Study Guide

Little Dorrit Wealth

By Charles Dickens

Wealth

The affairs of this debtor [Mr. Dorrit] were perplexed by a partnership, of which he knew no more than that he had invested money in it; by legal matters of assignment and settlement, conveyance here and conveyance there, suspicion of unlawful preference of creditors in this direction, and of mysterious spiriting away of property in that; and as nobody on the face of the earth could be more incapable of explaining any single item in the heap of confusion than the debtor himself, nothing comprehensible could be made of his case. To question him in detail, and endeavour to reconcile his answers; to closet him with accountants and sharp practitioners, learned in the wiles of insolvency and bankruptcy; was only to put the case out at compound interest and incomprehensibility. The irresolute fingers fluttered more and more ineffectually about the trembling lip on every such occasion, and the sharpest practitioners gave him up as a hopeless job. (1.6.30)

In theory, with money should come responsibility and understanding, but in practice there's no such thing. This is how Merdle was able to con as many people as he did for as long as he did.

In those early days, the turnkey first began profoundly to consider a question which cost him so much mental labour, that it remained undetermined on the day of his death. He decided to will and bequeath his little property of savings to his godchild, and the point arose how could it be so 'tied up' as that only she should have the benefit of it? His experience on the lock gave him such an acute perception of the enormous difficulty of 'tying up' money with any approach to tightness, and contrariwise of the remarkable ease with which it got loose, that through a series of years he regularly propounded this knotty point to every new insolvent agent and other professional gentleman who passed in and out.

'Supposing,' he would say, stating the case with his key on the professional gentleman's waistcoat; 'supposing a man wanted to leave his property to a young female, and wanted to tie it up so that nobody else should ever be able to make a grab at it; how would you tie up that property?'

'Settle it strictly on herself,' the professional gentleman would complacently answer.

'But look here,' quoth the turnkey. 'Supposing she had, say a brother, say a father, say a husband, who would be likely to make a grab at that property when she came into it--how about that?'

'It would be settled on herself, and they would have no more legal claim on it than you,' would be the professional answer.

'Stop a bit,' said the turnkey. 'Supposing she was tender-hearted, and they came over her. Where's your law for tying it up then?'

The deepest character whom the turnkey sounded, was unable to produce his law for tying such a knot as that. So, the turnkey thought about it all his life, and died intestate after all. (1.7.23-29)

This is a fascinating idea – to leave money to someone in such a way that even her feelings of love wouldn't be able redistribute it. Would this have been a good idea in Amy's case? What would she have done with an inheritance set up the way the turnkey would like?

'Adieu, Miss Dorrit, with best wishes,' said Mrs. Merdle. 'If we could only come to a Millennium, or something of that sort, I for one might have the pleasure of knowing a number of charming and talented persons from whom I am at present excluded. A more primitive state of society would be delicious to me. There used to be a poem when I learnt lessons, something about Lo the poor Indians whose something mind! If a few thousand persons moving in Society, could only go and be Indians, I would put my name down directly; but as, moving in Society, we can't be Indians, unfortunately--Good morning!' (1.20.72)

Mrs. Merdle is always paying a lot of lip service to this idea that she has no control over the social conditions she lives under. What's funny is her thought that if she was part of an aboriginal tribe she would somehow be a more egalitarian person, when in fact, the novel demonstrates that people set up cliques and social rank wherever they find themselves.

Mr. Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. [...] This great and fortunate man had provided that extensive bosom [Mrs. Merdle's chest] which required so much room to be unfeeling enough in, with a nest of crimson and gold some fifteen years before. It was not a bosom to repose upon, but it was a capital bosom to hang jewels upon. Mr. Merdle wanted something to hang jewels upon, and he bought it for the purpose. Storr and Mortimer might have married on the same speculation.

Like all his other speculations, it was sound and successful. The jewels showed to the richest advantage. The bosom moving in Society with the jewels displayed upon it, attracted general admiration. Society approving, Mr. Merdle was satisfied. He was the most disinterested of men,--did everything for Society, and got as little for himself out of all his gain and care, as a man might. (1.21.3-6)

There is a common device in the novel of dehumanizing characters by reducing them to a particular body part. Here, for instance, Mrs. Merdle is just an awesome set of boobs. Do we feel pity for Mrs. Merdle for having been bought like a decorative object? Why or why not?

The venerable inhabitants of that venerable pile seemed, in those times, to be encamped there like a sort of civilised gypsies. There was a temporary air about their establishments, as if they were going away the moment they could get anything better; there was also a dissatisfied air about themselves, as if they took it very ill that they had not already got something much better. Genteel blinds and makeshifts were more or less observable as soon as their doors were opened; screens not half high enough, which made dining-rooms out of arched passages, and warded off obscure corners where footboys slept at nights with their heads among the knives and forks; curtains which called upon you to believe that they didn't hide anything; panes of glass which requested you not to see them; many objects of various forms, feigning to have no connection with their guilty secret, a bed; disguised traps in walls, which were clearly coal-cellars; affectations of no thoroughfares, which were evidently doors to little kitchens. Mental reservations and artful mysteries grew out of these things. Callers looking steadily into the eyes of their receivers, pretended not to smell cooking three feet off; people, confronting closets accidentally left open, pretended not to see bottles; visitors with their heads against a partition of thin canvas, and a page and a young female at high words on the other side, made believe to be sitting in a primeval silence. There was no end to the small social accommodation-bills of this nature which the gypsies of gentility were constantly drawing upon, and accepting for, one another. (1.26.60)

OK, this is just straight-up hilarious! These people are living this way just to have a slightly fancier-sounding address.

[…] 'you ought to make yourself fit for it by being more degage, and less preoccupied. There is a positive vulgarity in carrying your business affairs about with you as you do. [...] 'I don't expect you,' said Mrs. Merdle, reposing easily among her cushions, 'to captivate people. I don't want you to take any trouble upon yourself, or to try to be fascinating. I simply request you to care about nothing--or seem to care about nothing--as everybody else does. [...] You show that you carry your business cares and projects about, instead of leaving them in the City, or wherever else they belong to,' said Mrs. Merdle. 'Or seeming to. Seeming would be quite enough: I ask no more. Whereas you couldn't be more occupied with your day's calculations and combinations than you habitually show yourself to be, if you were a carpenter.' (1.33.63-74)

It's interesting to see that Merdle bought himself Mrs. Merdle not simply for her rack, but also because she understands the tiny behaviors that separate the vulgar wealthy from the aristocratic. Here, for instance, Merdle doesn't realize that he needs to seem cool and detached about his work, and that thinking about work is apparently for skilled craftsmen like Doyce.

A great deal of business had likewise to be done, within the so-soon-to-be-orphaned Marshalsea, by Mr. Dorrit so long its Father, chiefly arising out of applications made to him by Collegians for small sums of money. To these he responded with the greatest liberality, and with no lack of formality; always first writing to appoint a time at which the applicant might wait upon him in his room, and then receiving him in the midst of a vast accumulation of documents, and accompanying his donation (for he said in every such case, 'it is a donation, not a loan') with a great deal of good counsel: to the effect that he, the expiring Father of the Marshalsea, hoped to be long remembered, as an example that a man might preserve his own and the general respect even there [...] He took the same occasion of inviting them to a comprehensive entertainment, to be given to the whole College in the yard, and at which he signified he would have the honour of taking a parting glass to the health and happiness of all those whom he was about to leave behind.

He did not in person dine at this public repast (it took place at two in the afternoon, and his dinners now came in from the hotel at six), but his son was so good as to take the head of the principal table, and to be very free and engaging. He himself went about among the company, and took notice of individuals, and saw that the viands were of the quality he had ordered, and that all were served. On the whole, he was like a baron of the olden time in a rare good humour. At the conclusion of the repast, he pledged his guests in a bumper of old Madeira; and told them that he hoped they had enjoyed themselves, and what was more, that they would enjoy themselves for the rest of the evening; that he wished them well; and that he bade them welcome. His health being drunk with acclamations, he was not so baronial after all but that in trying to return thanks he broke down, in the manner of a mere serf with a heart in his breast, and wept before them all. (1.36.5-8)

This is just classic Dorrit, who spends his trying to act as though he were a feudal lord. How do you think he feels about crying at the end of the day? Who thinks he is acting like a "serf"? Is it the narrator, or is this Dorrit's own embarrassed opinion?

It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they lived, greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness, relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home. They were brought into these foreign towns in the custody of couriers and local followers, just as the debtors had been brought into the prison. They prowled about the churches and picture-galleries, much in the old, dreary, prison-yard manner. They were usually going away again to-morrow or next week, and rarely knew their own minds, and seldom did what they said they would do, or went where they said they would go: in all this again, very like the prison debtors. They paid high for poor accommodation, and disparaged a place while they pretended to like it: which was exactly the Marshalsea custom. They were envied when they went away by people left behind, feigning not to want to go: and that again was the Marshalsea habit invariably. A certain set of words and phrases, as much belonging to tourists as the College and the Snuggery belonged to the jail, was always in their mouths. They had precisely the same incapacity for settling down to anything, as the prisoners used to have; they rather deteriorated one another, as the prisoners used to do; and they wore untidy dresses, and fell into a slouching way of life: still, always like the people in the Marshalsea. (2.7.68)

Does this seem like a fair comparison? Granted, the idea of being trapped in a lifestyle is one of the novel's major themes, but does it kind of downplay the whole jail experience to say that rich travelers in Europe are just like bankrupt prisoners? Does this view of the world eventually change for Amy, or will she go through life seeing everything through the prism of prison?

Bar was uncommonly pleased to find that the Merdle family, and [the Dorrits], had already been brought into contact. He submitted, in a low voice across the table to Bishop, that it was a kind of analogical illustration of those physical laws, in virtue of which Like flies to Like. He regarded this power of attraction in wealth to draw wealth to it, as something remarkably interesting and curious--something indefinably allied to the loadstone and gravitation. (2.12.54)

This is probably a dig at the way political economists thought of their work as part of the same system of "physical laws" as biology, astronomy, and the like.

Commotion in the office of the hotel. Merdle! The landlord, though a gentleman of a haughty spirit who had just driven a pair of thorough-bred horses into town, turned out to show him up-stairs. The clerks and servants cut him off by back-passages, and were found accidentally hovering in doorways and angles, that they might look upon him. Merdle! O ye sun, moon, and stars, the great man! The rich man, who had in a manner revised the New Testament, and already entered into the kingdom of Heaven. The man who could have any one he chose to dine with him, and who had made the money!

As he went up the stairs, people were already posted on the lower stairs, that his shadow might fall upon them when he came down. So were the sick brought out and laid in the track of the Apostle--who had NOT got into the good society, and had NOT made the money. (2.16.7-8)

Now Merdle and his wealth is the shadow that falls on people! And of course Dickens goes in for the overkill with the biblical references to a rich man getting into heaven being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle – and how these people are acting as though that were now reversed.