The 40-year-old son of a cold, harsh woman and a weak man, Arthur struggles to find a place for himself at a seemingly too-late time of life. After learning a few harsh lessons about love and finance, he gets a happy ending.
Remember our old friend Hamlet and his endless going back and forth about what to do, if anything? To be (i.e., to kill the king, or take some kind of action) or not to be (to just kill himself and stop having to deal with the whole thing)? Yeah, it's ringing a bell. Well, there's some passing resemblance between Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark, the master of indecisiveness, and Arthur Clennam, master of passivity.
It sort of makes sense that if we get a unconventional heroine in Amy Dorrit, we'd have to have a non-standard male protagonist as well. And boy, do we ever. Arthur is so the opposite of what we tend to think of as hero material that it's kind of funny.
How so? Let's see. For one thing, he's old. Sure, not decrepit, walking-around-with-a-cane old, but still – 40! And what's more, even though he's two decades older than the leading men in so many other Victorian novels, he's got nothing to show for it. No money, no job prospects, not even any awesome life experience. It's like he was flash-frozen for twenty years and then unthawed.
For another thing, Arthur is totally ineffectual. He can't get anything done. It's actually pretty amazing to see just how often he fails. Trying to get some info about Little Dorrit out of his mom? Nothing. Trying to get Tattycoram back from Miss Wade? No go. Getting to the bottom of Dorrit's debts? No results. Trying to interrogate Blandois and somehow stop his business with Clennam & Co.? No one even pretends to listen to him. Investigating the missing documents? He can't even find one clue. Investing money? He loses everything. By the time he is physically prevented from taking action by being locked up in the slammer, we have gotten so used to him being unable to accomplish anything that the scene raises the question: even if he were out of jail, what could he really do? Seriously, he is so passive and ineffectual that poor Amy is the one who has to propose to him!
Why is this guy our protagonist? And why is he surrounded on all sides by productive, energetic, and effective people? There's Doyce the awesome inventor, Meagles the super-duper businessman, Pancks the master sleuth, Cavalletto the optimistic jack-of-all-trades, and even Amy Dorrit herself, the indomitable go-getter. What would be different if Arthur too were a more functional person? Would he make a better partner for Doyce? For Amy?