[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.]

Power roles greatly influence and alter love in Aurora Leigh (1857) and Little Dorrit (1857). In these works Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Dickens demonstrate how a shift in power roles may result in a more successful love relationship. Both authors believe that men have to be humbled for a relationship to work. However, Browning shows that the woman must humble herself as well, making the two equals, whereas Dickens shows that the woman may remain in a position of power.

In both Aurora Leigh and Little Dorrit, a man must humble himself to the woman he loves to prove his devotion. In Aurora Leigh, Romney admits to Aurora that he made a mistake in saying that she should not be an artist:

Set down this
For condemnation, — I was guilty here:
I stood upon my deed and fought my doubt,
As men will, — for I doubted, — till at last
My deed gave way beneath me suddenly,
And left me what I am. The curtain dropped,
My part quite ended, all the footlights quenched.
My own soul hissing at me through the dark,
I, ready for confession, — I was wrong,
I've sorely failed; I've slipped the ends of life,
I yield; you have conquered. [Aurora Leigh, p. 295]

Because Romney admits his mistake, she accepts his love, and they are happily united. In Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam realizes his love for Little Dorrit when he is at the Marshalsea prison. He humbles himself and shows his respect for her: “Always so much older, so much rougher, and so much less worthy, even what I was must be dismissed by both of us, and you must see me only as I am. I put this parting kiss upon your cheek, my child — who might have been more near to me, who never could have been more dear — a ruined man far removed from you, for ever separated from you, whose course is run while yours is but beginning. I have not the courage to ask to be forgotten by you in my humiliation; but I ask to be remembered only as I am" ( 829). Only by humbling himself to Little Dorrit can Arthur express his true feelings for her. As in Aurora Leigh, a man humbles himself to a woman and they can express their true love for one another.

Although Romney Leigh and Arthur Clennam play similar roles in the two novels, Aurora and Little Dorrit behave very differently towards their lovers. Aurora responds to Romney's confession of failure by admitting her own faults:

But I who saw the human nature broad,
at both sides, comprehending , too, the soul's
And all the high necessities of Art,
Betrayed the thing I saw, and wronged my own life
For which I pleaded. Passioned to exalt
The artist's instinct in me at the cost
Of putting down the woman's --I forgot
No perfect artist is developed here
From any imperfect woman. [341

She confesses that she had trapped herself in the role of an artist, preventing herself from seeing the love she had for Romney. Little Dorrit, on the other hand, behaves very differently. She reacts to Arthur Clennam by soothing and comforting him: "As he embraced her, she said to him, "They never told me you were ill", and drawing an arm softly round his neck, laid his head upon her bosom, put a hand upon his head, and resting her cheek upon that hand, nursed him as lovingly, and God knows as innocently, as she had nursed her father in that room when she had been but a baby, needing all the care from others that she took of them" (825). Little Dorrit acts like a mother, treating Clenham like a child. She forgives him but has no need to humble herself.

Browning and Dickens give two views of power roles and love relationships. Browning believes that a man and woman must become equals in order to form a loving relationship. When Romney and Aurora admit their faults and humble themselves to each other they can finally share the love they have for each other. Dickens believes that a man must humble himself to a woman, but she need not humble herself. When Arthur Clennam shows his respect and admiration for Little Dorrit, she accepts his love and becomes more powerful in their relationship. She does not need to humble herself because she has made no mistakes.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Little Dorrit

Last modified 24 October 2002