Study Guide

Little Dorrit Morality and Ethics

By Charles Dickens

Morality and Ethics

"I [Arthur Clennam] am the son, Mr. Meagles, of a hard father and mother. I am the only child of parents who weighed, measured, and priced everything; for whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced, had no existence. Strict people as the phrase is, professors of a stern religion, their very religion was a gloomy sacrifice of tastes and sympathies that were never their own, offered up as a part of a bargain for the security of their possessions. Austere faces, inexorable discipline, penance in this world and terror in the next--nothing graceful or gentle anywhere, and the void in my cowed heart everywhere--this was my childhood, if I may so misuse the word as to apply it to such a beginning of life." (1.2.59)

The fundamentalist Calvinist doctrine that Mrs. Clennam pretends to cling to is undone here, as Arthur states that the only thing that really mattered to either of his parents was "the security of their possessions." Compare this childhood to the deprivations (and terror) suffered by the Gradgrind children in Hard Times – it's the same idea of wringing all the warmth out of kids' lives. Yeah, that'll teach 'em.

'Reparation!' said [Mrs. Clennam]. 'Yes, truly! It is easy for [Arthur] to talk of reparation, fresh from journeying and junketing in foreign lands, and living a life of vanity and pleasure. But let him look at me, in prison, and in bonds here. I endure without murmuring, because it is appointed that I shall so make reparation for my sins. Reparation! Is there none in this room? Has there been none here this fifteen years?'

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. (1.5.58-59)

Mrs. Clennam is convinced that her self-imposed penance counts as reparation for the sin of holding back Amy's money. Why doesn't this work for us? What's wrong with formal self-punishment in this context? What's the difference between punishing the offender and making amends to the victim?

'Hold there, you and your philanthropy,' cried the smiling landlady, nodding her head more than ever. 'Listen then. I am a woman, I. I know nothing of philosophical philanthropy. But I know what I have seen, and what I have looked in the face in this world here, where I find myself. And I tell you this, my friend, that there are people (men and women both, unfortunately) who have no good in them--none. That there are people whom it is necessary to detest without compromise. That there are people who must be dealt with as enemies of the human race. That there are people who have no human heart, and who must be crushed like savage beasts and cleared out of the way. They are but few, I hope; but I have seen (in this world here where I find myself, and even at the little Break of Day) that there are such people. And I do not doubt that this man--whatever they call him, I forget his name--is one of them.' (1.11.28)

Yikes, strong words, lady! Certainly the death penalty was not as controversial back then, but we're racking our brains trying to remember a more black-and-white gung-ho defense of it.

[Doyce] had naturally felt a preference for his own country, and a wish to gain distinction there, and to do whatever service he could do, there rather than elsewhere. And so he had come home. And so at home he had established himself in business, and had invented and executed, and worked his way on, until, after a dozen years of constant suit and service, he had been enrolled in the Great British Legion of Honour, the Legion of the Rebuffed of the Circumlocution Office, and had been decorated with the Great British Order of Merit, the Order of the Disorder of the Barnacles and Stiltstalkings. [...] "But what is a man to do? if he has the misfortune to strike out something serviceable to the nation, he must follow where it leads him.'

'Hadn't he better let it go?' said Clennam.

'He can't do it,' said Doyce, shaking his head with a thoughtful smile. 'It's not put into his head to be buried. It's put into his head to be made useful. You hold your life on the condition that to the last you shall struggle hard for it. Every man holds a discovery on the same terms.'

'That is to say,' said Arthur, with a growing admiration of his quiet companion, 'you are not finally discouraged even now?'

'I have no right to be, if I am,' returned the other. 'The thing is as true as it ever was.' (1.16.10-16)

Doyce's language is interesting here, as he describes pursuing the formal introduction of his invention as a necessity. Man "must" follow the train of his thoughts; he "can't" bury the idea and has "no right" to ignore it. This is pure advocacy for progress.

'Something, I--hem!--I don't know what, has gone wrong with Chivery. He is not--ha!--not nearly so obliging and attentive as usual to-night. It--hem!--it's a little thing, but it puts me out, my love. [...] If I was to lose the support and recognition of Chivery and his brother officers, I might starve to death here.' While he spoke, he was opening and shutting his hands like valves; so conscious all the time of that touch of shame, that he shrunk before his own knowledge of his meaning.

'I--ha!--I can't think what it's owing to. I am sure I cannot imagine what the cause of it is. There was a certain Jackson here once, a turnkey of the name of Jackson (I don't think you can remember him, my dear, you were very young), and--hem!--and he had a--brother, and this--young brother paid his addresses to--at least, did not go so far as to pay his addresses to--but admired--respectfully admired--the--not daughter, the sister--of one of us; a rather distinguished Collegian; I may say, very much so. His name was Captain Martin; and he consulted me on the question whether It was necessary that his daughter--sister--should hazard offending the turnkey brother by being too--ha!--too plain with the other brother. Captain Martin was a gentleman and a man of honour, and I put it to him first to give me his--his own opinion. Captain Martin (highly respected in the army) then unhesitatingly said that it appeared to him that his--hem!--sister was not called upon to understand the young man too distinctly, and that she might lead him on--I am doubtful whether "lead him on" was Captain Martin's exact expression: indeed I think he said tolerate him--on her father's--I should say, brother's--account. I hardly know how I have strayed into this story. I suppose it has been through being unable to account for Chivery; but as to the connection between the two, I don't see--' (1.19.36-39)

Dorrit has lost all sense of morality and propriety here. The gradations of rank and distinction are so small in the prison system (really, he is just upset over a few cigars) that he has almost lost the ability to see proportionally what matters and what doesn't. But clearly, there is still some sense of right and wrong lurking under there somewhere, as he is deeply ashamed of himself even as he is proposing that Amy lead on turnkey's son.

'I no sooner mentioned your name, Clennam, than [Doyce] said, "That will never do!" What did he mean by that? I asked him. No matter, Meagles; that would never do. Why would it never do? You'll hardly believe it, Clennam,' said Mr. Meagles, laughing within himself, 'but it came out that it would never do, because you and he, walking down to Twickenham together, had glided into a friendly conversation in the course of which he had referred to his intention of taking a partner, supposing at the time that you were as firmly and finally settled as St Paul's Cathedral. "Whereas," says he, "Mr. Clennam might now believe, if I entertained his proposition, that I had a sinister and designing motive in what was open free speech. Which I can't bear," says he, "which I really am too proud to bear. [...] it took a morning to scale that wall; and I doubt if any other man than myself (he likes me of old) could have got his leg over it. Well, Clennam. This business-like obstacle surmounted, he then stipulated that before resuming with you I should look over the books and form my own opinion. I looked over the books, and formed my own opinion. "Is it, on the whole, for, or against?" says he. "For," says I. "Then," says he, "you may now, my good friend, give Mr. Clennam the means of forming his opinion. To enable him to do which, without bias and with perfect freedom, I shall go out of town for a week." And he's gone,' said Mr. Meagles; that's the rich conclusion of the thing.'

'Leaving me,' said Clennam, 'with a high sense, I must say, of his candour and his--' (1.23.9-12)

For partnerships to work, all the partners must behave with honesty and trust – otherwise, how could you possibly feel secure knowing that your partners have legal access to all of your money? Doyce here demonstrates that he is utterly scrupulous.

'So so,' rejoined [Gowan]. 'To be candid with you, tolerably. I am not a great impostor. Buy one of my pictures, and I assure you, in confidence, it will not be worth the money. Buy one of another man's--any great professor who beats me hollow--and the chances are that the more you give him, the more he'll impose upon you. [...] Give almost any man I know ten pounds, and he will impose upon you to a corresponding extent; a thousand pounds--to a corresponding extent; ten thousand pounds--to a corresponding extent. So great the success, so great the imposition. But what a capital world it is!' cried Gowan with warm enthusiasm. 'What a jolly, excellent, lovable world it is!'

'I had rather thought,' said Clennam, 'that the principle you mention was chiefly acted on by--'

'By the Barnacles?' interrupted Gowan, laughing.

'By the political gentlemen who condescend to keep the Circumlocution Office.'

'Ah! Don't be hard upon the Barnacles,' said Gowan, laughing afresh, 'they are darling fellows! Even poor little Clarence, the born idiot of the family, is the most agreeable and most endearing blockhead! And by Jupiter, with a kind of cleverness in him too that would astonish you!'

'It would. Very much,' said Clennam, drily.

'And after all,' cried Gowan, with that characteristic balancing of his which reduced everything in the wide world to the same light weight, 'though I can't deny that the Circumlocution Office may ultimately shipwreck everybody and everything, still, that will probably not be in our time--and it's a school for gentlemen.' (1.26.47-54)

Gowan here spells out some of his philosophy – basically that everything good is only average, and everything bad is pretty much OK. His fake honesty about his own flaws ("buy one of my pictures and it will not be worth the money") seems at first charming and self-deprecating. But since he does this about everything, it's really just a handy way to mask the major disappointment of his life – himself.

Mrs. General had no opinions. Her way of forming a mind was to prevent it from forming opinions. She had a little circular set of mental grooves or rails on which she started little trains of other people's opinions, which never overtook one another, and never got anywhere. Even her propriety could not dispute that there was impropriety in the world; but Mrs. General's way of getting rid of it was to put it out of sight, and make believe that there was no such thing. This was another of her ways of forming a mind--to cram all articles of difficulty into cupboards, lock them up, and say they had no existence. It was the easiest way, and, beyond all comparison, the properest.

Mrs. General was not to be told of anything shocking. Accidents, miseries, and offences, were never to be mentioned before her. Passion was to go to sleep in the presence of Mrs. General, and blood was to change to milk and water. The little that was left in the world, when all these deductions were made, it was Mrs. General's province to varnish. (2.2.24-25)

Why is this a terrible educational system? Think about all the different ways Mrs. General is doing harm. How are the kids she teaches going to end up thinking about the world?

To be in the halting state of Mr. Henry Gowan; to have left one of two powers in disgust; to want the necessary qualifications for finding promotion with another, and to be loitering moodily about on neutral ground, cursing both; is to be in a situation unwholesome for the mind, which time is not likely to improve. The worst class of sum worked in the every-day world is cyphered by the diseased arithmeticians who are always in the rule of Subtraction as to the merits and successes of others, and never in Addition as to their own.

The habit, too, of seeking some sort of recompense in the discontented boast of being disappointed, is a habit fraught with degeneracy. A certain idle carelessness and recklessness of consistency soon comes of it. To bring deserving things down by setting undeserving things up is one of its perverted delights; and there is no playing fast and loose with the truth, in any game, without growing the worse for it. (2.6.1-2)

The idea of "diseased arithmetic" pervades the whole novel. It's basically putting all the emphasis on the absolute value rather than the positive or negative sign in front of it. It pops up again when people are bragging the same way about the amount of money Merdle has made and Dorrit has lost – it's just the amount that matters, not whether it's positive or negative.

Clennam then proceeded to state to Mr. Rugg his fixed resolution. He told Mr. Rugg that his partner was a man of great simplicity and integrity, and that in all he meant to do, he was guided above all things by a knowledge of his partner's character, and a respect for his feelings. He explained that his partner was then absent on an enterprise of importance, and that it particularly behooved himself publicly to accept the blame of what he had rashly done, and publicly to exonerate his partner from all participation in the responsibility of it, lest the successful conduct of that enterprise should be endangered by the slightest suspicion wrongly attaching to his partner's honour and credit in another country. He told Mr. Rugg that to clear his partner morally, to the fullest extent, and publicly and unreservedly to declare that he, Arthur Clennam, of that Firm, had of his own sole act, and even expressly against his partner's caution, embarked its resources in the swindles that had lately perished, was the only real atonement within his power; was a better atonement to the particular man than it would be to many men; and was therefore the atonement he had first to make. With this view, his intention was to print a declaration to the foregoing effect, which he had already drawn up; and, besides circulating it among all who had dealings with the House, to advertise it in the public papers. Concurrently with this measure (the description of which cost Mr. Rugg innumerable wry faces and great uneasiness in his limbs), he would address a letter to all the creditors, exonerating his partner in a solemn manner, informing them of the stoppage of the House until their pleasure could be known and his partner communicated with, and humbly submitting himself to their direction. If, through their consideration for his partner's innocence, the affairs could ever be got into such train as that the business could be profitably resumed, and its present downfall overcome, then his own share in it should revert to his partner, as the only reparation he could make to him in money value forth distress and loss he had unhappily brought upon him, and he himself, at as small a salary as he could live upon, would ask to be allowed to serve the business as a faithful clerk. (2.26.48)

This might seem extreme, but in reality Arthur is probably saving the Doyce & Clennam company. Check out the "Setting" section for more info about partnerships, then think about how much it would damage Doyce's reputation if everyone thought he was responsible for the bankruptcy. Since reputation equaled credit and access to customers – well, loss of it would torpedo the factory lickety-split.