(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Robert Barnard (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6774 words.)

Mike Hollington (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7543 words.)

Avrom Fleishman (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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:...

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Janice M. Carlisle (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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”...

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Tom Linehan (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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H. M. Page (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3230 words.)

George Holoch (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elaine Showalter (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sarah Winter (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4992 words.)

Nancy Aycock Metz (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sylvia Manning (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Trey Philpotts (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4805 words.)

Joss Lutz Marsh (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dominic Rainsford (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

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Laura Peters (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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


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Brian Rosenberg (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7724 words.)

Mark M. Hennelly (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rodney Stenning Edgecomb (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edgecomb, Rodney Stenning. “The Displacements of Little Dorrit.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 96, no. 3 (July 1997): 369-84.

[In the following essay, Edgecomb explores Dickens's characterization of the gentility as idle and useless.]

In the second book of Little Dorrit, Fanny and William Dorrit reproach Amy for relying insufficiently on servants, badge of their recovered gentility:

[“]Therefore, your not exposing yourself to the remarks of our attendants, by appearing to have at any time dispensed with their services and performed them for yourself, is—ha—highly important.”


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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Currie, Richard A. “‘As If She Had Done Him a Wrong’: Hidden Rage and Object Protection in Dickens's Amy Dorrit.” English Studies 72, no. 4 (August 1991): 368-76.

Suggests Little Dorrit is neither a saintly figure nor a sentimental heroine; she is, rather, a woman filled with repressed anger and resentment.

Daleski, H. M. “Large Loose Baggy Monsters and Little Dorrit.Dickens Studies Annual 21 (1992): 131-42.

Attempts to account for the many contradictions and ambiguities in Little Dorrit.

Duckworth, Alistair M. “Little Dorrit and the Question of...

(The entire section is 496 words.)