Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit and social class

I read Little Dorrit as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.   Reading the novel as part of group helped me appreciate how great Charles Dickens was—as a descriptive writer, as a storyteller and as a student of human nature.

The moral center of the novel is Amy Dorrit, a young woman born in the Marshalsea, a famous debtors’ prison in London, where her father has been imprisoned as a result of business failure.

She is called ‘Little’ Dorrit, rather than by her name, because she is small of stature and looks more like an adolescent girl than a full-grown woman.

She embodies the specifically Christian virtues.  She is loving, self-sacrificing, humble, forgiving, patient, devoted, uncomplaining and thankful for every blessing.  This makes her as out-of-place in class-conscious Victorian London as she would have been in the Rome of Quo Vadis or in success-seeking 21st century USA.

One of the themes of Little Dorrit is what we now would call “classism.”   The novel is full of characters whose life revolves around having other people acknowledge their social rank.   This includes, first and foremost, Little Dorrit’s own family

From a young age, she is a virtual parent to her father and her older brother and sister, for which they show little or no gratitude..  She learns how to read and write, learns marketable skills from other inmates and gets a job outside the prison to an elderly rich businesswoman, Mrs. Clennam.

Her father, William Dorrit, over the years creates an identity as “the Father of the Marshalsea,” to whom visitors and other debtors have to pay tribute and acknowledge his superior status.

Despite William’s dependence on Little Dorrit, he condemns her for befriending fellow inmates, such as the mentally retarded Maggie, because this undermines his pretensions to superior social rank.

Amy’s beautiful gold-digging older sister, Fanny, and shiftless older brother, Edward, take the same attitude.

Mrs. Clennam is the other character in the novel whose life is shaped by religion.  In contrast to Little Dorrit’s, her religion consists in obeying strict rules concerning personal conduct and business obligations, and in showing no mercy to those who do not.

Her religion makes her unhappy, and causes her to make others unhappy.

Little Dorrit is sometimes sad, but she is capable of being happy and she does nothing to make herself unhappy.


The novel begins with the return of Arthur Clennam, who’d been working for Clennam & Co. alongside his father for 20 years in China.   His father has died, but not before saying something that causes Arthur to believe there is some sinister family secret that Mrs. Clennam is hiding.

Also, he’s 40 years old, he thinks he has wasted his life up to that point and he resolves to start fresh.

He tries to befriend Little Dorrit.  He inquires about her father’s debt, without success, in the Circumlocution Office, a satirical version of a generic government bureaucracy.

The Circumlocution Office is staffed largely by a family called the Barnacles, whose avowed purpose is to prevent change by frustrating people who want to do things.

At the Circumlocution Office, Arthur runs into a frustrated inventor named Daniel Doyle and forms a business partnership with him.

About halfway through the book, William Dorrit comes into an inheritance that frees him of debt and makes him rich.  He spends the rest of his life traveling, mainly in Italy, insisting on his upper-class status and hiding the fact that he ever was poor, in debt or in prison.

Fanny and Edward continue as they did before, but on a higher level of society.

An evil Frenchman, Rigaud Blandois, discovers Mrs. Clennam’s secret and blackmails her, with the help of a sinister servant, Jeremiah Flintwinch, but their plot is thwarted, and Mrs. Clennam repents.

Arthur Clemman invests his and Doyce’s money with a Mr. Merdle, who has a reputation as a business genius, but is a swindler along the lines of Bernie Madoff.   Arthur loses everything, takes on the whole burden of the partnership’s debt himself, and winds up in the Marshalsea himself.

He falls into a state of what we would call clinical depression, from which he is rescued by Little Dorrit.  Daniel Doyce has meanwhile had a new successful career as an engineering project manager abroad.  He pays Arthur’s debts and restarts their company.

Arthur and Little Dorrit acknowledge their love for each other, which has taken them the whole novel to get around to doing.  They get married, have children and live happily ever after.


One thing that is confusing about Little Dorrit is that some of Dickens’ characters are three-dimensional human beings, described in great depth, while others are mere caricatures.  Still others are embodiments of a single character trait, although that trait is shown realistically.

Arthur Clennam is a true-to-life example of a well-meaning but passive and ineffectual adult who has been emotionally deprived in childhood.

Tite Barnacle and the other Barnacles in and around the Circumlocution Office, on the other hand, are satirical characters, almost like cartoon characters.

Amy Dorrit is unconvincing as a character, not because she is too good to be true, but because her goodness is unexplained.   Even saints and heroes confess to struggle and doubts, but she seems to have been born good, and never being tempted to be anything but good.   Her character is the equivalent of a great athlete who never had to train or practice.

People in real life, who have to take on the role of parents at a young age, without having had real parents themselves, pay a mental and emotional price for this in later life.  But Amy is unaffected by all of this.

Another thing that is unrealistic about Little Dorrit is that, despite her origins, she speaks and writes grammatically correct standard English.  Would Charles Dickens have regarded her as a suitable mate for Arthur if she had been just as noble and capable as she was, but spoke with a lower-class accent and with bad English?  Would we the readers have thought her so?  The markers of social class have great power.

The evil characters are completely convincing.   Evil people exist, and they are different from merely bad people.

A bad person is someone who is unable to resist temptation, or doesn’t even try.  An evil person is someone who actively hates the good.  I’ve encountered people like that—fortunately very rarely and under circumstances where they lacked the power to do me (much) harm.

One of the evil characters is a Miss Wade, who is eaten up with resentment, who interprets every kind action as a slight and who devotes herself to getting even.   Mrs. Clennam had a distorted view of the world, but it is Miss Wade who is the mirror image of Amy Dorrit.

Miss Wade is influenced by the painter Edward Gowan.   He lacks the commitment or the talent to become a good artist, and so consoles himself by talking about art as if it were a racket, good artists as if they were fakers and bad artists as praiseworthy because they understand art is a racket.  That is hatred of the good.

Miss Wade and Edward Wade at different times employ the sociopathic Rigaud Blandois.   He is a chilling example of how dangerous someone can be who is without conscience, without shame and without fear.

Blandois’ guiding principle is that “it is my character to be a gentleman” and a gentleman is shown by his ability to get others to wait on him.   And in fact he succeeds in doing this, starting with his cellmate John Baptist in a Marseilles prison and ending with Arthur Clennam himself.   By force of will, he compe;s people to defer to him as a social superior even when they know he is merely a criminal.


Dickens is thought of as a social reformer but he wasn’t, because he had no idea of how social institutions work.    We are not told the mission of the Circumlocution Office, we don’t know the nature of the business of Clennam & Co. or Clennam & Doyce, we don’t know the nature of Daniel Doyce’s invention or his engineering projects abroad.  All we know is how his characters felt about them.

Dickens was a moral reformer.   He showed in Little Dorrit how people deceive themselves and others, and how their deceptions make themselves and others miserable.   He also showed that you don’t have to live that way.   Little Dorrit has characters of all social classes, some of them comical and eccentric, who are warm-hearted and clear-sighted, and bring happiness to themselves and others.

But Dickens is not still in print after all these years because of his moralism.  He is loved by readers because of his fertile imagination, his ability to describe quirky characters and situations and bring them to life.  His vision of society was bleak.  His writing style was just the opposite.


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