Study Guide

Little Dorrit Pride

By Charles Dickens

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The shabby old debtor with the soft manner and the white hair, was the Father of the Marshalsea.

And he grew to be proud of the title. If any impostor had arisen to claim it, he would have shed tears in resentment of the attempt to deprive him of his rights. A disposition began to be perceived in him to exaggerate the number of years he had been there; it was generally understood that you must deduct a few from his account; he was vain, the fleeting generations of debtors said.

All new-comers were presented to him. He was punctilious in the exaction of this ceremony. The wits would perform the office of introduction with overcharged pomp and politeness, but they could not easily overstep his sense of its gravity. He received them in his poor room (he disliked an introduction in the mere yard, as informal--a thing that might happen to anybody), with a kind of bowed-down beneficence. They were welcome to the Marshalsea, he would tell them. Yes, he was the Father of the place. So the world was kind enough to call him; and so he was, if more than twenty years of residence gave him a claim to the title. (1.6.66-68)

Dickens seems right on the money here: people will create social hierarchies no matter where they are, and pride doesn't really depend on accomplishment or achievement. Check out the great detail that Dorrit thinks that meeting a new prisoner in the yard is too informal.

The Father of the Marshalsea condescended towards his brother as an amiable, well-meaning man; a private character, who had not arrived at distinction. [...]

'As many as forty or fifty in a day have been introduced to my brother,' said Frederick, faintly lighting up with a ray of pride.

'Yes!' the Father of the Marshalsea assented. 'We have even exceeded that number. On a fine Sunday in term time, it is quite a Levee--quite a Levee. Amy, my dear, I have been trying half the day to remember the name of the gentleman from Camberwell who was introduced to me last Christmas week by that agreeable coal-merchant who was remanded for six months. [...] the gentleman who did that handsome action with so much delicacy. Ha! Tush! The name has quite escaped me. Mr. Clennam, as I have happened to mention handsome and delicate action, you may like, perhaps, to know what it was.'

'Very much,' said Arthur, withdrawing his eyes from the delicate head beginning to droop and the pale face with a new solicitude stealing over it.

'It is so generous, and shows so much fine feeling, that it is almost a duty to mention it. I said at the time that I always would mention it on every suitable occasion, without regard to personal sensitiveness. A--well--a--it's of no use to disguise the fact--you must know, Mr. Clennam, that it does sometimes occur that people who come here desire to offer some little--Testimonial--to the Father of the place.' (1.8.35-45)

Pride and dignity don't always go together, as we see here. It's kind of awesome how in the space of a minute Dorrit goes from totally condescending – talking about how many prisoners get presented to him, like a king – to begging for money. He does so without batting an eye – unlike Arthur, who has to avert his eyes from the situation.

[Mrs. Plornish] was so proud of the acquaintance, that she had awakened some bitterness of spirit in the Yard by magnifying to an enormous amount the sum for which Miss Dorrit's father had become insolvent. The Bleeding Hearts resented her claiming to know people of such distinction. [...]

'Ah! And there's manners! There's polish! There's a gentleman to have run to seed in the Marshalsea jail! Why, perhaps you are not aware, 'said Plornish, lowering his voice, and speaking with a perverse admiration of what he ought to have pitied or despised, 'not aware that Miss Dorrit and her sister dursn't let him know that they work for a living. No!' said Plornish, looking with a ridiculous triumph first at his wife, and then all round the room. 'Dursn't let him know it, they dursn't!' (1.12.32-36)

OK, here comes the heavy hand of the narrator to tell us that, hey, guess what, it's really not so great that Dorrit sends his kids out to work and then pretends that they don't. Yep, we already knew that.

'I am told,' said Bishop magnate to Horse Guards, 'that Mr. Merdle has made another enormous hit. They say a hundred thousand pounds.'

Horse Guards had heard two.

Treasury had heard three.

Bar, handling his persuasive double eye-glass, was by no means clear but that it might be four. It was one of those happy strokes of calculation and combination, the result of which it was difficult to estimate. It was one of those instances of a comprehensive grasp, associated with habitual luck and characteristic boldness, of which an age presented us but few. But here was Brother Bellows, who had been in the great Bank case, and who could probably tell us more. What did Brother Bellows put this new success at?

Brother Bellows was on his way to make his bow to the bosom, and could only tell them in passing that he had heard it stated, with great appearance of truth, as being worth, from first to last, half-a-million of money. (1.21.10-14)

Here is the elite playing the same kind of game of one-upmanship about Merdle's money that Mrs. Plornish and the Bleeding Heart Yard people play about Dorrit's losses. Snobbery doesn't really discriminate, apparently – and regardless of where you are, it's all about who you know.

'And to think of Doyce and Clennam, and who Doyce can be,' said Flora; 'delightful man no doubt and married perhaps or perhaps a daughter, now has he really? then one understands the partnership and sees it all, don't tell me anything about it for I know I have no claim to ask the question the golden chain that once was forged being snapped and very proper.' [...] 'I am very happy to see you,' said Clennam, 'and I thank you, Flora, very much for your kind remembrance.'

'More than I can say myself at any rate,' returned Flora, 'for I might have been dead and buried twenty distinct times over and no doubt whatever should have been before you had genuinely remembered Me or anything like it in spite of which one last remark I wish to make, one last explanation I wish to offer--' [...] A diversion was occasioned here, by Mr. F.'s Aunt making the following inexorable and awful statement:

'There's mile-stones on the Dover road!'

With such mortal hostility towards the human race did she discharge this missile, that Clennam was quite at a loss how to defend himself; the rather as he had been already perplexed in his mind by the honour of a visit from this venerable lady, when it was plain she held him in the utmost abhorrence. He could not but look at her with disconcertment, as she sat breathing bitterness and scorn, and staring leagues away. Flora, however, received the remark as if it had been of a most apposite and agreeable nature; approvingly observing aloud that Mr. F.'s Aunt had a great deal of spirit. Stimulated either by this compliment, or by her burning indignation, that illustrious woman then added, 'Let him meet it if he can!' And, with a rigid movement of her stony reticule (an appendage of great size and of a fossil appearance), indicated that Clennam was the unfortunate person at whom the challenge was hurled. (1.23.30-40)

This might be the moment when Dickens changed from having Mr. F.'s Aunt be simply a crazy old woman who says random things about the Dover road because she hates "the human race" to becoming the angry voice of Flora's inner self, whose anger and verbal challenges are directed only at Arthur. (For more on this, see "Characters.")

Mrs. Plornish was as proud of her father's talents as she could possibly have been if they had made him Lord Chancellor. She had as firm a belief in the sweetness and propriety of his manners as she could possibly have had if he had been Lord Chamberlain. The poor little old man knew some pale and vapid little songs, long out of date, about Chloe, and Phyllis, and Strephon being wounded by the son of Venus; and for Mrs. Plornish there was no such music at the Opera as the small internal flutterings and chirpings wherein he would discharge himself of these ditties, like a weak, little, broken barrel-organ, ground by a baby. On his 'days out,' those flecks of light in his flat vista of pollard old men,' it was at once Mrs. Plornish's delight and sorrow, when he was strong with meat, and had taken his full halfpenny-worth of porter, to say, 'Sing us a song, Father.' Then he would give them Chloe, and if he were in pretty good spirits, Phyllis also--Strephon he had hardly been up to since he went into retirement--and then would Mrs. Plornish declare she did believe there never was such a singer as Father, and wipe her eyes [...]

Mr. Dorrit was in the habit of receiving this old man as if the old man held of him in vassalage under some feudal tenure. He made little treats and teas for him, as if he came in with his homage from some outlying district where the tenantry were in a primitive state.

It seemed as if there were moments when he could by no means have sworn but that the old man was an ancient retainer of his, who had been meritoriously faithful. When he mentioned him, he spoke of him casually as his old pensioner. He had a wonderful satisfaction in seeing him, and in commenting on his decayed condition after he was gone. It appeared to him amazing that he could hold up his head at all, poor creature. 'In the Workhouse, sir, the Union; no privacy, no visitors, no station, no respect, no speciality. Most deplorable!' (1.31.4-8)

These feelings about Old Nandy both take the form of pride, but of very different kinds. Mrs. Plornish's pride is aspirational and hopeful – she imagines Old Nandy is a very gifted singer. Dorrit's pride, on the other hand, just runs Old Nandy down – he imagines him a feudal vassal and is psyched to find evidence of him growing physically debilitated.

Among her connections and acquaintances, however, [Mrs. Gowan] maintained her individual dignity and the dignity of the blood of the Barnacles, by diligently nursing the pretence that it was a most unfortunate business; that she was sadly cut up by it; that this was a perfect fascination under which Henry laboured; that she had opposed it for a long time, but what could a mother do; and the like. [...] With the utmost politeness and good-breeding, she feigned that it was she--not [Meagles]--who had made the difficulty, and who at length gave way; and that the sacrifice was hers--not his. The same feint, with the same polite dexterity, she foisted on Mrs. Meagles, as a conjuror might have forced a card on that innocent lady; and, when her future daughter-in-law was presented to her by her son, she said on embracing her, 'My dear, what have you done to Henry that has bewitched him so!' at the same time allowing a few tears to carry before them, in little pills, the cosmetic powder on her nose; as a delicate but touching signal that she suffered much inwardly for the show of composure with which she bore her misfortune. (1.33.3)

Mrs. Gowan might not have money, but she does have some aristocratic tricks of good breeding up her sleeve – like killing with kindness. Her maneuvers are so skillful that the narrator flat-out compares her to a stage magician doing card tricks. It's not surprising that the spin she puts on this marriage sticks, and everywhere the Gowans go, everyone assumes that it's Henry who got the raw end of the deal.

Nothing could exceed Mr. Dorrit's indignation, as he turned at the foot of the staircase on hearing these apologies. He felt that the family dignity was struck at by an assassin's hand. He had a sense of his dignity, which was of the most exquisite nature. He could detect a design upon it when nobody else had any perception of the fact. His life was made an agony by the number of fine scalpels that he felt to be incessantly engaged in dissecting his dignity.

'Is it possible, sir,' said Mr. Dorrit, reddening excessively, 'that you have--ha--had the audacity to place one of my rooms at the disposition of any other person?'

Thousands of pardons! It was the host's profound misfortune to have been overcome by that too genteel lady. He besought Monseigneur not to enrage himself. He threw himself on Monseigneur for clemency. If Monseigneur would have the distinguished goodness to occupy the other salon especially reserved for him, for but five minutes, all would go well.

[...] 'I tell you, sir,' said Mr. Dorrit, panting with anger, 'that you separate me--ha--from other gentlemen; that you make distinctions between me and other gentlemen of fortune and station. I demand of you, why? I wish to know on--ha--what authority, on whose authority. Reply sir. Explain. Answer why.' (2.3.42-50)

We love the progression of damage to Dorrit's dignity described here as it goes from brutal and point-blank to more and more refined and niche. First, it's attacked by an assassin, then by some kind of organized conspiracy, then by the sharp and exacting knife of the vivisector. (A vivisector was a biologist back in the day who would dissect animals while they were still alive to find out how they work. Totally horrible.)

'Amy, my dear Amy,' retorted Fanny, parodying her words, 'I know that I wish to have a more defined and distinct position, in which I can assert myself with greater effect against that insolent woman. [...] she little thinks how I would retort upon her if I married her son. I would oppose her in everything, and compete with her. I would make it the business of my life. [...] I would talk of her as an old woman. I would pretend to know--if I didn't, but I should from her son--all about her age. And she should hear me say, Amy: affectionately, quite dutifully and affectionately: how well she looked, considering her time of life. I could make her seem older at once, by being myself so much younger. I may not be as handsome as she is; I am not a fair judge of that question, I suppose; but I know I am handsome enough to be a thorn in her side. And I would be!'

'My dear sister, would you condemn yourself to an unhappy life for this?'

'It wouldn't be an unhappy life, Amy. It would be the life I am fitted for.' (2.14.40-49)

Imagine marrying some guy just to get back at his mom. Yikes. Also, why does Fanny hate Mrs. Merdle with such an undying passion? Is it because Mrs. Merdle wounded her ego – the one place Fanny cannot take any kind of injury? Do we ever see Fanny forgiving anyone else?

Mr. Dorrit, on being informed by his elder daughter that she had accepted matrimonial overtures from Mr. Sparkler, to whom she had plighted her troth, received the communication at once with great dignity and with a large display of parental pride; his dignity dilating with the widened prospect of advantageous ground from which to make acquaintances, and his parental pride being developed by Miss Fanny's ready sympathy with that great object of his existence. He gave her to understand that her noble ambition found harmonious echoes in his heart; and bestowed his blessing on her, as a child brimful of duty and good principle, self-devoted to the aggrandisement of the family name. (2.15.1)

Oh nice – here we've got the intersection of duty and pride, which immediately totally twists the whole idea of a daughter's duty. What is Fanny's great score in getting engaged to the idiot Sparkler? That she's going to "aggrandize" the Dorrit name. Dorrit doesn't even bother to find out if Fanny even likes Sparkler.

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