What's remarkable about Little Dorrit is that there doesn't seem to be an overarching system of morality that governs the actions of the characters. Instead, almost every single individual has his or her own code of ethics – many of which contradict and conflict with each other. The upshot of this setup is that most actions have several valid-seeming interpretations, and there is no completely neutral authority to make judgment calls about fair play. All the reader can do is wait for the chaos to settle and see who remains standing in the rubble.
Questions About Morality and Ethics
- Which characters in the novel have rigid and inflexible morals? Which have moral standards that are more shifting and adjustable? Is one of these character traits shown to be better than the other? How so?
- We are meant to view negatively the kind of "weighing and measuring" that Mrs. Clennam does to determine her moral compass. But at the same time, Meagles's practical nature is described as coming from his old mercantile connection to the "scoop and scales." Which kind of moral balancing is OK and which is not? Where is the line drawn?
- Gowan, Tattycoram, and Miss Wade all share similar outlooks – they don't believe in altruism, or goodness for the sake of goodness. Instead, they see the positive actions of others as springing from ulterior motives. How does this approach serve them? How does it fail them? Is there ever a point when this is actually the right way to read a situation?
Chew on This
Because this novel is deeply pessimistic about the state of the world, most of its ethics boil down simply to "might makes right."
The novel shows us a world where almost everyone in some way lives by the "diseased arithmetic" of Gowan or the paranoia of Miss Wade. Believing in the goodness of others is a luxury that tends to punish those who hold the belief.