Reprinted from LJ: An appreciation of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit.
|So there really wasn't a whole lot going on at work today, owing to the pre-Christmas lull setting in - that peculiar retail blank spot where all the spring orders are set and all the holiday marketing is in place, and the order entry staff (that'd include yours truly) is sitting around munching leftover Hallowe'en candy and occasionally twirling around in our chairs in an effort to look relevant.
As you can imagine, this all gets old pretty fast, especially the no-name butterscotch drops. Meaning I basically spent the day on the Internet, checking for election updates on cbc.ca (hey, it's not irresponsible if it's a respectable Canadian site, right?) Watching the ebb and flow of comments across the political spectrum started off a train of thought on, of all things, Little Dorrit, and the peculiar nature of Charles Dickens’ genius.
Little Dorrit is, to begin with, one of the most ferociously angry novels in the English language: Portrait of an Author, Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Anymore. The formal theme is the myriad ways in which society in the mass – government, finance, class systems – works to stifle anything decent and innovative in the individual. But you don’t have to take my word for it; the reader is reminded, explicitly, roughly 95 billion times throughout. Those familiar with the author will understand that I am not exaggerating by much.
Not an especially earthshattering accomplishment, but then few of Dickens’ insights were when examined closely. The lovely thing about the Dickensian world is how closely it mimics human fallibility not only in content but in form – he is the stylistic ancestor, not of the earnest commentator on the news, but the guy who posts regularly in the Comments section below their articles. Heartfelt, oh yes, and clever; but also scattershot, unfocussed, full of outlandish flourishes just because…all the while convinced that he’s crafting a brilliantly searing putdown for the ages.
Yep, that’d be the human race in a nutshell, right there. Since as members of same we’re naturally inclined to root for our own, Dickens survives Little Dorrit on the strength of his status as a kind of perpetual literary underdog. The heart excuses, even as the head is going “Oh, come ON…”
So no, you can’t really take things like the Circumlocution Office (aka the Department of How NOT to Do It) seriously, but it doesn’t have to interfere with your enjoyment in the slightest. Nor, on the other side of the coin, does the wholly improbable altruism of the title character. The phrase ‘Mary Sue’ gets thrown around a lot these days, but I don’t buy it so much in Amy Dorrit’s case.
To my mind Agnes Wickfield, from the same author’s David Copperfield, is much more the classic Sue; ie, she blatantly embodies Dickens’ ideal Woman, starting from her introduction standing in the light of a stained-glass window pointing upward. (Right, not exaggerating again. This is the kind of thing Dickens devotees have to put up with on a pretty regular basis.)
Amy, by contrast, is refreshingly pedestal-free in that sense. She’s also been given much more immediately relatable motives; simply trying to hold her family together and above water, however desperately unworthy they may be. I tend to agree with GK Chesterton, writing in a Foreword to an edition I read recently, that Dickens’ idea wasn’t even so much to delineate a believable character to begin with, as to create an embodiment of Good. A force strong enough to oppose his relentlessly bleak worldview, and delicate enough to demonstrate its injustices in the meantime.
It's interesting, not least as a proof of just how close Dickens could cut to the humanity at the heart of the human condition, how those injustices have shifted focus for the modern reader. The whole plot thread involving the House of Clennam, the gasp! shocking! secret of the watch, the dark motive at the heart of Mrs. Clennam's apocalyptic rigidity, is pure Victorian melodrama at its finest; but as a study in hypocrisy is immensely, timelessly powerful. Primeval almost, powered by the grim determination of an author who sees himself pitted against no less than Evil. Reading the climactic confrontation between Mrs. Clennam and Amy, understanding the full scope of what the older woman has done to her son in the name of God's own love, the younger's perfect diction and grasp of theology become not only natural but necessary.
In a way, the novel can be described as a sort of Gatsby triumphant. Fitzgerald was bitter, and rightly so, on the idea of shooting for the moon, but Dickens demonstrates here that on a smaller scale, the fundamental principles he applied still hold true.
Arthur Clennam, despite everything, clings fiercely to his belief that there is truth and loyalty and decency in the world; and Little Dorrit steps into that breach to love and heal. Their romance is one of the most affecting things in literature, because the scale of their victory is perfect. They have conquered the world that has – not rejected – but forgotten them. Dickens’ satire may be flawed, but his triumph is absolute.