Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam: A Modest Life of Usefulness and Happiness

October 12, 2020

In this week's installment, Peter Ponzio, a tutor at Harrison Middleton University and instructor at Loyola University of Chicago, examines "the fallen state of mankind" Dickens creates within and outside of the Marshalsea Prison in Little Dorrit. While happiness is possible, no one is free from its lasting effects.



Hello, my name is Peter Ponzio and I’d like to read a passage from Little Dorrit, as part of the Dickens-To-Go project being sponsored by the Dickens Universe. We read Little Dorrit two years ago at the Dickens Universe, so the participants at that years’ event will be familiar with the novel. The passage I’ll be reading occurs at the very end of the novel. Before I read the passage, I’d like to recap some of the events that lead to the ending of the novel.

The novel, Little Dorrit, is concerned with confinement. At the beginning of the novel, we’re presented with a number of characters who are quarantined at Marseilles, something which we can, unfortunately, more readily identify within the present day. Shortly after the scene at Marseilles, Dickens introduces us to Arthur Clennam’s homecoming after spending several years in the Far East in service to the trading firm of Clennam and Company. There he greets his mother, who is herself imprisoned by her memories of Arthur’s father and her own oppressive religiosity, “I admit that I was accessory to that man’s captivity [she says of William Dorrit]. I have suffered for it in kind. He has decayed in his prison: I in mine. I have paid the penalty,” Book the First, chapter 8.

We’re then taken to the Marshalsea Prison where William Dorrit, known as the “Father of the Marshalsea” holds court with the other “collegians” who wander in and out of the debtor’s prison while Mr. Dorrit remains as its titular head. Dickens then introduces us to Amy Dorrit, the “Child of the Marshalsea,” having been born into the prison and who has never known life apart from taking care of her family and earning what little she can as a seamstress all the while maintaining the fiction that she does not have to provide for the family through her efforts.

In the second book of the novel, after the family is released from the Marshalsea and subsequent to the discovery that they are in fact wealthy, they depart on a Grand Tour of the Continent. During their sojourn in Italy, Dickens writes: “It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they lived, greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness, relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home. They were brought into these foreign towns in the custody of couriers and local followers, just as the debtors had been brought into the prison. They prowled about the churches and picture-galleries, much in the old, dreary, prison-yard manner.” In this passage, Dickens universalizes the idea of society being much the same as the life of the prison: in fact, the whole world takes on the aspect of the debtor’s prison.

Dickens also takes up the theme of repression in the form of Mrs. Clennam, whose religious ideas he develops as follows: “Great need had the rigid woman of her mystical religion, veiled in gloom and darkness, with lightnings of cursing, vengeance, and destruction, flashing through the sable clouds. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, was a prayer too poor in spirit for her. Smite Thou my debtors, Lord, wither them, crush them; do Thou as I would do, and Thou shalt have my worship: this was the impious tower of stone she built up to scale Heaven,” Book the First, chapter 5.  Miss Wade is another of the repressed characters in the novel, a woman whose heart has been turned to stone by the dilettante, Henry Gowan, who dropped her in favor of Pet Meagles. 

Religion is also an object of Dickens’s ire, and he presents two characters whose ideas about religion are antithetical to his own. Where Dickens believes that religion should ameliorate the sufferings of the poor, Mr. Casby, known as the “patriarch,” actually preys on the poor, mercilessly pressing the inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Yard for their inflated rent payments. The other paragon of religion, Mrs. Clennam, has already been mentioned and Dickens contrasts her flint-hearted response (notice the tie-in with the character Flintwinch) to that of the savior whose message was one of love for fellow human beings.

Dickens introduces a number of characters who parade across the novel in their finery, and who represent a class of people trapped in the veneer of social obligations in much the same way as the “collegians” are trapped in their own little society in the Marshalsea. Among these luminaries are Mrs. Gowan, Mrs. General, Fanny, and Mrs. Merdle, apostrophized by Dickens as “the bosom.” The latter two play a game of cat and mouse, with now one, then the other as the tormentor and tormented. But the role of social climber is not relegated to the ladies in the novel: Mr. Merdle’s guests at the dinner held to advance Edmund Sparkler’s prospects at the Circumlocution Office are no less interested in social advancement than those of the fairer sex.

The Circumlocution Office! Dickens’s testament to the effects of a bureaucracy gone horribly wrong, presided over by that ubiquitous family, the Barnacles. The motto of this assorted group of parasitical hangers-on was “how not to do it,” and they excelled in converting the motto into a grim reality. The Barnacles dominated every phase of British bureaucracy, occupying every nook and cranny of the British Empire, as Dickens relates: “Thus the Barnacles were all over the world, in every direction—despatch-boxing the compass,” Book the First, chapter 34.

Dickens makes the point that just as the inhabitants of the Marshalsea are trapped in an unhealthy atmosphere which reeked of “jail rot,” so too is the outside world encased in the miasmic web of deceit engendered by the fraud of Mr. Merdle. Like the contagion it represents, Merdle’s deceit respects no social distinctions but preys upon the young and old, rich and poor, and decimates everything it touches, including the firm of Doyce and Clenham, plunging Arthur Clennam into despair and illness. It is only through the ministrations of Amy Dorrit that Arthur Clennam recovers.

Arthur Clennam, like many of the characters in the novel, is also trapped. Trapped by his father’s secret and his mother’s lack of love, Clennam feels himself unworthy of love. Rejected by Pet Meagles in favor of Henry Gowan, Arthur believes that he is too old for romantic love and is unaware of Amy Dorrit’s love for him. It is his illness and suffering that provides a catharsis and opens his eyes to the possibility of his love for Little Dorrit.

Throughout the novel, there is one presence that is unaffected by the ills of which Dickens writes. She is unaffected by the evils of the Marshalsea, the siren-song of society, the contagion of money embodied by the likes of Merdle, the grasping incompetence of the Barnacles, and the punishing religion of Mrs. Clennam: Amy Dorrit. Her marriage to Arthur Clennam at the end of the novel is the subject of my favorite passage in the book.

They all gave place when the signing was done, and Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone.  They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun’s bright rays, and then went down.

Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. Went down to give a mother’s care, in the fulness of time, to Fanny’s neglected children no less than to their own, and to leave that lady going into Society for ever and a day. Went down to give a tender nurse and friend to Tip for some few years, who was never vexed by the great exactions he made of her in return for the riches he might have given her if he had ever had them, and who lovingly closed his eyes upon the Marshalsea and all its blighted fruits. They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

Dickens’s use of the repeated phrase “went down” evokes the feeling of the fallen state of mankind which is reminiscent of a passage at the end of Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden:

Som natural tears they drop’d, but wiped them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

As John Jordan remarked in his video for Dickens-To-Go, “Partings Welded Together in Great Expectations and Dombey and Son,” endings in Dickens are a combination of the pleasurable and the sad. In Little Dorrit, Amy and Arthur go forward into a modest life, one in which they care for Fanny’s children and Tip, as well as their own children. But there is also a note of sadness: they have overcome their respective pasts, but the past has affected them and has left a mark upon them.

Like Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, Amy and Arthur are free to make their way in the world; but that world is a fallen world, it is no longer Edenic. Milton and Dickens both understood that it is man’s lot in a fallen world to live a life tinged with sorrow and regret, but it is possible through struggle and pain to achieve a modicum of happiness in which each of us learns to make our way into a modest life of usefulness and happiness.

Thank you for your interest in this video and I look forward to seeing everyone at the Dickens Universe in 2021.



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