Before we dive into Little Dorrit, let's do a little visualization exercise. OK, close your eyes.
Imagine you're a sheet in a grassy meadow. Then imagine you're a seagull flying over the ocean. Now imagine that it's 1855 and you are the world's most famous author. Scratch that. Not only are you the world's most famous author, you are actually the world's most famous person. You've got a bunch of bestseller books out. Before TV! Before movies! Before the Internet! There is simply nothing else for people to do except read! People pay crazy money to see you read from your novels. Your books are being made into plays and operas. You are rolling in dough. Your opinions about stuff are so important that you are constantly testifying before Parliament about the poor, factory workers, pollution, and so on.
Are you picturing all of this? Good. Now – is your life awesome? Nay – is it superawesome?
You might be tempted to say yes. But Charles Dickens would have said no. You see, just a year earlier he had published Hard Times, a novel that was a hardcore attack on the newly emerging science of political economy (today we'd just call it economics). Basically, in the middle of the 19th century, lots of people became interested in figuring out the deal with money on a big, global scale – and how that big, global scale related to the individual. Today we're not all that stressed when economists use statistical analysis to explain how we tend to make decisions about finances. But when statistics was first introduced, a lot of people totally freaked out. It seemed like such an impersonal, mechanical way of analyzing people – and Dickens was worried that reducing people to mere numbers would make politicians and others in power lose perspective on the humanity and the inner lives of those under them. But even though Hard Times went over pretty well with the general public, it was viciously made fun of by the very economists it was trying to attack. Dickens had gotten some technicalities about business, finance, and political economy wrong, and this ended up torpedoing his whole message.
What was his response? Basically a giant, "Oh yeah? Well, I'll show you!" in the form of the ginormous Little Dorrit. Instead of dealing with the tiny details of political economy, this novel is a sprawling masterpiece that examines how all of British society thinks about money. The general thrust? Money isn't really all it's cracked up to be.
The novel is divided into two parts, each following the Dorrit family. In part one, they are not just poor, but head over heels in debt and trapped in debtor's prison. In part two, they suddenly become super-rich and start traveling around Europe and getting into London's high society. In a twist of dark satire, the Dorrits experience both poverty and riches as bringing the same level of happiness – not very much.
A long time ago, the totally awesome Mark Twain said that even though history doesn't ever really repeat itself, it very often rhymes. Ha! And this novel proves that rule, folks. It's actually pretty crazy how many of things Dickens writes about seem "ripped from the headlines" – just like every Law and Order episode claims to be.
There's Merdle, the seemingly invincible financier whose every entrepreneurial venture turns to gold... until he is unmasked as a just a truly gifted con artist running a Ponzi scheme that's bilking the rich out of their money. It's the story of Bernie Madoff.
And then there's the Circumlocution Office, a giant government bureaucracy that has no oversight and gets nothing accomplished. Sound familiar? That's probably because this is the image we have of almost every giant system the government operates – slow, inefficient, lazy, and full of incompetents. It might not be a fair picture (and plenty of people in Dickens's time had a huge problem with his satire), but it's a stereotype that persists.
Aside from the pretty on-the-nose satire, this novel also deals with emotional questions that are universal and timeless. Just where do you draw the line between loyalty and unquestioning servitude? (If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?) How do you get over unrequited love without feeling like a total loser and shutting yourself off from the rest of the world? How do you break it to your parents that the visions they have for your future are not yours ("but I don't want to go to law school – I want to dance!")? If you've ever thought about the complicated ways we are like our parents but don't want to exactly be them – well, this is the book for you.