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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was not well received upon its original publication in monthly segments from 1855-1857 because critics and readers of the time were unhappy with the complicated nature of the story and its dark tone. To this day, it is one of the lesser known Charles Dickens novels, a fate it most definitely does not deserve.

Much of the novel takes place in the Marshalsea prison for debtors, an environment with which Dickens was familiar due to his own family history. William Dorrit, father of “Little Dorrit,” has been confined to the prison for so long when the book opens that he has become known inside its walls as “Father of the Marshalsea.” He has lost all hope of ever being released from the prison and has learned to enjoy the respect that he receives there from prison employees and fellow-prisoners alike. In fact, he has been imprisoned for so long that Little Dorrit, born inside the prison walls, is now a young woman working as a seamstress outside the walls in order to be able to bring her father some of the luxuries not provided to prisoners. She faithfully returns to the prison every evening in order to see that her father is as comfortable as possible.

Into this mix arrives one Arthur Clennam, only recently returned to London from several years in India when he meets Little Dorrit while visiting his mother. Clennam is struck by the selflessness of Amy Dorrit and befriends the family in an attempt to make their lives somewhat easier. But in true Dickens style, Clennam and the Dorrits will find their roles reversed after Clennam is swindled of his fortune and William Dorrit is found to be heir to a large fortune of his own.

But this is only one of the book’s major plotlines. Dickens also spends hundreds of pages introducing a predatory Frenchman and describing how this despicable man is attempting to extort money from Clennam’s mother because he knows some dark secret of hers that she is desperate to keep hidden.

At its heart, Little Dorrit is a love story, one that seems destined for a sad ending because middle-aged Arthur Clennam feels that Little Dorrit can never see him as anything more than a friend and father-figure. She, on the other hand, living in complete poverty, does not feel worthy of Clennam’s attention. Pride proves to be a two-way street, and when Little Dorrit finally admits her love for Clennam, he is broke and refuses her because he does not want to leave the prison at her expense.

Little Dorrit is filled with side-characters who have distinct personalities and stories of their own to tell. It is through them that Dickens so successfully recreates the world of early nineteenth century London as experienced by all class levels of its inhabitants. Admittedly, this is a long book (the Wordsworth Classic edition runs 740 pages but others clock in at over 1,000 pages) but it is well worth the effort. It is always a treat to lose yourself in the world of Charles Dickens and Little Dorrit is no exception.

Rated at: 4.0

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