Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I care about Little Dorrit - many light shapes did the strong iron weave itself into

Most Dickens novels have memorable but otherwise useless titles.  I mean, Nicholas Nickleby is a name that sticks, but gives no hint about what it is in the book.  I have a tag for each novel that helped me keep them straight before I read them.  Still helps, actually.  NN has abusive Yorkshire schools, Martin Chuzzlewit goes to America, Little Dorrit is the debtors’ prison novel.

Little Amy Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea Prison, where her typically useless Dickens father has been imprisoned for twenty-three years.*  So Amy is an adult, twenty-two when the novel begins, although people often mistake her for a child.  It is the father, not the daughter, who is the debtor, so although Amy lives in the prison she can leave it to earn money which she uses to support, at various times, her frivolous but spirited sister, her useless brother, and, always, her parasitical father.  Little Dorrit is little, symbolically, because of her self-sacrifice and the exploitation by her family, physiologically, because of malnutrition during childhood.

How does Dickens make the virtuous Amy Dorrit interesting or “real,” to the extent that she is (frankly, she fades in and out a bit)?  He has a couple of tools.  First, and more interesting to me, but perversely what I do not want to write about, is the symbolic world that Amy creates for herself.  We do not cling to her thoughts like we would in a Woolf novel, but we do see what she sees:

Then she would flit along the yard, climb the scores of stairs that led to her room, and take her seat at the window.  Many combinations did those spikes upon the wall assume, many light shapes did the strong iron weave itself into, many golden touches fell upon the rust, while Little Dorrit sat there musing. (I. 24).

Dickens rings a dozen changes on this passage, Amy’s view of those spikes, but I picked this one because it is followed by Amy’s Parable of the Princess and the Shadow, a story she tells, and another way Dickens defines Amy’s character by describing the symbolic world she creates herself (and shares with the symbolic world of the novel).

The other trick Dickens has, one that I now see is characteristic of his late novels, is to complicate her virtue.  Amy is too self-sacrificing, too good, and the novel is ethically complex enough to recognize that this is a problem, that Amy, to use current lingo, enables some of the worst behavior of her father and other relatives.  Readers looking for Strong Female Characters will find her frustrating: no one is stronger, but her strength is misapplied, and she has no interest in independence.   Little Dorrit has a caring temperament, and would have been, for example, an outstanding nurse – she is akin to a number of characters in the Elizabeth Gaskell stories that Dickens was editing and publishing at the time.  But she has allowed her family, her father especially, to manipulate her sense of duty.

For the first half of the novel, Amy is martyr to her family, which, for all of her strength, damages her.  About halfway through, Amy is relieved of her labors, but is also no longer able to be a caregiver, which turns out to be even worse for her, psychologically (I am simplifying a little – e.g., the love plot, her homesickness).  This is now an interesting character, yes?  And all done with plot, plot used to test or highlight character.  The heroine grows in complexity as the plot unfolds. 

A disadvantage: she is thus not all that interesting early on, and I am not sure the balance Amy achieves at the end of the novel is as satisfying as it could be, although I am pretty sure that Dickens is deliberately maintaining some of the complications rather than brushing them all away as he would in one of his early novels – “the noisy and the eager, the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar” (last line).

Still, it is enormously satisfying when, at the end of the book, Little Dorrit, finally escaping from the draining leeches who have always surrounded her rapidly becomes (spoiler alert) Giant Dorrit.  The final chapter, when Amy wades into the estuary of the Thames and single-handedly demolishes the invading Russian fleet, and final scene, when the Queen awards Amy the Victoria Cross (a forgivable anachronism), are triumphs.

*  I was saddened to learn that, despite the closure of the Marshalsea in 1842, obooki is currently imprisoned there.


  1. One of the things I was thinking while reading Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling is that one of the great differences between c20th and earlier fiction is that there used to be wholly good characters in earlier fiction - characters who were morally admirable, who always acted correctly - but that we in the c20th real can't bear such people at all, we can't bear characters who aren't flawed and will regard any writer who persists in portraying them with contempt (most probably, they are merely genre writers).

  2. I agree, the taste for the always good character changed, to the extent that even devotees of St. Austen complain about Fanny Price because she is priggish.

    The artistic problem for Dickesn is not quite as I have presented here. He has always-good characters who belong in Dickens World (his plump, benevolent, rich men who clean up the problems at the end of the novel), and other goody-goods like Oliver Twist's family who are just dragged in from worse novels to fill a hole.

    Dickens, with Little Dorrit (the character), is just working on the latter problem, but the real change in tastes does in both kinds of characters.

  3. I am reading Little Dorrit for the third time at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it. Actually, I am listening to it this time: Anton Lesser's superb reading- all 35 hours or so. So it's kind of superimposed on a rather colourless background of grey Moscow (the city where I live) winter.
    One thing I hadn't appreciated before is that it's a 'historical' novel. I'd vaguely wondered why there are so few references to photography, telegraphs, railways etc in Dickens and the answer seems to be, in Little Dorrit at least, that he's writing (in the 1850s) about the 1820s- the decade of his childhood. The same seems to be true for Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. There are vague references to engineering and Daniel Doyce's great invention, but other than that the only reference to mid 19th century technology is the repeated comparison of Mr Pancks to a steam-powered tug boat.

    I'm intrigued by your description of the end of the novel- it sounds as if it has slipped in from some parallell 19th century. I'm looking forward to the single-handed destruction of the Russian fleet- not what I remember from my previous readings of the novel.

  4. Amy Dorrit is more interesting than other Dickens heroines because of her lapses in serenity and her opposition to the fatuity of the rest of the Dorrit clan. She is to some degree institutionalised as well so there is dark as well as light. A lot of the characters in the novel are prisoners being locked into the past or some fantasy. Even light is locked out - "the morning light was in no hurry to climb the prison wall".(Chap.9)

    The recent BBC serialisation is very good once you've read the book. It stays true to it.

  5. Ian - that's right, the "times" of Dickensnovels are all over the place. A few are current with publication, but many are set ten or twenty years in the past, like Little Dorrit (set at the same time as the 20-year-older Pickwick Papers), and some, like Bleak House have a blended setting, a fantasy history.

    I don't know why I keep sticking in those silly endings. No, I do know - because it amuses me to think of Little Dorrit as a superhero name.

    ombhurbhuva - I quoted some of what you wrote in today's post. The mix of the character's self-created symbolic world and the one Dickens creates, like you describe, how they mix with each other, is probably the most complex and artful thing Dickens does.

    The BBC version sounds true up to a point.