Final Thoughts on Little Dorrit

Charles Dickens at his Desk in 1858 – This was from Wikimedia and I make no claim to ownership

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.

Here is my initial post and here is Yvette’s final post.

27 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on Little Dorrit

  1. Pingback: Little Dorrit Final Recap (#DickensChallenge 2021) – priorhouse blog

  2. Prior...

    on more thing I wanted to add – for those that are so quick to say they cannot stand Dickens – well we also need to always remember that he wrote Little Dorrit around 170 years ago – some things are timeless but other things need to be considered in light of that
    :)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Agreed. For instant, my complaint on how at the end he put subservient and domestic women over intelligent and independent women, that is very much of his time. That he actually did write intelligence and and independent women into the book 170 years ago says a lot. A lot of his social commentary, though dated in the actual institutions, are still relevant in how humans interact.

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      1. Prior...

        that does say a lot – and speaking of women – did you know that a Proverbs 31 woman (nt he BIBLE’s Old testament – so it is more jewish history but many Christians still piece meal parts of the Hebrew OT – but that is a different topic) – anyhow, the Proverbs 31 woman is sometimes referred to by Christians today (there is even a ministry with this name) and it is noted as depicting good chapter for women.
        But what so MANY modern folks miss is that the Provers 31 woman is not just virtuous and docile – she was also was a savvy, intelligent and fit business woman – who worked in tandem with her spouse

        “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard”

        my point?
        the topic of women has varied greatly over the years and sadly, somehow Christians (many – not all) hand pick what they use and how they use it and then take history and make it doctrine – yawn
        oh and did I mention the movie A fortunate Man (2018) from Netflix?
        It had terrible reviews as a screenplay compared to the book –
        but what I liked about the quiet and rather sad drama – this movie showed the terrible way some Christians anchor int heir faith – they become hardened, mean, and unloving.
        Reminded me as to what Ghandi said about Christians he encountered: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

        and so that all circles back to your there notes about Mrs C and her religious zealotry

        and Trent – now that I think about it – of course the topic of faith would come up after reading Dickens – hahaha – but of course

        enjoyed the sharing with you and hope you are having a nice weekend

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          I think it was yesterday I saw something about “Why the Proverbs 31 woman and I will never be BFF”. I didn’t read it, though I did read the first handful of “attributes” (it quoted the entire thing).
          In many ways I agree with Gandhi ;) OK, we’re all only human and I’ll admit to casting a stone or two in my day, but I don’t center my entire existence around casting stones at everybody who has a different opinion than me… lol, sorry, I do like CD’s take and Amy Dorrit is in many ways a good example of his philosophy.

          Anywya, I hope you had a good weekend and have a wonderful week ahead! Oh, i did send an email or two…

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          1. Prior...

            no need to be sorry because I also like CD’s take – and hope I did not sound like I didn’t – and I know what you mean about casting stones – I just find that the term Christian means different things to different people and sadly, many of them can be very mean and hard-spirited. but enough of this talk! let us move on and thanks again for doing this –
            hope you have a good week too

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  3. Prior...

    HI TRENT –
    enjoyed your final thoughts post.
    Your critique was well done and not too long winded at all (In my opinion that is)
    I wonder if you will ever get to the topics that you said “subject for another time” = I say this because I had a few things I wanted to explore later with this book and wonder if I will ever get to them
    For example, Mr. Merdle’s scamming of the investors would be a nice topic to explore and to compare with modern business folks who have done similar scams and had demise.

    anyhow, back to your astute review and post-read sharing.
    Love your point about the ending and how he first 100 pages was so in-depth.
    and then to what you noted seemed like the displaced religious talk.
    this all has me thinking so much!
    first, I am going to agin point to the serialization of this book to maybe explain why the ending – and even some other parts – had that kind of flow. I would imagine that Dickens was writing this in installments as it was published – then he would go back again to write more.
    I think this changes the matters greatly as opposed to publishing something in its entirety –
    partly because his thoughts ebb and flow differently – and then he changes over the many months (years) and so if a writer has a book they spend years on – they can edit the entire work and have more alignment and maybe balance (if that is in fact what they want, right?) – but the installments are limited.
    I can almost see Dickens morphing a bit and changing over the couple of years that this was written – and I wonder if someone pissed him off or if something happened in the religious circles (in his area) that prompted him to have Amy have that side of her character at that time .

    I know this has happened to me a few times on my blog (not that I compare my self to the great CD – but it is the human experience I am considering) and so I sometimes respond to something in my life – and write about a topic that might be out of character for my normal blog themself – because I was incited or just needed to get my voice out there about it – so I wonder if some of the closing extra “moral” stuff was more situational and he added it to the serial installments on the fly.
    Or just wanted to preach to readers – hahah
    I also wonder what was going on in bis personal life – was he feeling guiltly for not evangelizing more? Did Christians (right or left – or somewhere in the middle) accuse him of not evangelizing enough? Christians can be brutal (and they vary greatly) and so many Christians judge the” quieter” Christians – and so I just wonder more about the author and what he was going through to lead to the ending inclusions. Tsk – some Christians judge other Christinas if they are not Evangelizing all the time and it can be so heavy.

    Lastly, I enjoyed your wiring about the symbols and types – great post, trent

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks, Yvette. I think you are right that some of the things CD did that weren’t my favorite had to do with it being serialized. That is why Arthur’s release was so drawn out – to keep readers from installment to installment.
      You could be right about Amy’s religious speech being a reaction to what was happening when he wrote it. It just would have made more sense if he had occasionally had her attending church, or something so it wasn’t so out of the blue. On the other hand, I tend to favor showing your religion by your actions (as Amy must have done) instead of talkign about it all of the time. On the other side of the coin, I think if we had more of a sense that Mrs. C. was so rigid because of her extreme religious zealotry instead of her infirmary the whole part would make more sense. Maybe there were some clues to both sides (Amy and Mrs. C.), but I missed them.
      As to if I am really going to go back and write posts on those subjects, most likely not, but it is nice to think that I will ;)
      Anyway, even if I read most of the book at the last minute it was a fun adventure :)

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      1. Prior...

        fun adventure for me as well – and Trent = I am still smiling at how we ran with a quick idea in February and Mae it happen – and as noted before- all of it seems to be a bit like celebrating the love of literature – which feels pretty good

        I agree with you on the character development of Amy’s faith side – maybe not attending church (because that gets to the institution of church and gets away from “we are the church and bring our sanctuary with us” which might be part of the message) and so maybe just a few conversations with God or a time of getting up from a prayer – hmmmm – who knows – but maybe CD was going for the surprise element in a big reveal and the “actions” aspect –

        ***
        re: “Mrs. C. was so rigid because of her extreme religious zealotry instead of her infirmary” – well it could be both. And was likely even more. Some people are just miserable and everything connects to their dysfunction and the misery they bring into the world. Lack of faith or hardened hearts of religious zealotry all play a part. I think of my husband’s ex-wife (RIP 2019) when I consider humans that left this world worse because of their issues – and that is not joke – and with Mrs. C – she truly had a personality disorder where her mental illness was fueled by her money and ability to control her small environment for years – she was not forced to be humble as she had a little power and wealth so it kept her confined to the deep misery and rigid anger that gripped her heart with her secret and miserable day to day to life .
        ***
        The mini series did an okay job with sowing Amy’s grace pierce her heart at the end – but not as good as the book. Which is typical – some scenes cannot really play out on screen as well as a few pages can bring us there. I see that with Victor Hugo’s Les Mis – last year I watched a BBC version of Les Mis and it was “good” but had limits that come with any screenplay – even one that has many episodes
        and so when a bitter person receives grace – it is not a melting like the wicked witch in A Wizad of Oz – there is a myriad of behaviors including shock and resistance – anyhow, that whole “reveal” scene was decent in the mini series (got enough delivered to give us the point) but was tastier in the book (let us feel it more).

        Speaking of Les Mis by Victor Hugo – it is a book that I like to go back to every handful of years – and while Little Dorrit will not be one I revisit a lot – I do plan on having another read – especially because I crammed so much of it in this June – I am sure I was hustling to finish and a read later might show me many small things I missed. So Just might dive back in when w take a short trip or if I am killing time.

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          Some good points. Sorry your husband’s ex was like that. I did read Les Mis at least twice and The Hunchback several times, but I have no desire to ever go back to those. I may try Little Dorrit again. Like you, I think I missed a lot, particularly near the beginning when I was stretching it out a few pages, a few weeks break, a few pages, etc. Not sure if I will, but…

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          1. Prior...

            :)
            my current To Be read pile of books here at home has at least 11 books on it – think I will start there first –
            and one of them is this old little paperback (1981) called “Coping with Difficult People” and so far I am loving it – :) I hope to see if anything is super outdated or if it is more timeless advice for we humans …

            hope you have a nice week

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  4. Pingback: Little Dorrit Challenge Kick Off! | Trent's World (the Blog)

  5. Gary A Wilson

    Hi Trent,
    I love Dickens but have not read Little Dorret. A BBC movie came my way about 4 months ago so I got a taste of it there. Long & tedious can be rough, but I found that it’s a mindset. When I read Gone with the Wind & Winter’s Tale (M. Helprin) I had to switch to that marathon mindset. You know, if we weren’t read 1 very long book, we’d still be reading something, maybe 3-4 other books, so kick back and let the author tell his/her story.
    That said, thanks for a great review of LD. I read and enjoyed every word.
    Well done.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’ve only read a few of Dickens’ books and have missed some of the biggest names, like A Tale of Two Cities, but I do enjoy his work. You are right that sometimes you have to go in with that frame of mind. the problem here, as I said, was I had a hard time getting into it until I reached a certain point and then the momentum really picked up. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but at some point it went from, “Oh, I guess I should try reading more of LD,” to “OK, what can I put off so I can read more LD?” lol.
      Glad you liked this review and I hope you enjoy the book.
      Oh, yeah, forgot to mention, I think that BBC mini-series you saw is what got this started. Yvette Prior had seen it and we talked about it, which is where this challenge came from. That as about 4 months ago, so maybe she saw it at the same time you did.

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  6. Marilyn Armstrong

    Dickens was an author, but he was more of a social historian and his books represent that. Sometimes I can deal with it, but I think I’ve just gotten too old to want to wade through these slow-moving volumes. The other thing — and it is relevant to why his works are so very long and often so SLOW — is that he wrote almost ALL of his books (with the exception of short stories) — as serials. He got paid per word. He wrote a lot of words. The more words, the bigger the paycheck and hey, a working author needs the money. I’m pretty sure that if he had not serialized so much of his work, it would have been a lot less ponderous.

    I had a lot more patience for this kind of writing 40 or 50 years ago. I dug my way through Dickens, hated most Victorian literature and actually burned a copy of Pride and Prejudice, I loved Thomas Wolfe (talk about LONG and SLOW) — and slogged my way through most of Dostoyevsky. I don’t think you could pay me to read that stuff now. I also spent a lot of time in hospitals, A lot of the long, slow reading was done flat on my back holding books over my head. Four or five months in a hospital can really improve your the quality of your reading. You reach a point where you will read ANYTHING. I think that’s how I made it through Dostoyevsky and the introduction to LOTR (but once I got through the beginning, I was hooked).

    My eyes were better, my head had more room in its hard drive, and I could enjoy the poetry and music of the words, The lack of action didn’t bother me nor did a lack of relatable characters. I’m rooted in reality today. I’ve spent many more years living it. My taste is very different in both literature, movies, plays, and poetry. I can’t read (or watch) Wuthering Heights without wondering how come no one bothered to have a simple conversation about what they thought they heard, thus saving several families from a lifetime of tragedy. Excessive politeness drives me batty.

    I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s a thing. For sure, ones taste in literature at 74 is significantly different for MANY reasons than it was at 18 (or 15 or even 30). I can deal with sci fi because it’s not based in my reality, but if it is supposed to be a “real” thing, I expect it to bear some resemblance to real life as I understand it.

    Too much information?

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I go back and forth about reading “the classics”, i.e., very long boring books from the 19th century ;) All of the best ones are 100% social commentary with a story attached and are much easier to read when you realize that fact. Even P&P is first a strong comment written by a woman smarter than all the men around her about how little smart women had to look forward to in that day’s England; second it was a comedy of manners where she very much over exaggerated those “proper manners” to show how totally ridiculous they were; and then there was a totally idiotic love story attached to all of that as surface glaze.
      Anyway, I’ve had my fill of long, boring 19th century fiction for a while and most likely won’t read any more for at least a couple of years.

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  7. robertawrites235681907

    HI Trent, this was a most interesting post. I have not read this book of Dickens, but it sounds like I really should. I am quite entrenched in Gone with the Wind at the moment (half way through) and then I have Brave new world but after that Little Dorrit sounds like a good one.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It is very interesting and a good read. I haven’t read an “old fashioned” very long book like this in a few years, so a little harder for me to into than it should have, but once I did… Sounds like an interesting reading list. I have a Niel Gaiman book on the top of mine.

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  8. willowdot21

    I haven’t read Dickens in years but we did a lot at school. He is heavily in characters and he is extremely clever and picking up the best and the worst of people in all walks of society! 💜

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I agree. There is a reason he is considered one of the greatest authors of the English language :) On the other hand, there is also a reason why an entire “modern” school of writing was created as an almost opposite of his style ;’)

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