Charles 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.
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.
This 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.”
But 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.