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Themes

In a novel in which many characters are trapped in a literal prison, it's a neat twist that there is no one who is truly free. Those who aren't confined by the law are trapped by their own stubbornness, the demands of their social circle, the rote boredom of everyday life, or an inflexible and harmful belief system. Imprisonment is certainly oppressive, but in Little Dorrit, "freedom" is almost as bad – a permanent state of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Questions About Freedom and Confinement

  1. Look again at the first scene of the novel, where the jailer in Marseilles brings his daughter to feed Rigaud and Cavalletto. Compare it with the scenes of the very young Amy in the Marshalsea and her friendship with the turnkey. What does showing children in or near prisons accomplish? How does it change our perspective on the prisoners?
  2. Mrs. General and Mrs. Clennam are extreme examples of locked-in, closed-minded characters. Which characters are the most open-minded? Does the novel generally present the ability to see a situation from different points of view as a helpful or harmful trait?
  3. What is the effect of prison on Amy? She speaks often about the shadow of the Marshalsea wall and the fear that she will come across the prison around every corner in Europe. How would she have been different if she had grown up outside the prison walls? How would she be the same? What about Tip? Fanny?
  4. How does going to prison impact Arthur?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Distressing as it may be, the only person who has truly broken away from the various bonds that imprison her is Miss Wade. She proves the novel's rule that freedom is not necessarily a good thing, but something that needs to be tempered with a reasonable amount of confinement.

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