[This example of fine work written by a first-year university student in 1993 has historical importance because it exemplifies a very early (pre-Web) use of hypertext in education. The essay originated as a portion of one answer to a multipart seminar assignment, the results of which were then uploaded into a pre-WWW hypertext system, Eastgate System's Storyspace. I forgot to transfer full bibliographical information from the larger assignment, but I believe we used the Penguin edition of Little Dorrit. — George P. Landow.]

In Little Dorrit, the symbol of Mrs. Clennam's watch is both subtler and more complex than the shadow symbol of Phantastes. Essentially, the watch symbolizes Mrs. Clennam's unceasingly tortuous guilt. Not only did she ruin any hope of happiness for her husband and his lover, but she took their love-child and wronged him, Arthur Clennam, by keeping him as her own son in ignorance until too late — until after his real mother had died. While her husband, Arthur's father, lies on his deathbed, he entrusts this watch to Arthur to be given to "his mother." The significance lies in the initials engraved into the watch: "D.N.F." or "DO NOT FORGET." And she does not forget. From the moment the watch enters the book, in Chapter 3, it stays on the table before her (75), and when next presented in the scene with Blandois, the watch "is lying before her as it always did" (405). The engraved initials whose meaning no living person knows except herself symbolizes the brooding guilt she bears alone because she cannot tell anyone her dark secret.

On a higher plane, the watch also symbolizes her warped religion which focused on an angry, vengeful God who "does not forget" or forgive. Little Dorrit's opinion that Mrs. Clennam should "be guided by the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities"(861) rather than her wrathful, unbending God represents Dicken's criticism of the Victorian Evangelical Christianity that neglected the compassionate Christ for the fear-and-trembling God.

Complexities arise in the web of dramatic irony in which the watch's symbolism is meshed. Firstly, in Chapter 3, a naive Arthur delivers the hidden message from his father to his "mother" which, ironically, is about himself. Not only does he miss the initials "D.N.F." engraved in the watch (405) after he opens the watch himself, but he simply does not see it, symbolically enough. These ironic circumstances place the "naive hero"(Abrams, Glossary of Literary Terms, 98) Arthur, the very source of Mrs. Clennam's guilt, as the messenger of the cryptic last will and testament of his father to his mother: "Do not forget."

In Chapter 30, irony further complicates the symbolism of the watch. Mrs. Clennam does not know that Blandois knows the secret about Arthur that weights so heavily on her conscience. And, in fact, neither does the reader. With this in mind, then, a second reading reveals the irony of Blandois' seemingly unfounded response, "And naturally you do not forget" (406) to her explanation of the initials on the watch. The reader laughs at the irony of how close he unknowingly nears the hidden reality relating to the watch, its giver, and messenger. Little does she know that such innocent suspicions resolve themselves into reality at the conclusion of the book. In this way, then, ironic intrigue and deception enhance the symbolic meaning of the watch.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Little Dorrit

Last modified 24 October 2002