Study Guide

Little Dorrit Power

By Charles Dickens


'How could you help yourself from being married! [...] Was it my mother's project, then?'

'The Lord bless you, Arthur, and forgive me the wish!' cried Affery, speaking always in a low tone. 'If they hadn't been both of a mind in it, how could it ever have been? Jeremiah never courted me; t'ant likely that he would, after living in the house with me and ordering me about for as many years as he'd done. He said to me one day, he said, "Affery," he said, "now I am going to tell you something. What do you think of the name of Flintwinch?" "What do I think of it?" I says." Yes," he said, "because you're going to take it," he said. "Take it?" I says. "Jere-MI-ah?" Oh! he's a clever one! [...] Jeremiah then says to me, "As to banns, next Sunday being the third time of asking (for I've put 'em up a fortnight), is my reason for naming Monday. She'll speak to you about it herself, and now she'll find you prepared, Affery." That same day she spoke to me, and she said, "So, Affery, I understand that you and Jeremiah are going to be married. I am glad of it, and so are you, with reason. It is a very good thing for you, and very welcome under the circumstances to me. He is a sensible man, and a trustworthy man, and a persevering man, and a pious man. "What could I say when it had come to that? Why, if it had been--a smothering instead of a wedding,' Mrs. Flintwinch cast about in her mind with great pains for this form of expression, 'I couldn't have said a word upon it, against them two clever ones.' (1.3.90-98)

Affery is so terrified of Mrs. Clennam and Flintwinch that she cannot even imagine a way to avoid doing whatever they demand of her. Also, that's a fantastic bit about the wedding being just like a "smothering." Imagine being invited to something like that.

Woe to the suppliant, if such a one there were or ever had been, who had any concession to look for in the inexorable face at the cabinet. Woe to the defaulter whose appeal lay to the tribunal where those severe eyes presided. Great need had the rigid woman of her mystical religion, veiled in gloom and darkness, with lightnings of cursing, vengeance, and destruction, flashing through the sable clouds. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, was a prayer too poor in spirit for her. Smite Thou my debtors, Lord, wither them, crush them; do Thou as I would do, and Thou shalt have my worship: this was the impious tower of stone she built up to scale Heaven. (1.5.28)

For Mrs. Clennam, the appeal of Christianity is how powerful God is to do damage to whomever deserves it. She doesn't fully get the religion; her version of it is almost like worshipping a superhero or something.

Tip tired of everything. With intervals of Marshalsea lounging, and Mrs. Bangham succession, his small second mother, aided by her trusty friend, got him into a warehouse, into a market garden, into the hop trade, into the law again, into an auctioneers, into a brewery, into a stockbroker's, into the law again, into a coach office, into a wagon office, into the law again, into a general dealer's, into a distillery, into the law again, into a wool house, into a dry goods house, into the Billingsgate trade, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks. But whatever Tip went into, he came out of tired, announcing that he had cut it. Wherever he went, this foredoomed Tip appeared to take the prison walls with him, and to set them up in such trade or calling; and to prowl about within their narrow limits in the old slip-shod, purposeless, down-at-heel way; until the real immovable Marshalsea walls asserted their fascination over him, and brought him back. (1.7.75)

The novel is fascinated with the way some ideas can grip the mind and not let go. Tip has been so shaped by growing up with criminals, conmen, and other various lowlifes that he will never outgrow his childhood fascination with them.

It is true that How not to do it was the great study and object of all public departments and professional politicians all round the Circumlocution Office. It is true that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they had upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering How not to do it. It is true that from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on hustings because it hadn't been done, and who had been asking the friends of the honourable gentleman in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn't been done, and who had been asserting that it must be done, and who had been pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise, How it was not to be done. It is true that the debates of both Houses of Parliament the whole session through, uniformly tended to the protracted deliberation, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech at the opening of such session virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have a considerable stroke of work to do, and you will please to retire to your respective chambers, and discuss, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech, at the close of such session, virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have through several laborious months been considering with great loyalty and patriotism, How not to do it, and you have found out; and with the blessing of Providence upon the harvest (natural, not political), I now dismiss you. (1.10.4)

The amazing power of the Circumlocution Office lies in the fact that there were no civil service exams back in the 19th century, and government jobs were handed out by uncontestable appointment. So of course nepotism was rife, as dads set up sons and nephews in comfortable positions. Dickens is writing just as England is gearing up for the first set of reforms that would introduce merit-based competition for these jobs, after the widespread government failures in the Crimean War.

Bar [...] had been required to look over the title of a very considerable estate in one of the eastern counties--lying, in fact, for Mr. Merdle knew we lawyers loved to be particular, on the borders of two of the eastern counties. [...] Such a purchase would involve not only a great legitimate political influence, but some half-dozen church presentations of considerable annual value. Now, that Mr. Merdle was already at no loss to discover means of occupying even his capital, and of fully employing even his active and vigorous intellect, Bar well knew: but he would venture to suggest that the question arose in his mind, whether one who had deservedly gained so high a position and so European a reputation did not owe it--we would not say to himself, but we would say to Society, to possess himself of such influences as these; and to exercise them--we would not say for his own, or for his party's, but we would say for Society's--benefit. (1.21.27)

So this is a fun little passage. Basically, Bar is telling Merdle to buy a piece of land because with this estate he would control two things: he'd have a seat in Parliament to give away, and he'd also control the appointment of a comfortable position for a priest or two. This is just a small example of something called the "Old Corruption" – which was basically the way people in power would appoint their followers to cushy government jobs or church positions. This would both reward the followers and maintain the elite's power base, in a cycle that was very hard to break. Reforms to the Old Corruption started coming hard and fast just before Dickens began this novel, and since he set Little Dorrit 30 years before his own time, his characters are right in the thick of the spoils system.

It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; [...] they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did. In this belief, to be sure, they had long been carefully trained by the Barnacles and Stiltstalkings, who were always proclaiming to them, officially, that no country which failed to submit itself to those two large families could possibly hope to be under the protection of Providence [...] This, therefore, might be called a political position of the Bleeding Hearts; but they entertained other objections to having foreigners in the Yard. They believed that foreigners were always badly off; and though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be, that did not diminish the force of the objection. They believed that foreigners were dragooned and bayoneted; and though they certainly got their own skulls promptly fractured if they showed any ill-humour, still it was with a blunt instrument, and that didn't count. They believed that foreigners were always immoral; and though they had an occasional assize at home, and now and then a divorce case or so, that had nothing to do with it. They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing. (1.25.34-35)

Oh, the irony is thick here. Also, a pretty great description of the power of propaganda. Note how the narrator basically says that the people who live in Bleeding Heart Yard are prejudiced because they've been told what to think about foreigners by their government. It's actually a double insult: the government is cynical and opportunistic, but the British people are lazy-minded and don't want to think for themselves.

Mr. Blandois being enraptured, they walked through other garrets and passages, and came down the staircase again. By this time Mr. Flintwinch had remarked that he never found the visitor looking at any room, after throwing one quick glance around, but always found the visitor looking at him, Mr. Flintwinch. With this discovery in his thoughts, he turned about on the staircase for another experiment. He met his eyes directly; and on the instant of their fixing one another, the visitor, with that ugly play of nose and moustache, laughed (as he had done at every similar moment since they left Mrs. Clennam's chamber) a diabolically silent laugh.

As a much shorter man than the visitor, Mr. Flintwinch was at the physical disadvantage of being thus disagreeably leered at from a height; and as he went first down the staircase, and was usually a step or two lower than the other, this disadvantage was at the time increased. He postponed looking at Mr. Blandois again until this accidental inequality was removed by their having entered the late Mr. Clennam's room. But, then twisting himself suddenly round upon him, he found his look unchanged. (1.30.93-95)

Blandois's evil appearance helps him out a lot. He's got way less actual threatening to do when his mustache alone has this much intimidation factor.

Now, Mrs. Merdle, who really knew her friend Society pretty well, and who knew what Society's mothers were, and what Society's daughters were, and what Society's matrimonial market was, and how prices ruled in it, and what scheming and counter-scheming took place for the high buyers, and what bargaining and huckstering went on, thought in the depths of her capacious bosom that this was a sufficiently good catch. Knowing, however, what was expected of her, and perceiving the exact nature of the fiction to be nursed, she took it delicately in her arms, and put her required contribution of gloss upon it... And Mrs. Gowan, who of course saw through her own threadbare blind perfectly, and who knew that Mrs. Merdle saw through it perfectly, and who knew that Society would see through it perfectly, came out of this form, notwithstanding, as she had gone into it, with immense complacency and gravity. (1.33.35-41)

It makes sense that Mrs. Gowan, who we saw earlier playing the hilarious games of hide-the-bed and hide-the-kitchen and ignore-the-yelling-servants in her tiny, crummy house, is now playing an even more cynical game of spin-the-story-of-the-marriage. Shmoop loves the "she knows that I know that she knows that I know" aspect of their conversation.

[Doyce] had the power, often to be found in union with such a character, of explaining what he himself perceived, and meant, with the direct force and distinctness with which it struck his own mind. His manner of demonstration was so orderly and neat and simple, that it was not easy to mistake him. There was something almost ludicrous in the complete irreconcilability of a vague conventional notion that he must be a visionary man, with the precise, sagacious travelling of his eye and thumb over the plans, their patient stoppages at particular points, their careful returns to other points whence little channels of explanation had to be traced up, and his steady manner of making everything good and everything sound at each important stage, before taking his hearer on a line's-breadth further. His dismissal of himself from his description, was hardly less remarkable. He never said, I discovered this adaptation or invented that combination; but showed the whole thing as if the Divine artificer had made it, and he had happened to find it; so modest he was about it, such a pleasant touch of respect was mingled with his quiet admiration of it, and so calmly convinced he was that it was established on irrefragable laws. (2.8.10)

Is there something in this description of Doyce's straightforwardness that's meant to connect him with the narrator's project of laying out a story in a coherent way? What are the similarities? What are the differences? How does Doyce's power over his description differ from the narrator's?

'Oh, it's a good story, as a story,' returned that gentleman; 'as good a thing of its kind as need be. This Mr. Dorrit (his name is Dorrit) had incurred a responsibility to us, ages before the fairy came out of the Bank and gave him his fortune [...] When the fairy had appeared and he wanted to pay us off, Egad we had got into such an exemplary state of checking and counter-checking, signing and counter-signing, that it was six months before we knew how to take the money, or how to give a receipt for it. It was a triumph of public business,' said this handsome young Barnacle, laughing heartily, 'You never saw such a lot of forms in your life.' [...] Mr. Tite Barnacle's view of the business was of a less airy character. He took it ill that Mr. Dorrit had troubled the Department by wanting to pay the money, and considered it a grossly informal thing to do after so many years. (2.12.48-49)

It might be interesting to try to find all the instances where characters find something too "informal," and how ludicrous each example is. Here, Barnacle thinks that paying back a debt to get out of prison is informal. Dorrit thinks it's too informal to meet new prisoners walking around the yard. Can you think of other people who use this word? Is it ever really appropriate in the novel or is it always just a way to assert superiority?