When Charles Dickens published Little Dorrit , the 826-page novel originally appeared in Dickens’ own, widely popular, monthly periodical in a series of installments, short pieces, or “teaspoons” as Dickens himself called them, from 1855 to 1856, including illustrations by Phiz.
A rags-to-riches tale, the first half of the book introduces the eccentric, intriguing Dorrit family, their heart-rending plight and a carnival of delightfully Dickensian characters – those dubious people who march through the life of the fallen William Dorrit inside the Marshalsea, the same debtors prison in which Dickens’ own father paid time for debt. The laggards, leeches and extortionists, the hapless, foolish, the large-hearted and everlastingly colorful characters are lovingly portrayed in the darkness and light of nineteenth-century London.
William Dorrit’s daughter, Amy, “Little Dorrit,” is the innocent but worldly girl who watches this pageant of people, loving some of them and fearing others. Soft-spoken and petite – indeed, so petite that she appears to be a child at first, Amy is hardly aggressive, though she is certainly industrious, in providing for herself and her father as a seamstress outside the prison, and assertive in her undying desire to comfort people, especially her father for whom she shows an extraordinary compassion and care; and in her benevolence for humankind in general and the deep love she feels for Aurthur. She does assert these interests but in a clearly humble way. Amy is utterly poetic.
As the tender relationship between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit becomes the hoped-for, romantic denouement of the love-story portion of the novel, Dickens tantalizes us to the very end. It seems that they are meant for each other: Arthur’s childhood was one of harshness inside the dark house of his unaffectionate parents, while Amy was born in the Marshalsea Prison and grew up there never knowing any other kind of life until her father is able to claim his fortune, with the help of Arthur, as it turns out. Thus, Amy and Arthur are two tattered yet good-hearted souls isolated in a scheming world. Dickens has great fun devising numerous sub-plots that connect and interweave their story.
Amy writes a few bittersweet letters to Arthur when she is away with the Dorrit clan traveling the European continent where she sees, “misery and magnificence wrestling with each other;” these letters are forthcoming, poignant and touching, as they reveal Amy’s loneliness and ultimate difficulty in adjusting to the Dorrits’ new, opulent way of life – traveling through the sublime scenery of Venice and Rome; still, Arthur may never have known the exact nature of Amy’s love for him had it not been for a go-between, the devoted John Chivery, (Little John), who also serves as another supreme example of Dickens’ brilliant skills of characterization.
Other exceptional characters become well known and fond personalities: Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s sister, a selfish and pretentious opportunist who can also be likeable if only for her entertaining dialog; Afry Flintwinch, Arthur’s childhood nurse who is continually throwing her apron over her face to save herself from witnessing the sordid things taking place in that infamous house; Flora Finching, the annoying but loveable young widow who has designs on Arthur and whose delightful monologues add high comedy; Monsieur Rigaud, that evil, ubiquitous presence who becomes the irresistible mystery of the tale, as continually, “his mustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his mustache;” and many others with curious and witty names; Mr. Tite Barnacle, Mr. Sparkler, John Baptist Cavalletto, Mr. Merdle, a white collar crook (not unlike Rupert Merdoch, the 21st century swindler), The Meagles, “Tip” and “Pet”.
Dickens’ descriptions and dialogs are profoundly hilarious, as is the Circumlocution Office, an impossible bureaucracy of tangled red tape, its only function being that of a satire on government and society.
But William Dorrit is the most humourous and tragic of characters. Dorrit was probably just as silly and pompous before he went into the prison as he was after coming out twenty years later a much wealthier man, just as his mental infirmness probably began inside the prison walls and became more and more apparent as he forced himself to adjust to his new way of life, which is really only a new kind of prison in which he and the false characters with whom he associates prance around in desperate displays of status.
It seems a wonder that William Dorrit produced such a loving and selfless daughter as Amy Dorrit, his one daughter who was born inside the Marshalsea. This father-daughter relationship, in part, resembles that of the mad King Lear and his best daughter, Cordelia, the daughter who really loved him most. Like Cordelia, Amy Dorrit is admonished, though lovingly, by her sister and ludicrously blamed by her own father simply because it isn’t in Amy to act the part of a privileged princess. Instead, Amy, in her genuine humbleness, only reminds her father of his past by being who she is.
‘Amy,’ he returned, turning shot upon her. ‘You-ha-habitually hurt me.’
‘Hurt you, father! I!’
‘There is a–hum-a topic,’ said Mr Dorrit, looking all about the ceiling of the room, and never at the attentive, uncomplainingly shocked face, ‘a painful topic, a series of events which I wish–ha-altogether to obliterate . This is understood by your sister, who has already remonstrated with you in my presence; it is understood by your brother; it is understood by-ha hum-by every one of delicacy and sensitiveness, except yourself-ha-I am sorry to say, except yourself. You, Amy-hum-you alone and only you-constantly revive the topic, though not in words.’
Thus Amy becomes the scapegoat for people of ambiguous morality and strictly guarded family secrets.
After reading Little Dorrit, the question lingers: in order for the world to produce a person as loving and selfless as Amy Dorrit, must she be raised in an oppressive environment where most of the creature-comforts in life are absent and she must create her own comfort and happiness based on the only natural love received in early childhood.