[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.]

decorated initial 'D'ickens's novels were heralded early in his career for their ability to capture the every-day man on paper and thus create a memorable character to whom readers could relate, and invision as a real person. Beginning with Pickwick Papers in 1836, Dickens created numerous novels, each uniquely characterized by believable personalities and vivid physical descriptions. In 1858, one year after Little Dorrit was published, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine issued a commentary on Dickens's work. The comments are directed toward Pickwick Papers, but they can be applied to any of Dickens' novels, including Little Dorrit.

Dickens led the Muse out into the street, or the muse led him; she took her course up Fleet Street, drived into the borough and turned into the courtyard of a miserable old inn; there she found Sam Weller cleaning boots. Many an elegant novelist, while the traveling-carriage stopped to change horses, had glanced at some such figure and noted an accidental oddity of manner and speech. Charles Dickens, loitered up the yard, entered into conversation, got into the very heart of the man, chose him for his hero and presented him before the world at large. The world at large received him with open arms (Blackwood's, 83 [1858]: 59-60).

This ability of Dickens', to notice the uniqueness of a speech pattern and see that it made up an essential aspect of a person's character, can be seen clearly in Little Dorrit.

When Arthur Clennam stops at an inn near his mother's house, the waiter asks, in his own voice, whether Clennam might like to see a room:

"Beg pardon sir," said a brisk waiter, rubbing the table. "Wish see bed-room?"
"Yes, I have just made up my mind to do it."
"Chaymaid!" cried the waiter. "Gelen box num seven wish see room!"
"Stay!" said Clennam, rousing himself. "I am not going to sleep here. I am going home."
"Deed sir? Chaymaid! Gelen box num seven, no go sleep here, gome" (Dickens, 69-70).

This waiter plays a very minor role in the novel as a whole, but for the brief moment in which he appears, the reader can instantly picture him and hear the way he calls out to the chambermaid as he busies himself cleaning tables.

Blackwood's claims that "we are engrossed with a few favorite personages, and are delighted when they appear, look with eagerness for their return, and when the book is closed, we have some vague impression that we may possibly catch sight of them somewhere about the world" (59-60). Certainly if we did catch sight of one of Dickens' characters, we would know it, since the descriptions of physical appearance are extremely detailed and verifiable in real life. The first glimpse that the reader has of Little Dorrit's uncle creates a clear picture of him and thus ensures that he be recognized and distinct when he appears elsewhere in the book:

He stooped a great deal and plodded along in a slow preoccupied manner, which made the bustling of London thoroughfares no very safe resort for him. He was dirtily and meanly dressed, in a threadbare coat, once blue, reaching to his ankles and buttoned to his chin, where in vanished in the pale ghost of a velvet collar. A piece of red clothe with which that phantom had been stiffened was now laid bare, and poked itself up, at the back of the old man's neck, into a confusion of gray hair and rusty stock and buckle which altogether nearly poked his hat off. His trousers were so long and loose, and his shoes so clumsy and large, that he shuffled like an elephant; though how much of this was gait and how much trailing cloth and leather, no one could have told. (119)

The unique comparisons made in this passage to the business of London, to an elephant and to a ghostly or phantom-like quality all combine to form a brilliant description of this bent old man. Frederick Dorrit's confusion of gray hair and shuffling gait remain with the reader until he appears again, much later in the novel.

One memorable character in Little Dorrit fixes herself in the reader's mind less through her physical description or speech oddities than through her actions and mannerisms. Flora Finching, an old lover of Arthur Clennam's, has grown to a mature age by the time she enters the novel, but her actions and attitude are still those of a young girl, flirting and chattering incessantly:

Indeed I have little doubt," said Flora, running on with astonishing speed and pointing her conversation with nothing but commas, and very few of them, "that you are married to some Chinese lady, being in China so long and being in business and naturally desirous to settle and extend your connection nothing was more likely than that you should propose to a Chinese lady and nothing was more natural I'm sure than that the lady should accept you and think herself very well-off too...(193).

Upon hearing that Clennam had not, in fact, married a Chinese woman, Flora commences her ruthless flirting: "'Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long I my account!' tittered Flora" (193). Flora has an absurd appeal as a character, and adds new life to the story whenever she appears. Flora distinguishes herself to the reader because of the energy she puts into the text (and because the reader inevitably finishes a scene with Flora short of breath!) and she remains in the mind of the reader long after the novel ends.

Blackwood's says that "Every reader will tell you that he has made acquaintance with Sam Weller and several other remarkable persons, and that he shall never forget them as long as he lives. There lies the greatest triumph a novelist can have (59-60). In Little Dorrit, acquaintances are made with the waiter at an inn, with a scruffy old man, with a reluctantly aged beauty, and numerous others. These are not over-dramatized charicatures, but believable people that we might have seen a likeness to walking down the street. Indeed, the acquaintances made when reading a Dickens novel are not easily forgotten and the characters in Little Dorrit provide no exception.

[To get some idea of the relation of Dicken's popularity to his characters, take a look at the gallery of memorial caricatures that appeared after the novelist's death; be sure to click on the images to read some of extravagant tributes that accompanied the cartoons. GPL]


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Little Dorrit

Last modified 24 October 2002