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.
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.
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.
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.”