Monday, January 9, 2012

Nobody cares about Little Dorrit

The nobly suffering character, not the novel, Little Dorrit (1855-7).  My title is the only distinct line I remember from the teacher of a long-ago undergraduate English class, Modern British Novels (Dubliners, Mrs. Dalloway, The Good Soldier, and several more).  For the proper effect, read with an exaggerated comic sneer, emphasis on “nobody” and “Little Dorrit.”

Now, my professor did not exactly mean it.  We were working on the question of interiority and roundedness, how the techniques of Woolf and Joyce, with the voice of the author as such suppressed as much as possible, could make their characters, not obviously interesting people on the surface, seem so alive and “real.”  The professor was presumably also cheating by subtly playing up our preference for serious-minded Modernist stringency as opposed to soft-minded Dickensian sentimentality.  Imagine Conrad or Joyce naming a character “Little” as anything but parody!  Little Nell, Little Jo, Little Dorrit – Dickens means something by it.

I wonder, now, how many of my fellow students even knew what the prof was talking about, how many knew who or what Little Dorrit was?  But a good teacher not only cultivates knowledge but scatters seeds by the fistful.

Ironically, Little Dorrit is, for a Charles Dickens heroine, not so bad.  The book's hero is also not so bad.  If the two central characters are still less interesting (round, alive, “real”) than those of the typical Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Gaskell, or Brontë novel, or, more to the point, of the earlier Bleak House or the later Great Expectations, progress is at least visible.  The protagonists are now Dickens characters, not plagiarisms of Walter Scott.  Actually, this had been true for a decade of Dickens novels, since Dombey and Son (1847), but Dickens is still improving.

I am only worrying here about the protagonists, of course.  A dozen of the so-called minor characters are typically brilliant – Flora Finching and Mrs. F’s Aunt (“Bring him for’ard , and I’ll chuck him out o’ winder!”), for example.  As if to remind us his previous insipid heroines, Dickens even includes one in the background, the hideous Pet Meagles, “a fair, fresh, pretty girl.”  Not one of those, ugh!

The technical challenge in this novel was to give the less eccentric characters, Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam, some kind of novelistic life without the advantages of the first-person narration of David Copperfield and Bleak House, and with a couple of serious handicaps: the hero is well-meaning but useless, the heroine useful to the point of martyrdom.  And Dickens only has limited facility with the “free indirect” tool, the one that Joyce and Woolf use to do such extraordinary things, that Gustave Flaubert is at this exact moment perfecting with Madame Bovary (1856-7).  How does Dickens do it?

I guess I will write about Little Dorrit for a while longer.  I do not care a lot, but I care.  How I wept when, on the last page of the novel (spoiler alert!), the ever-shrinking Little Dorrit finally vanished with a barely audible “pop.”


  1. What's the sharpest technical difference between Joyce and Woolf in creating "real" characters?

  2. I see you were presented Dubliners as a British work. The adjective 'British' relates to the political domain, thus there is a British Constitution, British Monarchy, British Houses of Parliament etc. There are no British writers only English, Scottish and Welsh. There is no British accent. Ireland at the time of Joyce's birth was part of Britain and he received a grant from the Crown office once but he was still Irish.

    Little Dorrit herself. Of all the Dickens heroines she is the most tolerable but then it's very hard to write interestingly about good people. Who has done it? Dosetoevsky? Who else?
    - I hate you Mummy, you left me in the blacking factory for longer than was strictly necessary where I was thrown amongst the lower classes and street children. I put them in my books and became famous still you shouldn't have done it Mummy. Where's Dora and Little Em'ly, I'm upset.

  3. "were presented" - yeah, I think we picked up somewhere that Joyce was Irish. There are some subtle clues in Dubliners.

    Lot's of writers write interestingly about "good people." Elizabeth Gaskell, to pick a close example. Kenneth Grahame. Storm. Tolstoy. Goethe. Hugo. Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    Fortunately, Dickens was artist enough to not actually write that last bit.

    Kevin - I give up! Why is a raven like a writing desk?