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Charles Dickens "Little Dorrit"

Masterpiece Classic

by Meredith Birmingham

When you spend a third of your day with adolescents, you get a close look at social structures--sometimes too close!   Although most of my students would scoff at reading 800 pages of nineteenth century fiction, the outlay of personae in Little Dorrit would be quite familiar.  Dickens is a master of characterization, and presents us with a wide spectrum of social highs and lows.  There are the Populars (Mr. and Mrs. Merdle) and the Wannabees (Fanny and Tip).  There is the Artsy Kid (Henry Gowan) and the Loner (Blandois).  Dickens gives us a ton of Emo Kids (Tattycoram, Ms. Wade, and to a certain extent, John Chivery).  And of course there's the Class Clown (Tip) and the Social Weirdo (Flora).  The Ditz (Pet) and the Good Girl (Amy).

 

When you spend a third of your day with adolescents, you get a close look at social structures--sometimes too close!

And we saw them thanks to the masterful work of Andrew Davies (whose brilliant screenwriting has brought us numerous Masterpiece Theatre adaptations, as well as one of my staple films in college, Bridget Jones).  He carefully captured both the comic and the tragic, keeping his finger on the pulse of Dickens' intentions, on the whole.  There were moments of confusion; especially as the story is resolved, I found the ending to be rather vague on details.  The denouement was improbable enough in the book, and then to leave details out made it seem even more like a "deux ex machina." 

 

The social web spun by Dickens and Davies is the backdrop for greater social struggles.  When Mr. Dorrit found out that he had become a gentleman of leisure, he had not even exited the prison before he started expounding on their high status and responsibilities as wealthy people to uphold their position in society.  The irony of the situation made me smirk, but there was something truly sad about the way Mr. Dorrit rejected his former life as utterly unworthy of memory.  His behavior was based on nothing more than the frills and fripperies (or prunes and prisms) of what he perceived as the signs of wealth.  He would rebuke Amy for what were formerly seen as dutiful and kind attentions, but which were later seen to lower her to the level of servant.  Love could not be shown if it could in any way be misread as servitude.  And then there was Fanny, all tarted up and haughty, and her brother who claimed offense at Mr. Clennam's supposed slight in not giving him money to pay his badly-begotten debts.  They were in another prison altogether, one without walls, but one that was nonetheless paralyzing in its blindness to integrity and humanity.

 

At one point, Mr Dorrit called Blandois a gentleman.  What does the term mean, anyway?  To the Dorrits (save Amy), if you looked the part, they were perfectly willing to believe your pedigree.  You may very well have been a murdering rascal or a fraud, but if you wore the right clothing (and had the right connections), they did not ask questions.  Trust based on nothing more than hearsay and fashion is a dangerous thing, as the Dorrits found out once Mr. Merdle's fraudulent actions came to light.

 

Back to integrity and humanity, how did Amy manage to be faithful to both her family's wishes and her own values and desires?  The answer looked a lot like passive aggression, although I doubt she was actually aware of being artful.  It's just that when someone was ill or tired, or simply needed a kind gesture, she felt called upon to help them find relief.  This calling used to align with her familial responsibilities, but when this no longer held true, Amy could not quite fight her natural instincts.

 

Another character who endeavored to do the "right" thing was Arthur.  His rejection of the family business and his efforts to help both the Dorrits and Doyce showed his inner drive to put things right.  I did miss seeing Arthur's inner struggle as he tried not to fall in love with Pet.  Davies' Arthur is more active, more decisive, than Dickens' original.  Arthur never proposed or even declared his love in the book, but it works in the film.  We've only got seven and a half hours here, after all, and I for one like Arthur the better for his spiritedness.

 

Fanny, on the other hand, is petty, frivolous, conniving, and prideful.  And I still root for her when she makes her trenchant remarks to Mrs. General.  She was even endearing when reminiscing about the good old days of dancing on the stage.  She is still too devious for me to respect her, but at least she knows what she wants, and is not afraid to go get it.

 

This tale is partly about taking the bad with the good, and being able to forgive the bad parts.  So many characters were generous in their concessions, whether they sacrificed money, time, or love.  Certainly, not all characters were capable of such generosity, but that is life.  In the end, "proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves[1]."  Happily for Amy and Arthur, no such sadness is in store. 



[1]    Emily Bronte, "Wuthering Heights"

Comments

Meredith
As a budding writer in your youth you were exceptional. Seeing your writing now as an adult reminds me of why educators strive to help their students discover the best within themselves. I couldn't be more proud of what you do and who you are!
Love, Your fifth grade teacher

While I thoroughly enjoyed the Masterpiece production of Little Dorrit, I found the ending confusing. It's not clear to me why Mr. Clenham left money to Amy Dorrit. What was Amy's relationship to Arthur Clenham? In all fairness, the actual book doesn't seem very clear on this either. The part in question may be found in the ebook online at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54ld/chapter66.html. Throughout the story, I worried that Arthur and Amy might end up being half-brother and sister, which certainly would have yielded a different, and much less happy ending!

Sorry--there shouldn't be a period at the end of that link in my previous comment. Hopefully this link will work:
http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54ld/chapter66.html

I just watched the concluding espisode of Little Dorrit and was confused by a few things. I found answers to most of my questions in the posts above but one question remains. Why did Ms. Wade have Arthur's mother's dancing shoes and letter? How was she involved with the family?

Hi Meg,

Miss Wade was never truly connected to the Clennam family; she came into the possession of Mrs. Clennam's papers through Rigaud/Blandois, whom was originally hired to follow and befriend Henry Gowan and his wife "Pet" Meagles.

It was during the course of this endeavor that Rigaud coincidentally befriended Ephraim Flintwich and stole belongings that Flintwich was hiding from Mrs. Clennam. At some point, Miss Wade acquired these belongings, including the letters, from Rigaud, most likely to be able to wield opportunistic power over the Clennams when the time was right. In the end it was Miss Wade's companion Tattycoram who built up the courage to leave Miss Wade and ensure the letters returned to the rightful owners and reveal the truth to all.

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