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Themes

In Little Dorrit, the way people react to their poverty – and especially the potential embarrassment of having others find out how deprived they actually are – ends up functioning as a test of character as well as a revelation of hidden guilt. Those who are willing to be publicly exposed as poor are able to survive and even thrive in their condition, while those who cannot bear for anyone to see their sordid reality grow increasingly paranoid and isolated. Still, despite all of the novel's advocacy on behalf of the poor, it never proposes an overhaul of the system to try to equalize wealth among the population. The ideal instead seems to be an acceptance of one's given status in the economic pecking order.

Questions About Poverty

  1. Why do Amy and Arthur end up poor? A more expected ending would have them enjoying the comforts of wealth rather than just their love. Does poverty carry some advantages in the novel? What kind?
  2. Imagine changing the economic status of one of the characters. How would Mrs. Merdle act if she weren't rich, for instance? What if the Plornishes were wealthy? Whose personalities would remain the same? Who would change for the better? For the worse?
  3. Is there a categorical difference between poor characters who are clean and those who are dirty? Poverty doesn't seem to be very strongly associated with moral failing in and of itself – but what about dirt and moral failing? Is there a connection?

Chew on This

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

The novel is often fixated on the way Amy's poverty shows on her body – how thin she is, the kind of shoes she wears. In a way, by the end of the novel there is a strong link between Amy's low economic status and Arthur's desire for her – making the scene of her putting on her old prison dress a kind of sexualized poverty drag show.

Poverty is shown to be the key to maturity and wisdom rather than a punishment for misdeeds. Only characters who get a chance to experience poverty go on to become worthwhile people.

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