Tag Archives: Social Commentary

Little Dorrit – Charles Dickens

0192545124Charles Dickens’ novels are almost impossible to summarize and Little Dorrit is one of his longer ones, serialized between 1855 and 1857. There are, however, several themes that emerge, themes that I largely missed when I first read Little Dorrit years ago, apart from the obvious prison metaphor. People are either in prison physically or mentally through their attitudes and beliefs. But this time around I also noticed how important deception is in the novel: both the deception of self and the deception of others. Appearances are everything to most of the characters. The character Mrs. General calls it, in all seriousness, the “formation of a surface.” But at the same time, Dickens’ heroine, Amy Dorrit, offers an alternative form of living, one that is as free from deception as it unselfish.

Actually, there are two main heroes. Arthur Clennam is a middle-aged man who returns to London from China after working twenty years in business with his father. His father is now dead and he returns to tell his mother that he feels that he has discharged his duty to the family and wishes to resign from the business. His mother, self-righteous, cold and implacable, is not very understanding.

Meanwhile, Arthur Clennam begins trying to help the Dorrit family. William Dorrit has been in the Marshalsea – a debtor’s prison (where Dickens’ father spent time) – for over twenties years and is looked after by his daughter, Amy Dorrit, also known as Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit is twenty-one, but so tiny that from a distance people mistake her for a child. But though slight in appearance, she is mighty in goodness and steadfastness. In fact, Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam stand out in a selfish and grim world, in their steadfast attempts to help others and maintain their friends.

There are so many other, vibrant characters, and secrets, reversals of fortune, revenge and hatred and blackmail and lost hopes and bitterness and love, debt and poverty and excess wealth. One of the great creations of Little Dorrit is the Circumlocution Office, the supreme example of bureaucracy, where the goal is “how not to get things done.” Arthur Clennam must repeatedly venture into the Circumlocution Office in an effort to look into things, only to be defeated by rounds of paperwork and idiot officials. You have to read the book to really appreciate it all and it’s a brilliant book. It unfolds slowly, as many disparate characters are introduced, only to be brought together in the end in the kaleidoscopic way that Dickens often employed.


original illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne

Along with the monolithic Circumlocution Office is monolithic Society, which engages in the most shameless deception, both towards itself and others. The swindler, Mr. Merdle, deludes Society, but Society also deludes themselves, so worshipful are they of anyone who has the appearance of making a lot of money. The bitter Miss Wade deceives herself by believing that no one really loves her and that whenever people are trying to be kind, they are actually lording it over her because she does not know who her parents are.

Arthur Clennam’s mother deceives herself and others. Not only is she hiding a secret from Arthur about his father, but she is so dogmatically convinced of her own wrathful righteousness that it affects her health and she becomes essentially imprisoned in a wheel chair, always in the same room of her house. Mr. Dorrit knows that his children – Amy, Tip and Fanny – must earn their living, but prefers to pretend to himself and everyone else that he is still a gentlemen and they are just out making social calls. And when the Dorrit family does come into money, he likes to pretend that the entire twenty years of living at the Marshalsea never happened at all. Not to mention overlooking how much his daughter, Amy, has done for him. Even good Mrs. Flora Finching (who brings an entirely new dimension to the phrase “motor mouth”) likes to delude herself that Arthur is going, at any moment, to renew his romance with her from twenty years ago.

And the aggravating thing is that there is no reasoning with these kinds of people. Miss Wade cannot be persuaded that there are genuinely good people in existence. When Mr. Dorrit’s brother, Fredrick, remonstrates with him and Fanny and Tip for overlooking how much Little Dorrit pulled them through their years of poverty, they refuse to see his point, instead imaging themselves unreasonably abused.

Little_Dorrit_-_Rigour_of_Mr._F's_AuntThis phenomenon is perfectly demonstrated in one maddening scene between Arthur Clennam and the socially well-connected, though relatively impoverished, Mrs. Gowan. She insists that it was she who did not approve of her son’s marriage to the daughter of Arthur Clennam’s friends, the Meagleses, when the truth is that the opposition to the marriage was coming from Mr. Meagles. But because they have money (earned from trade) that will benefit her son, she prefers to pretend that her son is the one conferring a favor on the Meagleses and slanders them by saying they were out to catch her son because of his good family connections. No manner of protestation by Arthur can convince her otherwise and she sweeps away in haughty condescension. Utterly irritating and entirely typical of many of the characters in Little Dorrit.

But that is the profound truth of Dickens. People are not swayed by reason or truth or facts when they find it convenient to believe something else, whether for pride or self-interest or some other self-absorbed motive. The primary objective for those people is putting on a good front and rationalizing themselves to themselves and others.

Mrs. General – hired to be a companion to Amy and Fanny Dorrit – tries to instruct Amy (Fanny needs no instruction on this point) on how to form “a surface.” “Nothing disagreeable should ever be looked…A truly refined mind will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid and pleasant.” Mrs. General likes words that begin with “p.” She believes the letter ‘p’ is uniquely designed to cause the mouth and face to be formed in the most ladylike and pleasing expression and will repeat to herself at proper intervals, “Papa, potato, poultry, prunes and prism.”

downloadBut if there is no reasoning with people or getting past their surfaces and their self-absorption, what is to be done? Dickens’ doesn’t exactly offer a solution. Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam’s response is primarily simple acceptance (they are not usually blind to other people’s faults and frequently look at things that are “not perfectly proper, placid and pleasant”). They accept people as they are and try to do the best they can, especially Little Dorrit. Dickens’ says quite explicitly that Amy is never ashamed of her father; she loves him. She loves her entire family, no matter how they treat her. Her secret seems to be an acceptance of the fact that she cannot change people, and she never tilts at windmills (though Arthur occasionally does, especially with the Circumlocution Office); she merely works with what she’s got and there’s something heroic and inspiring about her never-ceasing efforts for good.

Dickens’ ends the book with this line about Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. He, too, seems to have accepted that the world is going to remain the way it is. The only thing that makes it bearable is the presence of people like Amy and Arthur.

They went quietly down into the roaring streets; inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.


Posted by on August 24, 2015 in Books


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No Way Out (1950) – Sidney Poitier’s Movie Debut

Poster - No Way Out (1950)_01Part social commentary and part film noir, No Way Out‘s main theme is racism and it has really aged well, partially because the film manages to never allow its message to slow down the film with long, implausible speeches or sententious dialogue. It definitely has its moments of making a point, but overall doesn’t need to bash us over the head because the story and the acting is strong enough without it. The film marks the debut of Sidney Poitier and was both directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz, a man interested in exploring social concerns in his films.

Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) is an intern working in the prison ward of the county hospital. He’s still a little unsure of himself and though he’s passed the state board examination and has a license to practice, he asks for another year there before going out on his own. He is the first black doctor at this ward and has the complete support of his superior, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), though he occasionally meets a policeman who seems surprised to see a black doctor.

After a failed attempt at robbing a gas station, the two Biddle brothers are brought into the hospital, both shot in the leg. They’re from Beaver Canal, the white slum section of the city. Dr. Brooks notices that though Johnny Biddle was only shot in the leg, he seems to be exhibiting other symptoms, like confusion, lack of sense in his fingers. He suspects a brain tumor and wants to do a spinal tap, but Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is furious to have a black doctor tending them. He begs the police not to leave him and his brother alone with Dr. Brooks, uses every racial epitaph in the book and tries to prevent and distract Dr. Brooks from examining his brother.

But while Dr. Brooks is administering the spinal tap, Johnny Biddle dies. Ray is convinced that Dr. Brooks murdered him. Dr. Wharton trusts Dr. Brooks judgement, but Dr. Brooks wants an autopsy done to prove that his diagnosis was right and that there was nothing that could have been done to save Johnny. Ray, of course, refuses. Dr. Wharton and Dr. Brooks go to see Johnny’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) to ask her to ask Ray to allow the autopsy. She is at first extremely surprised to see a black doctor. You can see it in her eyes. It’s almost as if she’s never stood that close to a black person before or held any conversation with them and you can see that it throws her off balance how he talks and acts just like any other person. Her expression is almost what it would be if she were standing face to face with a Martian who turns out to be just like her.

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

But when Edie does go to see Ray, he pulls out all the stops. He appeals to the fact that she grew up next door to Johnny and Ray (their parents used to get drunk together), old loyalties to Beaver Canal, an ‘us vs. them’ mentality regarding both blacks and whites, policemen and establishment people like doctors. He then piteously pleads that he saw Dr. Brooks kill Johnny and that people are trying to cover it up. Edie is swayed, reverts to old habits of thought, and agrees to tell Ray’s other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), and the other members of Beaver Canal what Ray told her. The whole incident, they know, will start a riot.

But the black community near Beaver Canal hears about the impending attack on their neighborhood and decide to preemptively attack Beaver Canal, despite Dr. Brooks pleas not to. He feels that such attacks never do any good and only inflame hatred. But the riot still occurs, with Beaver Canal getting the worst of it.

Edie is disgusted with herself and with the violent, almost animal (her word) hatred and brutality displayed by the members of Beaver Canal. Meanwhile Dr. Brooks feels the entire riot occurred because of him and confesses to the murder of Johnny to force an autopsy of Johnny that will prove him right. When they find the tumor that proves his diagnosis, Ray escapes and sets out to murder Dr. Brooks.

No Way Out was Sidney Poitier’s film debut. He was only twenty-two years old, though he said he was twenty-seven, but he is already a powerful actor. Dr. Brooks is portrayed as a good, though flawed, human being and not just a cardboard cutout saint. He’s had to deal with hatred all his life and has grown used to it, but there’s something about the intensity and single-minded focus of Ray that shakes him up. He wants to prove himself in the eyes of others and can’t just let it go, despite Dr. Wharton’s assertion that there is no need, and he has a slight crisis of confidence. His reactions are complicated: determination, nobility, anger, frustration, patience, impatience. He wants to deal rationally with the situation, but keeps encountering the irrationality of Ray.

1083_019851.jpgRichard Widmark is superb and plays truly one of the most hateful characters I have seen in film. Even other members of the hospital acknowledge that his racism is almost a pathology. He unleashes an incredible volley of racial slurs, using the N-word multiple times. He represents a mentality of Beaver Canal, something Edie wants to leave behind, that is almost like arrested-development.

Edie seems to bring out more of the noir elements of the film in her struggles to extricate herself from Beaver Canal and is played very convincingly by Linda Darnell. It is fascinating to watch her character change and see her ideas transformed. She begins by referring to Dr. Brooks as “that colored doctor” or “negro doctor.” By the middle of the film, you can see her consciously stopping and choosing to say “Dr. Brooks.” She goes out of her way to acknowledge Dr. Brooks’ wife by greeting her. By the end, she calls him Luther, and not in a condescending context. Every time she meets a black person, you can see her curiosity and as she talks to Dr. Wharton’s black housekeeper, Gladys, she begins to come to that realization that Gladys is not “other,” but that they actually have much in common.

No Way Out is a film that reflects its time. Dr. Wharton is a good example of this. He says he believes in good doctors, not white doctors or black doctors, and he is a good friend to Dr. Brooks. However, you can still see the racial bias of the system at work, through no fault of his own. He is in the position of patron, not just friend. And when Mrs. Brooks holds back her tears until after he has left and cries on Gladys’ shoulders, you can see that there is still lurking an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. You don’t cry in front of the patron.

In real life, Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier were good friends. In fact, Widmark felt so bad about how he treated Poitier’s character in the film, that he frequently apologized during filming. It’s a well-acted, intense, and compelling drama, that holds up well as a movie and not just as social commentary.


Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir


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