Study Guide

Little Dorrit Respect and Reputation

By Charles Dickens

Respect and Reputation

'Cavalletto,' said Monsieur Rigaud, suddenly withdrawing his gaze from this funnel to which they had both involuntarily turned their eyes, 'you know me for a gentleman? [...] Have I ever done anything here? Ever touched the broom, or spread the mats, or rolled them up, or found the draughts, or collected the dominoes, or put my hand to any kind of work? [...] No! You knew from the first moment when you saw me here, that I was a gentleman?'

'ALTRO!' returned John Baptist, closing his eyes and giving his head a most vehement toss. The word being, according to its Genoese emphasis, a confirmation, a contradiction, an assertion, a denial, a taunt, a compliment, a joke, and fifty other things, became in the present instance, with a significance beyond all power of written expression, our familiar English 'I believe you!'
'Haha! You are right! A gentleman I am! And a gentleman I'll live, and a gentleman I'll die! It's my intent to be a gentleman. It's my game. Death of my soul, I play it out wherever I go!' (1.1.58-69)

Rigaud's obsession with acting out the part of a gentleman is only slightly more extreme than Dorrit's monomania. But he's really got such awesome flamboyance, doesn't he?

'Why, I'm getting proud of you,' said his friend the turnkey, one day. 'You'll be the oldest inhabitant soon. The Marshalsea wouldn't be like the Marshalsea now, without you and your family.'

The turnkey really was proud of him. He would mention him in laudatory terms to new-comers, when his back was turned. 'You took notice of him,' he would say, 'that went out of the lodge just now? [...] Brought up as a gentleman, he was, if ever a man was. Ed'cated at no end of expense. Went into the Marshal's house once to try a new pianoforte him. Played it, I understand, like one o'clock--beautiful! As to languages--speaks anything. We've had a Frenchman here in his time, and it's my opinion he knowed more French than the Frenchman did. We've had an Italian here in his time, and he shut him up in about half a minute. You'll find some characters behind other locks, I don't say you won't; but if you want the top sawyer in such respects as I've mentioned, you must come to the Marshalsea.' (1.6.57-60)

The novel is always tracing the way a rise in social standing affects those close to the up-and-comer. For a while, it's a rising tide that lefts all boats – but as soon as the gulf becomes too broad, the old acquaintances are shut out. Well, except in prison, obviously, since no prisoners can really ignore the turnkey.

Mews Street, Grosvenor Square, was not absolutely Grosvenor Square itself, but it was very near it. It was a hideous little street of dead wall, stables, and dunghills, with lofts over coach-houses inhabited by coachmen's families, who had a passion for drying clothes and decorating their window-sills with miniature turnpike-gates. The principal chimney-sweep of that fashionable quarter lived at the blind end of Mews Street; and the same corner contained an establishment much frequented about early morning and twilight for the purchase of wine-bottles and kitchen-stuff. Punch's shows used to lean against the dead wall in Mews Street, while their proprietors were dining elsewhere; and the dogs of the neighbourhood made appointments to meet in the same locality. Yet there were two or three small airless houses at the entrance end of Mews Street, which went at enormous rents on account of their being abject hangers-on to a fashionable situation; and whenever one of these fearful little coops was to be let (which seldom happened, for they were in great request), the house agent advertised it as a gentlemanly residence in the most aristocratic part of town, inhabited solely by the elite of the beau monde. (1.10.32)

And hey, the deal with real estate prices is still pretty much the same – location, location, location!

The opinion of the Yard was divided respecting the derivation of its name. The more practical of its inmates abided by the tradition of a murder; the gentler and more imaginative inhabitants, including the whole of the tender sex, were loyal to the legend of a young lady of former times closely imprisoned in her chamber by a cruel father for remaining true to her own true love, and refusing to marry the suitor he chose for her. The legend related how that the young lady used to be seen up at her window behind the bars, murmuring a love-lorn song of which the burden was, 'Bleeding Heart, Bleeding Heart, bleeding away,' until she died. It was objected by the murderous party that this Refrain was notoriously the invention of a tambour-worker, a spinster and romantic, still lodging in the Yard. But, forasmuch as all favourite legends must be associated with the affections, and as many more people fall in love than commit murder--which it may be hoped, howsoever bad we are, will continue until the end of the world to be the dispensation under which we shall live--the Bleeding Heart, Bleeding Heart, bleeding away story, carried the day by a great majority. Neither party would listen to the antiquaries who delivered learned lectures in the neighbourhood, showing the Bleeding Heart to have been the heraldic cognisance of the old family to whom the property had once belonged. And, considering that the hour-glass they turned from year to year was filled with the earthiest and coarsest sand, the Bleeding Heart Yarders had reason enough for objecting to be despoiled of the one little golden grain of poetry that sparkled in it. (1.12.3)

Many of the descriptions of Bleeding Heart Yard mush all the people who live there into one huge mass with a hive mentality. What do you think about the three potential derivations of the name of their yard? Why don't "they" want to believe the most basic – and most likely – of the explanations?

Patriarch was the name which many people delighted to give him. Various old ladies in the neighbourhood spoke of him as The Last of the Patriarchs. So grey, so slow, so quiet, so impassionate, so very bumpy in the head, Patriarch was the word for him. He had been accosted in the streets, and respectfully solicited to become a Patriarch for painters and for sculptors; with so much importunity, in sooth, that it would appear to be beyond the Fine Arts to remember the points of a Patriarch, or to invent one. Philanthropists of both sexes had asked who he was, and on being informed, 'Old Christopher Casby, formerly Town-agent to Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle,' had cried in a rapture of disappointment, 'Oh! why, with that head, is he not a benefactor to his species! Oh! why, with that head, is he not a father to the orphan and a friend to the friendless!' With that head, however, he remained old Christopher Casby, proclaimed by common report rich in house property; [...] His smooth face had a bloom upon it like ripe wall-fruit. What with his blooming face, and that head, and his blue eyes, he seemed to be delivering sentiments of rare wisdom and virtue. In like manner, his physiognomical expression seemed to teem with benignity. Nobody could have said where the wisdom was, or where the virtue was, or where the benignity was; but they all seemed to be somewhere about him. (1.13.8-24)

OK, let's get the deal straight. This Casby book? Don't judge it by its cover. But all those other books, like Blandois? Those you can go ahead and judge by their covers. Got it? OK then.

[Clennam] had come to attach to Little Dorrit an interest so peculiar--an interest that removed her from, while it grew out of, the common and coarse things surrounding her--that he found it disappointing, disagreeable, almost painful, to suppose her in love with young Mr. Chivery in the back-yard, or any such person. On the other hand, he reasoned with himself that she was just as good and just as true in love with him, as not in love with him; and that to make a kind of domesticated fairy of her, on the penalty of isolation at heart from the only people she knew, would be but a weakness of his own fancy, and not a kind one. Still, her youthful and ethereal appearance, her timid manner, the charm of her sensitive voice and eyes, the very many respects in which she had interested him out of her own individuality, and the strong difference between herself and those about her, were not in unison, and were determined not to be in unison, with this newly presented idea. (1.22.32)

This isn't just how Arthur thinks about Amy, it's how the novel thinks about her too, right? After all, wouldn't we all be extremely disappointed if she were in love with John Chivery, and that ended up being her small and insignificant fate? Aren't we led to believe that she really is some kind of magical fairy who stands apart from everyone around her?

'Mrs. Finching has been telling me, sir,' said Arthur, after making his acknowledgments; the relict of the late Mr. F. meanwhile protesting, with a gesture, against his use of that respectable name; 'that she hopes occasionally to employ the young needlewoman you recommended to my mother. For which I have been thanking her.'

The Patriarch turning his head in a lumbering way towards Pancks, that assistant put up the note-book in which he had been absorbed, and took him in tow.

'You didn't recommend her, you know,' said Pancks; 'how could you? You knew nothing about her, you didn't. The name was mentioned to you, and you passed it on. That's what YOU did.'

'Well!' said Clennam. 'As she justifies any recommendation, it is much the same thing.'

'You are glad she turns out well,' said Pancks, 'but it wouldn't have been your fault if she had turned out ill. The credit's not yours as it is, and the blame wouldn't have been yours as it might have been. You gave no guarantee. You knew nothing about her. [...] As to being a reference,' said Pancks, 'you know, in a general way, what being a reference means. It's all your eye, that is! Look at your tenants down the Yard here. They'd all be references for one another, if you'd let 'em. What would be the good of letting 'em? It's no satisfaction to be done by two men instead of one. One's enough. A person who can't pay, gets another person who can't pay, to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs, to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don't make either of them able to do a walking match. And four wooden legs are more troublesome to you than two, when you don't want any.' Mr. Pancks concluded by blowing off that steam of his. (1.23.70-77)

And so Pancks completes the three-legged stool of capitalist thought – in a credit economy, it's important to figure out how references and background checks on potential hires and partners actually work.

"It may be a vice, it may be a virtue, but adoration of female beauty and merit constitutes three parts of my character." (1.30.70)

Why is this uber-gallantry part of how Blandois plays a gentleman? After all, none of the novel's actual gentleman have this kind of stylized regard for the ladies.

To have no work to do was strange, but not half so strange as having glided into a corner where she had no one to think for, nothing to plan and contrive, no cares of others to load herself with. Strange as that was, it was far stranger yet to find a space between herself and her father, where others occupied themselves in taking care of him, and where she was never expected to be. At first, this was so much more unlike her old experience than even the mountains themselves, that she had been unable to resign herself to it, and had tried to retain her old place about him. But he had spoken to her alone, and had said that people--ha--people in an exalted position, my dear, must scrupulously exact respect from their dependents; and that for her, his daughter, Miss Amy Dorrit, of the sole remaining branch of the Dorrits of Dorsetshire, to be known to--hum--to occupy herself in fulfilling the functions of--ha hum--a valet, would be incompatible with that respect. Therefore, my dear, he--ha--he laid his parental injunctions upon her, to remember that she was a lady, who had now to conduct herself with--hum--a proper pride, and to preserve the rank of a lady; and consequently he requested her to abstain from doing what would occasion--ha--unpleasant and derogatory remarks. She had obeyed without a murmur. Thus it had been brought about that she now sat in her corner of the luxurious carriage with her little patient hands folded before her, quite displaced even from the last point of the old standing ground in life on which her feet had lingered. (2.3.71)

A higher social status means much less interpersonal contact, since everything is supposed to go through servants and other hired help. What an interesting finding, and a cool thing for Dickens to catch and record. This would be crazy hard to get used to for a person like Amy! No wonder she immediately latches onto her uncle as someone who can be physically cared for – and then later, her brother.

[Merdle] took his usual poor eighteen pennyworth of food in his usual indigestive way, and had as little to say for himself as ever a wonderful man had. Fortunately Lord Decimus was one of those sublimities who have no occasion to be talked to, for they can be at any time sufficiently occupied with the contemplation of their own greatness. (2.12.29)

Ha! No one has to entertain Lord Decimus because he has a good enough time just thinking about his own awesomeness. That's fantastic.