Book Review: “Little Dorrit” by Charles Dickens

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Little Dorrit
by Charles Dickens

Towards the end of his life, when Dickens was without dispute the master of his craft, he wrote this rich, compelling, many-layered story about life in a debtor’s prison… and out of it. The “shadow of the Marshalsea” falls on William Dorrit, who takes his family with him to the notorious debtor’s jail in which Dickens’s own father spent some time. How the experience alters him and his children, both during and after their years in the place, are the central thread of the story.

Also woven in is the melancholy journey of Arthur Clennam, the 40-something bachelor who has not been well-served in love, and who seems oblivious to his chance for true happiness with young Amy Dorrit — the title character of the novel. But also standing in the way, or at least complicating things for the couple, are a ridiculous ex-fiancee who talks nonstop (Harry Potter actress Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout) won awards for portraying this character in a British film); a worthless rival suitor for a pretty girl’s hand; a couple of women who live to be contrary to everyone including themselves; a bitter, paralytic old lady who has means and motive for keeping both Amy and Arthur as miserable as can be; the aptly-named Barnacle family who uses their stranglehold on government patronage to obstruct progress of any kind; and worst of all, a wily, dastardly Frenchman who stands a chance of ruining everything for everybody.

And if that isn’t enough to fill one very thick book, I might also mention the tragedy of Amy’s sister Fanny, who marries a complete doofus because she wants to put down her haughty mother-in-law… the embezzler who takes his own life along with the fortunes of many others, good and bad… a developmentally disabled adult who becomes so attached to the industrious young figure of Amy Dorrit that she calls her the “little mother”… a rent-collector who is constantly made to resemble a steam-engine in one of the crowning examples of extended metaphor in all English literature… and the hopelessness of contracting a happy marriage between a family of poor nobles (who want money) and a family of rich commoners (who want family connections). But most of all, I want to mention the fact that if you read the first chapter of this book, you will be so hooked that you won’t have any trouble reading the rest of it. I don’t think I have ever read a more perfect opening chapter. Let me quote in part:

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day. A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. Every thing in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves.

…The wide stare stared itself out for one while; the sun went down in a red, green, golden glory; the stars came out in the heavens, and the fire-flies mimicked them in the lower air, as men may feebly imitate the goodness of a better order of beings; the long dusty roads and the interminable plains were in repose — and so deep a hush was on the sea, that it scarcely whispered of the time when it shall give up its dead.

Do you see what I mean? Though not as widely-known as Dickens’s other books such as A Tale of Two Cities or Oliver TwistLittle Dorrit is as good as any of them. If these excerpts have intrigued you, I assure you, the book is worth your time!