Study Guide

Little Dorrit The Home

By Charles Dickens

The Home

Fifty thousand lairs surrounded him where people lived so unwholesomely that air water put into their crowded rooms on Saturday night, would be corrupt on Sunday morning; albeit my lord, their county member, was amazed that they failed to sleep in company with their butcher's meat. Miles of close wells and pits of houses, where the inhabitants gasped for air, stretched far away towards every point of the compass. Through the heart of the town a deadly sewer ebbed and flowed, in the place of a fine fresh river. What secular want could the million or so of human beings whose daily labour, six days in the week, lay among these Arcadian objects, from the sweet sameness of which they had no escape between the cradle and the grave--what secular want could they possibly have upon their seventh day? Clearly they could want nothing but a stringent policeman. (1.3.2)

Imagery of contagion and disease runs through the novel. Dickens's reader would immediately have thought of the recent cholera outbreaks in London when they read this passage. This was before the germ theory of disease was in wide circulation, and the general consensus was that epidemics were somehow related to dirt and pollution.

'Mother, our House has done less and less for some years past, and our dealings have been progressively on the decline. We have never shown much confidence, or invited much; we have attached no people to us; the track we have kept is not the track of the time; and we have been left far behind. I need not dwell on this to you, mother. You know it necessarily.'

'I know what you mean,' she answered, in a qualified tone. 'Even this old house in which we speak,' pursued her son, 'is an instance of what I say. In my father's earlier time, and in his uncle's time before him, it was a place of business--really a place of business, and business resort. Now, it is a mere anomaly and incongruity here, out of date and out of purpose. All our consignments have long been made to Rovinghams' the commission-merchants; and although, as a check upon them, and in the stewardship of my father's resources, your judgment and watchfulness have been actively exerted, still those qualities would have influenced my father's fortunes equally, if you had lived in any private dwelling: would they not?'

'Do you consider,' she returned, without answering his question, 'that a house serves no purpose, Arthur, in sheltering your infirm and afflicted--justly infirm and righteously afflicted--mother?'

'I was speaking only of business purposes.' (1.5.16-19)

A great play here on two meanings of the word "house." Arthur is talking about the "House" as another word for firm or business – a place where family love and sentimentality don't belong. His mother immediately guilt-trips him by speaking of the house as a shelter for "your infirm mother." Nice.

You are going back?'

'Oh yes! going straight home.'

'As I take you back,' the word home jarred upon him, 'let me ask you to persuade yourself that you have another friend. I make no professions, and say no more.'

'You are truly kind to me, sir. I am sure I need no more.'

They walked back through the miserable muddy streets, and among the poor, mean shops, and were jostled by the crowds of dirty hucksters usual to a poor neighbourhood. There was nothing, by the short way, that was pleasant to any of the five senses. Yet it was not a common passage through common rain, and mire, and noise, to Clennam, having this little, slender, careful creature on his arm. How young she seemed to him, or how old he to her; or what a secret either to the other, in that beginning of the destined interweaving of their stories, matters not here. He thought of her having been born and bred among these scenes, and shrinking through them now, familiar yet misplaced; he thought of her long acquaintance with the squalid needs of life, and of her innocence; of her solicitude for others, and her few years, and her childish aspect. (1.9.81-85)

Another play on words. Amy says she's going home, using the phrase unthinkingly, as an idiom. Arthur can't help but get stuck on how strange it is to call a prison home.

First, there was the subject seldom absent from [Arthur's] mind, the question, what he was to do henceforth in life; to what occupation he should devote himself, and in what direction he had best seek it. He was far from rich, and every day of indecision and inaction made his inheritance a source of greater anxiety to him. As often as he began to consider how to increase this inheritance, or to lay it by, so often his misgiving that there was some one with an unsatisfied claim upon his justice, returned; [...] Little Dorrit was a leading and a constant subject: for the circumstances of his life, united to those of her own story, presented the little creature to him as the only person between whom and himself there were ties of innocent reliance on one hand, and affectionate protection on the other; ties of compassion, respect, unselfish interest, gratitude, and pity. Thinking of her, and of the possibility of her father's release from prison by the unbarring hand of death--the only change of circumstance he could foresee that might enable him to be such a friend to her as he wished to be, by altering her whole manner of life, smoothing her rough road, and giving her a home--he regarded her, in that perspective, as his adopted daughter, his poor child of the Marshalsea hushed to rest. (1.16.3)

It's ironic that all Arthur ever wants to do is to protect Amy and give her the kind of life she's never had. Ironic because when they do finally get together, they are poor by choice, and it's she who is taking care of him. He finally starts to see her as she really is – strong and not in need of protection.

It was a charming place (none the worse for being a little eccentric), on the road by the river, and just what the residence of the Meagles family ought to be. It stood in a garden, no doubt as fresh and beautiful in the May of the Year as Pet now was in the May of her life; and it was defended by a goodly show of handsome trees and spreading evergreens, as Pet was by Mr. and Mrs. Meagles. It was made out of an old brick house, of which a part had been altogether pulled down, and another part had been changed into the present cottage; so there was a hale elderly portion, to represent Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, and a young picturesque, very pretty portion to represent Pet. There was even the later addition of a conservatory sheltering itself against it, uncertain of hue in its deep-stained glass, and in its more transparent portions flashing to the sun's rays, now like fire and now like harmless water drops; which might have stood for Tattycoram. (1.16.24)

The Meagleses' house is just what a home ought to be, especially in the 19th century imagination: a snug little middle-class place, well taken care of but not too rigidly constructed. What do you make of the way the architecture is supposed to represent the family members?

He heard the thrill in her voice, he saw her earnest face, he saw her clear true eyes, he saw the quickened bosom that would have joyfully thrown itself before him to receive a mortal wound directed at his breast, with the dying cry, 'I love him!' and the remotest suspicion of the truth never dawned upon his mind. No. He saw the devoted little creature with her worn shoes, in her common dress, in her jail-home; a slender child in body, a strong heroine in soul; and the light of her domestic story made all else dark to him. (1.32.36)

This is more of Arthur looking right past Amy the woman and just seeing sad Little Dorrit, the poor prison girl. The use of the word "domestic" is interesting here – it's like he's so used to conflating Amy with her home (however much he tries not to let himself be biased that way) that he can't imagine what she would be like outside of it.

Uncle [Frederick] suddenly fixed the attention of all three by rising out of his chair, striking his hand upon the table and saying, 'Brother! I protest against it! [...] Brother!' said the old man, conveying a surprising energy into his trembling voice, 'I protest against it! I love you; you know I love you dearly. In these many years I have never been untrue to you in a single thought. Weak as I am, I would at any time have struck any man who spoke ill of you. But, brother, brother, brother, I protest against it! [...] How dare you,' said the old man, turning round on Fanny, 'how dare you do it? Have you no memory? Have you no heart?'

'Uncle?' cried Fanny, affrighted and bursting into tears, 'why do you attack me in this cruel manner? What have I done?'

'Done?' returned the old man, pointing to her sister's place, 'where's your affectionate invaluable friend? Where's your devoted guardian? Where's your more than mother? How dare you set up superiorities against all these characters combined in your sister? For shame, you false girl, for shame! [...] Brother, I protest against pride. I protest against ingratitude. I protest against any one of us here who have known what we have known, and have seen what we have seen, setting up any pretension that puts Amy at a moment's disadvantage, or to the cost of a moment's pain. We may know that it's a base pretension by its having that effect. It ought to bring a judgment on us. Brother, I protest against it in the sight of God!' (2.5.105-114)

The language here is amazing – such a contrast to the kinds of words this family usually uses to talk to each other. Frederick brings up the associations of home: "memory," "heart," "mother" – precisely the kind of thoughts the Dorrits try to never invoke and to aggressively forget.

[Arthur] slowly walked in the direction of that grim home of his youth.

It always affected his imagination as wrathful, mysterious, and sad; and his imagination was sufficiently impressible to see the whole neighbourhood under some tinge of its dark shadow. As he went along, upon a dreary night, the dim streets by which he went, seemed all depositories of oppressive secrets. The deserted counting-houses, with their secrets of books and papers locked up in chests and safes; the banking-houses, with their secrets of strong rooms and wells, the keys of which were in a very few secret pockets and a very few secret breasts; the secrets of all the dispersed grinders in the vast mill, among whom there were doubtless plunderers, forgers, and trust-betrayers of many sorts, whom the light of any day that dawned might reveal; he could have fancied that these things, in hiding, imparted a heaviness to the air. The shadow thickening and thickening as he approached its source, he thought of the secrets of the lonely church-vaults, where the people who had hoarded and secreted in iron coffers were in their turn similarly hoarded, not yet at rest from doing harm; and then of the secrets of the river, as it rolled its turbid tide between two frowning wildernesses of secrets, extending, thick and dense, for many miles, and warding off the free air and the free country swept by winds and wings of birds.

The shadow still darkening as he drew near the house, the melancholy room which his father had once occupied, haunted by the appealing face he had himself seen fade away with him when there was no other watcher by the bed, arose before his mind. Its close air was secret. The gloom, and must, and dust of the whole tenement, were secret. At the heart of it his mother presided, inflexible of face, indomitable of will, firmly holding all the secrets of her own and his father's life, and austerely opposing herself, front to front, to the great final secret of all life. (2.10.3-5)

Wow, what a horrible family Arthur grew up in! It's a wonder that he turned out as normal as he did. Check out the imagery of the shadow popping up here – soon it will be the shadow of the prison wall – and all the different kinds of locks, keys, and prisons that Arthur pictures. We've got treasure chests, money safes, vaults, coffins – and at the heart of it, his mother's face. Well, that's a nice little ominous image right there – and a nice preview of the novel's big reveal.

Now I [Amy] am going to tell you [Arthur] all I can about [the Gowans], because I know that is what you most want to hear. Theirs is not a very comfortable lodging [...]. Of course it is a far, far better place--millions of times--than any I have ever been used to until lately; and I fancy I don't look at it with my own eyes, but with hers. For it would be easy to see that she has always been brought up in a tender and happy home, even if she had not told me so with great love for it. Well, it is a rather bare lodging up a rather dark common staircase, and it is nearly all a large dull room, where Mr. Gowan paints. The windows are blocked up where any one could look out [...] She is very much alone. Very much alone indeed. (2.11.3-8)

It's amazing how much this place tells us about the kind of marriage the Gowans have. The apartment is all about Gowan's terrible art, and Pet is basically trapped there and unable to ever think about getting out. Also, what do you make of the passive-aggressive-sounding "that's what you most want to hear," and the great little detail that Amy is looking at the room through Pet's eyes and not her own. Is she trying on a little bit of Pet knowing that this is who Arthur fell in love with?

Mrs. Plornish's shop-parlour had been decorated under her own eye, and presented, on the side towards the shop, a little fiction in which Mrs. Plornish unspeakably rejoiced. This poetical heightening of the parlour consisted in the wall being painted to represent the exterior of a thatched cottage; the artist having introduced (in as effective a manner as he found compatible with their highly disproportionate dimensions)the real door and window. The modest sunflower and hollyhock were depicted as flourishing with great luxuriance on this rustic dwelling, while a quantity of dense smoke issuing from the chimney indicated good cheer within, and also, perhaps, that it had not been lately swept. A faithful dog was represented as flying at the legs of the friendly visitor, from the threshold; and a circular pigeon-house, enveloped in a cloud of pigeons, arose from behind the garden-paling. On the door (when it was shut), appeared the semblance of a brass-plate, presenting the inscription, Happy Cottage, T. and M. Plornish; the partnership expressing man and wife. No Poetry and no Art ever charmed the imagination more than the union of the two in this counterfeit cottage charmed Mrs. Plornish. It was nothing to her that Plornish had a habit of leaning against it as he smoked his pipe after work, when his hat blotted out the pigeon-house and all the pigeons, when his back swallowed up the dwelling, when his hands in his pockets uprooted the blooming garden and laid waste the adjacent country. To Mrs. Plornish, it was still a most beautiful cottage, a most wonderful deception. (2.13.20)

The Plornishes try their best to decorate their shop to match the emotional quality of home. Probably more than any other family, the Plornishes are our ideal in the novel – they are a multi-generational family who all get along with each other, and who sacrifice for each other's well being. It's funny that just they are all so nice that they are kind of a cliché, so their mural is also kind of a cliché of a village cottage.