Study Guide

Little Dorrit Freedom and Confinement

By Charles Dickens

Freedom and Confinement

'Look at the birds, my pretty!' [said the Marseilles jailer.]

'Poor birds!' said the child [his daughter].

The fair little face, touched with divine compassion, as it peeped shrinkingly through the grate, was like an angel's in the prison. John Baptist rose and moved towards it, as if it had a good attraction for him. The other bird remained as before, except for an impatient glance at the basket.

'Stay!' said the jailer, putting his little daughter on the outer ledge of the grate, 'she shall feed the birds. This big loaf is for Signor John Baptist. We must break it to get it through into the cage. So, there's a tame bird to kiss the little hand! This sausage in a vine leaf is for Monsieur Rigaud. Again--this veal in savoury jelly is for Monsieur Rigaud. Again--these three white little loaves are for Monsieur Rigaud. Again, this cheese--again, this wine--again, this tobacco--all for Monsieur Rigaud. Lucky bird!'

The child put all these things between the bars into the soft, Smooth, well-shaped hand, with evident dread--more than once drawing back her own and looking at the man with her fair brow roughened into an expression half of fright and half of anger. Whereas she had put the lump of coarse bread into the swart, scaled, knotted hands of John Baptist (who had scarcely as much nail on his eight fingers and two thumbs as would have made out one for Monsieur Rigaud), with ready confidence; and, when he kissed her hand, had herself passed it caressingly over his face. Monsieur Rigaud, indifferent to this distinction, propitiated the father by laughing and nodding at the daughter as often as she gave him anything; and, so soon as he had all his viands about him in convenient nooks of the ledge on which he rested, began to eat with an appetite. (1.1.24-28)

What do you think of this little bring-your-daughter-to-work day in the Marseilles jail? Does it make it more or less scary to call the prisoners "birds"? Why does the jailer have the little girl feed the two men?

'Out to-day!' repeated [Meagles]. 'It's almost an aggravation of the enormity, that we shall be out to-day. Out [of quarantine]! What have we ever been in for? [...] I am like a sane man shut up in a madhouse; I can't stand the suspicion of the thing. I came here as well as ever I was in my life; but to suspect me of the plague is to give me the plague. And I have had it--and I have got it.'

'You bear it very well, Mr. Meagles,' said the second speaker, smiling.

'No. If you knew the real state of the case, that's the last observation you would think of making. I have been waking up night after night, and saying, NOW I have got it, NOW it has developed itself, NOW I am in for it, NOW these fellows are making out their case for their precautions. Why, I'd as soon have a spit put through me, and be stuck upon a card in a collection of beetles, as lead the life I have been leading here.' (1.2.11-15)

Meagles is experiencing what medical interns and hypochondriacs the world over know – when you hear or read about symptoms of some dread disease, you immediately start to feel them. It's pretty witty that because of the vaguely scientific reason for their confinement – quarantine – Meagles compares them to a bunch of pinned beetles.

'But I bear those monotonous walls no ill-will now,' said Mr. Meagles.' One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it's left behind; I dare say a prisoner begins to relent towards his prison, after he is let out.' [...] The reserved Englishwoman took up Mr. Meagles in his last remark. 'Do you mean that a prisoner forgives his prison?' said she, slowly and with emphasis. [...] If I had been shut up in any place to pine and suffer, I should always hate that place and wish to burn it down, or raze it to the ground. I know no more." (1.2.69-80)

And there we have one of the key ways to sort the novel's characters. Who else immediately forgives a prison on being let out? Who holds a grudge against a prison forever and tries to burn it down? Is there anyone who stays neutral?

It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison [...] Supposed to be incarcerated there, because the time had rather outgrown the strong cells and the blind alley. In practice they had come to be considered a little too bad, though in theory they were quite as good as ever; which may be observed to be the case at the present day with other cells that are not at all strong, and with other blind alleys that are stone-blind. Hence the smugglers habitually consorted with the debtors(who received them with open arms), except at certain constitutional moments when somebody came from some Office, to go through some form of overlooking something which neither he nor anybody else knew anything about. On these truly British occasions, the smugglers, if any, made a feint of walking into the strong cells and the blind alley, while this somebody pretended to do his something: and made a reality of walking out again as soon as he hadn't done it--neatly epitomising the administration of most of the public affairs in our right little, tight little, island. (1.6.2-3)

What would be different for the debt prisoners if the smugglers really were still forced to live in the secondary, enclosed prison? Would they feel more free because they were less confined than these other guys?

"We are quiet here; we don't get badgered here; there's no knocker here, sir, to be hammered at by creditors and bring a man's heart into his mouth. Nobody comes here to ask if a man's at home, and to say he'll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money to this place. It's freedom, sir, it's freedom! I have had to-day's practice at home and abroad, on a march, and aboard ship, and I'll tell you this: I don't know that I have ever pursued it under such quiet circumstances as here this day. Elsewhere, people are restless, worried, hurried about, anxious respecting one thing, anxious respecting another. Nothing of the kind here, sir. We have done all that--we know the worst of it; we have got to the bottom, we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the word for it. Peace.' With this profession of faith, the doctor, who was an old jail-bird, and was more sodden than usual, and had the additional and unusual stimulus of money in his pocket, returned to his associate and chum in hoarseness, puffiness, red-facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt, and brandy. (1.6.54)

This reminds us of the old joke about freedom in Orwell's 1984 – there is freedom to, and then there is freedom from. Here this guy has talked himself into thinking about jail as a place of "freedom from" – from collection agencies, from people bothering him, from work, from stress.

There was no shadow of Mr. Merdle's complaint on the bosom now displaying precious stones in rivalry with many similar superb jewel-stands; there was no shadow of Mr. Merdle's complaint on young Sparkler hovering about the rooms, monomaniacally seeking any sufficiently ineligible young lady with no nonsense about her; there was no shadow of Mr. Merdle's complaint on the Barnacles and Stiltstalkings, of whom whole colonies were present; or on any of the company. Even on himself, its shadow was faint enough as he moved about among the throng, receiving homage.

Mr. Merdle's complaint. Society and he had so much to do with one another in all things else, that it is hard to imagine his complaint, if he had one, being solely his own affair. Had he that deep-seated recondite complaint, and did any doctor find it out? Patience, in the meantime, the shadow of the Marshalsea wall was a real darkening influence, and could be seen on the Dorrit Family at any stage of the sun's course. (1.21.46-47)

Merdle and Dorrit are, as ever, in parallel, both trapped in prisons because of their own actions. Merdle is feeling the shadow of his lies and misdeeds, and Dorrit is feeling the shadow of his wasted life. As the narrator points out, the difference (for now at least) is that Merdle's problems don't affect his family, whereas Dorrit has dragged his whole clan down with him.

'This King had a daughter, who was the wisest and most beautiful Princess that ever was seen. When she was a child she understood all her lessons before her masters taught them to her; and when she was grownup, she was the wonder of the world. Now, near the Palace where this Princess lived, there was a cottage in which there was a poor little tiny woman, who lived all alone by herself.'

'An old woman,' said Maggy, with an unctuous smack of her lips.

'No, not an old woman. Quite a young one. [...] The Princess passed the cottage nearly every day, and whenever she went by in her beautiful carriage, she saw the poor tiny woman spinning at her wheel, and she looked at the tiny woman, and the tiny woman looked at her. [...] The Princess was such a wonderful Princess that she had the power of knowing secrets, and she said to the tiny woman, Why do you keep it there? This showed her directly that the Princess knew why she lived all alone by herself spinning at her wheel, and she kneeled down at the Princess's feet, and asked her never to betray her. So the Princess said, I never will betray you. Let me see it. So the tiny woman closed the shutter of the cottage window and fastened the door, and trembling from head to foot for fear that any one should suspect her, opened a very secret place and showed the Princess [...] the shadow of Some one who had gone by long before: of Some one who had gone on far away quite out of reach, never, never to come back. It was bright to look at; and when the tiny woman showed it to the Princess, she was proud of it with all her heart, as a great, great treasure. [...] So she resolved to watch the tiny woman, and see what came of it. Everyday she drove in her beautiful carriage by the cottage-door, and there she saw the tiny woman always alone by herself spinning at her wheel, and she looked at the tiny woman, and the tiny woman looked at her. At last one day the wheel was still, and the tiny woman was not to be seen. When the Princess made inquiries why the wheel had stopped, and where the tiny woman was, she was informed that the wheel had stopped because there was nobody to turn it, the tiny woman being dead. [...] she went in at once to search for the treasured shadow. But there was no sign of it to be found anywhere; and then she knew that the tiny woman had told her the truth, and that it would never give anybody any trouble, and that it had sunk quietly into her own grave, and that she and it were at rest together.' (1.24.109-130)

Wow, that's some amazing story. So, first things first – the Princess is, amusingly enough, Flora Finching, who has made Amy think that she and Arthur were going to get back together. The little woman is obviously Amy. And the shadow? This is a whole new shadow – the shadow of Amy's love for Arthur, whom she fears will never love her back. Compare the image of Amy buried forever with her love shadow to all the epitaphs that John Chivery composes for himself as he imagines himself dying of unrequited love. It's actually kind of a great teenager-y melodramatic detail.

He weightily communicated his opinion to their host, that his life must be a very dreary life here in the winter.

The host allowed to Monsieur that it was a little monotonous. The air was difficult to breathe for a length of time consecutively. The cold was very severe. One needed youth and strength to bear it. However, having them and the blessing of Heaven--

Yes, that was very good. 'But the confinement,' said the grey-haired gentleman. [...] 'But the space,' urged the grey-haired gentleman. 'So small. So--ha--very limited.' [...] Monsieur still urged, on the other hand, that the space was so--ha--hum--so very contracted. More than that, it was always the same, always the same.

With a deprecating smile, the host gently raised and gently lowered his shoulders. That was true, he remarked, but permit him to say that almost all objects had their various points of view. Monsieur and he did not see this poor life of his from the same point of view. Monsieur was not used to confinement.

'I--ha--yes, very true,' said the grey-haired gentleman. He seemed to receive quite a shock from the force of the argument. [...] 'It is true,' said Monsieur. 'We will--ha--not pursue the subject. (1.1.80-92)

This is a great moment, as Dorrit struggles to contain his deep, immediate, and involuntary empathy for the wintering monks. His new gentleman persona has supposedly never seen a rough day in his life.

'I would not,' said Mrs. General, 'be understood to say, observe, that there is nothing to improve in Fanny. But there is material there--perhaps, indeed, a little too much.'

'Will you be kind enough, madam,' said Mr. Dorrit, 'to be--ha--more explicit? I do not quite understand my elder daughter's having--hum--too much material. What material?'

'Fanny,' returned Mrs. General, 'at present forms too many opinions.

Perfect breeding forms none, and is never demonstrative.' (2.5.13-16)

Apparently, according to Mrs. General, good breeding is the process of containing the "material" of personality, opinions, thoughts, and individuality. She tries as hard as possible to place the brain in a small, closed, rigid prison of correct things to say, do, and feel, and to push everything else aside.

And there was a passive congeniality between [Pet and Amy], besides this active one. To both of them, Blandois behaved in exactly the same manner; and to both of them his manner had uniformly something in it, which they both knew to be different from his bearing towards others. The difference was too minute in its expression to be perceived by others, but they knew it to be there. A mere trick of his evil eyes, a mere turn of his smooth white hand, a mere hair's-breadth of addition to the fall of his nose and the rise of the moustache in the most frequent movement of his face, conveyed to both of them, equally, a swagger personal to themselves. It was as if he had said, 'I have a secret power in this quarter. I know what I know.' (2.7.50)

Blandois terrorizes both of these young women. It's interesting that they are imprisoned here by the expectations of politeness. Since Blandois has never actually said anything offensive or done any overt harm to either of them, they're supposed to just smile back and be nice. There doesn't seem to be any space for just not dealing with a menacing or person.