Like many of his other books, Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit is about the (eventual) triumph of good people over adversity. But it is also about the futility of struggling against the establishment. The good people in this book don’t strive so much as endure what life hands them until good fortune lifts them up. While this makes sense in light of the fact that Dickens was satirizing an ineffectual government, it makes for a curiously unsatisfying reading experience.
The first half of Little Dorrit centers on the Dorrit family. The patriarch, who manages to be a snob in spite of his circumstances, is incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison for debt. His family works to help keep them all fed and clothed, while Mr. Dorrit keeps up the pretension of being a gentleman. His youngest child, Amy, takes care of him and helps him preserve his illusions. In the periphery (because in a Dickens novel, there is always a fully stocked periphery of characters), Mr. Clennam hunts down a family secret, the Meagles lose their children to marriage and misunderstanding, the Merdles wheel and deal, and Flintwinch and Mrs. Clennam try to maintain the status quo.
Nothing much changes in the first half, so we a treated to Dickens hilarious treatment of the Circumlocution Office in addition to his lampooning of various characters who are unaware of their own ridiculousness. The Circumlocution Office is a massive government organization that exists solely to prevent things from being done. In the first half, the thing they are blocking is Mr. Dorrit’s release from the Marshalsea and Mr. Clennam’s business partner’s patent for an invention. These plot points are really just an excuse for Dickens to rail against governments that are more concerned with the form of things rather than actually helping people. It’s fun to read, but I will admit to skimming a few chapters just to get back to the plot.
In the second half of Little Dorrit, the plot kicks into high gear. Mr. Dorrit has been released and now possesses a large fortune—which transforms him into a worse snob than he ever was. The second half is full of fortunes found and lost. The second half is also about another implacable institution: Society. Appearances must be kept up and polite fictions circulated (much like the interminable memos of the Circumlocution Office) in order for Society to carry on as it always has. The satire is less successful in the second half because Dickens is so busy pulling plot rabbits out of hats that the major theme gets lost.
Unlike his other novels, Little Dorrit feels much less cohesive as a whole work. I know that Dickens often altered the course of his novels and his characters in response to reader feedback but, most of the time, I don’t feel jarred or confused when I find one of those changes. There are parts of Little Dorrit that are downright clumsy and entire subplots just fizzle. Further, because luck plays such a big role in this book, Little Dorrit mostly reads like Dickens was just winging it.
There were parts of Little Dorrit I did enjoy. I laughed out loud at the descriptions of the foolish characters and the exquisite scene setting passages because, even though Dickens wasn’t a his best here, he can still turn a phrase. For example:
All the natural charm of the previous day was gone. The eaters of the dinner, like the dinner itself, were lukewarm, insipid, overdone—and all owing to this poor little dull Young Barnacle. Conversationless at any time, he was now the victim of a weakness special to the occasion, and solely referable to Clennam. He was under a pressing and continual necessity of looking at that gentleman, which occasioned his eye-glass to get into his soup, into his wine-glass, into Mrs Meagles’s plate, to hang down his back like a bell-rope, and be several times disgracefully restored to his bosom by one of the dingy men. Weakened in mind by his frequent losses of this instrument, and its determination not to stick in his eye, and more and more enfeebled in intellect every time he looked at the mysterious Clennam, he applied spoons to his eyes, forks, and other foreign matters connected with the furniture of the dinner-table. (Chapter 17)
These comic moments were the best part of Little Dorrit, but they didn’t make up, for me, for the passivity of so many characters. Mr. Dorrit and Mr. Clennam both resign themselves to their fate when they are imprisoned for debt. Little Dorrit is a striver, but she is content with her situation at large so long as she can provide a little comfort for the people she loves. I have a hard time liking a book with the message that good things come to those who wait and that trying to change one’s circumstances is doomed from the start.