There was old people, after working all their lives, going and being shut up in the workhouse, much worse fed and lodged and treated altogether, than — Mr. Plornish said manufacturers, but appeared to mean malefactors. Why, a mua didn't know where to turn himself, for a crumb of comfort. As to who was to blame for it, Mr. Plornish didn't know who was to blame for it. He could tell you who suffered, but he couldn't tell you whose fault it was. [I. XII]

decorative initial 'I' n an early review in Blackwood's E. B. Hamley lamented that in what be called the "wilderness" of Little Dorrit "we sit down and weep when we remember thee, O Pickwick!" (p. 497) Given a comic perspective, the reaction is proper; for Little Dorrit is the direct antithesis of Pickwick. Dickens's great novel of imprisonment is not just dark and gloomy; it is specifically anti-comic. Just as David Copperfield was a reluctant farewell to comic values and society, so is Little Dorrit an attack on them. It turns the world of Pickwick inside out.

Anti-comedy is a term used -widely and indiscriminately now, but it has a precise application to the central vision of Little Dorrit, where the cardinal principles of comedy are all brought up, only to be attacked, dismissed, or treated with a bitter and complex irony, as in the great justification of prison        life given by the sodden Dr. Haggage:

"Nobody comes here to ask if a man's at home, and to say he'll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money to this place. It's freedom, sir, it's freedom! . . . Elsewhere, people are restless, worried, hurried about, anxious [197/198] respecting one thing, anxious respecting another. Nothing of the kind here, sir. We have done all that — we know the worst of it; we have got to the bottom, we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the word for it. Peace." [I, VI]

Dr. Haggage sounds deceptively like Dick Swiveller, who could transform his single room into "chambers" with the power of his imagination. But Swiveller, Micawber, Sairey Gamp, and others of this line are all triumphant; Haggage is defeated. His true consolation is the certainty that he has "got to the bottom". Micawber falls back for a spring, but the debtors here fall back for good. The freedom is a freedom from real contact, and the peace is equivalent to death. With bitter irony, Dickens then insists, through the rest of the novel, that the prison is simply a microcosm of the social world, with its snobbery, unreal distinctions, and vicious self-delusions, and that all men really share the same isolation. Haggage's defence, then, is the callous defence of the Barnacles: a justification of the impossible status quo. Even further, his argument rests not really on the comic term, freedom, but on the religious term, peace, making extremely apt Dickens's description of the doctor's speech: a "profession of faith". Haggage's peace is a perversion of the true peace later represented in Amy Dorrit, and his doctrine is no less than blasphemy. He is, ultimately, one of the damned.

These are harsh but fitting terms for a novel rooted so deeply in Christian pessimism, and they help explain why Haggage's justification is, at the same time, funny and terrifying. Little Dorrit does not finally make any terms at all with this world. At its climax, the heroine says, "Take all I have, and make it a Blessing to me!" (II. XXIX). Blessings can come only with renunciation, and union can come only when it turns out that all she has is nothing at all. "We cannot but be right if we put all the rest away, and do everything in remembrance of Him" (II. XXI), Little Dorrit tells Mrs. Clennam, suggesting the really deep pessimism of the novel: the "all the rest" that is to be renounced is truly all the rest of the world.

At any rate, these radical Christian terms are not amenable to a comic society and can be used only for the darkest humour: "Into this mixture, Mrs. Clennam dipped certain of the rusks and ate them; while the old woman buttered certain other [198/199] of the rusks, which were to be eaten alone.... She then put on the spectacles and read certain passages aloud from a book -sternly, fiercely, wrathfully — praying that her enemies (she made them by her tone and manner expressly hers) might be put to the edge of the sword, consumed by fire, smitten by plagues and leprosy, that their bones might be ground to dust, and that they might be utterly exterminated" (I. III). The technique of this joke appears primitive but is really quite subtle. The selection of Old Testament texts is compared to the selection of rusks, both are made to appear arbitrary, and are humorously called "certain". Behind this, though, is the deceptive fact that however random the selection of rusks, the selection of texts is certain indeed. Even further, Mrs. Clennam's ego, originally seen as the butt of the joke, is presented finally as frightening. Egoism here is not funny but literally damnable, and Mrs. Clennam's egoistic and masochistic religion has absolutely no comic resonance.

It supports but makes miserable her own life and nearly paralyses the life of her son. Arthur is, in fact, as much a victim of Murdstonean repression as was David; he describes his childhood as "austere faces, inexorable discipline, penance in this world and terror in the next" (I. II). There are numerous other parallels between this novel and David Copperfield. Both deal with various attempts to escape from the dark commercial world; both deal also with the dangers and attractions of masochism as a response to injustice — Miss Wade, for instance, is an almost exact parallel to Rosa Dartle, and her earlier relation to Henry Gowan is very much like Rosa's to Steerforth; both novels focus most centrally on the course of a sensitive and injured hero. But, in most ways, these courses are opposites. Arthur, unlike David, is fully conscious of being deeply infected himself, realizes the impossibility of a comic life with Pet (Dora), and moves not to commercial success but to its inverse: a failure which hurts others, public humiliation, imprisonment, and finally an anti-commercial marriage. Little Dorrit makes explicit the darkness hinted at in David Copperfield and in place of the earlier novel's sadness offers savagery, grotesquery, and black humour.

The difference in tone is immediately apparent, but the extent to which specific tendencies of the earlier novel are [194/195] reversed perhaps is not. Mrs. Plornish, for example, is first introduced as a copy of Mrs. Micawber, "hastily re-arranging the upper part of her dress" after nursing a child. The image is immediately branded on her; "This was Mrs. Plornish, and this maternal action was the action of Mrs. Plornish during a large part of her waking existence" (I. XII). Children are not only nursing but are crawling on the floor, suggesting profusion and joy, but when Arthur compliments, her on her crawler, Mrs. Plornish responds, while soothing the baby in her arms, "he is a fine little fellow, ain't he, sir ? But this one is rather sickly" (I. XII). The poverty of Bleeding Heart Yard, unlike that of the Micawbers, is the kind that causes suffering and kills. Dickens demands that we acknowledge both the humour and the pain, and the pure Micawber comedy is disallowed. Even more revealing, perhaps, is the treatment of Maggy, the poor idiot whose mind was permanently imprisoned when she was ten years old. She is protected by Little Dorrit, just as Mr. Dick is protected by Aunt Betsey, and when Maggy first comes boisterously on the scene, rolling on the ground with her potatoes, she seems to be a direct descendant of Richard Babley. The developing differences become enormous, though, and indicate the radically different methods of the two novels. Maggy's physical grotesquery, first of all, is stressed in exactly the ways Mr. Dick's was played down: she has "large bones, large features, large feet and hands, large-eyes and no hair. Her large eyes were limpid and almost colourless... She was not blind, having one tolerably serviceable eye" (I. IX). Mr. Dick's recurrent fear of his threatening relatives is menacing but always distant; Maggy's past pain, however, is epitomized in her pathetic references to the hospital: "Such beds there is ther!" Little Dorrit explains, "She had never been at peace before" (I. IX), and Maggy stands finally as a symbol of the terrors of institutionalized cruelty and institutionalized "peace". She is also more realistically, presented and is thus much harder to accept sentimentally: "Maggy was very susceptible to personal slights, and very ingenious in inventing them" (I. XXIV). [195/196]

Dickens insists that we have all the reactions: affection, pity, distaste, amusement, and irritation, but none of them alone. Maggy can participate in no such comic triumphs as Mr. Dick's fine reconciliation of Dr. and Annie Strong, because Little Dorrit finally does not believe in comic triumphs.

I will examine later in more detail the nature and causes of this anti-comic tendency of the novel, but it is first necessary to insist that the terms axe relevant. There is a general suspicion among critics that the darkness of the novel precludes comedy. For example, "Little Dorrit is without doubt Dickens' darkest novel. No other of his novels has such a somber unity of tone" (Miller, p. 227). The first sentence is probably true; the second one certainly is not. Is Flora sombre? is the Circumlocution Office? is Fanny Dorrit? is, for that matter, Rigaud? Surely the tone of the novel is richly various. Though the final view is certainly pessimistic, it is supported with all the resources of Dickens's rhetoric not with something as sterile as "a somber unity of tone". It is also a commonplace of criticism to assert that Dickens is in some way tired, that the treatment is forced and mechanical see Forster's Life, ii, 182; G. K. Chesterton, p. 230 put this view most concisely: "Clennam is certainly very much older than Mr. Pickwick", but it is usually stated more flatly). But it seems to me that his humorous imagination is fully engaged, manifesting itself in characteristically bizarre and yet functional ways in relation even to the most minor details: to the nameless tout who follows Arthur at Calais "in a suit of grease and a cap of the same material", shouting, "Hi! Ice-say! You! Seer! Ice-say! Nice Oatel!" (II. XX), to the Barnacle home just off Grosvenor Square which smells like "extract of Sink" (I. X), and even to Frederick Dorrit's bedroom, where "the blankets were boiling over, as it were, and keeping the lid open" (I. IX). I do agree that the nature of the humour is highly deceptive, in the sense that it is almost never pure, almost never presented without either accompanying blackness or staccato reversals. The reader very often is presented with the difficult mixture of feelings Arthur has when he first sees the adult Flora, "wherein his sense of the sorrowful and his sense of the comical were curiously blended" (I. XIII). It is the major function of Dickens's humorous rhetoric to effect this curious [196/197] blending. The technique is presently so common that clichés black humour, grotesque humour, and the like-have developed round it, but it has never been used more effectively in consonance with major aspects of the novel. Here the black humour supports the structural and tonal irony and shows us that it is, as the originally planned title of the novel insisted, "Nobody's Fault" only because we live in a world of nobodies.

The relationship of this kind of humour to the particular genre of the novel, then, seems to me the most interesting issue in regard to Little Dorrit. Similarly, the major questions involve, first, the causes and nature of the novel's radically anti-comic tendencies and, second, the rhetorical use of this mixed, grotesque humour.


Victorian Overview Charles Dickens Contents Next Section

Last modified 10 March 2010