Study Guide

Little Dorrit Poverty

By Charles Dickens

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There was a string of people already straggling in, whom it was not difficult to identify as the nondescript messengers, go-betweens, and errand-bearers of the place. [...] The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking-sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people's individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker's. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on doorsteps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction. (1.9.5)

It's always fun when Dickens goes all anthropologist on us. Here, the poor people who lurk around the prison seem like a new species. What in the language gives that feeling? Well, for one thing, they are all described as being the same – a type of categorization we usually use for animals rather than people. They also don't seem quite human, what with them being "made up of patches and pieces of other people." And of course, the descriptions of their movements, which make it sound like they've evolved to move in relation to their lifestyle – slinking around corners as though going to the pawn shop, coughing as though trying to attract attention. This whole passage probably has a lot to do with naturalist description of the time – and it also make us see the poor from a distance rather than as fellow human beings.

Arthur entered the rather dark and close parlour (though it was lofty too), and sat down in the chair she placed for him.

'Not to deceive you, sir, I notice it,' said Mrs. Plornish, 'and I take it kind of you.'

He was at a loss to understand what she meant; and by expressing as much in his looks, elicited her explanation.

'It ain't many that comes into a poor place, that deems it worth their while to move their hats,' said Mrs. Plornish. 'But people think more of it than people think.'

Clennam returned, with an uncomfortable feeling in so very slight courtesy being unusual, Was that all! (1.12.10-14)

What a beautiful little moment, right? And it tells us something about these people – Arthur is the kind of person who would take off his hat out of respect without even thinking about it, and Mrs. Plornish not only notices but also feels grateful enough to thank him out loud. It also gives us a sense of the constant small indignities that the poor were subjected to.

'And I have no fire,' said Clennam. 'And you are--' He was going to say so lightly clad, but stopped himself in what would have been a reference to her poverty, saying instead, 'And it is so cold. [...] Your foot is like marble, my child;' he had happened to touch it, while stooping on one knee at his work of kindling the fire; 'put it nearer the warmth.' Little Dorrit thanked him hastily. It was quite warm, it was very warm! It smote upon his heart to feel that she hid her thin, worn shoe.

Little Dorrit was not ashamed of her poor shoes. He knew her story, and it was not that. Little Dorrit had a misgiving that he might blame her father, if he saw them; that he might think, 'why did he dine to-day, and leave this little creature to the mercy of the cold stones!' She had no belief that it would have been a just reflection; she simply knew, by experience, that such delusions did sometimes present themselves to people. It was a part of her father's misfortunes that they did. (1.14.9-12)

Another great moment of middle-class comfort confronting the realities of poverty – like the fact that she's wearing summer shoes in late fall. Arthur tries as much as he can not to reference Amy's poverty, which is thoughtful of him – but for Amy, of course, all thoughts lead right back to Rome, aka her father.

It is very seldom indeed that I can do that, because when I am not out at work, I am with my father, and even when I am out at work, I hurry home to him. But I pretend to-night that I am at a party.'

As she made the confession, timidly hesitating, she raised her eyes to the face, and read its expression so plainly that she answered it. 'Oh no, certainly! I never was at a party in my life.' She paused a little under his attentive look, and then said, 'I hope there is no harm in it. I could never have been of any use, if I had not pretended a little.' (1.14.32-33)

It's interesting how in the beginning of the novel, even though Amy is already a fully-grown young woman of 22, a lot of her speech is childlike. Here, for instance, the repeated word "pretend" sounds like she is playing make-believe rather than painfully going along with her father's denial about the fact that his children have to work to support him. And, of course, "party" really adds to the same sense – like she is acting out a fairy tale about going to a ball.

Mr. Meagles, for six successive days, published a discreetly covert advertisement in the morning papers, to the effect that if a certain young person who had lately left home without reflection, would at any time apply to his address at Twickenham, everything would be as it had been before, and no reproaches need be apprehended. The unexpected consequences of this notification suggested to the dismayed Mr. Meagles for the first time that some hundreds of young persons must be leaving their homes without reflection every day; for shoals of wrong young people came down to Twickenham, who, not finding themselves received with enthusiasm, generally demanded compensation by way of damages, in addition to coach-hire there and back. Nor were these the only uninvited clients whom the advertisement produced. The swarm of begging-letter writers, who would seem to be always watching eagerly for any hook, however small, to hang a letter upon, wrote to say that having seen the advertisement, they were induced to apply with confidence for various sums, ranging from ten shillings to fifty pounds: not because they knew anything about the young person, but because they felt that to part with those donations would greatly relieve the advertiser's mind. (1.28.2)

Dickens's novels are always closed systems. Even though we're in a city, the characters are finite and interact only with each other. So here, it's interesting to get a sense of a wider world out there. How many of these sad young people's stories would make for equally interesting novels?

This old man is always a little old man. If he were ever a big old man, he has shrunk into a little old man; if he were always a little old man, he has dwindled into a less old man. His coat is a colour, and cut, that never was the mode anywhere, at any period. Clearly, it was not made for him, or for any individual mortal. Some wholesale contractor measured Fate for five thousand coats of such quality, and Fate has lent this old coat to this old man, as one of along unfinished line of many old men. It has always large dull metal buttons, similar to no other buttons. This old man wears a hat, a thumbed and napless and yet an obdurate hat, which has never adapted itself to the shape of his poor head. His coarse shirt and his coarse neckcloth have no more individuality than his coat and hat; they have the same character of not being his--of not being anybody's. [...] the little old man is going home to the Workhouse; and on his good behaviour they do not let him out often (though methinks they might, considering the few years he has before him to go out in, under the sun); and on his bad behaviour they shut him up closer than ever in a grove of two score and nineteen more old men, every one of whom smells of all the others.

Mrs. Plornish's father,--a poor little reedy piping old gentleman, like a worn-out bird [...] had retired of his own accord to the Workhouse which was appointed by law to be the Good Samaritan of his district (without the two pence, which was bad political economy). (1.31.1-3)

There's something startling about this. We start with the sad and intimate description of life in the Workhouse – the clothes don't fit and mark the paupers on the street immediately (picture a guy walking around in an orange jumpsuit), all the old men are treated interchangeably and smell like one another. Then we move to the public policy aspect of the place – it was "appointed by law" and in theory is meant to represent Christian charity and kindness in the form of the Good Samaritan, but in practice it begrudges pennies to the men who live there.

This reminds me that I have not been able to do so, and that I sometimes almost despair of ever being able to do so. I find that I cannot learn. Mrs. General is always with us, and we speak French and speak Italian, and she takes pains to form us in many ways. When I say we speak French and Italian, I mean they do. As for me, I am so slow that I scarcely get on at all. As soon as I begin to plan, and think, and try, all my planning, thinking, and trying go in old directions, and I begin to feel careful again about the expenses of the day, and about my dear father, and about my work, and then I remember with a start that there are no such cares left, and that in itself is so new and improbable that it sets me wandering again. I should not have the courage to mention this to any one but you. (2.4.8)

This seems like an astute observation – that a person who had grown used to counting every penny and trying to stretch what little income she had would never be able to think about money in a totally different way. It says something about how little Dorrit, Fanny, and Tip were exposed to the realities of their poverty that they adjust without a problem.

[Gowan] gave Mr. Dorrit to the Devil with great liberality some round dozen of times (for he resented patronage almost as much as he resented the want of it), and was inclined to quarrel with his friend for bringing him the message.

'It may be a defect in my mental vision, Blandois,' said he, 'but may I die if I see what you have to do with this.'

'Death of my life,' replied Blandois, 'nor I neither, except that I thought I was serving my friend.'

'By putting an upstart's hire in his pocket?' said Gowan, frowning. 'Do you mean that? Tell your other friend to get his head painted for the sign of some public-house, and to get it done by a sign-painter. Who am I, and who is he?' (2.7.33-36)

This is the problem with being in Gowan's shoes. Socially he's too high to paint Dorrit's portrait, but economically he's so low that he should accept any kind of work.

The Defaulter would make answer, 'Ah, Mr. Pancks. If I was the rich gentleman whose name is in everybody's mouth--if my name was Merdle, sir--I'd soon pay up, and be glad to do it. [...] If I was Mr. Merdle, sir, you wouldn't have cause to complain of me then. No, believe me!' the Defaulter would proceed with a shake of the head. 'I'd pay up so quick then, Mr. Pancks, that you shouldn't have to ask me.'

[...] Mr. Pancks would be now reduced to saying as he booked the case, 'Well! You'll have the broker in, and be turned out; that's what'll happen to you. It's no use talking to me about Mr. Merdle. You are not Mr. Merdle, any more than I am.'

'No, sir,' the Defaulter would reply. 'I only wish you were him, sir.'

The response would take this up quickly; replying with great feeling, 'Only wish you were him, sir.'

'You'd be easier with us if you were Mr. Merdle, sir,' the Defaulter would go on with rising spirits, 'and it would be better for all parties. Better for our sakes, and better for yours, too. You wouldn't have to worry no one, then, sir. You wouldn't have to worry us, and you wouldn't have to worry yourself. You'd be easier in your own mind, sir, and you'd leave others easier, too, you would, if you were Mr. Merdle.'

Mr. Pancks, in whom these impersonal compliments produced an irresistible sheepishness, never rallied after such a charge. He could only bite his nails and puff away to the next Defaulter. The responsive Bleeding Hearts would then gather round the Defaulter whom he had just abandoned, and the most extravagant rumours would circulate among them, to their great comfort, touching the amount of Mr. Merdle's ready money. (2.13.4-18)

Now the name Merdle is almost like a magic spell, as the tenants invoke him to get Pancks off their backs. It's interesting that at first the wish is that the tenant were Merdle (then it would be nothing to pay the rent) but that quickly transforms into wishing Pancks were Merdle (then he would presumably be a lot nicer and more relaxed). This is funny, of course, because Merdle himself is one of the least happy and relaxed people in the novel.

But, at about the time of High 'Change, Pressure began to wane, and appalling whispers to circulate, east, west, north, and south. At first they were faint, and went no further than a doubt whether Mr. Merdle's wealth would be found to be as vast as had been supposed; whether there might not be a temporary difficulty in 'realising' it; whether there might not even be a temporary suspension (say a month or so), on the part of the wonderful Bank. As the whispers became louder, which they did from that time every minute, they became more threatening. He had sprung from nothing, by no natural growth or process that any one could account for; he had been, after all, a low, ignorant fellow; he had been a down-looking man, and no one had ever been able to catch his eye; he had been taken up by all sorts of people in quite an unaccountable manner; he had never had any money of his own, his ventures had been utterly reckless, and his expenditure had been most enormous. In steady progression, as the day declined, the talk rose in sound and purpose. He had left a letter at the Baths addressed to his physician, and his physician had got the letter, and the letter would be produced at the Inquest on the morrow, and it would fall like a thunderbolt upon the multitude he had deluded. Numbers of men in every profession and trade would be blighted by his insolvency; old people who had been in easy circumstances all their lives would have no place of repentance for their trust in him but the workhouse; legions of women and children would have their whole future desolated by the hand of this mighty scoundrel. Every partaker of his magnificent feasts would be seen to have been a sharer in the plunder of innumerable homes; every servile worshipper of riches who had helped to set him on his pedestal, would have done better to worship the Devil point-blank. So, the talk, lashed louder and higher by confirmation on confirmation, and by edition after edition of the evening papers, swelled into such a roar when night cameras might have brought one to believe that a solitary watcher on the gallery above the Dome of St Paul's would have perceived the night air to be laden with a heavy muttering of the name of Merdle, coupled with every form of execration. (2.25.61)

The financial collapse is like an avalanche – slowly building up to a huge wave of destruction. The rumor mill echoes this same pattern, first starting as faint whispers, then becoming louder, then erupting into curses. The words in this paragraph in turn also echo this avalanche style, escalating the problem from a small "doubt" into the idea that they would all have been better off worshipping the devil.

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