Little Dorrit Discussion Questions

The Pickwick Book Club is a community of local bookworms, students, and teachers who meet monthly to discuss Victorian novels. From January-May, 2018, we will study Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens.

Many thanks to Tara Thomas, Literature Ph.D. Candidate at UC Santa Cruz, for providing the following discussion questions. 

Book club discussion dates and questions
Date Questions

February 11

Chapters: Book I, Ch. 1-18
  1. Lionel Trilling writes that Little Dorrit “is more about society than any other of the novels, that it is about society in its very essence”. Why does incarceration feature so heavily in this most social of Dickens’s novels, and what might this say about incarceration in the nineteenth century imaginary?

  2. Given that Dickens began writing Little Dorrit (originally “Nobody’s Fault”) as a political commentary on present day English politics, why does Dickens chose to set the novel thirty years in the past? Why locate the novel’s beginning outside of England?

  3. Little Dorrit’s Chapter X is renowned for giving Victorians a heightened awareness of the role of the artist as social critic. Chapter X is the most obvious social critique in the novel. Are there other, more disseminated, social critiques throughout the text? How does Dickens continue his critique of government throughout the novel?

  4. Through the plots and subplots of the novel, Dickens draws us into the complex kinship ties of numerous families who often challenge conventional understandings of the Victorian nuclear family. How is kinship understood in the novel? In what ways is Dickens commenting on familial relations as socially constructed, as an organizing principle of society?

  5. How does Dickens’ characterization of characters in Little Dorrit reflect the novel’s interest in the social? How are characters seemingly shaped by the social and societal expectations in the novel? Might we read this in itself as social critique in the novel?

March 11

Chapters: Book I, Ch. 19-36
  1. Is Charles Dickens an essentially English novelist or is he a novelist of the world? Do you think he writes narrowly about England and Englishness or are worldly and global matters also a part of his imaginative terrain? Consider Little Dorrit as well as other works by Dickens you may have read.

  2. Why does the novel begin in Marseilles? How are England’s entanglements abroad a part of the novel’s plot even when the narrative relocates to England?

  3. What role does travel play in the novel? Which characters travel? How do movement and experiences outside of England change these characters and change their experiences of England?

  4. What do foreign languages in the novel signify? Find passages that involve foreign languages. How is language and language use in Little Dorrit connected to national, cultural, and personal identity?

  5. What characters in the novel are framed as foreign or international? How do they animate and complicate the domestic plot of the novel? What does their foreign or cosmopolitan or worldly identity register? What ideas is the foreign associated with?

  6. Is Tattycoram foreign or domestic—is she an insider or outsider figure, does she exist at the center or on the periphery, is she "English" or "non-English" in a metaphorical sense? How do discourses of race and class overlap in Dickens's novel? How might we interpret the casting choice of the actress in the Little Dorrit miniseries we have been screening?

Resource: "Dickens and the World" discussion questions and readings (PDF)

Many thanks to Nirshan Perera for the March discussion questions!

April 8

Chapters: Book II, Ch. 1-18

We are now going to look at the novel through the filter of its aging characters.

  1. How does Dickens treat his older characters? Are they sympathetic, still vital, or villains and knaves? Does Dickens have many older characters in Little Dorrit?

  2. Name all the aging characters in the novel, both major and minor. (Hint: there are at least eleven.) What percent of these characters are over the age of 50?

    1. What best describes these characters?
      1. Protagonist, antagonist;
      2. essential or important;
      3. involved in the main plot or important in a subplot;
      4. minor character

    2. How developed are they?
      1. Whole person, realistic, lifelike. "Realistic" means in terms of the Victorian novel, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield
      2. Bland, underdeveloped, servant, livery man
      3. Ridiculous, absurd (such as Mr. McCawber)
      4. Warm, sympathetic, likeable (such as Mr. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol)

    3. If the older character is the antagonist, how does his or her past transgression and present actions define and drive the plot?

  3. Are there settings in the novel that Dickens uses to symbolize aging in the plot?

  4. There is a theory in aging that we all have two parents over our lifespan. One internalized, and one real. As we come into midlife this sometimes prevents us from caring for our parents as they decline. The theory tells us that we have a parent in the here and now, our real parents, and an internalized younger parent inside us from the past, who is perceived as a bad parent. If we were say 12 years-old when our 40 year-old parent abused us emotionally or physically, we are stuck being the 12 year-old, while the real here and now is 55 year-old that we really are.

    1. Even if your parent is not alive, did you have an internal bad parent?

    2. Describe Mr. Clennam's internal parent. Does he have a breaking point in the novel where he makes a choice not to support his mother because of his internal parent? Why? How and why does he continue to support her in other ways?

    3. Do you think Amy, Mrs. Plournish, and Flora may have a good or bad internal parent? How is this reflected in how they treat their parents in the here and now in the novel?

Resource: "How Did the Grim Reaper's Swift Scythe Sharpen Little Dorrit's Plot?" bibliography (PDF)

Many thanks to Cathy Cress for the April discussion questions!

May 13

Chapters: Book II, Ch. 19-34

  1. Originally, Dickens had intended on inserting Miss Wade’s story as dialogue between herself and Clennam at the end of Book II Chapter 20, and expressed regret for having inserted it instead as a single chapter in epistolary form (‘The History of a Self Tormentor,’ Chapter 21). How does Dickens’s choice to give Miss Wade her own chapter alter her importance in the novel and her characterization? Does it serve to highlight Miss Wade as an important character? Does it further isolate her from the rest of the characters in the novel?

  2. What is the significance of minor women characters to the plot of the novel? What role does Affery’s visions and Tattycoram’s repentance take in resolving difficulties in the plot? What do these resolutions reveal about the portrayal of women in the novel?  

  3. Is Little Dorrit a gothic novel? How are mysterious elements, surreal moments, almost supernatural, unlikely events more akin to the gothic novel than the genre of realism?

  4. Little Dorrit explicitly discusses paternity, father figures, and patriarchy throughout the novel. More implicit is the presence (and absence) of mothers. How are (birth) mothers and maternal figures portrayed in the novel? Does the final paragraph of the novel give any resolution to this portrayal?

    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. (XXXIV, 859)

  5. Given the importance of place throughout the novel, why does Little Dorrit end at Saint George’s Church?