Study Guide

Little Dorrit Duty

By Charles Dickens

Advertisement - Guide continues below


'I [Clennam] want to ask you, mother, whether it ever occurred to you to suspect—[...]--that he had any secret remembrance which caused him trouble of mind--remorse? Whether you ever observed anything in his conduct suggesting that; or ever spoke to him upon it, or ever heard him hint at such a thing? [...] Is it possible, mother,' her son leaned forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and laid his hand nervously upon her desk, 'is it possible, mother, that he had unhappily wronged any one, and made no reparation? [...] For Heaven's sake, let us examine sacredly whether there is any wrong entrusted to us to set right. No one can help towards it, mother, but you. [...] In grasping at money and in driving hard bargains--I have begun, and I must speak of such things now, mother--some one may have been grievously deceived, injured, ruined. You were the moving power of all this machinery before my birth; your stronger spirit has been infused into all my father's dealings for more than two score years. You can set these doubts at rest, I think, if you will really help me to discover the truth. Will you, mother? [...]If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made to anyone, let us know it. (1.5.38-49)

Arthur has grown up in a house filled with secrets and lies, and he is haunted by the vague feeling that he needs to recompense someone for something. Why doesn't Mrs. Clennam think this is her duty too? How do their conceptions of duty differ?

'Amy, Mr. Clennam. What do you think of her?'

'I am much impressed, Mr. Dorrit, by all that I have seen of her and thought of her.'

'My brother would have been quite lost without Amy,' he returned. 'We should all have been lost without Amy. She is a very good girl, Amy. She does her duty.'

Arthur fancied that he heard in these praises a certain tone of custom, which he had heard from the father last night with an inward protest and feeling of antagonism. It was not that they stinted her praises, or were insensible to what she did for them; but that they were lazily habituated to her, as they were to all the rest of their condition. He fancied that although they had before them, every day, the means of comparison between her and one another and themselves, they regarded her as being in her necessary place; as holding a position towards them all which belonged to her, like her name or her age. He fancied that they viewed her, not as having risen away from the prison atmosphere, but as appertaining to it; as being vaguely what they had a right to expect, and nothing more. (1.9.23-26)

Dorrit twists the idea of duty to fit his own selfish purposes. Basically, whenever he likes something Amy does, she's being dutiful, and whenever she does something he disapproves of, she's being undutiful.

"[…] you'll memorialise that Department (according to regular forms which you'll find out) for leave to memorialise this Department. If you get it (which you may after a time), that memorial must be entered in that Department, sent to be registered in this Department, sent back to be signed by that Department, sent back to be countersigned by this Department, and then it will begin to be regularly before that Department. You'll find out when the business passes through each of these stages by asking at both Departments till they tell you. [...] When the business is regularly before that Department, whatever it is,' pursued this bright young Barnacle, 'then you can watch it from time to time through that Department. When it comes regularly before this Department, then you must watch it from time to time through this Department. We shall have to refer it right and left; and when we refer it anywhere, then you'll have to look it up. When it comes back to us at any time, then you had better look US up. When it sticks anywhere, you'll have to try to give it a jog. When you write to another Department about it, and then to this Department about it, and don't hear anything satisfactory about it, why then you had better--keep on writing. [...] Try the thing, and see how you like it. It will be in your power to give it up at any time, if you don't like it. You had better take a lot of forms away with you. Give him a lot of forms!' With which instruction to number two, this sparkling young Barnacle took a fresh handful of papers from numbers one and three, and carried them into the sanctuary to offer to the presiding Idol of the Circumlocution Office. (1.10.91-106)

Besides being a hilariously honest description of the rigmarole Arthur would have to deal with if he really wanted to take up the task of figuring out the Dorrit case, this passage has a pretty telling detail. It would be Arthur's responsibility to follow the case from department to department, because no one would notify him about it. Basically, the Circumlocution Office farms out its labor to people who don't work there.

'Yes, I have always some of 'em to look up, or something to look after. But I like business,' said Pancks, getting on a little faster. 'What's a man made for? [...] What else do you suppose I think I am made for? Nothing. Rattle me out of bed early, set me going, give me as short a time as you like to bolt my meals in, and keep me at it. Keep me always at it, and I'll keep you always at it, you keep somebody else always at it. There you are with the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country.' (1.13.114-121)

The Whole Duty of Man is a book that tries to spell out the responsibilities of a devout Christian. They are definitely not simply "keeping at" constant work. The joke here is that the duties of compassion, helping others, and the like have been replaced with a go-go-go work culture.

Miss Rugg was a lady of a little property which she had acquired, together with much distinction in the neighbourhood, by having her heart severely lacerated and her feelings mangled by a middle-aged baker resident in the vicinity, against whom she had, by the agency of Mr. Rugg, found it necessary to proceed at law to recover damages for a breach of promise of marriage. The baker having been, by the counsel for Miss Rugg, witheringly denounced on that occasion up to the full amount of twenty guineas, at the rate of about eighteen-pence an epithet, and having been cast in corresponding damages, still suffered occasional persecution from the youth of Pentonville. But Miss Rugg, environed by the majesty of the law, and having her damages invested in the public securities, was regarded with consideration. (1.25.3)

That's right, boys and girls – a marriage proposal back then was a legally enforceable contract. Does that change the idea of why people married each other at all? What would our life be like if similar social agreements or promises were actually legal tender?

'I would rather stay in my own room, Father,' returned Little Dorrit, finding it more difficult than before to regain her composure. 'I would far rather not see Mr. Clennam.'

'Oh, fie, fie, my dear, that's folly. Mr. Clennam is a very gentlemanly man--very gentlemanly. A little reserved at times; but I will say extremely gentlemanly. I couldn't think of your not being here to receive Mr. Clennam, my dear, especially this afternoon. So go and freshen yourself up, Amy; go and freshen yourself up, like a good girl.'

Thus directed, Little Dorrit dutifully rose and obeyed (1.31.65-67)

Amy is totally willing to ditch her self-regard and hop to it at her father's command. Or maybe she secretly does want to see Arthur and this is a handy excuse?

'I [Arthur] know that all your devotion centres in this room, and that nothing to the last will ever tempt you [Amy] away from the duties you discharge here. If I were not sure of it, I should, before now, have implored you, and implored your father, to let me make some provision for you in a more suitable place. But you may have an interest--I will not say, now, though even that might be--may have, at another time, an interest in some one else; an interest not incompatible with your affection here.' [...]

'No. No. No.' She shook her head, after each slow repetition of the word, with an air of quiet desolation that he remembered long afterwards. The time came when he remembered it well, long afterwards, within those prison walls; within that very room.

'But, if it ever should be, tell me so, my dear child. Entrust the truth to me, point out the object of such an interest to me, and I will try with all the zeal, and honour, and friendship and respect that I feel for you, good Little Dorrit of my heart, to do you a lasting service.'

'O thank you, thank you! But, O no, O no, O no!' She said this, looking at him with her work-worn hands folded together, and in the same resigned accents as before. (1.32.52-60)

And all that dutifulness comes back to bite Amy in the rear end. Sure, Arthur is as usual totally clueless about what she's really feeling and instead just wants to be her friend/surrogate dad. But here, she is totally hosed by the fact that everything Arthur is saying about her being her dad's slave is actually true.

'It will be necessary to find a milliner, my love, and to make a speedy and complete change in your very plain dress. Something must be done with Maggy too, who at present is--ha--barely respectable, barely respectable. And your sister, Amy, and your brother. And my brother, your uncle--poor soul, I trust this will rouse him--messengers must be despatched to fetch them. They must be informed of this. We must break it to them cautiously, but they must be informed directly. We owe it as a duty to them and to ourselves, from this moment, not to let them--hum--not to let them do anything.'

This was the first intimation he had ever given, that he was privy to the fact that they did something for a livelihood. (1.35.81-82)

When something's easy to do, it's a duty. Otherwise, just ignore it. Very nice, Dorrit!

'That he has somehow or other, and how is of no consequence, attained a very good position, no one can deny. That it is a very good connection, no one can deny. And as to the question of clever or not clever, I doubt very much whether a clever husband would be suitable to me. I cannot submit. I should not be able to defer to him enough.'

'O, my dear Fanny!' expostulated Little Dorrit, upon whom a kind of terror had been stealing as she perceived what her sister meant. 'If you loved any one, all this feeling would change. If you loved any one, you would no more be yourself, but you would quite lose and forget yourself in your devotion to him. If you loved him, Fanny--' Fanny had stopped the dabbing hand, and was looking at her fixedly. (2.14.30-31)

To Amy, love means total submission – that what's she's learned from dear old dad. To Fanny, is there even such a thing as love? She seems much more comfortable with negative than positive emotions.

Little Dorrit Duty Study Group

Ask questions, get answers, and discuss with others.

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

This is a premium product

Please Wait...