Study Guide

Little Dorrit Family

By Charles Dickens

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You have anticipated, mother, that I [Arthur] decide for my part, to abandon the business. I have done with it. [...] I have lived the half of a long term of life, and have never before set my own will against yours. I cannot say that I have been able to conform myself, in heart and spirit, to your rules; I cannot say that I believe my forty years have been profitable or pleasant to myself, or any one; but I have habitually submitted, and I only ask you to remember it. [...] Mother, I have yet something more to say. It has been upon my mind, night and day, this long time. It is far more difficult to say than what I have said. That concerned myself; this concerns us all. [...] You knew my father infinitely better than I ever knew him; and his reserve with me yielded to you. You were much the stronger, mother, and directed him. As a child, I knew it as well as I know it now. I knew that your ascendancy over him was the cause of his going to China to take care of the business there, while you took care of it here (though I do not even now know whether these were really terms of separation that you agreed upon); and that it was your will that I should remain with you until I was twenty, and then go to him as I did.' (1.5.27-35)

Arthur spells out the whole dynamic of his family here. He and his father weakly submitted to whatever his mother demanded, and he hasn't had any model for how to deal with her aside from just buckling under.

What [Little Dorrit's] pitiful look saw, at that early time, in her father, in her sister, in her brother, in the jail; how much, or how little of the wretched truth it pleased God to make visible to her; lies hidden with many mysteries. It is enough that she was inspired to be something which was not what the rest were, and to be that something, different and laborious, for the sake of the rest. [...] With no earthly friend to help her, or so much as to see her, but the one so strangely assorted; with no knowledge even of the common daily tone and habits of the common members of the free community who are not shut up in prisons; born and bred in a social condition, false even with a reference to the falsest condition outside the walls; drinking from infancy of a well whose waters had their own peculiar stain, their own unwholesome and unnatural taste; the Child of the Marshalsea began her womanly life.

No matter through what mistakes and discouragements, what ridicule (not unkindly meant, but deeply felt) of her youth and little figure, what humble consciousness of her own babyhood and want of strength, even in the matter of lifting and carrying; through how much weariness and hopelessness, and how many secret tears; she drudged on, until recognised as useful, even indispensable. That time came. She took the place of eldest of the three, in all things but precedence; was the head of the fallen family; and bore, in her own heart, its anxieties and shames. (1.7.32-34)

This is such a poignant moment, the way the narrator tries to show us just how little exposure to anything outside the prison Little Dorrit has had. She just somehow innately senses that she has to be better than this place and its values. There is a similar moment a little while later when she comes to Arthur's sad little apartment, which to her seems like a grand palace.

[Little Dorrit's] look at her father, half admiring him and proud of him, half ashamed for him, all devoted and loving, went to [Arthur's] inmost heart. (1.8.34)

What an array of adjectives here – admiring, proud, ashamed, devoted, loving. These words pretty much encapsulate the relationship between Dorrit and Amy. Also, isn't it odd how much Arthur is into this display? What will Amy be like toward him later in their lives?

'Little mother!'

[...] "Maggy, how old are you?'

'Ten, mother,' said Maggy.

'You can't think how good she is, sir,' said Little Dorrit, with infinite tenderness. [...] 'Or how clever. She goes on errands as well as any one.' Maggy laughed. 'And is as trustworthy as the Bank of England.' Maggy laughed. 'She earns her own living entirely. Entirely, sir!' said Little Dorrit, in a lower and triumphant tone.

'Really does!'

'What is her history?' asked Clennam.

'Think of that, Maggy?' said Little Dorrit, taking her two large hands and clapping them together. 'A gentleman from thousands of miles away, wanting to know your history!'

'My history?' cried Maggy. 'Little mother.'

'She means me,' said Little Dorrit, rather confused; 'she is very much attached to me. Her old grandmother was not so kind to her as she should have been; was she, Maggy?' Maggy shook her head, made a drinking vessel of her clenched left hand, drank out of it, and said, 'Gin.' Then beat an imaginary child, and said, 'Broom-handles and pokers.' (1.9.92-110)

The inversion of Amy and Maggy's roles into mother and child is in equal parts creepy (since Maggy is actually a giant woman in her 30s or 40s) and shows the depth of protective love Amy can dole out. She does seem to prefer to take care of people over being taken care of herself.

The Barnacle family had for some time helped to administer the Circumlocution Office. The Tite Barnacle Branch, indeed, considered themselves in a general way as having vested rights in that direction, and took it ill if any other family had much to say to it. The Barnacles were a very high family, and a very large family. They were dispersed all over the public offices, and held all sorts of public places. Either the nation was under a load of obligation to the Barnacles, or the Barnacles were under a load of obligation to the nation. It was not quite unanimously settled which; the Barnacles having their opinion, the nation theirs. (1.10.9)

This is so funny and great – the standard image of a family tree, spreading out its branches is transformed into a picture of a family as persistent parasite, covering the ship of state.

If Young John Chivery had had the inclination and the power to write a satire on family pride, he would have had no need to go for an avenging illustration out of the family of his beloved. He would have found it amply in that gallant brother and that dainty sister, so steeped in mean experiences, and so loftily conscious of the family name; so ready to beg or borrow from the poorest, to eat of anybody's bread, spend anybody's money, drink from anybody's cup and break it afterwards. To have painted the sordid facts of their lives, and they throughout invoking the death's head apparition of the family gentility to come and scare their benefactors, would have made Young John a satirist of the first water. (1.20.1)

Well, that's a very nice pat on the back for yourself, narrator – because whatever John Chivery can't compose in the way of a satire is, of course, exactly what the narrator is in the process of writing.

'[Tattycoram] detested us, she was miserable with us, she couldn't bear it, she wouldn't bear it, she was determined to go away. She was younger than her young mistress [Pet Meagles], and would she remain to see her always held up as the only creature who was young and interesting, and to be cherished and loved? No. She wouldn't, she wouldn't, she wouldn't! What did we think she, Tattycoram, might have been if she had been caressed and cared for in her childhood, like her young mistress? As good as her? Ah! Perhaps fifty times as good. When we pretended to be so fond of one another, we exulted over her; that was what we did; we exulted over her and shamed her. And all in the house did the same. They talked about their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters; they liked to drag them up before her face. There was Mrs. Tickit, only yesterday, when her little grandchild was with her, had been amused by the child's trying to call her (Tattycoram) by the wretched name we gave her; and had laughed at the name. Why, who didn't; and who were we that we should have a right to name her like a dog or a cat? But she didn't care. She would take no more benefits from us; she would fling us her name back again, and she would go. She would leave us that minute, nobody should stop her, and we should never hear of her again.' (1.27.32)

It's interesting to hear how the tale of Tattycoram can be spun to make her rescue from the orphanage seem like either a miraculous blessing or a horrible curse. Both versions are totally plausible, and the situation speaks to the difficulty of creating a family (a private arrangement of relationships) while maintaining the correct socioeconomic balance between its members (a public ranking system). Maybe the two aren't compatible?

'Your friend, sir,' said [Dorrit], 'is--ha--is a little impatient; and, in his impatience, is not perhaps fully sensible of what he owes to--hum--to--but we will waive that, we will waive that. Your friend [Gowan] is a little impatient, sir.'

'It may be so, sir,' returned [Blandois]. 'But having had the honour of making that gentleman's acquaintance at the hotel at Geneva, where we and much good company met some time ago, and having had the honour of exchanging company and conversation with that gentleman on several subsequent excursions, I can hear nothing--no, not even from one of your appearance and station, sir--detrimental to that gentleman.' [...]

'Your friend is an artist, sir?'

The gentleman replied by kissing the fingers of his right hand, and wafting the kiss the length of his arm towards Heaven. As who should say, I devote him to the celestial Powers as an immortal artist! 'But he is a man of family,' he added. 'His connections are of the best. He is more than an artist: he is highly connected. He may, in effect, have repudiated his connections, proudly, impatiently, sarcastically (I make the concession of both words); but he has them. Sparks that have been struck out during our intercourse have shown me this.' (2.1.40-49)

OK, so how funny is it to have Dorrit and Blandois talking about the merits of Gowan's art and the level of social standing his family has attained? Neither knows the first thing about either topic.

Her uncle was so far rescued from that shadow of old, that he wore the clothes they gave him, and performed some ablutions as a sacrifice to the family credit, and went where he was taken, with a certain patient animal enjoyment, which seemed to express that the air and change did him good. In all other respects, save one, he shone with no light but such as was reflected from his brother. His brother's greatness, wealth, freedom, and grandeur, pleased him without any reference to himself. Silent and retiring, he had no use for speech when he could hear his brother speak; no desire to be waited on, so that the servants devoted themselves to his brother. The only noticeable change he originated in himself, was an alteration in his manner to his younger niece. Every day it refined more and more into a marked respect, very rarely shown by age to youth, and still more rarely susceptible, one would have said, of the fitness with which he invested it. On those occasions when Miss Fanny did declare once for all, he would take the next opportunity of baring his grey head before his younger niece, and of helping her to alight, or handing her to the carriage, or showing her any other attention, with the profoundest deference. Yet it never appeared misplaced or forced, being always heartily simple, spontaneous, and genuine. Neither would he ever consent, even at his brother's request, to be helped to any place before her, or to take precedence of her in anything. So jealous was he of her being respected, that, on this very journey down from the Great Saint Bernard, he took sudden and violent umbrage at the footman's being remiss to hold her stirrup, though standing near when she dismounted; and unspeakably astonished the whole retinue by charging at him on a hard-headed mule, riding him into a corner, and threatening to trample him to death. (2.3.38)

Frederick's transformation into his niece's ardent supporter will become even more poignant when we learn that when he was younger he similarly befriended and protected the dancing girl who became Arthur's mother.

'Arthur, my dear boy,' said Mr. Meagles, on the evening of the following day, 'Mother and I have been talking this over, and we don't feel comfortable in remaining as we are. [...] We are very much disposed, are Mother and I,' said Mr. Meagles, 'to pack up bags and baggage and go among the Allongers and Marshongers once more. I mean, we are very much disposed to be off, strike right through France into Italy, and see our Pet.'

'And I don't think,' replied Arthur, touched by the motherly anticipation in the bright face of Mrs. Meagles (she must have been very like her daughter, once), 'that you could do better. And if you ask me for my advice, it is that you set off to-morrow.' [...]

'The fact is, besides, Arthur,' said Mr. Meagles, the old cloud coming over his face, 'that my son-in-law is already in debt again, and that I suppose I must clear him again. It may be as well, even on this account, that I should step over there, and look him up in a friendly way. Then again, here's Mother foolishly anxious (and yet naturally too) about Pet's state of health [during pregnancy], and that she should not be left to feel lonesome at the present time. It's undeniably a long way off, Arthur, and a strange place for the poor love under all the circumstances. Let her be as well cared for as any lady in that land, still it is a long way off. Just as Home is Home though it's never so Homely, why you see,' said Mr. Meagles, adding a new version to the proverb, 'Rome is Rome, though it's never so Romely.' (2.9.1-11)

The Meagleses (OK, and the Plornishes) are probably our best example in the novel of a reasonably normal, loving family. Even so, Pet needed to escape from their doting care. Now they're about to follow her to Italy. Ironically, it is his very financial dependence on his father-in-law that makes Gowan dislike Meagles so much and want to break up the warm family feeling.

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