Family Drama, Literary Fiction, Mystery
So what's really at the bottom of Little Dorrit? Shmoop's money is on family. Pretty much every character is given a thorough backstory to give us a sense of where he or she has learned to be the kind of person we meet. Want to know what Gowan's major malfunction is? Well, he's the product of an ambitious but loserly mom, and a descendent of a not-all-that-well-off branch of a famous family's tree. His upbringing has been a mixture of coddling and disappointment, so he's got a huge chip of entitlement on his shoulder.
What about that crazy old Mrs. Clennam? No problem. She was brought up by incredibly strict, scarily religious, and generally repressive parents to have no fun, no joy, no nothing as a child. As soon as they could, her parents married her off to a guy who had a similar upbringing. So it makes sense that she would totally lose her marbles when she found out that her husband had fathered a child with another woman.
Not only that, but we've got families in various states of being. Some are mature and formed, like the Barnacles, with their various descendents in every nook and cranny of the government. Others are slowly dying, like the Clennams and the Dorrits. Others are just being created, like the Pet-Henry Gowan family, the Fanny-Sparkler family, and, presumably, the Arthur-Amy family. In a way, the novel is like a giant laboratory. Here are some people, here are their stories – will they be able to create functional relationships? Or will they pass on the cycle of damage to the next generation?
If these kinds of familial ties are so crucial, what do we make of characters who step outside the cycle? Like Miss Wade, who chooses not to, or Doyce, who seems to have created a different kind of family for himself with his factory workers. Are they a positive social force? Negative?
Little Dorrit is a "canonical text," meaning that it's one of a group of novels, poems, and plays that are almost universally acknowledged to be important works of literary art and fundamental to the development of Western civilization. What's interesting, though, is that at the time it was published, this novel would have been considered "popular fiction" as well. It was certainly what we would now call a bestseller and appealed to pretty much every kind of reader – those who read just for plot, thrills, and chills; and those who thought about themes, characters, and Big Ideas.
As a mystery, this novel probably leaves something to be desired. Sure, it's got a deep, dark, horrible secret, a possible murder, and all that – but somehow the whole Clennam family skeletons-in-the-closet subplot feels like a last-minute revelation that hasn't gotten enough build-up. There aren't really any good detectives – Pancks and Arthur give it a half-hearted try but almost immediately run into a wall and give up. And in general, the whole Arthur's-real-mom situation is uncovered not in bits and pieces, like in a more standard mystery (for example, Dickens's own Bleak House), but just kind out spilled out all at once in a big monologue-fest. But you know, still, it's there.