Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Marshalsea. Debtors’ prison in the London suburb of Southwark; a real place, but no longer a prison at the time Charles Dickens wrote Little Dorrit. Dickens’s father had been incarcerated there in 1824 when Dickens was twelve, and Dickens routinely visited his father there each morning. In the novel, Dickens heightens the effect of the imprisonment of William Dorrit by having the Dorrits’ daughter Amy—the “Little Dorrit” of the title—actually born there.

Aside from effectively preventing its inmates from satisfying their creditors, the prison also saps the will and spirit of its inmates. In what was presumably intended by government authorities as a merciful provision, the debtors’ prisons in England allowed members of the debtors’ families to live inside with them. Marshalsea is a place that plunges William Dorrit into despair. To Little Dorrit, the prison is the only home she knows during her childhood, and she and her brother and sister can come and go freely. As one pathetic consolation, William clings to a dubious prestige as “Father of the Marshalsea.”

Marshalsea also symbolizes England itself, with its inmate citizens imprisoned by a legal system that ultimately denies justice by delaying it until victims such as William Dorrit—who is actually heir to a substantial fortune—are too broken by the system to shake off their prison mentality. After Dorrit is finally physically freed from the prison, he remains its psychological inmate.

Circumlocution Office


(The entire section is 647 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Grant, Allan. A Preface to Dickens. London: Longman, 1984. An excellent introduction to Dickens’ life and times, with especially good descriptions of the author’s London, which forms the background to so many of his novels.

Lund, Roger. “Genteel Fictions: Caricature and Satirical Design in Little Dorrit.” Dickens Studies Annual 10 (1982): 45-66. An excellent overview of the characters in the novel with society as the backdrop. Also contains Barbara Weiss’ study “Secret Pockets and Secret Breasts,” which gives the background for the commercial scandals of the 1850’s on which Dickens based his portrait of Mr. Merdle.

Shelston, Alan, ed. Charles Dickens: “Dombey and Son” and “Little Dorrit,” A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1985. A collection of essays and observations. Concerning Little Dorrit, the volume includes T. A. Jackson’s Marxist interpretation, Edmund Wilson’s psychological explanation, Hillis Miller’s close reading of the text, and Lionel Trilling’s classic appreciation.

Sucksmith, Harvey. Preface to Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1979. The standard text of Dickens’ novel, which includes variant readings and the author’s preliminary notes and outline. The excellent preface traces the background and the compositional history of the novel.