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Literature / Little Dorrit

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1855 Charles Dickens novel about wealth, status, political and economic corruption, and The Power of Love.

The central figure is Amy aka Little Dorrit, the 'Child of the Marshalsea'. Which is to say, she was born in this debtor's prison — a nineteenth-century English institution in which defaulters were incarcerated, along with their families as necessary, until such time as they were able to pay what they owed.

As the story opens, Amy's father William Dorrit has likewise earned the title of 'Father of the Marshalsea' as the longest-serving inmate; his particular debts are so involved — and he himself so helpless in the face of them — that he's been locked up for twenty-five years now with no hope of release any time soon. With little to work with save her own innate goodness, young Amy determinedly takes charge of the family after her mother dies, fiercely guarding her father's pretences to being merely a gentleman temporarily down on his luck to the extent of not telling him that she's also arranged for her older siblings and herself to work outside the prison.

At the same time, in a more upscale part of London, Arthur Clennam has returned to his gloomy, forbidding childhood home after years abroad in the family firm. Fortysomething and vaguely depressed over what he considers a wasted life, Clennam is nevertheless still a gentle and idealistic man. His father's last words have given Arthur reason to believe that his stern, fanatically religious mother may be hiding knowledge of a serious injury the firm may have done to parties unknown. Arthur is determined to find and right this wrong as far as in him lies, even after his mother angrily rejects the idea out of hand... especially after he discovers that nevertheless, in a burst of completely uncharacteristic altruism, she has hired Little Dorrit to work in her house.

As per usual in Dickens, their stories intersect not only with each other's, but with those of assorted characters. Clennam's interest in the Dorrits' case soon leads to a stunning reversal of fortune: as it turns out William Dorrit is the long-lost heir to a great estate. To Amy's frank bewilderment, her family's unswerving goal thereafter becomes acceptance in the highest circles of Society, as led by the great financier Merdle — or, more accurately, by his wife and her 'fine bosom'. As a corollary, of course, the Dorrits' efforts require blotting out all memory of their past... up to and definitely including Little Dorrit's years of patient care and loyalty. To better make this clean break, they embark on a grand tour of Europe.

Meanwhile back in London, Clennam, having resigned from the family firm, is slowly-but-surely beginning to find real purpose in life with the help of his steadfast friends, eccentric genius inventor Daniel Doyce and retired banker Mr. Meagles — and despite the hindrance of the Barnacles who staff the infamous Circumlocution Office, the official bastion of How Not to Do It. Also prominent in the mix is Meagles' daughter, pretty, spoilt Pet, whose eventual marriage to a rogue convinces Arthur he's now far too old for romance. Instead — between intervals of wondering just why a certain sinister foreigner is suddenly being welcomed into his mother's house — Clennam throws himself into helping make Doyce's manufacturing works a success...

...until the looming shadow of money, secrets and pretense that has hovered over the entire cast lowers once more.

There are two noteworthy adaptations of the novel: the Oscar-nominated 1988 film duology with Derek Jacobi as Arthur Clennam and Alec Guinness as William Dorrit, and the Emmy-winning 2008 BBC miniseries with Claire Foy as Amy Dorrit, Matthew MacFadyen as Arthur, and Andy Serkis as the villain Rigaud.

Little Dorrit contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Mrs. Clennam and Mr. Dorrit are both emotionally, if not physically, abusive.
  • Accidental Misnaming: Tattycoram's name is actually Harriet, but no one calls her that except Miss Wade. The Meagles all insist it's too ingrained a habit to change.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Arthur and Pet Meagles; Arthur and Amy Dorrit. Arthur is really not that old (he's in his early forties), but considers himself "old and grave" because of his joyless life so far.
  • Blackmail: Rigaud discovers that Arthur is not Mrs. Clennam's child, resulting in this trope.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Rigaud, practically into Dastardly Whiplash territory.
  • Children Raise You: A rather sad, averted example, with Amy providing money, food and emotional support to her helpless father and careless siblings even though she's the youngest of them all, and her father refusing to grow up and take responsibility even with three children who depend on him.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Mr. F's aunt, who talks entirely in non sequiturs.
  • Con Artist: Rigaud, Casby, and Merdle.
  • Creepy Twins: Ephraim and Jeremiah Flintwinch.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Jeremiah.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates:
    • Pet's marriage to Henry Gowan, of whom her parents strongly disapprove due to his lazy, cynical attitude and his many debts.
    • Fanny's marriage to Edmund Sparkler is largely motivated by the opportunity to torment his mother, who despises her.
  • Death by Childbirth: Amy's mother, and Arthur's birth mother in the miniseries.
  • Disabled Means Helpless: Subverted with Maggy, who, despite being severely affected by Brain Fever, can still take care of herself. Played straight with Mrs. Clennam, who in spite of her forceful character is paralyzed in a wheelchair and unable to leave the upper floor of her house.
  • Domestic Abuse: Jeremiah enjoys scaring the daylights out of his wife Affery, in addition to choking and seizing her, leaving her a shell of herself that doesn't even dare look straight down the hallway.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Miss Wade's entire guiding philosophy. She was an orphan and a charity case and from her earliest childhood has interpreted even the most basic acts of kindness to be acts of condescension and pity. And she hates this.
  • The Dragon: Pancks is this to Casby, albeit reluctantly.
  • Driven to Suicide: Mr. Merdle, when his financial shenanigans are about to collapse.
  • Driven to Madness: Mr. Dorrit has been imprisoned for so long that exposure to the outside world (and the loss of his fellow inmates' respect) causes him to break down and die.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Rigaud is crushed under the ruins of the Clennam house.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Dorrits and the Clennams.
  • Emo Teen: Poor John Chivery spends his days wallowing in Wangst over his Unrequited Love for Amy Dorrit, composing melodramatic epitaphs in his head to use when he dies of a broken heart.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The narrator refers to Mr. Merdle's powerful acquaintances by their careers: Bar (a lawyer), Physician, Bishop and Treasury.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: Bar often makes them at his own expense.
  • First Love: Flora Finching to Arthur.
  • Fish out of Water: Amy as an upper-class tourist in Italy.
  • French Jerk: Rigaud.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus / Historical In-Joke: In the 2008 series, Mr. Pancks checks the Marshalsea's register for information on the Dorrits. One of the other names on the register is John Dickens. Who was of course the father of Charles Dickens, and who really was imprisoned in the Marshalsea.
  • The Fundamentalist: Mrs. Clennam.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Daniel Doyce.
  • Gadgeteer's House: Doyce's factory in Bleeding Heart Yard:
    "The little counting-house reserved for his own occupation, was a room of wood and glass at the end of a long low workshop, filled with benches, and vices, and tools, and straps, and wheels; which, when they were in gear with the steam-engine, went tearing round as though they had a suicidal mission to grind the business to dust and tear the factory to pieces. A communication of great trap-doors in the floor and roof with the workshop above and the workshop below, made a shaft of light in this perspective, which brought to Clennam’s mind the child’s old picture-book, where similar rays were the witnesses of Abel’s murder. The noises were sufficiently removed and shut out from the counting-house to blend into a busy hum, interspersed with periodical clinks and thumps. The patient figures at work were swarthy with the filings of iron and steel that danced on every bench and bubbled up through every chink in the planking. The workshop was arrived at by a step-ladder from the outer yard below, where it served as a shelter for the large grindstone where tools were sharpened. The whole had at once a fanciful and practical air in Clennam’s eyes, which was a welcome change; and, as often as he raised them from his first work of getting the array of business documents into perfect order, he glanced at these things with a feeling of pleasure in his pursuit that was new to him."
  • Gold Digger: Fanny Dorrit.
  • Hates Being Touched: Mrs. Clennam, because it aggravates the chronic pain she's in.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: John Chivery is introduced as "Little Dorrit's lover", seemingly meaning "suitor" or "admirer".
  • Henpecked Husband: Mr. Merdle. His stepson Edmund Sparkler becomes one for Fanny in the end.
  • I Have This Friend:
    • Amy tells Maggy a fairy tale about a small hardworking woman (herself) who treasures the shadow which a kind man (Mr. Clennam) left behind.
    • Mr. Dorrit tells Amy about a "friend" whose "sister" ought to lead her suitor on (meaning John Chivery, son of the prison gatekeeper) in order to make life easier for her "brother".
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy:
    • Amy towards Arthur; Arthur towards Pet when she marries Henry Gowan.
    • John Chivery lives this trope.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Amy Dorrit isn't tempted by anything. Despite one of the most umpromising upbringings in all of literature, she doesn't so much as speak with a trace of a rough accent.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Clennam is jarred to see that his ex-fiancée, Flora Finching, whom he hasn't seen in 20 years, has lost her figure and her good looks, leaving only her Motor Mouth.
  • Karma Houdini: Flintwinch runs away to Holland with Mrs. Clennam's money.
  • Kick the Dog: Henry Gowan literally beats his dog.
  • Leitmotif: In the miniseries, several characters and places have these, including Amy, Rigaud, Pancks, the Meagles' cottage at Twickenham, the house of Clennam, Doyce's factory, and the Circumlocution Office.
  • Lonely at the Top: Mr. Merdle.
  • Love Dodecahedron
  • Love Informant: John Chivery tells Arthur that Amy loves him.
  • Manchild: Maggy, who is twenty-eight but whose mental development was stopped by a very bad fever at ten years old.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The mysterious watch Clennam's father entrusts to his son on his deathbed.
  • Meaningful Name: Well, it is Dickens. Most notably, Merdle, Mrs. General, Sparkler, the Barnacles, and Flintwinch, whose name contains a clue to the existence of his twin brother.
  • Morality Pet: Hiring Amy is the only charitable thing Mrs. Clennam ever does, due to feeling guilty because she's responsible for the Dorrits' imprisonment.
  • Motor Mouth: Flora, whose speeches are all rendered without punctuation.
  • Mysterious Parent: Arthur's mother.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Merdle's shenanigans, along with his suicide, were partly based on the exploits of mid-Victorian financial con artist John Sadleir.
  • No Name Given: Mrs. F's Aunt.
  • No Sympathy: Mr. Merdle. He may be a fraud who kills himself to escape the consequences, but he's also ill, overworked, obviously guilty (the handcuffing gesture) and unbelievably lonely. His wife nags him for not being sociable enough, his stepson is too stupid to talk to, his own butler looks down on him, and everyone else worships his money without really knowing him. Even the author seems to have no sympathy for him.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Egad, the Barnacles. There's a reason — and not at all a subtle one — that it's called the Circumlocution Office.
  • Old, Dark House: The House of Clennam.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: When Arthur sees his harsh, bitter mother being kind to Amy, he concludes that something must be wrong.
  • Parental Issues: Amy and Arthur.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Arthur and Flora's backstory.
  • Politeness Judo: Fanny and Mrs. Merdle.
  • Ponzi: How Mr. Merdle makes his fortune.
  • Proper Lady: Despite having been born in debtor's prison, Amy Dorrit embodies this trope. Furthermore, she does so in spite of her father's small-minded attempts to hold on to gentility, shining as an example of true nobility of soul, rather than class or wealth.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The entire score for the 1988 film is adapted from Giuseppe Verdi.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: The 1988 film is in two parts, as we see the same events from Arthur Clennam's perspective and then Amy Dorrit's perspective. There are noticeable differences between each part's versions of events.
  • Sanity Slippage: Mr. Dorrit suffers an attack of dementia at a society dinner.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Amy Dorrit.
  • She Is Not My Girlfriend: Arthur denies his crush on Pet even to himself, transferring all his jealousy and anxiety onto a "Nobody" in his own mind.
  • Shrinking Violet: Amy.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Mr. Dorrit and his brother Frederick; Fanny and Amy.
  • Talkative Loon: Mr. F's Aunt speaks entirely in non sequiturs.
  • The Cynic: Henry Gowan.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Pancks bites back at Casby (see "The Reason You Suck" Speech). Affery bites back at Flintwinch and Mrs. Clennam by supporting Rigaud's evidence. Flintwinch bites back at Mrs. Clennam by revealing that he kept a certain document instead of destroying it.
  • The Jeeves: Mr. Merdle's eerily capable butler, who makes him feel like an intruder in his own mansion.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Pancks gives an epic one to Casby in front of all their tenants, showing them once and for all who's really been exploiting them. Then he hacks off Casby's hair.
  • The Reveal: Subverted. Amy Dorrit chooses not to tell Arthur Clennam about his real mother.
  • The Un-Smile / Slasher Smile: When Rigaud's mustache comes up and his nose comes down, it's never a good sign.
  • Those Two Guys: Bar and Physician often comment to each other at the Merdle dinners. They wind up discovering Mr. Merdle's dead body.
  • Terms of Endangerment: Rigaud showers them on everyone he meets, including the men.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Maggy's "Chicking".
  • Traumatic Haircut: Administered to Casby by Pancks at the conclusion of his The Reason You Suck Speech. To everyone's horror, it turns out that without his cherubic white hair, Casby does not look innocent and angelic like he used to.
  • Trophy Wife: Mrs. Merdle has a "bosom to hang jewels upon, and Mr. Merdle had bought her for the purpose".
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The Dorrits, so much. When Amy works all day to support her father, he complains that she doesn't spend enough time with him. When she feels homesick for the Marshalsea after they're freed, he calls her insensitive for even mentioning it. Fanny accuses her sister of a lack of family pride for refusing to take bribes from Mrs. Merdle, and the whole lot of them (except Amy) completely ignore Mr. Clennam once they're free even though he is responsible for getting them out of jail.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: Two of them. The first gets Mr. Dorrit out of prison. Amy Dorrit refuses the second one, because it would mean revealing that Mrs. Clennam has covered up Arthur's real parentage.
  • Unrequited Love: Arthur (or rather, "Nobody") to Pet; John Chivery to Amy.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Edmund Sparkler and Tite Barnacle Junior.
  • Vast Bureaucracy: The Circumlocution Office again. It's some of Dickens' most devastating political satire.
  • Woman Scorned: Miss Wade hires Rigaud to spy on her former lover, Henry Gowan.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Mr. Merdle. The scenes in the 2009 adaptation where he talks to the parrot, or when he quietly and politely asks Fanny to lend him a penknife to slit his own throat with are downright tragic. Sadly, he also proves the lynchpin that ruins the happiness of many, of whom our main cast is but a small percentage.
  • You All Share My Story: Though not quite as tied together as Bleak House, nearly every character shares in the denoument.