Author: Charles Dickens
No. of Pages: 852
First Released: 1855 – 1857
Synopsis (Courtesy of Goodreads): “The story of William Dorrit, imprisoned for debt in Marshalsea Prison, and his daughter and helpmate, Amy, or Little Dorrit, the novel charts the progress of the Dorrit family from poverty to riches.”
Comments and Critique: That synopsis does not do this book justice. As anyone who has read other works by Dickens, his books are very rarely as simple as this synopsis would imply. However, considering the novel’s length, a short synopsis is as good as any.
Given my unabashed love for all things Dickens, I am absolutely crestfallen that I could not rave about Little Dorrit. Instead, I have very mixed feelings about this monstrosity of a novel. For one thing, Dickens, in my opinion, is the master of suspense and of taking a complex set of characters and interweaving their lives in unique and unexpected ways. There was almost none of that here. The story is predictable with very little suspense. The characters are too black-and-white with almost none of the moral ambiguity that makes his characters so memorable and also helps build tension for the reader. As a result, I lost my desire to read this book about halfway through it. The predictability prevented me from being truly vested in any of the characters and staying actively engaged in the story. In fact, I struggled to stay awake while reading it.
However, there are still some very Dickensian things to love about this story. His descriptions of 1850s London remain absolutely stunning. The reader can all but smell the streets, hear the sounds of the horses’ hooves as they clatter down the street and feel the despair of life in debtors’ prison rising up from the pages. The picture he paints of London is very raw and real, and in a historical context, more accurate for what an everyday person’s life was like than anything by Austen, the Bronte sisters or other English authors from a similar period who focused only on upper class society.
Staying true to form, Dickens has several pointed critiques of society he brings forward with Little Dorrit. Given his own personal history of life in the workhouse with a father who lived in a debtors’ prison, Dickens typically mentions the downtrodden and the poor in his work. This time, he attacks the government and the idea of locking people away for failure to pay their bills and does so with gusto. From the not-so-tongue-in-cheek discussions of a bureaucracy that prides itself on doing absolutely nothing to the mindless following of the masses of the advice of the supposedly very wealthy to the discussions of life inside a debtors’ prison, Dickens does not pull any punches in his critique of them all. Through his eyes, the reader understands that those government forms one has to fill out in triplicate are there only to keep you busy while preventing any actual work from occurring, that in London at that time, one could be imprisoned for failure to pay back one pound or one hundred pounds, and that money or piety does not buy happiness. It seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
I have debated with myself for the last few days on whether I truly enjoyed this novel or not. I cannot say definitively one way or the other. There was a lot to learn about society back then, as there always is in his works. However, nothing took me by surprise, and I had to remind myself that I needed to continue to read it. The idea of a debtors’ prison definitely had me thinking about that entire system, why it was ever created, and wondering if we are really much better off without it. There are only a few minor characters which are truly memorable, but most, I feel, are just caricatures of what they could have been. In the end, I would recommend it to others, but I would do so with the utmost caution. While it does have topics that last throughout the ages, it really is not a book for someone who has never before read a classic. I have to say that I am glad I read it, yet even happier I finished it.
This book falls under the 100+ Reading Challenge, the Read ‘n Review Challenge, The Gilmore Girls Challenge, and The Chunkster Challenge. Also, for the FTC, I purchased this with my own money. Although I would love to see publishers send out review copies of classic literature to see if we could make it popular again!
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