LITTLE DORRIT by Charles Dickens (1855-1857)

Extollager

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I read this major novel by Dickens 15 years ago. My impression is that I thought it was really good, but was not the book most people should pick as their first Dickens. It seemed to me, as I recall, that Dickens was reining in his characteristics of bizarre characters and brooding melodrama. I'm in the mood to revisit it and expect to post comments here. I'm hoping some others Chrons people will chime in with comments on this novel now or in future.

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Extollager

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It was serialized in 18 issues and a double-size nineteenth and final issue (for "20" parts), as I understand.
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Extollager

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The description of Mrs. Clennam's house isn't over-the-top, but its gloomy decay still reminded me a little of Gormenghast.
 

Extollager

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I'm really enjoying this second reading. Says this North Dakota reader: What a London novel it is!
 

Extollager

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I've been busy writing a story, so my reading has slowed down.

However: I'm struck by one apparent consequence of Dickens's decision to forgo melodrama in Little Dorrit. In a more melodramatic work, Amy Dorrit (the book's "Little Dorrit") as described here might be quite appropriate -- shy, retiring, diminutive virtuousness over against the grotesque evil of, say, a Quilp (Old Curiosity Shop). She is, in the first couple of hundred pages or so anyway, perhaps less satisfactory, in this relatively realistic novel. I don't mind her much, but the pages emphasizing her (there are actually not very many of them so far) are not my favorites. However, I think Dickens may be remedying this, at least to some extent, with a suggestion that her personality has been impaired by life with her father, who has been accustomed to living in the debtors' prison surrounded by pseudo-deferential fellow inmates and drugging himself with self-pleasing vanity. Now, however, I have come to the chapter (the 19th) in which her father is feeling ashamed after all, and we see, in this crisis, that there's real desperation in his daughter.
 

Extollager

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I ended that 19th chapter feeling perhaps a bit ashamed myself. Dickens probably express too overtly his admiration of Amy Dorrit. He wants to describe a character of pure goodness, and that's hard for almost any writer to do. But the reader should be able to see that Amy is a believable character, though not one we are likely to run across often.

There's an interesting situation here. The character of Amy Dorrit may make readers today uncomfortable (whereas perhaps many in Dickens's own day loved her), because it seems the great majority of people today adhere to a pragmatic kind of ethics different from the Christian ethics of Dickens. Many people today would say that Amy has her own life to live, she shouldn't devote herself to her failure of a father, it's like a "bad marriage" in which one of the "partners" is doing all the work & would be fully justified in "getting out" and starting over, etc. Some readers today would go futher and say that Amy is sexually repressed -- she is uncomfortable with young Chivery's romantic interest in her (marriage), and this is because she is not only small and childlike in appearance but psychologically immature, denying her own sexuality, etc., by remaining anxious to please her father; or, indeed, that she is like some sort of sexless mother, with her father as her child etc etc. However, that sort of thing reminds me of C. S. Lewis's remark about a modern critic who disliked Sir Walter Scott's Jeanie Deans (who was devoted to her erring sister), that what the critic said sounded like something from a review by a jackal of a book by a lion.

Amy's ethics aren't pragmatic. She would not say "Whatever works." She loves her father unconditionally, sorrowing over the warp in his life, but not scolding him. Perhaps, within the context of her own ethics, there needs to be a little effort to help him see that his self-pity and pretense are not good for him, etc. But the chief thing for Amy is like what the Elder Zosima says in The Brothers Karamazov about humble love of the erring. These two, Dickens and Dostoevsky, two of the very greatest writers of the century, were kindred spirits in important ways. Amy's best friend is a ragged "retarded" woman.
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Anyway, these comments could be refined -- but I want to get back to the novel. I've just read the chapter about Merdle, the master of money and slave of Society. Dickens shows him as a prisoner of his false values. The man certainly is not happy.

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