by Charles Dickens
Little Dorrit Poverty Quotes
How we cite our quotes: (Book.Chapter.Paragraph)
There was a string of people already straggling in, whom it was not difficult to identify as the nondescript messengers, go-betweens, and errand-bearers of the place. [...] The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking-sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people's individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker's. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on doorsteps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction. (1.9.5)
It's always fun when Dickens goes all anthropologist on us. Here, the poor people who lurk around the prison seem like a new species. What in the language gives that feeling? Well, for one thing, they are all described as being the same – a type of categorization we usually use for animals rather than people. They also don't seem quite human, what with them being "made up of patches and pieces of other people." And of course, the descriptions of their movements, which make it sound like they've evolved to move in relation to their lifestyle – slinking around corners as though going to the pawn shop, coughing as though trying to attract attention. This whole passage probably has a lot to do with naturalist description of the time – and it also make us see the poor from a distance rather than as fellow human beings.
Arthur entered the rather dark and close parlour (though it was lofty too), and sat down in the chair she placed for him.
'Not to deceive you, sir, I notice it,' said Mrs. Plornish, 'and I take it kind of you.'
He was at a loss to understand what she meant; and by expressing as much in his looks, elicited her explanation.
'It ain't many that comes into a poor place, that deems it worth their while to move their hats,' said Mrs. Plornish. 'But people think more of it than people think.'
Clennam returned, with an uncomfortable feeling in so very slight courtesy being unusual, Was that all! (1.12.10-14)
What a beautiful little moment, right? And it tells us something about these people – Arthur is the kind of person who would take off his hat out of respect without even thinking about it, and Mrs. Plornish not only notices but also feels grateful enough to thank him out loud. It also gives us a sense of the constant small indignities that the poor were subjected to.
'And I have no fire,' said Clennam. 'And you are--' He was going to say so lightly clad, but stopped himself in what would have been a reference to her poverty, saying instead, 'And it is so cold. [...] Your foot is like marble, my child;' he had happened to touch it, while stooping on one knee at his work of kindling the fire; 'put it nearer the warmth.' Little Dorrit thanked him hastily. It was quite warm, it was very warm! It smote upon his heart to feel that she hid her thin, worn shoe.
Little Dorrit was not ashamed of her poor shoes. He knew her story, and it was not that. Little Dorrit had a misgiving that he might blame her father, if he saw them; that he might think, 'why did he dine to-day, and leave this little creature to the mercy of the cold stones!' She had no belief that it would have been a just reflection; she simply knew, by experience, that such delusions did sometimes present themselves to people. It was a part of her father's misfortunes that they did. (1.14.9-12)
Another great moment of middle-class comfort confronting the realities of poverty – like the fact that she's wearing summer shoes in late fall. Arthur tries as much as he can not to reference Amy's poverty, which is thoughtful of him – but for Amy, of course, all thoughts lead right back to Rome, aka her father.