by Charles Dickens
Analysis: Writing Style
Moralizing, Polemical, Pointedly Critical, Dismayed, Pessimistic
It's hard not to recognize Dickens's writing when you run across it. He uses a set of totally idiosyncratic tricks, flourishes, and touches that might as well sign his name after every sentence. In other words, he is a stylist – which is what we call writers who love to play with language. Here, some of his tricks of the trade are easily visible in his tirades against the idiots at the Circumlocution Office. They are also used to create vivid minor characters whose foibles and failures are deeply meaningful. For instance, there is this exchange between Arthur and one of the functionaries within the bureaucracy:
[Arthur] went back to the Circumlocution Office. [...] He was readmitted to the presence of Barnacle junior, and found that young gentleman singeing his knees now, and gaping his weary way onto four o'clock. 'I say. Look here. You stick to us in a devil of a manner,' Said Barnacle junior, looking over his shoulder.
'I want to know--'
'Look here. Upon my soul you mustn't come into the place saying you want to know, you know,' remonstrated Barnacle junior, turning about and putting up the eye-glass.
'I want to know,' said Arthur Clennam, who had made up his mind to persistence in one short form of words, 'the precise nature of the claim of the Crown against a prisoner for debt, named Dorrit.'
'I say. Look here. You really are going it at a great pace, you know. Egad, you haven't got an appointment,' said Barnacle junior, as if the thing were growing serious.
'I want to know,' said Arthur, and repeated his case.
Barnacle junior stared at him until his eye-glass fell out, and then put it in again and stared at him until it fell out again. 'You have no right to come this sort of move,' he then observed with the greatest weakness. 'Look here. What do you mean? You told me you didn't know whether it was public business or not.'
'I have now ascertained that it is public business,' returned the suitor, 'and I want to know'--and again repeated his monotonous inquiry.
Its effect upon young Barnacle was to make him repeat in a defenceless way, 'Look here! Upon my SOUL you mustn't come into the place saying you want to know, you know!' The effect of that upon Arthur Clennam was to make him repeat his inquiry in exactly the same words and tone as before. The effect of that upon young Barnacle was to make him a wonderful spectacle of failure and helplessness. (1.10.62-71)
It's hard to believe this passage was written as long as ago as it was, since the crazy run-around and total nonsense that Arthur is experiencing reads very much like something out of Kafka's bureaucracy nightmares, or Heller's Catch-22 – much more modern takes on the head-against-the-wall quality of large organizations.
And still, there are the tell-tale Dickensian marks. There's the repeating phrase – in this case, it's Barnacle's "you want to know, you know," which becomes a refrain not just in this scene, but every time we run into this moron. There's humor – the repeated phrase is funny because it puts together the idiom "you know" which just means "got it?" with the actual phrase "you want to know," where the words are used literally. And the visual of Barnacle's losing battle with his monocle is a nice bit of slapstick. But on top of all of that funny business, we're stuck with the depressing thought that this is the guy who is responsible for dealing with the sad cases of thousands of guys like Dorrit or Doyce. The deep criticism of the system is key both to the scene's laughs and to tying it into the larger point of the novel.