Friday, April 15, 2011

Little Dorrit

She forgot to be shy at the moment, in honestly warning him away from the sunken wreck he had a dream of raising; and looked at him with eyes which assuredly, in association with her patient face, her fragile figure, her spare dress, and the wind and rain, did not turn him from his purpose of helping her.

There are few authors who can create characters that truly touch our hearts. Charles Dickens was a master of it. In his 11th novel, Dickens introduces us to many characters who, despite their overwhelming poverty, gain our utmost admiration and love. But this novel is more than just interesting characters. It is a critique of British bureaucracy, of a society separated by class, and a debt system that breaks the spirits of men.

The Plot:

After living in China for many years, Arthur Clennam has returned to England following his father's death. His father's dying words have led him to question his family's past and wonder if there is a wrong that he must undo. At the home of his invalid mother, Arthur meets Amy Dorrit, whom he soon discovers is the daughter of the "Father of the Marshalsea". Born and raised in the large debtor's prison, Amy spends her days working and caring for her proud father, her snobby sister, Fanny, and her idle brother, Tip. The more Arthur sees of the sweet and devoted Amy, the more he is determined to help lighten her cares any way he can.

As time goes on, more and more mystery begins to surround Amy and Arthur. What is the secret to the Dorrit family's past? What is the cold and harsh Mrs. Clennam keeping from her son? What part does the mysterious and dangerous Frenchman Rigaud play in it all? It soon becomes apparent that Amy and Arthur's stories are connected on a much deeper level than anyone could have ever imagined.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

That is a very basic plot summary, but as with any Dickens novel, it is impossible to sum up every single sub-plot. Just take my word that there are plenty of things happening in this novel. It could make your head swim at times. This is my seventh Dickens novel, and the more I read of him the more I love him. It takes a special person to tackle so many issues in a novel, and to put a human face on the problems of his (and our) times.

It is, of course, the human faces that remain with us long after the book is closed. Dickens does nothing better than create characters who will remain with you forever. Even the most minor character is distinct and complex. Though Arthur and Amy are like just about every other Dickens hero & heroine, the surrounding characters are as odd and flamboyant as one could wish. There's Flora Finching whose maturity didn't keep pace with her age. There's Pancks, whose rough exterior hides a heart of gold. There's John Chivery who is never more endearing as when he composes his own epithets. There's Mr. & Mrs. Meagles who are so simple and kind that you wish they were your own family. And there's Mr. F.'s Aunt who gets THE best lines in the book. Good or bad, frustrating or endearing, every character is a treasure.

Beyond the characters, it wouldn't be a Dickens without a commentary on life. Even though these stories are over 150 years old, they are often as relevant today as the day they were written. I love how in almost every one of his novels there is an unseen and intangible character that is a driving force behind the motives of most of the characters. In Little Dorrit, that unseen power is Society. Many of the characters live (and die) by the demands of Society. Nothing is done without Society's permission, nothing is deemed of worth if Society does not deem it so, and true praise can come from nowhere but from Society's lips. Over and over again we see characters sacrifice themselves and others in order to gain or keep Society's approval. Even those who do not worship Society themselves are often subject to its problems. That is definitely a theme that resonates with us today.

The other story line that we see played out even today is the story of Mr. Merdle. He is a man who is worshiped by all, simply because of his wealth. Though he is a self-made man, he lives in splendor, dines in the best homes, and is granted every favor. While simple men with great ideas (like Mr. Doyce) are left to flounder in red tape, every door is opened with Merdle's touch. Then the truth comes out...and Society pays for her blunder. Everything that was Merdle is revealed to be a lie. The splendor and the richness was nothing but a smoke screen with no real substance. The blinded public awakes to find themselves poorer or even ruined in some cases. And yet no one (except Arthur) ever thinks of blaming themselves, only the man who "did them wrong". Fast forward to today's economic situation and see if you can't find some similarities.

Though it took me awhile to get through its 800+ pages, Little Dorrit is still a worthwhile read. Its definitely up there with Dickens' other masterpieces like Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. If you haven't experienced a great Dickens novel, this is a wonderful place to start.

The Movie:

This particular Dickens novel has been adapted five times. The two most famous include the 1988 version starring Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, and Sarah Pickering. I have not seen this version.

The other popular adaptation is the 2008 version starring
Matthew MacFadyen, Claire Foy, Tom Courtenay, and Andy Serkis. This is a wonderful adaptation which I can't recommend highly enough. The sprawling story is streamlined without losing much, and the characters are played to perfection by some of Britain's finest actors. See my full review here.


Anne Mateer said...

Loved both the book and the latest movie adaptation!

hopeinbrazil said...

Just found your blog via semicolon and really like it!