Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On to the next character in Little Dorrit - failed benevolence

How does plot affect character?  The events of a story can change a character, or reveal character.  Or do nothing, I suppose, as is all too common.  I suggested yesterday that Dickens used the plot of Little Dorrit to reveal the complexities of the title character.  Amy Dorrit becomes more interesting as I see her from new angles.

The host of ombhurbhuva, in a comment on that post, suggested that Amy was particularly interesting “because of her lapses in serenity and her opposition to the fatuity of the rest of the Dorrit clan.”  As the story progresses, Amy’s circumstances change, wildly, but she always has lapses in serenity – but new kinds of lapses; she always stands opposed – but in new ways – to the fatuity of her family.  She looks different in light than in shadow, to follow one of the themes of Little Dorrit, but is recognizably the same person.

Well, it is clear enough how I read.  I am trying to get a good look at the patterns the author is creating.  In big, mature Dickens novels like Bleak House and Little Dorrit, the variety and intricacy of the patterns are amazing.

The hero of the novel, Arthur Clennam, also looks more interesting as the plot moves, but the pattern is the inverse of the heroine’s.  Little Dorrit turns out to be bigger than she first appears, more full than the old type of Dickens heroine.  Arthur turns out to be smaller than he first appears.

A great flaw of many of the earlier Dickens novels is the clumsy use of jolly, benevolent, independently wealthy, charitable men, practitioners of the Philosophy of Christmas*, who can end a novel by cleaning up the mess, rewarding the good and improving the less good.  Sometimes the device leads to a great character (Mr. Pickwick), but sometimes it is not only dramatically flat but vaguely creepy (the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby).  In Bleak House, Dickens successfully complicated the device, and I think he is doing something similar in Little Dorrit.  Arthur aspires to be a benevolent Dickens character, but fails.

His story presents him with a series of attempts to improve the lives of others; he proceeds to botch each one, usually even misunderstanding the problem.  For example, back in England from China after twenty years, Arthur becomes convinced that his parents did something long ago to injure William Dorrit, trapping him in the debtors’ prison.  Mrs. Clennam is employing Little Dorrit as a seamstress – ah ha! – presumably to assuage her guilt.  Arthur will right the wrong!  But his efforts go nowhere (although he coincidentally causes others to act), in part because he misinterpreted every available clue.

Arthur is not a lot of fun to spend time with.  He is resentful, depressive, and fails at every significant attempt at benevolence.  He is eventually crushed and redeemed through suffering, giving him just enough strength to (spoiler alert!) survive the climactic, house-shattering battle with Little Dorrit’s malevolent twin, Anti-Dorrit.  But for me, seeing how Dickens creates the pattern of Arthur’s repeated well-meaning failures, and how it is the pattern that reveals Arthur’s character more than any individual scene, was interesting enough.

*  Borrowed from Chapter II, “Benevolence,” p. 52, of The Dickens World (1941) by Humphrey House.  The great Dickens idea is “all-the-year-round Christmas.”  Aimed at almost any other writer, this would be a devastating criticism.


  1. I haven't read Little Dorrit so I can't add anything particularly useful, I'm sure. I'm currently on about page 50 of Great Expectations, which is delighting me so far.

    One of the things about Dickens that's always struck me is how active his books are. Yes, there will be longish passages where the author philosophizes but in general things are always jumping. Dickens seems to have taken to heart Aristotle's idea that action equals character. Certainly in Great Expectations, I have learned a great deal about Pip and his cohort over seven chapters of frenetic action.

    Sometimes Dickens' plots seem like creaky, overworked machines and I can see a lot of the foreshadowing and foundation-building efforts in the first act, but I don't mind. It's sort of like watching a house being built.

  2. The big difference with GE Is that it is one of three Dickens first person narrators, so the rules are different. Pip is the writer, working retrospectively. The rhetorical flourishes and organization and foreshadowing are his. Dickens has nothing to do with it. Nothing!

    Sorry - carried away. The big difference, actually, is that in the Big Books all of that action is spread over more characters. In GE Pip always has to be there, somewhere.

  3. I've been having trouble commenting this week (a browser issue, I think) but wanted to ask: can Clennam be compared at all to Harold Skimpole? There's another "gentleman" who is theoretically well-meaning but in the end is actively malevolent.

    Very much enjoying these posts. Little Dorrit is, I think, one of the last three of Dickens's major novels I have yet to attempt (I put it that way because I couldn't make it through The Old Curiosity Shop), along with Hard Times and Barnaby Rudge.

  4. Hey, me too. I had to "allow third party cookies," which is repulsive - I don't much care for boughten cookies!

    Do people where you're from say "boughten"? Anyway.

    Actually Little Dorrit's father is the Mark II version of Skimpole. Clennam is genuinely good hearted and well-meaning, not a hypocritical parasite. The difference is really in that last phrase of yours - not "actively malevolent" but harmlessly incompetent.

    You have done a great job, Little Dorrit aside, of avoiding the worst Dickens novels. Although Hard Times is frankly a special case. It fails in so many ways, but is still so rich. It takes a truly great novelist to fail like that.

  5. People where I'm from say "boughten," but people where I live now don't say it. (Also "a fur piece" to mean not something you wear to keep warm in winter but a long way to go.)

    Little Dorrit is next on my Dickens-to-read-list. I look forward to reading it with some of your good ideas in mind.

  6. You'd have to go a fur piece to find boughten cookies as bad as these.