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When Charles Dickens published Little Dorrit in 1857, he had known literary fame and fortune for twenty years. Nevertheless, he had never succeeded in laying to rest the haunting memories of a childhood scarred by poverty and a chronic fear of abandonment. While he had long enjoyed a reputation as a genius of comic prose, his novels were now becoming darker and more obsessive, troubled not only by his own recollected past but also by his brooding awareness of social injustice he saw around him in industrialized England. In Little Dorrit, the personal and the political came powerfully together to a degree observable in few of his other works. A novel of epic ambition, Little Dorrit tells both the intimate story of a family warped by its experience of debtors’ prison and the much larger tale of a nation fettered by an immoveable bureaucracy and riddled with massive economic corruption.
At the center of Little Dorrit stand two characters of kind instincts and upright motivations. The first, Arthur Clennam, has just returned to England after twenty years in the Far East. He comes home to a strangely frosty reception from his mother, a housebound invalid who exerts firm control of her family’s finances. Somehow Arthur senses that the Clennam fortune has been maintained at the unjust expense of a family named Dorrit, whose patriarch William has, for decades, been imprisoned for debts in London’s Marshalsea Prison. As he sets out to investigate the causes of William Dorrit’s downfall, Clennam becomes all too acquainted with the glacial indifference and endless red tape of the government’s Circumlocution Office, a gigantic agency apparently dedicated to doing nothing besides throwing obstacles in the way of anyone seeking to obtain information or improve the life and technology of the nation. At the same time, Clennam makes a much more appealing acquaintance: the younger daughter of William Dorrit who serves as the other great moral beacon in the novel. Saintly and endearing, Amy Dorrit patiently does all she can to better her family’s circumstances and becomes known to Clennam as “Little Dorrit.” Gradually, and despite a series of setbacks, the mutual admiration between Arthur and Amy begins to ripen into love.
Surrounding the new lovers, however, are a host of baleful influences: Clennam’s severe and religiously obsessed mother; the spiteful and mysterious Miss Wade; Amy’s scheming sister Fanny and her selfish brother Tip; the murderous villain Rigaud Blandois; and the immensely powerful plutocrat Mr. Merdle, whose wealth and influence are founded on secrets that no one in England has dared to guess. As Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam make their uncertain way through a world fraught with sham and self-deception, Dickens weaves a story of grand complexity and moves with measured suspense toward the novel’s ultimate question: Will the hero and heroine sink beneath society’s weight or will love and justice triumph at last? Hailed by famed critic Lionel Trilling as “one of the most significant works of the nineteenth century,” Little Dorrit is one of the most thoughtful, important, and entertaining books you may ever read.
The titles of the two halves that comprise Little Dorrit, “Poverty” and “Riches,” might be used to describe, in the briefest form possible, the life and fortunes of their author, Charles Dickens. Born the son of a naval pay clerk in Portsmouth, England, in 1812, Dickens received some early private schooling before the declining fortunes of his family interrupted his education. At the age of twelve, Dickens suffered the disgrace of seeing his father incarcerated for debts in the Marshalsea Prison—the same London prison described in Little Dorrit. That same year, Dickens was sent to a blacking factory, where he earned a miniscule wage putting labels on bottles. After some further schooling, Dickens taught himself shorthand and became a reporter in the House of Commons. In 1833, he began publishing humorous sketches of London life which were eventually collected in his first book, Sketches by Boz. In 1837, Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, catapulted him into national fame. With The Pickwick Papers, Dickens initiated his lifelong practice of publishing his novels first in serial form in magazines and then republishing them in book form. In rapid succession, he produced Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge (both 1841). After a tour of the United States in 1842, Dickens added to his reputation with the novels Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dombey and Son (1848), and David Copperfield (1850). Thereafter, during his so-called late period, Dickens wrote a series of more somber, meditative, densely plotted novels, including Bleak House (1853), Little Dorrit (1857), and Our Mutual Friend (1865), in which he expressed his pessimism about social conditions in Victorian England. This period also saw the publication of the classics Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861). His health shaken by overwork and a near-fatal train wreck in 1865, Dickens died in 1870 while working on his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He is buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
- Which is the more morally destructive force in Little Dorrit: wealth or poverty? Why?
- Although Dickens was an acknowledged master of exploring even the smallest nuances of his characters, some readers complain that his characters remain essentially “flat,” meaning that they tend to represent types instead of individuals and rarely undergo meaningful change. What is your response to Dickens’s approach to character development in Little Dorrit?
- Although Dickens called his novel Little Dorrit, the title character is not necessarily the most interesting figure in the novel. What characters captured your interest most effectively and why? If you found Amy Dorrit comparatively bland, why do you think this was the case?
- William Dorrit’s imprisonment at the Marshalsea ends near the conclusion of Book One. In what ways, however, is he never able to leave the Marshalsea?
- There is much to suggest that, in Little Dorrit, Dickens meant to tell a story rooted in Christian morality. However, one of the characters most overtly motivated by her religious beliefs, Mrs. Clennam, is one of the most morally suspect figures in the novel. What comment is Dickens making about religion through the person of Mrs. Clennam?
- Little Dorrit is a novel virtually obsessed with imprisonment. What characters in the novel come closest to being truly free? What are the means by which they achieve their comparative freedom?
- A variety of characters in Little Dorrit live under some form of willful self-deception? Why is self-deception so widespread in the novel, and why is authentic self-knowledge either so elusive or so threatening?
- What attitudes do the English characters in Little Dorrit express toward foreignness? What kinds of foreignness are unacceptable? What experiences with foreignness are considered salutary or prestigious? Do you detect a sense of English superiority in Dickens’s characters? Does Dickens himself seem to share this attitude?
- Dickens at first considered calling his novel Nobody’s Fault. Would this have been a better title than Little Dorrit? Do you have a title of your own that you would have preferred?
- In Little Dorrit, Dickens is seldom ambivalent on questions of right and wrong. Are there other ways in which he employs a greater sense of ambiguity?
- The playwright George Bernard Shaw once commented that Little Dorrit had converted him to socialism. Why do you think Little Dorrit once exerted such powerful authority over the political thinking of readers? Is it still capable of this kind of influence? Did it modify any of your social or political views?
- Mrs. General opines that a refined mind refuses to acknowledge “anything that is not perfectly proper, placid, and pleasant.” In our own time, is the avoidance of unpleasant issues still taken as a sign of refinement? What is the proper response of a refined mind to unpleasantness?
- Lionel Trilling regarded Little Dorrit as a drama of guilt “in which the mind is at once the criminal, the victim, the police, the judge, and the executioner.” In what ways is Dickens’s novel a response to the psychological implications of crime and punishment?
- Mr. Meagles, a good-hearted but otherwise unexceptional man, feels a general superiority over Daniel Doyce, the brilliant inventor. Where does this curious sense of superiority come from?
- Discuss the character of the corrupt financier, Mr. Merdle. Does Dickens make the reader feel some sympathy for him? Why is Blandois, who causes harm to relatively few people, presented as a darker villain than Merdle, whose dishonesty devastates an entire economy?
- Whereas some characters in Little Dorrit are financially ruined by forces beyond their control, others, like Fanny Dorrit and Miss Wade, seem to almost intentionally bring about their own spiritual ruin. Discuss the theme of self-destructiveness in Little Dorrit.
- Much of the tragedy in Little Dorrit arises from inadequate parenting—from the ironically titled Father of the Marshalsea William Dorrit to the perfidious non-mother of Arthur Clennam to the falsely benevolent “Patriarch” Mr. Casby. Does Dickens see the failure of society as being rooted in the failure of the family? Can Dickens’s gallery of bad parents be used to deduce his definition of good parenting?
- Is Little Dorrit a realistic novel? In what ways does it express realism? In what respects is it at odds with real life?
- Some readers detect a hollowness in the character of Arthur Clennam. Discuss this hollowness. Does it result from a failure of Dickens to fully realize Clennam’s character or is it intentional?
- How does Dickens use names as a means of influencing the reader’s attitudes toward particular characters in Little Dorrit?
- In many respects, Amy Dorrit is far more mature than her older siblings. However, it can also be argued that her virtue arises from her passive insistence on retaining the innocence of childhood; she refuses to become an adult either physically or in her knowledge of the world. How do you respond to the child-woman that is Amy Dorrit? Is it disturbing that she ends up being paired with a man who considers himself prematurely old and who has often referred to her as “my child”?
- Blandois is killed when Mrs. Clennam’s house spontaneously collapses. What do you make of this rather improbable disaster?
- In Book Two of Little Dorrit, William Dorrit would like nothing better than to block out the memory of the Marshalsea. Amy, on the other hand, actually seems to miss her life there. What accounts for the very different responses of father and daughter to the old prison?
- Like many of Dickens’s novels, Little Dorrit criticizes the social injustices of nineteenth-century England yet concludes with a happy ending. To what extent, if any, does Dickens undermine his social critique by having Little Dorrit live happily ever after?