Dickens’s Feminist Misdemeanors

Feminism is said to have been unkind to Dickens, and for a good reason, too. The female characters he created in his novels strictly conform to the directives of the patriarchal society being rewarded or penalized respectively for their faithful clinging to the center (the phallus) or rebellious detachment from it. Yet, Dickens’s guilt, from a feminist point of view, lies not in the fact that his novels depict a patriarchal, "phallocentric" society (the type of society in which he lived), but in that he portrayed the women moving away from the center as doing so not so much because of their being conscious of a different "feminine" identity, which should entitle them to something better, but rather because of their ignorance or inability to stay close to it. From this point of view, Dickens does not even half-heartedly give credit to the rise of emancipation between 1830 and 1850, which saw women increasingly occupying positions in public and private institutions in England and consequently becoming more independent of men, something that Meredith did not fail to do in The Egoist (1879) in his portrayal of Clara or Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre (1847) through the eponymous heroine.>/p>

In "Women’s Time" (1981) Julia Kristeva speaks of a "sexual difference" and its relationship to the "symbolic contract" with society as well as of the inseparable conjunction between the sexual and the symbolic in determining the nature of "woman", suggesting that the specificity of feminine perceptions of the world should be properly reflected in the contract with society, which, in its sociosymbolic essence, is perceived by women to be vastly "sacrificial" for them (21). In "Consuming Fictions: Gender, Class and Hunger in Dickens’s Novels (1994) Gail Houston develops this idea a step further suggesting that in his novels Dickens "cannibalizes" women at the expense of men, that they are seen in post-Darwinian terms: usually portrayed as effete beings, are sick, and are literally destroyed to ensure the survival of men (e.g. Oliver’s and Paul’s births from Oliver Twist and Dombey and Son) leading to the "self-annihilation" and "anorexia" of the former due to their abstaining from consumption (30-43).

To ascertain the veracity of the above said in a relationship to the portrayal of female characters with Dickens, I am going to apply a feminist analysis to passages from Little Dorrit (1857) in compliance with the rationale given by Toril Moi of men making use of feminist criticism and applying it to non-female authors (109).

Dickens’s Humanitarian Paternalism

In an attempt to find some redeeming qualities in Dickens’s depiction of women, we might resort to George Gissing’s claim that in reproducing the life he knew, Dickens may have exaggerated some traits of his male characters in their drive for power, but there was "no" exaggeration in his portrayal of women (Gissing, pp. 45-46). To prove his point in his critical study of Dickens written in 1898, Gissing highlights certain recognizable types of women in the society of his time and by juxtaposing them to the ones from Dickens’s novels (e.g. Fanny, Flora, etc), he establishes a number of matches (52).

Counterarguments to the above statement, however, are not hard to find: Dickens, like any other author, picked out certain types of the full spectrum to be found in society and chose to portray them in a certain light thus advancing his ideas of humanitarian paternalism, not authoritarian, but still restricting women: also, as shown by Virginia Woolf in her brilliant essay "A Room of One’s Own" (1929), even in patriarchal societies, women were often shown to possess wisdom revealed in "some of the most profound thoughts in literature" falling from their lips being adored and highly respected by men (33).

Amy Dorrit – Patriarchal Virtues Rewarded

While still an object of adoration, Amy Dorrit "inspires" the male characters from the novel (John, Arthur Clennam and Mr. Dorrit) with her full subscription to patriarchal norms and acquiescence to the definition of the "Other" made manifest in her conduct and manner of speech. On the same principle, the other character I propose to analyze in this essay – Harriet alias Tattycoram. — will be shown to be suffering from her oscillating from the center in her rebellion as well as being "compensated" for her subsequent repentance.

As the following passage shows, she suffers from her oscillating from the center in her rebellion as well as from being "compensated" for her subsequent repentance:

‘Amy, Mr Clennam. What do you think of her?’

‘I am much impressed, Mr Dorrit, by all that I have seen of her and thought of her.’

‘My brother would have been quite lost without Amy,’ he returned.

‘We should all have been lost without Amy. She is a very good girl, Amy. She does her duty.’

Arthur fancied that he heard in these praises a certain tone of custom, which he had heard from the father last night with an inward protest and feeling of antagonism. It was not that they stinted her praises, or were insensible to what she did for them; but that they were lazily habituated to her, as they were to all the rest of their condition. [Chapter 9, p. 103]

The passage reveals Amy Dorrit as the paragon "daughter of the house" completely resigned to self-sacrifice and self-denial, both of which the men in her house take for granted and are accustomed to her dutiful service in the house — the prison cell of the Father of the Marshalsea). Another interpretation would not be without sufficient grounds, either – namely that Arthur, who expresses an egoistic desire to possess Little Dorrit, resents that she has devoted herself to being a protective sheath for her family and not to him. Dickens approved much more of "angelic" daughters orbiting the phallus (the male representatives of the family) than of wives since the latter would inevitably have more feminine characteristics as well as more independence than the former with the resulting consequences of their partial participation in the decision-making as well as developing "full-blown" femininity where a woman would traditionally be seen as "the Praying Mantis, the Mandrake, the Demon" (de Beauvoir, p.446). The opposite pair of patriarchal characteristics for the woman as "the Muse, the Goddess Mother Beatrice" constituting the "ambivalence" as an "intrinsic quality of the Eternal Feminine" (445) that de Beauvoir speaks of in The Second Sex (1949) is sadly denied to wives in Dickens’s novels.

The role then allotted to the Victorian "savior" (Constable), such as Amy Dorrit, Florence, or Jane Eyre, as a woman for the hearth defines her as "immanence", an eternal presence guaranteeing the survival of the male members of the family. As de Beauvoir further argues, "it is in no way a vocation, any more than slavery is the vocation of the slave" (446).

Little Dorrit, in her total self-denial, embraces the prison within as a home and excludes the world without as posing untold unnamed dangers threatening to break her orbit around the phallus:

I particularly want you to remember, that when I come outside the gate, I am unprotected and solitary. [Chapter 18, p.233]

These are Little Dorrit’s words to John a little after she informs him that she will never be his wife. It has been observed by many that Amy Dorrit offers generous protection and is self-sacrificing to anyone except John. The reason why he is cut off from Amy’s effusive protectiveness is clear: he makes a direct claim to her as a protector by proposing to her, which automatically would deprive her family of her protection. This act of attempted appropriation, therefore, accounts for the direct rebuff that he suffers as a result. The other male character who suffers a similar fate all along almost to the end is Arthur Clennam as suppressing her sexuality in denying his advances to her sanctifies and secures Amy Dorrit the patriarchal prize denied to Little Nell from the Old Curiosity Shop.

Evoking Derrida’s ideas of binary oppositions, we can see that Maggy, the idiot girl liberated from the prescriptive norms of "fallocentrism," does not carry any weight because her "worthlessness" means that she cannot be considered as a prospective mother and enter into orbit of a "phallus." She is therefore exempt from the obligations of having to conform and can, as a result, voice the pent up expression of suppressed sexual desire in Little Dorrit, thus suggesting her marriage at the end of the novel by referring to her as "Little Mother."

Tattycoram’s Lot – Patriarchal Compliance Given Credit

"Virtue rewarded" cannot, however, be the development another female character from the book is to undergo. Harriet (Tattycoram), an orphan girl temporarily moves away from the center – the Meagles family, who have adopted her and jocularly christened her "Tattycoram" for their own amusement. She does so in a natural rebellion to the abominable treatment she receives from them as the following passage goes to show:

‘Not without another effort,’ said Mr Meagles, stoutly.

‘Tattycoram, my poor dear girl, count five-and-twenty.’

‘Do not reject the hope, the certainty, this kind man offers you,’ said Clennam in a low emphatic voice. ‘Turn to the friends you have not forgotten. Think once more!’

‘I won’t! Miss Wade,’ said the girl, with her bosom swelling high, and speaking with her hand held to her throat, ‘take me away!’

‘Tattycoram,’ said Mr Meagles. ‘Once more yet! The only thing I ask of you in the world, my child! Count five-and-twenty!’

(Chapter 27, p.352)

This scene, of course, is ridiculous with Arthur Clennam joining in the chorus with the Meagles entreating Harriet to count to twenty-five, thus denying her the right to make her own decisions. In her rebellious act of moving away from the center Harriet moves to Miss Wade, one of the spinsters populating Dickens’s novels portrayed as a dark presence – irrational, delirious, furious, unsatisfied (considered a "protolesbian" by some critics), a marginal character closer to the edge of the phallocentric universe on the borderline with chaos. In directly challenging a male authority, Mr. Meagles, from the point of view of "positionality" (Kristeva, pp. 22-30) as developed by Foucault in "The Order of Things" (1966) and then adapted to the purposes of feminist criticism by Kristeva (also discussed by Toril Moi in "Feminist, Female, Feminine" ), she temporarily assumes a "subject position" the others being in an "object position" to her.

In the patriarchal world of "Little Dorrit, though, with the attenuating evidence of her being an orphan, she cannot be left as a satellite in the orbit of Miss Wade forever and has to come back to the Meagles repentant to resume her perpetual "object position" :

‘Oh! I have been so wretched,’ cried Tattycoram, weeping much more, ‘always so unhappy, and so repentant! I was afraid of her from the first time I saw her. I knew she had got a power over me through understanding what was bad in me so well. It was a madness in me, and she could raise it whenever she liked. I used to think, when I got into that state, that people were all against me because of my first beginning; and the kinder they were to me, the worse fault I found in them. I made it out that they triumphed above me, and that they wanted to make me envy them, when I know—when I even knew then—that they never thought of such a thing. [Chapter 33, p.855]

Harriet in the end becomes "Tattycoram" giving up all her claims to independence and freedom interpreting her own urges for liberty as "madness" . In a typically Dickensian reversion, unlike Jane Eyre’s consistent attitude towards the Reed family, she rejects her initial interpretation of the horrible treatment she receives by the Meagles as "false", embraces imprisonment professing that she has been seduced by the dark side of the periphery of the phallocentric world of Little Dorrit and is pulled back to the center, thus strengthening the position of the Meagles by increasing the protective layers separating them from the world without.

Positionality to the Center with the Others

At least two other female characters and their position in relation to the center provide a more complete picture of the phallocentric forces constituting the laws of the world of Little Dorrit: Fanny, Amy’s sister, superficial, opportunistic, desperate to remain close to the center by marrying into the Merdle family to protect herself from the powerful centrifugal forces of the increasingly entropic world of the Dorrits and Mrs Clennam, who is marginalized as inherently evil (a possible projection of Dickens’s own mother) confined to a wheelchair imprisoned in her dismal rickety house restricted in exercising her malignant influence by physical disability.

It must be mentioned, also, that the marriage between Amy Dorrit and Arthut Clennam is only made possible after the total dissolution of the center of The Dorrits so that Little Dorrit will need to attach herself to another center and subsequently enter its orbit.

Conclusion: The World as a Prison for Women

Rereading Little Dorrit from a feminist point of view makes the novel appear even bleaker and darker by comparison where all female characters are judged by their distance from the "phallus", their sexuality repressed, the most flagrant example being Amy Dorrit herself who has the quantifier "Little" attached to her name even though she is 21 years of age contributing to an enhanced stultifying effect on her character development.

The metaphor of the prison pervading the world of each one of the characters is thus further extended to each of the male character’s constituting a prison of their own, which appears to be especially designed for women.

Works Cited

Constable, Emily C. "Female Saviors in Victorian Literature: Amy Dorrit." Victorian Web.

de Beauvoir, Simon. ‘Myth and Reality’ in The Second Sex [1949] in Readings on Human Nature. Ed. Peter Loptson. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit [1857], Econarch Institute: Rowland Classics, 2009.

Gissing, George. A Critical Study [1898], Blackmask Online, 2001, www.munseys.com/diskone/cdcrit.pdf.

Houston, Gail Turley. Consuming Fictions: Gender, Class, and Hunger in Dickens's Novels Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.

Kristeva, Julia. "Women’s Time" Signs 7, No. 1. (Autumn, 1981). http://www.wehavephotoshop.com/PHILOSOPHY%20NOW/PHILOSOPHY/Kristeva/Julia.Kristeva.Women%27s.Time.pdf

Moi, Toril. ‘Feminist, Female, Feminine’ in The Feminist Reader: Essays of Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore. http://www.torilmoi.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Feminist_Female_Feminine-ocr.pdf, 1989.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own [1929], A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook No 0200791.txt, http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html, 2002.


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Last modified 6 October 2011