Little Dorrit  – ★★★★
In this classic story, Arthur Clennam returns home from China after many years of absence and finds the same dull and uninviting London house with the same resentful mother inside. While he meditates on what to do next with his life, his attention is drawn to a very timid seamstress of his mother– Amy Dorrit (nicknamed “Little Dorrit”). This young woman is hard-working, kind and is blindly devoted to her imprisoned family members. This makes Arthur wonder about her life, and his first step to make poor Amy his friend leads him to the discovery of another world – the world of London’s poor. Arthur is amazed to find that the absurd workings of the notorious Marshalsea prison for debtors, where Amy was born and her father is now imprisoned, should have a symbiotic relationship with the bureaucratic realm of the complacent and Kafkaesque Circumlocution Office, a governmental institution designed to keep the needy poor and the desperate for answers – even more confused. Set in England, Italy and France, Dickens’s episodic novel may not have the clarity and subtlety of the narrative expositions of Bleak House  or Dombey and Son , but it still contains all the entertaining Dickensian components. There is: a plot with long-buried family secrets and unforeseen reversals of fortune; perceptive and humoristic satire on the government (Dickens was once a Parliament Reporter) and the unfairness of the British class system; and a line of unforgettable characters, whose destinies inexplicably criss-cross and among whom are a couple of sinister personages lurking in the background and pulling the strings. Still, the “heart” of this novel is one shy young woman whose quiet resilience in the face of immense oppression moves all, as she champions the power of introversion and self-sacrificing love.
If Dickens’s Bleak House satirised and ridiculed the British legal system, then Little Dorrit attacks the British penal system, as well as the country’s governmental offices. Dickens lets us step into the puzzling, chaotic world of the Marshalsea prison (a society within a society), where people are imprisoned because they cannot pay their debts. The author drew from the experience of his own father – John Dickens, who was imprisoned twice in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison because he could not pay his creditors. The situation is quite absurd: prisoners need money to pay their creditors for their release and, yet, they cannot earn this money because they are being imprisoned. Dickens’s striking portrayal of the prison is matched only by the vividness with which he observes to us its eccentric inhabitants, such as the two brothers Frederick and William Dorrit, with the latter being the “Father” of the Marshalsea, and hence his youngest daughter, Amy (“Little Dorrit”), who was born within the prison walls – the “Child” of the Marshalsea. Everyone depends on self-sacrificing Little Dorrit who tries to cater for every person she meets on her way, and especially for her beloved Father, whose imprisoned life she tries to make a little more bearable and dignified, but also for her frivolous sister Fanny and her wayward brother Tip.
As with other classic works by Dickens, there is an underlying mystery to the episodic narrative, which, in turn, is full of atmospheric descriptions. The curious thing is that one person who is closest to uncovering the mystery and discovering the truth in this story – Mrs. Flintwinch, servant to Mrs. Clennam, – is living through a kind of nightmare, constantly mixing up reality and dreams, and seeing facts as though through a mist, being unable to make sense of strange happenings around Mrs. Clennam’s house. And some curious characters also visit Arthur’s childhood home – one too many, as it turns out. There are probably one too many characters in this story, too, and we are also introduced to Flora, ex- sweetheart of Arthur Clennam, to her father Mr. Casby, to Mr. Casby’s rent collection man Mr Pancks, as well as to the Barnacle, Merdle and Meagles families, to name just a few.
Contrast is the driving force of any exciting and memorable narrative and no one knew it better than Dickens. In Little Dorrit, the author contrasts three women, all roughly of the same age and all having their own “nicknames” – (i) Amy Dorrit (“Little Dorrit), the daughter of the imprisoned man William Dorrit, (ii) Minnie Meagles (“Pet”), the beautiful and spoiled daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, and (iii) Harriet Beadle (“Tattycoram”), the maid to the Meagles family. If Little Dorrit has no money, but love in her family (and submits), then Pet has both riches and love in her family (and both submits and rebels at the same time in her own way), and Tattycoram, generally speaking, has no love and no riches (and actively rebels). Similarly, If Little Dorrit is of a “poor birth” and now lives in an impoverished home, then Pet is of a “higher birth” and now enjoys a prosperous home environment, and Tattycoram, by contrast, is of “a poor birth”, but now lives in a well-to-do home. Dickens makes the same striking comparisons while presenting his two father-daughter relationships (Mr. Meagles and Pet, and Mr. Dorrit and Little Dorrit). If Pet is pampered and cared for by her father, it is Amy who generally cares for and always tries to “pet” her father. Both relationships are presented as equally “healthy” and loving.
As a character, Amy Dorrit is reminiscent of Esther from Dickens’s Bleak House. She is innocent, quiet and trustworthy. Dickens makes a point that heroism, courage and true strength do not necessarily imply one single bold action, and these are also found in one’s daily devotion, in unshakeable faith, in unquestionable loyalty, in compassion and in the will not to give up, despite one’s hopelessly horrific circumstances. With Dickens’s creation of Amy Dorrit, he spotlighted not boldness and opportunism, but, rather, quiet resilience, self-sacrifice and the sheer goodness of the heart. Some may say that Amy is too meek and uninteresting a character, but this is deceptive, and, in fact, many characters in the novel fall into the trap of underestimating Amy and her quiet power over others. It is power because many characters in the novel are either dependent on Amy (without realising it) either emotionally or financially (or both) (Amy’s immediate family), or develop such an enormous respect for her that it becomes impossible for them to ignore her (Arthur). Here is an example of this deception of others as to Amy’s true character in the novel: “Fanny”….[said Mrs General], “has force of character and self-reliance. Amy, none”. “None? O Mrs General, ask the Marshalsea stones and bars. O Mrs General, ask the milliner who taught her to work, and the dancing-master who taught her sister to dance. Or Mrs General, Mrs General, ask me, her father, what I owe to her; and hear my testimony touching the life of this slighted little creature, from her childhood up!” [Charles Dickens, Penguin Classics, 1857/2013: 495]. Amy’s desire to make the lives of others a little happier, as well as her determination to persevere, is admirable. After all, it is not one’s words, or their absence, which show one’s true character, but one’s commitment and daily action. In the second half of the book, Amy does not let others mould her into what she is not and resists change to the best of her circumstances.
If I were to judge the book by its first half – Book One – Poverty, it would have been a five star-read, but Book Two impressed me far less. I found some melodramatic resolutions, including events and coincidences leading up to them, “forced” in the book’s second half. Moreover, at times Dickens’s prose is needlessly self-indulgent and “sensationalist”, and there are some book scenes that could/should have been safely edited out.
Despite my reservations, however, Little Dorrit is still a recommended read, being deeply observational, humoristic and moving. In Little Dorrit, Dickens is probably at his most compassionate and empathetic, shedding light on the lives of the most disadvantaged of his time, while also demonstrating the ever-present burdens of imprisonment that affects not only the imprisoned but also all those connected to them. In Amy Dorrit, Dickens also created something magnetic, albeit deceptively simple: Amy’s quiet, kind and determined spirit, as she forges her touching friendships through the story, illuminates not only many dark paths of the characters, but also, seemingly, the very pages of this book, also making it rather special.