The Royal Holloway Victorian MA Blog

Little Dorrit and prisons

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Today’s Novel class, on Little Dorrit, is all about prisons, and the consistently worked-through thematic of imprisonment in the novel. In one sense, nowadays, this may seem an obvious angle on the novel; but in fact it takes its cue from an essay written half a century ago by the American critic Lionel Trilling. Trilling was commissioned to write the introduction to the Oxford Illustrated Dickens; the essay was later reprinted in The Kenyon Review Vol. 15, No. 4 (Autumn, 1953), pp. 577-590 (click that link and you’ll find the whole essay). This, influentially, was Trilling’s reading of the novel:

The subject of Little Dorrit is borne in upon us by the informing symbol, or emblem, of the book, which is the prison. The story opens in a prison in Marseilles. It goes on to the Marshalsea, which in effect it never leaves. The second of the two parts of the novel begins in what we are urged to think of as a sort of prison, the monastery of the Great St Bernard. The Circumlocution Office is the prison of the creative mind of England. Mr Merdle is shown habitually holding himself by the wrist, taking himself into custody, and in scores of ways the theme of incarceration is carried out, persons and classes being imprisoned by their notions of predestined fate or of religious duty, or by their occupations, their life-schemes, their ideas of themselves, their very habits of language.

Symbolic or emblematic devices are used by Dickens to one degree or another in several of the novels of his late period, but nowehere to such good effect as in Little Dorrit. The fog of Bleak House, the dustheap and the river of Our Mutual Friend are very striking, but they scarcely equal the force of the prison image which dominates Little Dorrit. This is because the prison is an actuality before it is ever a symbol; its connection with the will is real, it is the practical instrument for the negation of man’s will which the will of society has contrived.

Trilling later added a footnote: ‘Since writing this I have had to revise my idea of the actuality of the symbols of Our Mutual Friend. Professor Johnson’s biography of Dickens taught me much about the nature of dustheaps, including their monetary value, which was very large … I never quite believed that Dickens was telling the literal truth about this. From Professor Dodd’s The Age of Paradox I have learned to what an extent the Thames was visible the sewer of London, of how pressing was the problem of sewage in the city as Dickens knew it, of how present to the mind was the sensible and even the tangible evidence that the problem was not being solved. The moral disgust of the book is thus seen to be quite adequately comprehended by the symbols which are used to represent it.’  [AR]

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