In a world in which credit and reputation are essential but highly subjective, social status is always shifting and incredibly volatile. The effect this has on those who crave to be at the top of the hierarchy is paranoia, callous disregard for others, and a willingness to abandon friends when their status suddenly plummets. It's rare to see social climbing portrayed in a positive light in Victorian fiction, but in Little Dorrit the quest to rise is presented even more harshly than usual.
Questions About Respect and Reputation
Both positive and negative characters are presented as social climbers. In the negative group we have Dorrit, Mrs. Gowan, and Fanny. In the positive, Meagles and the Plornishes. Why is social climbing made universal rather than uniformly bad? Does it ever serve a good purpose?
Compare scenes of people losing the respect of their peers. For example, Casby getting his hair cut off, and Dorrit begging for "testimonials" from visitors. Are there shared emotions and thoughts in these scenes? Are there differences? How does the narrator describe these events?
Do characters with good reputations care about them more or less than those with bad reputations? Is it more useful in the novel to have a good or bad reputation? Who uses their reputation in the course of daily life? How?
Chew on This
The only characters whose reputation precedes them are the ones who are malicious or evil. Positive characters, on the other hand, have to reassert themselves and their intentions every time they encounter a new person.
Respect cannot be earned in the novel. Some characters are able to put aside their own self-importance to see the value in others, and others cannot. Those who cannot are unable to feel respect for anyone around them regardless of the circumstances.