I am thrilled to be (finally) sharing my full review of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. If you recall, this is my “big” classic for the year (just under 1000 pages), and I was surprised how quickly I was able to finish it. My shorter reviews of the different sections of the novel can be found here: part 1, part 2, parts 3 & 4.
I have wanted to read this novel for years and I am so glad I finally did! This novel showcases Dickens at his best. He develops characters of all sorts, creates a setting and plot that surprises and excites readers, and offers commentary on the problems with how society treats and seeks to help the poor. This novel is truly Dickensian.
Initial Thoughts on the full novel:
- The story pulled me in, but what kept me engaged were the characters. I felt invested in the characters and their futures through the ending. Dickens is a master storyteller but he also creates such powerful characters that drive the story forward.
- Little Dorrit is a favorite character of mine in this novel and in all of classic literature. Her journey through the novel is profound and I love her for how strong and loyal she is.
- We finished the BBC adaptation is just about a week. And I loved the way it portrays the novel. Although, I was surprised that some of the scenes/characters that were not true to the book bothered me a bit. (ie: Arthur never finds out about his true mother!) It was still a lot of fun to watch especially with my husband.
- I am really glad that I read my big classics for The Classics Club in this order because I think I read the hardest one first (War and Peace). After that masterpiece and Les Miserables–both of while are rather verbose at times–I think even Dickens seems concise in his writing 😉
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens tells the complex story of the Dorrit family and their interactions with London society while in prison and when released. Goodreads summarizes, “A novel of serendipity, of fortunes won and lost, and of the spectre of imprisonment that hangs over all aspects of Victorian society . . . . When Arthur Clennam returns to England after many years abroad, he takes a kindly interest in Amy Dorrit, his mother’s seamstress, and in the affairs of Amy’s father, William Dorrit, a man of shabby grandeur, long imprisoned for debt in Marshalsea prison. As Arthur soon discovers, the dark shadow of the prison stretches far beyond its walls to affect the lives of many, from the kindly Mr Panks, the reluctant rent-collector of Bleeding Heart Yard, and the tipsily garrulous Flora Finching, to Merdle, an unscrupulous financier, and the bureaucratic Barnacles in the Circumlocution Office. A masterly evocation of the state and psychology of imprisonment, Little Dorrit is one of the supreme works of Dickens’s maturity.”
As with my reviews of my other long classics, I thought I would share some of my favorites.
- Amy Dorrit. There is just something about Amy that makes her easy to love and cheer for. I admired her devotion to her father and siblings. I admired her strength and work ethic to help them and overcome grief and pain. And most of all I admired the way she embraced life where she was. She didn’t aspire to live beyond the Marshalsea but she was willing to go when the opportunity came. The ending scenes with Arthur are so rewarding for such a kind, generous person.
- Arthur Clennam. I never thought of Arthur as nearly 40 years old. But there were definitely moments when his wisdom and experience shone through. I was impressed by his loyalty towards his mother despite a difficult childhood. And I was even more impressed how he moved forward in his life with his partnership in Doyce and Clennam and connections in the Bleeding Heart Yard. His integrity and honor are both worth emulating.
- I think Mr Pancks is one of the most intriguing characters in this whole novel. Without him, we don’t get much action or many answers. He drives the plot to find Mr Dorrit his fortune and he pushes Clennam to invest in Mr Merdle’s bank. But beyond the big plot twists, he is also just interesting to watch. He notices details. He puts on different identities in different situations. But he is good and seeking truth throughout. I also loved how he is portrayed in the BBC adaptation.
- Flora and Mr Meagles are the two characters that made me laugh the most. I absolutely love Flora and how ridiculously talkative she is. Her constant, roaming chatter is hilarious! I love how she can’t remember not to call Arthur by his first name so she calls him “Doyce and Clennam” and I love how sincerely she tries to help him and those he loves. She may be a bit dense but she means so well. Mr Meagles was in a unique position in society where he could say what he thought more often than those of the aristocracy. He’s an emotional man getting riled up about injustice and staying calm when asking Tattycoram to “count to 5 and 20.” My heart breaks for him when Pet marries. And I still don’t understand what she sees in her husband.
- Frederick Dorrit and John Chivery were two of the most endearing characters. Perhaps because they both stand by Little Dorrit herself throughout the novel. Frederick is so loyal to his family and I especially loved how he defends Amy once the family’s fortune changes. John is such a sweetheart. I love his rewritten epitaphs for himself. His love for Amy is so pure and genuine. His help towards Arthur at the end of the novel is so beautiful. I admire young John. Perhaps in another life, he and Amy would have been together.
- The first time Arthur comes to the Marshalsea to see Mr Dorrit is such a brilliantly described scene. The way the characters interact is stunning from the introductions to the testimonial. The fact that Arthur gets locked in makes it even more memorable. What a strange hierarchy resides in the Marshal
- The change of the Dorrit family’s fortune and Mr Dorrit’s release from prison is another favorite moment. It’s so unexpected yet intriguing to see how each member of the family reacts to the news. The hierarchy of the prison continues outside of it. My heart aches for Amy and her desire to live like they used to.
- The Dorrit family’s experiences in Italy are compelling and complex. I enjoyed the relationship built between Amy and Pet. And I laughed at Mr Sparkler’s pursuit and marriage to Fanny. But the most compelling (while also the most sad) scenes were when Mr Dorrit returns to Italy after visiting London and the past and present collide in his mind making it difficult to distinguish between them.
- The ending when Arthur and Amy discover they just have each other is flawless. I love that the story comes full circle. Home becomes home again. And the prisons of mind and body are at last escaped for good. Dickens isn’t a romance writer like Jane Austen but I was impressed by the sweet love story that blossomed among the thorns of this story.
Most Thought Provoking Characters:
- William Dorrit is absolutely fascinating because he always maintains his importance in the hierarchy of his surroundings. When he’s in the Marshalsea, he is important and when he is out, he seeks to establish himself as important. He is nearly obsessed with title and public opinion. Which also leads to his downfall in the end. He is a fascinating glimpse at the power of identity, truth, persona, class and fear.
- Mr. Merdle is fascinating for an entirely different reason: he seems to gain prominence without trying and doesn’t want it. For the whole novel, he seems uncomfortable, even confused. His end is a tragedy but the most compelling part is the way he sways the public. When he is doing well, everyone sings his praises, but when things go wrong, everyone suffers–especially the poor. A discussion of his character must include the ideas of wealth, ruin, and reputation.
- Blandois is terrifying, unnerving, and intriguing all at once. He seems to live under his own set of moral laws. It is difficult to uncover his motives and how far he is willing to go to get what he wants. He seems to embody complexities in identity, morality, and power.
- Mrs. Clennam is fascinating because she refuses to be wrong. She claims stalwart religious beliefs which seem a bit twisted as the story reveals itself. He determination to be correct and to keep her secrets buried is intriguing. A discussion of her character must include the ideas of secrets, religion, truth, and emotion.
Favorite Philosophical Questions:
- Prisons–both physical and mental. How are they created? What is the relationship between the prison in ones mind and a physical prison? Which is more confining?
- How should the poor and needy be helped? The circumlocution office is a clear sarcastic nod to the ways government help the poor. Dicken’s social commentary is pointed and intense in this novel.
- How is a reputation created, maintained, and/or changed? Some characters are nearly obsessive about reputation like Fanny and Mr Dorrit. While others are more focused on being themselves like Amy and Arthur.
- What is reality? How do we define what reality is? Mr Dorrit’s interactions with others at the Marshalsea and as a wealthy gentleman are compelling in connection with this idea of reality.
- How does one discover truth? Is it important to know the truth? Mrs Clennam goes to great lengths to keep Arthur from the big secret at the center of their family. While Mr Blandois seeks to uncover the truth for a price.
Prisons, both physical and mental, are seen through this novel.
There is the obvious Marshalsea Debtors Prison which centers the novel. While several characters spend time there, their ways of coping with life in a cage are striking. Identity and meaning seem to change within those walls. However, many characters are held prisoner in their minds. The reasons vary, but most seem overwhelmed by how society views them and how to keep their secrets hidden.
The complexity of the plot and the way the stories all end is absolutely brilliant.
There are so many characters in this novel. I could have said more about another 10 of them including Mr Flintwinch, Affery, Miss Cole, Tattycoram, Mrs General, Fanny and Mr Sparkler, Maggy, the Plornish family, and . The list goes on and on! What is truly impressive is how these characters all play a role in the larger story. The climax brings them all together and intertwines their destinies. This novel is very Dickensian in the way all the loose ends are tied up at the end in a flourish (which makes finishing the novel easier because it’s so plot driven at the end).
This is truly a masterpiece. I aspire to read more Dickens because I’ve read this one.