Friday, January 13, 2012

A Dorrit miscellaney, with rambling, backtracking, and a well-marked and necessary spoiler alert

1.  I have been coming at Little Dorrit from a funny angle, worrying about characters and gentlemen, when the great thing about this novel, I mean aside from the usual virtues of Dickens, is the language, the intense and complex pattern of imagery that he creates and sustains.  The first chapter is titled “Sun and Shadow;” it is set, once we wander past a bird’s-eye view of Marseilles, in the cell of a “villainous prison.”  Sun, shadow, prison – these three basic concepts, in the right hands, turn out to be almost sufficient to carry an 800 page novel.  The combinations of the ideas are complex, more than the ideas themselves.

2.  A couple of years ago I was startled by the number of prisons and prisoners I was encountering in French literature, and I wondered about their absence from English literature.  Absence outside of Dickens, that is, and, curiously, the poetry of Emily Brontë.  Little Dorrit is full of prisons: literal prisons, for crimes and debts, a parrot cage, prison-like non-prisons (a Swiss monastery), and figurative prisons: poverty, or senility, or being an invalid, confined in bed, for example.  Innumerable creative variations on the theme.

Bleak House is constructed like this, too (with a different pack of images and rhetoric), in its omnisciently narrated sections at least, and I expect Our Mutual Friend to be built of similar stuff.  These novels are superb handmade objects.

3.  So why do I dwell, in what I write, on the weaknesses of Dickens, or on the problems he is trying to solve?  Because I simply assume that he is the world’s greatest novelist.  I am creating a vague mental weighted index of social reach, human insight, complexity of pattern, linguistic daring, humor, and so on – breadth, depth, scope, reach.  All the good stuff fiction writers do.  Balzac’s social acuity is comparable, and any number of novelists are sharper thinkers than Dickens.  He has few rivals in rhetorical range – just Victor Hugo, perhaps – or in the ability to define characters (the minor characters) so quickly and permanently.  A reader who gives far more weight than I do to, for example, depth of thought will calculate the index rather differently.

4.  Lionel Trilling, in his 1952 introduction to the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition of Little Dorrit, wonders why “of the three [big late novels] it is perhaps the least established with modern readers” (v).  I like that neutral word: not least “liked” but least “established.”  Perhaps that is the other reason I have been poking at the deceptively gray central characters.  Why does nobody care about Little Dorrit? Or care enough, or care about it relative to Bleak House or Great Expectations.

Now that I have read the book, I care a lot about how it was put together, why certain passages work so well, and even how Dickens uses the characters and rhetoric to achieve emotional effects that still work, even with all of my distance.  I do not think there is as uplifting a moment in Dickens, no, in all of English literature, as when, on the last page of the book, (spoiler alert!) our heroine takes the initial steps of her new life as the first and greatest of all Victorian lady travelers, Dorrit the Explorrit.


  1. It's been too many years since I last read Dickens, so I've enjoyed this recent set of posts on Little Dorrit. I like your questions about this novel is the least established of his later work.

    I wonder if it's because Little Dorrit is closer in nature to his earlier work. Until today, I'd been reading your posts thinking Little Dorrit was from the first half of Dicken's career. The professor who taught the Dickens class I took in graduate school argued that his work could be divided into two schools just about halfway through Dombey and Son when he is said to have made his first plot outline prior to writing.

    Little Dorrit, going from memory of it now for the most part, strikes me as closer to the more improvisational feel of his early books than to the much more structured nature of his last few novels. These days, the more structured novels are the ones that stand in critical favor.

    I suspect Little Dorrit reminds people of Little Nell too much. Little Nell is out of favor now-a-days.

  2. Your professor was right about Dombey and Son. It's the hinge work. And I agree with your idea about structure. I would just suggest that Little Dorrit is in fact written along the same principles of thematic and imagistic complexity as Bleak House. The structure is built from the imagery. Some of the incidents are likely improvised, but this time within a well-considered structure.

    The point about Little Nell has merit, too. Litte Dorrit is, actually, not so much like Little Nell at all, but it takes a couple hundred pages to reach that conclusion. She at first seems a lot like Little Nell. As he often does in the later novels, Dickens deepens and complicates earlier ideas and characters.

    1. The third one on this set (scroll down a bit) offers a very interesting take on the source of Dickens' heroines' personalities.

      As for Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights, I learned most of the little I know by reading these three interpretations:

      (By the way, Time magazine named Hark a Vagrant! as one of the top ten best books of 2011, and you can see why: so much insight packed in so little space)

    2. The third one is especially good. I have mixed feelings about the "Dude Watching" cartoon - reinforces some bad reading - but that is not Beaton's fault.

  3. I'm starting to feel like I have to re-enter the world of Dickens at some point this year. I read almost all of his books as a teenager (nix Dombey, Nicholas Nickleby & Martin Chuzzlewit) but have never gone back, in part, because the impression remains fresh, if not the detail. Particularly Great Expectations and David Copperfield.
    You might be interested in this article in an Irish paper recently about the lack of the Irish in Dickens. Slum is an Irish word that entered the English language in London in the early to mid nineteenth century - you would have thought they would have been all over his books.

  4. Séamus, get your Dickens reading in now. By the end of this bicentennial year, we'll all be sick of him!

    I know what you mean about that fresh impression - the Dickens World (I'm reading a book of that title) is so strong.

    I had not noticed it myself, but that Irish Times article is right - Irish characters and topics are weirdly absent from Dickens World. I wonder why?

  5. Well, anti-Irish sentiment ran pretty high in England at the time. In much of the journalism of the time they were seen as little more than animals. Right up until the 1980's the reputation of the Irish was pretty low in England. Perhaps Dickens subscribed to the view or perhaps he saw it as an issue better avoided.

  6. I would like to think it was the latter, avoidance, but I would not want to bet on it.

    I suppose this is a question that could be answered somewhere in Dickens's travel writing or journalism.

  7. In part, I think the issue was avoided out of fear. The numbers of Irish were extremely large - a million passed through Liverpool in the 1840's and I guess it was a political tinder box.
    I note you are very interested in Wuthering Heights - a novel written by a second generation Irish woman with lots of Irish relatives (Emily Prunty) during the height of the famine in Ireland with Heathcliff clearly one of the famine refugees. Is it any wonder that she was obsessed with graves and death? However this influence on the book is rarely discussed.

  8. Oh God, you're doing so well with Dickens, whereas I can't bear to start Nicholas Nickleby. I bow down to you, sir.

    I'd also like to nominate for something for that Dorrit the Explorrit gag. Chuckle.

  9. I love your discussion on the 'prison' issue. I like how you took it: social, spiritual, physical etc.

  10. Séamus, I love the idea that Heathcliff is an Irish famine demon set lose on the moors. Her obsess with graves and death, though, predates WH and the Irish famine by many years.

    Nana - thanks - I am just following the imaginative lead of Dickens.

    Lyndsay - the credit for that joke goes to ma femme, actually. Is it encouraging to say that the beginning of NN is the best part of the novel? I meant that to be encouraging.