Study Guide

Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit

By Charles Dickens

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Amy Dorrit

The youngest member of the Dorrit family, Amy is a 20-something woman who looks like an adolescent. She lives her life in totally unacknowledged service to her deluded and hapless family. Her main personality trait is utter selflessness.

A Thin Line Between Selflessness and Masochism

Young women in the 19th century were supposed to be totally devoted to others – to kind of a crazy degree. Seriously. Check out this nice little passage from a conduct book by Sarah Stickney Ellis, who wrote that ladies are "most valued, admired and loved" for being totally self-sacrificing, and that if women want to go for broke getting something done, it's only proper for them to go all out if the goal is "wholly unconnected with their own personal exaltation or enjoyment, and related only to some beloved" (The Women of England, Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits).

And you know who really takes this kind of thing to heart? Oh, yeah, our good friend Amy Dorrit. She is one totally devoted daughter and sister. All day, every day she slaves to take care of her family, to the point of actually not eating in order to feed her dad. All her hard work is taken completely for granted, but does she get upset? No. She just smiles sweetly and keeps on plugging away. Dickens was really into this kind of female character – the unassuming, super-nice young woman who lives only to help others. (Check out Sissy Jupe in Hard Times or Esther Summerson in Bleak House, for example.)

But something tells us that Amy might be taking the whole thing just a little bit too far, even in Dickens's mind. Sure it's nice to try to cater to your half-crazy dear old dad's whims – but is it really part of the "devoted daughter" shtick to let him try to pimp you out to the jailer's son without ever calling him on it? (Check out Book 1, Chapter 19 for the whole horror show.) That's some going-above-and-beyond stuff right there, especially given how much anxiety the Victorians had about sexual purity.

So what, exactly, is the deal with Amy's values? Are girl readers supposed to find her admirable and want to be just like her? Are boys supposed to want to marry her? Or is she an example of the Victorian ideal of womanhood taken to a monstrous extreme, so we're supposed to take her as a warning? To put it another way, is the fact that she holds onto her raggedy prison dress, even after the family becomes rich, somehow cute and nostalgic? Or is it passive-aggressive and pathological? Or, to put it yet a third way, what's the difference between the horrible Mrs. General, whose life's purpose is to avoid anything unpleasant and "to cram all articles of difficulty into cupboards, lock them up, and say they had no existence" (2.2.24) and Amy Dorrit, who at every insult "drove the thought away; and entertained no harder reflection" (2.15.110)?

(Hey, while we're thinking about it, you know who else is really good at this kind of denial? Pet Gowan, who will "love [Henry Gowan], admire him, praise him, and conceal all his faults, until she dies" (2.11.13). And we know what a winner Gowan is.)

Size and Sex

Let's talk about sex, baby. But not about you and me. But sure, about all the good things and the bad things that can be. Namely – what's the deal with Amy Dorrit's size and age?

The novel makes a huge deal about how even though she's 22 years old, she looks like a barely pubescent girl. Check out that crazy scene in Book 1, Chapter 14 when a prostitute mistakes Amy for a child and asks her for a kiss as a good luck charm... or something. Point being – why?

Not only does Amy look young, she looks tiny. She is constantly having to account for being small, like she does to the seamstress who is doubtful that little bitty Amy can be taught to sew. And not only is she tiny, but she stays that way because she seems borderline anorexic, what with the revelation that she doesn't eat her lunch at work because she smuggles it home to her father instead. What do all of these size problems add up to? A totally visually desexualized woman, who would otherwise be in the prime of her desirability and appeal.

This is odd on many levels. For one thing, it's not like the novel wants to avoid the whole sexy-chick thing. For starters, there's Pet Meagles and Fanny Dorrit, each of whom is close to Amy's age and each of whom is also clearly pretty hot. Sparkler practically pants after Fanny. Meanwhile, Amy's eventual husband spends most of the novel thinking of her as his daughter. For another thing, it's also not like Amy herself doesn't have sexual desires. No, she's clearly a woman who knows what she does and doesn't want (namely, Arthur and John Chivery, in that order).

So what does the novel accomplish by depriving Amy of adult womanhood, at least in appearance? Which of her relationships would be different if she looked her age and was the right size? Are there things she would no longer be able to do?

Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit Study Group

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