Study Guide

Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit

By Charles Dickens

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Mrs. Clennam

A cold and bitter woman, Mrs. Clennam has forced herself to live the life of a reclusive, wheelchair-bound woman as payment for her sins. Her stubborn iron will arguably makes her the novel's most terrifying character.

Now, remember all that stuff we talked about in the "In a Nutshell" section? No? OK, we'll hang out a sec while you check it out again.... OK, ready?

Mrs. Clennam is probably the best representative of Dickens's firm hatred for the political economy crowd. From the essays that he wrote for his magazine, Household Words, we know that Dickens was appalled at the idea of using statistical analysis of people's actions as a way to calculate public policy. For him, this way of counting just the external would mean that eventually those in power would stop seeing people as individuals and instead just see them as walking economic data. What about their rich inner lives? What about their psychological, emotional, and spiritual states? How could you make abstract judgments about people as a mass when every human being is unique? This kind of thinking is probably a little simplistic – how can you make laws that function completely on a case-by-case basis instead of generalizing what people can and can't do, for instance? But, still, we also see Dickens's point.

From the moment we meet her, Mrs. Clennam is all numbers and no emotions, all cold hard cash and no soul, all the letter of religious law and none of its spirit. In Arthur's words, she is a woman who "weighed, measured, and priced everything; for whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced, had no existence" (1.2.59). What are the kinds of things that can't be measured? Well, love for one thing, and so she doesn't feel any for her husband, or Arthur, or anyone else for that matter. How exactly does Mrs. Clennam's outlook on life work? Shmoop's going to throw out two possibilities – you figure out which makes most sense.

On the one hand, maybe she's a wrong-headed religious zealot. She's definitely described as very devout. But her understanding of Christianity seems way off – or at least only half-accurate. She seems really into the angry, punishy God of the Old Testament, and not so much the merciful and loving God of the New Testament. Which is odd, of course, since the New Testament is the defining part of the Bible for Christianity; it's what sets it apart from Judaism. As the narrator describes it, Mrs. Clennam's kind of got her own super fundamentalist spirituality, and it's all about smiting enemies and punishing sins:

Great need had the rigid woman of her mystical religion, veiled in gloom and darkness, with lightnings of cursing, vengeance, and destruction, flashing through the sable clouds. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, was a prayer too poor in spirit for her. Smite Thou my debtors, Lord, wither them, crush them; do Thou as I would do, and Thou shalt have my worship: this was the impious tower of stone she built up to scale Heaven. (1.5.28)

In other words, it's Mrs. Clennam's world; God is just living in it.

Or maybe it's the fact that she is a greedy and shady financial services provider that's the problem. It's never made totally clear what exactly it is that Clennam & Co. does for its clients, but the whole thing just smacks of the borderline illegal. The fact that they have an office in China probably means they are underwriting the forcible "trade" in opium that the British were inflicting on the Chinese in order to get into the otherwise impenetrable Chinese goods market. (When China tried to just say no to drugs, the situation erupted into the Opium Wars of the 1830s-40s.)

One way to think about Mrs. Clennam is that she has taken the accounting book from her business and has tried to apply it to every single other thing in her life. Certainly that's the way she imagines morality working:

Thus was she always balancing her bargains with the Majesty of heaven, posting up the entries to her credit, strictly keeping her set-off, and claiming her due. She was only remarkable in this, for the force and emphasis with which she did it. Thousands upon thousands do it, according to their varying manner, every day. (1.5.59)

Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit Study Group

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