Europe in the 1820s
Much of the novel is set in Victorian London, but also moves throughout Europe as the newly-wealthy Dorrits travel. For some general background on the time period Dickens was writing Little Dorrit, check out "In a Nutshell." Here we're going to address some of the more specific settings.
Actual Prison (Marseilles, quarantine, Marshalsea) vs. Metaphorical Prison (Mrs. Clennam's chair & Italian high society)
If there's anything missing in this novel, it's certainly not prisons. Real ones, imagined ones, self-created ones – you name it, this book's got it. We get two actual prisons: the Marseilles prison, where Rigaud and Cavalletto are hanging out in the first chapter, and of course the Marshalsea in London. Check out how they are described as opposites: a garish, unpleasant, inescapable sunlight constantly beats down on Marseilles, while the Marshalsea is always darkly casting a shadow (literally and figuratively) on whomever is inside. No matter what the actual conditions are, being in prison makes everything painful and uncomfortable.
We also get a couple of places of forced detainment. They're not actual prisons – as in places of punishment for a crime – but they're still places where people are stuck for long periods of time without being able to leave. Several of the novel's characters start out stuck in quarantine when they land in England after travels abroad. That meant a detention of something like two or three weeks. (The word "quarantine" is derived from the Italian for "forty days," but the period grew shorter in the 19th century as a result of various trade treaties.) And the second book of the novel finds our friends in the St. Benedict monastery in the Alps, which becomes a totally isolated place for the monks in the winter.
It's not that surprising to see how bummed out these periods of containment make everyone feel. There is a great exchange between Meagles and Miss Wade that addresses how different characters deal with their prisons, and whether they end up surviving them. After quarantine is over, Meagles says, "I dare say a prisoner begins to relent towards his prison, after he is let out" (1.2.69). Miss Wade says that for her it's the opposite: "If I had been shut up in any place to pine and suffer, I should always hate that place and wish to burn it down, or raze it to the ground" (1.2.80).
And finally, we also get some internal prisons, as it were. Mrs. Clennam, for some crazy reason, thinks of herself as the punishing hand of God, so she deals out to herself the fate of being wheelchair-bound in a small room – a kind of prison of repentance. In a slightly different vein, Amy Dorrit experiences Europe like this:
It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they lived, greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness, relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home. They were brought into these foreign towns in the custody of couriers and local followers, just as the debtors had been brought into the prison. They prowled about the churches and picture-galleries, much in the old, dreary, prison-yard manner. (2.7.68)
Domestic Private Space vs. Exposed Public Space
There's kind of standard line of thought about how private and public spaces worked back in Dickens's day. Generally, the idea in Victorian times was that the domestic sphere was the place for women. It was insulated and protected, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. The public sphere – business, government, anything not having to do with raising kids or cooking – was where men belonged. Of course, in real life things weren't so cut and dried, but novels of this time definitely tended to cling to the split.
So it's pretty shocking how often the domestic sphere is violated in this novel. It makes sense, of course – what kind of home could Amy Dorrit have, when her place of residence is actually part of the public sphere (a prison)? But still, it's unusual to have scenes like Amy and Maggy wandering around the city all night with no place to crash. They are forced to interact with the kinds of people who break public/private distinctions because they are so far outside the social system: drunks, homeless guys, and even a prostitute.
Other characters also disturb the comforting split: Mrs. Clennam does business in her own house, giving the company's name, House of Clennam, a kind of double meaning. Similarly, Merdle brings his worries about his business life home and gets an earful from his wife about not being cool enough in front of her friends. Are there characters who manage to maintain the separation between public and private? Does this work in their favor or against them?
Just Before the Creation of Limited Liability Stock Companies
Did it weird you out how much of the novel's plot is driven by characters either trusting or distrusting each other at first sight? Even more amazingly, people's first impressions tend to be spot on pretty much all the time. Arthur finds a run-over Cavalletto in the street and immediately seems to know that he's an OK kind of guy, but meanwhile, everyone who runs across Blandois totally gets that this dude is bad news. So how come everyone is so good at judging books by their covers? Well, we're thinking it has something to do with the way companies were structured before the middle of the 19th century. No, no, really.
So way back then, there weren't any corporations; they hadn't been legally invented yet. Companies could only be formed as partnerships – meaning that a bunch of guys (yes, only guys) would get together and write up a document that basically said, hey, we're all partners going into this thing. A partnership was like the Three Musketeers: all for one and one for all. Everyone in a partnership owned all the firm's assets and could do whatever he wanted with them without any other partners having to agree or even to know about it. (That's how Arthur can invest all the Doyce & Clennam money with Merdle without Doyce's say-so.)
Well, with a situation like that, you better really trust the guys you're going into business with. But how do you do that without easy access to background checks? Well, you either go through a known third party (like Doyce and Clennam do through Meagles, who kind of OKs each of them for the other), or you just work on blind trust, like everyone does with Merdle. Either way, it's pretty stressful, no? So wouldn't it be nice to think that you could just look at someone and know what he's like in his heart of hearts? And what do you know – this is just about the time when suddenly every bad character in fiction starts to be physically ugly and gross, and every good character is never anything but beautiful and charming.