The Triumph of Endurance Over Enjoyment – Book Review of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit

Printed from:

This fall, I struggled through 850 pages of Little Dorrit – a novel written by Charles Dickens, who wrote 15 novels in all. By many accounts, this was one of his worst. And, as much as I love the most Dickens novels, I must agree.

It was, indeed, painful to get through Little Dorrit.  I only managed it because of my own stubborn determination to finish it and find out what happened in the many subplots. And it turned out it wasn’t worth the struggle, as the ending was a real letdown.

Dickens wrote Little Dorrit in 19 monthly installments between December 1855 and June  1857. He could have recounted the tale with its many Dickensian plots and subplots in half the number of pages, but he must have elongated the book through the 19 monthly installments to maximize his earnings. This can be the only reason that the novel fills 850 pages!

Yet it’s not wholly without worth. Hidden in the dross is an effective takedown of Big Government in mid-19th century England.

The novel is the story of Amy Dorrit (Little Dorrit), the youngest child in her family, who was born and raised in the infamous Marshalsea prison for debtors in London. Amy’s father, William Dorrit, and her mother, together with two older children, had entered Marshalsea prison two decades earlier due to a reversal of William’s financial fortunes. Amy’s mother dies when she is eight, and she is left to take care of her father for more than a decade, which she does with great compassion and devotion. Her father’s leadership skills and previous social standing result in his becoming the “Father of the Marshalsea.”

As in so many of his novels, Dickens draws from his own family’s background. Dickens’s father was imprisoned in the very same Marshalsea prison for three months when Dickens was at an impressionable stage in his life. One of the main thrusts of Little Dorrit is to satirize the institution of debtor prisons in England, where debtors were imprisoned and therefore unable to work — and yet incarcerated until they had repaid their debts.

William Dorrit was imprisoned because he had the misfortune to be responsible for an uncompleted contract with the Circumlocution Office (a satirical portrait of the government bureaucracy at the time). Dickens’s portrait of the Circumlocution Office is one of the best devices in the novel. It is, of course, a fictional department in the British bureaucracy rife with incompetence and obfuscation. Its main function is to hamper the progress or bring to a halt any initiative in the private sector, and Dickens does a marvelous job of describing the endless ways that government bureaucrats work to present obstacles to the people they are meant to serve rather than assist them in their efforts. The Circumlocution Office actually fits right in the with the bloated U.S. government agencies currently.

In addition to Amy Dorrit, the other major character in the novel is Arthur Clennam, who, as the story begins, has arrived home from China where he has been toiling for twenty years in his father’s business. Upon his father’s death, he returns to London to meet with his indomitable but deeply unhappy mother. Rather than succumb to her harsh treatment, he walks away from the family business and distances himself from her.

Arthur meets Amy and is drawn to her, but Amy is afraid to reciprocate. Eventually she does, but as lovers, Arthur and Amy do not inspire the reader. Amy is constitutionally unable to tell Arthur of her love, and he appears to have a hard time feeling amorous about Amy.

About 400 pages into Little Dorrit, it is discovered that her father, William Dorrit, is heir to a fortune, and amidst great fanfare, he exits Marshalsea prison. He then takes his family on a tour of Europe, and everyone in the family, except Little Dorrit, becomes snobbish and arrogant due to their new-found wealth.

Clennam, on the other hand, owing to an unfortunate speculation, encouraged by the swindling financier Merdle, is brought to the Marshalsea debtors prison. Little Dorrit finds him there, sickly and despairing. She tenderly nurses him back to health and consoles him. He has meanwhile learnt the value of her love, but her fortune stands in the way of his asking her to marry him. The subsequent loss of it makes their union possible upon Clennam’s release.

Here is where I might ordinarily warn of a plot-spoiler. But since you are unlikely to read this grim and overlong book, I plow ahead, conscious that I have made only a feeble attempt to avoid ruining your future enjoyment.

As the novel finally draws to a close, the reader learns that Clennam’s grim, old, and puritanical mother is not his biological mother, and that she has not only kept back money which is rightly his, but she has also suppressed a codicil in a will that would benefit the Dorrit family. With the Dorrit fortune restored, Arthur and Amy marry and presumably live happily ever after.

Certainly, we can all be grateful there was never a sequel to tell us about it.

Two years after the final installment of Little Dorrit in 1857, Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities. It is hard to believe that the same author could write two such remarkably different books — one brilliant and compelling. and the other circuitous, turgid, and boring.

A Tale of Two Cities is a historical novel, set in London and Paris, before and during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of the French doctor Manette, his 18-year-long imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris, and his release to live in London with his daughter Lucie, whom he had never met.

The story is set against the conditions that led up to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Among the book’s many good qualities, it captures the vindictiveness of the revolutionaries. With her knitting needles always busy as she drinks in the spectacle of the guillotine, Madame DeFarge is deservedly one of the most well-known characters in English literature.

A Tale of Two Cities is arguably Dicken’s best novel (perhaps even greater than David Copperfield and Great Expectations), and it has been claimed to be one of the best-selling novels of all time.

The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best-known beginnings anywhere: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period …“

Indeed Dickens in 1859 could be writing about present culture in America at this time.

A word to the wise:  Avoid Little Dorrit and sit back and thrill to A Tale of Two Cities.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $5.6 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


New to NewBostonPost?  Conservative media is hard to find in Massachusetts.  But you’ve found it.  Now dip your toe in the water for two bucks — $2 for two months.  And join the real revolution.