Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's my intent to be a gentleman. It's my game. - Dickens solves another problem

Where is that thing I wrote about Dickens and gentlemen?  No, it was Trollope, wasn’t it?  Let me check the archives – Margaret Oliphant, of course.  I had a point back then that comes up in Little Dorrit.

My point is: Charles Dickens, for all of his sympathy for the deserving poor, had trouble imagining his way past the idea of the status of the gentleman.  Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9) is the example I always revert to, where a central problem for Nicholas and his sister is that they have to work below their station; similarly, although David Copperfield may believe that no boy should work in a factory, he seems to believe in particular that no boy of his upbringing should do so.

Possibly the problem for Dickens was not one of politics but of art – how to move past received ideas of gentlemanly status not in life, but in fiction.  Regardless, Little Dorrit contained a surprise for me: a direct assault on the idea of the gentleman, or at least a newly complicated understanding of the concept.

See the villain of Little Dorrit, Rigaud, for example:

'Haha!  You are right!  A gentleman I am!  And a gentleman I'll live, and a gentleman I'll die!  It's my intent to be a gentleman.  It's my game.  Death of my soul, I play it out wherever I go!' (Ch. I.1)

This declaration is on page 9 of the edition I am reading.  Rigaud is, at that moment, in a French jail cell, awaiting trial for murder.  The prison theme and the gentleman theme are chained together right at the beginning of the book.

The more complex and pathetic player of the “game” of gentlemanliness is Little Dorrit’s father, the longtime inhabitant of the debtors’ prison, who maintains a fiction of gentility at the expense, primarily, of his daughter.  Everyone participates in the farce – here the prison turnkey describes Mr. Dorrit, jailhouse celebrity:

'Brought up as a gentleman, he was, if ever a man was.  Ed'cated at no end of expense.  Went into the Marshal's house once to try a new piano for him.  Played it, I understand, like one o'clock – beautiful!  As to languages – speaks anything.  We've had a Frenchman here in his time, and it's my opinion he knowed more French than the Frenchman did.  We've had an Italian here in his time, and he shut him up in about half a minute.’  (I.6)

The business about French and Italian turns out to be foreshadowing.  In Rome, hundreds of pages later, we finally see the destructive toll of Mr. Dorrit’s desperate attempt to convince himself that his birth and ed’cation mattered more than anything he actually did with his life.

His daughter, Little Dorrit, embodies a transcendence of class status.  She is a believer in works, not faith.  Dickens has been moving towards this ending over the course of several novels.  As Little Dorrit ends, not every piece is in its place, not every problem has been resolved.  Amy Dorrit ends the novel as (spoiler alert!) Agent Dorrit, crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of the most dangerous enemies of the Crown.  Or if not that, with “a modest life of usefulness and happiness” (last paragraph).


  1. I'm enjoying this series of posts on Little Dorrit . Thank you.

  2. I must read this one - sadly, I appear to have mostly read his early works, at the expense of his later books...

  3. Thanks so much, kinna. If I went by number of comments, I would conclude that nobody cares about Little Dorrit.

    Tony - back in the olden days, the early books were considered the best ones. The later novels were the "dark" ones. Critical taste has changed a lot. The later ones are also more complex, which is where taste has moved. Inevitably, I would say, but that's a separate argument.

  4. My tastes run that way I fear - 'Bleak House', yes; Oliver Twist', oh no.

    Just looked at Wikipedia, and I fear I've been less than truthful: after Pickwick and Oliver, I appear to have missed out everything until 'David Copperfield' (and then read everythinge except 'Little Dorrit' and 'Edwin Drood'). I fear my approach to Dickens has been very slapdash :(

  5. Dickens and slapdash are a good match. Dombey and Son, the novel just before DC, also has some stuff you would find interesting, with only a dollop of Oliver Twistiness.