Study Guide

Little Dorrit Book 2, Chapter 21

By Charles Dickens

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Book 2, Chapter 21

The History of a Self-Tormentor

  • (This is another chapter in the form of a letter.)
  • OK, so get ready, folks – Miss Wade is a doozy and a half. It's actually hard to know how to even characterize what she is saying, so we'll let a bunch of this summary happen in her own words.
  • For now, let's just begin at the beginning, like she does.
  • She grows up with a woman she thinks is her grandma, in a boarding school with a bunch of other girls.
  • The other girls are always super-nice to her because she's an orphan. She notices this and deliberately tries to pick fights, which they try to avoid. She takes their niceness as a deliberate condescending insult. Um, OK.
  • There's one girl that is her BFF. But the girl is friends with everyone and Miss Wade takes it personally whenever this girl interacts with anyone else.
  • One time she goes home with her for the holidays, where this weird, ambiguous thing happens:
  • She tormented my love beyond endurance. Her plan was, to [...] drive me wild with jealousy. [...] When we were left alone in our bedroom at night, I would reproach her with my perfect knowledge of her baseness; and then she would cry and cry and say I was cruel, and then I would hold her in my arms till morning: loving her as much as ever, and often feeling as if, rather than suffer so, I could so hold her in my arms and plunge to the bottom of a river--where I would still hold her after we were both dead. (2.21.6)
  • So, OK. Is this some kind of incipient homosexuality trying to come out? Is Miss Wade just really possessive? Plain-old crazy? It's hard to know. Keep some things in mind: back then, people were not described as being gay. Homosexuality wasn't an identity; it was just a sexual act. At the same time, there was a lot more PDA between women. Friends slept in the same bed together and wrote each other letters that are full of passionate declarations of love that to us sound totally romantic and sexual but were not seen that way at the time. There was just a lot more space to be expressive about different kinds of love, not just romantic love. Nowadays, a lot of smart people think Miss Wade is gay, and a lot of other smart people think she's just crazy. So... hard to know.
  • In any case, Miss Wade kicks herself out of the girl's house when the girl doesn't defend her to an aunt.
  • Miss Wade finds out that the woman she thought was grandma was no grandma at all, and that she has no info at all about who she is. She also learns about the trust fund Casby is keeping for her, and decides to become a governess.
  • The first place she goes to work seems to have it all: a nice young mom, two nice little girls, and a warm, affectionate nursemaid. Everyone tries to be really nice to her. But here is how Miss Wade reads the situation: the mom is being nice on purpose to point out her power – after all, if she wanted to, she could be super-mean instead. The nursemaid is trying to teach the children to hate Miss Wade by pretending to like her. Or something. It's really insane.
  • Finally Miss Wade snaps, tells off the nice mom, and leaves to go to governess situation #2.
  • At the second place everything is even better.
  • There, her student has a cousin Miss Wade's age, who falls madly in love with her and they get engaged.
  • Awesome, right?
  • No. Miss Wade claims that he is so into her looks that she feels like he's buying her. Also, whenever his mom talks about how nice their life together will be, Miss Wade thinks that this is meant to be an insult about her life now.
  • At that point, she meets Gowan.
  • Oh, Gowan! Gowan, who never thinks that anything is good or worthwhile or of value is the perfect person for Miss Wade. Everything he says sounds awesome to her. Again, in her own words: "He made me feel more and more resentful, and more and more contemptible, by always presenting to me everything that surrounded me with some new hateful light upon it, while he pretended to exhibit it in its best aspect for my admiration and his own" (2.21.39). Well, certainly sounds like a charmer – exactly the kind of guy to bring home to mom and dad.
  • She takes up with Gowan, flaunting it in the face of her fiancé.
  • Finally, the fiancé's mom speaks to her and the engagement is broken off.
  • Miss Wade and Gowan have a relationship – pretty clearly a sexual one – for a little while. Then he dumps her and goes after Pet Meagles.
  • Miss Wade then travels around a little bit and runs into Pet and Arthur. (This is where the novel starts.) She then finds and rescues Tattycoram, a young woman who seems to have some of the same traits as Miss Wade.

Little Dorrit Book 2, Chapter 21 Study Group

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