Dickens's masterpiece about prison life is set in an English debtors' prison where his own father had been imprisoned. Amy Dorrit, the heroine, has spent her entire life caring for her imprisoned father. The novel portrays both the physical and psychological horrors of imprisonment and the hypocrisy of a society that allows them to continue.
Little Dorrit, like many of Charles Dickens' work, involves a large number of characters--from the mightiest to the lowliest--whose paths cross. It would seem that Dickens had a concept that each person can impact the lives of numerous others in profound ways, and that this could have a great impact on society. Of all his books, I would say that Little Dorrit displays this concept the most.
In fact, when you begin reading, it can be rather difficult to understand how any of these people are related. What does a man in jail for murder in France have to do with a little girl who is born inside a debtor's prison in England? It would seem that Dickens is actually telling several totally unrelated stories. Yet, if you continue reading, you will see how everything ties together.
The book primarily tells the tale of the Dorrit family. William Dorrit had been a gentleman who fell on hard times and wound up in a debtor's prison called the Marshalsea. He attains a position of importance within its walls and later becomes known as The Father of the Marshalsea. William Dorrit, despite his circumstances, never loses his grandiose opinion that he is better than other people. He passes this feeling of family pride to his eldest children, his idle son Edward (known as Tip) and his headstrong daughter Fanny. His third child, who is the heroine of this book, was born inside the Marshalsea--and despite her father's teachings, developed a compassion for the poor. Yet, she is also devoted to her family, despite their weaknesses. Frail and younger looking than her years, Amy Dorrit is the quiet backbone of her family.
The Dorrits fortune changes by the end of the first book. It is interesting to see how the family responds to the change. William Dorrit and his two eldest children are quick to forget everyone who has helped them--including Little Dorrit. Their years at the Marshalsea are a humiliating reminder that they choose to forget. Yet, they don't forget, particularly Mr. Dorrit--who easily takes offense of anyone he feels "knows his secret". In fact, this causes him to be angry with his favorite child Amy, for she is a living reminder of the Marshalsea, particularly as she doesn't adapt to their new life. What is interesting about William Dorrit and his two eldest children are that despite their ideas about their gentility, they are naturally attracted to the criminal element--and you suspect that this habit is probably responsible for their past troubles as well as future ones.
Amy Dorrit (or Little Dorrit) finds the new changes in her life uncomfortable, despite some of the wonderful advantages she now has. Her father refuses to allow her to take care of him, saying it isn't fit for a lady--and yet this causes their close relationship to become distant. Amy's retiring nature is ill fit for the constant society parties she is expected to attend. Most of all, she has a hard time being indoctrinated to the ideas a lady must have.
The hero of the story is Arthur Clennam. He believes his father had wronged someone and never made amends, and this troubled the man to his dying day. His stern mother, though, is unhelpful in providing any information. Arthur becomes convinced that his mother is hiding something. Her servant and business partner is equally unhelpful in supplying answers, but his suspicions are confirmed by the man's wife, Mistress Affery. On the surface, Affery just seems like a silly, timid woman. Yet, she notices much in her "dreams". Arthur becomes distressed when his mother seems to be doing business with a man he doesn't trust, and he is determined to find out what his mother is hiding.
Through his mother, though, he meets Little Dorrit--who strikes his interest. He desires to help her, and it is through him that the Dorrit family's fortunes do change.
The Meagles make up the third story line. The kindly parents are distressed when their daughter falls in love with an idle, untalented artist named Henry Gowan. They have taken her abroad several times to make her forget him, but this has failed. The artist is related to a powerhouse family called the Barnacles, which hold posts in most government positions. The Circumlocution Office--a baffling institution that seems to exist solely to prevent progress--is under their control. Though the Barnacles find Henry Gowan to be a failure and don't mind having the Meagles pay his debts, they still retain a suspicion of the family that they entrapped him with their temptress daughter.
The Meagles also took in another child from an orphanage, whom they called Tattycoram. Tattycoram is a passionate girl...too passionate as far as the Meagles are concerned, and at risk for getting into trouble. The mysterious Miss Wade takes an interest in the girl, and yet the Meagles worry about her hidden agenda in doing so.
Then there is Mr. Pancks, a seemingly hard man that collects rents for Mr. Casby--who is known as the Patriarch for his benevolence. Yet, as the story progresses, we begin to notice that Mr. Pancks is not as hard-hearted as he seems...and the Patriarch doesn't deserve his reputation for kindness.
The two story lines that are bewildering at first--at least in trying to figure out what they have to do with the story--are the stories about Rigaud Blandois and the Merdle family. The story starts out in Marseilles with Rigaud. He considers himself a gentleman, though he is a prisoner in for murder. Though he drops off in the book, seeming to never be heard from again, he plays an important role in unraveling the mysteries later.
The Merdle family is another great power which the Barnacles eventually merge with. Everyone respects Mr. Merdle, who is extremely rich--though nobody knows what he exactly does. He is a socially awkward man that came from nowhere who just seems to have the Midas touch in whatever he does. Mrs. Merdle is considered to be a beautiful woman of good breeding and fashion.
Like most of Dickens' books, social issues are addressed. This book was considered unusual in that it detailed life in a debtor's prison, which often wasn't touched upon. It is also a look into human nature, and many of the problems that are addressed in the book can find examples of even today. What is truly fascinating though, is to see how all these characters--some rich and powerful, some the lowliest dreds of society--are entwined.
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