Monday, April 19, 2010

Little Dorrit, Little Prisons

Between my bouts with the zombie ledgers, I am re-reading Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, my second favorite of his books. Just a chapter at a time. Dickens was a heavily-worded writer. Most if not all of his stories were serialized in magazines. So they could drag on and on, and a public starved for reading materials would wait for the next installment. When he was writing "The Old Curiosity Shop" he left his tiny heroine in dire straits. It is said that a crowd met the ship with the next installment in Boston Harbor--a near-riot--all of them chanting "Little Nell. Little Nell." They wanted the magazines unloaded first to see if she was okay.

The Marshalsea
Each one of Dickens' novels seems to follow a theme, and show every possible permutation of it. Little Dorrit is about prison. The most obvious prison is the Marshalsea, a debtor's prison that Dickens knew well. When people like Dickens' father could not pay his bills, he was sentenced there by his creditors. A debt-convict could not leave until he satisfied those creditors in full. In the meantime, your family moved in with you (to save expense) and other family members on the outside paid your meager bills inside. Your sons and wife could seek work during the day. They had to be back at the prison before dark so they could be locked in.

Food was not free. A better prison cell cost money. Tobacco and clothing. All of that. Thus some were more wretched than others, based upon how many people did for them on the outside. It skewed the value of clearing up debt. Once you were in, you didn't have to do for yourself any more.

The Dorrit Family
Amy Dorrit's father, a gentleman, is sentenced to the Marshalsea. Eventually Amy is born there, which makes her an object of fame and of pity. She is small because she never got enough to eat. She went to the prison church and her uncle got her basic schooling. Otherwise, there is no reason for her to understand morals better than the rest.

Her father has long since given up trying to get out of debt, and instead uses his status as a gent and a "long-lived tenant" to beg from other prisoners. The way he receives alms is as a sign of appreciation for the "tone" he sets at the prison.  If someone goes about this alms-giving without the proper manners, Mr. Dorrit is hurt beyond bearing. He is a scam artist, but the person he has scammed the best is himself--and his other two children.

His eldest son is a ne'er do well who cannot keep a job. Her sister works in a dance hall, and is not averse to blackmailing society ladies whose sons are infatuated. The combination of pretension and self-deception, despair and acceptance have ruined this family. Except Little Dorrit, who continues to work, and who refuses to be less than honest with herself. She is a remarkable lady. As in all Dickens, the remarkable ladies are always a bit of a doormat, but she has a way of making her opinions known when necessary.
[Mr. Dorrit's cell. From l. to r. The elder Miss Dorrit sitting on a bed, Maggy (beaten simple as a child) in the cap (unrelated, makes a living selling potatoes in prison), Little Dorrit serving her father tea, and a visitor to Mr. Dorrit (of the wrong class) not given a place at the table. Arthur Clennam, a genteel visitor, at the table.]

There's a moral in this for today--the way people are ruined and self-ruined. The way it passes onward. How remarkable it is when somebody doesn't buy into the value system they're given. How hard it is for them.

Other Prisons, Other Rooms.
There is Mrs. Clennam, who has made a name for herself in business. In guilt for what she has done, has imprisoned herself in a bedroom and a wheelchair. She gives herself no joys, she tells her every visitor, and yet at three in the afternoon some servant brings her a plate of perfect oysters, wine, and dry bread. This is a prison of guilt and spite, a proud prison. It satisfies no guilt, and it spreads misery.

Then there is the young girl who has been lovingly imprisoned in good parental care and wealth--so much so that she does not recognize a respectable brigand. She makes a bad marriage--another prison.

Many of the prisons in this story are quite genteel: those of the upper class, the bureaucracy, the social climbers, the cynical, the oblivious, and the resentful with money to spare. Yet there is Mr. Dorrit, genteel for a living. He tries to get little Amy to flirt with the Warden's son. An eminently respectable thing to do, if you were on the outside, yes? Be nice to the important man, darling. Little Dorrit's hand comes up. It covers her father's mouth.  There is nothing he won't do now for a favor, for a chance at a cigar or someone to look up to him. Except the one quiet voice says 'no'. It tears the veil away, for one half-hour. He is nothing without it. She helps him put it back. Later, when he unexpectedly gets out, he is still a prisoner to his habits of mind.

Little Dorrit goes on to a happy ending. And in Dickens' lifetime, the Marshalsea was torn down. He saw it as a triumph. Nobody knows what happened to its dependents. Dickens just wanted no more of them.

7 comments:

Slamdunk said...

An interesting bit of history that you included with the reading fan club welcoming the ship that carried the next edition of Dickens' story. That must have been some sight.

Mick Mayers said...

Wow. I haven't read it, but I will now. Very compelling.

Bob G. said...

Ann:
I honestly love the "not buying into the value system they're given"...
Dickens might have been WELL ahead of his time, because we ARE seeing the fallout from those without such values TODAY.

There was a very good quote from (of ALL places) Star Trek-TOS that went:
"If there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them".
Cause and effect aka failure to follow value systems.
Maybe Roddenberry read Dickens...?
(wouldn't surprise me one bit)

Sounds like an intriguing read.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
I always think this is a good story, especially since most students look at Dickens' number of pages and Groan.

Thanks for stopping by!
Ann T.

Dear Mick,
Reading Dickens is always a kind of commitment. I love this book though, and have read it over and over.

My first favorite is Bleak House, another five-pounder. . . about the excesses of the legal system, among other things.

I hope you enjoy,
Ann T.

Dear Bob,
I love the purgatory quote!

I thought you would enjoy this review, especially about the passed-along values. We are definitely facing this problem today.

Viva Gene Roddenberry,
Ann T.

peedee said...

I'm putting this book on my bucket list. Near to the end. If I get to it, great. If not, I'm ok with that too. I'm not a big Dickens fan.
I know. Shoot me. lol

the observer said...

Ann T:
You make Dickens sound intriguing and interesting. I have never read anything by him that I recall. I may have to fix that.

Bob G.'s comment is so right on, I could not improve on it. I just say AMEN.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear peedee,
Fortunately there's so many good books that you don't have to tackle any of them that don't seem right to you. When we go to school, they pick them out. After that, we pick them out. And that's one of the pleasures of being grown! No shooting required.

Also, fiction isn't the only thing out there. I would stock you up with Krakauer and Ruark's Old Man and the Boy, for instance, non-fiction that reads like fiction or fiction that reads like non-fiction. That's just a guess though. It's all good, all food for thought.

Muah, crazy woman,
Ann T.

Dear The Observer,
I love Bleak House and Little Dorrit the best. They usually force us to read David Copperfield and Hard Times. I might try David Copperfield again . . . I loved Oliver Twist.

Most people get so wrapped in its Victorian-excess, but sometimes Dickens is also funny. I mean, he means to be, too, between the crusades and descriptions.

I hope you enjoy,
Ann T.