Study Guide

Little Dorrit Book 1, Chapter 6

By Charles Dickens

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Book 1, Chapter 6

The Father of the Marshalsea    

  • The Marshalsea is a prison that was originally divided into two parts: one part for those who couldn't pay their debts and the other for smugglers. (In other words not-that-bad guys vs. pretty bad guys).  But over time, the prison buildings have fallen into disrepair, and all these prisoners now mingle together.
  • One day Mr. Dorrit is taken to Marshalsea.
  • He is in his 40s, married, with two children and another on the way. He has almost no idea what his debt is.
  • (But Shmoop does. Check it out: back in early 19th century, all companies were called "partnerships" because anyone who invested in one became a partner. What that meant was that all investors/partners owned the company equally.  And also that every investor/partner could be personally responsible for all of the company's debts, regardless of what the other partners were doing. What's happened to Dorrit is this: his partners in the company ran off with the goods and the money (legally, since they owned them) – and left him with the company debts (again, all perfectly legal).  In the middle of the 19th century, corporations were finally invented, and investing in a company became much more like what we think of today – you can buy some stock in General Motors, but that doesn't make you responsible for that company in any way.)
  • So, yeah. Mr. Dorrit. Debts. Prison.
  • His wife and kids come with, because where else are they going to go? They aren't actually prisoners, though, and can come and go as they please. A few months later, his youngest daughter is born inside the prison.
  • Eight years later, his wife dies.
  • Mr. Dorrit has become very used to prison life.
  • His son takes over from Mrs. Bangham as the prison's errand-boy.
  • Eventually he is the longest-serving prisoner and gets the nickname Father of the Marshalsea.
  • He starts to be proud of this title, and exaggerates how many years he's been in prison, how fancy a gentleman he used to be before, and how much debt he really has.
  • Other prisoners who are leaving start giving him tips as a kind of charity and token of respect. He starts to expect, and then demand, these handouts.

Little Dorrit Book 1, Chapter 6 Study Group

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