Little Dorrit was written by Charles Dickens. Even if you knew nothing else about the book, you’d probably be able to guess something about the central character. Little Dorrit–officially named Amy Dorrit–is a young woman, a paragon of goodness, love, and mercy, while surrounded and attacked on all sides by the cruelties of a corrupt, shallow, and greedy society. Dickens was and still is famous for creating characters like this. Oliver Twist and Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop are two obvious examples.
But while those two examples are generally viewed as lesser works from the less mature part of Dickens’ career, Little Dorrit is instead characterized as one of his supreme literary works, and indeed as one of the great Victorian novels. It unfolds against the background of a debtors’ prison, where Amy’s father is held for a debt caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that neither he nor anyone else understands. Amy is born in prison and spends her first twenty-two years there, passionately devoted to helping her father and everyone else. Eventually two outsiders, Mr. Pancks and Aruthr Clennham, unravel the facts and find that the Dorrit family actually have an enormous fortune. They leave the prison in triumph.
For the early Dickens, that would have been the end of the story. For the mature Dickens, it’s the halfway point of the story. After they leave prison, the Dorrits embark on a trip across Europe. As they go, Mr. Dorrit’s character subtlely changes. He becomes obsessed with the concept of being a gentleman, including such gentlemanly pursuits as abusing the servants and harshly judging anyone poorer than himself. He also becomes determined to remake Amy and her sister as members of the upper class. To that end, he hires a strict governess named “Mrs. General”, and together they try to twist Amy into the ‘proper’ mold. The irony is self-evident. When Amy lived in prison with her father, she was free to pursue genuine goodness and love. Once the family is free and out of prison, she is boxed in by society on every side.
Literary critics have written more about Dickens than any other English author but Shakespeare. While there’s undoubtedly an enormous amount to discover in the depths of Dickens’ novels, one can get so wrapped up in it as to miss the main points. The first main point is wealth. To Dickens, wealth is a corrupting force. The poor characters tend to be meek and mild, innocent and wholly good. The world of the wealthy is a world of corruption, pretension, indifference to suffering and general meanness. Of course one can find characters that buck the trend on either side, but on the whole the pattern holds strongly; Dickens must have viewed it as a central truth of humanity. The second main point, obvious related, is Christian goodness. Goodness is recognized by care and generosity, while badness is greedy, stingy, nasty, and self-centered. In Little Dorrit one of the main villains is Mrs. Clennham, the widowed mother of Arthur, who has spent decades sinking into an Old Testament-fueled Calvinist obsession with sin and punishment. At the end of the novel she is brought to a climactic meeting with Amy, who shows her the genuine goodness of Christ. This dramatic clash of personality types, and many others like it, carry Little Dorrit into the highest echelons of literary achievement.