending, the failure of closure, arises in part from this. Dickens' metaphor of journey at this point seems almost perverse:

They all gave place when the signing was done, and Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone. They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun's bright rays, and then went down.

The phrase “went down” is a bit odd, certainly neither obvious nor necessary. Dickens makes it the structural basis of his next, and final, paragraph:

Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. Went down to give a mother's care, in the fullness of time, to Fanny's neglected children no less than to their own, and to leave that lady going into Society for ever and a day. Went down to give a tender nurse and friend to Tip for some few years, who was never vexed by the great exactions he made of her in return for the riches he might have given her if he had ever had them, and who lovingly closed his eyes upon the Marshalsea and all its blighted fruits. They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

At the beginning of the paragraph the “went down” is made figurative—“went down into a … life”—but at the end it is re-literalized—“went down into the roaring streets”—so that the novel concludes its length of unnarratable journeys with the start of another.

We realize now that the plot notion of significant journey has been parodied from the start. The same chapter (I,2) that concluded with the sentence I quoted earlier, of “journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another,” offered first another version of this motif:

“In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us, from many strange places and by many strange roads, … and what it is set to us to do to them, and what it is set to them to do to us, will all be done.”

This is the voice of Miss Wade, who, seeing Pet shrink at the ominous tone, pushes it further:

“… you may be sure that there are men and women already on their road, who have their business to do with you, and who will do it. Of a certainty they will do it. They may be coming hundreds, thousands, of miles over the sea there; they may be close at hand now; they may be coming, for anything you know or anything you can do to prevent it, from the vilest sweepings of this very town.”

There is a promise here—or threat—of a tightly knit narrative converging on Pet or her parents, and later some foreboding of its fulfillment when Rigaud attaches himself to Gowan, but nothing happens, except for the death of Gowan's dog.

In place of the journey as the source of narrative, the novel appears to offer the plot of knowing, the mystery plot with the pusillanimous Arthur at its center. To Clarence Barnacle, he is the man who “wants to know,” and the tag fits even better Arthur's relation to his mother and their past than it does his efforts on behalf of Amy. What the two efforts share is ineffectuality: Arthur never gets anywhere against the Circumlocution Office and he also never gets to learn the secret of his past. The reader finds out at the end, and Little Dorrit comes to know some of it, but Arthur remains wholly ignorant. And when, at Little Dorrit's nuptial request, he burns the codicil, he does not know that he is destroying his last chance of knowing. His father's name is withheld even from the reader, resulting in the awkwardness of Jeremiah Flintwinch's repeated reference to him only as “Arthur's father” even in private conversation with Mrs. Clennam (Book I, Chapter 14). All this diminution of the hero for the sake of saving Mrs. Clennam's memory (a grace she hardly merits) and emphasizing Little Dorrit's selflessness (a virtue that hardly needs repetition). Arthur sees, at last but not too late, his love for Little Dorrit, but he never learns his own story. The blind shall see, but only partially. Yet, unlike Mrs. Clennam's walking, Arthur's sight is a gift he would seem to deserve. His frustration appears to be something that, like the disappearance of Cavalletto at the end, the novel does not recognize. It is not just a matter of Arthur's not knowing something; it is a matter of his being denied knowledge he was specifically seeking, including the fact that this turned out to be the knowledge of his own birth. The novel is eliding its derailment of a mystery plot it has trailed through eighteen numbers by substituting a chaotic, unrememberable, and altogether creaky tale of double Flintwinches, double mothers, and double wills.

What we are left with is one mystery—the origins of the Dorrits that connect them to the unclaimed estate—solved by Pancks but not worth knowing (and not told to us), and another mostly known to us but not to the would-be detective hero. The novel has foiled our expectations for mystery as for adventure, expectations derived from our indoctrination in the ideology of nineteenth-century novelistic plot, from our belief in beginnings and endings. But it has done so so subtly, and surrounded its reversals with so much distraction, that we may not notice. We may be conscious not of a novel that subverts the conventions of its own form, but of the structures and statements that indicate continuity with those conventions: yet if we are true believers, we feel somehow uncomfortable, a sense of something amiss.

Dickens' contemporaries, undisturbed by the antics of the twentieth-century novel, were very much true believers, and to boot were equally agnostic of Dickens' infallibility. Listen, then, to the howl of pain from one reviewer, E. B. Hanley, writing for Blackwood's for April, 1857, with only sixteen numbers of Little Dorrit published (as though he could not wait):

Even if, in the few remaining numbers, the joints of the story should be tightened up, and the different parts of the machinery made to work in something like harmony, yet that would not now retrieve the character of so aimless a work. A most cumbrous array of characters and scenes has been set in motion, and all for what?

Absolutely, the only event yet described which can be called a leading incident, is the deliverance of old Dorrit from the Marshalsea. And how is this brought about? Not by any cause with which any of the characters are even remotely connected, but by the extremely probable circumstance, accidentally discovered, that the old gentleman, after a captivity of twenty years or so, has been all the time the right heir of the great estates of the “Dorrits of Dorsetshire,” of which distinguished family we then hear for the first time. We would pardon this violent wrench in the story if the dislocation produced any interesting results, but the contrary is the case; for, whereas old Dorrit was, in his character of Father of the Marshalsea, the best-drawn personage and the most interesting study (we might really say the only one of any value) in the book, he becomes, in his accession to wealth, a prosy old driveller, whose inanities are paraded and circumstantially described in a long succession of twaddle, till the favorable impression made in his former phase is quite effaced before his decease, which happily took place in the last number, and which, to all appearance, might just as well have occurred a long time ago. There is positively no dramatic result whatever from the marvellous convulsion in the fortunes of the Dorrit family up to the old gentleman's decease, except that one of his daughters is married to a Mr. Sparkler, one of the amateur idiots of the book, who is the stepson of the great speculator, Mr. Merdle, another of the amateur idiots of the book.

The fortunes of the Clennam family, occupying as they do a space nearly as large as those of the Dorrits, would, by an artistic writer, have been so interwoven that the opposing or blending interests should have elicited character and sustained curiosity; yet four-fifths of the book have elapsed without any connection being even hinted at, except that Little Dorrit came to work as a seemstress for Mrs. Clennam, without any result whatsoever, except that young Clennam noticed her peculiarity of taking home some of her dinner instead of eating it, and Mrs. Clennam (a most unpleasant old image, that sits always bolt upright in a wheeled chair like some grim heathen deity, and habitually talks in the most unchristian manner) once relaxes from her stony sourness so far as to kiss her. There is some hint of some influence that some Clennam may have had formerly on the fate of old Dorrit, but so obscure and shadowy as to induce the reader to believe that the author had not made up his mind as to what it should turn out to be, and was, therefore, anxious not to commit himself—a blemish that might injure a much better work than this. Meantime the Clennam household have experienced no vicissitudes, and are exactly where they were in the first number. Then there is the Meagles family, whose fortunes, whatever they may be, are totally distinct, so far, from the Dorrits and the Clennams, and have experienced only one change—viz., that the daughter, whose courtship was in progress when the book began, is now married, and has an addition to her family. The Casbys are in statu quo. A murderer and a smuggler, who were introduced at the beginning, in prison together, in a scene well calculated to excite attention, have done nothing in any way worthy of their formidable antecedents.

Unhampered by notions of Dickens' necessary excellence, Hanley is free to find fault (and he finds much more than what I quoted); deeply and unself-consciously committed to the ideology of novelistic form, he is sensitive to and outraged by the novel's contraventions of it. He points them out more thoroughly and succinctly than I have done, albeit with a very different understanding of the phenomenon. It is significant that he was not alone. The Saturday Review, for example, attacked Little Dorrit repeatedly. Here is an excerpt from July, 1857, probably by Fitzjames Stephen:

As far as we can judge he wrote Little Dorrit, month by month, at haphazard, without ever having sketched out a plan, and failed in executing his conceptions. He invests his characters with mystery, which he quite fails in clearing up. He suggests complications which involve nothing, and secrets which all end in no meaning. He hints at difficulties which are never unravelled, and we flounder on to the six hundredth page expecting to find a discovery when there is nothing to discover. Either idleness or inability compels him to abandon his characters with the unsatisfactory conclusion that they had no story to tell. Mrs. Clennam's house is haunted by some ghostly mystery—the weird old woman has some impenetrable secret—horrid anticipations of coming doom are in the garrets above and in the cellars below. Will Mr. Dickens assure us that the fall of the house in Tottenham-court road was not a happy solution to a difficulty which he had not the skill to disentangle? Does he ask us to believe that, when he first introduced us to the old house in the City at p. 23, he foresaw the very prosaic catastrophe of its fall at p. 600? Are we to understand that all Affery's horrors were meant to be resolved into the every-day phenomena of dry rot?

Then take Miss Wade. It is plain that the author intended to connect her former history with the other characters. He throws out hints and suggestions of some such relation between her and old Casby; but it all comes to nothing. … So again with Tattycoram. It is impossible to believe that the parentage of a foundling was not intended to be developed and woven into the plot. … Blandois, too, and Mr. and Mrs. Gowan—was it not meant that the future of the latter and the antecedents of the first should be connected with the drama of the tale?

In other words, the artistic fault of Little Dorrit is that it is not a tale. It neither begins nor ends—it has no central interest, no legitimate catastrophe, and no modelling of the plot into a whole.


No beginning, no ending, and false directions throughout the long middle. While reviewers worried about the British body politic fumed at the novel's satiric agenda, reviewers who cared for the experience of the novel were beside themselves at this one's disruption of their expectations. (Sometimes these were the same person.)

One could respond to the argument I have just made by saying that all it tells us is what we have long known, that the novel is another loose, baggy monster. One could support such a response with an analysis of another plot strand that does not develop: the Clennam/Pet Meagles/Gowan triangle. Here we have the beloved, the lover, the rival, and the father inclined towards the lover. Something should happen. Nothing does. The beloved marries the rival and they live unhappily ever after. The lover's fixation on this beloved blocks for a while, perhaps, his recognition of another love, but it is neither the sole nor the central cause of the blocking. Nor is there any suggestion that the second love is truer, as for instance in David Copperfield Agnes is truer than Dora. In the end, the romantic triangle turns out not to have much to do with anything, except possibly for those of us who harbor the undoubtedly inappropriate thought that a marriage between Arthur and Pet (achieved, say, through Rigaud's murder of Gowan) would be a lot healthier than his marriage with Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit becomes for Arthur at once child and mother, both endearing relations but, for the conventional among us, not comfortably joined with marital consummation. At this point, the road of our argument branches, and we may choose. Down one path lies the simple explanation, loose baggy monster. Down the other, the recognition of the fit between the odd-course development of this strand of plot and Dickens' recurrent circling around themes of incest and adolescent female sexuality. On this path we find numerous images compatible with a conventional ideology of love and marriage—Flora (fat women do not marry, or, frustrated women grow fat); Mr. F's aunt (the irreducible hatefulness of spinsters, distilled to an essence); Miss Wade (the dangers of uncontained female friendship); Minnie Gowan (the penance of a society-marriage); the Plornishes and the Chiverys (the silliness of the lower class); Fanny Dorrit (the emptiness of a society-marriage); and more—numerous images compatible with a conventional ideology of love and marriage surrounding, one might say obfuscating, a plot line that supports the unspeakable.

The secret of Arthur's birth and his father's will is a secret of sexuality. It may be that Arthur could not solve this mystery—or even learn what it was—for the same reason that the narrative obscures the nature of his relationship with Little Dorrit. On the fateful night at his lodgings, Arthur suggests that he call her “Little Dorrit”:

“Thank you, sir, I should like it better than any name.”

“Little Dorrit.”

“Little mother,” Maggy (who had been falling asleep) put in, as a correction.

“It's all the same, Maggy,” returned Little Dorrit, “all the same.”

(Book I, chapter 14)

Amy, “my child,” whose womanhood shocks a prostitute, Amy the “little mother” who slips into her old place beside her father, beside Arthur: to love Amy is another way to keep the secret of human sexuality, as is to make hers the highest form of marriage. For both Arthur and the narrative, Amy is at once the medium of sexual denial and the locus of forbidden sexual impulse.

At this point of tension more than others one can perhaps see why Dickens does not follow through. This is a novel full of stories that do not get told: mysteries unsolved or unexplained, journeys unnarrated, romances unprecipitated. The undeveloped romance may demonstrate most clearly the connection between these deflections of narrative and the ideological contradictions. The novel represents the contradictions but cannot explain them: hence not only deflections, but confusions, doublings, and disruptions.

The novel's subversions of plot are not visible enough to show as radical and probably are not conscious. In contrast, where the novel presents itself as radical, in its professed ideological stances, it cannot hold position: it slips back, here and there, into the system it condemns. The contrast, however, is specious. What happens with the ideological issues I have looked at—debt, love, imprisonment, clothing—is confluent with the novel's disruptions of form and the ideological tenor of that form. It may seem that with one set the orthodox is undermining the radical and with the other the radical is deflecting the orthodox, but aside from the fact that radical and orthodox are matters of perspective, what is upsetting what matters less than the continuous process of upset. The continuous process of upset raises the spectre of indeterminacy—not of the text, but of the world implied by the text. The world has too much meaning to allow coherent interpretation, single vision, moral certainty, or neat plotting.

In psychoanalytic terms, one might understand the indeterminacy as defense, an obfuscation designed to repress, or at any rate to deflect, what Dickens does not wish to confront directly. If one were to apply such a reading more broadly, in terms not of the author but of the culture, one might argue that what the novel reveals is a society caught between what it cannot face and what it projects in consequence of this denial. More simply, one might educe the threat of indeterminacy as it stalks the novel, within the novel's own tropes.

In the face of indeterminacy, the entire novel may be circumlocution. Thus the Circumlocution Office becomes an (unintended) figure of the novel itself. At the Circumlocution Office, as at the novel, you can ask and ask, but you cannot know. Like the novel, the Circumlocution Office is concerned to perpetuate itself, by stringing out its business as long as possible. In the Circumlocution Office secrets are buried, information is obscured, and in consequence an endless flow of language—most of it on paper—is generated. So, too, in the novel. The Circumlocution Office battens on disorder, the frustration of inquiry and the inconclusion of enterprise. The Circumlocution Office, the novel, and Flora all take their fecundity from their incoherence: their actions fail to culminate in shapely outcomes, they evade beginnings and endings.

It may be that all any of us can do is circumlocute. That threat arises not from the Circumlocution Office as a satire upon British government, but from its emblematic relation to the novel's plot and the plot's contraventions of novelistic expectation. These provoked the deepest cries of pain from contemporary reviewers, and may continue to trouble us even today, when we are probably as smug about our superiority to the satire as Fitzjames Stephen was about its targets.


  1. In Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction (1987), Leonard Davis spends a full chapter (12٪ of a text to which I am much indebted) explaining what he means by ideology. At the end, he concludes that he uses the word in three “general and overlapping ways”:

    • •“a system of beliefs of a particular group or class”
    • •“false ideas or false consciousness”
    • •“the general cultural system for the creation of signs and meanings” (p. 51)
    • (p. 51)

    I will use the word here principally in Davis's first sense, somewhat in his third, and not at all in his second. That is, to some extent as “the general cultural system for the creation of signs and meanings,” but mainly as “a system of beliefs of a particular group or class.”

  2. See “Mr. Dickens as Politician,” Saturday Review, 3 (January, 1857), 8-9.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “Little Dorrit.” Saturday Review 4 (July 1857): 15-16.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot.

Davis, Leonard. Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. London: Penguin Classics, 1967.

Hanley, E. B. “Little Dorrit.” Blackwood's Magazine 52 (April 1857).

Stephen, Fitzjames. “Mr. Dickens as Politician.” Saturday Review 3 (January, 1857): 8-9.

Trey Philpotts (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4805

SOURCE: Philpotts, Trey. “The Real Marshalsea.” The Dickensian 87, no. 3 (autumn 1991): 133-45.

[In the following essay, Philpotts discusses the London debtor's prison in which Dickens's father was incarcerated and which inspired the dominant symbol of Little Dorrit.]

When John Dickens entered the gates of the Marshalsea on February 20, 1824, he unwittingly supplied his son with the presiding symbol for one of his greatest novels, Little Dorrit, as well as material that would influence his portrayal of the debtors' prison in The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield. Despite the importance of the Marshalsea experience to the young Dickens, the prison itself, the real Marshalsea that John Dickens knew all too well, remains a shadowy presence for modern readers. In 1927 William Kent, citing James Neild's State of the Prisons in England, Scotland, and Wales (1811) as the only other book that he could find approaching in detail the descriptions in Dickens, provided the measurements for the Marshalsea rooms and the debtors' court, but little else, acknowledging that ‘Of the appearance [of the prison], apart from Dickens, we know very little, as no illustration is extant’ (Dickensian 23: 262). In 1932 George F. Young improved on Kent's findings when he visited the former site of the prison—then occupied by the Marshalsea Press—took some invaluable photographs, verified that Marshalsea had changed locations in 1811, and tried to imagine what the old prison must have been like from its present condition. Even as recent, and as well-researched, a work as Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens still cites Young as the main source, particularly praising the photographs. But Young's type of retrospective analysis, while helpful, can also lead to a mistaken inference. For example, a photograph that he labels as ‘The Marshalsea as seen by Little Dorrit from her room in the Turnkey's house’ (Dickensian 28: 225) is not, a ground plan of the Marshalsea suggests, from Little Dorrit's garret room but a picture of her room.

Fortunately for those interested in attempting to recreate the reality of Dickens's world, the Select Committees and Commissioners on the State and Management of Prisons in London and Elsewhere reported at some length on the condition of the Marshalsea between 1815-1818, providing not only a detailed ground plan of the prison, but interviews with its major officers, a listing of prison rules, and statistics defining the exact nature of the prison population. From these reports, published in the British Parliamentary Papers, I have culled a description of the Marshalsea as it would most probably have been during John Dickens's—and thus, William Dorrit's—stay. For a later account of conditions at the Marshalsea, I have consulted ‘An Expose [sic] of the Practice of the Palace, or Marshalsea Court’, an anonymous attack by an ‘eye-witness’ on the practice of imprisonment for debt, published in 1833 just as the Solicitor General was bringing in a bill for the ‘Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt in certain cases’. While the ‘Expose’ may lack the dispassion—and, I suspect, some of the reliability—of the parliamentary reports, it provides an invaluable account of what the Marshalsea must have seemed like to an outsider who was nonetheless an ‘eye-witness’, an outsider who was clearly sympathetic to the debtors. Overall, both the parliamentary and private descriptions of the Marshalsea tend to confirm each other, since they show how little had changed between 1815 and 1833, despite the turnover in the prison staff and the several investigations by the Select Committee. Certain incidental considerations relating to the prison as it was in 1824—such as fees paid—may, of course, have varied slightly from the figures I have included in this description. In every case I have provided the most current (to 1824) information available.

The Marshalsea was the Prison of the Court of the Marshalsea and of the King's Palace Court of Westminster, receiving its authority from two patents of Charles the First and Second. Its jurisdiction extended over the palace of Westminster and the twelve surrounding miles. The Marshalsea had originally stood 130 yards to the North, at an address which would approximate to 161 Borough High Street. Because the older prison had ‘fallen into a state of decay, and was found to be ill suited to its purpose’ (BPP Prisons 8: 356), a ‘new’ Marshalsea was constructed for £8000 in 1811 at 150 (later changed to 211) High Street, the site of the sixteenth-century White Lyon or Borough prison (Young 220-21). Thus, during his lengthy stay, William Dorrit would have moved from one site to the other, though Dickens makes no mention of this.

The Marshalsea was divided into two sections. The debtors' part contained a brick barracks housing those convicted of insolvency, a kitchen or public room, and a tap room or snuggery. The barracks building was divided into eight numbered houses, consisting of three stories of 56 rooms, most about ten and a half feet square and from eight to nine feet high. Each room had a boarded floor, a fire-place, and a glazed window and often contained two, sometimes three, prisoners depending on the overall population of the facility. The rooms were so small that two beds could not be reasonably placed in one room, so debtors would have to share a single bed. Instead of galleries through the middle of each floor, as in the Fleet prison, eight very narrow wooden staircases led to the rooms from outside, an arrangement similar to the chambers in the Inns of Court, as the commissioners point out. Here we find, early in Dickens's life, a convergence of locations which would resonate symbolically through much of the work of the mature writer. Despite being nearly new, the debtors' barracks impressed the commissioners as an ill-constructed fire-hazard with thin lath and plaster partitions between the eight houses of the building and with only the narrow staircase for exists. It is not surprising, then, that Arthur Clennam worries about fire on the night of his accidental confinement. What struck almost everyone who came in contact with the Marshalsea was its cramped and constricted character, helping to make it ‘in many particulars much inferior to the Fleet, and to the generality of modern prisons’. The barracks building itself was less than ten yards wide and 33 yards long, an incredibly small space to house what was often well over 100 debtors, their 50 or so family members, and a handful of Admiralty prisoners. The prison yard itself was little more than an alley at the most 5 yards wide. ‘The boundary wall comprehends so contracted a space,’ the commissioners explained, ‘and the body of the building is in all parts so near to it from the wall, as to leave no sufficient area for any active exercise except walking; nor is there any convenience for any sort of exercise in bad weather’ (BPP Prisons 8: 357). The ‘Expose’ writer adds emphasis to the picture: ‘170 persons have been confined at one time within these walls, making an average of more than four persons in each room—which are not ten feet square!!! I will leave the reader to imagine what the situation of men, thus confined, particularly in the summer months, must be’ (6). He also worries that this terrible confinement ‘must be productive of serious inconveniences and great risk of health’ (6). Eighteen years earlier, the commissioners had sounded a similar warning: ‘from the confined situation of the prison itself, the scanty yard, the want of a free circulation of air, the quantity of waste water that covers the court, the health of the prisoners may be materially affected’ (BPP Prisons 7: 389), a warning echoed by Mr Rugg when he advised Arthur Clennam to avoid the Marshalsea: ‘Now, you know what the Marshalsea is. Very close. Excessively confined. Whereas in the King's Bench—’ (697).

The Admiralty part of the Marshalsea, known as the Admiralty division, contained those handful of prisoners under sentence of naval courts martial, most often for mutiny, desertion, attempting to commit others to desert or for what the Deputy Marshal in 1815 described as ‘unnatural crimes’. A chapel was accessible, by separate passages, to both debtors and Admiralty prisoners. Although the barrack building was itself rather new, having been constructed in 1811, the northern boundary wall and the interior buildings from the day-room to the chapel, including all of the Admiralty section, had been part of the Borough prison and were exceedingly run down. The strong rooms were so old and rotten they could not adequately confine prisoners. As Dickens explains in Little Dorrit: ‘time had rather outgrown the strong cells and the blind alley’ which had ‘come to be considered a little too bad’ (58), so bad that in 1817 a prisoner had easily broken through the cell walls and climbed to the top of the outside wall before being discovered by the Deputy Marshal. Although escapes rarely occurred, no part of the prison was considered secure because of the low boundary wall and the spotty placement of the chevaux-de-frise (Little Dorrit's spikes). Due to the dilapidation of the strong cells, troublesome Admiralty prisoners would be confined in the ‘more airy and better fitted’ and seldom-used infirmary, apparently chained to ring bolts fixed in the floor (BPP Prisons 7: 388). The Admiralty division had been designed to have a separate yard to prevent the criminals from communicating with the debtors, but those midshipmen and petty officers not sentenced to what was considered to be solitary confinement (which simply meant being locked in your room at dusk) were allowed to live among the debtors, a privilege that troubled the commissioners. As they explained in 1815,

Your committee cannot but deplore the continuance of a system of imprisonment that mixes these persons with debtors. They are generally midshipmen and warrant officers, mostly young men. The entire absence of all control, the riot in which they live, and the licentious examples that are before them, cannot fail to send them back to their profession and to the world worse members of society than when they first entered the walls of the prison.

(BPP Prisons 7: 391).

Although the commissioners found the prison, which was white-washed once a year, to be ‘tolerably clean’ and noted that ‘no infectious disorder’ had occurred, they reported with concern that the prison yard overflowed with waste water and that the open drains were ‘sometimes choked and offensive’ and smelled bad (BPP Prisons 8: 348). The dust-holes were also open and the privies were said ‘to scent’ the kitchen, which was located nearby. Three to four times a week, the scavenger appointed by the debtors' committee would wash the drains and six times a year, or somewhat oftener, empty the contents of the privy, carrying them through the Keeper's house to the ‘great inconvenience’ of his family. A persistent complaint of the debtors concerned the foulness of the drinking water—what Dickens referred to in Little Dorrit as that ‘peculiar stain’—which was ‘decidely chalybeate’ (i.e. containing salts of iron), turbid, unpalatable, and ‘smell[ed] horribly’ (‘Expose’ 6), though prison officials made the point that this was the same water used by the residents of the Southwark borough. Notably, the Deputy Marshal sent away for his own drinking water. Despite all of this, the prison's surgeon rather blithely declared the prisoners to be generally healthy, noting that the most prevalent diseases were ‘those arising from debauchery, dissipation, and drinking’ (BPP Prisons 7: 559), though occasionally prisoners would be found suffering from lack of food.

Upon arriving at the Marshalsea, a debtor would be met by the secretary of the prisoner's committee who would explain the debtors' rules. The new prisoner would then contribute five shillings and sixpence (in 1833 8s. 6d.) to the general fund—for women it would be less—which would permit him to use the snuggery, where he could boil water or cook a meal, obtain candles or read a newspaper. Failure to pay the fee would result in his ‘being publicly declared by the crier a defaulter, and his name placarded as such in the public kitchen’ (‘Expose’ 7-8). Within about an hour, the new arrival would be given a chum ticket indicating the room to which he had been assigned. If a vacant room was available, he would be placed in it. If not, he would be ‘chummed’ on one already occupied according to a fixed principle of rotation, the incoming debtor being placed with the youngest prisoner living by himself. Most often the first night of the debtor's stay was spent in a vacant room in the infirmary, presumably to allow time for a room to be made ready. Sometimes, the ‘eye-witness’ reported, the new debtor might walk the yard for three or four days before being chummed, even though he would still be paying for a bed (8). For those insolvents who could afford it and who wished to live alone (like Mr. Pickwick in the Fleet Prison), the chum could be bought out for a half-a-crown per week. Those who were so paid would then hire lodgings somewhere else in the prison or sleep in the tap.

Once he had made himself at home in the Marshalsea, a debtor would discover a world governed largely by the prisoners themselves. Although the Deputy Marshal or Keeper was directly responsible for the day-to-day management of the prison, he seems rather remote in 1818, inspecting the prison only once every week or two. Besides the Keeper, six other officers were employed: the head turnkey (the position held by John Chivery and later his son), who was appointed for life by the Knight Marshal; a subordinate turnkey; two watchmen, one of whom would act as a third turnkey; the chaplain and the surgeon. At times, when the other officers were in court or unavailable, the prison would be left in the care of only one of the turnkeys, a circumstance which seems to have made him uncomfortable. The main administrative apparatus in the Marshalsea was a committee of debtors, consisting of nine prisoners and a chairman, who were appointed on the last Wednesday of each month. The committee would meet each Monday at 11 a.m. to ‘decide all matters in dispute which may happen to arise in the college between the members thereof’ (BPP Prisons 7: 637). It is this committee which Charles Dickens declared to be ‘excellently administered’ (Forster 1: 30), and which his father chaired for a time. Besides deciding disputes, the committee also set regulations and fines. These prohibitions provide a valuable window on what might be considered the hidden world of the Marshalsea, the world that John Dickens experienced but that only occasionally finds expression in his son's fiction. Debtors could be fined for taking the property of others; throwing water, soil or filth out of their windows or into someone else's room; making noise after 12 midnight; cursing; fighting; singing obscene songs ‘on a club night, smoking in the ale room between eight and ten in the morning and twelve and two in the afternoon; defacing the staircase or dirtying the privy seats; urinating in the yard; stealing the newspaper or utensils from the snuggery; criticising the committee, which had ‘too frequently been the case’; and even drawing water before it had come to a boil (BPP Prisons 7: 631-32). The 1833 ‘eye-witness’ is more succinct. ‘The novice [upon entering the Marshalsea] is now witness to the various methods of time-killing, viz. drinking, singing, gambling, fornication, adultery, and, in short, every kind of debauchery’ (8).1

The prisoners on the whole, however, seemed to have behaved reasonably well, at least according to the commissioners, for as of 1818 no riots were reported and only a few disturbances due to drink. As long as he did not bother others, a debtor could consume as much beer as he could afford (fivepence per pot in 1815), and even send his children outside of prison to purchase more palatable beer or the wine not available inside. If they desired, the debtors could also procure food from outside and dress it in their own rooms, though generally they would cook the food in the very small communal kitchen. The external gates of the Marshalsea were closed at 10 p.m. every night. At 9.30 a bell would be rung to warn visitors out; then one of the officers would go around the prison calling ‘Strangers, women and children all out!’, though no means were taken to enforce the warning (BPP Prisons 8: 363 and 412). At 11 p.m. the tap room and day room would be shut, and the prisoners forced to retire for the night, except on Mondays when the day room would stay open until midnight for the debtors' weekly club.

As was the case with John Dickens, many debtors had their families stay with them. Indeed, after 8 a.m., the gates were open to almost anybody, with very few restrictions. If the women visiting the prison behaved, they would not be asked in what relation they stood to the prisoner, the Deputy Marshal admitting that at least a few of the women were not married to the men they called on and in some cases lived with. Some of the rooms were even let out for prostitution (‘Expose’ 8). Indeed, a licentiousness seemed to pervade the prison, at least as it is described by the ‘eye-witness’. ‘How often has female virtue been assailed in poverty?’, he asks rhetorically. ‘Alas how often has it fallen, in consequence of a husband or a father having been a prisoner for debt’ (9). He then relates several representative stories—I have included three—that reveal a world considerably more sordid than Dickens's depiction of the Marshalsea, at least on the surface, would suggest:

The wife of a tradesman, who was confined in this prison, by visiting her husband, became acquainted with another prisoner, who shortly after obtained his discharge. This man seduced the wife of his late fellow-prisoner, possessed himself of the wreck of his property, and decamped with his frail partner; leaving the unsuspecting husband, still in prison, in a state of mind scarcely to be conceived!



The prisoner had been a respectable tradesman. The wife, as is usual, visited him almost daily, and by that means formed an acquaintance with several of the prisoners; since the husband's discharge, this woman is almost a daily visitor to the prison, for purposes too well known to all the inmates to leave any doubt!



Three lovely girls, the daughters of a prisoner, by visiting their father in prison, became acquainted with a villain, who, in conjunction with another fiend, accomplished the ruin of two out of three of these previously innocent females. In this case their mother attempted suicide, on becoming acquainted with their disgrace!


Even allowing for the breathless melodrama of the last piece and the likelihood that these were second or third-hand stories that might well have gained a bit of colour in the retelling, one cannot escape the fact that Fanny and Little Dorrit would have been subjected to an enormous amount of pent-up libido. Set in this context, William Dorrit's desire for Amy to flirt with young John Chivery in exchange for favours from his turnkey father and the general air of disrepute that surrounds Fanny, her theatrical background and her willingness to barter himself for a rich husband, take on added meaning. Dickens renders the sordidness of the real Marshalsea, but only indirectly, his characters, as it were, protected by mid-Victorian morality from a too vivid and, as the ‘expose’ suggests, an all too real debasement.

Social stratification existed even in debtors' prisons, as Dickens is at pains to point out in The Pickwick Papers and Little Dorrit. Those debtors who took an oath that they were not worth forty shillings resided on the ‘poor side’ of the barrack building, which permitted them to receive a small weekly allowance from the county. They also benefitted from the emoluments that local charities contributed to the Marshalsea. Dickens explains in The Pickwick Papers that the poor side of a debtors' prison is where

the most miserable and abject class of debtors are confined. A prisoner having declared upon the poor side, pays neither rent nor chummage. His fees, upon entering and leaving the gaol, are reduced in amount, and he becomes entitled to a share of some small quantities of food; to provide which, a few charitable persons have, from time to time, left trifling legacies in their wills.


The ‘poor side’ of the Marshalsea was more like an end than a side, containing only a small portion of the overall prison population. For the much greater number on the ‘master's side’, daily life still revolved around money. Articles of bedding, clothing, and furniture, utensils, food, fuel and washing were all found for the prisoners at their own expense. Even the prison rules were sold for an extra fee, and if beer were consumed in the tap room a penny would be charged. The surgeon's medicines were free to the prisoners (‘the only thing that is given away’, the ‘eye-witness’ sardonically remarks), though they had to pay for linen rags, lint, trusses, and cupping. And the surgeon, who lived outside the prison, would usually attend only prisoners, not their families, which probably explains why he does not preside at Little Dorrit's birth. Perhaps in anger or frustration, the debtors would break the ‘glass’ (here, I assume the ‘eye-witness’ means the windows) of the infirmary, a great portion of which, he claims, was ‘broke designedly’ (‘Expose’ 7).

The prisoners could earn money as well as spend it. Besides being employed as a secretary, scavenger, steward, or master of the ale room—jobs which were paid for from the prison committee's funds—debtors could earn money by working at their own trades, so long as they did not bother the others or ‘endanger escapes’. Although a prisoner's material wants could be eased, if he were willing and able to pay for it, little was done at the Marshalsea to promote his spiritual welfare. The commissioners lamented the ‘general remissness of religious duty on the part of almost everyone connected with the prison’ (340). For a number of years the chaplain had passed on his duties—and part of his salary—to a curate who performed sermons only once on Sundays, and on Christmas and Good Fridays, all much to the disgruntlement of the commissioners. The chapel was said to be dirty (though ‘neat’ in 1833), and there were no Bibles distributed to the inmates or even provided for their use in the chapel. Nor were prayer books furnished or the sacrament administered. Not surprisingly, church attendance was low. The curate explained that, although he had delivered a sermon on the sacrament, several prisoners told him that ‘they were much hurt at hearing the sacrament should be administered in such a place as this—such a profligate place’. They went on to explain that ‘we cannot compose our minds, to attend upon so sacred an ordinance when we are confined here’ (BPP Prisons 7: 565). This inability to compose the mind, a characteristic shared by William Dorrit, surely reflected the dark side of John Dickens's stay in the Marshalsea, despite his son's insistence that the Dickens ‘family lived more comfortably in prison than they had done for a long time out of it’ (Forster 1: 26). Even with a servant and some of the comforts of home, a debtor in the Marshalsea still had little privacy and less room to move, eating was difficult, the water foul, the narrow yard ‘offensive’ and living in close quarters with strangers oppressive. And, unlike the King's Bench or Fleet prisons, where debtors might pay a fee to the Keeper or turnkey to live within two and a half miles—or ‘the rules’—of the prison, in the Marshalsea debtors were forced to remain within its claustrophobic walls at all times.

The ground plan of the Marshalsea, published in 1819, permits us to situate certain important places in Little Dorrit. Not only does the plan display the precise locations of the lodge and the snuggery, but it also helps us to determine where William Dorrit and his youngest daughter lived. On his first visit to the Marshalsea, Arthur Clennam follows Frederick Dorrit to his brother's room at the third or fourth doorway (it is dark and Clennam cannot see well) on the right side of the yard. This is also the room, of course, which Arthur Clennam later occupies. The ground plan would seem to suggest that William Dorrit lived in the third house, since the fourth was occupied by the female debtors and the chandler's shop, a fact of which Dickens makes no mention. Some uncertainty still remains, however, because Dickens locates the chandler's shop in the tap room, so that either the shop had moved by 1824 or he simply confuses locations. This is the only case I have discovered of a possible discrepancy between the real and fictional worlds. As might be expected, Little Dorrit (and later young John Chivery) lived close by, in the garret room of the turnkey's house. In 1932 George Young had used circumstantial information to adduce that this would have been over the lodge. But the testimony of prison officials and the ground plan make clear that the turnkey's house was the first single house on the right side of the main building, which accords with Dickens's own description of Little Dorrit's room as the ‘first house, sky parlor’ (72). Simply put, Amy Dorrit would have lived two doors down from her father, both being on ‘the master's side’ of the prison.

Dickens's Marshalsea, the ‘new’ Marshalsea built in 1811, was only in existence for a short period of time, 38 years. In 1842 the prison was consolidated with the Queen's bench and the Fleet, with all the prisoners—not only debtors and admiralty prisoners but also those charged with contempt of court—being lodged in the Queen's bench. In 1849 the Marshalsea was abolished. As Dickens indicates in his preface to Little Dorrit, however, the buildings at the time of the writing were ‘very little altered, if at all’ (lx).

Although Dickens had first-hand experience of the Marshalsea for only a few months in 1824 when he was 12, his rendering of it in Little Dorrit is remarkably perceptive and, except for the important omission of the licentiousness, accurate. Not only does he remember the terrible closeness of the place—bad even by early nineteenth-century standards—its general squalor and even the foulness of the water, but also the social hierarchy that obtained among the debtors. This is a world with an ‘aristocratic side’, where the quasi-royal ‘Father of the Marshalsea’ condescends to accept the meagre tribute of those who are even worse-off on the ‘poor side’. But by this very act of rendering the real, Dickens goes beyond it. William Dorrit becomes a legendary figure, a paterfamilias who has resided in the Marshalsea for an unheard of 23 years (debtors were rarely kept there for more than six months), a type representing both aristocratic pretence and parental neglect. And the Marshalsea, more than any actual prison precisely remembered, becomes a microcosm for society. For it is not just, as Little Dorrit thinks, that society is like the Marshalsea, but that the Marshalsea is society in a reduced form, its supposed freedom a chimera of a class system contingent on what the odd shilling will buy: warmth, food, and even space. This is ultimately a discomposed world, a reflection of the real Marshalsea where the provisional order—that community of debtors who made their own rules and set their own fines, consoling themselves with everything from illicit sex to weekly club meetings to drinks of ale and smokes while reading the newspaper in the snuggery—rested on a pretence that the prisoners were more than a shabby group of men and women who owed money, but rather ‘aristocrats’ and ‘masters’ and even, in Dickens's version, ‘Fathers’. At least so long as they had money.


  1. The story of Mr Hemens, a meddlesome Marshalsea prisoner who was tormented by his fellow inmates, vividly confirms this raucous and violent quality that is largely absent from Dickens's own depiction of the Marshalsea (see Angus Easson, ‘Marshalsea Prisoners: Mr Dorrit and Mr Hemens’, DSA [Dickens Studies Annual] 3, 1974: 77-86).

Works Cited

British Parliamentary Papers: Reports from Select Committees and Commissioners on the State and Management of Prisons in London and Elsewhere with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices 1809-1815. Crime and Punishment: Prisons 7. Shannon, Ireland: Irish UP, 1971.

British Parliamentary Papers: Reports and Papers Relating to the Prisons of the United Kingdom with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices 1818-22. Crime and Punishment: Prisons 8. Shannon, Ireland: Irish UP, 1971.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

———. The Pickwick Papers. Oxford: Clarendon.

“An Expose of the Practice of the Palace, or Marshalsea Court. With a Description of the Prison, Prison-House, Its Regulations, Fees, & c. & c. in which is Shown, the Folly of the Present Debtor and Creditor Laws, and the Demoralizing Effects of Imprisonment for Debt by an Eye-Witness.” Political Economy Pamphlets: Finance. 205 (1833): 2-15.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. 2 vols. London: Dent, 1966.

Kent, William. ‘The Marshalsea Prison’. The Dickensian 23 (1927): 260-64.

Young, George F. ‘The Marshalsea Revisited’. The Dickensian 28 (1932): 219-27.

Joss Lutz Marsh (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18553

SOURCE: Marsh, Joss Lutz. “Inimitable Double Vision: Dickens, Little Dorrit, Photography, Film.” Dickens Studies Annual 22 (1993): 239-82.

[In the following essay, Marsh discusses the 1987 film adaptation of Little Dorrit.]


In 1987, working from a converted warehouse in London's run-down Docklands by the Dickensian name of Grice's Wharf, the little-known director Christine Edzard and Sands Films released an adaptation of Dickens's 1855-57 novel Little Dorrit that rivaled as few had thought film could do the convolutions and sheer length of its “un-cinematic” and sociocritical original. Her two-part film of Little Dorrit runs six hours—four times as long as a standard Hollywood movie. Part 1, Nobody's Fault, views the action from the point of view of diffident, middle-aged Arthur Clennam, just returned from twenty years' service to the family firm in China; part 2 is Little Dorrit's Story—the action retold from the perspective of the retiring seamstress he first glimpses in the shadows of his mother's crumbling house, the child of the Marshalsea debtors' prison.

Perhaps the first thing one needs to grasp about this gargantuan cinematic oddity is what Alec Guinness (who plays William Dorrit, her father and the “Father of the Marshalsea”) calls the “ramshackle oddity” of the place the film was made (Malcolm 22), and the budget it was made on—only $9 million, about a tenth of the money Hollywood spent on Robocop II (1990). Sands Films' studio is almost as small as the budget, and it is unique. Cobbled together out of two warren-like warehouses, it houses a picture library, a model-shop for making miniature sets, a small pottery (which made all the pink Sèvres china that loads the speculator Mr. Merdle's dinner-table, too expensive to buy or rent), production offices (where a visitor finds herself sitting on Mrs. Merdle's chaise-longue—everything gets recycled here), two sound stages, a canteen, a dressmaker's shop, and editing and projection suites. Everything, in fact, down to the only bricklayer employed full time by any studio in the world: Sands Films is a complete cottage industry. It is wholly owned by Edzard and her husband, Richard Goodwin, co-producer of Little Dorrit. They set up here fifteen years ago, and live over the shop: “Good films,” says Goodwin, “are made because people are poor,” and prepared to live “on the precipice of some dreadful financial abyss.”1

Edzard was born in Paris in 1945 of a German painter father and a Polish-born painter mother. She studied economics in Paris, but gradually drifted toward theater. She served a kind of film apprenticeship as Franco Zeffirelli's assistant on Romeo and Juliet (1968), and created stage sets for the Hamburg and Welsh national operas before designing and co-scripting the ballet film Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971).

On one of my visits to Sands Films, in March 1990, I spent two hours watching Edzard shoot a one-minute breakfast-table scene for her latest film. She is a perfectionist, and the peculiar set-up of Sands Films allows her absolute artistic control over her films, as editor, designer, and sound person, and also director: it was easy to see why Little Dorrit took nine months to shoot (most films take two or three), let alone two and a half years for preproduction, and another nine months in the editing room. On that Monday morning, I saw her constructing a natural “opening” to her scene, placing a small girl so that for a second her shape would fall across the foreground, as she leaned forward, and then fall back to disclose the family at table. “Right—shall we?” she says quietly, to commence the next take. The dialogue is tightly timed, orchestrated. “Jonathan,” she says to one actor, “I'm just wondering about your laugh at Derek's joke—perhaps too big?” “Well, I want to ingratiate myself,” says Jonathan, “Does it sound false?” “Just titter a bit,” she decides, “and leave the jam business until a little later.” Derek Jacobi listens intently as she asks him to alter the inflection of his voice, or the precise moment at which to raise a morsel of congealing “prop” sausage to his mouth.

In Edzard's film of Little Dorrit, you will not find the moustachioed villain Rigaud-Blandois (whose sole act in the novel is to poison the dilettante artist Henry Gowan's dog, though he appears in no fewer than seven of the original illustrations, hovering vulture-like over the body of the story after his dramatic take-over of the opening chapter). Mrs. Clennam's twisted henchman, Flintwinch, not undeservedly, suffers his death-by-crushing instead; and his unwilling Italian sidekick Cavaletto, alias Mr. Baptist, remains trapped in the novel's pages. Nor will you find Flintwinch's twin brother. They have been swept away, like the melodramatic superstructure of which they were a part, and along with most of the overcrowded, “overdetermined” ending, with its multiple tentacles in the past (Dickens had to write it all down to help himself wrap up the novel). “I wanted to avoid the exaggerative, the melodramatic, and the sentimental,” Edzard contends, “because they put a distance between the subject and the spectator.” Thus the feeble flute-player Frederick Dorrit, too, fails to enjoy his moment center-stage, dying of grief by his brother William's deathbed: insignificant to the last in Edzard's film, he fades away offscreen, unseen. We don't see anybody meet anybody else in the Great St. Bernard Monastery or Marseilles, which provide Dickens with atmospheric settings for mid-action and opening tableaux; Gowan disappears with Minnie, the picture-perfect beauty whom Clennam imagines himself in love with for much of the novel, after their ill-starred marriage; the Dorrit family's peregrinations across Europe upon their sudden accession to wealth are cut down, lest we get lost among the multiple locations; Clennam first bumps into Meagles the businessman and Daniel Doyce the inventor in the hallway of the Circumlocution Office—reasonable chance, not narrative machinations, engenders friendship.

Edzard's film, then, seeks to clarify the main romantic storyline, throws more emphasis on the Marshalsea and its “Father” (who gets a much more impressive death scene), roots itself in the “roaring streets” of Dickens' London—at about the time Dickens was writing the novel, not at the time he sets it, a generation before—and embraces what has been called the stationary or plot-less quality of Little Dorrit: “plot” does not have for modern European filmmakers the overwhelming importance it once had for Classical Hollywood Cinema. The self-tormentor Miss Wade too has vanished, with her story-within-a-story, obliquely and analogically related to the novel's central story, and difficult to film; with her departs the Meagles' maid, Tattycoram, whose predisposition to passion she inflames. Innocuous Mrs. Meagles, Edzard's assistant Olivier Stockman told me, was killed off to throw a greater emphasis on the father-daughter relationship of Meagles and Minnie (“Pet”), which now more closely parallels that between Dorrit and his daughter. Minnie's dead twin sister suffered a second death in a general reaction against siblings and doublings. The varnishing services of Mrs. General, whose favors as a chaperone and social secretary Dorrit thinks himself lucky to overpay, are dispensed with. A somewhat brutal decision to kill Daniel Doyce, Clennam's partner, meanwhile, was taken, Olivier Stockman remarked, to make his sense of irretrievable betrayal more cruelly final.

Only a very few changes were made late in the day, after shooting. Edzard found the scene between Mrs. Clennam and Pancks, the big-hearted rent-collector whose persistence uncovers Dorrit's inheritance and unbars his prison, played like a “monosyllabic stand-off”—and cut it. Then, feeling there was “too much of the Circumlocution Office” in the second half of part 1, Edzard moved back Pancks's showdown with his proprietor, Mr. Casby, a wolf in philantropist's clothing (it would otherwise have occurred even earlier than it does).

Inevitably, these changes were not to every critic's taste, particularly the academic critic with a vested interest in the Dickens text: Gary Wills's review in the New York Review of Books is one long academic lament for murdered characters, Grahame Smith's article in Yearbook of English Studies an excellent hatchet job driven by the author's urge himself to (re)film the novel. But changes had, no less inevitably, to be made. To translate from one medium to another is not as simple as translating from English to French (and even that is far from “simple”). Doting fidelity to a novel or a play is an overvalued virtue: at worst it produces unfilmic and frigidly respectful films. Besides, what does “faithfulness” mean? Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) is perhaps a better “translation” of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness even than Orson Welles's once-planned adaptation might have been.

Film must substitute for much of the indirect narration of the novel the direct narration of action and dialogue: Dickens' introduction of the newly imprisoned Dorrit as “a very amiable and very helpless middle-aged gentleman, who was going out again directly” (Dickens 98) must become a scene in which he demonstrates his limpness, and Bob the turnkey delivers the judgment “He'll never get out.” And film must therefore somehow “settle,” although Dickens tells us this “would be very hard to [do],” the question of “At what period in her early life the little creature began to perceive that it was not the habit of all the world to live locked up” (108). We cannot be told about an atmosphere: so, to express the distance that opens up between Little Dorrit and her father in their Italian days of riches, we must see her glide into his room and perch upon his bed, in Edzard's film, only to be told to move, because “someone might come in.”

Film can be intolerant of ambiguity and disorder, and Edzard's film in particular often seems intent on smoothing out every fascinating deviance in Dickens' text, or turning the exultantly chaotic—at worst—into the tamed, the near complacent. This is one critical charge against her adaptation that sticks. The letters “D.N.F.”—engraved in Clennam's father's watch—mean only one thing in Edzard's Little Dorrit; Arthur becomes less of the father-replacement who magically materializes in the same old Marshalsea prison room, upon his own financial collapse, and Little Dorrit much less “little,” much less “my child”—the disturbing confusion of sexual and familial affection in Dickens' text diminishes. More importantly, what Elaine Showalter has identified as the doubling of characters by dark “shadows” who voice and act out their thwarted desires—Rigaud-Blandois Clennam's urge to turn on his mother, Mr. F's Aunt (whose aggressive non sequiturs pepper the dialogue) fat Flora Finching's impulse to fight her rejection by her one-time suitor, Clennam—is lost in Edzard's film, partly because she strips the novel of its melodramatic superstructure, partly because her personal emphasis is on the subtly naturalistic revelation of character across the six hours of her film—a type of psychologizing fundamentally different in kind to Dickens' which works through twinnings and displacements. (Film, which in its early years thrived on the doppelgängers of The Student of Prague [1913, remade 1925] or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1886], the most-filmed novel in cinema history, has stumbled over Dickens' dark doublings: David Lean similarly cut Pip's murderous double Orlick out of his Great Expectations [1946].) Edzard's Little Dorrit is dark enough, but not so dark as Dickens'.


Yet much remains unaltered. Edzard's leisurely pacing and breadth of canvas were hailed by David Robinson in The Times as pioneering an “original” cinematic form that works through small incidents rather than suspense and surprise. But if Dickens is the most cinematic of novelists, Edzard is the most writerly of filmmakers. As Robinson himself added, her Little Dorrit has the “patient episodic flow of a novel” (Fuller 28). What is least changed in this film, as in any Dickens film, are the characters that seem to enjoy, like the gods and goblins of mythology, a life independent of their creator or the texts that contain them (they hang over the edges of the plots, you might say). One testimonial to the impact of Edzard's Little Dorrit on its first release was the Royal photographer Lord Snowdon's production of a series of twenty postcard-portraits of characters from the film: these in their turn testify to the existence of Dickens' creations in a manner curiously detached even from the newest film in which they have been incarnated—the captions at bottom of each card, we notice, give the characters' but not the actors' names (“Frederick Dorrit in Little Dorrit,” and so on). His cards take their place in a long line. Every major Victorian illustrator at one time turned his hand to Dickens, and every one inflected each character anew: the Punch contributor Frederick Barnard infuses into his portrait of Little Dorrit the romanticism of late century, and draws liberally on the stylistic conventions that governed innumerable Victorian representations of the toiling, reflective seamstress …. Leading late Victorian actors, in the first days of the postcard, liked to have themselves taken in costume as every conceivable Dickens character—with Fagin, and the opportunity he offered for hamming, perhaps the favorite. The great Beerbohm Tree had himself taken in the role, while the ambitious thespian Bransby Williams posed for his portrait in costume as both Fagin and Bill Sykes …. Dickens' characteristic association of people with objects is a mode of characterization that translates smoothly into film, with its (necessary) reliance on the visual motif, the symbol that is also part of the physical reality of the film: in Edzard's adaptation, Little Dorrit's “tunnel-vision” bonnet, as one reviewer dubbed it (Winn 27); or the quill that inks bespectacled Arthur Clennam's fingers …. Early films were often nothing but such character-vignettes as Dickens offered in abundance: one of the earliest preserved by the British National Film Library is R. W. Paul's Mr. Pecksniff Fetches the Doctor (1903). Dickens characters were addictive, like nicotine: smokers could collect a series of Dickens cigarette cards—Arthur Rowe, the reclusive hero of Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear, has a “complete set” (Greene 14). They prominently featured precisely the characters a melodramatic and “stagey” adaptation would pull from the pack: Little Dorrit's chosen representatives in a Player's card-series of 1912, for example, were the pompous grotesque Tite Barnacle and “Patriarch” Casby …, together, inevitably, with the moustachioed villain Rigaud-Blandois.

But more, just as Edzard asks of her cinema audience the right of directorial interpretation that the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby enjoyed, or that Verdi exploited when he turned Othello into opera, so each member of her cast prefers his right to “his” Dorrit, or “her” Flora Finching. The casting of every role in a film affects the inflection of that role, above all when the actor is a star. The inspired choice of W. C. Fields, in the splendid 1935 Hollywood production of David Copperfield, laid down a foundation of irony under Mr. Micawber's whimsical optimism. But the traditions and signifying properties of stage stars are a little different. The challenge for stage acting has always been to assume the role—to become Fagin, say, to create Bill Sykes. This was the challenge for Dickens himself, whether acting out a scene before the mirror, as he used to do while he was writing, or impersonating his own characters (above all, Fagin, Bill, and Nancy) on stage toward the end of his life …. And it is out of these stage traditions that Christine Edzard and a great many of her cast come: the Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi as Arthur Clennam, for example, or the chameleon Alec Guinness as William Dorrit …, who followed his screen debut as Herbert Pocket in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946) with a controversial portrayal of Fagin in the same director's Oliver Twist two years later, and (courtesy of trick photography) undertook no fewer than eight roles in the British comedy classic of 1949, Kind Hearts and Coronets. “The characters in Dickens are not so much caricatures as distoritions of reality,” Edzard told a British interviewer, “real [human] life compressed” in journalistic shorthand (Fuller 30): she took pains in this film to avoid what has become almost a film and stage tradition of over-acting up to their larger-than-life quality. Her actors wear no makeup. They are not allowed to buttonhole the camera in close-up. Most drifted in to talk about being in the film with no particular parts in mind, and slipped into place. The children came from local East End schools (the little girl who plays Amy Dorrit as a small child, yearning to unlock the mysteries of print, really couldn't read or write).

What also is least touched by the translation from page to screen are the words in these characters' mouths. Dickens, said all the filmmakers I talked to, “is a gift to actors.”2 His dialogue loses its linguistic context—the financial grounding of Dorrit's euphemistic promise, in his riches, say, to “remember” everyone (the term is changed, to my regret, to “reward” in Edzard's film)—but it gains the resonance of performance: Pip Torrens as Henry Gowan calling himself, to his rival Arthur's face, at his wedding, a “disappointed man”; Joan Greenwood as Mrs. Clennam reciting the horrors of Biblical plagues in a voice in which one can almost hear a hungry mouth salivating. It would be worth sitting through six hours of positive tedium to hear Alec Guinness as Dorrit Frenchifying his genteel thanks as he pockets another handout—“much obleeged”—or delivering his verdict upon Old Nandy the workhouse pensioner—“Spirit broken and gone”—and turning back upon the threshold to enunciate with relish a revising afterthought—“pulverised.”


Toward the end of part 1 of Edzard's film occurs a two-and-a-half-minute scene between Clennam and Pancks, set in the “Slapbang” restaurant. It has several functions to serve. In it, Edzard must convey story information—that time has passed, that the Dorrits are still in Italy; she must provide a natural means of introducing the subject in Italy; she must provide a natural means of introducing the subject of Merdle and money-mania; she must forward the characterization of Pancks and Clennam, and keep before us the one's building obsession with Casby, his “Proprietor,” and the other's much more unconscious concern with Little Dorrit; and she wants to realize a fragment of forgotten history and expose her audience to the experience of a Victorian chop-shop in all its steamy, bustling actuality. The marvelous economy of film, when all four of its dimensions—camerawork, mise en scène, editing, and sound—come together in a unified whole yet can each further a different end, allows her, I think, to do all of this at once. This is the scene as it is transcribed in Edzard's post-production Release Script:

Come, come, Mr Pancks. Come and dine with me. My partner's working late tonight. We'll go to the slap-bang place round the corner, eh? Come on, Mr Pancks.
The two exit R
CLOSE-UP Plate of food being placed on table WAITRESS:
Two nice slices …
CLOSE-UP Plate of food being placed on table WAITRESS:
… from the joint …
… of beef and gravy.
MEDIUM SHOT PANCKS and ARTHUR seated opposite each other PANCKS:
He says to me … you must squeeze them, … squeeze them.
Don't I squeeze them, says I? What else am I made for?
MEDIUM SHOT over ARTHUR favouring PANCKS PANCKS (imitating Casby):
You're made for nothing else, Mr Pancks, … you're paid to do your duty. You're paid to squeeze and you must squeeze to pay.
WIDE ANGLE across crowded restaurant. PANCKS and ARTHUR seated centre MALE DINER:
And more portions of cabbage …
Yes, Mr Poppedou.
MEDIUM SHOT Two male diners MAN # 1:
Yes, and just as he was about to mount the steps, the doorman greeted him, and shouted in his loudest voice: “Twopence, please!”
How can I squeeze them, Mr Clennam, if they're dry? They haven't got any money!
MALE VOICE (out of shot):
Hey, more wine, Polly!
They say to me they haven't got it.
They say to me, if we had it, we'd gladly pay. If they had it …
ARTHUR notices something
WIDE ANGLE across restaurant to kitchen area, PANCKS (out of shot):
LITTLE GIRL at servery If they were Merdle …
LITTLE GIRL at the servery. She places her change in her purse … they's pay of course …
WIDE ANGLE across restaurant, past men at bar, to LITTLE GIRL taking dinner outside R
MUSIC continues and fades
They say to me …
… if you were Mr Merdle, it would be better still … for all parties. You wouldn't have to worry at all. You'd be easier in your mind. That's what they say. Maybe.
MALE DINER (out of shot):
Polly, more wine, please!
I'm looking into it.
I say, Mr. Clennam …
… you aren't listening.
Oh, I … I do beg your pardon, Mr Pancks. I was … thinking about Little—about Miss Dorrit.
Little Miss Dorrit?
I was wondering how she is in her new life.
You know, I've heard … her sister's quite often …
… to be seen with the great Merdle's stepson. Isn't it curious how this Merdle turns up everywhere?
WIDE ANGLE across restaurant—general activity WOMAN'S VOICE OVER:
I've heard it reported, Ma'am, that it was Mr Merdle that took it and it's not to be expected that he should lose by it, …
… his ways being, as you might say, paved with gold. (Continues unintelligibly.) I was just saying to Mrs Kidgerbury here that according to what we was told …

Small actions are film's primary mode of creating character: the bit-player Mr. Wobbler and his fellow clerk at the Circumlocution Office, for example, who are summed up in the one's dribbling marmalade on to the documents on his desk and the other's mindless poking of holes in a piece of paper (inspired refinements on the “stage business” they're given in the text … ). What most characterizes Pancks in this scene is what is not recorded in the script's dry record—his eating habits: he stabs his food, jerks his knife and fork with prickly precision. It is interesting to see how large his role looms here, and in the film as a whole—as opposed, say, to Mrs. Clennam's nervous old maid-servant Affery, once the raison d'être for her “dreams” (actually not dreams at all), Flintwinch's twin, is gone. Pancks, however, remains responsible for what now become the main actions of the film's plot: the retrieval of Dorrit's fortunes (he hunts down the inheritance), and the collapse of Arthur's (he gives him the fatal speculator's tip that leads to his ruin during the Merdle crash). He is necessary to the plot, and so Edzard can allow him to develop into still more of a friend to a lonely man than the Pancks of the text. His roles in the Slapbang Restaurant scene are to supply the necessary story information—which also locates us in time—and to trigger the Merdle theme: money “grubber” that he is, he is the natural choice of character to do it.

In terms of mise en scène, Edzard's restaurant is a feast of accurate period detail … —sputtering gas-lighting, brown settles, hats on the hooks, dish covers, clay pipes, steam in the atmosphere, and bulbous-bottomed wine bottles (our Victorian ancestors regularly tossed off a bottle of claret with dinner: they needed bottles that didn't fall over as easily as ours do).

But there is, of course, no “Slapbang Restaurant” in Little Dorrit as Dickens wrote it, any more than there exists the dingy chop house in which we meet Arthur in the first scene of Edzard's film …. Nevertheless, it exists in other Dickens novels, if not in name: there Mr. Guppy entertains his friends (and Phiz depicts him doing so) in Bleak House, for example … ; and it is in the Slapbang Restaurant that “Boz” and Cruikshank picture the thin man (in “Thoughts about People” in the Sketches) reading the communal newspaper over supper (balancing it against the water-bottle), as we see the diner next to Pancks do in Edzard's scene …. Her restaurant is suggested, too, in the shop with steamed-up windows to which feeble Frederick Dorrit slopes off at dinner-time (283). The needs of Edzard's plot determine the need for this “inauthentic” scene, but the materials she quarries for it are all authentic: not only does one suspect, watching this film, that every bit player has read the novel, but that Edzard has read all of Dickens' novels. From Pickwick, for example, she snaps up the name of “Dobson and Fogg, Solicitors,” and from The Old Curiosity Shop the law firm “Samson and Samson,” all members of which descend like vultures when Arthur goes bust.

Which brings us back to characters. The Dickens world bursts with them. It is, Vladimir Nabokov once said, a “magic democracy”—one fundamental reason, some would argue, for the popularity of Dickens in a Western cinema tradition that itself “extoll[s] the importance of individuals within a massive society” (Caramagno 96). Every one you meet could at some point step center-stage and do his “turn.” This is evident in Phiz's illustration of the Dorrit brothers in the Marshalsea Yard …. We notice at once the seedy types to the far left, the more upper-class “Collegian” in his “dressing gown” (270), and the anxious lower-class family group on the right. It is equally evident in this scene: as she hands Pancks and Clennam their “Two nice slices from the joint” the face of the chirpy waitress (Polly) dominates the frame; and the voice in which she delivers her one line rings with self-assured relish. It is evident most of all in each of the faces we see in the crowded restaurant, as we repeatedly survey it in wide-angle shot, or glimpse bits of the bodies crammed in to the settles next to Pancks and Arthur Clennam. The faces of anonymous men and women at home in their own worlds people the film, because Edzard took the unprecedented steps not merely of persuading well-respected actors to undertake small roles for small fees in the cause of Dickens and British cinema (there are 242 speaking parts in the film—“such a nonchalant array of the cream of British actors as to verge on the indecent” [Benson 1]), but also of personally casting every one of the extras—the directorial equivalent of granting life, as Dickens does, to everyone from the spider-like doorman at the theater where Fanny works (278), to the dancing master from whom she learned her trade. And Edzard allows—even foregrounds—exactly the kind of flavorful Dickensian excess that gets cut in films that run the prescribed ninety minutes of commercial cinema. For the Dickens world is a world in which stories, as much as characters, multiply and proliferate—“a crowded, many-voiced, anonymous world,” as Raymond Williams puts it, “of jokes, stories, rumours, songs, shouts, banners, greetings, idioms, addresses” (15). Hence here the first diner's story about the doorman and his “twopence, please!” which we half-hear in this scene, or the Circumlocution Office clerk's story of the “inestimable” dog.

But to appreciate fully the artistry of the Slapbang Restaurant scene, and the problematics of film adaptation, we should consider this question: How can you say in film—“he is thinking of Little Dorrit”? It is difficult. Film imagery works differently to the metaphor and simile of the novel because film itself is not a figurative but an actual language—if we can consider it a “language” at all. So it has been said that if novelists sometimes face the problem of making the significant somehow visible, filmmakers often find themselves trying to make the visible significant. Which is where the little girl in this scene comes in, collecting her father's dinner, and carefully drawing the strings of her purse. We do not have the Marseilles Gaoler's songbird daughter in Edzard's film (we cannot, since she has thrown out the first chapter and torn down the prison), but we do have this other child-woman, to bring Little Dorrit to mind, so that we do not even need Arthur to tell us, as he tells Pancks, “I'm thinking about Little Dorrit.” And the intensity of his thoughts is signaled in the jump from long shot to medium close-up as he (and we) look at the child—camera distance is determined not by his distance from her (he does not move) but by the emotional attention with which he regards her.

What is passing in Clennam's mind is clear also from the subjective use of sound in this scene. We can hear Pancks getting more and more steamed up about Casby, as he rattles through his complaints, but—like Arthur—we don't really hear the words (and we don't need to, since Pancks is repeating himself); nor do we catch the punchline to the anonymous diner's story about the doorman—all we get is the laughter that follows it. As Arthur slips into reverie of Little Dorrit, the purely emotive strains of Verdi, entering from outside the world of the action, drown the sounds of the restaurant, creating a privacy of intimacy in his thoughts. Interiority in this scene is a function of sound as well as image.

In short, the Slapbang Restaurant scene demonstrates, I think, that what matters most in adaptation is the tone of the work: if that is lost, if the novelist's viewpoint has not been absorbed into the emotional blood of the film, then the work is lost. In this scene that Dickens never wrote, Edzard finds visual and aural equivalents for words he did write and she had to cut: its apparent distance from Dickens' Little Dorrit actually conceals an extraordinary sensitivity to the text.


The overwhelming question about Edzard's Little Dorrit, of course, is why she chose to make two three-hour feature films, and at what stage in the production process that decision was made. The New York Times declared the two-part format “maddening,” burdensome, and “exhausting”—a modernist distortion of Dickens' novel (Canby 11). Another American reviewer, like many of his countrymen frazzled beyond endurance by the leisurely pacing of part 1 (the British, by contrast, preferred its long-drawn-out miseries and reflective gloom to the brisker storytelling of part 2), called it a “leaden” and “comatose” “behemoth” of a production (Edelstein 29). We need to consider point of view, and the sheer length of the film.

Edzard's Little Dorrit was conceived, from the start, for theatrical distribution, not for television: the unwary viewer does not find himself watching eight or thirteen episodes revamped into two gargantuan portions. In opting for treating that part of the novel that she films at comfortable length, she was gambling on a change in our tastes. TV mini-series and phenomena like the Royal Shakespeare Company's eight-hour Nicholas Nickleby have accustomed us to getting as near … the whole novel, not condensed versions or slices …. When Little Dorrit is the novel in question, that means a lot of novel—a veritable “Dickensathon.” Yet in any adaptation, some things have to go. The director Ross Devenish grieved, he told me, over cutting Mrs. Jellaby from his Bleak House (1985) for the BBC, but his eight hours of television time were just not enough. Once the subplots and melodramatic superstructure of Little Dorrit were dropped, her six hours of film allow Edzard to retain instead Dickens' proliferating minor characters and their multiplying stories, and with them the flavor of his world: one can imagine her seconding George Orwell's verdict on Dickens—“rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles”—and scripting accordingly (Orwell 447). Whether her gamble works I think remains a matter of taste, and of our ability to override our Hollywood-bred predilections for fast action and plot interest.

Edzard's Little Dorrit was also, most importantly, from the first conceived as a two-part film. (At one point she even considered a third part: it takes a reader with a strong sense of structure to guess that it would have adopted the point of view of Young John Chivery, but the guess once hazarded seems well justified.) What determined Edzard's decision was her feeling that the difference in point of view between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit was sufficiently meaningful to demand such a structuring, that the material could tolerate it, and that it would allow for effects and explorations worth making both for the sake of the book and for the sake of film art: to those critics who charged that part 2 simply “retold” the story Edzard even retorts—“It's not the same story at all. It's two stories which cross each other at certain points.” A very few films have experimented with the retelling of the action from another character's point of view—Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) is one famous case, Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) a moving second and a mysterious third—but none ever to this degree, and at this sustained length. (In 1991 Paramount Pictures attempted to cash in on the success of Edzard's two-part Dorrit with He Said, She Said—“the true story of love … both versions”—adding, as an extra novelty, two directors, a he and a she.)

Of course, these two perspectives, and many others, are there in the text; and only a few years before, in Bleak House, Dickens had experimented with interweaving two completely separate narratives. To talk about Little Dorrit and film is inevitably also to talk about point of view and structure in Dickens' work. Edzard's decision on a two-part film to some degree reflects his efforts, in a medium that was a long way from moving narrative forward upon the waves of stream-of-consciousness, at crucial moments to share the emotions and viewpoint of, say, Arthur Clennam (who is obliged instead to soliloquize), or Mrs. Clennam (who “expresses herself” at interminable length), Young John Chivery (the composer of epitaphs), Affery the dreamer, even Merdle's Physician, and—of course—Little Dorrit herself (whose curious letters to Arthur occupy two whole chapters of book 2). Miss Wade (who conveniently hands over her manuscript “History of a Self-Tormentor”) is the vehicle of Dickens' exploration of the paranoid limits of subjective perception; Ferdinand, the “sprightly Barnacle” of the Circumlocution Office, is the unwitting spokesman of an officialdom adrift from reality: “‘Regard our place from the point of view that we only ask you to leave us alone,’” he tells Clennam, “‘and we are as capital a Department as you'll find anywhere’” (804).

But while Dickens was clearly much concerned with subjective experience and its limits, he kept some distance from the position that writers like Robert Browning took a decade later: in his great twelve-part poem The Ring and the Book nine characters tell and retell the same story of a love-death triangle. Point of view stops short of being the dominant structural principle in Little Dorrit, even though it interplays with what Dickens calls “the destined interweaving” of the parallel stories of Clennam and Little Dorrit (140)—a process which plays off, for example, treatment of Arthur's infatuation with Pet Meagles against seriocomic handling of John Chivery's adoration of Little Dorrit, switching back and forth from one to the other, in time honored multiplot-novel fashion.

Rather, Dickens' chosen structuring device in Little Dorrit was determined by thematics. Late in the day he made the decision to “overwhelm the [Dorrit] family with wealth,” and from this sprang his division of the novel into its two books, “Poverty” and “Riches.”3 But for Edzard the practical filmmaker, there were problems with this thematic division: in terms of scenes, locations, and character, “the novel falls in half in the middle,” she said. Dickens' structure would not work on film, any more than would, say, the whole chapters of Little Dorrit that are controlled by metaphors, like that in which Arthur catches Merdle-speculation disease. What Edzard wants to deliver is the interior Dickens (“Dickens as Chekhov,” sniffed Richard Corliss in Time magazine [92]), and the romantic Dickens. Her part 1 poses questions, and leaves Arthur Clennam in the lurch: part 2 offers answers, above all to Arthur.

How does this work, in practical terms? Partly it is a question of angling and balancing the two parts: in Edzard's film, not only does Arthur Clennam's story become the detective investigation into Little Dorrit's story that Dickens suggests, but part 2 becomes also her journey into his life. It is a matter of distributing material: the Merdles are only mentioned in part 1, because Clennam has no direct contact with them; Mr. Meagles fades out of part 2, because Little Dorrit has hardly heard of him; the Pancks-Casby showdown and Arthur's bankruptcy are the climaxes of part 1; Dorrit's accession to fortune and his breakdown at the Merdles' dinner table the high spots of part 2. A few scenes occur in their entirety in both parts of the film: the tea party in Dorrit's Marshalsea room, for example.

The question of point of view is for another thing a matter of camera placement and angle: Clennam watches the Dorrit Processional departing from the Marshalsea from the Yard …, for example, whereas Little Dorrit looks down upon it from her room above the lock, necessitating a high-angle shot …. It is also a question of whether certain shots are taken at all: in part 2 of the film, we see Little Dorrit blench when Clennam tells her how he has loved Minnie Meagles; in part 1, so oblivious to her pain is unwary Arthur, that no reaction shot lets us see how she takes the news at all. But there are far more subtle and unusual techniques afoot in this film: Edzard's film moves far beyond the crudity of the unremitting subjective “camera eye” technique that turned the 1946 detective thriller The Lady in the Lake into a stillborn curiosity, for example, and only once has recourse to film's point-of-view technique of last resource, the voice-over, and that briefly, when Arthur “hears” a fragment of her letter to him read in Little Dorrit's voice (the same letter that we see her sitting down to write in part 2, when the opening formula, “Dear Mr Clennam,” turns into a subdued litany of affection).

Most importantly, there is the almost subliminal effect of adjustments to the mise en scène. The Marshalsea room we see in Little Dorrit's Story is literally bigger and brighter than the room we saw in Nobody's Fault—it has contained more experience, it is viewed with affection: the walls of the set have been bodily moved out by several feet; the set has been repainted and redressed in slightly brighter colors; potted plants blossom … ; Dorrit's bare chair grows a cover, and his dressing gown sprouts tendrils of embroidery; and when Little Dorrit stands up and moves around in it, the ceiling is not visible in the frame only six inches above her head (whereas it bears down upon Clennam as if about to crush him). The film animates and illustrates Dorrit's hopeful words of welcome to new inmates of the Marshalsea: “The space is limited, … but you will find it apparently grow larger after a time” (708). The two points of view produce an image of a place and a time in 3-D depth—curiously like the Victorian stereoscope.

We can best see how Edzard's point-of-view structuring works by looking in a little more detail at one of the few scenes that occur in their entirety in both parts of the film. Let us take Little Dorrit's midnight visit to Clennam's lodgings, chapter 14 of book 1 in the novel, which Dickens prefaces with a sentence that testifies even in its slight awkwardness to the newness of what he is doing, and which Edzard uses to close part 1 and open part 2 of her film: “This history must sometimes see with Little Dorrit's eyes” (208).

Like all the scenes that occur twice in the two parts of the film, these two different versions of Little Dorrit's visit were shot on consecutive days, to help the actors. But no two shots are exactly the same between the two versions: part 2 dwells more, with Little Dorrit, on Arthur's face; part 1 seeks less intimacy. But it is the differences in script and mise en scène that strike one most. The next sentence of chapter 14 gives us our clue: “Little Dorrit looked … timidly … into a dim room, which seemed a spacious one to her, and grandly furnished” (208). So in Edzard's part 2 she perceives a huge room illuminated by comfortable firelight. But in her part 1, Clennam had poked, embarrassed, at his feeble fire, in a smaller room, holding a newspaper over the fireplace to help it draw, in time-honored makeshift British fashion. The concern with the fire was a cloak for his concern that Little Dorrit should be out alone late on a cold night. She, meanwhile, in part 2 is wary not to make herself seem pitiful, and thereby throw on her father any suspicion of neglect: in her half of the film, she hastily draws in her feet to hide her shoes when Clennam remarks “And your shoes are so thin!”

Just before Little Dorrit arrived, in part 1, Clennam had been struggling clumsily to open a wine-bottle, and sprayed himself in the face; in part 2, Little Dorrit finds him not mopping his cheeks but reading in his chair, the picture of a gentleman at his ease. Each of these two shy people remembers different embarrassments and inadequacies. For the Arthur of part 1 this scene is his first meeting with Maggy, Little Dorrit's oversized retarded friend: in part 1, he stands by disconcertedly as she stuffs her basket with every cake on the plate he holds out; Little Dorrit, who is accustomed to her, notices only that she accepts one slice of bread (not cake)—in part 2, we do not even cut to a shot of Maggy when Little Dorrit introduces her. And each recalls different moments of tenderness or pleasantness—Arthur, his wonder that Little Dorrit seems to appear at his uttering of her name (as she does in the novel, and as she will do at the very end of the film), as if summoned from the disturbed dream her knock interrupts; Little Dorrit his gentleness, and her own excitement at her first night away from “home.” She recalls, too, in part 2, that she told him one of the truths of her existence—“I could never have been of any use, if I had not pretended a little” (211)—and told it, too, in a voice that is perceptibly louder and more merry than the voice Clennam heard in part 1. The two versions of the scene, then, contradict and complement each other, each trading on the illusions of “presence” and veracity that film creates (and we shall discuss later): the allotting of different scraps of dialogue exclusively to one or the other makes not only for a sharpening of point of view, and the minimalizing of repetition, but for a more dynamic interchange between the two parts of the film. Edzard's “twice-told tale,” as one reviewer remarked, “becomes an open-ended investigation of ambiguity, the relative authority of memory and experience” (Winn 27), an exploration on its own filmic terms of the “ambiguous edge,” as Edzard puts it, “to [Dickens'] own view of the people he invents.”


Of the dimensions of film that create the whole—mise en scène, camerawork, editing, sound—sound is perhaps the most critically neglected. It would be a great mistake to ignore it in the case of Edzard's Little Dorrit. On the soundtrack we hear multiple layers of noise—dialogue, birdsong, buzzing flies, distant dog barks, the hiss of steam machinery at the Doyce and Clennam works, the ticking of clocks, the sounding of bells, the over-loud chink-chink-chink of money, scuffling footsteps, the roar of traffic, street-vendors' cries, the rustle of leaves, the rustle of bedclothes, sounds of neighbors seeping through thin partition walls, the haunting restless noises that echo through the Marshalsea, the sound of a bottle smashing in the Yard as Clennam takes in the truth John Chivery tells him, that Little Dorrit has loved him all along. The film relies for much of its emotional impact on sound: our sense of finality after the wedding of Minnie Meagles to Gowan, for example, is signaled in the abrupt cutting off of a song; the emotional burden of Mrs. Clennam's fierce religion is captured in the sound of her monstrous dusty tome of a Bible thudding on her lap. Dickens' use of the folk song “Compagnon de la Majolaine” as a recurring aural motif helps pave the way for the expressive use of snatches of music in Edzard's film, or the repetition of key phrases, like Casby's bon mot, “you are paid to squeeze, and must squeeze to pay” (866).

Above all the film relies on music—Minnie Meagles playing the piano, Frederick Dorrit his doleful clarinet, a violin striking up in Bleeding Heart Yard, but above all the music of Giuseppe Verdi. The film theorist Christian Metz has said that the role of music in film is “to make more explicit, not a dramatic fact, but an audio-visual rhythm” (Metz 55); as the great pre-talkies melodramas like Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) can still demonstrate, in the teeth of our “modern” resistance to the genre, accompanying music can have a visceral, emotional impact that meshes us into the film. Edzard's script sticks remarkably close to Dickens' dialogue. But one element is noticeably absent: coy beatings about the bush, proliferating sentimental tags like “my poor child,” tearful prayers and thanks that to our ears smack of religiosity. Yet Edzard's Little Dorrit feels very much still like a romantic and emotional story. The reason why is that the sentiment has not evaporated: the cut words have been replaced in spirit by the music of Verdi—swelling, as it does in the Slapbang restaurant scene, with the swell of Clennam's emotion, as his attention is caught by the child who reminds him of Little Dorrit, or setting the rhythm of the bustling streets. Edzard's opera background suggested Verdi: his popularity, she remarks, had very similar roots to Dickens', and they were exact contemporaries.

Predictably, while many loved the music, some critics hated the unconventional visual rhetoric of Edzard's film. Static and theatrical, playing into a proscenium mise en scène, was the verdict. But a more complex camera-style might well have undermined the two-part structure of the film, cluttering up what is already complicated.

What you lose when you film Dickens is considerable. How could you film his asides, or his description of Arthur's bedstead at his mother's, with its four posts, “each terminating in a spike, … for the dismal accommodation of lodgers who might prefer to impale themselves” (77-78)? His voice and his narratorial presence cannot be filmed: yet for most of us the interest of a Dickens novel lies as much in the teller as in the tale. Some filmmakers have attempted, filming other novelists' works, to translate a particular verbal into a particular visual style: Tony Richardson's 1963 version of Fielding's picaresque Tom Jones, for example, unfolds at breakneck speed, replete with joke shots through keyholes and stylized old-fashioned wipes and dissolves.4 Working closely with the veteran French cinematographer Bruno Keyser, Edzard decided, wisely in my view, not to try any visual tricks with Dickens. She is careful to avoid any sense of the camera knowing and intruding (“we didn't want another narrator,” her assistant Olivier Stockman recalled). The camera never preempts a character's action, and only occasionally follows it, so that what little camera movement there is has considerable impact: most movingly, there is the painfully slow pan around the enormous Merdle table to catch the last of the outraged upper-crust guests abandoning Dorrit to the society of the new inmates he imagines he is welcoming to the Marshalsea, in part 2. Less usual camera angles are motivated by a character's point of view, literal or emotional: high angle shots in the Circumlocution Office scenes intensify their alienating and weirdly comic quality—as if the Monty Python team had turned its attention to Kafka. These are moments which make us aware of the agency of narration, and they are rare. More generally, Edzard and Keyser work primarily to capture the performances of the actors, as if indeed they were recording a theater performance: “she took the camera,” Miriam Margoyles (Flora Finching) told me, “and shone it like a light at the actors' vulnerabilities as people.” This partly accounts, I think, for the scarcity of long shots in the film—overviews of the streets, and the like: we are immersed instead, in medium shots and occasional close-ups, in the human comedy the camera witnesses.

The film excels in its lighting effects, often “naturalizing” its light sources by grouping characters near windows and in doorways, and never using spots to pick out principal characters, as classical Hollywood style once would have dictated, or filters to soften or glamorize. But Edzard chose not to reproduce the famous lighting effects of “Phiz” 's frontispiece to the novel (in which the light source, we notice, is inside the prison … ): instead, she develops her visual imagery of frames and bars, which links her Marshalsea prison to the Clennam house (first seen through the bars of its wrought iron gate), and even the rustic haven of the Meagles (first seen through the white bars of its wooden garden gate). This confining imagery is associated most of all with Little Dorrit herself, particularly in part 2 of the film, in which Edzard's priority is to lay down the psychological foundation of her character. We see her again and again “framed” by the window in which she sits sewing …, or by a doorway at which she hesitates, or by the bars of the Marshalsea Gate ….

It is perhaps when we consider editing, and the manner of storytelling in each part of the film, that we come to understand more deeply how the interiority of Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit that Dickens conveys through soliloquy, speech, imagery, and indirect narration is differently conveyed in the two different parts of Edzard's film. We come to understand Little Dorrit, in part 2, through a biographical format that recovers from the retrospective summary of Dickens' text the immediacy and the shaping impact of small Amy's experiences as the “Child of the Marshalsea.” Edzard's film explanation of how Dorrit learned to find “testimonials” “acceptable” is succinctly interwoven with telling us how his daughter came to work for him: a visitor to the goal gives the child a sixpence, and she in her turn hands it to her father, who quietly pockets it. The growth from small child to girl and to woman is smoothed over by a simple continuity of costume (Little Dorrit is always in blue), and an economical trick cut that asserts continuity over a leap of time: in one shot, small Amy looks at her sewing and says, “This won't do, my dear” and in the next, the grown-up Little Dorrit, sitting in the same window in the same room, answers herself, with “no, that's better.” We feel close to her because we see her grow.

Arthur, however, we encounter over a much shorter stretch of time. “Nobody”'s Story, as it is in the novel, is not a story of progression but a story about remembering—of return to a home where time has stood still, to a youthful sweetheart whom the years have ravaged, and to an obsessive injunction “not to forget.”5 (Early in preproduction, Edzard cut a sequence between young Arthur and young Flora that would have paralleled the childhood sequences of Little Dorrit's Story, partly to make the stylistic and experiential differences between the two parts of the film more sharp.) Near the very close of part 1, Arthur finally returns in memory to the first image his mind registered of Little Dorrit at his mother's house—an image skimmed over and suppressed in its proper chronological place, but finally remembered: one is tempted to call it the film's primal image, the visual equivalent of his final realization in the novel that if Little Dorrit's “deep, timid earnestness” had any “new meaning …, the change was in his perception, not in her” (826). The editing style of part 1 is designedly different: its characteristic device is montage, the quick editing together of disparate images to convey a sensation, an emotion, a dream, a sense of time past and present jumbled together, and it takes its cue from the quasi-flashback to the long childhood “train” of his “miserable Sundays” triggered by the sound of bells in Dickens' novel (69). Time and again, in Edzard's film—when Arthur is in his bed (at his mother's, in the “snuggery” of the Marshalsea), or dozing in his chair at his lodgings—he dreams a dream, a montage of past and present images, accompanied by fragmentary sentences and haunting sounds. So, for example, the night after Affery reminds Arthur of his long-lost love, Flora, and again in the instant before he sees her again, there flashes through his mind a sequence that succinctly signifies young Flora—a china bowl of rose leaves; lace gloves; silk slippers; a pile of chocolate bonbons; her quick step as she is glimpsed across a passageway; and the sound of her laughter. Little Dorrit's Story, in sharp contrast, is as linear and goal-oriented as her life.

Of the four dimensions of film mise en scène plays the largest role in Edzard's Little Dorrit, as we might expect from a writer-director who started her professional career as a theater and opera designer. Edzard built eighty-nine separate sets for the film—an enormous number by any filmmaker's standards—and started building while she was still working on the script, since what she could build would affect what she would write. Her camera was overloaded, too, with the front-projection equipment needed to merge together in the frame painted backings of London skylines and miniature sets of house tops and roofs with real-size sets of house fronts, and the characters.

Taking her cue perhaps from such brief passages as Dickens' description of Mrs. General's cavernous room, a third the size of the whole Marshalsea (524), Edzard took the crucial decision to reduce the quantity of furniture Victorians actually stuffed into their rooms not only in all the Italian scenes, but also in the opulent Merdle house, to increase our sense of the luxury of space the rich enjoy, while the poor are crammed into their hovels and into the very frame of the film (in one scene we see Mrs. Plornish reduced to putting the baby in the chest of drawers). The endlessly repeating identical doors of the Circumlocution Office, meanwhile, speak as loudly as the “sprightly Barnacle”'s surreal nonsense monologue about how to apply for a patent of the mindless circularity and frustration that awaits all those who enter here.

Individual pieces of furniture tell us of the frigid emotional climate in which the rich of the novel and the film live: the alienating back-to-back sofa on which Frederick and William Dorrit sit, in an enormous empty Italian salon; the social gradations of chair styles, from the humble style of the secondhand cast-offs we see in the Marshalsea room, to the old-fashioned chairs with backs carved like funerary urns in the Clennam house, to the Regency chairs in Casby's substantial home, to the fake Louis Quinze gilt-and-red-velvet pieces of the Merdles; their enormous dinner table, enlarged still further by the angle at which it is shot, groaning under its load of grotesque fruit centerpieces and gilt dishes of food (all the courses were put on the table at once in this period … ). The dressing of each set counts towards the total effect: there is a dead pot plant on the window-ledge in the Marshalsea room, when Arthur Clennam comes to inhabit it—a legacy from the days of Little Dorrit; posters on the wall outside the Marshalsea Gate where Frederick Dorrit first meets Arthur Clennam shriekingly advertise a popular Bulwer-Lytton drama called MONEY! …. Even the mere placement of characters within the mise-en-scène can have an almost subliminal emotional and thematic impact: Little Dorrit's discomfort in her days of wealth, for example, is encapsulated by her placing outside the salon door during the musical evening in Italy. And these Italian settings literally “pale” by comparison with the London she yearns for: faded pastel colors are the cause.


One source for Edzard's expressive mise en scène was, of course, the original illustrations to the novel by Hablot K. Browne (“Phiz”), all minutely overseen by Dickens. From the first, filmmakers have invoked the aid of his illustrators in revisualizing Dickens—costumes for George Cukor's Copperfield, for example, were cut with Phiz's portrait of Micawber et al. as patterns, in the mistaken belief that this would also guarantee historical accuracy; more generally, Victorian illustrators influenced the visual style of many early films. (Advertisements for a sixteen-scene Alice in Wonderland by the pioneer English filmmaker Cecil Hepworth in 1903 proudly proclaimed that it “reproduced in animated form with remarkable fidelity” John Tenniel's original illustrations [Low and Manvell 1:83]). Furthermore, as Paul Davis has suggested, the picture narratives of Hogarth, The Rake's Progress for example, which were a powerful influence on Victorian book illustration (explicitly cited not only as ancestors of the visual style of Dickens and of his first illustrator, Cruikshank, but as guarantors of Dickens' moral intent in his preface to his “Parish Boy's Progress,” Oliver Twist), “became the technical and philosophical bridge between the visual narratives of the graphic satire tradition and those of the cinema,” and thus Dickens himself became the mediator and hinge between cartoon and screen (158).

Edzard's Little Dorrit draws most heavily on Phiz's illustrations in its creation of Dorrit's room in the Marshalsea, the Clennam house, and the Doyce-Clennam workshop. Indeed, it reproduces almost exactly Phiz's illustration of Dorrit's room, the central location …. There are a few interesting differences, however: the door moves from the right to the left-hand corner in the film—making the room more photogenic; the table-cloth shrinks to cover only half the table.

The painterly “Rembrandt” effect of chiaroscuro that Dickens wanted was achieved by Phiz in the “dark plate” technique he first used when he was illustrating Dombey and Son, to complement Dickens' increasingly dark vision of his society. There are eight “dark plates” in Little Dorrit. Edzard moves toward some filmic realization of the same effects that Phiz achieves in, say, “The Room with the Portrait” (Arthur's father's study … ) and “Damocles” (the exterior of the Clennam house, with Rigaud-Blandois perched smoking in the window, one of the best known and most reproduced of the Dorrit illustrations) through low-key lighting and a predominance of browns in the settings: the sober effect she achieves goes a long way toward deflecting these scenes' potential for B-movie ham. There is a striking resemblance between her shot of Flintwinch at Mrs. Clennam's shoulder and Phiz's illustration “Mr. Flintwinch, mediates as a friend of the Family”: the variety artist Wax Wall, a master of contorted “body language,” brings the novel's Flintwinch to scuttling, crab-like larger than life.

For her rustic scenes, however, Edzard draws not on Phiz's very unusual “dark plate” “Floating Away” …, in which Clennam watches the roses Pet gave him drift away upon the river, but on the favorite Victorian genre of the rustic vignette, exemplified, say, by Phiz's own Pickwick Papers illustration of a comic tryst: the joke-romantic scene, we notice, is artfully “framed” by foliage …. This seems to me appropriate, on one level, given the quality of fakery in the pastoral and rustic scenes of Little Dorrit—Young John Chivery wandering among his mother's washing lines “as if it was groves,” and so forth. A similar principle governs Edzard's visual handling of Bob the turnkey and Little Dorrit on their afternoon jaunt …, and Clennam's and Pet Meagles' walk in the woods. But there is no question that it also lightens the look and mood of the film, as compared to the novel Dickens wrote, and whose illustrations he oversaw with extreme care. Edzard's vision is less dark, and her shadows less deep, and this is not merely a matter of a design decision on Edzard's part.

Another of Phiz's “dark plates” perhaps gives us a first clue to some of the reasons for this lightening. It also illustrates the ideal of interdependence between Dickens' text and Phiz's engravings. Dickens chose each of the scenes to be illustrated: one, of Flora and Mr. F's aunt's visit to the Doyce and Clennam workshop, gives us a far closer view than his text of the works and the machines …, and the inspiration for Edzard's much-expanded work scenes …. And it can serve to suggest to us Edzard's drive to ascertain who is at “fault” for at least some of the ills of the novel's world. Dickens sees no solutions to the questions he asks in Little Dorrit; Christine Edzard is driven to provide a few answers, and so to lighten the Dickensian darkness. She does so partly by importing from Our Mutual Friend a character Dickens calls Sloppy and she calls Smiles, a “wonderful reader of a newspaper” who “do the police in different voices” (the famous line T. S. Eliot chose as the original title of his multivocal, modernist Wasteland). His arm—picking up on a scene Dickens reluctantly canceled from Hard Times—gets caught in the bands that dominate almost every shot of her workshop.6 Whereupon Daniel Doyce has a rather un-Dickensian outburst of faith in technological progress: “The belts are to be blamed,” he says, “and I am to be blamed because I knew of it.”

Some effects possible for Dickens and Phiz are not possible in film. The illustrations frequently underline the self-seeking theatricality of the Dorrit family by arranging groups left to right across the page, as if posed on a stage. Edzard's film is unable to “cheat” in the fashion that Phiz does, say, in his illustration “The Marshalsea becomes an Orphan”—melting away the prison walls in order to allow a “long shot,” as it were, of the departing Processional …. A film audience's sense of the continuity and reality of space is very finely tuned: had she similarly melted away the walls to allow such a shot, we would have felt disoriented. But the potential of film, unlike theater, for offering a multiplicity of points of view is considerable compensation.


Little Dorrit is unique,” writes F. S. Schwarzbach in his Dickens and the City, “in its insistence upon London” (151). The Phiz illustrations were one first step toward creating the world of the film. Another was to visit what remains of the locations today: little more than the gates of the Marshalsea Prison, letting on to a cramped lozenge of land thinly carpeted with fish-and-chip wrappers. And a most important step was picture research, in the rich field of Victorian illustration. The mid-nineteenth century was the golden age of black-and-white boxwood book engravings, and saw both the rise of photography and the spread of illustrated papers using newly patented reproduction processes. Picture research starts to bring Little Dorrit's London to life: a later nineteenth-century etching uncovers the lost courtyard of the Marshalsea Prison … ; the uneven paving and disconsolate pump figure large in Edzard's reconstruction ….

But central to Dickens' vision, to Edzard's film, and to any sense of London as it was then, are “the roaring streets” (136). The opening sequences of Cukor's David Copperfield and of David Lean's Great Expectations show the pages of Dickens' novel rustling open to begin the story: the very opening credits of Edzard's part 1 plunge us into “streets, streets, streets.” At the very end of her film, during the marriage of Arthur and Amy, her camera circles back to those streets, “wandering and searching and marvelling” (Winn 27) at all it sees (figs. 32, 33, 34).7 The film's final image is a freeze frame of Borough High Street that aims to give us the “feel” of its higgledy-piggledy architecture, evident in period photographs, or in the changing panorama meticulously recorded by the watercolorist and pencil artist George Scharf during the building of London Bridge railway station in 1843, Edzard's primary pictorial source for her street sets and models ….7 She heightens the sense of bustling commercial traffic and teeming London crowds by shooting, say, Arthur Clennam following Little Dorrit to the Marshalsea from behind passing carts and pedestrians, and in constricting medium shots.

Another source for the novel's swarming streets might be Phiz's illustration for Martin Chuzzlewit of that same scene filmed by the pioneer English filmmaker R. W. Paul as Mr Pecksniff Fetches the Doctor at the turn of the century …, or Cruikshank's for Sketches by Boz …. The upstairs offices of Sands Films, which incorporate a picture library, bulge with source-books. The Victorian photographic record (exemplified by a very early sepia photograph of tottering sixteenth- and seventeenth-century houses in Cloth Fair Slum … ) reminds us that early-to-mid Victorian London was an assortment of buildings of all periods, the older the slummier: the skyline on which Clennam looks out from his mother's house in Edzard's film captures this effect of historical layering, as does the maze-like appearance of close, “crooked and descending” London streets (70) seen in almost every photographic cityscape of the 1850s and '60s.

Besides Scharf, one invaluable pictorial source was certainly the French artist Gustave Doré's 1872 London: A Pilgrimage. This represents not only the pinnacle of achievement for Victorian book illustration, but also (in the days before the mechanical mass reproduction of photographs became possible) a kind of Victorian “documentary.” It has perhaps been the single most important influence on the design of all Dickens films: the bridge between warehouses he drew in the brewery area south of St. Paul's turns up both in David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist and in the 1968 musical Oliver!, which thematizes its relationship to Victorian black-and-white illustration in an opening-credits sequence that ends with a picture of boys on a treadmill “coming alive,” on film … ; Doré's full-page illustrations—of London Bridge swamped with traffic, or Fleet Street in rush hour, say, crammed with figures to the very borders of the page—audibly suggest the “roar” of Dickens' and Edzard's streets.

Their Borough High Street is thronged, too, with the characters Doré drew—the Apple Woman, the street-butcher and his poor customers …, the ballad seller … ; and the street-people recorded by such early masters of the camera as the anonymous photographer employed by Charles Spurgeon, a Greenwich clergyman—the match-seller …, the window-mender …. Spurgeon had W. Thompson, “Champion Pie Maker” …, photographed outside one of the many print shops that prospered in England from the turn of the century, retailing the first wave of products of the age of mechanical picture reproduction that would eventually spawn the photograph and the film. Appropriately, the print shop is a location with symbolic resonance in Edzard's Little Dorrit … : she places one along her Gray's Inn Road, and we see Mr. Merdle going into it, customers window-shopping, and passers-by bumping into Arthur Clennam outside it (“Sorry!” and “My fault!” they say, underlining in passing the theme and title of part 1). Fanny Dorrit's lodgings and Dorrit's Marshalsea room have cheap prints and play-bills pinned on the walls, like patchy wallpaper.

London shopped, worked, lived on the streets. The Cheap Fish Stall holder photographed by John Thomson … for his pioneering documentary collection Street Life in London (1877) would keep his wares out without ice until well past midnight, the only time when poor folk could get out to market—hence the activity among the Borough High Street traders the night Little Dorrit and Maggy get locked out in Edzard's film. Their reek would add to the general stench of the streets, through which animals were driven to market, and horses toiled with carts and carriages of every description, as in George Scharf's lightning sketches of Covent Garden and its market folk ….

London slept on the streets, too. When they cannot get into Maggy's lodging, she and Little Dorrit figuratively join the enormous numbers of homeless Londoners …. Railway and bridge arches and doorways were favorite places to “doss down.” Thomson titled his photograph of a down-trodden baby-minder, with her charge wrapped in her shawl like Mrs. Plornish's baby in Edzard's film, “The Crawlers”: all day long they would “move on” from doorway to doorway, seeking shelter ….

The old slums of London began to be demolished in the decades after Little Dorrit was written. Bleeding Heart Yard (figs. 50, 51) had ten thousand reeking relatives, where washing, chickens, dirt, and sewage shared the space with people whose rooms were too close and smelly for them to sit indoors …. As Ross Devenish, director of BBC TV's Bleak House series told me, what is “normally lost” in adaptations of Dickens is “the fact that London at that period was like a third world city … [with] none of the modern support systems like drainage, sewerage, and so on.” “People get befuddled,” he added, “by the costumes and the Christmas card image”—which Dickens himself, ironically, also helped to create. The novelist had only to reach into his memories of childhood to remember what it felt like to be cooped up in houses hardly much more respectable, and Edzard needed only to refer to this photograph of the staircase of the house in Camden Town where Dickens' family lived before his father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea to get a sense of just how cramped and dingy she should make the staircase up to Dorrit's room …. All these sources, and many more like them, went to her reconstruction of the historical background of Little Dorrit: it remains to consider exactly what her film's relationship with history is.


The camera obscura and the camera lucida shaped early Victorian perception, ordering the eye's fluid experience of the world into series of views that the hand could trace on paper.8 It was only a matter of time until (in Fox Talbot's phrase) these “fairy pictures, creatures of a moment” were chemically fixed, and photography was born (Gifford 23). Much of the visual imagery that has attracted commentators on Little Dorrit (most memorably, Clennam's final realization of Little Dorrit as the perspectival “vanishing point” of his own story [801]) seems to me to demand a specifically photographic frame of reference if we are to appreciate it to the full. The novel's constant play on the imagery of sun and shade partly suggests the highlights and contrasts of black-and-white book illustration, but it suggests too the dual negative-positive quality of the daguerreotype or ambrotype, or such latticework of sunlight and shadow as one sees in the very first paper negative, made by Henry Fox Talbot at Lacock Abbey in 1835 ….9 Some early Victorian photographers called their images “sun pictures” or “heliographs” (the term “photography,” after all, means “light-writing”): fixing the photographic image, meanwhile, in the terms of Fox Talbot's 1839 Report to the Royal Society, was “fixing the shadow” (quoted by Pollack 32). The words brings vividly to mind the “shadow” of her loved one that the tiny woman keeps in a cupboard, in Little Dorrit's story of the Princess (341).

Photography was, as Terry Castle puts it, “the ultimate ghost-producing technology of the nineteenth century” (64);10 Dickens had very mixed feelings about his own photographic replication—“haunt[ing] mankind with my countenance,” as he put it (quoted by Ackroyd 853), through the medium of the mass-produced portraits of the great turned out in the 1850s and '60s. More, in uncanny play with notions of presence and absence, the new technology profoundly queried the Victorians' sense of the one-way onward flow of time. It is an index of the speed with which Dickens absorbed its imaginative possibilities (as he did too those of the railway, for example), and of the depth of his engagement, from childhood, with one of the camera's primary ancestors, the magic lantern …, that his imagery of “sun” and “shadow” pictures in Little Dorrit allowed a striking refocusing of his novel's anxiety about Time, (mis)representation, and that “marking time” which is mere animal existence. Oliver Wendell Holmes dubbed the daguerreotype “the mirror with a memory”: it had turned moments into eerie eternities (quoted by Pollack 28).11 Lengthy exposures—up to eight hours in the 1820s—meant that busy thoroughfares were imaged as empty streets in the City of the Dead, since figures moved too quickly to be registered. The very physical process by which the mind marked the passing of time—the movement of the sun—was obliterated in the first images, in which buildings were shaded by both morning and afternoon shadows. Thus, time and light converge in the image of feeble Frederick Dorrit “‘merely passing on, like the shadow over the sun-dial’” (120), and while sinister shadows “hover” on the wall of the her house “like shadows from a great magic lantern” (221), for Dickens' Mrs. Clennam, fifteen years a prisoner in one room, the natural progression of the seasons has been suspended, and (in most suggestive phrase) memories and imaginings of the world outside have become “controllable pictures” that deny “the rush of reality” (856).

Film went still further than photography, abolishing time. When D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, Woodrow Wilson hailed its ability, as he put it, to “write history in lightning” (quoted by Carter 9). No other medium, save perhaps the three-dimensional holograph, has such a power of reconstructing history: the eternal present tense of film, as theorists have called it, denies the very pastness of the past. So it was that a reverent (if risible) review in the influential trade paper The Bioscope of a 1912 Eastertide release, piously entitled From Manger to Cross, celebrated cinema's ability to carry us “back through the countless ages to the time when Christ himself trod this earth,” and restore to us even “the Divine presence” (quoted by Low 2:185). In exploiting her medium's capacities—indeed, its very nature—Edzard sensitively connects with the imagistic heritage and legacy of the novel itself. One need only think of the sudden flashback, during the scene between Clennam and his mother in part 1 of her film, which presents before us, “present” now, in a shot not visually distinguishable from those that precede it or come after it, and in all the sharpness of agonized memory, young Arthur as he was then, in his painful childhood days, a mute and pale-faced boy in a sailor suit. The double narrative of her Little Dorrit, too, intensifies our sense of film's suspension of time, rendering it as lived experience rather than historical progression or (to use William Dorrit's term for his self-pitying petitioning of the authorities) mere “memorialization.”12

Not only in terms of their (re)registering of time did the two technologies of photography and moving pictures trace parallel parabolas of development. The early filmmakers, like the early photographers before them, first exploited film's apparent “guarantee” and “transcription” of reality: each responded in turn to the craving for total realism that clinched the success, in turn, of the magic lantern, the diorama, the stereoscope, the “dissolving views” of the popular melodrama, and then—at last, from 1895—the “Animated Photographs, the First and Finest in London”—prominently of the “Picture Palaces” of the twenties ….13 The attraction of the very first book of photographs ever published, Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), as its title indicates, was the same which drew audiences to the “actuality” and educational nature films made in Britain from as early as 1900 (so potent a draw was film's ultrarealism that a 1907 “kinematic” production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin proudly announced “absolute fidelity to detail—real rats”).14 Photographers and filmmakers after them turned next to providing “reliable records” of the historical events of the day.15 Mathew B. Brady's photographic record of the Civil War finds its parallels and descendants in films of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee of 1897, her funeral in 1901, the Boer War, Scott's Antarctic Expedition of 1912. Then came the day, not long after, when photographer and filmmaker each in turn realized the potentials of his medium for restaging—and even rewriting—history. Early admirers of photography lapped up Oscar G. Rejlander's composite “art” pictures (perhaps his most famous showed John the Baptist's head on the notorious platter), and film audiences were similarly untroubled by latter-day notions of historical authenticity. The English Precision Film Company openly advertised its film of the notorious Tottenham shooting affray, which dominated news headlines in 1909, as a “reproduction” (the term is intriguing) without its losing any of its attraction as a “documentary” item (see Low and Manvell 2:148). As the photographer Edward Steichen remarked in the first issue of Camera Work, in January 1903, all artists—and all photographers, and all cinematographers—“fake” and take liberties with reality. The angle of vision, the type of lens, the progression of images—all inflect the actual; even unmediated technological “objectivity” is an illusion; realism is a style (see Pollack 84). Griffith's revisionist epic of the Confederacy and what it stood for is a case in print. And Christine Edzard's version of Dickens' Little Dorrit is another. On the one hand her film reconstructs the lost world of early Victorian London with a concern for historical accuracy that is almost obsessive—“for this director there is no such thing as background, only detail at a distance,” as one reviewer rightly remarked (Mars-Jones 16 … ). “I wanted it to be as real … as … what you see on the London Underground,” she added. But on the other hand, her film bends some of the facts about Victorian sex roles and society in the interests not only of accommodating a modern audience which might be alienated by them, but also of satisfying personal desires.

Nowhere is the concern for historical accuracy more apparent than in the film's costumes. Edzard and her team visited museums to learn exactly how clothes were made in the mid-nineteenth century. And they found, for example, that shirts were very wide and very long, because people did not wear underclothes, and that the fabrics were of a different quality, no longer produced in the West (so they shipped muslins and hand-woven cottons from India, instead). Modern dyes were not right either: cheap aniline dyes had just been invented when Little Dorrit was written, and when Edzard sets her film. So aniline dyes were used—hence the rather luridly bright costumes of the Bleeding Heart Yard folk. Every single shirt Dorrit wears till his accession to fortune in the novel is made by Little Dorrit, every shirt every earlier Victorian wore was made by hand, and so was every single costume for Edzard's film. It took twenty-five people two full years to cut and sew these costumes, using only original patterns. “The purpose,” Edzard says, “is to re-create from inside the reality of Dickens's time”: people stand and walk differently in authentic clothes. Once made, they were not chemically “aged,” but washed with soap and water, dozens of times, to break them in. The straw bonnets were plaited by hand; the fabrics were hand-printed; collars and waistcoasts were hand-embroidered. Edzard was personally involved with every step of the process: she cut many of the clothes herself, and gave cast members their first fittings in person. She herself designed and made some of the replicas of the accoutrements and heavy jewelry of the period that even such minor characters as Mrs. Gowan and Mrs. Barnacle display in her film. Each costume has thematic and psychological import as well: Fanny Dorrit's relish of her accession to wealth, for example, is written in the six flounces of the fashionable dress she parades in at Mrs. Merdle's; “conspicuous consumption” was not just a modern-day American phenomenon. The “presence” in Edzard's film of a world past and gone had ramifications that might make some historians reel: forty of the costumes had an afterlife as a “hands-on” exhibit of “historical” artifacts at the Museum of London.

Edzard's passion for history took her from the filming of Dickens to the adaptation for the screen of what seems virtually unadaptable, Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, another of her source-books for Little Dorrit (The Fool, released in Europe 1991). But in the end, just as Dickens wrote for his own time, so Edzard must film for hers, lest her Dorrit end up crushed beneath the weight of the period cobblestones shipped in to pave her “roaring” streets. What most astonishes about her historical passion is that it does not dim her sense of narrative or soften her emotional focus on her characters. Nothing is dwelt on with an eye to social history: everything is simply, casually there, and it becomes easier, not more difficult, for a modern audience to make the connections Edzard invites us to make between one compartmentalized society driven by money-mania for Merdle's “junk bonds,” and encumbered with parasites and hangers-on, and another—ours.


Of the several adjustments of historical emphasis that Edzard makes, her handling of Little Dorrit herself asks most attention.

She wanted a complete newcomer for Little Dorrit, someone “dry and unexpansive,” she says, and after interviewing hundreds of girls under five feet tall, chose the twenty-year-old drama student Sarah Pickering (quoted by McAsh 18). If Pickering does finally reveal what one reviewer called a “gosling beauty” by the end of the film, it is in the teeth of Edzard's direction (Corliss 93). There is no concession in Edzard's portrait of Little Dorrit to modern ideals of female attractiveness, not much to Victorian (the tightly scraped-back hair gives her the look of a skinned rabbit), and little to conventional standards of film acting … : Pickering is a “drip,” moaned the film's American reviewers, “a humorless, brooding pill” (Vineberg 10). She wins through the film, in the end, on her own terms—Edzard's terms.

Dickens himself foregrounds—unusually for Victorian fiction—a man's emotional needs and dependencies in the person of Arthur Clennam. And he paints a picture of a “strong” Little Dorrit. But she is strong in the Victorian ways of female strength, which to our eyes sometimes look more like “weakness.” In Dickens's novel, tears—virtuous, sympathetic tears—well in her eyes at the drop of a hat—when she visits Clennam at his rooms, when Tip becomes a prison “regular,” when the news of her father's fortune is broken to her, and so on. We see her on her knees to her father, uplifting her arms to heaven, preaching charity to Mrs. Clennam, kissing Clennam's hand in gratitude: the Victorian woman as humble Angel. In Edzard's film, she weeps only once—when her father tells her she has humiliated him by walking through the public streets arm in arm with Old Nandy, the pauper. The reasons for this change do not only lie in the fact that the film (unlike a TV soap, or a novel issued in monthly parts) cannot bear too many emotional climaxes, nor in Edzard's eschewing of sentimentality and in changes in public taste, nor in the need that her two-part structure creates for a strongly characterized and convincing Arthur and Amy (“it says something about the peculiar nature of Dickens's genius,” wrote John Gross in the London Sunday Times, “that … their inadequacies don't prevent the book from being a major masterpiece” [Gross 22]).

No. This is a very personal film: it must be, to be a good film. It understands that film must interpret, not “adapt” Dickens; and that such interpretation is always a form of (literary) criticism. Christine Edzard is a painfully thin woman so extremely shy as at times to appear withdrawn, a woman director who has risen to prominence in a profession dominated by men, and a mother whose own daughter has carried cans of film around Grice's wharf since she was knee-high, like the “Child of the Studio.” Her Little Dorrit is the first “woman's film” ever made of a Dickens novel. One reviewer may have dubbed Miriam Margoyles's fat widow “a human Miss Piggy” (Edelstein 29), but her Flora is also granted vulnerability and kindness (she caresses Arthur's hat); Minnie Meagles is shorn of her “Pet” name and most of her pettishness; Mrs. Tickit, the Meagles' housekeeper, gets promoted to full status as family friend; Affery remains Arthur's ally—but in the film gets his help making his bed; the balance of factors in Edzard's Mrs. Clennam between melodramatic villainy, perverted religiosity, and thwarted motherhood is shifted (it is she, not Doyce, who springs Arthur from the Marshalsea in the film): the women of this production more than hold their own. Edzard adds innumerable details to Dickens' portrait of Little Dorrit, “like her constantly busying herself about.” In a sense, she solves the perennial problem of the vague, flat, and virtuous Dickensian child-heroine simply by showing her to us; the details of themselves grant her a kind of gritty life. “Dickens didn't go close enough,” she says: “People weren't expected to take much notice of women in his day. He hardly knew what the women who looked after him were doing most of the time” (quoted by Malcolm 22). What drew her to this novel, of all the novels, she says, was partly its qualities of compilation and panorama (“cramming everything in,” as she puts it), partly the directorial freedom it offered precisely because it is imperfect, but most of all the strength of the heroine: to prove that strength, her film goes beyond mere emphasis—like the frequent repetition of a line Little Dorrit speaks only once in the novel, “I have always been strong enough to do what I want to do” (333), or her dressing in a blue that stands out against her dingy background, or increasing Arthur's ineffectualness so that her capability looms larger. More, Edzard's film refashions Dickens' text and his times. When images and judgments delivered by the novel in indirect speech survive translation into film, it is often because Little Dorrit inherits them. She has an answer to the question that rattled around part 1—“Who's to blame?”: not “nobody” but “everyone who was at Mr. Merdle's feasts was a sharer of the plunder,” she says—a line of impersonal narration recontextualized and immeasurably strengthened (776). She turns Arthur's reflective murmur, “Do Not Forget,” into only the first half of her own sentence, “I love you.” And she takes from him the first gentle breaking of the great news to her father: “The wall … is down, melted away.” Masculine ventriloquism, Arthur's services as mouthpiece, is no longer required, just as she no longer ascribes to her love for him (as she does in her curious letters from Italy) her ability to penetrate character or weigh judgments (608): those faculties are not borrowed from love, or from men, in Edzard's film.

This Little Dorrit's desire for Clennam is clear from the very beginning of her Story, when the camera lingers with her eyes on the oblivious Arthur passing her in the doorway of the Clennam house (in Arthur's half of the film, and in the novel, Little Dorrit doesn't even come into focus in the background). She arranges the first meeting on the Iron Bridge, which in the novel is accidental. She faints in the Marshalsea room, the day the family leave, because Clennam has asked her to look out for Minnie Gowan in Italy: two scenes from the novel are here fruitfully collapsed upon one another. And while she may lose consciousness at this climactic moment, for the Little Dorrit of the film loving Arthur Clennam certainly does not mean what it means in the novel—“los[ing] and forget[ting] herself” (648). The kiss with which in the film she answers the protestations of “honor” and “too late!” that threaten to abort the romance in the novel is a real woman's kiss. Such an awakening and consummating kiss may accord with the fairy-tale element in Dickens; it is also well-nigh impossible to imagine a Victorian woman bestowing it, even upon a despondent Clennam.


It is a cliché of cinema history that when the great Soviet silent filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein came to reach back into the history of narrative for the roots of his own experimental style, he reached back directly to Dickens, to proclaim him the conceptual “father” of the film. The “Inimitable” was, said Lillian Gish, the “idol” of D. W. Griffith, the ancestor (and respectable guarantor) of the technique of “parallel editing” that made his first feature films possible.16 Dickens' concern for locating us in space and time might have made him as natural a film director as he was a theatrical producer (the same concern brings both novel and film time and again to the Iron Bridge). His visual sensibility “invents” the close-up and the motif. He anticipates Edzard in the use of subjective sound and what we might call sound “fade-ins” and “fade-outs”: we hear only what Arthur can catch, for example, of Miss Wade's conversation with Rigaud (Dickens 587). It is a naive critic who would deliver the blanket statement that Dickens is “inherently cinematic” (though many have delivered it); and only the unwary theorist would trace an unbroken line and an unmediated link between the nineteenth-century novel and film (thought several have done so, “repressing,” as Rick Altman persuasively writes, cinema's—and indeed Dickens'—disreputable inheritance from popular melodrama).17 Yet while Victorian fiction is not film's sole parent, and Dickens is not cinema, it is clear that there are profound similarities between these two narrative media that (like dreams) engage their mass audiences on the most private and interior levels, and that Dickens' novels were seedbeds for cinema's techniques.

But to look at Dickens and film, particularly English film (curiously neglected by the commentators), is not only to engage crucial issues in film and narrative theory but also to understand better the culture of the country and Dickens' role in both—and even the very Englishness of England. The history of the perennially struggling English film industry has as much to teach as the well-known stories of Grifith, Eisenstein, and stars from Fields to Guinness. The filmmakers of earlier times quarried and paid homage to Dickens' novels for entirely different reasons from those that brought Christine Edzard to Little Dorrit in the 1980s, and English film production has been tied up, from the very first, with their adaptation.

The first multi-scene film of the English film innovator R. W. Paul in 1901, was, as we might have suspected, a thirteen-scene thriller somewhat confusingly called Scrooge: Or, Marley's Ghost—an artistic advance, at a time when Gaumont (France) were still offering up their “Novel in a Nutshell” series for the public's edification.18 In these uncertain early days of the cinema, Dickens was English filmmakers' most bankable commodity. The first feature-length film by Cecil Hepworth, one of the originators of continuity editing (in his 1905 Rescued by Rover), who dominated English filmmaking for the first thirty years—and only the second feature-length film made in England (the first was Shakespeare's Henry VIII)—was, no less inevitably, an adaptation of a Dickens novel: his rousingly melodramatic Oliver Twist … was “rapturously” received in 1912 (it is listed in his catalogue as a “crime story” [Low 2:190]).19 As films got longer and subjects more ambitious (though not, alas, more hard-hitting in their social criticism—Dickens, like others, was tamed) filmmakers across the world were drawn to the English Victorian novelists like wasps to a honey pot. And no novelist tasted sweeter than Dickens, and no filmmakers (or audiences) became so addicted, for good or ill, as the English, for whom by mid-1916, claimed the Bioscope trade magazine, adaptation counted for all but 5٪ of output.

Oliver Twist started Hepworth (and others) on a successful chain of adaptations.20 In 1913 he delegated direction to Thomas Bentley—and a Dickensian character actor and well-known Dickens impersonator became one of the driving forces of English filmmaking. Bentley's ambitious David Copperfield (1913), over two hours long, primitively edited and dependent for story development on pretentious “literary” intertitles, nevertheless represented a major aesthetic advance and a brief renaissance for British cinema after the doldrums of 1906 and after: his eye for composition within the frame and innovative camera placement and movement make for a distinctive visual style …. Above all, the film comes alive in its location scenes, praised for their Englishness …. Hepworth's publicists claimed they were the actual places “immortalized by Dickens” (quoted by Low 2:293)—exactly the point sold hard in publicity for Disney's 1989 Great Expectations: across the twentieth century, and on both sides of the Atlantic, it is the Englishness of the “real” Dickens that sells.21 Bentley's restraint drew plaudits, too: the “distorting mirror” of Dickensian characterization, wrote one overenthusiastic reviewer, had been eliminated by dignified acting (quoted by Low and Manvell 2:191).

Nevertheless, the early silent cinema, even in more decorous England, was a proletarian entertainment, addicted to sudden reversals, romantic sacrifices, violent action: what attracted early filmmakers was often precisely that melodrama that Edzard excises. Typical of his breed, like the great D. W. Griffith in America, the artistic Bentley also combined a taste for “blood and thunder” with a Victorian penchant for the sentimental, perhaps believing, with the Kinematograph Monthly Film Record, that the public “likes its melodrama mellowed by a little literary tradition” (quoted by Low and Manvell 3:204): his 1914 version of The Old Curiosity Shop was considered the best of his Dickens adaptations, better even than the historical spectacle he made of Barnaby Rudge later in the same year; he liked the novel so much that he filmed it again in 1921 …, and yet again in 1935 ….22 Nell's story vies with David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol for the greatest number of screen adaptations of a Dickens novel. These last two turn up in versions called Nancy, Fagin, and Scrooge, outnumbering even the thirty-plus adaptations of David Copperfield, and forcing our attention again to the independent extratextual existence of the Dickens character. (In sharp contrast, there have been only four films of Little Dorrit: a 1933 German talkie, and silent versions made in America, England—with the stately Lady Tree as Mrs. Clennam dominating the action—and Denmark, whose film-makers, driven by the dictates of the text in an age and a climate less kind to location shooting and large sets, seem nevertheless to have shared Edzard's fascination with street scenes.)23

As early as 1906 the British film industry suffered from: foreign penetration of a home market smaller than America's (which in turn restricted profits and reinvestment); the lack of language barriers across the Atlantic; amateurish business methods and under-capitalization of production (the profits lay in distribution and exhibition, especially of American films, and no British companies were vertically integrated); questionable practices like block and blind-booking (which often left no space in screening schedules for home-grown products); institutional indifference to the idea of a national cinema; the dead-weight of tradition, and artistic and social snobbery; and plain bad weather, which made a mockery of shooting schedules in the open-air days before arc lights and covered stages (see Chanan 39-58).24 By the mid-twenties, Hollywood had taken 95٪ of the British market. Some thought Dickens was the answer, and rushed to make no fewer than five adaptations in a single year, 1922; others thought high “art” held the key. Herbert Wilcox (with his splendid designer, Norman Arnold) tried both remedies at once, borrowing prestige from the stage for good measure, in his costly 1925 adaptation of Sir John Martin Harvey's much-revived theatrical version of A Tale of Two Cities, The Only Way, first staged in 1899 (figs. 64, 65). But foreign companies responded to Dickens with more Dickens. As early as 1913, for the American comedian John Bunny this meant making a four-part Pickwick Papers series for Vitagraph UK, which had tackled Oliver Twist three years before Hepworth; for the English wing of the French company Pathé it meant making David Copperfield the first in its “Britannia” series; for Americans at home in Hollywood it was progressively to mean “lessen[ing] sales resistance” in foreign markets, as a producer was to tell a class of Harvard business students in 1927, by “drawing on their literary talent, taking their choicest stories[,] … and sending them back into the countries where they are famous” (Chanan 56). And so (to think only of more benign cultural-imperialist implications) W. C. Fields came to play Micawber.

After the Second World War, in the “golden decade” of native film production, before Hollywood reestablished its grip, and while English people (after their close shave) still felt the need to celebrate their Englishness, it was again to Dickens that they turned, and one adaptation succeeded another to the screen. In them we can chart—almost scientifically, since Dickens provides the “control” in the experiment—the artistic fortunes of film in Britain. David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations (figs. 66, 67) and 1948 Oliver Twist … excelled in their evocation of atmosphere through the contrasts and highlights of black-and-white stock, and a suggestiveness of style that their director rarely again achieved (the murder of Nancy, for example, happens off-screen while Bill Sikes's dog scrabbles frantically at the door);25 Cavalcanti's 1947 Nicholas Nickleby had a lighter touch …. The fifties, decade of the “angry young man” and the new realism, wanted a more gritty Dickens, but plenty of production value: exteriors for the 1958 Rank film of A Tale of Two Cities were shot on location in France …. The sixties returned to Dickens-as-play, and in turning his murderous melodrama into musical turned us back with gusto to the fabulous quality of his art … : for the price of a massive semistylized street set for one of the production numbers in Lionel Bart's Oliver! …, Christine Edzard could have built half her studio, not only made her film. And now there is her Little Dorrit: not, in my opinion, the “part Marxist, part deconstructionist” and all-“sterile” intellectual-academic's film that its most hostile critics dubbed it (“about as subtle as Monarch's Notes” jeered one [Sragow C3-7]), but perhaps the “first postmodern Dickens film” (Kroll 118), certainly a feminist's, and without question the most personal re-vision of Dickens ever to reach the screen. It is a most honorable addition to the family. There never can be a “perfect” Dickens film, or even a “whole” Dickens film: Oliver Twist's peregrinations through cinema history, its transformations from 1912 “crime story” to authority-mocking sixties musical—with chameleon Fagin, that extraordinary focus of the novel's creative energy, casting off the demonic treacherous Jew for the role of benign Pied Piper—perhaps best exemplify how making a Dickens film means making a choice between the modes and genres that compete for dominance within each Dickens text. Edzard's Little Dorrit, for me, comes close to perfection—but so do films as different from it as chalk is from cheese, above all David Lean's taut, class-conscious Great Expectations: just as every stage director assumes the right to “his” or “her” Macbeth or Lear, so every film director has the right to his or her Dorrit or Twist. The Dickens who endorsed stage productions and reprocessed his novels as dramatic readings, the literary entrepreneur who invented Christmas (the Carol is surely the direct ancestor of every Yuletide movie release in America), the novelist bred on folk-tale, magic lantern shows, and popular art, would surely not have been surprised at his own cultural reproduction. “Dickens,” as Mike Poole writes, “has always been a mass media phenomenon” with a “massive cultural profile” and “extra-literary” identity (148).26 What delights always is the fertility of the Dickens who inspires, the abundance and textual excess that keeps the cameras (and the critical industry) turning.


  1. Sands Films press release. All unattributed quotations in this essay come either from press releases or from the author's interviews with the filmmakers in March and November 1990.

  2. Miriam Margoyles (Flora Finching in Little Dorrit) and Ross Devenish (director of BBC TV's 1985 series Bleak House) interviewed by the author, June 1990.

  3. Letter of 16 September 1855, quoted by Stone 267. Dickens reinforced the division into two books by numbering the chapters of each separately, and insisting upon it on the very title page of the first edition; it is reflected in such factors as the careful mirror-effect of the distant and designedly “objective” openings of each book—one in Marseilles, one at the Great St. Bernard.

  4. Both editing devices associated with the Hollywood cinema. During a wipe, one shot progressively replaces another on the screen, sometimes from left to right, sometimes from one corner diagonally to another, and so on, with a sharp demarcating border always visible between shot A and shot B. The dissolve superimposes one shot over another for a varying amount of time (hence brisk and slow dissolves): in the “grammar” of classical Hollywood cinema, it came to signify the passage of time.

  5. Little Dorrit's very first line in the film, by way of sharp contrast to the emphasis on memory in Nobody's Fault, is “I don't remember.”

  6. I am indebted for this observation to Professor George Ford, whose edition of Hard Times gives details of a “gruesome” Household Words article, “Ground in the Mill” (278), which stirred Dickens' indignation and inspired a scene, not finally included in the novel, in which Stephen Blackpool bitterly recalls “how Rachel's angelic little sister had suffered when her arm had been torn off by a factory-machine” (279).

  7. For more on George Scharf, see Jackson, and Nadel and Schwarzbach.

  8. For a full discussion of technology-assisted shifts in our mode of perceiving the world, see Gifford 17-47.

  9. The daguerreotype process produced a single image, reversed, as in a mirror—a positive in certain lights, and a negative in others: “in direct rays of the sun it became a shiny sheet of metal” (Pollack 20). Not until Fox Talbot invented the negative-positive principle was modern photography made possible, with its potential for multiple reproduction, enlargement, and reduction. Ambrotypes (from the Greek for “imperishable”) were cheaper, newer substitutes for the daguerreotype: “negative portraits on glass deliberately underexposed to make a faint image,” and then “backed up with black paper or velvet or sometimes painted black” (Pollack 38).

  10. Castle notes: “Wraithlike actors and actresses, reflected [by a series of mirrors] from below the stage, mingled with onstage counterparts in a phantasmagorical version of Dickens's ‘The Haunted Man’ on Christmas Eve, 1862” (39-40).

  11. For a full discussion of this subject, see Thomas.

  12. I have been encouraged to expand these notes on time, film, and the photographic imagery of Little Dorrit by conversation with Diane Elam of Bryn Mawr College. See her “Another Day Done and I'm Deeper in Debt: Dickens and the Debt of the Everyday,” a paper given at the Dickens Project Summer Conference in Santa Cruz, California, 1990. Dickens, she argues, is most interested in Little Dorrit in “exploring the debt of the past within everyday life: exploring the condition and function of memory.” For Elam, the novel makes a sharp distinction “between what time it is and what time is, the difference between ‘time for what?’ and ‘what is time?’”

  13. Magic-lantern slide shows first became popular at the end of the eighteenth century, and enjoyed a renaissance during Dickens' childhood. The diorama, invented in 1822 by the father of the daguerreotype, Louis Daguerre, offered sweeping semi-animated prospects on history and the Orient. One of cinema's several ancestors, it used a series of paintings, some opaque, some transparent, seen from a distance through a series of movable screens and shutters, to create an illusion of perspective and movement. Miniature cardboard versions on the English market—of the great gallery of the Crystal Palace, for example—were known as “perspectives.” The “left” and “right” “eye” images of the stereoscope, viewed simultaneously, created an illusion of 3-D depth: few middle-class homes were without one by the time Little Dorrit was written.

  14. See Low and Manvell; and Low 2:185.

  15. The press's high term of praise for Brady's photographs (Pollack 59). As early as 1839, when François Arago reported his experiments and achievements to the Academy of Sciences, France signalized its recognition of the importance for the future and for the recording of history of Daguerre's invention by “adopting” it and awarding large state pensions to him and the heir of his co-inventor, Joseph Nicephore Niepce, who had taken the world's first photographic image, on pewter, in 1826 (Pollack 21).

  16. For more on Griffith's debt to Dickens, see Zambrano 148-204. Zambrano exemplifies the “repression” against which Altman argues, but is nevertheless a useful resource.

  17. In their anxiety to establish film's credentials, Altman writes, both the filmmakers of the preclassic silent years, when the “movies” played cultural second fiddle to the respectable stage, and the classier critics of today (to their cost, and film theory's) have “repressed” early cinema's inheritance from its prime rival, popular melodrama (the disreputable stage), with its spectacle, larger-than life “mythic” characters, and episodic multifocus plots (utterly unlike the well-made play's). Sensational theatrical adaptations from Balzac, Zola, and (of course) Dickens very often “mediated” film's experience of the texts; but it was the novels and the novelists who were mentioned on the posters outside the picture-houses.

    Indeed, Altman argues, it is the very fact that of all “highly respected nineteenth-century novelists,” the “most closely allied to popular sensibility and the melodrama is surely Charles Dickens,” that both guaranteed his novels' cannibalization by the popular theater and ensured they would be more filmed in more countries than any other novelist's—a fact which in turn, as cinema studies have gained respectability and Dickens' postwar reputation has continued to rise, has given his works a “spuriously pivotal function” in “arguments about the relationship between novel and cinema.” By investigating the “repressed” melodramatic mode and appeal of Dickens, Balzac, and other canonized “classical” novelists—always returned to center-stage by now equally “repressed” stage versions—Altman arrives at a suggestive reformulation of classical Hollywood narrative's “linear causality” and character motivation as (in Freudian terms) the “secondary elaboration” of filmic (dream) work: underneath, like bedrock, is the melodramatic content (329, 330, 348).

  18. Not surprisingly, writes Rachel Low, the novels were “mercilessly condensed”—mere illustrations (2:184).

  19. Also see Denis Gifford, The British Film Catalogue 1895-1970: A Reference Guide (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), and Ivan Butler, Cinema in Britain: An Illustrated Survey (London: Tantivy, 1973).

  20. “[Dickens'] works occupied a particularly important position in the British revival, for Hepworth, seeking to keep pace with the great world producers and at the same time retain his reputation for a characteristically English atmosphere, found in the novels of Dickens and the services of … Bentley, the ideal channel for his desired development” (Low 2:190).

  21. Publicity releases for Disney's Great Expectations read: “Many of the scenes were filmed in England at the locations described in the novel.”

  22. Bentley left Hepworth in 1915 for Trans-Atlantic, the European representative of the Universal Film Company of America, which then opened its operations in style with his Hard Times (Low 3:80). This appears to have been one of the tamest of Dickens adaptations. As the Kinematograph Monthly Film Record for October 1915 put it: “the sense of bitterness and indignation and biting satire left by the book has almost entirely disappeared” (quoted by Low 3:196-97).

  23. An incomplete copy of the Danish Little Dorrit is held by the British Film Institute.

  24. In “Black November,” 1924, not a single foot of film was exposed in British studios (Chanan 52-53).

  25. For a comparison of Dickens' 1868 dramatic-reading “Sikes and Nancy” to David Lean's version of the scene, see Manning 99-108.

  26. Poole's is an excellent short survey of the subject; although sketchy on pre-war film history, it is particularly incisive on British television's involvement with Dickens (to its detriment as well as its benefit) and on Dickens as an easily packaged, if not pre-chewed, international media product. “In [the] kind of climate,” he concludes, “where an economic drive towards globalizing the television product meets a socially-led boom in nostalgia generated by recession, it seems safe to predict that … future Dickens adaptations … will be heavily weighted towards the picturesque, the reassuring and the traditional” (159).

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper, 1990.

Altman, Rick. “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Theory Today.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989):321-59.

Benson, Sheila. Review of Little Dorrit. Los Angeles Times, 16 Nov. 1988:6.

Canby, Vincent. Review of Little Dorrit. New York Times, 26 Mar. 1988:11.

Caramagno, Thomas Carmelo. “The Dickens Revival at the Bijou: Critical Reassessment, Film Theory, and Popular Culture.” New Orleans Review 15 (1988) 88-96.

Carter, Everett. “Cultural History Written with Lightning: The Significance of The Birth of a Nation (1915).” Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context. Ed. Peter C. Rollins. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1983:9-19.

Castle, Terry. “Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie.” Critical Inquiry 15. 3 (1988):26-31.

Chanan, Michael. “The Emergence of an Industry.” British Cinema History, ed. James Curran and Vincent Porter. London: Weidenfeld, 1983.

Corliss, Richard. Review of Little Dorrit. Time, 28 Nov. 1988:92-93.

Davis, Paul. “Imaging Oliver Twist: Hogarth, Illustration, and the Part of Darkness.” Dickensian 62. 3 (1986).

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Ed. John Holloway. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

Doré, Gustave, and Blanchard Jerrold. London: A Pilgrimage. London: Grant, 1872.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today.” Collected in Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1985:370-80.

Edelstein, David. Review of Little Dorrit. New York Times Weekend, 21 Oct. 1988:29.

Ford, George, and Sylvere Monod, eds. Hard Times. New York: Norton, 1966.

Fuller, Graham. “Daring Dorrit.” Film Comment September-October 1988:28-30.

Gifford, Don. The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1990.

Greene, Graham. The Ministry of Fear. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

Gross, John. Review of Little Dorrit. New York Times, 30 Oct. 1988:22.

Jackson, Peter. George Scharf's London: Sketches and Watercolours of a Changing City, 1820-50. London: Murray, 1987.

Kroll, Jack. Review of Little Dorrit. Newsweek, 7 Nov. 1988:118.

Low, Rachael, and Roger Manvell. The History of the British Film. 3 vols. London: Bowker [vols. 1, 2] Allen [vol. 3], 1948-50.

Malcolm, Derek. “Double Dorrit.” Guardian [London], 27 Nov. 1987:22.

Manning, Sylvia. “Murder in Three Media: Adaptations of Oliver Twist.Dickens Quarterly 4. 2 (1987):99-108.

Mars-Jones, Adam. “Victorian Principles.” Independent [London], 10 Dec. 1987:16.

McAsh, Iain. “Dockland Dorrit.Films and Filming, Dec. 1987:18.

Metz, Christian. “Christian Metz on Jean Mitry's L'Esthétique et Psychologie du Cinéma, vol. II.” Screen 14. 1-2 (1973):40-87.

Nadel, Ira Bruce, and F. S. Schwarzbach, eds. Victorian Artists and the City: A Collection of Critical Essays. Oxford: Pergamon, 1980.

Orwell, George. “Charles Dickens.” An Age Like This: 1920-1940. Vol. 1 of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. New York: Harcourt, 1968. 413-60.

Pollack, Peter. The Picture History of Photography: from the Earliest Beginnings to the Present Day. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

Poole, Mike. “Dickens and Film: 101 Uses of a Dead Author.” The Changing World of Charles Dickens. Ed. Robert Giddings. Totowa, NJ: Barnes, 1983:148-62.

Schwarzbach, F. S. Dickens and the City. London: Athlone, 1979.

Showalter, Elaine. “Guilt, Authority, and the Shadows of Little Dorrit.Nineteenth Century Literature 34. 1 (1979):20-40.

Smith, Grahame. “Novel into Film: The Case of Little Dorrit.Yearbook of English Studies 20 (1990):33-47.

Sragow, Michael. Review of Little Dorrit. San Francisco Examiner, 16 Dec. 1988: C3+.

Stone, Harry, ed. Dickens's Working Notes for His Novels. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Thomas, Alan. Time in a Frame: Photography and the Nineteenth-Century Mind. New York: Schocken, 1977.

Vineberg, Steve. Review of Little Dorrit. Boston Phoenix, 16 Sept. 1988, Sec. 3:10.

Williams, Raymond. Introd. to Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1970.

Wills, Gary. “Dorrit without Politics.” New York Review of Books, 2 Feb. 1989:16-18.

Winn, Steve. “Dickens Story Lives in Potent Adaptation.” San Francisco Examiner, 25 Dec. 1988:27.

Zambrano, A. L. Dickens and Film. New York: Gordon, 1977.

Dominic Rainsford (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Rainsford, Dominic. “Flatness and Ethical Responsibility in Little Dorrit.Victorian Newsletter, no. 88 (fall 1995): 11-17.

[In the following essay, Rainsford studies characters in Little Dorrit who were adversely affected by childhood trauma well into middle age.]

Dickens's early novels typically end with the principal characters finding a home, a physical refuge from their problems. In later Dickens, characters tend to have to fall back, more movingly, on the resources of a toughened mind, and they have to be prepared to forgo tangible rewards. Louisa Gradgrind, in Hard Times (1854), represents a bleak version of this renunciation. In Little Dorrit (1855-57), on the other hand, something of the cheerful perseverance of a Mark Tapley—which, in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), had seemed to condemn that individual to being comic and secondary—can be detected in the readiness of Arthur Clennam to give up his present life and “begin the world”:

The shadow of a supposed act of injustice, which had hung over him since his father's death, was so vague and formless that it might be the result of a reality widely remote from his idea of it. But, if his apprehensions should prove to be well founded, he was ready at any moment to lay down all he had, and begin the world anew.


This romantic notion can be traced back to the dying Richard Carstone's promise to “begin the world” in the antepenultimate chapter of Bleak House (1852-53; 763), but some comparable form of redemption, rescue, or reformation of the character had always been required of the Dickens hero. A constant desire is manifest in the novels to make up for a bad past—for which the protagonist may be to blame, or for which he or she, like Esther Summerson, may simply be persuaded they are to blame. Even Oliver Twist may be seen as going through a punishing, educating process as a function of his inauspicious birth (Oliver Twist, 1837-38), and the first Dickens character who undertakes consciously to begin the world is probably Nicholas Nickleby, who must apply himself deliberately to make up for his unsatisfactory parents (Nicholas Nickleby, 1838-39). But the problems of Oliver and Nicholas are eventually met by neat solutions, whereas the impulse towards redemption or self-exculpation in later Dickens is far less easy to resolve.

The redemptive drive in Dickens's fiction connects, as has often been remarked, with his sense of his own early history, but it is also linked to the rhythm of his artistic practice. New beginnings were an occupational hazard of Dickens's work, and the extent to which he lived each work, and lived, above all, with its characters, must have made him feel as though he were passing through a series of incarnations. A few days before finishing Hard Times, having just disposed of Stephen Blackpool, Dickens wrote as follows to John Forster:

I am three parts mad, and the fourth delirious, with perpetual rushing at Hard Times. … I have been looking forward through so many weeks and sides of paper to this Stephen business, that now—as usual—it being over, I feel as if nothing in the world, in the way of intense and violent rushing hither and thither, could quite restore my balance.

(14 July 1854, Letters 2: 567)

This was not just a pleasantry. A few months later, writing to Mrs. Richard Watson, he said this:

Why I found myself so “used up” after Hard Times I scarcely know, perhaps because I intended to do nothing in that way for a year, when the idea laid hold of me by the throat in a very violent manner, and because the compression and close condensation necessary for that disjointed form of publication gave me perpetual trouble. But I really was tired, which is a result so very incomprehensible that I can't forget it.

(11 November 1854, 2: 602)

Here we have a picture of the novelist which is intimately related to the epistemology, social views, and emotional tone of the novels. In the writing process, it seems, one can get waylaid and lost—caught up, like Oliver by the Fagin gang, or like a bystander at the riots in Barnaby Rudge (1841). And the process does not, for Dickens, seem to have become any less troubling with the passage to time. Starting Little Dorrit seems to have been just as deranging an experience as starting Hard Times:

                                                            I suppose are fat and rosy
          am in the variable state consequent on the beginning of a new story.
                              (Dickens to W. H. Wills, 18 September 1855, 2: 691)

In earlier letters and prefaces Dickens had seemed very much in control of his career. In the 1841 advertisement for Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, the burden of novel-writing is accepted with pride and flamboyance (see Butt and Tillotson 89). But, later, Dickens comes more and more to confess that his career gets on top of him, that he is almost lost within it. Perhaps this is partly the consequence of age, but it is also a significant outgrowth both of Dickens's imagination and of his social insight: a realization in the man himself of the implications of his fictional worlds.

In keeping with this sense of being overwhelmed, of being at the mercy of destiny despite his appearance of power and success, is Dickens's increasingly considered and solemn treatment, in the later novels, of the ways in which the course of an individual's life can be adversely determined by past events. This is a psychologically sophisticated development of the more murky, superstitious link between the origins of Oliver, Little Nell (The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840-41), even Esther Summerson, and their subsequent trials. Stephen Blackpool, for example, is haunted by the inescapable past in the shape of his spouse, “the evil spirit of his life” (Hard Times 117). This is eerie, but it is also realistic, and it can be taken as part of a serious critique of the laws of divorce. Deliberately unrealistic spirits, on the other hand, are to be found, at an earlier stage of Dickens's career, in A Christmas Carol (1843), where the reader is cheered by a fantasy of the short-circuiting of the past—something which, when we compare it with the all too unfantastical bondage of someone like Stephen, becomes extremely poignant. The earlier Dickens was prone, at times, to confuse psychological verisimilitude with fairy-tale wish-fulfillment, as in Mr. Dombey's easy second chance at being a good father (Dombey and Son, 1847-48), but these were platitudes which belied Dickens's frequently clear perception of the unsolved social problems which individuals like Dombey represent.

In Little Dorrit, almost ten years after Dombey, the fatalistic view of life is firmly grounded in social observation. Thus Clennam's religiously oppressed childhood suggests William Blake's Experience—in its social detail as well as in its vigorously bitter tone. Consider, as a parallel to Blake's “Holy Thursday” or “The School Boy,” this reflection on Sundays:

There was the dreary Sunday of his childhood, when he sat with his hands before him, scared out of his senses by a horrible tract which commenced business with the poor child by asking him in its title, why he was going to Perdition? … There was the sleepy Sunday of his boyhood, when, like a military deserter, he was marched to chapel by a picquet of teachers three times a day, morally handcuffed to another boy; … There was the interminable Sunday of his nonage. …


Here Dickens prosecutes further his continuing struggle, in which he is aligned with Blake, against didactic/destructive children's literature and its unwitting distribution of mind-forged manacles (“morally handcuffed to another boy”).1 What is most striking about this novel is that these bad childhood influences are seen to be controlling the life of a middle-aged man.

In some respects Arthur Clennam could be said to be Walter Gay (from Dombey and Son) matured and Alan Woodcourt (Bleak House) brought to life, his financial failure being comparable—in a blighted, jaded way—to their ennobling shipwrecks. For he is essentially a well-intentioned, just, and helpful man. But he is also a morbid, tongueless sort of poet: as here, where Clennam, after losing Miss Meagles to the glamorous waster Gowan, has just cast his flowers on the river:

The lights were bright within doors when he entered, and the faces on which they shone, his own face not excepted, were soon quietly cheerful. They talked of many subjects (his partner never had had such a ready store to draw upon for the beguiling of the time), and so to bed, and to sleep. While the flowers, pale and unreal in the moonlight, floated away upon the river; and thus do greater things that once were in our breasts, and near our hearts, flow from us to the eternal seas.


Just so, “Pet”—Miss Meagles herself—“glided away” from Clennam a few paragraphs before. The echo is a little too exquisite, the moral is a trifle glib, and the sadness is somewhat picturesque. Is there not a touch of Skimpole's posing here—on Clennam's part and, possibly, the narrator's?

Clennam's failure seems to be related to his kindness, in a way that links him with characters like Jarndyce, Trooper George, David Copperfield, and Pip. All these individuals seem too hurt and chastened to be able to function in any powerful position, let alone aggressively. Self-confidence is reserved for Boodles and Buffys, Pecksniffs and Pumblechooks, Barnacles and Veneerings. Clennam's river is the same one into which the self-confident Gowan is discovered to be tossing stones, thereby disclosing his cruel nature, when we first meet him. Clennam here, and the implicit Dickens (who appeals for his readers' reassurance) seem to be nervous persons, quick to spot signs of danger in those around them: “Most of us,” the narrator claims, “have more or less frequently derived a similar impression, from a man's manner of doing some very little thing: plucking a flower, clearing away an obstacle, or even destroying an insentient object” (197). Elsewhere in the novel, the same need to identify dangerous people appears in more vulgar forms, in the physiognomic diagnosis of Miss Wade, for example, who broadcasts her embitterment in “a smile that is only seen on cruel faces: a very faint smile, lifting the nostril, scarcely touching the lips, and not breaking away gradually, but instantly dismissed when done with” (324). It is a hard world, apparently, containing irredeemably wrong-headed individuals—an idea that can be traced back to The Pickwick Papers (1836-37). But the hopelessness of trying to do anything about other people is all the more impressive, in Little Dorrit, because it is bound up with the protagonist's inability to do much about himself. And here I will come back to what may have seemed a reckless reference to Skimpole.

Clennam is a kind and sentimental man; Skimpole is a horror—lethally selfish, possessed with a spirit of frivolity which is terrifyingly impervious to the acutest needs and sufferings of those around him. But we apprehend something important about Dickens's later work if we see that Dickens was aware that these two can be assimilated into a single, complex but coherent account of human nature. Skimpole's self-confidence is obviously neurotic, trembling on the brink of self-parody. That does not make him any less repellent, but actually more so. He is not a purely fictional grotesque, but rather an image of what we (or people we know) might be like, should we (or they), in a certain way, go mad. If Esther Summerson really ends up thinking that Skimpole is wholly cynical, a calculating actor, then she is grossly simple-minded—but she is not, and Dickens, through the ambiguity of Esther's narrative, sensitively leaves Skimpole with his morally erosive power, his resistance to full categorization, intact. Clennam presents a reversal of these conditions. In place of Skimpole's irresponsibility, Clennam is over-responsible, agonizing about himself (like David Copperfield or Pip) in a way that limits him severely. His focusing on pathetic images—the flowers, the stones—is a form of paralysis, and is sickly dandified in its own way. Clennam's fear of Gowan's cruelty, or more generally Dickens's fear of the untender and unhinged (Skimpole, Sir John Chester, Miss Wade, Miss Havisham, and others), binds him as they are bound.

So how, in Little Dorrit, is this state of affairs to be endured? By the cultivation of sympathy, through the relation of others' failings to one's own. Thus Clennam's exploded dream of his sometime beloved, Flora:

With the sensation of becoming more and more lightheaded every minute, Clennam saw the relict of the late Mr. F enjoying herself in the most wonderful manner, by putting herself and him in their old places, and going through all the old performances—now, when the stage was dusty, when the scenery was faded, when the youthful actors were dead, when the orchestra was empty, when the lights were out. And still, through all this grotesque revival of what he remembered as having once been prettily natural to her, he could not but feel that it revived at sight of him, and that there was a tender memory in it.


There are Shakespearian echoes here: the poor player, dusty death, the insubstantial pageant faded. It is very serious stuff. But it is not clear whose “tender memory” is being referred to in the last sentence. Is it Flora's of Clennam, or Clennam's of Flora? This ambiguity is of the essence. Clennam sees his own limitations and absurdities reflected in Flora, and the gravity of the change that he witnesses, and the way in which it echoes a great number of instances of deterioration and folly throughout the novel, make specific mockeries and recriminations quite inappropriate. Flora, whose spirit could be felt to preside over the flowers that Clennam later throws on the water, for all her absurdity, has a symbolic presence equal to, though pathetically opposite to, her mythological namesake.2

The effect on Clennam of this encounter with Flora is not so much depressing as clarifying and simplifying. Clennam is confronted with a completely irremediable loss which gives him a newly sharp picture of what he himself is, and of what he cannot any longer have (an experience that is merely repeated in the loss of Miss Meagles). This expresses itself in Dickens's writing through an ascetic-seeming calmness and orderliness of diction:

When he got to his lodging, he sat down before the dying fire, as he had stood at the window of his old room looking out upon the blackened forest of chimneys, and turned his gaze back upon the gloomy vista by which he had come to that stage in his existence. So long, so bare, so blank. No childhood; no youth, except for one remembrance; the one remembrance proved, only that day, to be a piece of folly.


Like Louisa Gradgrind, Clennam has been the victim of a dreadfully misguided education, but has emerged with a sort of grave uprightness, of a personal and undogmatic type—mirrored in Dickens's sober cadences—which, while it is not much fun, is nonetheless worthy of respect. Hence the grim figure of Clennam's mother is not just reviled—she made Clennam what he is, principled as well as miserable—but held in awe. Her religiousness is not completely alien to Dickens's sensibility, any more than Blake was completely out of sympathy with the didactic fierceness of Barbauld, but it has become tragically reified. She is another icon of failure, like Flora; less ridiculous, but, in her own way, just as pitiful:

The shadow still darkening as he drew near the house, the melancholy room which his father had once occupied, haunted by the appealing face he had himself seen fade away with him when there was no other watcher by the bed, arose before his mind. Its close air was secret. The gloom, and must, and dust of the whole tenement, were secret. At the heart of it his mother presided, inflexible of face, indomitable of will, firmly holding all the secrets of her own and his father's life, and austerely opposing herself, front to front, to the great final secret of all life.


Mrs. Clennam's is another fixed state, about which nothing can be done. The great misfortune is that she has usurped a position of centrality in Clennam's life. She is at the heart of the house and seems to have infiltrated her son's heart too, whose romances are thereby condemned to go wrong. Her influence on him cannot be undone; she has discredited the spiritual and material highroads of life (for she is poisonous in commerce as well as in religion), and so he can only make his own way modestly, at the social periphery. Which is where Little Dorrit comes in.

Amy Dorrit is really rather odd. Odd and flat. “Of all the trying sisters a girl could have,” thought Fanny Dorrit, “the most trying sister was a flat sister” (570-71).3 Fanny seems to mean that Amy is unfashionable, lacking in glamour, devoid of frivolity, and that her very inoffensiveness is provoking: “and the consequence resulted that she was absolutely tempted and goaded into making herself disagreeable. Besides (she angrily told her looking-glass), she didn't want to be forgiven. It was not a right example, that she should be constantly stooping to be forgiven by a younger sister” (571). Dickens presents these sentiments as though he means to be wholly on Amy's side. Fanny is a self-contradictory feather-brain, whose petty self-concern implicitly makes Amy's pragmatic, nurse-like and housekeeperly attentions all the more commendable. But Fanny's remarks suggest misgivings which are applicable to the whole sequence of Dickensian good little women to which Amy is merely the latest addition. Agnes, in David Copperfield (1849-50), for example, could be said to have a flatness (sobriety, reliability) that reproaches and ultimately supplants the eye-catching Dora, while drab Esther fares much better than lustrous Ada Clare.

So, paradoxically, the neglected and put-upon Amy has a kind of power. While flat in certain respects, she is also a rather angular and provocative sister. She is the sort of girl who, in Dickens, turns out to be so successful that her vaunted virtues begin to jar. This is an aspect of Dickens's work that puts many readers off, but it has an admirable side to it. For just as Esther's oscillations between vanity and self-belittlement can be taken as invigorating—her weakness as an individual (if we are looking for a paragon) being her strength as a ludic narrator—so Amy's combination of dowdiness and efficiency can be disconcerting in a healthy way. I am thinking, in particular, of what must have seemed, in the 1850s, her startlingly forward handling of Clennam, to whom she in effect proposes marriage twice: once disguisedly, when she thinks that she will be wealthy (738), and then again, quite blatantly, when that pecuniary obstacle to Clennam's self-respect has proved to be illusory (792). This, by the standards of the time, is a subversion of the popular notion of a love story, just as Clennam is a deviation from commonplace ideals of the hero. Amy's businesslike proceeding would not do if she were to be paired off with a Nicholas Nickleby; it presupposes a complex but essentially stricken male lead.4

But it is important to recognize that Dickens means Amy to be odd. The name, “Little Dorrit,” is ugly enough in itself: Amy drags it through the incarcerating novel like a ball and chain. As Flora says, “and of all the strangest names I ever heard the strangest, like a place down in the country with a turnpike, or a favourite pony or a puppy or a bird or something from a seed-shop to be put in a garden or a flower-pot and come up speckled” (265). Dickens could be reproaching himself here, through Flora, for “Little Nell,” “Sissy Jupe,” and Esther's ugly names (“Cobweb,” “Dame Durden,” and the others). The “place down in the country with a turnpike” could be Pod's End. In fact, this style of naming comes to a crisis in Little Dorrit, where we also find “Pet” Meagles and the Meagleses' servant, “Tattycoram,” who, after an abortive rebellion, eventually begs for the restoration of her nickname (787). It would be easy to be indignant and dismissive about this, and to write Dickens off as incorrigibly patronizing towards young women. But there is more to it than that.

In particular, Little Dorrit's name is just one among a range of weird accessories which Dickens has chosen to attach to her. The most conspicuous of these, and the most disturbing, is her friend, dependent, and “child,” Maggy, the twenty-eight-year-old who thinks that she is ten, and whose “face was not exceedingly ugly, though it was only redeemed from being so by a smile; a good-humoured smile, and pleasant in itself, but rendered pitiable by being constantly there” (96). Like Miss Mowcher, the dwarf in Copperfield, Maggy is a moral challenge to whomever she meets. And we might well be disturbed by Dickens's intermingling of pity, in his treatment of her, with surreal comedy; not least in her first appearance: “Little Dorrit stopping and looking back, an excited figure of a strange kind bounced against them …, fell down, and scattered the contents of a large basket, filled with potatoes, in the mud” (95). Maggy pops up here like an absurd, unlooked-for, thoroughly bathetic supernumerary who simply will insert herself into Amy and Clennam's embryo romance.

The links between Amy, Maggy, and the process of naming, which are intimate and crucial, come out particularly clearly when Amy tentatively and complicatedly approaches the task of thanking Clennam—in this book which is riddled with false thanks, flagrant ingratitude, and all manner of emotional bad debts—for his payment of her unworthy brother's bail:

“Before I say anything else,” Little Dorrit began, … ; “may I tell you something, sir?”

“Yes, my child.”

A slight shade of distress fell upon her, at his so often calling her child. She was surprised that he should see it, or think of such a slight thing; but he said directly:

“I wanted a tender word, and could think of no other. As you just now gave yourself the name they give you at my mother's, and as that is the name which I always think of you, let me call you Little Dorrit.”

“Thank you, sir, I should like it better than any name.”

“Little Dorrit.”

“Little mother,” Maggy (who had been falling asleep) put in, as a correction.

“It's all the same, Maggy,” returned Little Dorrit, “all the same.”

“Is it all the same, mother?”

“Just the same.”

Maggy laughed, and immediately snored.


Amy resembles David Copperfield here, insofar as the multiplicity of alternative names foregrounds her multiple existence as the projection of other people's disparate needs.5 Maggy's absurdly exaggerated acceptance of the naming problem as solved simply points out what a live issue it really is.

In The Old Curiosity Shop, it will be recalled, Little Nell is the object of a great deal of oppressive scrutiny—from her grandfather, from Quilp, from Master Humphrey and his friends, and, not least, from an excessively doting author. In Bleak House, Esther often seems to be playfully (or perhaps worryingly?) interfered with by her fellow narrator and by Dickens—given a certain amount of eccentric freedom, but with her mind laid open in its foibles and its fears. Similarly, in Little Dorrit, the heroine is obsessively watched by the author and by the male protagonist. For just as Dickens marks or morally handcuffs Amy with an odd name and an odd companion, so Clennam manages to detect the sole “spot” of “prison atmosphere” on his future wife—when she repines, momentarily, at her father's still having to pay his debts after so many years in prison (409). Such is Clennam's propensity for finding gloomy symbols, forms of memento mori, like the flowers on the river or like Flora gone-to-seed, that for him to be able to look at Amy in this way seems a natural prerequisite for their alliance: her freakishness, or small spiritual disability, is precisely what he needs. This makes Clennam worryingly similar to Amy's father, whose dependence upon her tempts Dickens into conjuring up a scenario that is unusual both in its recondite classicism and because it is (albeit gingerly) erotic:

There was a classical daughter once—perhaps—who ministered to her father in his prison as her mother had ministered to her. Little Dorrit, though of the unheroic modern stock, and mere English, did much more, in comforting her father's wasted heart upon her innocent breast, and turning to it a fountain of love and fidelity that never ran dry or waned, through all his years of famine.


Dorrit taking his daughter as his mother, Clennam calling his future wife a child, Maggy being the “child” of a mother younger than herself—all these, despite Dickens's evident awareness, from time to time, of their frightening aspects—are hopelessly intermingled with the obsessions of the narrator and of Dickens himself. Hence the motif of the small child carrying the outsize baby, which not only appears repeatedly in the main narrative (100, 130), but also turns up, apparently taken straight from the life, in Dickens's 1857 Preface (lix-lx).

More and more, in Dickens's later work, the polyvocal worlds of the novel become subdued to a single eccentric way of seeing, in which the boundaries between protagonist and narrator fade away.6 Frequently this process is imaged microcosmically within the text. For instance, in Clennam's blighted vision as he approaches his mother's house:

As he went along, upon a dreary night, the dim streets by which he went seemed all depositories of oppressive secrets. The deserted counting-houses, with their secrets of books and papers locked up in chests and safes; the banking-houses, with their secrets of strong rooms and wells, the keys of which were in a very few secret pockets and a very few secret breasts; the secrets of all the dispersed grinders in the vast mill, among whom there were doubtless plunderers, forgers, and trust-betrayers of many sorts, whom the light of any day that dawned might reveal; he could have fancied that these things, in hiding, imparted a heaviness to the air.


Clennam can usefully be thought of as “Marking” here, in the double sense of Blake's “London”: “I … mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe” (26). That is to say, it is not clear how much evil and suffering he is discovering in the world and how much he is projecting onto it: his mind and his surroundings blend into one another. Just so, Clennam is marking weakness and woe in Amy, when he spots the “spot,” with just the active/passive ambiguity, the generality of spoiled perception, that we know from Blake's poem. More than this, Clennam seeing Amy's “spot” parallels Amy seeing Clennam's error in too often calling her “child”: this binding together in a shared weakness is what makes this Dickens's most impressive, least idealized love story until, perhaps, Pip and Estella (Great Expectations, 1860-61).

And Little Dorrit is far more than just a love story. It takes an exceptionally wide view of society, while intimately relating that view to the cast of mind of the central characters, so that Amy, for example, is exactly right for the world of her novel—whereas Sissy Jupe was not at all right for hers.7 Sissy was designed to embody some sort of childish pastoral ideal, but Amy, as we have seen, is quite non-standard. Accordingly, Little Dorrit betrays a thorough disillusionment with the standard or ideal in society at large, and with most of society's defining institutions. Hence, just as in Bleak House, good developments in Little Dorrit seem to require the offices of an eccentric freelance agent—Pancks, in this case, standing in for Inspector Bucket. Pancks and Bucket are the wonderful opponents of inertia, the vanquishers of circumlocution, but they are almost fairy-tale beings, the sort that cannot be relied upon to exist, suggesting a mismanaged society in which it will simply be a very lucky turn of events if one finds happiness and success.

The collapse of confidence in civic values in Little Dorrit engenders a great efflorescence of jaded wit. This passage, for example, contains what is probably the best pun in Dickens: “Clennam found that the Gowan family were a very distant ramification of the Barnacles; and that the paternal Gowan, originally attached to a legation abroad, had been pensioned off as a Commissioner of nothing in particular somewhere or other, and had died at his post with his drawn salary in his hand, nobly defending it to the last extremity” (201). The heroically self-sacrificing warrior/diplomat (drawn sword) collapses instantly into the pathetic money-grubber: it is hard to imagine a neater deflation of the Imperial British ideal. But that the ruling cadres should have been reduced to Barnacles, even though it occurs in the words of the impersonal narrator, is not quite to be taken as Dickens's considered opinion. It fits too well with the vision of the disenchanted protagonist. That vision, and not society itself in any objective sense, seems to be the focus of Dickens's late books. And, in Little Dorrit, the disenchanted vision amounts to something like an inversion of the Blakean sublime, as in this spoofed apotheosis upon the return of the civil servant Sparkler from Italy to England:

The land of Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Newton, Watt, the land of a host of past and present abstract philosophers, natural philosophers, and subduers of Nature and Art in their myriad forms, called to Mr. Sparkler to come and take care of it, lest it should perish. Mr. Sparkler, unable to resist the agonised cry from the depths of his country's soul, declared that he must go.


This, just like the very different exaltation of much the same group of distinguished individuals—“Bacon & Newton & Locke, & Milton & Shakspear & Chaucer”—towards the end of Blake's Jerusalem (257), is not meant to be temperate or rational. What is crucial is the emotional state of the speaker, as the reader can deduce it. Dickens's social criticism is all the more effective for the quirkiness with which it is expressed—whether on Clennam's part or the narrator's. To attempt to communicate in a straightforward way would be to suggest that the social malaise was not pervasively corrupting, whereas in fact Little Dorrit reads as the authentically deranged, if elegantly crafted, product of a declining civilization.8

The plot of Little Dorrit is often said to be one of Dickens's weakest. But that is in keeping with the book's aesthetic of flatness and its disillusioned spirit. A solidly constructed, clear, compelling plot would have been insensitive. Dickens partakes of Clennam's careful unassertiveness. The sense of precariousness, and of the uncommonness of the right circumstances conspiring to bring happiness, is echoed in Dickens's wariness of strong literary form, as much as in his lack of interest in the ancient, the venerated, and the foreign (Rome and Venice, for example)—anything that distracts us from the here and now, or that might seem to belittle the human scale. On both these counts, Dickens could be accused of philistinism, but it is rather that he is being faithful to his own artistic voice, which, despite the great magnitude of his texts, becomes, in details, more and more fastidious and thoughtfully controlled. And this control is ultimately accountable to Dickens's ethical awareness of the responsibility that his authorial status entails. Dickens, like Clennam, accepts the sober, self-doubting, and self-limiting role that his conscience represents to him as being inescapable.


  1. Compare Dickens's depiction of destructive educational practices in Mrs. Monflathers (The Old Curiosity Shop) and Mrs. Pipchin (Dombey and Son).

  2. A reference to the goddess Flora appears in Bleak House (540).

  3. Neither the flatness that Fanny is referring to here nor the flatness that I am putting forward as a general characteristic of this novel is to be confused with E. M. Forster's well-known discussion of “flat” and “round” characters (73-81). Clennam and Little Dorrit are not caricatures, but are flat in the way that a real acquaintance might strike us as flat—having lost his or her fizz. Forster maintains that “Dickens's people are nearly all flat” and that “Pip and David Copperfield attempt roundness, but so diffidently that they seem more like bubbles than solids” (76). But what Forster fails to appreciate is that the insubstantiality which he detects in Pip and David is a leading theme of their respective novels. See also Squires on “flat but split characters” (51).

  4. Cf. Thomas's comparative reading of Great Expectations and Jane Eyre, where he argues “that the female protagonist more successfully imagines her selfhood as something to be achieved, whereas the male protagonist is inclined to think of it as something to be endowed” (189). This idea can be applied fruitfully to various leading males and females who are in one way or another paired within individual Dickens novels: not just Estella and Pip, Amy and Clennam, but also Esther and Richard, for example. See also Metz: “with Amy … Dickens' insights outran his more limited intentions” (233). And compare Clayton, who talks of Amy as a visionary figure and a “liminal entity” who disrupts and redeems a Blakean-sounding “iron chain of narrative” (122-39).

  5. David Copperfield's names include David, Davy, Daisy, Doady, Trotwood, Trot, Murdstone, Copperfield, and Copperfull.

  6. My use of “polyvocal” derives mainly from Bakhtin. For sustained applications of Bakhtinian and related theory to Dickens, see Flint 47-67; Davies, passim; and Harris 445-58. My argument at this point is, in a sense, anti-Bakhtinian: the apparent heteroglossia of the late Dickens novel is limited by the fact that narrator and central characters come to express themselves in similar, typically jaded and alienated, ways. Dickens becomes progressively more monologic. For a sophisticated argument to the effect that all novels “at the most encompassing level” are monologic, see Sturgess 45-51 (48).

  7. See Field for more on the ways in which the central plot and the social commentary of this novel support one another.

  8. Parallels with my Blakean approach will be seen in Horne's use of Flannery O'Connor, whose “statements point to something we find in Little Dorrit more strongly … than in any of Dickens's other novels—that is, (1) his ‘prophetic vision,’ meaning ‘a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up,’ and (2) an implied view that the reader is, at least in part, one whose ‘sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration’ and must be reminded of it through bizarre, even violent, actions in the novel” (534, quoting O'Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald [New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1969]). I would simply add that there is the strangeness of the narrator's or implied author's stance to be considered too.

Works Cited

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Newly revised ed. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1988.

Butt, John, and Kathleen Tillotson. Dickens at Work. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Clayton, Jay. Romantic Vision and the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Davies, James A. The Textual Life of Dickens's Characters. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Ed. George Ford and Sylvère Monod. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

———. Hard Times. Ed. George Ford and Sylvère Monod. Norton Critical Edition. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

———. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Walter Dexter. The Nonesuch Dickens. 3 vols. London: Nonesuch, 1938.

———. Little Dorrit. Ed. Harvey Peter Sucksmith. The Clarendon Dickens. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Field, Darin E. “‘Two Spheres of Action and Suffering’: Empire and Decadence in Little Dorrit.Dickens Quarterly 7 (1990): 379-83.

Flint, Kate. Dickens. New Readings. Brighton: Harvester, 1986.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. Ed. Oliver Stallybrass. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Harris, Wendell V. “Bakhtinian Double Voicing in Dickens and Eliot.” ELH 57 (1990): 445-58.

Horne, Lewis. “Little Dorrit and the Region of Despair.” Dalhousie Review 69 (1990): 533-48.

Metz, Nancy. “Blighted Tree and the Book of Fate: Female Models of Storytelling in Little Dorrit.Dickens Studies Annual 18 (1989): 221-42.

Squires, Michael. “The Structure of Dickens's Imagination in Little Dorrit.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30 (1988): 49-64.

Sturgess, Philip J. M. Narrativity: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Thomas, Ronald. Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Laura Peters (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5033

SOURCE: Peters, Laura. “The Histories of Two Self-Tormentors: Orphans and Power in Little Dorrit.The Dickensian 91, no. 3 (winter 1995): 187-96.

[In the following essay, Peters proposes that orphans and criminals are represented in Victorian fictional discourse in the same way; she examines two orphans in Little Dorrit to illustrate her point.]

To make visible the unseen can also mean a change of level, addressing oneself to a layer of material which had hitherto had no pertinence for history and which had not been recognised as having any moral, aesthetic or historical value.1

The prison, both literal and metaphorical, in Little Dorrit has received a considerable amount of critical attention in the pioneering work of Philip Collins's Dickens and Crime, Lionel Trilling's metaphorical probing in The Opposing Self,2 and more recently in Natalie McKnight's book Idiots, Madmen and Other Prisoners in Dickens. However, apart from McKnight's book3 there has been little critical endeavour to theorise the representation of the prison in Little Dorrit as part of a larger nineteenth-century disciplinary discourse centred around Jeremy Bentham's concept of the Panopticon. Michel Foucault, in his early work Discipline and Punish,4 argues that this disciplinary discourse is one of the products of an epistemological break which results in the construction of an individual subject who is a product of intersecting power relations and discourses. The ‘ideal’ power relations embedded within the design of the Panopticon interest Foucault very much; he refers to it as ‘a figure of political technology’5. Foucault finds these power relations as informing both the nineteenth- and twentieth-century design of hospitals, insane asylums, schools and working-class housing estates. For my purposes, the key element of this design that forms the basis of the larger disciplinary discourse is the issue of continuous visibility, either by surveillance or by solitary confinement, and how this constructs the psyche of the subject. Continuous visibility brings with it continuous self-consciousness which marks the beginning of a process of internal reform. As the knowledge of visibility is internalised, the surveillance is gradually undertaken by the subject him/herself in a process of self-scrutiny. The process is complete when the subject not only polices him/herself but reproduces the surveillance (and the power that is embedded in it) on another.

The primary concern of such political technology, Foucault argues, is to subject to visibility those that threaten the normative collective values of the society at large, especially criminals and deviants who seem to pose a subversive threat. Other such figures who were the focus of a great deal of cultural anxiety in mid-Victorian Britain were the burgeoning population of street children6 and particularly, orphans. In this essay, I will argue that ultimately in Little Dorrit the orphan and the criminal occupy the same margins; as such, they are the targets of a disciplinary discourse and the products of continuous visibility. The criminal and the orphan are both alienated figures: the criminal, as a punishment, is removed from society (marginalised), while the orphan, having no family, is born in a state that is outside society. This lack of family results in a lack of social place—a marginalised existence—and as a result it is possible to trace strong similarities in the discursive representation of the orphan and the criminal. This disciplinary discourse leads to the orphan's being subjected to what I term as a ‘penal narrative’—a mode of narrating that attempts to recoup the orphan into the normative standards of the family. The familial configuration has relevance not only for the individual family unit but as a trope for mid-Victorian society and ultimately for the colonies and empire.

To illustrate my argument I will focus on two orphan figures in Little Dorrit, Miss Wade and Tattycoram, to determine the extent of the influence of these disciplinary endeavours. Ultimately, then, I am tracing a process of double marginalisation, where the orphan is not only dominated but becomes the gaoler of another orphan figure. In other words, the orphan under surveillance takes responsibility for the continuation of reform in her own psyche and becomes the agent of the dominating power.

The orphan, Miss Wade, has a fragment entitled ‘The History of a Self-Tormentor’. When Miss Wade gives Arthur Clennam ‘something I have written and put by for your perusal’7, she establishes Arthur as an authority figure, disregarding Arthur's claim that he has ‘no authority or influence’ (LD, 660). One result of Foucault's theorising is that the fictional autobiographical narrative may now be read as a product of self-surveillance; a form of psychological confession. The crucial significance of this reading of the fictional autobiography as confession is its relationship to the reader and how it ultimately empowers the reader. This will become especially relevant in the relationships between Miss Wade and Arthur, and between Little Dorrit and Arthur. Both women give Arthur their narratives. The reader, in this case Arthur Clennam and ourselves, becomes the authority who requires and judges the confession. Despite Miss Wade's disclaimer that she ‘set[s] no value on [her narrative]’, she not only feels ‘inclined to tell’ her narrative to Arthur but, crucially, she asks permission to give it to Arthur, ‘Shall I give you something […] or shall I hold my hand?’ (LD, 660). Miss Wade feels a need to explain herself (or her hatred) to Arthur, whom she also recognises as a figure of kind; there exists a kinship of marginalisation between Arthur and Miss Wade, arising from their orphanhood. Thus, they share the same temper—Arthur's is an ‘unreasonable temper’ (LD, 546), while Miss Wade's is a ‘violent’ temper (LD, 328) full of ‘anger and ill-blood’—terms which create a possible shared intertextual genealogy between Miss Wade, Rosa Dartle (David Copperfield) and Bertha Mason (Jane Eyre).

Miss Wade's penal narrative, ‘The History of a Self-Tormentor’, reveals the effect of the internalisation of this temper and orphanhood. Miss Wade's narrative is her case history—the language of which is the discourse of discipline. From an early age Miss Wade has ‘detected’ (LD, 663) things about herself and the people around her—in fact, she first subjected herself to the same microscopic examination to which she later subjects Tattycoram. Miss Wade's revelation of the care with which she has ‘studied’ (LD, 659) herself and people about her implies the compilation of her case history. This observation then is a method of gaining both knowledge and power over an individual by learning their inner nature (perhaps a perverse extension of De Cerjat's Knowledge is Power that Dickens read in 1854). Miss Wade's self-scrutiny finds an immediate cause for her sense of marginalisation: the patronage she detects is a direct result of her orphanhood. ‘There was no other orphan among us; and I perceived […] that they conciliated me in an insolent pity, and in a sense of superiority’ (LD, 663). Miss Wade repeatedly ‘tries’ (LD, 663) her hypothesis and interprets the results as supporting her conclusion. The additional discovery that she does not, in fact, have any living relations—that she is a true orphan—is knowledge that reinforces both her feeling of alienation and her determination to alienate herself: ‘I carried the light of that information both into my past and into my future’ (LD, 665).

Miss Wade is actively alienated by her orphan identity as outsider and as ‘other’: ‘I saw, in the children's shrinking away, a vague impression that I was not like other people’ (LD, 667). Later Mr Meagles reinforces this otherness: ‘you were a mystery to all of us, and had nothing in common with any of us […] I don't know what, but you don't hide, can't hide, what a dark spirit you have’ (LD, 329-30). But Miss Wade also actively emphasises this otherness by reinforcing her alienation. Our initial introduction to Miss Wade establishes her as ‘a handsome young Englishwoman, travelling quite alone, who had a proud observant face, and had either withdrawn herself from the rest or been avoided by the rest—nobody, herself excepted perhaps, could have decided which’ (LD, 22). Miss Wade does ‘decide which’ in asserting her ‘independence’ by refusing all endeavours that she feels are patronising in nature: ‘These disappointments of her patronage were a sharp retort, and made me feel independent’ (LD, 665). Miss Wade's entire narrative is a continuous assertion of her independence through the rejection of perceived patronage which always ultimately results in her departure and consequently her alienation.

Miss Wade's account of her experience as ‘correcting [… her] belief in many respects’ (LD, 23) parallels a Foucauldian process of internal reformation. In a novel dominated by the metaphor of a prison, it is not coincidental that Dickens takes the opportunity to depict Miss Wade in the shadow—which is her internal prison. ‘The solitary young lady […] silently withdrew to a remote corner of the great room, where she sat […] seeming to watch the reflection of the water, as it made a silver quivering on the bars of the lattice’ (LD, 23). By showing that Miss Wade is a self-imprisoned figure Dickens reveals the extent to which Miss Wade has internalised her sense of oppression—her orphanhood has become her prison. So Miss Wade's declaration that ‘If I had been shut up in any place to pine and suffer, I should always hate that place and wish to burn it down, or raze it to the ground’ (LD, 23) actually signifies to the reader what she is doing to herself. Miss Wade is ‘shut up’—in a form of self-imprisonment and self-torment—and all her destructive efforts are ultimately directed towards herself, in an effort to ‘burn’ herself down. In this, Miss Wade can be read as an extreme form of Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield who has ground herself on the grindstone. Likewise Miss Wade is ‘devouring her own heart’ (LD, 656) in a way similar to Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre who devours her own heart and mind and then ultimately burns down her prison (Thornfield).

This self-destructive endeavour has special relevance for Miss Wade's treatment of Tattycoram, in whom Miss Wade discovers ‘a singular likeness’ (LD, 671). Mr Meagles, for once, displays true perception in his warning, ‘I warn her against you, and I warn you against yourself’ (LD, 330). Miss Wade sees herself as Tattycoram's liberator but in reality she is another of Tattycoram's gaolers. In Tattycoram, Miss Wade simultaneously sees both herself and a figure to be reformed and dominated. The reader is left in no doubt about the power relationship when Miss Wade likens Tattycoram to ‘a spaniel’ (LD, 661). The relationship between Miss Wade and Tattycoram, then, is one in which Miss Wade seeks to reproduce the external and internal oppression and alienation that she has experienced. In other words, having internalised the oppression, Miss Wade now seeks actively to reproduce it through the domination of another orphan figure.

In this novel structured on the notion of the Panopticon—with its emphasis on surveillance, confession and reform—Miss Wade uses these same techniques of domination to gain power over Tattycoram. By observing Tattycoram, or in other words by keeping Tattycoram under surveillance, Miss Wade gains the knowledge of Tattycoram's true nature. Indeed, the scene in the chapter entitled ‘Fellow Travellers’ makes Miss Wade's visual and aural surveillance of Tattycoram explicit: ‘She [Miss Wade] heard an angry sound of muttering and sobbing. A door stood open, and within she saw the attendant upon the girl she had just left; the maid with the curious name. She stood still, to look at this maid. A sullen passionate girl!’ (LD, 25). Tattycoram's surroundings—first in quarantine and later abandoned in her hotel room—can be read as forms of solitary confinement. The knowledge of Tattycoram's case history, which Miss Wade inherently knows as her own by simultaneously observing and living it, allows Miss Wade to gain influence over her which she subsequently uses to ‘liberate’ Tattycoram: but in reality this liberation takes the form of a more intense isolation through which she can exercise her domination.

Miss Wade's first action is to unname Tattycoram by reverting back to her foundling name Harriet. She views this unnaming process as a method of nullifying the Meagleses' power. But, significantly, Miss Wade chooses to revert to the name that re-emphasises Tattycoram's foundling identity even more so than the ‘coram’ in Tattycoram. In the interview with Miss Wade after Tattycoram's departure from the Meagleses, the reader can see that Miss Wade's gestures towards Tattycoram are those of domination: leading Tattycoram by the hand; holding Tattycoram's neck ‘protectingly’ (LD, 329); and putting her arm about Tattycoram's waist ‘as if she [Miss Wade] took possession of her [Tattycoram] for evermore’ (LD, 330).

Similarly, Miss Wade's language is the discourse of domination which serves to reinforce Tattycoram's marginalisation: she continually reinforces Tattycoram's otherness by reminding her not to forget her ‘birth’ (LD, 328). She emphasises that Mr Meagles's renaming Tattycoram was a method of isolation to ‘set [Tattycoram] apart’ (LD, 328), for the change in name from Harriet, with its fairly genteel class associations to Tattycoram also implies a social decline. In describing Tattycoram's status with the Meagleses as a ‘foil’, a ‘slave’ and a ‘toy’ (LD, 328), Miss Wade endeavours to convince Tattycoram of her new-found freedom. In short, Miss Wade is trying to reform Tattycoram by instilling in Tattycoram a truth of Miss Wade's construction—a truth which is a tool in the power relations of Miss Wade's domination.

The reader is able to witness the success of Miss Wade's oppressive endeavours when she offers Tattycoram the choice between her truth or the Meagleses'. Tattycoram's rejection of the Meagleses and her choice—‘Miss Wade, take me away please’ (LD, 329)—is an embrace of Miss Wade's truth. So Miss Wade's identification with Tattycoram, (‘The foundation of my influence here, […] is founded in a common cause […] She has no name, I have no name. Her wrong is my wrong’ (LD, 330)), reveals the degree to which her treatment of Tattycoram is on one level an external manifestation of her own self-tormenting. However, on another level, Miss Wade's motivating desire is really to project her wrong onto Tattycoram's wrong, and thus to draw Tattycoram into her own oppressive shadowy margin. At that point Miss Wade will finally possess the superiority she so desires, and by achieving this, will have reproduced the same dominant power relations.

This pattern of power relations involving a self-tormenting female evidently fascinated Dickens. A more strongly foregrounded example is Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Both Miss Wade and Miss Havisham suffer inordinately by their sense of rejection from men and both women seek to construct an orphan prodigy as an agent of revenge. In a very significant conflation of the orphan and criminal narratives, Miss Havisham chooses the ‘orphan’ Estella who is the offspring of two criminals—a criminalised father and a murderous mother—to be her avenger and subjects her to an intensive disciplinary regime. While in what could be read as solitary confinement in Satis House, Estella's observation of Miss Havisham's warped persona is ultimately internalised and reproduced. In one of her rare narrative fragments, Estella succinctly describes her childhood and its effects:

You had not your little wits sharpened by their intriguing against you, suppressed and defenceless, under the mask of sympathy and pity and what not, that is soft and soothing—I had. You did not gradually open your round childish eyes wider and wider to the discovery of that impostor of a woman who calculates her stores of peace of mind for when she wakes up in the night—I did

(GE, Ch. 33).

Estella becomes the agent of Miss Havisham's revenge in her role as male-tormentor. In fact, Estella repeatedly acknowledges that her identity is a total construct of Miss Havisham's disciplinary endeavour, ‘I must be taken as I have been made’. Even when Miss Havisham, aghast like Frankenstein at what she has created, begs for an emotional response from Estella, Estella can only reproduce the discourse she has internalised. ‘All that you have given me, is at your command to have again. Beyond that, I have nothing. And if you ask me to give you what you never gave me my gratitude and duty cannot do impossibilities’ (GE, Ch. 38).

If what Arthur and Miss Wade have in common, besides their marginalisation, is their temper (even if Arthur's is now deeply repressed), then Tattycoram is defined, not only by her names but by her temper. Tattycoram's possession of a temper full of ‘passion and protest’ (LD, 197), ‘chafing and fire’ (LD, 321) empowers her to such an extent that Mr Meagles declares ‘The bolts and bars of the old Bastille couldn't keep her’ (LD, 320). Meagles's reference to the Bastille (and the old social order that it represents) in a novel exploring the effect of imprisonment on the individual is significant in its illumination of the situation in the Meagles family. In Little Dorrit, then, the temper shared by the three marginalised orphans becomes a metaphor for individual will. Tattycoram's declarations throughout the novel of ‘I will’ (LD, 26) and ‘I won't’ (LD, 329, 330, 661) emphasise this individual will.

Simultaneously, Tattycoram's unknown origins and her temper also serve to identify her as a potential target for reformation—one who needs to be controlled. The Meagleses are willing to overlook her temper as a flaw resulting from the lack of a family who would have provided the disciplinary force:

If we should find her temper a little defective, or any of her ways a little wide of ours, we shall know what we have to take into account. We shall know what an immense deduction must be made from all the influences and experiences that have formed us—no parents, no child-brother or sister, no individuality of home, no Glass Slipper, or Fairy Godmother

(LD, 18).

Through knowledge of Tattycoram's case history the Meagleses feel they know the ‘truth’ about Tattycoram (even though they do not even know her name). This truth enables them to endeavour to reform Tattycoram—a process which is actually a set of power relations in which the Meagleses are the dominant power. These relations are manifested on a social level by Tattycoram's position in the household as Pet's maid: Mr Meagles's introduction of Tattycoram into the novel, as a servile appendage to Pet, belongs to the discourse of domination: ‘Tattycoram, stick close to your young mistress’ (LD, 17). This mode of introduction is further developed when Tattycoram is figured as an appendage to the Meagles family, rather like Miss Wade in her ‘family’: ‘There was even the later addition of a conservatory sheltering itself against it [the main family house], uncertain of hue in its deep-stained glass, and in its more transparent portions flashing to the sun's rays, now like fire and now like harmless water drops; which might have stood for Tattycoram’ (LD, 191).

Mr Meagles's formulaic ‘Five-and-twenty, Tattycoram, five-and-twenty’ (LD, 321) is a microcosm of his larger efforts to reform her temper through indoctrination. Even the process of renaming her, from a jumble of old names as if she were the spaniel that Miss Wade refers to, illustrates their domination (this naming process is not too far removed from the naming of slaves). By choosing to adopt the surname Coram, which is the surname of the man who established the Foundling Hospital, the Meagleses reinforce her orphan genealogy. After Tattycoram's outburst, the prelude to her departure, Mr Meagles admits that perhaps they have inadvertently marginalised Tattycoram, but as one who ‘looks on’ as a ‘mere outsider’, Tattycoram should have ‘borne’ it (LD, 321). Mr Meagles's response to Tattycoram's outburst is that of domination: he ‘gave her [his …] hand and took her to her room, and locked the house doors’ (LD, 323). He gives her another chance to reform in the isolation (the solitary confinement) of her room. Through these images, it becomes apparent that the Meagleses act both as Tattycoram's gaolers and as agents of reform who are furthering the endeavours first initiated by the Foundling Hospital.

When Tattycoram explodes, asserts her will, and demands that her narrative be told, the reader thinks that perhaps the Meagleses have been unsuccessful in their efforts to subdue Tattycoram. Even five-and-twenty fails to suppress Tattycoram:

Such a picture of passion as you never saw, she stopped short, looked me full in the face, and counted (as I made out) to eight. But she couldn't control herself to go any further. There she broke down, poor thing, and gave the other seventeen to the four winds. Then it all burst out

(LD, 322).

Tattycoram's narrative, the narrative that she will tell, constructs her identity as ‘miserable’, ‘unloved’, ‘exulted over’, ‘shamed’. She feels dehumanised (correctly so) in being named and treated like a dog. The Meagleses do treat her as if she were somehow subhuman: when first at the Foundling Hospital, Mrs Meagles refers to the orphan children with the pronoun ‘it’, and when describing Tattycoram's narrative Mr Meagles refers to its narrator as a ‘vehement panting creature’ (LD, 323). This dehumanising of the orphan figures by considering them virtually as members of a subspecies is the common fate of not only the orphan figure, but also the criminal.

Although Tattycoram's outburst gives vent to her temper and her subsequent flight appears as an act of self-liberation, the Meagleses' reforming efforts have been more successful than they realise. Tattycoram's first action in the novel—a gesture of submission (the ‘half curtsey’) in response to Mr Meagles's command to ‘stick close to your mistress’ (LD, 17)—foreshadows her final display of submission. In addition to Miss Wade, the reader is able to observe Tattycoram's initial display of temper in her first narrative fragment. But this same display is unsettling in that it reveals Tattycoram's ‘tearing’ hand busy in an effort of self-mutilation which is strongly self-punitive, ‘[plucking] her lips’ and ‘pinching her neck, [which was] freshly disfigured with great scarlet blots’ (LD, 26). Tattycoram's narrative fragments reveal her acute awareness that she does not ‘signify to any one’ (LD, 26); the knowledge of being unloved tortures her—a torture which she then reproduces in her self-punitive gestures. This fragment culminates in Tattycoram's assertion of her individual will: ‘I don't care for that. I'll run away. I'll do some mischief. I won't bear it; I can't bear it; I shall die if I try to bear it!’ (LD, 26). But her actions parallel the progressive diffusion of her will in the movement of her language from the assertion of her will to the nullification of this will through death. Her assertion of her will (in the form of her temper) is gradually repressed by her punitive and self-reforming gestures. Her narrative dwindles to ‘broken murmurs’ and her physical gestures move from defiance, to punishment to submission: ‘She sank […] upon her knees […] upon the ground beside the bed, drawing the coverlet with her, half to hide her shamed head […] and half […] to embrace it, rather than have nothing to take to her repentant breast’ (LD, 27). This pattern of assertion of will followed by gradual submission will be repeated by Tattycoram throughout the novel. Indeed, this scene is a miniature of the larger process of domination which exists in the penal narrative—namely, disciplinary endeavours are first internalised and then actively reproduced. In this scene, Tattycoram gradually applies disciplinary techniques for the repression of her temper which she has learned from the Meagleses. Her final, submissive, ‘broken’ posture, wanting only to ‘pray’ (LD, 27), is the successful end product of this disciplinary endeavour. The use of the word ‘broken’ recalls Arthur's self-portrait as the product of a similar familial and religious disciplinary endeavour.

When Tattycoram puts this same ‘unsparing hand’ (LD, 26) (a hand also seen by Miss Wade as ‘repressing’ in Miss Wade's and demands her to ‘take me away’ (LD, 328) the reader witnesses not only Tattycoram's submission to a woman of whom she is afraid (and to a woman who, she knows, continually keeps her under surveillance), but also the reproduction of the same structure of dominance from which she fled. Miss Wade, then, as mentioned above, acts as a vehicle for the continuance of Tattycoram's oppression and reformation. Tattycoram's time with Miss Wade is akin to solitary confinement—a time when Tattycoram can meditate simultaneously upon herself and on the figure of Miss Wade, her other self. As a result of her vulnerability during this confinement Tattycoram is receptive to Miss Wade's suggestions. Miss Wade then becomes her gaoler leading her in and out by the hand. Ironically, it is Miss Wade who, albeit unknowing, furthers the disciplinary process: ‘You can have your droll name again, playfully pointing you out and setting you apart, as it is right you should be pointed out and set apart (Your birth, you know; you must not forget your birth)’ (LD, 328). Miss Wade reinforces Tattycoram's marginalisation first by actively removing her from others and then constantly reinforcing Tattycoram's dependent position as an orphan. It is Miss Wade who reveals to Tattycoram that what she must do to return to the Meagleses is to confess her guilt, ‘[You must demonstrate] how humble and penitent you are […] by going back to them to be forgiven’ (LD, 328). Both of these endeavours initially serve to bind Tattycoram more tightly to Miss Wade, thus giving Miss Wade someone to dominate. As Tattycoram has not yet fully internalised this disciplinary process and accepted her place, she remains with Miss Wade for further instruction.

Tattycoram, then, undergoes a disciplinary process—first initiated at the Foundling Hospital, continued at the Meagleses, and finally completed by Miss Wade. In Tattycoram's final outburst before her submission—her final attempt to assert her own will—she makes explicit the fact that what Miss Wade offers is really the same domination offered by the Meagleses:

‘Because I have nobody but you to look to, you think you are to make me do, or not do, everything you please, and are to put any affront upon me. You are as bad as they were, every bit. But I will not be quite tamed, and made submissive’

(LD, 661).

However, crucially, in the same breath Tattycoram also admits that she ‘went to look at the house, because I had often thought that I should like to see it once more. I will ask again how they are, because I once liked them, and at times thought they were kind to me’ (LD, 662). Tattycoram, then, is not only, in Meagles's terms, ‘the prisoner [who] begins to relent towards [… her] prison after [… she] is let out’ (LD, 22), but she is beginning to reproduce the techniques of domination, by going back to observe the Meagleses. It is sadly ironic that the knowledge which Tattycoram has gained is in fact that of her dependence and inferior position: ‘[Miss Wade] has made me her dependant. And I know I am so; and I know she is overjoyed when she can bring it to my mind’ (LD, 662). Tattycoram's final gestures in this chapter are those of gradual submission. ‘Harriet, with the assumed humiliation of an abject dependant and serf (but not without defiance for all that), made as if she were too low to notice or be noticed’ (LD, 662).

So Tattycoram's final actions, those of freeing herself from Miss Wade, are no more than a return, and indeed an embrace of her confinement with the Meagleses. Tattycoram's return to the Meagleses is accompanied by gestures of complete submission as she falls to her knees before Mr and Mrs Meagles and beats her hands on the ground. There is no further need to direct these hands towards herself because she has been disciplined. Her confession of her guilt and announcement of her repentance illustrates how completely the disciplinary process has been internalised as she now reproduces the dominant discourse; she has come to view her temper as ‘a madness’ (LD, 811). Begging for her old name back, Tattycoram's language reveals the extent of her reformation:

I am bad enough, but not so bad as I was indeed. I have had Miss Wade before me all this time, as if it was my own self grown ripe—turning everything the wrong way, and twisting all good into evil. I have had her before me all this time, finding no pleasure in anything but keeping me as miserable, suspicious, and tormenting as herself […] I only mean to say, that, after what I have gone through, I hope I shall never be quite so bad again, and that I shall get better by very slow degrees

(LD, 811).

Tattycoram not only begs for her old name back, but is now actively repressing herself by furthering Meagles's indoctrination: ‘I won't stop at five-and-twenty, sir, I'll count five-and-twenty hundred, five-and-twenty thousand!’ (LD, 811).

The only glimmer that Dickens gives the reader that this scene is not a happy reunion is his description of Tattycoram's tears at Meagles's feet, ‘half in exultation and half in despair’ (LD, 810). Indeed, there should be despair, as Dickens is somehow implicated in all this by not giving Tattycoram any option—where else could she go? Where is Tattycoram's long lost legacy? In summary, I will recall the closing scene, partially quoted earlier, in which Meagles instructs Tattycoram on her place. Tattycoram is identified as a ‘penitent’ and as a willing convert to the disciplinary ethos, eager to reform her hitherto undisciplined heart:

‘[Little Dorrit's] young life has been one of active resignation, goodness and noble service. Shall I tell you what I consider those eyes of hers that were here just now, to always have looked at, to get that expression?’

‘Yes, if you please, sir.’

‘Duty, Tattycoram. Begin it early and do it well.’

(LD, 812-313).


  1. Michael Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-7, trans. Colin Gordon et al., ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 49-50.

  2. See also his ‘Introduction’, Little Dorrit, (1953; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), v-xvi.

  3. Jeremy Tambling in his ‘Prison-bound: Dickens and Foucault’, Essays in Criticism (1986): 11-31, does theorise Dickens's use of the prison but primarily in the context of Great Expectations.

  4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (1977; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Ltd, 1991).

  5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 205.

  6. cf., Hugh Cunningham, Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood Since the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 104-111.

  7. Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 660. (All further references to this text will be from this edition and will be indicated in parentheses denoted by LD and the page number.)

Brian Rosenberg (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7724

SOURCE: Rosenberg, Brian. “‘Immeshed in Uncertainties’: The Double Life of Little Dorrit.” In Little Dorrit's Shadows: Character and Contradiction in Dickens, pp. 31-48. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Rosenberg examines the prominence of contradiction and division within the characters in Little Dorrit.]

With the single exception of Little Dorrit there is not one of [Dickens's] numerous stories that has not touches of the masterhand and strokes of indisputable genius.

—Unsigned obituary of Dickens, published June 11, 1870, in the Saturday Review

The decision to center a study of Dickens's characters upon Little Dorrit raises two obvious questions: why focus primarily on a single novel and why, given the many possibilities, on Little Dorrit in particular? To neither question is there a definitive answer. Surely Dickens's characters might fruitfully be studied by looking carefully at all or many of his works, and—if my tendency to extrapolate from the individual to the general is justified—surely any of his major novels might be examined for traces of his characteristic strategies and habits. But given the extent of Dickens's production and the vastness of characterization as a subject, one must set boundaries somewhere, preferably around an area sufficiently small to allow for more than cursory analysis. Emphasizing one particular novel minimizes (though does not eliminate) the arbitrary picking and choosing typical of more comprehensive studies, allows certain figures and passages to serve as touchstones in the discussion, and, especially, lays bare the relations among characters, language, and structure within a single long fiction. Both the typicality of Little Dorrit and the changes through time in Dickens's methods will be clarified periodically by examples drawn from other novels.

The selection of Little Dorrit was in truth surprisingly easy. The doubts and inconsistencies typical of Dickens's imagination, as well as the stylistic and structural habits in which they result, all become increasingly apparent as his career progresses. Virtually every attitude and tendency is present, at least in embryo, from the beginning, even beneath the ebullience of Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers. Indeed, an early novel such as Oliver Twist may be more profoundly self-contradictory than many later ones.1 But for the most part the trend is toward more radical fissures and uncertainties. As Dickens's overt views come more closely to resemble his covert suspicions, or as he grows more prepared to acknowledge the problems undermining his professed beliefs, the role of contradiction in his fiction, and especially in his characterization, becomes more prominent. More characters and scenes convey contradictory messages, and the narrative voice takes up the subject of contradiction itself more directly. This is most true of the long novels—David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend—in which Dickens's characteristic imagination seems most thoroughly engaged. When there is a secondary agenda, such as the anti-utilitarian polemic of Hard Times or the Carlylean presentation of history in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens's own voice is more muted.

Little Dorrit, composed and published serially from 1855 to 1857, sits at the center of Dickens's mature period and manifests as clearly as any novel signs of his contradictory imagination. While widely recognized today as a major work, it was viewed for many years as a relative failure and still receives less attention than his other long novels of the 1850s. For many critics of the nineteenth century, Philip Collins remarks, “Little Dorrit became a by-word for the bad Dickens,” and some of the most notable of Dickens's bad reviews were directed at the book (though these had little effect on its sales, which were excellent).2 A. W. Ward recalled in 1882 “the general consciousness [during its publication] that Little Dorrit was proving unequal to the high-strung expectations which a new work by Dickens then excited in his admirers both young and old,”3 a feeling generated not merely by the novel's gloominess, but by the perceived inadequacies of its plotting, characterization, and political satire. Even among critics who regretted generally the evolution of Dickens the comic genius into Dickens the mordant social critic, Little Dorrit was singled out for special censure: reviews of Bleak House, Collins notes, could not match “the severity of the onslaught on Little Dorrit,” and the reception of Our Mutual Friend was also by comparison “fairly cordial,” possibly because reviewers had grown accustomed by then to the darker version of Dickens.4

The irony of the early response to Little Dorrit lies in the reviewers' tendency to harp on the disorder, carelessness, and signs of depleted power in what was arguably, to that point, Dickens's most carefully planned and executed novel. During its genesis Dickens kept, for the first time, a working notebook, and when its initial number appeared on December 1, 1855, he had, uncharacteristically, three or four subsequent numbers in reserve.5 His notes for the novel suggest that despite some momentous changes along the way (such as the decision to make William Dorrit a wealthy man), many of the story's most important events, themes, and images were in Dickens's mind from the start. The one criticism that prompted him to make a public response was James Fitzjames Stephen's charge that “the catastrophe in Little Dorrit, is evidently borrowed from the recent fall of houses in Tottenham Court Road, which happens to have appeared in the newspapers at a convenient period.” Dickens's rejoinder, that “any man accustomed to the critical examination of a book cannot fail, attentively turning over the pages of Little Dorrit, to observe that that catastrophe is carefully prepared for from the very first presentation of the old house in the story,” is borne out by both the text itself and his working notes.6

Despite such planning, and by any measure one uses to establish the popularity of a work, Little Dorrit has remained for more than a century the least popular of Dickens's major novels, attracting less critical interest, inspiring fewer adaptations, and adding fewer figures to the popular imagination than most of his other books. In 1953 Lionel Trilling called it “the least established with modern readers” of Dickens's great novels, adding that it “seems to have retired to the background and shadow of our consciousness of Dickens.” Much more recently David Paroissien has noted that “Dickens' two last panoramic novels [Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend] attract fewer writers than one might expect.”7 While no work by Dickens, however minor, can today be described as overlooked, it remains true that Little Dorrit has attracted less regular and interesting critical attention than David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and even Our Mutual Friend. Virtually every recent bibliography of Dickens criticism includes fewer entries for Little Dorrit than for those other works, in many cases by a substantial margin.8 This situation alone, to be honest, is enough to make the novel an attractive subject for a study of the present kind.

Interestingly, this tradition of avoidance has been balanced in recent years by a small but influential chorus of extravagant praise that can probably be traced to Trilling's description of Little Dorrit as “one of the most profound of Dickens's novels and one of the most significant works of the nineteenth century.” Trilling's crucial move was to insist on the peculiar modernity of the novel, its “relevan[ce] to our sense of things,” arising from its treatment of “society in relation to the individual human will” (an assessment subsequently challenged by a number of critics).9 Later F. R. Leavis called Little Dorrit “one of the very greatest of novels” whose “omission from any brief list of the great European novels would be critically indefensible”; and John Lucas, going furthest of all, judged it “Dickens's greatest novel, and far and away the greatest novel in the language.”10 While the extremity of such praise can be explained in part as the defense of an underappreciated work, still it remains remarkable for its degree: Little Dorrit is exalted not merely among Dickens's novels, but among “works of the nineteenth century,” “European novels,” and “novel[s] in the language.” By comparison, Michael Squires's recent claim that it is “Dickens's most satisfying novel” seems positively tame.11

Both the unpopularity and the effusive, perhaps hyperbolic praise of Little Dorrit are attributable, I believe, to the same set of factors. The novel may be the Dickensian equivalent of a Shakespearean problem play, a work that raises difficult questions about intention, form, classification, and a host of other things. As critics have recognized from the start, its protagonists are by any standards, and especially by Dickens's own, unconventional, Clennam in particular bearing little resemblance to Dickens's previous heroes. Its moral categories are not defined with Dickens's usual clarity, its dominant themes are riddled with unresolved tensions, and its shifts in tone can be disorienting. Moreover, the novel takes up psychological, emotional, and ethical issues of extraordinary complexity. “The profundity and complexity of Little Dorrit is such,” Grahame Smith writes, “that it does not easily yield the depth of its meaning. … [T]he difficulty of uncovering a final core of unifying truth seems immense.” Robert Garis observes that “to read Little Dorrit is to realize that some surprisingly complex and ambiguous things can take place in the Dickens theatre. The old consistent clarities of approval and disapproval have in this novel disappeared: we meet characters about whom it is difficult to make up our minds, and these characters are facing situations correspondingly ambiguous.”12 Among the ambiguities most troubling (or intriguing) to critics have been the inconsistencies in the novel's social criticism (“The attempt to reconcile moral imperatives with social judgment is one of the sources of tension in the novel, a tension which is left unresolved at the conclusion”); the indeterminacy of its genre (“Beneath the dominant text of the novel … runs a set of assumptions quietly subversive of conventional autobiography”); the looseness of the whole Clennam plot (“Given the plot that Dickens is committed to, and his apparent uncertainty …, it is understandably difficult for him to write sensible dialogue for his hero”); and the mixed tone of the ending, in some ways more bittersweet than either ending to Great Expectations.13

One of the few attempts to re-create Little Dorrit in another medium merely confirms the novel's elusiveness. Christine Edzard's 1988 film, nearly seven hours long and crammed with period details, is among the lengthiest and most thoughtful screen versions of a Dickens work. And remarkably Edzard manages to preserve some of the original's unresolved tensions by showing many of the same events from two distinctly different perspectives. To make a visually and thematically coherent film, however, Edzard has had to level off many of the novel's more dramatic shifts in tone and intention, transforming Dickens's complex mixture into a fairly straightforward example of social realism. Rigaud is gone, as are many of the novel's more melodramatic and improbable events. Eccentric characters are either eliminated or, through script and performance, normalized. As several reviewers pointed out, the political satire is largely sacrificed in the attempt to focus on the emotional and psychological struggles of Clennam and Little Dorrit.14 One is left both admiring the film's fidelity to the original text and feeling that an equally faithful yet stylistically antithetical film remains to be made.

Depending upon one's perspective, this profoundly ambiguous novel can be perceived as anything from a mess to a triumph of subtlety and sophistication. Thus, unsurprisingly, Garis can conclude that “in Little Dorrit Dickens's newly dark and complex view of his world remains an unassimilated malaise [and] is not transmuted into a successful work of art,” whereas Lucas can describe as “one of the most remarkable features” of Little Dorrit “the degree to which it seems both random and well-ordered.” Such variation in judgment typifies the response to all problematic works of art and certainly can be expected in the response to a problematic work by Dickens, from whom many readers expect nothing “fluctuating and incalculable.”15 Has he in this instance transcended his usual straightforwardness or lost his usual sureness of touch? On the answer to that question hinges one's estimate of the novel, and the negative reviews, the relative scarcity of critical analyses, and the instances of high praise all testify to the various forms the answer has assumed.

Fundamentally I share Janet Larson's perception that “Little Dorrit is [Dickens's] most profoundly divided novel, formed of many contradictions left largely unresolved,”16 and therefore consider it especially suited to an exploration of the profound divisions shaping his characterization. It represents one of those moments in Dickens's career when the intractability of his material causes his inconsistencies to be unusually concentrated and sharply defined. The other comparable example is Oliver Twist, unique among Dickens's early works for the extent of its contradictions and uncertainties. In that novel we are asked to believe that the “very sage, deep, philosophical men” on the “board” are guilty of abusing the poor while the Brownlows and Maylies are not (OT, 11); that Nancy is shaped by her depraved environment but Oliver is ethically and psychologically unscathed; that Mr. Limbkins's reduction of Oliver to a moral example is inhumane but Mr. Brownlow's similar reduction of Fagin is instructive. The difficulty, most readers have sensed, originates in Dickens's inability to make up his mind about the thieves, to resolve the opposition between his sympathy for and identification with civilization's outcasts on the one hand, and his need to validate the moral and social codes of the middle class on the other. What results, according to William Lankford, is a long series of “rhetorical and moral equivocations” affecting the style, structure, and thematic subtext of the novel.17 The recent death of Mary Hogarth, moreover, may have contributed to a curious hesitancy in the presentation of such innocent figures as Oliver and Rose Maylie.

The case of Little Dorrit is comparable but more complex. Like Oliver Twist, the novel confronts us at every turn with ambiguous and paradoxical situations, but unlike the earlier work, its rifts cannot finally be traced to a single underlying source. Not one central contradiction, but a collection of contradictory attitudes about individual and social responsibility, the potential for freedom, the justifiability of faith, and the meaning of appearances accounts for the novel's difficulties. And whereas Oliver Twist struggles, not necessarily successfully, to resolve or deny its self-divisions, Little Dorrit appears content, at least by comparison, to present and explore them. Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in the contrast between the novels' endings: in the earlier novel the dark world of Fagin and the thieves is kept safely segregated from the perfect happiness of Oliver's family, while in the later novel the joyous union of Clennam and Little Dorrit is interwoven, literally and thematically, with the “usual uproar” of “the arrogant and the froward and the vain” (LD, 826). Interestingly, both novels have been identified as among Dickens's most allegorical—the subtitle of Oliver Twist is “The Parish Boy's Progress,” and Mildred Newcomb has claimed that “nowhere else in his novels did Dickens so openly declare his allegorical purposes as in Little Dorrit”—suggesting that his attempt to abstract general precepts from particular instances may be partially responsible for his uncertainty. If, as Kate Flint suggests, “there was [often] a gap between what Dickens wanted to be true, and what his perceptions told him really was the case,” the writing of allegory might prove frustrating: the truths he eventually confronts might be quite different from those he began by intending to reinforce. George Levine, remarking specifically on Little Dorrit, makes a similar point: “what Dickens wanted to demonstrate was being confuted by the materials with which, in the spirit of quasi-scientific disinterest, he worked.”18

No events in Dickens's life contemporaneous with the writing of Little Dorrit account obviously for its radical self-divisions—or, to be more accurate, no events reveal why this novel should be any more self-divided than the others of the 1850s and 1860s. Fred Kaplan calls 1855 a “difficult period” marked by Dickens's painful reencounter with Maria Beadnell, despair at his “lovelessly perfunctory” marriage, and fury at the corruption and incompetence of the British government. In virtually every year from the last third of Dickens's life, however, one can find comparable sources of anxiety, which surely helps explain why his later books are both darker and more equivocal than his earlier ones. Kaplan does note that Dickens's creative habits underwent a significant change just prior to the composition of Little Dorrit: “his orderly pattern of anticipating one novel at a time gave way to explosive fragments of alternate possibility, which might or might not be connected, which might or might not become literary realities.” Many of these alternate, loosely connected possibilities eventually found their way into the single narrative of Little Dorrit. Dickens's letters during this period, additionally, reveal “emotional fragmentation, different parts of himself at war with one another,” a condition that undoubtedly carries over into the novel. None of his other works, finally, tries simultaneously for such explicit public satire and such intense, if oblique, self-exploration, different aims that may easily generate structural and thematic tensions. Dickens himself, according to Kaplan, focused with friends on the novel's “satirical dramatization of administrative incompetence” while directing most of his private energies toward plumbing the “dark emanations of his personal life.”19

If the sources of contradiction in Little Dorrit are unclear, the signs are unmistakable. A thorough examination of the novel's many themes is beyond my scope here, but consider, as an example, Trilling's choice as its central subject, “society in relation to the individual human will.” The ubiquitous image of the prison, the exhaustive portrait of the Circumlocution Office, and the saga of Mr. Merdle—among many other things—combine to form a scathing attack on the values and practices of mid-Victorian society, with particular emphasis placed on society's tendency to deny freedom, thwart initiative, and corrupt even the best intentions. Yet this angry novel appears at times to internalize and endorse the assumptions of the culture it denounces. Trilling himself recognizes that “it is part of the complexity of this novel which deals so bitterly with society that those of its characters who share its social bitterness”—Tattycoram and, especially, Miss Wade—“are by that very fact condemned.” George Holoch, writing from a Marxist perspective, has noted that at the end “the moral values the characters have internalized are those explicitly asserted in hypocritical fashion by society”: Clennam, Meagles, Pancks, and even Little Dorrit ultimately accept the system of exploitation upon which social action is based. According to Sylvia Manning this is “a text paradoxically enmeshed in the system it is trying to criticize,” so that, for instance, “the marriage of Arthur's and Little Dorrit's true minds is as subject to the impediments (and impulses) of cash as are the marriages of Gowan and Pet or Fanny and Edmund Sparkler.” Ruth Bernard Yeazell has pointed out “closely juxtaposed” and “apparently unregistered” contradictions in the presentation and judgment of the labor of Daniel Doyce.20 Every possible response to society, from wholehearted to qualified acceptance, from tentative to utter rejection, is here displayed, found wanting, and challenged by an alternative response. Complicating the novel's social vision still further is its ambivalent view of an underlying moral code—“Duty on Earth; restitution on earth; action on earth” (LD, 319)—embraced in various ways by the best and worst of its characters.

Manning has been among the most recent to point out formal contradictions as unresolvable as these ideological ones. “The novel is not seditious,” she claims, “because it attacks the Circumlocution Office. If it is seditious at all, it is because it refuses to develop properly. The background plot is close to chaos …, the hints about roads of life converging do not pan out, and the ending does not reach closure.” Martin Meisel has identified “a paradox in Little Dorrit's agency in that the achievement of a pictorial configuration is linked to the unfreezing of a fixed tableau”: the novel tries for pictorial effects yet rejects the truth of the pictorial. Levine, placing Dickens into the broadest of intellectual contexts, notes even that “the strangeness and self-contradictions of the novel enact a conflict between two mythic structures, the progressive vision of Darwinism and the degenerative vision of thermodynamics.”21 In a sense Little Dorrit tries (or pretends) to be all things to all novel-readers and ends by being nothing whole: a mystery novel with mysteries unsolved, unintelligible, or unrevealed to those most concerned; a travel novel with almost no travel; a panoramic novel that mistrusts panorama; a multiplot novel whose plots fail to cohere. Clennam never does find out the truth about his personal history, and the connections between the Clennams and the Dorrits, which both Arthur's suspicions and the novel's form imply will be substantial, turn out to be tenuous at best. Since Dickens could be perfectly adept at creating more conventionally satisfying plots, this chaos must be attributed either to a technical breakdown or to a more deliberate attempt by the novel to “subver[t] the conventions of its own form.”22 The history of Little Dorrit's composition, again, suggests no absence of planning, and the presence of so many related contradictions suggests that the unfulfilled plots are, at the very least, more than merely signs of an author unable to construct a story.

Such self-division represents not a loss of artistic control, but complexity born of ambivalence and the refusal to compromise; Little Dorrit is less muddied than enriched by its presence. The novel is more willing to recognize social, philosophical, and formal problems than to provide unambiguous solutions, as its somber/celebratory ending makes clear. Manning's claim that “the novel's subversions of plot are probably not conscious” is, like most such claims, unprovable one way or the other.23 That Dickens was on some level aware of Little Dorrit's unresolved tensions, however, is suggested by the novel's imagery and by its self-conscious wrestling with the nature of contradiction itself. Its opening chapter, even its opening paragraphs, introduce a cluster of related images and metaphors that may be more recurrent and meaningful than the much-discussed image of the prison and that signal Dickens's heightened emphasis on conflict and uncertainty:

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.

A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves.

(LD, 1)

The chapter is entitled “Sun and Shadow,” an opposition that marks nearly every environment in the novel and carries through to the “sunshine and shade” of its closing sentence (LD, 826). More than simply a complementary pairing, the terms come to invert, mirror, and parallel one another in complicated ways: here, blazing sunshine brings not merely light but, as James Kincaid has pointed out, the threat of “universal blindness,” and shadow provides both concealment for the guilty and safety for the innocent.24 Sweating men “tak[e] refuge” in the shade (LD, 1), while prisoners yearn to escape it. The sense of simultaneous opposition and union is reinforced in the next paragraph, where the “foul” harbor is joined and contrasted with the “beautiful” sea, and “the line of demarcation between the two colours, black and blue, showed the point which the pure sea would not pass” (LD, 1).

Elaine Showalter and J. Hillis Miller, among others, have noted the centrality of the shadow image in Little Dorrit, though without necessarily appreciating its full importance.25 Above all else, it emerges as the clearest physical manifestation of Dickens's special concern with contradiction and the problems of seeing and understanding. Virtually every setting in the novel, from the Marshalsea to Casby's house to Bleeding Heart Yard, is cloaked in suffocating darkness, and typically the darkness is associated directly with perceptual and conceptual difficulties—particularly for Arthur Clennam, who is disoriented by the “mental confusion and physical darkness” of Tite Barnacle's home at “the blind end of Mews Street” (LD, 109-10); frustrated at Miss Wade's, where “the confined entrance was so dark, that it was impossible to make out distinctly what kind of person opened the door” (LD, 326); and, repeatedly, overwhelmed at his mother's by the “premature and preternatural darkness” (LD, 344). Many characters, good and bad, emerge from and melt back into shadowy corners: in books 1 and 2, Little Dorrit is glimpsed initially “almost hidden in [a] dark corner” (LD, 40) and “silently attentive in her dark corner” (LD, 442), and both Flintwinch and Pancks are, in their own ways, forever lingering and listening among the shadows. Like the fog in Bleak House, the shadows in Little Dorrit are the most obvious environmental constant, though without the bright interruptions provided by the aptly named Esther Summerson, the darkness is even more unremitting.

Shadows are not simply patches of darkness but representations or simulacra, and in Little Dorrit they serve time and again as images of replication, distortion, and opposition. Shadows reproduce originals with doubtful reliability, blurring outlines and eliminating details; moreover, they multiply a single figure into two potentially competing ones. Sometimes individuals in the novel are concealed behind their own shadows, as when, in the ghostly Clennam house, “changing distortions of [Mrs. Clennam] in her wheeled chair, of Mr. Flintwinch with his wry neck, of Mistress Affery coming and going, would be thrown upon the house wall that was over the gateway, and would hover there like shadows from a great magic lantern” (LD, 178). Sometimes they are revealed and mocked, as when Rigaud sits “with a monstrous shadow imitating him on the wall and ceiling” (LD, 445). The difficulties of perceiving appearance and of connecting it to internal character are stressed by the proliferation of these dark doubles, which simultaneously distort and imitate.

Very quickly in Little Dorrit the shadow expands from a literal to a metaphoric image that reinforces again the sense of confusion, blindness, and self-division. Miller suggests that the “universal condition” of the inhabitants of this novel is “to be ‘shadowed’ by some sadness or blindness or delusion or deliberate choice of the worse rather than the better course”; Showalter that “the shadows function as dramatizations of the repressed self.”26 Most often the narrative alludes to the darkening “shadow of the Marshalsea wall” (LD, 254), a powerful embodiment of the damage inflicted on such characters as Little Dorrit, William Dorrit, and especially Clennam by the imprisonment or denial of desire. But this is far from the only metaphoric use of the image: a faint “shadow of Mr. Merdle's complaint” contaminates the complacency of his family and associates (LD, 253-54); the “shadow of a supposed act of injustice” haunts Clennam (LD, 319), and Henry Gowan “falls like a shadow” on his “clouded face” (LD, 403); Minnie Gowan is blighted by “the trace of the shadow under which she lived” (LD, 509); and the “dark shadow” of the Clennam house oppresses the immediate neighborhood (LD, 542). Most interesting is the appearance of the shadow in the symbolically autobiographical fairy tale narrated by Little Dorrit to Maggy:

The Princess was such a wonderful Princess that she had the power of knowing secrets, and she said to the tiny woman, Why do you keep it there? This showed her directly that the Princess knew why she lived all alone by herself spinning at her wheel, and she kneeled down at the Princess's feet, and asked her never to betray her. So, the Princess said, I never will betray you. Let me see it. So, the tiny woman closed the shutter of the cottage window and fastened the door, and trembling from head to foot for fear that any one should suspect her, opened a very secret place, and showed the Princess a shadow.

(LD, 293)

The shadow is “of Some one who had gone by long before; of Some one who had gone on far away, quite out of reach, never, never to come back” (LD, 294)—referring presumably both to the absent Arthur Clennam and to that version of herself that Little Dorrit has forever sacrificed. The chiaroscuro of the novel extends from external to internal landscapes, and “Sun and Shadow” becomes equally descriptive of the environment and the psychological life of the characters who inhabit it. Each carries around a kind of inner Marseilles, some parts exposed to blinding light and others buried in darkness, and the relations between the two may be as disorienting as the movement between bright and blackened spaces.

As dominant at the start as the contrast between sun and shadow is the obsessively recurrent motif of staring: ten times in the opening passage quoted earlier, twenty times in the opening chapter, some version of the word “stare” is used. To this can be added eighteen appearances by some form of “look” over the same span, eleven by some form of “see,” and ten by some form of “eyes.” Overall there are more than seventy allusions in the chapter to the process of visualization, signaling a concern that scarcely abates over the course of a novel in which “images of surveillance are prevalent throughout the narrative.”27

Characters are continually staring at others and being stared at in return, sometimes becoming trapped in complex networks of seeing and being seen. Affery stares at Rigaud “not only to her own great uneasiness, but manifestly to his, too; and, through them both, to Mrs. Clennam's and Mr. Flintwinch's. Thus a few ghostly moments supervened, when they were all confusedly staring without knowing why” (LD, 354). Later, “as Mrs. Clennam never removed her eyes from Blandois …, so Jeremiah never removed his from Arthur. It was as if they had tacitly agreed to take their different provinces” (LD, 547-48). The story is filled with spies: both unrepentant ones such as Rigaud, Pancks, Flintwinch, and Affery, and more ambivalent ones such as Clennam, who spies on Miss Wade, Cavalletto, who spies on Rigaud, and even Little Dorrit, who observes silently from the corner as dramatic scenes unfold. Characters are incessantly staring and spying in Little Dorrit because they exist in a murky, confusing landscape where seeing is difficult and interpreting nearly impossible. From the opening pages of the novel, Kincaid notes, “One cannot see, … inside or out—into or out of.”28 The atmosphere is dark, the internal lives of characters even darker. Seeing is also uncomfortably voyeuristic, since individuals are so often unaware of being watched and the acts witnessed so often unsavory. Even Clennam is seduced into spying and, later, into lying to Miss Wade when he claims to have observed her “by mere accident” (LD, 656). Surely Dickens's reservations about his own activities as a novelist are being projected onto the struggles of his characters: he is, after all, the ultimate watcher in the novel, with the most pressing need to be precise and reliable. His frustration at the uncertainty of a world where, as for Clennam, “it [is] impossible to make out distinctly what kind of person” one confronts, no matter how hard or skillfully one looks, is paralleled by this series of visual failures and shapes, in ways I shall explore, his descriptive style.

Little Dorrit's general atmosphere of uncertainty and contradiction is combined with a more specific fascination with the elusiveness of character. Of course all of Dickens's novels explore characters, but this one foregrounds and problematizes the nature of character itself as do few of the others. The word “character” is used more often in Little Dorrit, I suspect, than in any of Dickens's other works; almost certainly it is used more often in ironic, hesitant, or unreliable ways. Like so much else in the novel, this pattern is initiated in the opening chapter, where four times within a page Rigaud uses the word “character” unreliably. “‘I do not advance it as a merit,’” he declares, “‘to be sensitive and brave, but it is my character.’” “‘Frankness’” is additionally “‘a part of [his] character’” (LD, 11). Immediately the question of what character is, of how it should be understood, is raised and complicated. While Rigaud remains the most regular and untrustworthy user of “character” throughout the novel, the word is also used by or about Mr. Meagles, Doyce, Pancks, Mrs. Clennam, Tip Dorrit, Mr. Merdle, Tattycoram, Mrs. General, Fanny Dorrit, and especially William Dorrit, usually with considerable irony or uncertainty. Dorrit's reference to “his character as a gentleman” and “his character as a father” (LD, 597) calls into question the significance of each noun he employs, as does Mrs. General's tribute to Fanny's “‘force of character’” (LD, 473). Pancks alludes to the “character” of Mrs. Clennam (LD, 161), Meagles to the “character” of Miss Wade (LD, 24), with some uncertainty in each case about whether the term is meant to be complimentary or neutrally descriptive. In this context the word virtually ceases to possess any coherent or consistent meaning.

Also introduced in chapter 1 is the suggestion that character is frequently or perhaps inevitably self-contradictory. Repeatedly the novel focuses on oppositions between incompatible aspects of appearance, between appearance and what the narrator calls “internal character” (LD, 149), or between aspects of internal character. Rigaud enters the novel as a physical paradox, with “a certain air of being a handsome man—which he was not; and a certain air of being a well-bred man—which he was not” (LD, 10). Each of his reentries is accompanied by similar equivocations, as when the landlady at the Break of Day is “at one moment thinking within herself that this was a handsome man, at another moment that this was an ill-looking man” (LD, 128), or when the normally perspicacious Flintwinch is “speechlessly at a loss to know what [Rigaud] meant” (LD, 347). Most of the other doubts and self-contradictions referred to are more internal. Both Edward Dorrit and Clennam are portrayed as irrevocably divided personalities, the former filled with “contradictions, vacillations, inconsistencies” (LD, 639) and the latter perplexed by “a contention always waging within” (LD, 306) and, like the Father of the Marshalsea, “inconsistencies, anxieties, and contradictions” (LD, 403). Physician, whose voyeuristic role resembles the novelist's, is often confronted by “irreconcilable moral contradictions” (LD, 702), and Fanny, in a phrase with many ramifications, is “immeshed in her uncertainties” (LD, 587).

No wonder then that Lucas identifies “a heavy, almost oppressive brooding quality” in Little Dorrit, that Kincaid calls it an anticomic “antithesis of Pickwick,” and that John Wain judges it “Dickens's most tragic novel.”29 Blighted by internal and external shadows, many of the book's characters fail to make adequate sense of themselves or their world. Nor is there a narrative voice that imposes clarity on this murkiness, since the narrator's language and tone suggest “inconsistencies, anxieties, and contradictions” that rival (or parallel) Clennam's. Jonathan Arac has remarked on Clennam's “Hamlet-like self-consciousness,”30 and indeed Little Dorrit might be thought of as Hamlet-like in its preoccupation with indecision, self-doubt, and moral ambiguity (as well as its ability to provoke laughter at the darkest moments). Like Hamlet, Little Dorrit comments reflexively on the constraints and compromises imposed by its form. Even Hamlet's attention to the subtlest implications of language is shared by Dickens's novel: the Prince's famous distinction between “seems” and “is” is perversely echoed by Mrs. Merdle, who informs her husband, most generously, that “‘Seeming would be quite enough: I ask no more’” (LD, 397).

Having made the case for the distinctiveness of Little Dorrit, let me say again that it remains, in most ways that matter, of a piece with Dickens's other work. He devises no new techniques here, develops no new stylistic habits, and manifests no major new concerns. Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are nearly as shadowy as Little Dorrit; Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop are marked by thematic contradictions of comparable if not equal complexity; Barnaby Rudge is similarly drawn to oppositions and inversions; and all of his fiction shares more or less in the language of uncertainty.31 James Davies has identified uncertainties even in the narrative voice of Sketches by Boz, and Flint has identified contradictions in Dickens's letters, speeches, and prefaces.32 Little that Dickens wrote, in fact, especially during the last two decades of his life, bears no sign of self-division.

What is noteworthy in Dickens's eleventh novel is the way his characteristic doubts and conflicts combine to shape the fictional structure on virtually every level, resulting in a book as dark, hesitant, self-conscious, and (consequently) interesting as any he produced. And because Little Dorrit is founded on contradiction, even appears at times to celebrate it, the contradictory elements in his characterization are granted unusually free rein. Other novels may include physical descriptions as elaborate and uncertain, personalities as starkly divided, images of doubling as memorable, and structural tensions as persistent, but none blends all of these Dickensian elements so thoroughly as Little Dorrit and none, therefore, reveals so clearly Dickens's dualistic imagination at work.33 Just as the student of Dickens's comedy should probably begin with Pickwick Papers or the student of his autobiographical impulses with David Copperfield, so the student of his contradictory characterization should probably begin with Little Dorrit.

My strategy in each of the chapters that follow is to work outward from a close analysis of a single character in Little Dorrit to a comprehensive reading of characterization in the novel and then, in more general terms, to a consideration of Dickens's oeuvre. So a discussion of the peculiar appearance of Maggy, the perpetual ten-year-old, becomes a discussion of physical description in Little Dorrit, which in turn becomes a discussion of the development of physical description over the course of Dickens's career. I hope in this manner to do justice both to the achievement of Little Dorrit and to the ways it resembles and differs from fourteen other substantial texts. In a sense, then, this book is an exercise in analytical synecdoche, with the part standing in for the whole, an exercise possible only because the immensely varied fabric of Dickens's work is threaded with unmistakable and sometimes surprising consistencies. Not just Fanny, not just Little Dorrit, but the whole of his fiction is provocatively “immeshed” in uncertainties.


  1. See my article “The Language of Doubt in Oliver Twist.

  2. Collins, ed., Critical Heritage, 356. For a particularly scathing example of a negative review, see James Fitzjames Stephen, “The License of Modern Novelists,” originally published in the Edinburgh Review in July 1857 and reprinted in Stephen Wall, ed., Charles Dickens: A Critical Anthology.

  3. A. W. Ward, Dickens, 139.

  4. Collins, ed., Critical Heritage, 272, 453. Sylvia Manning has recently noted “two kinds of outrage” in contemporary reviews of Little Dorrit: “at the narrator's satire … and at the contraventions of form.” See “Social Criticism and Textual Subversion in Little Dorrit,” 128.

  5. See Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography, 335, 340.

  6. Stephen's remark is in Wall, Anthology, 107; Dickens's response, in a piece entitled “Curious Misprint in the Edinburgh Review,” appeared originally in Household Words on August 1, 1857, and is reprinted in Wall, 114.

  7. Lionel Trilling, Introduction to Little Dorrit, v; David Paroissien, “Recent Dickens Studies: 1986,” 356.

  8. For example, in Joseph Gold, The Stature of Dickens: A Centenary Bibliography, there are 129 entries for Bleak House, 125 for Great Expectations, 62 for Our Mutual Friend, and 52 for Little Dorrit; John J. Fenstermaker, in Charles Dickens, 1940-1975: An Analytical Subject Index to Periodical Criticism of the Novels and Christmas Books, includes 162 entries for Bleak House, 127 for Great Expectations, and 78 each for Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend; and, from 1970 to 1989, the MLA International Bibliography includes 192 entries for Bleak House, 140 for Great Expectations, and (rather coincidentally) 78 each for Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend.

    There may be some evidence that very recently interest in Little Dorrit has been on the increase—the 1993 edition of Dickens Studies Annual, for instance, includes more essays on the novel than on any other—but still the MLA International Bibliography from 1990 to 1993 lists far fewer entries on Little Dorrit (15) than on Bleak House (49) or Great Expectations (29).

  9. Trilling, Introduction, v-vi. For challenges to Trilling's assessment, see Robert Garis, The Dickens Theatre: A Reassessment of the Novels, 181-88, and John Lucas, The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens's Novels, 251-53.

  10. F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist, 213; Lucas, Melancholy Man, 251. John Wain, also writing during this period, calls Little Dorrit “one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century” and “the most satisfying of [Dickens's] books.” See “Little Dorrit,” 175, 186.

  11. Michael Squires, “The Structure of Dickens's Imagination in Little Dorrit,” 49.

  12. Grahame Smith, Dickens, Money, and Society, 154; Garis, Dickens Theatre, 164.

  13. George Holoch, “Consciousness and Society in Little Dorrit,” 339; Nancy Aycock Metz, “The Blighted Tree and the Book of Fate: Female Models of Storytelling in Little Dorrit,” 222; Alexander Welsh, The City of Dickens, 134.

  14. See especially Gary Wills, “Dorrit without Politics.”

  15. Garis, Dickens Theatre, 164; Lucas, Melancholy Man, 252; George Henry Lewes, “Dickens in Relation to Criticism,” 65-66.

  16. Janet L. Larson, Dickens and the Broken Scripture, 179. See also Lucas, Melancholy Man, 272, where Little Dorrit is described as “more questioning, hesitant, and finally far more sombre” than Dickens's earlier novels.

  17. William T. Lankford, “‘The Parish Boy's Progress’: The Evolving Form of Oliver Twist,” 22.

  18. Mildred Newcomb, The Imagined World of Charles Dickens, 188. Lucas similarly notes that “Little Dorrit has about it the appearance of trying to explore and utter what I have reluctantly to call archetypal truths.” Melancholy Man, 245. Flint, Dickens, 37; George Levine, Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction, 164.

  19. Kaplan, Dickens, 329, 335, 342.

  20. Trilling, Introduction, vi, xii; Holoch, “Consciousness and Society,” 351; Manning, “Social Criticism,” 135, 131; Ruth Bernard Yeazell, “Do It or Dorrit,” 37. See also Joseph W. Childers, “History, Totality, Opposition: The New Historicism and Little Dorrit,” 152. “Little Dorrit,” Childers writes, “finds progress expressed in a number of ways which, when taken together, compose a hodge-podge of often contradictory traits.” The new historicism, with its emphasis on competing histories and ideologies, should find fertile ground in Little Dorrit.

  21. Manning, “Social Criticism,” 138; Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England, 315; Levine, Darwin, 156.

  22. Manning, “Social Criticism,” 141.

  23. Ibid., 145.

  24. See Natalie McKnight, Idiots, Madmen, and Other Prisoners in Dickens, 112-14. “Dickens,” McKnight writes, “uses the sun (and light in general) as an image of surveillance, and contrasts these images with the shadows of the prison” (112). See also Kincaid, “Viewing and Blurring,” 103.

  25. See Elaine Showalter, “Guilt, Authority, and the Shadows of Little Dorrit,” and J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels, 229-30.

  26. Miller, World, 230; Showalter, “Guilt,” 32.

  27. McKnight, Idiots, Madmen, 111.

  28. Kincaid, “Viewing and Blurring,” 104.

  29. Lucas, Melancholy Man, 246; James R. Kincaid, Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, 192; Wain, “Little Dorrit,” 176.

  30. Jonathan Arac, “Hamlet, Little Dorrit, and the History of Character,” 315.

  31. For discussions of the contradictions in The Old Curiosity Shop, see Flint, Dickens, 39-42, and Steven Marcus, Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey, 146; for a discussion of opposition in Barnaby Rudge, see my article “Physical Opposition in Barnaby Rudge.

  32. See James A. Davies, Textual Life, 10, and Flint, Dickens, 43-46.

  33. I should acknowledge that, in my view, The Mystery of Edwin Drood may equal or even surpass Little Dorrit in its degree of self-division. Its incompleteness, however, makes it an exceptional and difficult case. Some of the characteristics of that remarkable if fragmentary novel will be discussed in later chapters.

Works Cited

Arac, Jonathan. “Hamlet, Little Dorrit, and the History of Character.” South Atlantic Quarterly 87 (1988): 311-28.

Childers, Joseph W. “History, Totality, Opposition: The New Historicism and Little Dorrit.Dickens Quarterly 6 (1989): 150-57.

Collins, Philip, ed. Dickens: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

Davies, James A. The Textual Life of Dickens's Characters. Savage, Md.: Barnes and Noble, 1990.

Fenstermaker, John J. Charles Dickens, 1940-1975: An Analytical Subject Index to Periodical Criticism of the Novels and Christmas Books. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Flint, Kate. Dickens. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1988.

Garis, Robert. The Dickens Theatre: A Reassessment of the Novels. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Gold, Joseph. The Stature of Dickens: A Centenary Bibliography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

Holoch, George. “Consciousness and Society in Little Dorrit.Victorian Studies 21 (1978): 335-51.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Kincaid, James R. Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

———. “Viewing and Blurring in Dickens: The Misrepresentation of Representation.” Dickens Studies Annual 16 (1987): 95-111.

Lankford, William T. “‘The Parish Boy's Progress’: The Evolving Form of Oliver Twist.PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association] 93 (1978): 20-32.

Larson, Janet L. Dickens and the Broken Scripture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Leavis, F. R., and Q. D. Leavis. Dickens the Novelist. London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.

Levine, George. Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Lewes, George Henry. “Dickens in Relation to Criticism.” In The Dickens Critics. Edited by George H. Ford and Lauriat Lane Jr. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1961, 54-73.

Lucas, John. The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens's Novels. 2d ed. New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1980.

Manning, Sylvia. “Social Criticism and Textual Subversion in Little Dorrit.Dickens Studies Annual 20 (1991): 127-46.

Marcus, Steven. Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.

McKnight, Natalie. Idiots, Madmen, and Other Prisoners in Dickens. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Metz, Nancy Aycock. “The Blighted Tree and the Book of Fate: Female Models of Storytelling in Little Dorrit.Dickens Studies Annual 18 (1989): 221-41.

Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Newcomb, Mildred. The Imagined World of Charles Dickens. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.

Rosenberg, Brian. “The Language of Doubt in Oliver Twist.Dickens Quarterly 4 (1987): 91-99.

———. “Physical Opposition in Barnaby Rudge.Victorian Newsletter 67 (1985): 21-22.

Showalter, Elaine. “Guilt, Authority, and the Shadows of Little Dorrit.Nineteenth-Century Fiction 34 (1979): 20-40.

Smith, Grahame. Dickens, Money, and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Squires, Michael. “The Structure of Dickens's Imagination in Little Dorrit.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30 (1988): 49-64.

Trilling, Lionel. Introduction to Little Dorrit. By Charles Dickens. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953, v-xvi.

Wain, John. “Little Dorrit.” In Dickens and the Twentieth Century. Edited by John Gross and Gabriel Pearson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962, 175-86.

Wall, Stephen, ed. Charles Dickens: A Critical Anthology. Baltimore: Penguin, 1970.

Ward, A. W. Dickens. London, 1882.

Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Wills, Gary. “Dorrit without Politics.” New York Review of Books, February 2, 1989: 16-18.

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “Do It or Dorrit.” Novel 25 (1991): 33-49.

Mark M. Hennelly (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13785

SOURCE: Hennelly, Mark M. “‘The Games of the Prison Children’ in Dickens's Little Dorrit.Nineteenth-Century Contexts 20, no. 2 (1997): 187-213.

[In the following essay, Hennelly claims that games and play in Little Dorrit are not redemptive as they tend to be in Dickens's other works, suggesting that this is in keeping with the generally dark tone of the entire novel.]

When dealing with a work of art we must always bear in mind that art is a divine game. These two elements—the elements of the divine and that of the game—are equally important. It is divine because this is the element in man which comes nearest to God through becoming a true creator in his own right. And it is a game because it remains art only as long as we are allowed to remember that, after all, it is all make-believe, that … we are, as readers or spectators, participating in an elaborate and enchanting game.

(Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature 106)

The primary play motif in Little Dorrit (1855-57) is that “there is no playing fast and loose with the truth, in any game, without growing the worse for it” (2: 488). And as the unusually dire implications of such a cautionary trope suggest, it does not seem as if Little Dorrit even qualifies as one of Nabokov's “divine game[s]” or as a compelling illustration of significant play in Dickens—unless as a sustained example of foul play or arrested liminality, an existential exposé of the unbecoming games of Time and Travel incarcerated in a universal Satis House prison. In Chesterton's opinion, Little Dorrit “is at once in some ways so much more subtle and in every way so much more sad than the rest of [Dickens's] work” (229); and James R. Kincaid seconds the motion: “Dickens's great novel of imprisonment is not just dark and gloomy; it is specifically anti-comic. … It turns the world of Pickwick inside out” (192).1 The truth is, however, that “the games of the prison children as they whooped and ran, and played at hide—and—seek, and made the iron bars of the inner gateway ‘Home’” (1: 69) are remarkably significant in this dark novel precisely because they seem to be such uniquely dominant examples of foul play. Rather than serving “to humanise the minds” (1: 299), as I have previously argued that play does in the jeu d'esprit of Pickwick, the carnivalesque spirits of The Old Curiosity Shop, and even the wasteland of Our Mutual Friend, here more often than not “it's pauperising a man” (1: 278) in a spiritual as well as an economic sense.2 More simply stated, the play imagery usually reinforces the prison imagery in the text rather than refuting it, as one might expect. Consequently, whether ludic (and de lusive) behavior characterizes individuals or institutions, whether play clarifies thematic delusions, communication, love, or art, it does not seem to be redemptive in Little Dorrit, and this apparent failure runs against the grain of play tropes in the rest of Dickens's canon.

The real reasons for his obsession with foul play lie buried with the Inimitable, though it is safe to say that “the Shadows on the Wall” of Marshalsea Prison, the “smell of black dye” (1: 33; 1: 353) in Clennam's “home,” and the restaging of Dickens's seriocomic tryst with fortyish Maria Beadnell in Arthur's reunion with Flora, which meeting seemed to the novelist “extraordinarily droll, with something serious at the bottom of [it]” (Forster 2: 226), all recall Dickens's own personally painful delusions. Thus, what he wrote Forster early in the composition of David Copperfield may be even more subtly (because more disguised) true of Little Dorrit: “I really think I have done it ingeniously, and with a very complicated interweaving of truth and fiction” (Letters 2: 60). But more verifiable evidence better helps us understand the peculiar significance of play in Little Dorrit, especially as documented in the loss of ritualistic renewal and its impact on players, the proleptic first chapter, the recurring French “song of the child's game,” the pervasive figures of walls and art, and even the emergence of that unlikely ideal reader, the Physician. Within this context, though, the crucial textual clue, the ultimate “family secret,” also lies buried with Frederick Dorrit and his previous commitment to playfulness. In the terribly memorable words of the unnatural mother, Mrs. Clennam,

That Frederick Dorrit was the beginning of it all. If he had not been a player of music, and had not kept … an idle house where singers, and players, and such-like children of Evil turned their backs on the Light and their faces to the Darkness, [Arthur's natural mother] might have remained in her lowly station, and might not have been raised out of it to be cast down.

(2: 779)


In her perverse inversion of fair and foul play, of the interplay between “sun and shadow,” which begins, ends, and coordinates the novel, Mrs. Clennam suggests one of the many peculiarities of play in Little Dorrit. That is, the old sense of rural, if not ritualistic, play celebrated in the spontaneous daydream of Pickwick Papers and in the Rabelaisian carnival of The Old Curiosity Shop—and whose gradual loss is increasingly lamented in David Copperfield and Bleak House—seems completely betrayed here. And the text repeatedly emphasizes this tragic loss of playfulness without providing clear ritualistic compensations or even a major (residual) play partisan like Joe as later occurs in Great Expectations. It is not just that the natural world where “There's buttercups, and there's daisies, and there's … dandelions, and all manner of games” (1: 69) has vanished. It is also that the playful liminal rites which link the natural and human worlds and which Shakespeare's romances, for instance, especially celebrate, have lost their original sacral function and are often, in fact, now profaned (as even the narrative syntax here peculiarly disturbs the meaning): “In London itself, though in the old rustic road towards a suburb of note where in the days of William Shakespeare, author and stage-player, there were Royal hunting-seats—howbeit no sport is left there now but for hunters of man—Bleeding Heart Yard was to be found” (1: 135). Thus, the old, playful gods of May Day presently appear in Society only displaced and caricatured in a countess's gown: “If so low a simile may be admitted, the dress went down the staircase like a richly brocaded Jack in the Green” (1: 249). Even at this low point, however, the playful art of the narrator's simile may itself provide some hope for the recovery of play since he, at least, remembers the earlier celebrations of communal games.

Another reason for (or result of) the peculiar play stance of Little Dorrit is that not only are the major players of Dickens's early novels now gone or atrophied, but significant minor characters like Dick Swiveller no longer seem able to carry the play load either, though Pancks, Flora, Cavalletto, and the Plornishes make noble efforts. For example, the paranoia of the protagonist Arthur Clennam seems generally symptomatic as he dreads and desires “exposing” himself “a solitary target to a straggling cross-fire, which might bring him down from half-a-dozen quarters at once” (2: 716). And this play image seems especially ironic since in royal sports the best archers were traditionally viewed as proteges of Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII, and “from his expertness in handling of the bow, every good shooter was called by his name” (Strutt 54). On the other hand, the sing-song monotone of Mrs. Chivery's portrayal of her son's and Amy's childhood echoes the sense of forced coyness the reader too often hears in the heroine's uninspired playfulness: “He played with her as a child where in that yard she played” (1: 258). And Fanny Dorrit, who can be “playfully affectionate” with her sister Amy and disarmingly honest with Mr. Sparkler, making “no disguise that she was playing off graces upon” him (2: 497, 495), ultimately lapses into futile saber-rattling with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Merdle, as they “fenced with one another … like the glittering of small-swords” (2: 512).

Play turns perversely dehumanizing with other characters as well. Mr. Sparkler seems a conditioned jack-in-the-box “with a spring lid” (2: 598), and yet one who ironically desires a girl with “no nonsense” about her. Upon his release from prison, Tip Dorrit literally “becomes a billiard-marker” (1: 232), and Tattycoram imagines herself, in Miss Wade's phrase, as the “broken plaything” of the Meagles (1: 330). Mrs. Merdle attempts to manipulate Mrs. Meagles “with the same polite dexterity … as a conjuror might have forced a card on that innocent lady” (1: 390), while the conjugal “playfulness” (1: 347) of the Flintwinches, like the Smallweeds' in Bleak House, resembles nothing so much as a macabre Punch-and-Judy sparring dance. Mr. Casby, “the worst-looking cheat in all this town,” plays a “moral game” pretending to be “a slow-going benevolent Humming-Top”—actually his toy tugboat “Pancks is only the Works; but [Casby is] the Winder!” (2: 800-01). And Merdle passively allows his election team to play political dirty tricks on “little ignorant, drunken, and guzzling, dirty, out-of-the-way constituencies, that had reeled into Mr. Merdle's pocket” (2: 564). The reader's final vision of him, appropriately through the dancer Fanny's teary eyes, “had the effect of making the famous Mr. Merdle … appear to leap, and waltz, and gyrate, as if he were possessed by several Devils” (2: 701). In Miss Wade's view, Gowan gyrates to a similar tune in revealing his danse macabre: “He was like the dressed-up Death in the Dutch series; whatever figure he took upon his arm, whether it was youth or age, beauty or ugliness, whether he danced with it, sang with it, played with it, or prayed with it, he made it ghastly” (2: 669). Analogously, “Mr. Dorrit urbanely went through the motions of playing a game of skittles with” his collegians (1: 426), but his play is mere pomp, just as his pompous “testimonials” feature only pathetic play. Even Arthur's dreamy replay of the adamantine ethical system of his not-good-enough “mother,” Mrs. Clennam, reveals to him that she wants to win her game as much as Dorrit wishes to win his: “He withers away in his prison; I wither away in mine; inexorable justice is done; what do I owe on this score!” (1: 89). Small wonder that Jeremiah Flintwinch ultimately tells her, “That may be your religion, but it's my gammon” (2: 782).

It seems finally very significant, even in this brief catalogue of dehumanizing play in the text, that many versions are associated with distorted visions from something like “the witch-region of sleep” (1: 179). In other words, “laboring under the delusion of some imaginary” defense mechanism (2: 778), like the universal rationalization revealed in the original title Nobody's Fault, symptomatically signals itself in the play of the text's ludic and deluded personalities. Thus, “the wrong result of a delusion” typifies the atypical play in Little Dorrit, just as “playful fancies” uncharacteristically characterize the many “pinched faces of poverty and care” (2: 780, 815). Here, walls do not a prison make as much as play seems to imprison most lives, just as tradition has it that a prisoner in the Bastille devised the game of solitaire to wile away his time in solitary confinement (Strutt 259). It appears perversely apropos, then, that upon leaving prison, Mr. Plornish stops to look “on a game of skittles, with the mixed feelings of an old inhabitant” (1: 241).

Even more disarming and peculiar is the fact that the Trickster Blandois, a kind of unregenerate Mr. Jingle,3 personifies the perverse play world of Little Dorrit: “I am playful, playfulness is part of my amiable character. Playfully I become as one slain and hidden” (2: 769). His tortured and torturing brand of play, as Mrs. Clennam suggests to Arthur, is like nothing else in Dickens: “[H]e does not conform to your standard, or square his behavior by your rules” (2: 546). Specifically, he plays against the grain of Dickens's usual “philosophical philanthropy,” as “two players at dominoes glanc[ing] up from their game” hear from the landlady of the Break of Day inn upon Blandois's entrance: “[T]here are people whom it is necessary to detest without compromise. … [T]here are people who must be dealt with as enemies of the human race. … [T]here are people who have no human heart” (1: 127). And yet this unique “cause of many anxieties” (2: 742) or even personification of the play of différance, seems himself universal if not archetypal: “I am neither born nor bred in England. In effect, I am of no country. … I descend from half-a-dozen countries. … I have been here and there and everywhere!” (1: 354).

His cosmopolitan (and even normative) universality is perhaps what is so disconcerting about the shape-shifting Blandois playing the “model” for Gowan's art and making the viewer guess “what it's meant for.” In Gowan's words, “There he stands, you see. A bravo waiting for his prey, a distinguished noble waiting to save his country, the common enemy waiting to do somebody a bad turn, an angelic messenger waiting to do somebody a good turn—whatever you think he looks most like” (2: 493). The problem for Victorian society, as Blandois pointedly tells Clennam, who at the moment himself feels he has just betrayed Doyce, is that its citizens “think he looks most like” their own self-deluding games: “I sell anything that commands a price. How do your lawyers live, your politicians, your intriguers, your men of the Exchange! How do you live? How do you come here? Have you sold no friend? … Society sells itself and sells me: and I sell Society” (2: 749).4 His particular brand of exploitation plays especially upon master-slave dialectics. Blandois, for instance, “rolled” Jeremiah “until the staggerings of that gentleman … were like those of a teetotum nearly spent” (2: 547) and manipulates Mrs. Clennam “with a warning play of his lithe fingers on her arm.” Consequently, his own evaluation of such cat-and-mouse games appears most apt: “It is better to be torn to pieces at a spring, than to be a mouse at the caprice of such a cat” (2: 770-71). Even the reader is manipulated into playing this game since Blandois's frequently unidentified or disguised entrances are often cued by “that ugly play of nose and moustache” or the “mere trick of his evil eyes” (2: 359, 509), which gestural codes and clues challenge the game reader to guess his identity. Finally, Blandois's “ugly play” is institutionalized by the Circumlocution Office because both similarly pervert “verbal communication.” As Blandois insists to Clennam, “Words, sir, never influence the course of the cards, or the course of the dice. … I also play a game, and words are without power over it. … I play my game to the end in spite of words” (2: 745). Thus, D. A. Miller's assessment of “circumlocutory agencies” in Bleak House may be equally relevant to Little Dorrit, since the novel seems “profoundly concerned to train us—as, at least since the eighteenth century, play usually trains us for work—in the sensibility for inhabiting the new bureaucratic, administrative structures” (89).

Ferdinand Barnacle's startling honesty, tonally echoing Blandois's more sociopathic transparency, repeatedly addresses the real function of the Circumlocution Office's version of the official run-around or talk-around: “It's like a limited game of cricket. A field of outsiders are always going in to bowl at Public Service, and we block the balls.” Eventually, “the bowlers” became “tired, got dead beat, got lamed, got their backs broken, died off, gave it up, went in for other games” (2: 737). True to its name, then, Circumlocution understands the value of “forms of speech, but we must keep it up, we must keep the game alive” (2: 565). That is, the slogan of “How Not To Do It” perpetuates the System besides serving as a monitory exemplum both of verbal foul play and, like Mr. Dorrit's flourishing “calligraphic recreations” (2: 600), of meaningless “epistolary” formula and supplementarity. Public clients, like Clennam and Doyce, are consequently “fresh game” (2: 516) for Circumlocution, and before long their unanswered claims become “dead game” rotting under the “bamboozling air of How not to do it” (1: 108).

And just like the pervasive “jail-rot” of imprisoning self-delusions in the text (1: 228), diseased discourse infects most of the foully playful lives in Little Dorrit. Flora's semantic circumambulations provide the most obvious example of such circumlocution, though the “running on with astonishing speed” of “her conversation with nothing but commas, and very few of them” (1: 152) hastens as often toward disillusionment as toward delusions. More usually, however, deluded characters insist on “holding no verbal communication with each other” (2: 561), or they unconsciously “shut out all verbal communication” (1: 414). For their salvation, such “self-tormentors” must, like Affrey, “be brought to become communicative, and to do what lay in her to break the spell of secrecy that enshrouded the house” (2: 680). The problem is that most conversation, such as that staged between Mr. Dorrit and Mrs. Merdle, becomes a verbal sparring match or a “skilful [sic] see-saw” (2: 599). More pitiful is the fact that even in Bleeding Heart Yard, which is the beneficiary of Circumlocution's playful maledictions, the “constitutional national axiom” set to “the tune of Rule Britannia playing” patronizes any foreigner, especially his “language,” all the while babbling in “the appalling difficulties of the Anglo-Saxon tongue” (1: 350-51). Given such a climate of deluded and deluding aphasia, it is refreshingly novel in this text book of dark Dickensian novelties to hear Amy simply say to Fanny, “Let us talk” (2: 589).

For the most part, however, the verbal “games of the prison children” mimic the “most piercing shriek” of another playful “jail-bird”: “[T]here was a parrot on the outside of a golden cage holding on by its beak with its scaly legs in the air, and putting itself into many strange upside-down postures. This peculiarity has been discovered in birds of quite another feather, climbing upon golden wires.” In fact, it is “as if” the Merdles's parrot's “name were Society and it asserted its right to its exactions” (1: 238-39) while it cackles its macabre metacommentary much like Grip the Raven in Barnaby Rudge. Significantly, Mr. Plornish, who bears Dickens's nickname for his youngest son (Forster 2: 158), later seems to play upon just this image of the mundus inversus when he visits Arthur in prison and crudely but naturally articulates the disappointments of such foul play and the consolations of fair play as he

amiably growled, in his philosophical but not lucid manner, that there was ups you see, and there was downs. It was in wain to ask why ups, why downs; there they was, you know. He had heard it given for a truth that accordin' as the world went round, which round it did rewolve undoubted, even the best of gentlemen must take his turn of standing with his ed upside down and all his air a flying the wrong way into what you might call Space.

(2: 731)

Tony Weller, who seems echoed here, could not have stated his creator's play philosophy any more articulately. And while out of context such natural play wisdom may even make us think of the gymnastic revolutions of Carroll's White Knight, within Little Dorrit's context we may more soberly reflect that the parrot's echolalia, not Plornish's effusions, intones the text's final nay-say; and this jail-bird quite clearly lacks the vitality that redeems, say, Quilp's earlier, more carnivalesque personifications of inversion in The Old Curiosity Shop. In this sense, Plornish's sentiments about “the whirling wheel of life” (2: 720) seem to be only Dickens's nostalgic and plaintive reminder of the loss of carnivalesque re-creation, just as “review[ing]” Clennam's “life, was like descending a green tree in fruit and flower, and seeing all the branches wither and drop off one by one” (1: 165). With such rival epistemologies of play in mind, we can better evaluate the various games in the opening chapter and judge how they clarify the ultimate meaning of play in this dark universe.


Little Dorrit's provocative first chapter introduces the delusive play of characters but also subtly implies the more delightful play of the narrator. Initially, the playful dimensions of the remarkable opening paragraphs, informed by “all kinds of notes” (Dickens, Letters 2: 658), read like Eliot's “Game of Chess” section of The Waste Land. That is, there initially seems to be no game or play at all here except perhaps with the reader's expectations regarding fictional representation and referentiality. As in Eliot, we initially detect no fair or foul play—there is no real reason to at first. And yet in Little Dorrit, the synthetic ambience of Eliot's interior lacquearia appears previewed in the lacquered, or better varnished, facades of Dickens's exterior seascape, landscape, and walled architecture, each of which “was panneled off into spaces” (1: 33) like the recessive interior of Mrs. Clennam's house. Thus, the alternating patches of “sun and shadow” on the “staring white walls” seem, especially on second reading, aesthetically represented illusions besides paranoid delusions, preparing for the ironically “realistic” play image within the “villainous prison”: “a notched and disfigured bench, immovable from the wall, with a draught-board rudely hacked upon it with a knife, a set of draughts, made of old buttons and soup bones, a set of dominoes.” Indeed, the implications of this opening are not at all as pretentiously “thick with verbal artifice” as Robert Garis finds them to be (6), but, in fact, are relevantly clarified by Nabokov's celebrated comparison of the creative energies controlling chess and fiction:

It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate world of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world), so that a great part of a problem's value is due to the number of “tries”—delusive opening moves, false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead the would-be solver astray.

(Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited 290)5

The point here is that Dickens's opening specifically (and the entire text generally) fulfills the requirements of Nabokov's “first-rate work of fiction” by reading like a chess problem to be solved or a puzzle to be decoded. The repeated signifiers of sacral draughts or checkers, dominoes, and even “destiny's dice-box” (1: 8-9) suggest Nabokov's analogy, especially since Blandois, masquerading as Rigaud, concurrently vows, “It's my intent to be a gentleman. It's my game. Death of my soul, I play it out wherever I go! … By Heaven I win, however the game goes” (1: 8-9). At the same time, this “playfulness of Monsieur Rigaud” is ominously reflected in the checkered interplay of his artificially dyed, black moustache upon “the whiteness of Monsieur Rigaud's face” (8-13). Later, he becomes “a mere black stick in the snow” (2: 457), just as the bird's eye view of the unidentified pilgrims travelling the Alps near the beginning of book 2 also makes these “little moving figures of men … reduced to miniatures” appear as “dark specks in the snow” (2: 452), like black pips on white dice if not the play of difference on some self-reflecting Rorshach rebus. And, of course, just as we are teased to see through the laminated facades of the landscape at the beginning of book 1, so too throughout the opening chapter of book 2 (which introduces Dickens's original vision of the novel), we are teased to guess the identities of the different unnamed travellers by recalling their characteristic body language and linguistic idiosyncracies from book 1.6 The names listed in the metatextual “traveller's book” at the very end of the first chapter then allow us to check our guesses and grade our scores in this typical example (of many) of Nabokov's “delusive opening moves.”


That Dickens fully intended to play a narrative game with puzzles such as this and with the lost, original meaning of the acronym “DNF,” the secret behind Affrey's “dreams,” the allegorical “Story of the Princess,” and the mystery behind Merdle's suicide and suicide note, is self-evident in the author's Working Notes to Little Dorrit. Here annotations like puzzle, mystery, and discovery are repeatedly emphasized and linked with the teasing “Shadow of the Marshalsea Wall” (Working Notes 281), which significant vertical game board we will discuss later. In fact, in these Working Notes Dickens often seems to stage a stichomythic guessing game with himself over possible solutions to and arrangements of several such narrative puzzles (cf. 309-11). Originally, he even intended the initial meeting of the travellers in book 1 to be a kind of playful test of reader ingenuity: “People to meet and part as travellers do, and the future connexion between them in the story, not to be shewn to the reader but to be worked out as in life. Try this uncertainty and this not-putting of them together, as a new means of interest. Indicate and carry through this intention” (Working Notes 271; Dickens's emphasis). And as Carlyle's similar use of a tell-tale shadow game in Sartor Resartus suggests, discovering the meaning of such narrative clues invariably provokes self-discovery: in our “mad shadow-hunting and shadow-hunted Pilgrimings,” always “there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves” (185, 190).7

The most provocative narrative puzzle in Little Dorrit, however, is “the song of the child's game,” “Compagnon de la Majolaine!” which also appears in the first chapter of book 1 (6) and thereafter recurs at significant moments throughout the text. This song and game function like a repeated “particular ‘tag’ to a play,” such as the one in Memoires du Diable which Dickens attended in 1856 while writing Little Dorrit and which he felt was “most admirably played” (Forster 2: 202). In fact, much more subtly than “The Story of the Princess,” this playful song becomes a kind of chanson à clef, ingeniously celebrating and interconnecting several of the text's signifiers and signifieds. And yet as far as I can discover, only two (almost identical) notes published anonymously by the editors of The Dickensian in 1909 and 1928 discuss the song and its background—even though, as the earlier note suggests, Dickens's own version of the old French original was itself popular enough to be published separately: “In 1857 a song called ‘Blandois' Song’ was published with music by H.R.S. Dalton, and words by ‘Charles Dickens, Esq.’” (“Compagnon De La Marjolaine [sic]” 45).8 The fact that at about this same time Dickens was helping to prepare “for a translation of his books into French” and that he had in the past teased that he should write all his novels in French (Forster 2: 194, 46-47) may both suggest the importance of the French original as well as Dickens's creative adaptation of it. Further, both suggest that Dickens may be challenging his reader to discover or recall that original.

Included in the 1909 note in The Dickensian is a letter from M. Henry Ferrari, who, using Le Duchat's Dictionnaire (1725), reconstructs the significance of the original French roundelay, “Le Chevalier du guet.” This figure “was a sort of police officer, a mounted watchman.” In “the ancient times, the custom with the burgesses” was to place a “pot of marjolaine” in the window of their daughter's bedroom since the leaves of this plant “were of great use in the ragouts and nosegays.” More importantly, the plant provided a wonderful excuse “for a coquette to make her appearance at the window, under the pretense of watering her thirsty plant, and to show herself to the ‘compagnon de la marjolaine,’” that is, the Chevalier du guet, “patrolling in the street” below (44). This preliminary courting custom was gradually discontinued in practice but was still perpetuated and played out in the children's song and game, during which one child played the police officer and the rest represented members of a large family, if not of society in general, who responded to the officer's questions regarding his search for a bride. Some of these responses indicate that the prospective groom must wait until the proper time, while others question his motives by rejecting his intended gifts of jewels and gold until he promises, “Mon coeur je lui donnerai.” At that moment, he is allowed to choose his intended from the group, and the two lovers then go off together followed by the other children. Thus, the original custom interrelates courting with mild deception and invokes tropes of time, flowers, water, and the window or balcony. The playful art of courting in the children's game, on the other hand, is less disguised, and it insists on the importance of familial or societal approval, honest communication, the postponement of immediate gratification, and the value of the gold of love over the love of gold. As we will see, each of these tropes and themes is relevant to the world of the text.

Before considering the specific relationships between the game and this world, however, we should note that there exists a very similar and very popular English roundelay, the “Wallflowers” song and game, which Dickens probably also had in mind while playing upon the French responses. In an 1898 study, Alice B. Gomme provides extensive coverage of this game (2: 329-42), and her research seems especially relevant to Little Dorrit. For example, one variant reads:

Water, water wall-flower, growing up so high
We are all maidens, we must all die.
Except———, the youngest of them all;
She can dance, she can sing,
And she can dance the wedding ring [or “Hieland fling”]
Fie! fie! fie for shame!
Turn your back to the wall again.


The flower-watering, its relationship to the maiden, and the implications for courting here all recall “Compagnon de la Majolaine!” while the emphasis on the “youngest” (stressed in many variants) seems to reinforce the central role of Amy Dorrit in the novel, especially as it is relevant to the significant condition of Mr. Clennam's suppressed codicil. The wall is implicit in the French game, central here, and very relevant throughout Little Dorrit. While the French song is a “line game,” “Wallflowers” is a “ring game,” as the children “dance slowly round, singing the words.” In some versions, “a girl chooses a boy after her face is turned to the wall,” while a boy chooses a girl in the French counterpart (329-39). Gomme pertinently concludes that the game also “appears to refer to a custom or observance which particularly concerns young girls” and surmises that “this game was originally one where the death of the betrothed of the youngest maiden was announced” because the tune “is pretty and plaintive, and accords with the idea of mourning and grief” (340-42).

Perhaps clarifying the intimate connection of Blandois with such games, Gomme generally feels that “the remains of the line and circle form, as denoting opponents and friendly communion can, I think, be traced in old plays and old methods of acting. In old pantomimes, the demons or evil spirits and their followers enter on one side and stand in line; the good fairy and her followers enter on the opposite side and stand in line.” In sum,

these contests between men and women occur in such a way that we are taken back to one of the earliest known customs of marriage, that known as marriage by capture—then from this stage to a later, where purchase or equivalent value obtains; then to a marriage with a ceremony which carries us back to the earliest forms of such ceremonies. … [W]e have in these children's games some of the oldest historical documents belonging to our race, worthy of being placed side by side with the folk-tale and other monuments of man's progress from savagery to civilization.

(2: 530-31)

Significant here is not only this nineteenth-century general testament to the ritualistic importance of games but also its relevant conclusion that playful “courting” tells us a great deal about the origins and present practices of bride-capture and matrimonial exchange or what Little Dorrit terms “Society's matrimonial market” (1: 393). And most of the characters at one time or another trade at this market.

Thus, Gomme's remarks also suggest that such residual games and songs can help us diagnose the deritualized world of Little Dorrit, particularly its alienation from or perversion of older, more natural and playful traditions. This is why Clennam, banished in prison, listens so attentively to Amy's voice “as it read to him, heard in it all that great Nature was doing, heard in it all the soothing songs she sings to man. At no Mother's knee but hers had he ever dwelt in his youth on hopeful promises, on playful fancies, on the harvests of tenderness and humility that lie hidden in the early-fostered seeds of the imagination” (2: 815). This is the same Clennam who early in the text reveals a selfhood, much like the Chevalier du guet's, conditioned at first to prize gold and jewels and to devalue the heart: “I am the only child of parents who weighed, measured, and priced everything; for whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced, had no existence.” Such a mercenary nurture caused a “void in my cowed heart everywhere—this was my childhood” (1: 20-21).

If we do not forget these French and English games, we can realize that Little Dorrit often reads like a series of debased courtly love rituals. Jeremiah, for instance, “never courted” Affrey so that their union, in her words, was like “a Smothering instead of a Wedding” (1: 39). Unkingly Arthur vies with Gowan/Gawain for Guinevere the Pet and later vies unknowingly with the pathetically (then poignantly) chivalrous John Chivery for the truer guerdon of Amy, whose name means love. Thus, the novel recalls Tennyson's Idylls of the King, which Dickens felt to be “absolutely unapproachable” (Forster 2: 352) and which itself may even remind us that some medieval tournaments were called “The Round Table game” (Strutt 123). This game may clarify Mr. Dorrit's “little round table” that John Chivery gives Clennam and on which magically appears Amy's gift of flowers (2:723, 756). It is therefore fitting that Arthur and Amy (Art and Love?) marry at the Church of St. George, the patron saint of courtliness and chivalry. On the other hand, the titular but false hero of “Compagnon de la Majolaine!” Blandois—“Of all the king's knights 'tis the flower, / Always gay”—lies crushed under Clennam's very perilous castle because this traitorous Chevalier du guet is an equally false chevalier d'industrie or “Knight of Industry” (2: 768). The English game “Wallflowers” anticipates this dead lover, who himself has slain his wife, just as the French game anticipates the true lovers rejoining society's lonely crowd at the end of the textual game. In this same vein, Amy's “favorite station was the balcony of her own room” in Venice, where she is repeatedly seen “leaning on the broad-cushioned ledge, and looking over” (2: 466), dreaming of her Arthur. And in Rome, Amy significantly replays this liminal game pose by reappearing in an “irregular bay-window”: “Little Dorrit use to sit and muse here, much as she had been use to wile away the time in her balcony in Venice” (2: 594).

In prison, Amy even tends her true companion of the flower, Arthur, with nourishing water “to make his room as fresh and neat as it could be made, and to sprinkle it with a pleasant smelling water.” At the same time, these two wallflowers “sat side by side in the shadow of the wall. … The shadow moved with the sun, but she never moved from his side except to wait upon him” (2: 757-58). Thus, together they can no longer be counted among “the many obscure persons who have turned their faces to the wall and died” (2: 796). The only flowers figuratively associated with Arthur (and suggested by the song) that have died with their faces to the wall are his institutionalized natural mother, “kept in a cage” like his foster mother “within these four walls” (2: 780), and his romantic roses, “pale and unreal in the moonlight” (1: 338). These sacred signifiers, however, are not transcendental but float away on the surface of the river after Minnie discloses her intention to marry Gowan and so seem to signify Arthur's courtly delusions regarding Minnie. Flora, ultimately no sheltered flower in the crannied wall herself, casts off her own delusions and accepts “stern reality” (1: 283) rather than cherishing “the withered chaplet.” As she explains to Amy, this means surrendering her role as playful coquette, which role had grown as stale for her as it had for Maria Beadnell: “[L]et Arthur understand that I don't know after all whether it wasn't all nonsense between us though pleasant at the time and trying too and certainly Mr. F. did work a change and the spell being broken nothing could be expected to take place without weaving it afresh” (2:819-20). Flora, of course, will always retain a fair sense of playful energy, the fiercer side of which seems personified in Mr. F's Aunt, who still wants liminally to punish the past companion of her nephew's wife: “I'll chuck him out o' winder!” (2: 819-20).10 In fact, Flora may finally commemorate Flora, Queen of May Games, who herself (or what she signified) had been bitterly attacked in the Puritan treatise Funebria Flora, The Downfall of May Games (1660; qtd. in Strutt 280). Thus, Dickens's debased flower maiden finally becomes another poignant reminder of the loss of the green world and the consolations of its ritualized play.

The pertinent image of the shadow on the Marshalsea wall repeatedly acts as a kind of Platonic sundial and thereby reinforces the delusive puzzle of time suggested by the “DNF” enigma on Mr. Clennam's watch. It recalls both the French game's preoccupation with the “late” hour and the death of innocence elegized in the “Wallflowers” song and transcended only by experienced maidens, like Amy above, who fear no more the heat of the sun or the lessons of the past. Most innocent flower maids, however, cannot really take the heat or successfully play “Wallflowers,” which itself is related to other so-called “Sun and Shade” games.11 Minnie's twin dies in childhood; Maggie remains a case of arrested innocence; deflowered Fanny and Minnie suffer in unhappy marriages; Miss Wade's “self-torment,” like that of Tennyson's Mariana, borders on psychosis; and Tattycoram, the tattered heart, still waits for her true companion. All seem to take their turn at the game, trying to learn from the cautionary example of the “love child” Arthur's poor but good-enough, real mother, that “graceless orphan” and “singing girl” (2: 779) who goes mad because she is forced to live without her companion “knight.”

When we trace the serial singing of the song throughout the text, such play implications become more clearly significant, and we realize, as Dickens's Working Notes also suggest (305), that he did intend the song and game as a kind of narrative “tag” or “refrain,” a coda teasing the reader as much with its unsung as with its sung relevance. Again, “the song of the child's game” first resounds in chapter 1:

Who passes by this road so late?
Compagnon de la Majolaine!
Who passes by this road so late?
Always gay?
[followed by the response:]
Of all the king's knights 'tis the flower,
Compagnon de la Majolaine!
Of all the king's knights 'tis the flower,
Always gay!

Significantly, the first singer is the jailkeeper chanting the verses to his little girl whose face “was like an angel's in the prison” and whose innocence thus contrasts with the diabolic Blandois, who here merely listens to the song and only later appropriates its lyrics. Although Little Dorrit never actually hears the song, her part in its game is impersonated by the jailer's daughter, whose “voice prolonged” the last memorable lines as she leaves the prison cell. It also seems prefiguratively important that Cavalletto “felt it a point of honor” to answer the refrain “in good time and tune” since such playful readiness prepares for his later role as masterful servant able to turn the game tables on his selfish master. Significant, too, is the fact that the jailer has just warned the prisoners “not to game” (1: 5-7), by which he means the risky foul play of gambling with dominoes and not the ritualistic play of his song, the original meaning of which is now distant (especially to English readers) and is even further displaced by Dickens's variations.

The song is not heard directly again until five hundred pages afterwards when Clennam decides to follow Tattycoram and “a swaggering man, with a high nose, and a black moustache” (2: 530). Still, the attentive reader may be able to remember it and to recognize the mystery man's “singing a scrap of a French song” (2: 533) both because of Blandois's tell-tale body language and because of the memorable resonance of the original “French song.” Thus, the textual injunction “do not forget” is as crucial to Dickens's narrative game with his reader as it is to his characters. Further, when Clennam forcefully “resolved to play this unexpected play out, and see where they went” (2: 531), the game context suggests that he has developed a great deal since his opening, punning disclosure: “I have no will” (1: 20). As Gomme demonstrates, in fact, this is the exact goal of several versions of “Wallflowers”—to separate the “idle spectator,” the wallflower, from those who actively and passionately play the game (341-42).

In the next chapter, Clennam again hears the song after he is mysteriously “jostled to the wall” by a shadowy figure near his mother's house. He then identifies Blandois “looking up at those windows” (which he himself is looking at), like the Compagnon de la Majolaine, and singing the verses (2: 543-44). The effect of this apparently “strange chance” meeting is that Blandois and Clennam become each other's shadows or doubles precisely because Clennam is shadowing or playing shadow tag with the singer, his Other voice. Both, following the song, “pass by this road so late”; in fact, for Clennam the danger is that it may be too late in his life to rediscover his past and become Amy's true “compagnon” and “knight” by learning at least to play the game actively if not, in fact, to be passionately “gay.” Twelve chapters later the song has echoed so suggestively that its refrain becomes the title of chapter 22, “Who Passes by this Road so Late?” And Clennam has internalized “the song of the child's game” to such a degree by this time that its “theme was foremost in his thoughts” as he compulsively relives that “mysterious night when we had seen the man at his mother's.” He even begins to sing the song out loud, “but he was so unconscious of having repeated it audibly, that he started to hear the next verse” sung as a duet by Cavalletto standing next to him. During their ensuing discussion of the song, Cavalletto reveals that “they know it in France. I have heard it many times, sung by little children,” specifying that the last time he heard it was “from a sweet little voice. A little voice, very pretty, very innocent.” To this Arthur responds that the last time he heard the song, it “was in a voice quite the reverse of pretty, and quite the reverse of innocent” (2: 675-76), which dialogue again illustrates Gomme's point about the thematic counterpointing of innocence and evil, or at least experience, in such games. By means of Cavalletto's remarkable pantomimic impersonation and the picture on the handbill Clennam produces, they are finally able to identify Blandois's crucial link with the song (and game).

The last literal rendition of the verses occurs in chapter 28 when Blandois is brought “within the ever-frowning walls” of Marshalsea to Clennam's cell and greets his shadow-tag partner with “Salve, fellow jail-bird. … You want me, it seems. Here I am!” Near the end of their interview, Blandois sings the lyrics again, this time clearly identifying himself “as the gallant personage of the song.” But “this adaptation of the Refrain to himself” just as clearly marks Blandois's betrayal of the courting ritual which produced the lyrics in the first place. Indeed, it also marks his perversion of the playful art of courtly love itself, the “mysteries of letters from old lovers,” namely from Clennam to Pet Meagles, “the fair Gowana.” As we heard at the outset, “there is no playing fast and loose with the truth, in any game, without growing the worse for it.” And Blandois grows much worse when he calls being “more than ordinarily honourable” a “weak fantasy.” He subsequently distorts the honorable feudal obligations “of all the king's knights” in the song by attempting to bully Cavalletto into participating in his own self-deluding interpretation of the game: “Sing the Refrain, pig!” John Baptiste plays the game again with his false savior Blandois “partly in his old habit of submission,” yet one suspects more “because his not doing it might injure his benefactor” (2: 749-51) and true savior, Clennam. Thus, their mutual role-playing here ironically, if not ritualistically, serves to reverse their former roles as “master” and “servant.”

The lyrics and melody of the song, however, linger hauntingly into the next chapter as Clennam begins to experience the true ritualistic value of the game: “[A] yearning to be beyond the blind blank wall, made him feel as if he must go mad with the ardour of his desire.” And as he watches the timely progression of a sunspot “upon the wall,” he presumably wonders whether it is too “late” and if the game is up for him. Almost intuitively, Clennam “crept to his chair by the open window” and hears “fragments of tunes and songs” that are “playing in the wind.” Then his miraculous moment of re-creation occurs as the song's meaning is symbolically realized, and shoring the “fragments” of the playful ritual against his present ruin allows Clennam to transcend time and become the knightly companion of “his” flower maiden: “Dozing and dreaming, without the power of reckoning time … some abiding impression of a garden stole over him—a garden of flowers. … [A]fter a moment's pause, a quiet figure seemed to stand there. … It seemed to be his Little Dorrit in her old, worn dress” (2: 755-56). Thus if, as the Opies contend, the “apparently ritual origin” of “wallflowers” suggests primitive “witches dances” (236) and Blandois's danse macabre, it also paradoxically suggests Amy's bewitching of Arthur and the possibility of the ultimate victory of playful love in the text.


It now remains for us to discuss how Little Dorrit further develops the play images of the wall and of art, both of which are associated with the games of “Compagnon de la Majolaine!” and “Wallflowers.” Noting the recurrence of “the well-known shadow of the Marshalsea Wall” (2: 478), many commentators have diagnosed shadow imagery in the novel, but have neglected the repeated significance of the wall itself.12 This neglect is especially curious given the significance of walls throughout Dickens's fiction, quite possibly due to the traumatic effect of these same Marshalsea walls on his childhood. As he reveals in his prefatory treatment of the historical Marshalsea, “the walls were lowered when the place got free” (xviii). And although the wall is clearly important in “Wallflowers,” it also figures prominently as the liminal context for the window in the French courting game. As we have already seen, the first explicit game in the novel, the “notched and disfigured bench … with a draught-board rudely hacked upon it with a knife,” is “immovable from the wall” (1:2). This signifier suggests that walls become a kind of vertical game board in the text, just as so-called “wall games” developed in cities when horizontal spaces, like Spa Fields, previously used for sport, were enclosed by walled buildings, which then called for creative adaptation into new game sites.13

“The games of the prison children” in Little Dorrit often rely on an absurd use of walls, and nowhere is this more evident than in the events surrounding the birth of Little Dorrit herself (1: 58-64). Here Dickens introduces an elaborate, playfully dark conceit comparing human existence to “the Marshalsea flies” which cavort on the prison walls. When Mr. Dorrit first asks the turnkey whether “it is not against the rules” for his wife to bring their two children to prison, the significant reply is “Why, lord set you up like a corner pin, we've a re'lar playground o'children here. Children! Why we swarm with 'em.” The exact nature of this “swarm” is soon clear as Dr. Haggage, “a ghastly medical scarecrow” who has just come from “playing at all-fours,” and Mrs. Bangham, charwoman and “flycatcher,” preside over Amy's entry into the walls of the prison. Since “the walls and ceiling were blackened with flies” during the birth, “Mrs. Bangham, expert in sudden device, with one hand fanned the patient with a cabbage leaf, and with the other set traps of vinegar and sugar in gallipots” for the annoying insects. Indeed, “the flies fell into the traps by hundreds; and at length one little life, hardly stronger than theirs, appeared among the multitudes of lesser deaths.” Extending this macabre analogy between the flies' fall into traps and Amy's descent into prison life, the good Doctor sees both cages as refuges from the precarious uncertainty of life on the walls and outside the walls: “[W]e know the worst of it; we have got to the bottom, we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the word for it. Peace.” Thereafter, much of the text tests “this profession of faith” in order to discover whether it preaches an escapist delusion or an absurd but “grim reality.”14 The fact that the “little picture room” in the Meagles's cottage features wall hangings of saints' portraits with “such coats of varnish that every holy personage served for a fly-trap and became what is now called in the vulgar tongue a Catch-em-Alive O” suggests (1: 193), as we will see, that Mrs. General's “varnish” or sticky system of self-delusive entrapment similarly embalms life into peaceful nonexistence outside the prison just as the insulating walls do within the prison.

Thus, the walls in Little Dorrit become a virtual reality or presence upon and against which is enacted the symbolic interplay between subject and object, the self and the other. Furthermore, the “changing distortions” of the goings back-and-forth of Mrs. Clennam, Affrey, and Flintwinch hang “upon the house wall” like so many “shadows” from a great magic lantern” (1: 178) or dancing reflections on Plato's Cave wall.15 In other words, depending upon its role in the game, the wall may represent the mind or reality, a shelter or a barrier. Game-like penalties and sanctuaries appear in the walls in the forms of “disguised traps in walls” (1: 311), recurring “spikes on the wall” (2: 728), and the security of being “safe within the walls” (1: 224). And again related to the wallflower motif, walls can indicate one's failure to play in life's games. For instance, carnivalesque “Punch's shows used to lean against the … wall in Mews Street,” but the now “dead wall” (1: 109) currently reflects only the parasitic life of Mr. Tite Barnacle, who survives there, just as “a dead sort of house, with a dead wall over the way and dead gateway at the side” (2: 654) reflects Miss Wade's moribund snail-life at Calais. The text clearly demonstrates that there are too many “monotonous walls” (1: 22) and self-imprisoned souls hiding behind their “blind blank wall” (2: 754) in desacralized cultures, and unplayful England seems particularly imprisoned “by London Wall” (1: 306). Consequently, most characters, like Mrs. General, “dipped the smallest of brushes into the largest of pots, and varnished the surface of every object that came under consideration. The more cracked it was, the more Mrs. General varnished it” (2: 451). Such a delusion, such a false artistic response, cannot accept the inevitably cracked wall of reality and so sugarcoats, whitewashes, or “prunes-and-prisms”16 it, prizing shadowy surfaces over substantial realities, “everything having been surface and varnish, and show without substance” (2: 504).

For the reader able to distinguish foul play from fair play, however, such “strong walls were transparent” (2: 467). For the self-imprisoned characters, on the other hand, the “brazen wall” (2: 679) reforges the “solid wall of brass” and “the walls of my heart” from the Book of Jeremiah (15.0, 4.9), whose complaints against “the circle of merrymakers” (15.7) and “shameless prostitutions” (13.7) are specifically echoed in Mrs. Clennam's already quoted “hiccupping reference” (1: 29) to and lamentations against the “idle house where singers, and players, and such-like children of Evil turned their backs on the Light and their faces to the Darkness.” She delivers this significant and almost literal jeremiad as her own false and evil genius, Jeremiah, perches nearby.17 In such references to her “daily agony” and to the “just dispensation of Jehova” (2: 777) on behalf of the many enemies of play (like herself), Mrs. Clennam implies that since the original sin of wall-breaking love committed by Arthur's father and mother, the whole insular culture has entered into a tacit conspiracy against iconoclastic playful love and loving play. Thus it seems fitting that Ephraim, Jeremiah's twin brother whose foul play somehow lost the codicil to Blandois at the Cabaret of the Three Billiard Tables in Antwerp (2: 781), nominally refers not only to one of Rachel's mourned-for descendants (Jer. 31.18) but also to the mountain from which the impending destruction of Jerusalem is announced (4.15). And it seems equally clear that Jeremiah's lamentations are also echoed in Miss Wade's “black despondant brooding” and her self-torment when her beloved Gowan takes a rival and “danced with it, sang with it, played with it” (2: 666, 669). The killjoy Miss Wade, in fact, seems to spearhead Jeremiah's and Mrs. Clennam's pathetically proud protests against play.

Less bitterly but just as pathetically, other characters transform Jeremiah's lamentations into “weeping on the wet wall” (1: 31), that is, into wailing walls such as those of the “dungeon-like” tenements in Venice, whose “walls” were “besmeared with a thousand downward stains and streaks, as if every crazy aperture in them had been weeping tears of rust into the Adriatic for centuries” (2: 472).18 Although no courtly “compagnon de majolaine” peers eagerly up at these weeping windows, we have already witnessed that a more playful fate does await the wailing Clennam, who similarly is “so very desolate and so much in need of such a face of love and truth, that he turned against the wall to weep, sobbing out, as his heart relieved itself, ‘O my Little Dorrit’” (2: 719). In chapter 32 of Jeremiah, such penance is rewarded by God's “Pledge of Restoration”; in the novel it is similarly rewarded by “the painted figure of Our Savior on the window” of St. George's (2: 825), who smiles on the marriage ritual of Arthur and Amy.


Finally, another of Dickens's relevant biblical images, the “writing on the plaster of the wall” from the fifth chapter of Daniel, helps coordinate many of the thematic relationships between play and art in the novel, besides demanding the reader's cooperation in the creation of its meaning. For instance, when he was nineteen, Amy's old playmate, John Chivery, “inscribed in chalk on that part of the wall which fronted her lodgings, on the occasion of her birthday, ‘Welcome sweet nursling of the Fairies!’” (1: 211). Later, when Amy rejects John's particular art of courtly love, the wall becomes another kind of wailing wall since she “not only rested her little hand upon the rough wall, but laid her face against it too, as if her head were heavy, and her mind were sad.” This “affecting illustration of the fallacy of human projects” then prompts chivalrous John to initiate his characteristic genre of graveyard poetry or epitaph wall-writing as he creeps home “composing, as he went, [a] new inscription for a tombstone in St. George's Churchyard” (1: 220). In this sense, his mother's dropped “aitches,” like Mr. Plornish's, playfully capture the emotional value of aesthetic distance in John's courtly worshipping from afar: “My son has a art, and my son's art is in the right place” (2: 721).19 Consequently, “the healing art” (2: 561) suggests either creative art or the compassionate heart, both of which virtues are repeatedly linked to the playworld in the text and are finally combined in the marriage of Arthur and Amy (Love). More specifically, both are even personified in Amy herself, that “cunning workwoman” who arranges for her sister “to learn the dancing-master's art” (1: 72-73) and whose own art with a needle, like Jenny Wren's, the dolls dressmaker in Our Mutual Friend, also sacrifices her heart for her forlorn father.

In Daniel 5, on the other hand, Belshazzar's sins against true love and play, represented by his hedonistic “wives and entertainers,” are corrected by the divinely aesthetic ploy of the spectral handwriting on the wall and Daniel's own interpretive ability “to read the writing and tell … what it means.” The writing generally signifies that Belshazzar and his father Nebuchadnezzar before him “have not humbled [their] heart” as John Chivery has done. And the particular writing, “MENE, TEKEL, PERES,” as interpreted by Daniel, condemns the kings' materialism, which the Divine Author's authority fitly punishes as it “numbered” their days, “weighed” their worth, and “divided” their spoils.

When Affrey testifies that the ghostly, authoritative hand of Arthur's true mother “marks the walls with long crooked touches, when we are all a-bed” (2: 785), the author's spectral scripture similarly admonishes greedy sins against playful love and against “the Arts,” which Arthur's false mother calls “those accursed snares” (2: 779). Analogously, Dickens's own graven black marks on the white page, grammatological characters if not contextual “metametaphors” themselves, may be read to suggest that the entire “right little, tight little island” (1: 57) of walleyed England has sinned by viewing every issue as “a question of figures” (2: 765), just as Krook does with his famous wall-writing in Bleak House. In Pancks's recitation of such a Casby-and-Merdle utilitarianism, “[W]hat you want is a good investment and a quick return. You take it where you can find it” (1: 157). In this sense, Daniel Doyce, the creative inventor, resembles his Biblical namesake in abjuring the value of wealth “like an amused spectator at cards” (1: 195) and thereby imitating “the Divine artificer.” Somewhat detached and aloof, Doyce's inventive imagination seems to preside over the kind of “divine game” Nabokov described earlier.20 Thus, joining “nature and Art in their myriad forms” (2: 605) like “Wallflowers” and Cavalletto's “power of carving … flowers” (1: 304), playfully divine artificers and divinely complete gamesters co-author and recreate alike in order to counter what Mrs. Merdle ironically terms “our artificial system” (1: 242), that is, the Bosom's own false “art of seeming to make things of small account, and really enhancing them in the process” (2: 587).

It does not take Daniel's “Chaldeans and astrologers” to interpret the significance of this wall-writing image for Gowan's art, however, since he ironically works in a room where “the windows are blocked up where any one could look out, and the walls have been all drawn over with chalk and charcoal by others who have lived there before” (2: 550). The graphic point of the graffiti here is that Gowan's dilettantish drawing, what he calls his “bottle of smoke” (1: 402), evaporates before the sustained creative efforts of his previous “brother artists” (2: 507). As the Refrigerator, Gowan's mother, frigidly reveals, “[S]ome artists are, as artists, quite superior persons; still, we never yet in our family have gone beyond an Amateur, and it is a pardonable weakness to feel a little———” (1: 316). In one sense even, Gowan's “slight, careless, amateur way” (1: 205) recalls another painter associated with wallflower motifs, Browning's contemporary “Andrea del Sarto” (1855), who languishes “by the window” (14), “whose four walls make his world” (170), and whose model Lucrezia, like Gowan's models Blandois and Mr. Dorrit, becomes a lucid reflection of his own self-compromising concern with cold lucre. For these painters, art is a moral metaphor jointly revealing their mercenary compulsion “to court the swinish public as a follower of the low Arts” and their related “malicious pleasure in playing off” (2: 13-14) dear ones against each other.

Thus, as the repeated image of framing windows implies and as the several connections between play, art, delusion, and love also suggest, “almost all objects had their various points of view” (2: 441), some fair, some foul, some genuinely self-creative, some deceptively self-abortive.21 As Mr. Sparkler's sporting metaphor puts it, “for a particular walk, a man ought to have a particular pair of shoes: as, for example, shooting, shooting-shoes! cricket, cricket-shoes. Whereas, he believed that Henry Gowan had no particular pair of shoes” (2: 01). When Arthur “began to dream” as “he leaned upon the sill of the long low window” at his mother's, he reforges the earlier “castle of romance” (1: 40) he had co-habited years before with Flora, just as later Mr. Dorrit more delusively “fell to castle-building” as he forges his airy self-indulgent and self-defensive fantasies about marrying Mrs. General. These mental “walls” (2: 635), like Arthur's and (quite literally) Mrs. Clennam's, collapse, though their writing or signs artfully remain so that the reader can interpret and interrelate their respective “points of view.” For Freud in “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming” (1908), there relevantly is very little difference between everyman's and the artist's neurotic perspectives; both are pertinent permutations of the playful pleasure principle: “[W]hen the human being grows up and ceases to play he only gives up the connection with real objects; instead of playing he then begins to create phantasy. He builds castles in the air and creates what are called day-dreams” (46). On the other hand, “the writer does the same as the child at play; he creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously; that is, he invests it with a great deal of affect, while separating it sharply from reality” (45).

Forster tells us that while Dickens was writing Little Dorrit in Paris, his “life was passed among artists, and in the exercise of his own art. His associates were writers, painters, actors, or musicians, and when he wanted relief from any strain of work he found it at the theatre” (2: 194). And it should be clear by now that not only do artists make up many of the characters in Little Dorrit, but artistic images are interwoven with Dickens's play themes, though thus far we have only discussed rank amateurs and deluded artists manques, like those Freud classifies.22 Our last two examples of playful art, though, the Plornish's “Happy Cottage” and especially Frederick Dorrit's clarionet solos, are much more complicated creations; and with them, perhaps, rests the final value if not positive power of play in Little Dorrit.

The “Happy Cottage” mural, first of all, is “a most wonderful deception” created in “Mrs. Plornish's shop-parlour.” Here the liminal “wall [has been] painted to represent the exterior of a thatched cottage,” featuring the “modest sunflower and hollyhock,” while the “decorated” apertures double as “the real door and window.” And indeed as with “Compagnon de la Majolaine!” and “Wallflowers,” song also completes this example of floral wall art: “To come out into the shop after it was shut, and hear her father sing a song inside this cottage, was a perfect Pastoral to Mrs. Plornish, the Golden Age revived” (2: 573-74). In fact, such a literal and metaphorical recreation may even recall that in some mystery play cycles the town “plasterers” were expected to furnish properties representing “the creation of the earth” on them (Strutt 133). It is arguable, of course, that this “little fiction” represents yet one more “family fiction” in the text and one more metacommentary on artistic delusion, here reflexively scrawled on the wall of the wall-plasterer himself, Mr. Plornish. And yet there is much evidence to refute such a reading.23 Dickens, for example, “derived considerable amusement” from similarly having painted “an unbroken wall of books” in the library of Tavistock House in 1851 (Johnson 2: 749-50). More to the present point is the fact that the colorful decor of “Happy Cottage” revives, at least temporarily, the neglected playful rites of the “Golden Age,” transforming the deritualized sweatshop in Bleeding Heart Yard into a carnivalesque sweetshop of song and mirth. And paradoxically the miraculous mural is more in touch with “the real door and window” than Wemmick's comparable Castle in Great Expectations. But lest one still respond that there is too much amateur art and too little loving nature here, Dickens reminds his reader that Happy Cottage most essentially celebrates “T. and M. Plornish; the partnership expressing man and wife. No Poetry and no Art ever charmed the imagination more than the union of the two in this counterfeit cottage” (2:574).

And yet one ultimately wonders whether this exceptional pastoral oasis of play in the existential wasteland of the text simply proves the general rule forbidding play. The “nondescript” and “fallen brother” (1: 92, 223), Frederick Dorrit the “clarionet player,” becomes the real test case here because his career coordinates so many of Dickens's play motifs. In fact, Frederick Dorrit may even recall the “wasted life” of Frederick Dickens, the author's next younger brother who lived with him for a time, cared for the children during Dickens's first American tour, and was his brother's jocular playmate in early life before debts and an unhappy marriage transformed him into a kind of albatross (Johnson 1: 348-49). Still, at Frederick's death Dickens maintained that “there were unhappy circumstances in his life which demanded great allowances” (Johnson 2: 1102). If the reader recalls the text aurally or musically rather than visually, Frederick's “distant playing of music” (1: 223) seems to echo as a leit-motif throughout the text as resonantly as does “Compagnon de la Majolaine!” Indeed, it is almost as if “all this time the uncle was dolefully blowing his clarionet” from “some underground way” (1: 244, 236), like so many penseroso notes from the underground, searching desperately for their lost and more playful allegro harmony. Although Frederick is usually neglected in considerations of Little Dorrit, Dickens's Working Notes make clear his significance. They pointedly identify another real life model for the “ruined brother”: “the clarionet-player I saw at the Ambigu in Paris” (273), which tends to emphasize the extent of the original player's impression on Dickens. The Notes also stress the value of Arthur's mother's “training in music, under the patronage of Frederick of the Clarionet” (309), which playful title itself underscores the pedigree of Sir Frederick's courtly patronage and compassion.

When we first meet Frederick, however, he seems a far cry from such a noble pedigree, though he does consolidate motifs which gradually grow familiar to the reader. More disembodied than human, this “pale phantom of a gentleman” (1: 236) all but becomes the shadow on the wall, marking time but not creatively mastering it: “I am merely passing on, like the shadow over the sun-dial” (1: 80). A timorous wallflower always in danger of “being jostled against the wall,” Frederick is actually “safe within the walls” of his own pathetic playground (1: 222, 224). At “the clarionet-player's dwelling,” Mr. Cripple's Academy where Clennam is unceremoniously greeted “when a shuttlecock flew out of the parlour window,” the children repeatedly make game of “Dirty Dick,” as they call Frederick. “Making a copy-book of the street-door, it was so extensively scribbled over in pencil” (1: 92), these urchins amateurishly scrawl graffiti on the wall, caricaturing Dickens himself, Dirty Dick, and thus the divine, graver engravings in Daniel. Similarly, in the theater where Frederick plays, “the low comedian had ‘mugged’ at him in his richest manner fifty nights for a wager,” and “the carpenters had a joke that he was dead without being aware of it.” Here, as elsewhere, he becomes a statusless nobody like the copyist Nemo in Bleak House, one who experiences no life whatsoever except that defined by the black cues on his otherwise blank “scrap of music.” Significantly, only “the remote high gallery windows” seem portals to his past days of “better fortunes” (1: 336), presumably when he played knightly companion to Arthur's mother and taught her to sing and play. Little wonder that such a theater of the absurd, if not of cruelty, places him “on the wrong side of the pattern of the universe” (1: 234), that Frederick's “clarionet had been lamenting most pathetically” like one of Jeremiah's dirges, and that he “blew a dismal wail” against his own private wailing wall (1: 245, 244).

In book 2, however, Frederick's fortunes significantly improve, though appropriately only after Mr. Dorrit and Fanny have confiscated his clarionet and silenced his pathetic playing. At this point, Frederick, much more than the imprisoned wall-flower Arthur, becomes the “compagnon de la majolaine” when he discovers a second damsel in distress to champion in his niece Amy. Once in Switzerland, Frederick experiences “a certain patient animal enjoyment, which seemed to express that the … change did him good,” and his contemporaneous courtly compassion toward Amy is “always heartily simple, spontaneous, and genuine” (2: 457-58). Emboldened by her uncle's chivalry, Amy herself even “had taken courage to propose the restoration of his clarionet,” but now Frederick “discovered that he had had enough of it, and never played it,” implying that he finally understands how his wailing solos had perverted his original play impulse. Instead, Frederick now squires Amy to “the picture-galleries” and “paid his court” to this new art and to Amy herself “when he would carry a chair about for her from picture to picture” (2: 481).

His most heroic defense of Amy or Love, recalling his earlier defense of Arthur's mother, however, occurs when he stands up to his brother and champions his niece's cause while the rest of her family appears to abandon her to those venerable triple goddesses of abstraction, the Refrigerator, the Bosom, and Mrs. General. Thereafter, it seems as if Amy and her knightly flower appear as constant companions in the window frame associated with the French game as niece at her “embroidery work” and uncle near her side are like “the still-life” of a “picture,” which completes “the composition.” Given such figures, Amy's ultimate play compliment to her uncle seems appropriate: “It takes a long time to grow young.” In Amy's words, “Do you know, uncle, I think you are growing young again? … I think … that you have been growing younger for weeks past. So cheerful, uncle, and so ready, and so interested” (2: 639). Amy's testament here to “all the remaining power of the honest heart” (2: 651) of Frederick at least partially restores the potency of artful play and playful art in Little Dorrit. And the subsequent clear irony against Mrs. Clennam's bitter pronouncement that this “player of music,” this “Frederick Dorrit was the beginning of it all” not only reinforces his central role, but also further restores the forgotten power of loving play in the text (2: 779).


Throughout this essay, we have suggested that the act of reading Little Dorrit places heavy demands upon the reader, especially the reader attentive to Dickens's play motifs. As “the great Physician” advises Bishop on preventing the prevalent throat disorders of “young curates,” “the best way to avoid it was to know how to read, before you made a profession of reading” (2: 569). In other words, one cannot read a Dickens novel, particularly a later novel, expecting the author slavishly to repeat his past play themes. Although it might be pleasant to suggest here that Dickens is practicing “a grave waggishness in Mr. Rugg's manner” (1: 300), such an argument would clearly misrepresent the text's darker dominant tones. Perhaps, in fact, the reader looking for if not desiring earlier and more carefree play themes must be content with the knowledge that Pancks can finally “relieve his mind and expend his superfluous power in [the] wholesome exercise” of the ritualistic scapegoating of Patriarch Casby. Adding insult to the injury of playing “marbles” with Casby's hat, the toy tugboat then “whipped out a pair of shears, swooped down upon the Patriarch behind, and snipped off short the sacred locks that flowed upon his shoulders” (2: 800, 799, 803). The reader may even find a more serious ritualistic relief in the fact that “in the softened light of the window,” Amy's New Testament gospel stands “in stronger opposition” to Mrs. Clennam's Old Testament jeremiad, and that as the Clennam walls around Blandois “lying smoking in the window” suddenly “collapsed” with a “thundering sound,” simultaneously other “people stood and sat at their doors, playing with children and enjoying the evening” (2: 792-93).24

This series of figures again recalls the ritualistic “child's game” of “Compagnon de la Majolaine!” and “Wallflowers” and thus Dickens's practice of “playing sundry curious variations on the same tune” (1: 143). In this sense, “the great Physician” serves as a better model for Dickens's play stance in the text than does Mr. Rugg, if not perhaps even better than Frederick Dorrit. Again, for those readers accustomed to find consolation in play, there is some further consolation in this inconspicuous role model. In his emergence from the serial counters Bar and Bishop, who metonymically represent what in another context Dickens calls “the old philosophical chess playing with human beings for pieces” (Forster 2: 472), this wasteland Healer, in fact, also becomes a model reader: “Being a great reader of all kinds of literature (and never apologetic for that weakness), he sat down comfortably to read.” By interpreting the writing on the wall (unlike Bar who “had not himself found a clue” to the meaning of Merdle's suicide note though “he read it through, half-a-dozen times”), the Physician “read his own name and address written in pencil” on the related mysterious note given to him (2: 702-07). Consequently, it is the Physician who solves Dickens's self-reflexive textual puzzle here, while logocentric Bar fails to.

Such a self-sacrifice and willingness to accept, even while regretting, the fact that the ritualistic and carnivalesque consolations of play have been lost if not forgotten are what Dickens's own narrative games with his reader demand in Little Dorrit. This nostalgic ambience, which runs throughout the text's play upon variations of its ubi sunt lament, seems ultimately and even wonderfully captured in a single bittersweet moment the author experienced in the midst of writing Little Dorrit. While preparing a “private play” for Christmas at Tavistock House, Dickens ran out of usable space and sought the help of Mr. Cooke of Astley's Circus. “One of the finest things I have ever seen in my life of that kind,” Dickens writes Forster, was Cooke's morning arrival “in an open phaeton drawn by two white ponies with black spots all over them (evidently stenciled), who came in at the gate with a little jolt and a rattle, exactly as they come into the Ring when they draw anything, and went round and round the centre bed of the front court, apparently looking for the clown.” The circus man, unfortunately, “had no sort of suggestion in him” and could offer little more than regrets “precisely as if I were the clown asking him a riddle at night” (Forster 2: 229-30). Dickens's dark riddles in Little Dorrit similarly betoken regrets, though for the reader willing to sacrifice preconceptions about play themes and to risk self-understanding, these same dark riddles also offer rewarding revelations, if not even deeper consolations.


  1. See Greenstein's liminal reading of the novel (“Liminality”) and Stein's pertinent diagnosis of “arrested liminality” in In MidLife (passim).

  2. See my series of essays on play in Dickens. Morrow's Dreadful Games, which neglects Dickens, diagnoses fictional play worlds close to that in Little Dorrit: “[T]he games characters play in realist fiction ultimately disguise, rather than reveal, their essential identities” (174). Finally, D. A. Miller's contention that in Bleak House “police and family blurred into one another” (76, 101-05) holds equally true for Little Dorrit.

  3. Kincaid also finds a line of continuity between Blandois and Jingle (201).

  4. See Lund's relevant discussion of Blandois (50-53).

  5. The title of Bedient's He Do the Police in Different Voices reflects Dickens's influence on The Waste Land (73), and Metz also implies a kind of wasteland reading of the text since London is “central to the novel's explanation of human memory, imagination, and identity as they are distinctively shaped by the city experience” (465).

  6. For a full analysis of such “idiolects,” see Golding. A very complicated instance of this kind of fictional game occurs in the series of artfully linked narrative departures from the omniscient point of view in Little Dorrit. Specifically, these are Amy's “Story of the Princess” (1: 291-95), her chapter-long letters to Clennam (2: 468-71; 2: 550-55), Miss Wade's chapter-long letter to Clennam (2: 663-71), and finally Mrs. Clennam's intermittent summary of her early life (2: 774-80). The tales in this narrative sequence each highlight several interrelated motifs, especially storytelling itself and narrative indeterminacy, economic and social inequality and consequent tragedies in love, subsequent jealousies, secrets, remembrances, isolated lifestyles, and thus, in fact, the entire constellation of issues revolving around the central theme of “family fictions.”

  7. In 1849 Dickens considered editing a periodical titled “THE SHADOW,” and he evidently had in mind the notion of a kind of shadow-game or shadow-tag since it was to be “the Thing at everybody's elbow, and in everybody's footsteps,” that is, “an odd, unsubstantial, whimsical, new thing: a sort of previously un-thought of Power going about” (Forster 2: 78-79).

  8. See also “Blandois's Song.”

  9. For the music to this singing game, see Gomme and Sharp (1114).

  10. Kincaid relevantly writes that “Flora is amazing because, for all her imaginative games, she is not a self-deceiver” (220).

  11. For related discussions of “sun and shade” and “white and black” games, see Dalken (107-110), and Strutt (312), and also Zimmerman's analysis of this motif in the novel.

  12. For example, see Zimmerman; Beaty; and Showalter. The latter's discussion of gamelike “protective fictions” within the prison “inmate culture” (22-24) is also relevant to our treatment of “playful” delusions. Rotkin's lengthy chapter on “Interaction: Misleading Surface Images” (95-130) argues more from the author's own metaphor of surfaces than from Dickens's in order, again, to discuss deceptive appearances in the text.

  13. For further illustrations of wall games and other similar “games relating to water and rain” like “Sun Game” and “Wallflowers,” see Dalken (22, 107-12), Hindman's descriptive catalogue of inside wall games (220-21), and the Opies's chapter “Up Against the Wall” (336-58). The interested reader should also consult Douglas's interesting coupling of “Wallflowers” and “In and Out the Windows” (41), besides his notations on “Shadow-He” (76) and “Wall to Wall” (81).

  14. J. Hillis Miller also examines the importance of Dr. Haggage's “Profession of faith” (237-38).

  15. Showalter similarly notes the suggestion of Plato's Cave (28).

  16. See Kuehl's discussion of the “ludic impulse” behind this kind of tongue-twisting “lipogram” (168-69).

  17. Walder also very briefly notes a general allusion to Jeremiah.

  18. For a relevant account of “the Wailing Wall” and its connection with the Hebrew “Book of Lamentations,” see Ausubel (464-65). The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion also relevantly links these lamentations with Jeremiah (234).

  19. For an account of Dickens's own love of playful puns, see Forster (2: 495).

  20. See also Duckworth's provocative comparison of Doyce and Dickens as examples of Derrida's notion of the bricoleur, or free-playing handman (115-18).

  21. In fact, Trilling calls art “the guardian of love in society” (xii).

  22. For other discussions of the role of art in the text, see Kent; Larson; and especially Nadel, who significantly diagnoses Dickens's “sense of the play of the imagination” (33) and touches upon several topics treated here like “Happy Cottage,” “varnish,” and point of view.

  23. Sadoff, for instance, reads “Happy Cottage” negatively because of its “deceptive snugness” (241).

  24. For a reading of this “fall,” see Jarrett. See Greenstein's series of essays for more particular applications of window imagery.

Works Cited

Ausubel, Nathan. The Book of Jewish Knowledge. New York: Crown, 1964.

Beaty, Jerome. “The ‘Soothing Songs’ of Little Dorrit: New Light on Dickens's Darkness.” Nineteenth-Century Literary Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Lionel Stevenson. Ed. Clyde de L. Ryals. Durham: Duke UP, 1974. 219-36.

Bedient, Calvin. He Do The Police In Different Voices: The Waste Land and its Protagonist. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

“Blandois's Song: Compagnon De La Marjolaine.” The Dickensian 24 (1928): 156-58.

Browning, Robert. Selected Poetry of Browning. Ed. Kenneth L. Knickerbocker. New York: Modern Library, 1951.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. Ed. Charles Frederick Harrold. New York: Odyssey, 1937.

Chesterton, G. K. Charles Dickens. New York: Schocken Books, 1965.

“Compagnon De La Marjolaine.” The Dickensian 5 (1909): 44-45.

Dalken, Leslie. Children's Games Throughout the Year. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1949.

Dickens, Charles. Dickens's Working Notes for His Novels. Ed. Harry Stone. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

———. The Letters of Charles Dickens. 8 vols. to date. Ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Oxford UP 1965-. <