Book Review: Little Dorrit

bookreview by pedrojperez

Description from Goodreads: When Arthur Clennam returns to England after many years abroad, he takes a kindly interest in Amy Dorrit, his mother’s seamstress, and in the affairs of Amy’s father, William Dorrit, a man of shabby grandeur, long imprisoned for debt in Marshalsea prison. As Arthur soon discovers, the dark shadow of the prison stretches far beyond its walls to affect the lives of many, from the kindly Mr Panks, the reluctant rent-collector of Bleeding Heart Yard, and the tipsily garrulous Flora Finching, to Merdle, an unscrupulous financier, and the bureaucratic Barnacles in the Circumlocution Office. A masterly evocation of the state and psychology of imprisonment, Little Dorrit is one of the supreme works of Dickens’s maturity.


I haven’t read that many of Dickens’ novels–only Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations–so I’m hardly an expert on his works. Still, Little Dorrit felt much more modern than his other works, at least in terms of plot.

A man has a midlife crisis in his thirties and ends up meeting a remarkable young woman. He’s drawn to her, and she falls for him, yet they’re kept apart by their families, circumstances, age, society…all the usual culprits. I enjoyed it more than I expected, though I wouldn’t call it Dickens’ best work.

Here’s a look at the novel, examining its narration, content, characters, world building, and overall response. (I read it as an ebook and there was no artwork to speak of.)

Narration: 3 out of 5. The descriptions were evocative, as usual for Dickens. I’ve always felt he sets the mood of a scene beautifully, and Little Dorrit was no exception, even though the places were unpleasant sorts of spots.

Unfortunately, the narration jumps all over the place. We follow a few characters, then ditch them and follow others. When it gets interesting, though, we jump back, and it isn’t until the last half of the book that the threads come together. Personally, I felt like I was being cheated: the author wasn’t just telling a story but stringing me along, trusting that I’d want to keep reading even if I wasn’t sure who the main characters were or even cared about any of his overflowing cast.

Content: 3 out of 5. Overall, the novel was surprisingly tight for Dickens. His characters and their circumstances were his soap box, so there wasn’t a great deal of preaching on social wrongs and the plight of the poor. While I felt like it was structured poorly, the content itself was quite good. Little scenes come back to be quite important and even essential to the plot, even if one can’t see where the author’s going.

He does, however, spend longer on some things than necessary; the passages in the Office of Circumlocution was belabored, as he pointed out all the troubles of bureaucracy. And I did find the ending not only somewhat convenient but extraordinarily miraculous. The circumstances that tie all the threads together was plausible, but I couldn’t really believe the actions of Mr. Clennam and his mother. The one was too irresponsible, the other impossible, based on the characters he’d created.

Characters: 4 out of 5. These were very believable and less melodramatic than many of his casts. They acted like normal people, with ordinary quantities of pride, greed, selfishness, and such. I did find Miss Wade a trifle too bitter and too harsh for believability, especially since her actions seemed to gain her nothing, not even revenge. I also thought that the incessant prattle of Mrs. Flora Finching was exaggerated (and a trifle annoying), but for the most part, the cast was believable and relatable, even.

I particularly enjoyed a literary device in the thread involving Mr. Merdle. Rather than give us another group of names to keep track of, Dickens uses the characters professions as their titles, and he maintains this throughout the novel, sometimes to rather comic effect. We’re told that the physician did this, Bar said that, and Bishop came and went, as befit his position. In a novel already bulging with characters, it simplified things greatly and was delightfully amusing.

World Building: 4 out of 5. In some ways, the excellence of the author’s world building works against him, because he creates such broad, expansive worlds with so many characters that they hardly fit in the novel. There are virtually no side characters, since even the side characters become minor characters and the minor turn into major characters. Still, he manages it all with admirable consistency.

Overall Response: 14 out of 20, or 3.5 overall. This wasn’t the best novel I’ve ever read–if Dickens were alive, I’d recommend he change a few things–but it was still an enjoyable look at debtor’s prisons, society, family, life, and love in Victorian England, with a pinch of melodrama to make things interesting.

Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by pedrojperez, Creative Commons

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