At first called "The Father of the Marshalsea," Dorrit is the oldest prisoner in the debtor's jail, living on selfish pretensions of former grandeur. After he is discovered to be heir to a huge fortune, Dorrit spends the rest of the novel trying to live up to his own ideas of his very high social status, with mixed success.
If you're like us, you like to watch a little TV now and then. Most TV shows are built around the idea of a "character arc" – the term for the kind of emotional development a character goes through during a given episode, a string of episodes, or even over several seasons. For example, part of the drama of Mad Men is watching Don Draper's transformation from the 1950s ideal of a successful married man to a divorced drunk dealing with the cultural revolution of the '60s. This idea of "arcs" is so deeply ingrained in how we tell stories that a whole sitcom – Seinfeld – was an experiment in the anti-arc. In a weird and striking move, its characters never learn lessons and never evolve.
Sometimes it helps to think of novels in a similar way: what is each character's arc? Is there one? Does a character change as the plot moves forward? In the case of William Dorrit, the change is surprising, monumental, ginormous – and actually pretty unexpected. It's to the novel's credit, though, that it happens as organically as it does. So organically that it's actually kind of hard to go back and remember what Dorrit was like at the very beginning of the story, given how awful and repulsive he ends up being. But let's give it a go.
When he first comes to jail, Dorrit is nothing like his older self. He is worried, confused, really stressed about his wife and young children, and generally very hopeful of getting out soon. The turnkey thinks of him as a child and doesn't mean it as an insult. And then – slowly, gradually – Dorrit becomes so poor that he has to accept charity, and his kids have to work to support themselves (and him), making him the total opposite of the Victorian masculine ideal.
So how does his character arc curve at this crisis? He tries to grab at whatever shreds of masculine dignity he can. He turns into the ludicrous "father of the Marshalsea" and goes around pretending to be a gentleman fallen on hard times. His snobbery grows until it knows no bounds. Eventually he is totally out of control, trying to pimp out his daughter for a few extra prison privileges.
That's a pretty shocking and dramatic transformation. We'd be hard-pressed to find another character in the novel who changes quite this much. Can you keep following the arc of his development? What happens to his personality when the family inherits money? Why doesn't he revert to the more decent and selfless kind of guy he used to be once money is not an object?
So at one extreme we've got Dorrit, the dude who owes so much money, in such a confused and strange way, that it takes six months to sort out the details once he actually has enough to pay off his debts. At the other extreme we've got Merdle, the super-duper moneymaking machine, who sounds like he's fueling England's whole economy singlehandedly. One is beyond poor; the other is beyond rich.
And yet, check out how other characters react to the two kinds of money: huge debt versus huge wealth. Obviously it would make sense that Merdle's friends brag to each other about his crazy wealth, trying to one-up each other in speculating on the true count of his fortune:
'I am told,' said Bishop magnate to Horse Guards, 'that Mr. Merdle has made another enormous hit. They say a hundred thousand pounds.' House Guards had heard two. Treasury had heard three. Bar . . .was by no means clear but that it might be four. [...] [Brother Bellows] could only tell them in passing that he had heard it stated, with great appearance of truth, as being worth, from first to last, half-a-million of money. (1.21.10-14)
But what's surprising is that Dorrit's friends play the same game, in which guessing the amount he owes becomes a point of bragging rights:
[Mrs. Plornish] was so proud of the acquaintance, that she had awakened some bitterness of spirit in the Yard, by magnifying to an enormous amount the sum for which Miss Dorrit's father had become insolvent. The Bleeding Hearts resented her claiming to know people of such distinction. (1.12.33)
Whoa! It's like it doesn't matter whether the amount of money is positive or negative as long as it's big. It's a strange twist. Usually what's awesome about money is its buying power, but here money starts being separated from its function and just becomes a math game – my number is higher than your number. What are we to make of that? Are there other places in the novel where money stops being about buying and becomes something else?