Places Discussed

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*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

Circumlocution Office. Imaginary government department described as the “most important . . . under Government.” A place of bureaucracy and cynical disregard of the rights of citizens, it is the most comprehensive of Dickens’s frequent depictions in his novels of governmental ineptness and oppressiveness. Its interminable tangle of red tape is the reason why Dorrit and other inmates unfairly languish in prison. The word “circumlocution” means “talking around,” and this is what officials, members of the influential Barnacle and Stiltstalking families, do in the Circumlocution Office, while years pass without resolution of the issues on which the fates of the oppressed depend.

Clennam Counting House

Clennam Counting House. London accounting firm near the River Thames. Early in the novel Arthur Clennam, the man whom Little Dorrit loves, comes “home” to the tottering structure in which previous generations of Clennams have carried on a family business. It is an old and decrepit building, which, but for “some half dozen gigantic crutches” that keep it propped up, would fall into the river. In an upstairs room that is virtually a prison in itself lives Arthur’s reclusive and semi-invalided mother, a grasping woman who, for selfish reasons of her own, harbors a secret that if disclosed would free William Dorrit from Marshalsea. This is a place in which both moral and physical decay are tangible.

Bleeding Heart Yard

Bleeding Heart Yard. Poor London neighborhood inhabited by people afflicted in various ways by the Circumlocution Office and by greedy entrepreneurs, such as the Clennams and a rack-renting landlord named Casby. However, the inhabitants of the Yard are chiefly people of character who help those in need. Although they “bleed,” these are people with “heart.”


*London. Great Britain’s capital city is the predominant larger setting in the novel. As the governmental, financial, and population center of England, London embodies the forces that must be redirected to permit the establishment of justice and decent living conditions for its citizenry.

*Swiss Alps

*Swiss Alps. Favorite vacation ground for international travelers, to which the Dorrits go in the second half of the novel after they finally come into their fortune. There, the Dorrits find that while they can enjoy the pure air...

(This entire section contains 647 words.)

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of freedom, they cannot escape their prison mentality.


*Venice. Northern Italian port city that is another European tourist mecca. Functioning similarly to the Alps, the flowing streets of this Italian city, delightful to its many visitors, bring no relief to the Dorrit family.


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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.


Critical Essays