Little Dorrit

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

A novel by Dickens, published in monthly parts, 1855–7.

William Dorrit has been so long in the Marshalsea prison for debtors that he has become the ‘Father of the Marshalsea’. He has had the misfortune to be responsible for an uncompleted contract with the Circumlocution Office (a satirical portrait of the government departments of the day, with their incompetent and obstructive officials typified in the Barnacles). His lot is alleviated by the devotion of Amy, his youngest daughter, ‘Little Dorrit’. Amy has a snobbish sister Fanny, a theatrical dancer, and a scapegrace brother, Tip. Old Dorrit and Amy are befriended by Arthur Clennam, the middle‐aged hero, for whom Little Dorrit conceives a deep passion, at first unrequited. The unexpected discovery that William Dorrit is heir to a fortune raises the family to affluence. Except Little Dorrit, they become arrogant and purse‐proud. Clennam, on the other hand, owing to an unfortunate speculation, is brought in turn to the debtor's prison, and is found in the Marshalsea, sick and despairing, by Little Dorrit, who tenderly nurses him and consoles him. He has meanwhile learnt the value of her love, but her fortune stands in the way of his asking her to marry him. The loss of it makes their union possible, on Clennam's release.

With this main theme is wound the thread of an elaborate mystery. Clennam has long suspected that his mother, a grim old puritanical paralysed woman, living in a gloomy house with a former attendant and present partner, Flintwinch, has done some wrong to Little Dorrit. Through the agency of a stagy villain, Rigaud, alias Blandois, this is brought to light, and it appears that Mrs Clennam is not Arthur's mother, and that she has suppressed a codicil in a will that benefited the Dorrit family.

There are a host of minor characters in the work, of whom the most notable are the worthy Pancks, rent‐collector to the humbug Casby; Merdle, the swindling financier, and Mrs Merdle, who ‘piques herself on being society’; Affery, the villain Flintwinch's wife; ‘Young John’ Chivery, the son of the Marshalsea warder; and the Meagles and Gowan households.

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century).

Reference entries

Charles Dickens (1812—1870) novelist

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.