With the name of a great author as Charles Dickens, titles such as A Christmas Carol or Great Expectations frequently come to mind. Otherwise, Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities will leap to the lips of those more literate. Yet one of his lesser-known works highly deserving of attention is Little Dorrit, written in the latter period of Dickens’ life. Indeed, this work is usually considered the weaker of his later works, strung together almost in the way of ramblings and numerous stories. The trick to understanding Little Dorrit is that it is copied from Dickens’ real life experiences. This work, which sparked new interest following an excellent adaptation by the BBC (in spite of leaving out some of the better dialogue from the book), has much to say to the present state of affairs not only because of its message about debt, but also because of what it says about the poor.
As Chesterton noted in his evaluation of Dickens:
Dickens did get the main idea of Dorrit from his father; and that idea is that a poor man may be conquered by the world … the main business of the story of Little Dorrit is to describe the victory of circumstances over a soul. The circumstances are the financial ruin and long imprisonment of Edward Dorrit; the soul is Edward Dorrit himself. Let it be granted that the circumstances are exceptional and oppressive, are denounced as exceptional and oppressive, are finally exploded and overthrown; still, they are circumstances.1
Little Dorrit is set in the 1820s, a period which saw debtors prisons and financial ruin of smaller men by the wealthy elite, incompetent bureaucracies, and the “Circumlocution” office. The story begins in Marseilles with the villain Rigaud (who later renames himself Blandois), a conceited yet self-described gentleman who murders his wife. Due to lack of evidence, Rigaud is released from prison and makes his way to London. The story moves to a local port, where we meet Mr. Arthur Clennam who has been trading for his family business in China. His father just died and Arthur returns to London in order to bring his mother the news. We are then transported to the Marshalsea debtors prison in London (where Dickens’ father was a prisoner) to meet William Dorrit, a man imprisoned there for twenty-one years. Born in the prison, his youngest daughter Amy is described as the child of the Marshalsea, and William flatters himself as the “Father of the Marshalsea” for the length of his incarceration. In time we discover that while he suffers greatly from the humiliation of being reduced to rags in a debtor’s prison, he is also not in a hurry to get out. He revels in the visitors who offer half crowns, guineas, or cigars. According to his brother Frederick, William is “waited on hand and foot.” Frederick is another sad story. He ran a school of music and education that was taken from him because he offered the school as surety for his brother’s bad investments, and he was reduced to working in order to feed and clothe his brother William and his three children, Edward (Tip), Fannie, and Amy.
Here it is interesting to stop and consider the debtor’s prison, if only to look at the horrifying insanity of its “rationale”. The debtor was interred for the smallest of debts while the government itself went heavily into debt. Those with enough connections could avoid the debtor’s prison or get “bailed out”. The debtor in the prison received no money, could not work, yet had to buy his own food, clothing, and was expected to pay his debts. Now in this context we see William Dorrit, who is as Chesterton described in the quote above: a poor man conquered by the world. Dickens’ characters in other works, most notably David Copperfield and Bob Cratchit, show us the poor man who is not conquered by the world, but conquers it. William Dorrit shows us a man who in his pride and conceit is conquered by the world. With the money he receives in charity and from his brother’s work, he could pay his debts and get out, but then he would not be the “Father of the Marshalsea”. He would not have his children to dote on him or inmates to treat him with honor and respect, and he would have to make his way in the world.
The stage is set for his freedom, however, when Arthur Clennam, returning from a trade mission, leaves his family’s business and begins looking for employment in London. There he meets Amy “Little Dorrit” by chance, discovers her family situation, and anonymously bails out her brother from Marshalsea. Near death, Clennam’s father hands him a watch, saying, “Give it to your mother, make it right.” His mother hides a secret she refuses to reveal, and Arthur suspects this secret may be related with the Dorrit’s misfortune. Uncovering Mr. Dorrit’s inheritance of an unclaimed massive fortune sufficient to pay off his debts, Arthur arranges Mr. Dorrit’s release. Disgraced and ashamed, Mr. Dorrit’s ingratitude toward Clennam dismays Amy, who has fallen in love with the good and honorable Clennam. This shocking ingratitude stuns the reader, who cannot help but look at Mr. Dorrit’s conceited pride and misuse of his newfound wealth. He could easily have paid the debts of all the others in the Marshalsea, but does not. Instead he opts to be “socially connected,” taking advice to go abroad to prepare his daughters for moving around in social circles, demanding at every stage that there should be no further remembrance of their former life.
The story moves past the misery of the poor of Marshalsea to the misery of “society” in the person of a 19th century Bernie Madoff. A fourth of the way through the book we meet Mr. Merdle, the “man of the age,” whose unspeakable wealth appears to double in an instant. We first meet him through Amy’s sister Fannie, who has been seeing Merdle’s stepson Edmund, a dolt yet kind-hearted man. Mrs. Merdle buys Fannie off by offering her jewelry and spitting on their family’s station. Amy is disgusted by her sister’s groveling, but by this Dickens’ sets off a pleasurable revenge later in the story. Nevertheless, Mr. Merdle is unhappy and does not wish to move in society. His wife arranges dinner parties yet he is present only in body, throwing himself completely into his work and neglecting all else. Mr. Dorrit, once he has been liberated and moved up, seeks to invest his money with Merdle as does most of England (including Mr. Clennam who has gone into business with an inventor). Towards the close of the story we discover that the “man of the age” had no real bank and was doing nothing other than moving newly invested money from one account into another to give false dividends. When he is exposed, his investors lose everything. The kind Mr. Clennam is forced to take up residence in the Marshalsea, from which he had liberated the thankless Mr. Dorrit. Yet Clennam has also not escaped his prison, which is the torturous upbringing by his cruel mother. By the time he realizes that he had fallen in love with Amy Dorrit, he refuses to marry her or allow her to bail him out, partly in consideration of his age, partly for the dishonor of marrying her for her wealth.
It is Amy Dorrit, the “Little Dorrit” of the title, who begins in a prison and is yet free, and when the prison of social standing—little understood or asked for—tries to entrap her, she again wills to be free of it. Amy is the only character in the story that is free, uncorrupted by the world or social conventions, modest and charitable. Aware of her father’s faults, she remains at his side in Marshalsea, and when he is eventually cast into wealth she works hard to help him remember his beginnings. She suffers in the terrible conditions of the Marshalsea, but does not let it bring her down, reminding herself that her suffering could be worse. She builds up her father, uncle and brother, and helps her sister earn a living for herself. In the end, Amy alone is able to liberate Arthur from prison, not by her wealth, as it evaporated in Merdle’s wake, but by her delightful embrace of poverty, by which alone Arthur consents to marry her. Amy is not the heroine because she is young, nor is she the heroine because we are supposed to pity her. She is the heroine because she is the woman of towering virtue and strength that pities us, lonely and despised in our prisons with innocent eyes enraptured by what is true, good and beautiful.
Amy moves us to what is better and right, which is not the same as economic prosperity. She succumbs to sorrow when her family is rich, not when they are impoverished. Rather than diagnose wealth as the source of their contempt, Dickens associates her family’s pride with Marshalsea itself, which they never left in their hearts. In our day the transformation is happening in reverse, from our perceived riches to our actual poverty, which this time may or may not be behind bars.
One more thought in this complex plot is the Circumlocution office, perhaps the most humorous section of the book. Dickens says of it:
The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time, without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong, without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault-full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.2
Arthur Clennam’s investigation of William Dorrit’s imprisonment finds him scouring records at the circumlocution office; he is constantly re-directed by the Barnacle family who are aghast that the man wants to know something. Later when Arthur Clennam is in the Marshalsea, he pays Mr. Dorrit’s debts, yet the Circumlocution office shuts him down again, preventing him—by its bureaucratic “efficiency”—from finding out who his creditors are.
We see another run in when Mr. Clennam attempts to assist a local inventor, Mr. Doyce, whose inventions are locked up in the endless paperwork of the Circumlocution office awaiting patents. Andrew Davies’ BBC series adaptation depicts this brilliantly, with a roundabout staircase littered with papers and files, secretaries sitting by talking but doing no work, holding up all the business of the country. Such is today the machinery of government and business; the outcome of government that is not based on justice but on the wealth and connection of the upper crust.
In the end, every character in the book gets what they deserve (and a few what they do not deserve, such as poor Arthur Clennam). Confronted with the shadow of confinement from which he never escapes, William Dorrit goes mad and dies with his wealth, but without real freedom. We see along with the conceited pride and despair of Mr. Dorrit the unforgiving caprice of Mrs. Clennam, and in an assortment of other characters, the character of Dickens’ father and even of Dickens himself.
Secondarily, we find in the book today’s poor, who are not merely marginalized, but also imprisoned in prisons of debt and consumerism. The prison of our poor is indeed created from above, especially through the hand of today’s economy of debt-based money creation. Yet it is also true that it is bought and built from below. The prestige and pride of having so many cheap appliances, usually bought on credit, becomes the servitude of the poor who are in a debtor’s prison made to look as glorious as a Hilton, but is just as enslaving. A man from India once observed, “Your poor are fat!” They are still not free.
Lastly, what we can take away from Little Dorrit? Debtors prisons, dastardly villains, evil bankers, and heroes and great villains. We can become Mr. Dorrit, looking for others to entreat us, pamper us, and pity us in all the wrong ways, and turn around with ingratitude when things change for the better. The book is not a book on the evils of wealth, but the evils of pride and despair, the twin prisons of the Marshalsea and “society”, each of which have only one escape, virtue. Economics placing value on human life and human experience, and love which makes it meaningful. I fear if no Marshalseas are being built now, our society builds them in their hearts.