Dickens and the Eternal Seas
Dickens’s Little Dorrit has about 25 central and secondary characters, plus many minor functionaries. The key figures are, as usual, vividly evoked individuals, each furnished with a package of identifying tics and traits: there are Pancks’s puffs and snorts and pulled hair, Flora’s mindless, Molly Bloom-like monologues, Rigaud’s sinister, nose- and chin-stretching smiles, Mrs Merdles’ shop-window-like bosom, Mr Casby’s head “teem[ing] with benignity,” and so on. More than half the characters are guilty of pride or self-deception or both, to varying degrees of veniality (or worse), and so their mannerisms serve an illustrative function within the book’s sustained, often savage satire of the many sins of pretension, societal and individual.
The hauteur ranges from the diabolical (Rigaud and, less unalloyed, Mrs Clennam and Miss Wade), through the self-destructive (William Dorrit and Mr Merdle), to the harmless self-dramatization seen in Joe Chivery’s epitaph-writing and Mrs Plornish’s fluent “Italian.” To one degree or another self-importance is so widespread that Dickens uses synecdochic caricatures like Bar, Bishop, Physician, Horse Guards, and Treasury to stain all of England’s institutions and classes with it. (The fact that the “Father of the Marshalsea,” along with his son and eldest daughter, demand reverence from lesser prisoners proves that even the poor have their vanities.) Only Daniel Doyce and Little Dorrit are unimpeachable: both live the quiet truth while Society, “the noisy and the eager, the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fret, and chafe, and make their usual uproar.”
The book’s central character, besides the titular one, is Arthur Clennam, whose mediocre worldly career up to the age of 40 convinces him, after a jilt from pretty “Pet” Meagles, that he is old and unlovable. Self-pity and self-deprecation, much subtler vanities, demand a more detailed depiction than the usual broad brushstrokes of Dickens’s art, and he gives it, in the chapters where “Nobody” becomes the name of Clennam’s true, denied feelings, stared down by his pose of proud indifference. Clennam comes closest in the book to being Everyman, surrounded by figures of Virtue and Vice, and embodying average, flawed, well-meaning but misguided humanity. Hence, his great loss in love, before his great gain in it at the end of the book, is so poignantly rendered, so true to the reader’s sense of his own, ordinary heartache, and so sympathetic of it (in a book that otherwise looks with Biblical sternness at human folly):
Mr Meagles fell away, and he was left alone. When he had walked on the river’s brink in the peaceful moonlight for some half-an-hour, he put his hand in his breast and tenderly took out the handful of roses. Perhaps he put them to his heart, perhaps he put them to his lips, but certainly he bent down on the shore, and gently launched them on the flowing river. Pale and unreal in the moonlight, the river floated them away.
The lights were bright within doors when he entered, and the faces on which they shone, his own face not excepted, were soon quietly cheerful. They talked of many subjects (his partner [Doyce] never had had such a ready store to draw up for the beguiling of the time), and so to bed, and to sleep. While the flowers, pale and unreal in the moonlight, floated away upon the river; and thus do greater things that once were in our breasts, and near our hearts, flow from us to the eternal seas.