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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit


by Charles Dickens

Character Clues

Character Analysis


Dickens always has a grand old time coming up with his characters' names. In his working notes, we see a lot of different versions of names for the same person – which means, of course, that every choice is deliberate. Minor characters often need names that immediately let readers know who they are – so here we get Bar, a lawyer; Bishop, a bishop; Physician, a doctor; and Treasury, a dude who works in the Department of Treasury. Very neat. Most of the time, though, the names carry a bunch of sound-alike words inside them or have kind of an onomatopoeia thing going on. (Ono-what? Check it out – it's a great term that means a word that sounds like what it means, like "buzz" or "drip." Throw it into your next paper to get a smile out of your teacher.)

So let's unpack some names, shall we? We already worked a little bit on Merdle (check out "Characters" section for the full story). So, let's try Flintwinch. Right off that bat, that's a combo of "flint" – a really hard stone used to make sparks – and "winch" – a mechanical winding device. And that's right on the money – he's a hard, cold, violent, tightly wound man, whose main activity is choking his wife. How about another one, Clennam. We're picking up "clench" and "cleanse," and the way the mouth forms the word makes it sound closed, tight, and thin-lipped. That all fits well with Mrs. Clennam, who is totally defined by her last name, to the point that she doesn't even have a first one. OK, now you try. What do you hear in the name Meagles? Sparkler?

Physical Appearance

Sometimes it's easier to just shout a point out to the reader than to subtly imply it. Seriously, when you're dealing with dozens of characters and you need to keep them all straight in the reader's mind, well, appearance is a good way of doing that. One of Dickens's favorite tricks is to give his characters some kind of off-beat physical tic that will stick in the reader's mind.

Need some examples? We've got Pancks, who puffs and snorts and makes all sorts of crazy noises like a tugboat. There's Casby, who has long flowing locks of magical white hair. Flintwinch's calling card is his neckerchief, which he wears tied on the side, and which makes him look like a man who's been hanged. And of course, there's the hyper-evil Blandois, with the mustache that goes up and the nose that goes down. In the case of Blandois, the stand-out physical description is totally key, because he's constantly changing his name from one thing to another to escape detection. How better to figure out who the new guy is than to quickly show him to be the same old guy in disguise?

Speech Patterns

And speaking of tics that Dickens likes to give his characters, there's no better giveaway for who we're dealing with than the person's speech pattern. Every now and again, Dickens will bust out some kind of silly accent, but most of the time, he just makes up habits of speech that stick with these characters through thick and through thin. For example, in this scene, we know exactly who these travelers are even though they are never named in the chapter:

'New to mountains, perhaps?' said the insinuating traveler.

'New to--ha--to mountains,' said the Chief.

'But you are familiar with them, sir?' the insinuating traveler assumed.

'I am--hum--tolerably familiar. Not of late years. Not of late years,' replied the Chief, with a flourish of his hand. (2.1.15-19)

There's only one guy we know who puts those "ha" and "hum" interjections into his speech – Dorrit. And because we know that, we realize that the Dorrits are now world travelers... and also that Dorrit has decided to totally hide his prison past from everyone.

Another character with a totally amazing speaking style is Flora Finching, who has never heard of the fact that sentences are supposed to end. Her totally disconnected words are written without punctuation to make them as hard to read as they would be to listen to:

'Romance, however, as I openly said to Mr. F. when he proposed to me and you will be surprised to hear that he proposed seven times once in a hackney-coach once in a boat once in a pew once on a donkey at Tunbridge Wells and the rest on his knees, Romance was fled with the early days of Arthur Clennam, our parents tore us asunder we became marble and stern reality usurped the throne, Mr. F. said very much to his credit that he was perfectly aware of it and even preferred that state of things accordingly the word was spoken the fiat went forth and such is life you see my dear and yet we do not break but bend, pray make a good breakfast while I go in with the tray.' (1.24.23)

What happens when standard sentence construction goes out the window? Well, we get really great funny transitions like all of Mr. F's proposals – some in romantic places, the rest on his knees. Not only that, but Flora manages to mush together the mundane with the highly poetic. Here, in one breath she busts out the melodrama of words like "torn asunder" and "we became marble," which she quickly follows up with "OK, eat your breakfast".