Little Dorrit

January 27, 2011 at 10:40 am (Nineteenth-century novel)


Today’s novel class is on prisons in Dorrit (does the surname include an echo of ‘do-right’, ironically for a prisoner? Or does it conceal the act of having written in its second syllable there? Is the real prison in this novel … writing itself?)

There are, obviously, several actual prisons in the novel itself, and Dickens is also (again, I think obviously) suggesting that there are several varieties of imprisonment people can experience. To quote Alistair M. Duckworth ['Little Dorrit and the Question of Closure', Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1978), 110-11]:

In his notes for Little Dorrit, Number XVI, “Containing the history of a Self-Tormentor” (Bk. II, ch. 21), Dickens includes the entry: “Miss Wade’s Story. Unconsciously laying bare all her character.”‘ The chapter has a curious and somewhat awkward place in the novel. Dickens was persuaded by Forster to make Miss Wade’s autobiographical revelations a written narrative, and the result can be questioned. Arthur Clennam, for example, is rather unbelievably allowed no reaction to her story here or elsewhere in the novel. Yet the interpolated tale is thematically appropriate. It bears significantly on the master-slave opposition that runs through the novel, revealing that the victim who persists in his victimization may be the source of his own torment. Imprisonment, as the novel abundantly shows, can be unfairly imposed from without; it can also be, as Miss Wade’s story shows, perversely self-imposed.

I’d like to discuss the various ways people in this novel are ‘imprisoned': by poverty, by riches — to cite the titles of the novel’s two parts — by class, by gender, by family, by religion, by nation and by love.

But I’d like to do something more, as well, and discuss the extent to which discourse itself –textuality, writing, Dickens’s own business — emprisons, and is demonstrated as emprisoning in this book.

The Duckworth article is worth a read, actually; it both lays out some of the key thematic structuring principles of the novel, and sets about deconstructing the assumptions behind the notion that novels are ‘structured’ or limited — imprisoned, we might think — in those sorts of ways. For instance, on the one hand we get:

Though the novel has other metaphoric complexes, these remain central, and Little Dorrit as a whole can be profitably read, in Jakobsonian terms, as the metonymic displacement, exten- sion and variation of a limited numiber of significant metaphors or paradigms. The actual Marseilles prison reappears as the actual Marshalsea prison and casts its “prison taint” on any number of houses in the novel: Mrs. Clennam’s, Casby’s, Miss Wade’s, even the Meagles’s, as well as on the Convent of the Great Saint Bernard and on society as a whole. Rigaud’s “intent to be a gentleman” (I, 1) is repeated by William Dorrit, whose raison d’etre, both in prison and out, is to be “always a gentleman” (II, 19), and by many other would-be aristocrats. And the master-servant relationship initiated by Rigaud and Cavalletto is repeated, qualified, “turned” in the re- lationships of Mr. Meagles and Tattycoram, Casby and Pancks, William Dorrit and Nandy, Mrs. Gowan and Mr. Meagles, Merdle and society, the Chief Butler and Merdle, and so on. Criticism has pretty fully explored the ramifications of such metaphoric nuclei, and with its help one can savor the special pleasures of “readerly” interpretation, which lie in the recognition of meanings emerging from melodic variations played upon basic harmonic chords.

And on the other:

Though such decipherments of the novel’s thematic unity might be conceded a critical role by Derrida, they would doubtless be characterized as mystified and ideological, since they fail to put into question certain metaphysical assumptions present in the text and in their method. Specifically, the argument might go, such criticism is “eschatological” (since it assumes … that the novel works towards an end that confers unity on the parts and permits the interpretation of a stable meaning) and “archeological” (in that it traces back the deciphered meaning to an “origin” in the author’s intuition). The effect of such criticism is to reify the structure of the text while concealing its structurality. … Nor will gestures towards Jakobsonian analysis help matters, for within the framework of metaphor and metonymy, which I have used to describe criticism seeking thematic unity in the novel, there is the assumption of a “kernel” metaphor, a fundamental ground, a fatal stoppage of substitutions and permutations once “prison” or “master-slave” has been identifled as a nuclear term permitting aesthetic play and its “doubling” commentary. Such a framework implies the notion of a “centered” structure, and for Derrida, “the concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the free- play.”‘ What reassurance is there, a “deconstructive” critic would ask, of the stability of “prison” as signifier? Is it not precisely in regard to this kernel image that a major contradiction, an “undecidability” or “aporia,” resides? “Prison” can signify the miserable condition of the urban poor, as in the powerful description of London in “Home” (I, 3): it is there a historical condition that could be ameliorated through the action of a concerned government. But “prison” can also signify a given human condition beyond the power of a social agency to change, as when Dickens speaks of the “prison of this lower world” (II, 30). Can we be content with an either/or recognition here-rather as I was earlier content to see Miss Wade a self-imprisoned character as opposed to others like Doyce and Plornish, say, who are the prisoners of the social system? Or does this “surplus of signification” carry troubling implications with respect to the coherence of Dickens’s resolution of the problem of “imprisonment”?’

To complete the deliciously retro 70s/80s vibe here, I’d flag up a couple of relevant links.

One is Foucault’s Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison [1975; translated as Discipline and Punish in 1977]; a work we’ve come across before on this programme, of course.

More traditional is Philip Collins’ Dickens and Crime [some of which is available on Google Books here, and all of which is in the library here] which deals with crime, criminals and punishment. There are several good studies on the actual Victorian prison experience, not least Philip Priestley’s Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography 1830-1914 (1999). This latter doesn’t seem to be in the library, but I have a copy if anybody wants to borrow it.

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2 Comments

  1. Rachael Talibart said,

    Hi

    This looks very interesting and I will enjoy reading it all.
    Can I make a plea to have the material for next weeks’ session a little earlier? I think I might get even more out of our seminars if I have had a chance to read the material in advance. I am not sure we quite had time yesterday to explore fully your main point: ‘I’d like to do something more, as well, and discuss the extent to which discourse itself –textuality, writing, Dickens’s own business — emprisons, and is demonstrated as emprisoning in this book.’ (Of course, I may have ‘nodded’, but I don’t think I did!) I wonder whether we might have got there sooner as a group if we had come more prepared?
    This blog is a jolly good resource – I have been enjoying looking at some of the material in the archives for this course – especially the stuff about Napoleon!
    Rachael

  2. rhulvictorian said,

    Dear Rachael. You’re quite right! I’m sorry I didn’t get round to posting this sooner than the morning of the afternoon’s session (an unusually busy week). I’ll try and be more timely in future. AR

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