Study Guide

Henry Gowan in Little Dorrit

By Charles Dickens

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Henry Gowan

Henry Gowan has a devastating case of too-coolitis. He's hot, he's popular, and he's just wealthy enough not to need to work for a living. That gives him the kind of swagger that silly girls like spoiled Pet Meagles find so irresistible. The problem is that underneath that layer of good-cool lies a whole giant cesspool of bad-cool. Gowan is a member of the Barnacle family, who are high and mighty and run a lot of the country, kind of like the Kennedys or the Bushes. Sadly, though, he's never gotten a piece of that pie, and the bitter disappointment has made him do a weird kind of thing where he equalizes everyone and everything. Awesome things are just OK, and terrible things are also actually OK, and everything he sees and describes just exists in a state of perpetual meh.

If that weren't enough, underneath the whole disaffected youth thing lies an even deeper, darker, scarier layer of rage. Gowan is probably the most passive-aggressive character in the novel. First, he takes money from his in-laws while totally bad-mouthing them and acting like he's too good for them. Then, he manages to convince everyone that he had to give up a lot to marry way beneath him, but that his love for his wife, Pet Meagles, overcame all those obstacles. And of course, he insists on making a fool out of Edmund Sparkler whenever he can after that imbecilic but otherwise sweet guy gets a shiny new Circumlocution Office job.

What's most shocking though is a scene that seems almost out of place in this book. There isn't all that much violence in the novel. Even the ultra-evil Blandois seems more of a poisoner or otherwise sneaky killer than a guy who would beat the crap of out of someone. So it's all the more shocking when suddenly, without much warning, Gowan beats and kicks his seemingly beloved dog Lion until it's bleeding profusely – and even then only stops when everyone around him begs him to. What are we to make of this horror? Why does no one call Gowan on this clearly wildly offensive treatment of his pet? (And it is offensive, even by the less squeamish animal-keeping standards of Victorian times.)

Henry Gowan in Little Dorrit Study Group

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