I. Introduction

Most readers of Charles Dickens will have noticed that his novels employ characters from various social classes of Victorian England, each character developed enough for the reader to make an inference about Dickens’s commentary on social or domestic order, or at least enough for the reader to know that commentary is afoot, whether or not he or she is able to make anything of it. Additionally, most scholars who have read literary criticisms of Charles Dickens will have very likely been exposed to an extensive array of theories concerning what his commentary on social order, and the characters’ particularly defined roles within it, actually is. “It is Dickens’s almost unique genius,” begins Avrom Fleishman, Professor Emeritus of English at Johns Hopkins University, “to tell us not only how it feels to be alive in class society, but also how people shape their own character under the spell of inequality” (575). Although Fleishman does not expand on his statement in this way, it can be read as if to say that although Dickens’s develops his characters within a specific social framework, the most provocative commentary rests not in the roles, responsibilities, virtues, and vices stereotypically found among the Victorian social classes, but rather through the ways in which the characters define their own moral characters, independent of their assigned social order. That is to say, one orphan may act entirely different than another orphan (Great Expectations’ Pip and Oliver Twist’s title orphan), one capitalist entirely different from another capitalist (Little Dorrit’s Mr. Meagles and Hard Times’ Bounderby), one cosmopolitan character entirely different from another cosmopolitan character (Little Dorrit’s Arthur Clennam and Monsieur Rigaud, to foreshadow a later discussion), and so on. Dickens’s novel then shifts from a commentary on Victorian social class, to a commentary on the individuals who are thrust, aptly or otherwise, into those classes. This shift does not deny the existence of social and domestic categories, but instead suggests that each character has the willful agency to behave in a way that is morally independent of those who share his or her social or domestic category.

Dickens’s 1857 novel, Little Dorrit, serves well — perhaps inadvertently — to demonstrate that a character’s moral development has more to do with the individual’s disposition than his or her standing in the social and domestic hierarchies of Victorian England. Ruth Bernard Yeazell, in her essay “Do It or Dorrit”, similarly theorizes that “more than most Dickens’s novels, Little Dorrit frustrates any attempt to trace human acts — or failures to act — to single determining origins” (39). In order to exercise my claim, I will investigate the ways in which Little Dorrit’s characters engage their moral identities through acts of sacrifice — both in terms of sacrificing oneself for others, and of sacrificing others, either for oneself or otherwise. This should be an important and fruitful exercise, as “the relation of sacrifice to the mid-Victorian novel is an extraordinarily rich, surprisingly understudied topic” (Blumberg 515). It is indeed surprising, for as Blumberg goes on to note, “mid- to late-nineteenth century writings are exceptionally prone to conceive of social relations in terms of sacrifice” (515). Although her essay focuses this trope of sacrifice on five Anthony Trollope novels, the mid-Victorian novels with which she expands her claim are Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847); Charolette Mary Yonge’s The Heir of Radcliffe (1853); George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861); Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) and No Name (1862); Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and A Tale of Two Cities (1869).1 With regards to George Eliot, this trope could as well include Daniel Deronda (1876), and with regards to Dickens, we might also consider Bleak House (1853) in which Esther Summerson, determined to do good and “win some love”, is confronted with a potential sacrifice of her happiness in her efforts to thank Mr. Jarndyce. Additionally, investigations of the individual and sacrifice have also resonated in political and fantastical novels of the Victorian era. Regarding the political, Beauchamp’s Career (1875) by George Meredith involves the sacrifice of its protagonist to selfless morality as he attempts to save a street urchin from drowning, while previously sacrificing his connection with a rich uncle in his attraction to the Radical ideology. Regarding sacrifice in the fantastical, the conclusion of George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), while vague, ought to be considered as the character Cosmo sacrifices his own life to save the soul of his beloved. It appears then that Blumberg is correct in noting the tendencies of mid-Victorian novels to conceive of relationships in terms of sacrifice; however, Little Dorrit separates itself with greater emphasis on morality and individuality, and this essay will be chiefly concerned with that emphasis.

To capture a broad perspective of sacrifice, my investigation will consider several of Little Dorrit’s developed characters — from the pivotal players of Arthur Clennam, Mr. Merdle, and Amy (Little) Dorrit, to the supporting cast members such as Tattycoram, Rigaud/Langier/Blandois,2 and Ms. Wade, among others. Ultimately, the novel suggests that those characters who sacrifice others, either for their own personal benefit or in negligence, will in turn find themselves fatally sacrificed by the very forces within themselves — Greed, Ignorance, Pressure,3 etc. — that catalyzed their sacrifice of others. Conversely, the novel suggests that those characters who sacrifice themselves for others will in turn find themselves rewarded with happiness, perhaps the most beloved reward of them all.

II. Sacrificing Others

Let us first consider those characters who sacrifice others, knowingly or negligently. With each character thus analyzed, I will show, in order, who they sacrificed, why their social class or label cannot be an excuse for their moral flaw, and finally how they in turn become sacrificed by the forces within themselves that catalyzed their sacrifice of others. Since the novel begins with the sinister Monsieur Rigaud, so then will I. It will be first useful to identify him, as he does himself, as a “cosmopolitan gentleman” (24). More explicitly, he declares, “I own no particular country. My father was Swiss — Canton de Vaud. My mother was French by blood, English by birth. I myself was born in Belgium. I am a citizen of the world” (24). This “gentleman” makes three attempts at sacrificing others, two of them successfully, the other nearly executed, but ultimately unsuccessful. First, he kills his wife — “Struggling with her — assassinating her!” (27) Then he deliberately poisons the Gowon’s dog — both instances of course contrary to his own side of the story. The third instance materializes in his unsuccessful attempt to sacrifice Mrs. Clennam by exposing her lie that concerns Arthur’s legitimacy, and likewise the legitimacy of her motherhood.

The reader may now wonder why I found it “useful” to identify Monsieur Rigaud as cosmopolitan. First, with regards to a character’s moral disposition, Rigaud’s cosmopolitan nature coincides with Amanda Anderson’s observation of how Dickens involves cosmopolitan characters in Victorian English society:

On the one hand, Dickens ambitiously strove in his novels to comprehend a social whole, and his narratives repeatedly assert omniscient and comparative knowledge as an intellectual and ethical value. On the other hand, insofar as the knowledge embodied in the narratives, and accessible to select characters, involves exposure to scathing truths about economic inequities or systemic corruption, it actually becomes a negative force as well, threatening the individual’s sense of purpose and capacity for clear moral vision when dealing with others who are suddenly viewed as fully complicit in the forms of power that structure the social world more broadly [emphasis added] (70).

In short, Anderson argues that a character’s cosmopolitanism can sometimes generate an “ethical value,” and sometimes it can generate an ethical flaw. While this argument is not false, I believe it requires a slight adjustment.

I would like to suggest that a character’s moral behavior is not governed by cosmopolitanism itself, but is governed rather by the character’s individual response to his or her cosmopolitanism — that is, how the characters use their cosmopolitanism, and not how cosmopolitanism uses the characters. To assert that Monsieur Rigaud’s “capacity for clear moral vision” is “threatened” is to put it as mildly as our English vocabulary allows. But to use the vocabulary that Anderson uses, what is his capacity for moral vision threatened by? For Anderson, it is the very actuality of his cosmopolitanism. In chapter two of her book, The Powers of Distance, she alludes to Dickens’s broader anxiety that “cultivated detachment — aesthetic, scientific, and cosmopolitan — poses a distinct threat to moral integrity, purposiveness, and forms of belonging” [emphasis added] (82). She goes on, however, to stress that “in many of [cosmopolitanism’s] Enlightenment manifestations, it comprises both intellectual and ethical dimensions, with a prominent emphasis on the practice of self-cultivation” (64). Since other cosmopolitan characters — in Little Dorrit, in other Dickens’s novels, and in other Victorian works — behave much differently than Rigaud, it seems more reasonable to say that his capacity for moral integrity is not threatened by cosmopolitanism, but rather his individual response to it. The moral differences between the cosmopolitan characters are therefore determined not by cosmopolitanism’s effect on the individual, but by the individual’s effect on cosmopolitanism — by the degree to which they use cosmopolitanism to morally cultivate themselves. This is an important distinction to make because by shifting accountability to the characters themselves, the novel is justified in the rewards or punishments it allots to the moral or amoral characters, respectively.

Although granting that Monsieur Rigaud is perhaps more cosmopolitan than other characters who seem to be worthy of such a label, it must be noted that these other characters with traces of cosmopolitanism adhere to an entirely different program of moral values. After all, the “Fellow Travellers” from the East in Chapter Two behave without the coldness, deceitfulness, and manipulation to which Rigaud subscribes. The Meagles, granting their unwillingness to (further) improve Tattycoram’s well-being, by and large behave respectfully. Miss Wade, while pessimistic and suspicious, commits no real harm. And Arthur Clennam, the novel’s hero, might be regarded as Rigaud’s moral antithesis. Additionally, although she is not one of these “Fellow Travelers,” the cosmopolitan Mrs. General, who “in the course [of about seven years] made the tour of Europe, and saw most of that extensive miscellany of objects which it is essential that all persons of polite cultivation should see with other people’s eyes, and never their own . . . was a name more honorable than ever” (473). Hence it is Rigaud’s reaction to — and decided involvement with — his cosmopolitanism that defines his moral makeup. When viewed in this light, the collection of cosmopolitan characters crumbles down, and the individuals, with their own unique dispositions, remain unscathed by this social category. The novel, with regards to moral temperament, is therefore neither pro- nor anti-cosmopolitan; however, it is decidedly in favor of those who react to their cosmopolitanism honorably and selflessly (sacrificing themselves for others), and is against those who react dishonorably and selfishly (sacrificing others, knowingly or otherwise).

Part of my thesis stated that those characters who sacrifice others, either for their own personal benefit or otherwise, will in turn find themselves fatally sacrificed by the very forces within themselves that catalyzed their sacrifice of others. As just shown, the catalyst cannot be Rigaud’s cosmopolitanism, as this trait surfaces in some of the moral characters of the novel as well. Manipulation, Deceit, and Malice, therefore, seem to be the safest bets — what instigated these traits, one can only guess. In any case, it follows then that Rigaud fittingly dies beneath the very house that he tried to manipulate, or literally, “the great beam that lay upon him, crushing him” (828).

Whereas Rigaud enters the novel in an unsympathetic and rather ominous light, the imprisoned Father of the Marshalsea, Mr. William Dorrit, is first introduced as “a very amiable and very helpless middle-aged gentleman . . . .a shy, retiring man; well-looking, though in an effeminate style; with a mild voice, curling hair, and irresolute hands” (73). Yet Mr. Dorrit, instead of sacrificing himself for the sake of his children, imposes sacrifices upon them — Little Dorrit bearing most, but Fanny and Tip (because of their unwillingness to sacrifice themselves for others) suffering most. He loosely spends Testimonial money from visitors and perpetuates his stay in the Marshalsea, which perpetuates the misfortune of the Dorrit children. The most poignant demonstration of Mr. Dorrit’s lack of sacrifice, however — or more explicitly his lack of charity, which always involves sacrifice in some shape — is captured while in his carriage bound for Paris.

While “every cripple at the post-houses, not blind, who shoved his little battered tin box in at [Mr. Dorrit’s] carriage window for Charity in the name of heaven, Charity in the name of our Lady, Charity in the name of all the Saints,” Mr. Dorrit preoccupies himself with “castle-building.... running towers up, taking towers down, adding a wing here, putting on a battlement there, looking to the walls, strengthening the defenses, giving ornamental touches to the interior, making in all respects a superb castle of it” (664). Not only does he sacrifice his own children, but he fails to make a charitable sacrifice when the opportunity stares him in the face — which especially weakens his moral character when the reader recalls that acts of charity or sacrifice by visitors to the Marshalsea (strangers to Mr. Dorrit) were that which made his bitter imprisonment tolerable, and daresay comfortable.

Of what Mr. Dorrit is supposed to be representative, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell. He is literally a father, though for most of the novel cared for as a child. He was “brought up as a gentleman,” and “Ed’cated at no end of expense,” though often times detrimentally ignorant (79). It is perhaps for these reasons that we need not demonstrate any further how the novel distinguishes Mr. Dorrit as a morally unique individual, but it should be remembered that no character — save for Mr. Merdle — who at any time shares a social or domestic category with him, behaves with the immoral recklessness to which Mr. Dorrit subscribes. The closest argument would go to the cosmopolitan Rigaud, but this obliges one to see Mr. Dorrit’s travel experiences as cosmopolitan, which becomes difficult to do when he simply surrounds himself with Englishmen while abroad. He is like the American who vacations in Japan and books a reservation at Planet Hollywood — not exactly the cosmopolitan experience. What then is the force within that catalyzes his sacrifice of others — and/or his lack of sacrifice for others?

Some critics of Victorian-era behavior, both in and outside of the novel, want to blame disrupted households. Contemporary critic Nancy Armstrong, recalling the research of James Shuttleworth, explains that machinization and problems of political order produced disorder in Victorian households, and likewise that “geographies of domestic disorder were also maps of moral disorder” (654).4 First, this starkly contrasts with Elizabeth Langland’s assertion that “the nineteenth-century novel presents the household as a secure and moral shelter from economic and political storms,” however neither Armstrong’s nor Langland’s assertions add up in Little Dorrit, if at all elsewhere. Concerning Armstrong’s view that domestic disorder produced moral disorder, we have only to recall that not only do Amy Dorrit and her father both subscribe to domestic disorder, but they are in the same family! How did Amy evade moral degeneracy while it captured the rest of the family? How did Arthur behave so well despite the troubling circumstances of the Clennam household? Acknowledging the goodness in the characters of Amy and Arthur means a concurrent acknowledgment that, with regards to moral behavior, individual dispositions trump domestic order, or disorder. Mr. Dorrit therefore has no social or domestic category to blame; the most likely culprit seems to be a combination of Self-Absorption and Ignorance.

This combination surfaces visibly in the “castle building” scene mentioned earlier, though Ignorance takes precedence concerning the sacrifice of his children: “All I have been able to do, I have done,” he says to Amy (248). And again to Amy: “I cannot, my dear child, think of engrossing, and — ha — as it were, sacrificing you” (638). Both forces (Self-Absorption and Ignorance) again contribute to his injurious investments with Mr. Merdle: his Self-Absorption drives him into the company of society’s most esteemed members, and his Ignorance of how to manage himself and his money in a society for which he pretends to be equipped (“though of course I should, under any circumstances, like the rest of the civilized world, have followed in Mr. Merdle’s train”) drives him to lose everything, bringing his children down with him, again (643). Early in the novel, Amy foreshadows the danger of her father trying to exist in the world outside the prison, saying “he might not be so fit himself for the life outside, as he is for [the Marshalsea]” (113). Because of this he is in turn sacrificed by the resulting pressure of his humiliation that follows these unfavorable endeavors. One might sympathize with a man who caught the same Epidemic “in common with the rest of the world,” but the Ad Hominem fallacy “Tu quoque,”5 while often tempting, is hardly a worthy excuse (538).

Mr. Merdle brings us to my last — though not the novel’s sole remaining — example of these amoral sacrificers. He is, however, the most obvious example, making sacrifices of everyone who trusted him with their investments, and spreading the symptoms (with help) of his own Epidemic. Upon the exposure of his Greed and Manipulation, the novel calls him “the greatest Forger and the Greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows” (742). The novel explicitly labels Mrs. Merdle as one of his victims, explaining that she “had been sacrificed to the wiles of a vulgar barbarian” [emphasis added] (838). Mr. Merdle, however, attempts to save face — as most guilty people do — by attempting to explain the “sacrifices” he had born. While discussing society with his wife, Mr. Merdle claims she does “not know anything of the sacrifices [he makes] for it,” but these “sacrifices,” just like his self-sacrifice of suicide, are made solely for his benefit — the former contributing to his bottomless pockets, the latter relieving him of the impending humiliation. He is thus ultimately sacrificed by the Greediness that caused him to sacrifice others — or at least the “Pressure” resulting from that greed (741).

Like Mr. Dorrit and Monsieur Rigaud, Mr. Merdle’s amoral inclination to sacrifice others for himself stands independent of any social or domestic category. His behavior actually subscribes to the kind of morality that most middle-class citizens assigned to the bottom rungs of society. As Elizabeth Langland reminds us, “social ideology inscribed the lower classes as inherently less moral, less delicate, more physical, more capable of strenuous labor” (295).6 To what then can we attribute his extreme lack of morals? It cannot be that he is a father; consider Mr. Meagles, the elder John Chivery, the kind-hearted plasterer Mr. Plornish, and Mr. Rugg. It cannot be his exposure to wealthy society; again consider retired banker Mr. Meagles and Mr. Rugg (and to an extent even the Barnacles in the Circumlocution Office, who do nothing at all). It cannot be his capitalist nature; consider Daniel Doyce, who Arthur describes as “the honest, self-helpful, indefatigable old man, who has worked his way all through his life,” and who Mr. Meagles reminds us, “never complains” (134). Mr. Meagles’ description of Doyce especially contrasts with Mr. Merdle when we recall that Merdle’s “complaint had been, simply, Forgery and Robbery” (742) [emphasis added]. As the narrator in Chapter Eleven points out, “There never was, there never had been, there never again should be, such a man as Mr. Merdle” (597).

III. Self-Sacrifice

Just as the novel demonstrates — again, perhaps inadvertently — the amoral independence of characters such as Monsieur Rigaud, Mr. Dorrit, and Mr. Merdle, and punishes them accordingly by killing them at the hand of those forces within themselves that catalyzed their sacrifice of others — Malice, Self-absorption, Ignorance, Greed, etc. — the novel also displays those moral, self-sacrificing characters, as independent of social or domestic categories. That is to say, it is not only the amoral characters who eradicate a moral mold of social or domestic distinctions. Let us now consider for what or for whom these self-sacrificing characters sacrificed themselves, how they stand morally independent of social or domestic category, and likewise how the novel rewards them for this moral behavior.

The obvious example is Amy Dorrit, who sacrifices herself for just about everybody she meets in the novel (excepting young John Chivery, poor fellow). In fact, she sacrifices so much for the well-being of others that her family’s existence entirely depends on Amy’s selfless industriousness: “My brother would have been quite lost without Amy,” says Mr. Dorrit. “We should all have been lost without Amy” (108). Any reader of Little Dorrit should not need further examples of Amy’s sacrificial character; however, her moral independence may not be as obvious.

That she is the daughter of a poor family, or even that she is a child of an imprisoned widower (and therefore might seem to be saddled with greater responsibility), is not enough to explain her selfless actions for others; consider Tip and Fanny, both of whom are thrust into the same circumstances, and both of whom unload the sacrifices they ought to make onto the already feeble back of their youngest sibling. Additionally, just as was the case with her father, Amy’s actions stand entirely independent of Armstrong’s supposed cause-and-effect of domestic disorder and moral degeneracy. Amy also pays no heed to the “social ideology [that] inscribed the lower classes as inherently less moral, less delicate, more physical, and more capable of strenuous labor” (Langland, 295). Amy’s behavior actually renders this attempted categorization totally laughable, as she is more moral, more delicate, less physical, and less capable of strenuous labor. The novel itself identifies Amy as morally independent of others who share her social or domestic category, explaining that “she was inspired to be something which was not what the rest were, and to be that something, different and laborious, for the sake of the rest” (86).

Amy’s ideals of being something, or doing something, “for the sake of the rest” is perhaps one of wholesome nostalgia. (Esther Somerson from Bleak House, as mentioned earlier, might coincide with Amy here as well). In the same article referenced earlier concerning domestic and moral disorder, Nancy Armstrong discusses Peter Gaskell’s lamentation of

the passing of a time when families were ‘bound together by the strong link of affection, each member in its turn, as it attained an age fitted for the loom, joined its labor to the general stock, its earnings forming part of a fund, the whole of which was placed at the disposal of the father or the mother, as the case may be; and each individual looked to him or to her for the adequate supply of its wants.’ [656]

Aside from the discussion of role reversals — upon which this paper’s thesis could have rested entirely (and differently), and for which another twenty pages would be necessary — this passage, when considering the Dorrit family’s dependence upon Amy’s sacrifices, seems to deposit her amid an old-fashioned family unity that the rest of the Dorrits selfishly resist. Or perhaps the rest of the Dorrits are unknowingly caught in the sway of what Blumberg calls “the emergent system of consumer capitalism, [which] with its emphasis on materialism and material success, recommended taking advantage of the sacrifices of others” (513). Among other things, considering the Dorrit family in accordance with Gaskell’s lamentation serves to morally distinguish her from others in her social or domestic sphere.

This lack of help from the family becomes more interesting when the novel reaches its conclusion and Arthur, perhaps siding with the reader, declares to Amy, “It is not my imprisonment only that will soon be over. This sacrifice of you must be ended” (849). I mention Arthur’s acknowledgement of Amy’s sacrifices here specifically with regard to the lack of offered help from Amy’s family because it seems the person best equipped to help Amy is a self-sacrificing character who also subscribes to a similar set of moral principles. Amy, of course, is not the only character benefiting from Arthur’s self-sacrifices. The entire Dorrit family benefits from the sacrifices of his time, energy, and money, and if these were not enough, he accepts the full burden of the ruined partnership venture with Daniel Doyce. In addition to mentioning for what or for whom Arthur sacrifices himself, it is important to reveal how the novel describes the beautiful history of his moral development:

He was a dreamer in such wise, because he was a man who had deep-rooted in his nature, a belief in all the gentle and good things this life had been without. Bred in meanness and hard dealing, this had rescued him to be a man of honorable mind and open hand. Bred in coldness and severity, this had rescued him to have a warm and sympathetic heart. Bred in a creed to darkly audacious to pursue, through its process of reversing the making of man in the image of his Creator to the making of his Creator in the image of an erring man, this had rescued him to judge not, and in humility to be merciful, and have hope and charity. [180]

It is hardly worth pointing out that Arthur’s moral character is independent of social and domestic categories, since the novel tells us it is rather “deep-rooted in his nature.” However, for the sake of thicker substance, I will say that his moral character cannot be attributed to his experiences in travel (or to Cosmopolitanism), for we have only to look at Rigaud and Mr. Merdle; it cannot be that he is a son (of any social class), for we have only to look at Tip Dorrit and Henry Gowon; it cannot be his domestic rootlessness or his bitter upbringing, firstly because he lives unaware of his illegitimacy, but secondly — and more importantly — because Ms. Wade, also “bred in coldness and severity,” while committing no real harm, has anything but “hope and charity.” It cannot be the domestic disorder of the Clennam household — this paper has already said plenty on that topic. In short, it cannot be anything to do with social or domestic classes. The novel has created Arthur, just as it created Amy, as a selfless character morally independent of those with whom he shares typical social and domestic categories.

Whereas the novel punishes those characters who sacrificed others — particularly by sacrificing them to the vices that catalyzed those sacrifices — the characters who have sacrificed themselves for others — Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam — find themselves rewarded for their moral behavior.7 Specifically, they tie the knot and enter “a modest life of usefulness and happiness” (859). This contrasts with Beauchamp’s Career in which the protagonist, while curiously in a loveless yet happy marriage, is punished (drowned) in his selfless moral act of saving a drowning child. One might read a reward into that, though that is for another essay all together. Similarly, the Tulliver children of Mill on the Floss are punished (drowned) in their attempt to find and save Lucy Deane, however both children can as well be guilty of sacrificing others for their own ends, and thus deserve the drowning according to the reward-punishment system discussed above. Regarding Little Dorrit’s self-sacrificers, the reader should understand that although Arthur and Amy’s reward does not necessarily cease their sacrifices — they continue “to give a mother’s care to Fanny’s neglected children no less than their own . . . and to give a tender nurse and friend to Tip” — this does not negate their reward. The novel describes them as “inseparable and blessed” and knows that they find “happiness” in seeing “the light shine on others and hailing it” (859, 181). Of course, neither one of them has hardly any capital to their name, but with the fates of other characters mentioned in this essay, it is hard to imagine they would prefer anything to honorable moral company.

IV. Conclusion

By now, it might be tempting to recall the characters this paper has put beneath the moral microscope and think that many of them have found ways to except themselves from the rule, as the saying goes. That is to say, the novel makes judgments about the morals of specific social and domestic categories — parents, children, cosmopolitan, provincial, poor, wealthy, etc. — but shows how certain characters have found ways to behave outside of those conventions. However, when the number of exceptions becomes equal to or near the amount of rules, the foundations of the rules (behavioral conventions and stereotypes in this case) become brittle at best. This is especially the case when there exists more than one exception to a given convention. Arthur Clennam is not the only cosmopolitan character who subscribes to honorable moral behavior; consider Mr. Meagles and Mrs. General. Likewise, Monsieur Rigaud is not the only cosmopolitan character to behave wickedly; remember “the greatest Forger and the Greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows” (742). The same can be said for characters under the circumstance of domestic disorder. Arthur and Amy both emerge as the novel’s two most selfless, morally behaving characters, yet the other members of the Dorrit family are morally blind or shallow. No matter which social or domestic category presents itself in Little Dorrit, there are always at least two characters who behave morally independent of that category.

It is important to notice that behaving independently of social or domestic category is not synonymous with behaving in a certain way despite behavioral conventions typically associated with a given social or domestic categeory. After all, to behave despite X first requires an acknowledgement of X’s existence and then requires one to behave in a way contrary to X — X in this case meaning “lower-class citizens behave this way,” or “capitalists behave this way,” and so on. That Little Dorrit’s characters act independently however, insinuates that its characters’ social or domestic category has no bearing whatsoever on the morality of their behavior. This does not suggest that social or domestic categories do not exist in Little Dorrit (that would be downright silly), but rather suggests, as the reader may recall from the introduction, that each character has the willful agency to behave in a way that is morally independent of those who share his or her social or domestic category. Removing morality from the discussion, there are undoubtedly many things which social and domestic categories can and probably do influence, inside and outside of the novel. However, that is not with what this paper, in its limited scope, concerns itself.

By demonstrating — again, perhaps inadvertently — that characters (and likely the citizens of the society within which, for which, or about which the novel was written) can act morally and selflessly independent of any social or domestic category, Little Dorrit creates individuals in a society obsessed with compartmentalizing the many levels of social and domestic life in Victorian England. Amanda Anderson is perhaps the literary critic most in touch with this as she explains “it is crucial to note that Dickens does seek at least partly to ground the capacity for achieved attachments in individual nature or temperament” (76). She carries this idea further by saying “the true moral distinction that Dickens makes is between those who assert forms of redemptive belief against such bleak conditions and those who fail to do so” [emphasis added] (76). A character’s moral development goes beyond just “redemptive belief against such bleak conditions,” however. As exemplified in Mr. Merdle, it is the characters in all conditions of society — from top to bottom, side to side — who must strive to hone selfless moral dispositions.

Critics of the Victorian novel, and likewise of Charles Dickens, will continue to draw lines around social and domestic categories, shaping and reshaping them as a new theory demands it. However, with the lens of morality, these boundaries dissipate more and more, and eventually disappear. This dissipation especially plays out in moral boundaries concerning social classes — that is lower-, middle-, or upper-class distinctions. As we see in Little Dorrit, members of the upper-classes include both moral and amoral characters, and the same can be said for the lower-classes. Most interesting perhaps is Mr. Dorrit, who moves from the lower society of the Marshalsea to upper-society toward the end of the novel, and behaves immorally in both.

The creation of these morally independent characters also justifies the reward or punishment divvied out to them. Since it is easier to gauge a character’s moral disposition by the extreme forms of morality, there was no better assessment than to follow Little Dorrit’s characters into their engagement with sacrifice — sacrificing oneself for the sake of others being the extreme form of selfless moral behavior, and sacrificing others (either in full knowledge or negligence) being the extreme form of immoral behavior. Little Dorrit rightfully rewards those characters — Arthur and Amy — who willing sacrificed themselves for the sake of others by granting them happiness. Conversely, the novel punishes (by death) those characters who sacrificed others, fittingly at the hand of the forces within themselves that catalyzed their sacrifice of others. In other words, none of the immoral characters die accidentally; if a character is guilty of something as serious as sacrificing others, he or she can never be an innocent bystander. As more critics begin to consider the ways in which Little Dorrit exercises the ideas of morality, sacrifice, and individuality as discussed in this paper, this novel will likely join other Victorian works considered to be one of the “novels [that] served among the century’s chief agents in secularizing and spreading the gospel of self-sacrifice” (Blumberg 514). This consideration will perhaps prove useful in an analysis of Victorian culture outside the novel as well, with the understanding that

the nineteenth-century novel is drawn to self-sacrifice in part as an exploration of its own aesthetic and historical tensions: between individual psychology and social structure; between idealized and realist representation; between the sympathetic, socially concerned aims of its writers and their professional, commercial ambitions. [Blumberg 516]

Not only does Little Dorrit demonstrate the possibility of moral self-cultivation, but insists on it, and rewards or punishes those characters according to their moral behavior. In short, no one gets away with anything because everyone’s accountable for themselves. Optimists would love to believe this is representative of real Victorian society and even of real life today, but realists who want justice served ought to stay inside and read another book.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Little Dorrit

Last modified 30 July 2010