In Little Dorrit, Dickens presents England as an oligarchic political system, controlled by a small circle of elites that have managed to get themselves into permanent positions of power. Not only that, but the members of this elite are all part of the same family, participating in an unscrupulous system of nepotism and basically creating a form of dynastic rule. When combined with the totally unaccountable, slow, and generally useless bureaucracy that's at the heart of government, this novel's view of how power is wielded in England becomes completely cynical and dystopian.
Questions About Power
- Are there any equal relationships in the novel, or does almost every interaction occur between people of unequal status? Why do you think that is?
- We are shown several workplaces in the novel: Doyce's factory, with its workers; the Circumlocution Office, with its army of clerks; the theater where Fanny works, with its dancers, announcers, and actors; and the prison, with its turnkeys and messengers. How does the narrator treat the kinds of work that these different people do? What is different about the way they are described? What is the same? How do their bosses relate to them?
- The Circumlocution Office is shown as having almost unlimited and unchecked power, which it uses to delay the progress of the country. Considering that England was the world's leading economy in the 19th century, this doesn't seem to be a fair representation. What is Dickens achieving by exaggerating England's failures? Why is the Office presented in such a caricatured way?
Chew on This
Paradoxically, it's the weakest and most passive characters who end up having the most impact in the novel. No one wins through strength or action; it's mostly luck and the interference of others that bring about good things for the characters we are meant to root for and identify with.
Power is shown to be non-transferrable in the novel. Those who have it seem to have had it forever and will continue to have it forever. Those who are powerless will always remain powerless.