OK, confession time – I did not finish Little Dorrit until last night. I have a lot of excuses (other reading, a huge amount of writing, etc.) but for the most part they are just that, excuses.
Anyway, when I was about three-quarters of the way through, I drew up a list of talking points. Well, after finishing, I have some other things to say…. I will mention these talking points, I just won’t spend as much time with them as planned. Still, maybe I will spend too much time on them ;) (long post warning…)
One thing that I noticed when I was deep into the book was that Dickens had spent the first 100 pages or so (my copy had 787 pages) just introducing characters and planting a few seeds of plot and subplot. When I started reading, I only did a few pages at a time, usually before going to bed. The problem was that there was no plot or substance to get my teeth into at first and so it was a real chore getting through the first 200 pages – I spent almost 4 months on those pages and less than 4 days on the other 587 pages!
Dickens’ characterization was interesting. For instance, when Arthur Clennam was introduced, he seemed like a minor character. The Meagles were the ones that stood out. Arthur was sketched very slowly. There were similar things with the other main character, Amy Dorrit, though you knew she was a main character by the title of the book ;) Her background was given in great depth, but she was still overshadowed by her father and you knew nothing about the person herself. When she is later introduced, she is a mousy little figure in the background. It isn’t until Arthur walks through London with her that you start putting that backstory to the person, that the innocent, quiet woman who seems like a child is really very strong, generous and hard-working woman who holds her family together. Her goodness rises to the surface for the first time and you hope Arthur falls in love with her as they walk. That is in high contrast to Minnie “Pet” Meagles, who is given almost no description, no characterization and is seen only as a very pretty, very shallow, very spoiled young woman. How could Arthur fall in love with her? Later, after “Nobody” is buried, we get to know her a little better and see there is a little depth there, but not much. Dickens did not want competition for Amy Dorrit!
In a lot of Dickens’ works, almost everyone except the main characters are more caricatures, drawn from simple stereotypes. In Little Dorrit, he takes this a step further and sets up a lot of them as symbols. The entire book is social commentary, so some people are representatives of their type, like the Plornish family representing the working poor, and Mrs. Merdle being the epitome of Society. Of course, in Mr. Merdle’s circle, the people are not even given names, but are called things like “Bar”, “Bishop” and “Physician”.
The biggest symbol is the entire Barnacle family. At first it seems caricature, until the book goes on and you see that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Barnacles, at all levels of government, from small clerks and functionaries up to the Parliamentary peers (pears and pairs – Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle’s little joke) and beyond, all acting as one and you realize it isn’t a family, but a type that represents all levels of the worst of the bureaucracy of Britain.
And then there are symbols acting as people. Pancks is a tugboat, his boss is The Last Patriarch. Mrs. Merdle is “the Bosom”, the perfect place to show off the best jewelry to Society. Mrs. General is just Prunes and Prism. Even Mr. Meagles is called “scale and scoop” to show that, though long since retired, he views the world through banker’s eyes.
I think I could write a 10,000-word essay on the class stratification represent in the book and by the people in it. The Dorrit family was used well in this, being on the two extremes. I’ll leave that for another time. i know, that is unfair since the book is nothing but one big social commentary.
The other thing to save for another time is all of the themes about prisons and prisoners. The book opens in a prison and ends with a release from a prison. Physical prisons are seen from beginning to end. But the physical prisons are the least of people’s worries! It is the personal prisons and the prisons of class and society that are so much more important. People are held prisoners of their beliefs, such as Arthur’s “mother”, held captive in her wheelchair confined to one room, but much, much more confined by her beliefs, her past and her opinions. Class, though is the greatest prison of them all. All of this for another time….
Oh, the humor and satire! The entire thing about the Barnacles and the office of Circumlocution is hilarious, but also sad since in ways it is still true. Arthur’s ill-fated love of Pet is also written in a very humorous style. And there is so much more. Dickens countered his darkness with lightness and his deep satire with the overall good of people and humor. Again, subject for another time.
One quick note that I found funny (not humorous…). Over the years I wrote a few serialized books and novellas. Some were written using prompts. Over the spring I have been editing one of them and have rediscovered that I would take the keyword given as part of the challenge, use it as the title of the chapter, but also try to put that word in as many times and using as many different meanings as possible. There were a lot of chapters of Little Dorrit where the chapter title was repeated several times throughout that chapter, usually with different meanings or different contexts.
OK, on to conclusions.
After that slow, tiresome beginning, I really enjoyed the book. It was often very serious, but had some very light moments and a lot of humor. The political/social commentary and satire is still with us today, even if at a slightly lesser level than then. Dickens is a master at manipulating emotion when he wants to be. There is a lot of human interest in the story. It is interesting to take a peek back to this time and place and walk the streets of London in the late 1820s (London is almost a character in the book). Even with some of Dickens’ typecasting, there were a couple of surprises with the characters, none better than the deepening of that dirty, tug of a hired fist, Pancks. And really, after the first couple of hundred pages, it runs very smoothly and doesn’t feel as long and drawn out as the beginning. It was enjoyable.
But then, it is long and drawn out…
And there are some other things I didn’t like, most happening in the last 100 pages, i.e., I wasn’t very satisfied with the end.
A few things. First, Dickens did write some very interesting female characters, both good and bad, strong and weak. Looking at those that are almost modern, we have women that are strong, very intelligent, movers-and-shakers, independent, etc. In fact, a couple of times there were complaints that Mrs. Clennam had a great business mind but had to trust the running of the business itself to males because the world wouldn’t have a woman running it. But at the end, we are told that an ideal woman should be self-sacrificing, loving, very domestic, great with children, etc.
Thinking of sacrifice, Amy (Little) Dorrit’s final sacrifice in hot flames is very sweet, and in some ways seems to be cutting short a repeat of the rollercoaster ride of the second half of the book, that she is wiping away the possibility of them being class-bound prisoners again. From this vantage it makes perfect sense. It is also done for love, to make sure Arthur doesn’t feel dependent on her, that he isn’t turned into a dependent. And yet, in real life, since it is Arthur’s family’s doing, that last wouldn’t be true – he could come out of it with a clear conscious and not as a dependent.
At the end there is also a speech from Amy that seems a bit out of place talking about the difference between a Puritanical version of Christianity vs. what today might be called a “religious left” version. Two problems – this Puritanical vision was really only introduced near the end and Amy’s speech seemed too much like it was Charles Dickens talking than Amy Dorrit. Yes, Mrs. Clennam may have been a bit of a grim person throughout, but this was never a theme of the book, so for it to come out so much “in your face” at the end was strange. OK, most of the themes of the book can be seen from that “Christian Left” view – Dickens was obvious of that bent! But the speech seems to come out of nowhere and is very uncharacteristic of Amy.
I also didn’t like the resolution of the entire “Tattycoram” thing. From a modern point of view, a lot of Miss Wades’ complaints made for “Tattycoram” were true, if not to the degree she was talking about. But at the end it came down to that she (“Tattycoram”) wasn’t meek, like Amy, but independent minded, like the “evil” Miss Wade. I can see “Tattycoram” realizing that the Meagles actually loved her in their own ” scale and scoop” way, but I think Mr. Meagles should have said, “You weren’t 100% to blame. Mother and I will make sure we aren’t being unwittingly condescending to you. We didn’t mean to be, but I can see that we often were. Jus as you need to put effort into this, we’ll try to do better ourselves.” Nope, no blame there, even though they really were patronizing to the young woman.
In those last 100 pages, most of the subplots are neatly tied up, usually with a very moralistic resolution, such as the two mentioned above. After this huge work, to me those subplots all closing like that was almost a letdown. And more than that, they seemed so calculated to draw out the final resolution of Arthur’s plight. To me, that drawing out of the end and then having the entire almost 800-page work resolved so neatly and cleanly in three short pages was, well, the end was far too light and, to me completely unsatisfying. This huge framework of the first 100 pages or so were needed to support the gargantuan structure of the work, but there was no equal ending, it seemed to just slip out as a sigh after all of that tons and tons of brickwork. Of course, the entire idea of this book may have been that structure/brickwork and the end was just the tiny flag at the top, rippling in Dickens’ moral breeze.
Of course the end was another part of Dickens’ moral universe. We have a happily married couple going off to domestic bliss. Amy will ever sacrifice herself to help everyone else in the world and Arthur will continue in his business, etc, etc. It was similar to other Dickens’ endings I’ve read or seen (movie, TV), though I thought a bit short. It was pretty much expected and all, and it wasn’t bad, it just seemed, well, unbalanced compared to the rest of the work.
Overall, despite me finding the beginning super hard to get into and the ending unsatisfying, it was a very enjoyable read.
Anyway, sorry for being so long winded! Hope you enjoyed this last post in the series.