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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Little Dorrit

I'd better write this review quickly lest I start to forget all 800-plus pages of this late-period Dickens extravaganza. So here goes.

Little Dorrit's primary concern is the theme of imprisonment and freedom, and particularly the psychological toll that the former takes on people. Dickens plumbed his personal experience with the jailing of his father (for debt) to write the novel. Little Dorrit herself is the "Child of the Marshalsea" because she is born within the walls of that infamous debtor's prison.

But what's amazing, and I think most redeeming, about this book is that Dickens also sees wealth as a prison: he comes out swinging against the awful practice of locking up debtors, but is no kinder to the "nobs" who chase wealth and enact ritualistic homages to Society and Money.

These are Amy "Little" Dorrits thoughts when her family, newly-wealthy, spends a season traveling and fete-ing on the contintent:
It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they lived, greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness, relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home. They were brought into these foreign towns in the custody of couriers and local followers, just as the debtors had been brought into the prison. They prowled about the churches and picture-galleries, much in the old, dreary, prison-yard manner. They were usually going away again to-morrow or next week, and rarely knew their own minds, and seldom did what they said they would do, or went where they said they would go: in all this again, very like the prison debtors. They paid high for poor accommodation, and disparaged a place while they pretended to like it: which was exactly the Marshalsea custom.
This is the most brilliant aspect of the book: the parallel halves in which the characters in prison and abroad exhibit the same patterns, characteristics, and follies. In fact, Dickens points out that the family is allowed to show love and tenderness towards each other more in prison than when they have to keep up appearances for genteel society.

Beyond the Dorrits, the interlocking strands of the multilayered plot include a number of separate savage satires: the office of Circumlocution and the Barnacle family that presides over it is just a brilliant skewering of bureaucracy. Henry Gowan is the obligatory laconic young man--the Felix Carbury/Rawdon Crawley type. Flora Finching is a wonderful character, her endless breathless flirtation a send-up of "romantic" notions as exhibited by middle-aged matrons. Mr. F's aunt is the pitch-perfect character who has little other purpose but to make the reader chuckle. And of course, there's Mr. Merdle, the Melmotte-like financier who everyone lauds and behaves obsequiously towards, and who ends up swindling them all and leaving them bankrupt. It's positively uncanny how relevant it all is in the Madoff era. It's as though we've learned nothing over time.

All this being said, I thought Dorrit's denoument, and the unraveling of the various mysteries and cliffhangers, was flat, anti-climactic, and at times even confusing. It's never good when the publisher decides to put a two-page addendum at the end of the book explaining the events of the final few chapters. Furthermore, the chief villain of the book, Blandois/Rigaud, is a rather laughable caricature of a continental rogue while Amy Dorrit's sweetness tends towards the saccharine. Dickens was much better at writing in-between characters than heroes or villains, which is why books like Great Expectations and David Copperfield whose heroes ARE in- between characters themselves, are so much better than the rest. Still, for the reasons stated above, it remains a very worthy read. So in conclusion, Copperfield pwns Dorrit pwns Hard Times.

A Coda: As for the upcoming mini-series, I am so thoroughly excited for it I can't contain myself. The cast looks parfait.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the casting was spot on, except for Macfadyen as Arthur Clennam. Matthew is way too young to portrait a man in his mid-forties, like Clennam is supposed to be.

    Nothing against his acting, though - I thought he made an awesome job.