[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.]

Swindlers, by nature, depend on society. If no one trusts them or if people start to ask too many questions, their false fronts disintegrate and their scams fall apart. Swindling implies dilution on the part of the people being swindled. In order to establish society's trust in him, the swindler must appear stabile and secure. He can gain that appearance by wealth, but wealth alone does not allow him to be accepted and trusted by the established nobility, the old money of England. He must use that money to force their dependence upon him. In such a fortunate situation for the swindler, the aristocracy will find themselves forced to support him or suffer the consequences.

Trollope, Dickens, and Carlyle all investigate this interdependence of the swindler and society. The authors describe the swindlers, honored by society, in language of honor, respect, and idolatry. Trollope referred to Melmotte, the swindler in The Way We Live Now, as "the strong rock, the impregnable tower of commerce, the very navel of the commercial enterprise of the world, — as all men now regarded him" (331). Even when recounting the rumors circulating about Melmotte's past history of swindling, the narrator reminds the reader that "All this was said of him in his praise" (31). The description of the swindler Mr. Merdle in Dickens's Little Dorrit follow much the same lines:

Mr. Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. The weightiest of men had said to projectors, "Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?" And, the reply being in the negative, had said, "Then I won't look at you." (293)

His power stemmed from the positions with which people entrusted him and the tremendous faith they put in his work to the exclusion of all others.

Such shallow, baseless veneration infuriated Carlyle, who argued:

If a man have any precious thing in him at all, certainly the most precious of all the gifts he can offer is his approbation, his reverence to another man. This is his very soul, this fealty which he swears to another: his personality itself, with whatever it has of eternal and divine, he bends here in reverence before another. Not lightly will a man give this, — if he is still a man. If he is no longer a man, but a greedy blind two-footed animal, "without soul, except what saves him the expense of salt and keeps his body with its appetites from putrefying;" alas, if he is nothing now but a human moneybag and meat-trough, it is different! ("Hudson's Statue," 312).

He could see that society would never give these swindlers, such as Hudson, Melmotte, and Merdle, reverence unless they too got something out of their swindling. These men had society tied to their purse-strings. Melmotte, for example, had carefully cultivated the dependence of men such as Lord Alfred; "Lord Alfred, inspite of his habitual idleness and vapid uselessness, had still left about him a dash of vigour, and sometimes thought that he would kick Melmotte and have done with it. But there were his poor boys, and those bills in Melmotte's safe" (36). The Lord discovered that as long as he lived off of the products of Melmotte's dealings, he had no power with which to complain. Lord Nidderdale quite aptly stated about a similar situation, "I believe in living in glass houses, but I don't believe in throwing stones" (209). If one chooses to live on the edge of disaster, one cannot knock down someone else without causing one's own destruction.

Carlyle believed that the protection of an evil to ensure one's own safety and comfort will only lead to a worse situation in the end. He determined that the swindler "in his insatiable greed and bottomless atrocity had long, hoodwinking the poor world, gone himself, and led multitudes to go in the ways of gilded human baseness; seeking temporary profit (scrip, first-class claret, social honour, and the like small ware), where only eternal loss was possible" ("Hudson's Statue," 329). By protecting an evil, one assures his own eventual destruction rather than avoiding it.

Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Little Dorrit

Last modified 24 October 2002