decorative initial 'L' ittle Dorrit dramatically inverts many of the techniques and assumptions of comedy. In the first place, as Lionel Trilling says, "The imagination of Little Dorrit is marked not so much by its powers of particularization as by its powers of generalization and abstraction" (p. xv; the main arguments of Trilling's fine essay pervade subsequent criticism, and they are used extensively here; further references will be cited in the text). Though there is, in fact, much particularization, it is true that the details do coalesce around a general pattern more firm and clear than in any other novel. There is a consistent tendency to relate all details to the pattern; for example, "[Arthur] perhaps had a misgiving also that Britannia herself might come to look for lodgings in Bleeding Heart Yard, some ugly day or other, if she over-did the Circumlocution Office" (I. X). This generalizing habit creates an immediate problem for comedy, which relies always on the personal and direct, and distrusts abstractions as falsifying. The tendency to abstract also reduces the comic and ego-satisfying sense of the uniqueness of experience and personality. Abstraction tends to group and to pluralize: "[He wondered] how many thousand Plornishes there might be within a day or two's journey of the Circumlocution Office" (I. XII). David Copperfield would never have asked how many Micawbers, the whole point being the special quality of the one Micawber. [197/198]

The generalizations do not always work against humour, it must be insisted, but only against comedy. In some cases, in fact, they allow for rich satire. Bar, for instance, whom Trilling cites as evidence of the abstract qualities of the novel (p. xv), is really not so much an abstraction of all lawyers as he is essence of lawyer: "Bar was a man of great variety; but one leading thread ran through the woof of all his patterns. Every man with whom he had to do was in his eyes, a juryman; and he must get that juryman over, if he could" (II. XII). The sneer behind "great variety" is almost audible. Bar is, very simply, his profession, suggesting his reduced, funny, terrifying, and representative state. For the most part, though, the novel's generalizations move away from the comic form altogether and approach the stern moral tone of the sermon. The rhetoric of application is the rhetoric of the parable, insisting always on the pertinence of the details, particularly the dark details, to the reader's life. Mr. Meagles's fawning and stupid adulation of the Barnacles, for example, is termed "a weakness which none of us need go into the next street to find" (I. XVII). And it is certainly no "amiable weakness".

Little Dorrit is more darkly moral than any novel before it. It takes so stern a view of moral responsibility that any laxity is seen not as comic but as evil. The bitterly ironic notion of "Nobody's Fault" pervades the novel, as each guilty character justifies his existence and elaborately explains his present evil. In the end, all of the explanations — Miss Wade's, Rigaud's, Mrs. Clennam's, Ferdinand Barnacle's, Arthur's — are equally valid and equally inapplicable. The novel distrusts justifications and holds up the non-explaining Amy Dorrit as a reproof to all its other characters. Everyone else is a self-deceiver more or less dangerous (Mrs. Clennam) or sad (John Chivery). In comedy, self-deception is equally central, but it is brought up to be purged by laughter; here, however, the dark side of the trait is explored: "The family fiction" by which William Dorrit lives in prison and exploits his friends and children is seen as emblematic of the condition of England, so deeply embedded that dynamite, not laughter, is needed to purge it. In this black world, the work of the creative imagination is likely to be seen simply as lying, and Dick Swiveller is inseparable from the Circumlocution Office. [198/199]

In no other way is Little Dorrit so basically anti-comic as in its distrust of the creative imagination. Earlier novels had envisaged a general social condition almost equally black, but had ordinarily allowed for at least a private solution: that of Sam Weller, or Dick and the Marchioness, or even Sairey Gamp. Here the man least guilty and most admired, however, is an engineer, Daniel Doyce. Trilling says that Doyce "stands for the creative mind in general" and that, in him, Dickens made his fullest "claim for the virtue of the artist" (p. xv), but surely this is a misreading. In this novel the cynical and entirely condemned Gowan is closer to the creative artist than is Doyce. The engineer "spoke in that quiet deliberate manner, and in that undertone, which is often observable in mechanics who consider and adjust with great nicety" (I. X). He is precise, careful, restricted, and, finally, pragmatic: he is interested, above all, in "useful" inventions. His records are admired for their clarity; he alone is able to know, to get into things and see them, even if they are only things. And he alone, in this novel where the language comes close to getting away from people, can explain an idea "with the direct force and distinctness with which it struck his own mind" (II, VIII). Doyce is not only too limited to represent the creative mind; he is, in many ways, its antithesis. He is merely clear; he is not joyous, resilient, imaginative, or, in any real sense, creative. It is a key to the desperation and bitterness informing this novel that something so very limited as pragmatic clarity, attacked over and over again in earlier novels, is admired. It also suggests that Little Dorrit is, at least in one major strain, deeply reactionary in its celebration of the practical and in its implicit disenchantment with the powers of the liberating and extroverted imagination.

Over and over again, in the most acerbated passages in all of his writings, Dickens suggests that the true liberation is to "exterminate the brutes", that the true philanthropy is murder: "Assuredly [BIandois] did look then, though he looked his politest, as if any real philanthropist could have desired no better employment than to lash a great stone to his neck, and drop him into the water" (II. VII). There is no leniency here and no trust; Mr. Pickwick's kind are now called "amiable whitewashers" (I. XI) and are armed not with bags of money [199/200] but with guns. The bluntest statement of this ethic of retaliation is given by a jolly hostess, a "smiling landlady", who is something of a reversed Mrs. Lapin: "I know nothing of philosophical philanthropy. But I know what I have seen... And I tell you this, my friend... That there are people whom it is necessary to detest without compromise. That there are people who must be dealt with as enemies of the human race. That there are people who have no human heart, and who must be crushed like savage beasts and cleared out of the way" (I. XI). There is every sign that this hopeless indignation has the approval of the novel. Its pessimism and hatred disallow comedy.

But the attack on comedy goes even further. Although the novel is, as Trilling says, "more about society than any other of the novels" (p. v), it really repudiates the notion of society. Little Dorrit not only deals with human isolation but sees that isolation as largely inescapable; perhaps, in a dark sense, it is even better than community. The last words of the novel suggest the horrible condition of such society as there is: "as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar". The blessedness Amy Dorrit gives to Arthur has absolutely no effect on the surrounding society, and the clear sense is that the expansive social redemption envisaged by comedy is impossible. Society is seen simply as a collection of the harassed, and the real problem is not the comic one of rejuvenating society or finding one's place in it; one searches, rather, for a way to purify oneself of the social taint. The sickness of the commercial society is infectious, a point made over and over again in some of the most deceptive of Dickens's jokes. The good-hearted turnkey, for instance, devotes enormous energies to the generous notion of giving money to his god-daughter, Little Dorrit. He simply wants to will it to her and to ensure at the same time her safety from her grasping relatives. Unable to isolate her from her own small and ugly society, though, "the turnkey thought about it [200/201] all his life, and died intestate after all" (I. VII). His philanthropic notions are corrupted by being cast in the form of money, anyhow, but the most serious point of the joke is the insidious evil of social assumptions and the impossibility of dealing with society on its own terms. The novel attacks philanthropy almost as vigorously as it does the Circumlocution Office; both operate within and thus share the onus of the corrupt system. The truly meek alone have a chance here and then only in so far as they renounce social membership. In Pickwick victory was seen as a release from prison; here it is seen largely as an acceptance of imprisonment. The human ego, which is supported by comedy, is attacked, and Arthur is reborn not into comic and social triumph but into blessed meekness, not only an anti-social but an anti-comic virtue.

Given this dark view of society, Dickens also repudiates specifically the comic strategies for dealing with it he had earlier supported. Subversive warfare (as in Sam) is seen as self-destructive revenge; making the best of it (as in Saircy) is seen as complicity; reversing its terms (as in Micawber) is seen as masochism. The novel offers full explorations of the subtle variations of self-defeating and dangerous plans for dealing with society that fall short of the extreme and only proper one finally adopted by Arthur. The most prominent position in Little Dorrit combines self-pity with ingenious and often sly kinds of vengeance. Mrs. Clennam assumes that virtue comes in arranging a balanced and equal torture: "He withers away in his prison; I wither away in mine; inexorable justice is done; what do I owe on this score!" (I. VIII). Her sense of "inexorable justice" is linked to Miss Wade's embittered vision and her sado-masochistic response to that vision, and while both are, in their way, just answers, justice is a comic term which depends on a sane and balanced universe. In the universe of Little Dorrit it simply is not applicable.

The fullest treatment of vengeance, in the complex figure of Rigaud, makes this point clearly. Rigaud, though ominous and satanic, has his roots in Alfred Jingle. Like Jingle he adopts the parody pose of a gentleman. "It's my game", he announces at once, and he continually pretends to justify himself by comparison to all others who live "by their wits". He sees through the social façade and nearly triumphs over it, [201/202] but his "playfulness" is now viewed as evil and his satire on the commercial world as collusion. He suggests, finally, that any touch with society is destructive; that one can never "take things as they are". All the relaxation, the sense of community, and the pleasure of witty revenge necessary to comedy are repudiated.

So, to a very large extent, is the notion that human beings can and will effect a comfortable change. This optimistic belief in the efficacy of education is at the heart of comedy, but here only a radical transformation can possibly help. Both the narrator and, ironically, Ferdinand Barnacle agree that things never really change for the better. The narrator knows that Mr. Meagles and Henry Gowan never will and never can be reconciled: "When were such changes ever made in men's natural relations to one another: when was such reconcilement of ingrain [sic] differences ever effected! It has been tried many times by other daughters, Minnie; it has never succeeded; nothing has ever come of it but failure" (I. XXVIII). Solid and natural relations are now seen in terms of distrust and dislike. Even darker is Ferdinand's laughing assurance that people will learn nothing at all from the Merdle swindle: "The next man who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling, will succeed as well. Pardon me, but I think you really have no idea how the human bees will swarm to the beating of any old tin kettle" (II. XXVIII).

And thus there is an undercurrent of black fatalism in the novel, even in its circular form, where characters swing back to meet each other and move from one prison to another. There is some sense in which Miss Wade's acrid way of explaining life is exactly right: "In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us ... and what it is set to us to do to them, and what it is set to them to do to us, will all be done". The narrator adds that her tone "implied that what was to be done was necessarily evil" (I. II). Her ironic perspective tends to undercut even such faint hope as the novel allows and to imply that kindness defines exclusion and that misery is partly caused by joy. Her suspicion that a subtle condescension lies behind apparent consideration is inure than partially justified in relation to her own life and, more importantly, in relation to the Meagles's treatment of [202/203]Tattycoram. Though her logic is perverse, it is not mad, and one of the reasons the novel is so distinctly anti-comic is that it makes us feel sympathy not only for Miss Wade but for her vision of a world that is ruled by smug self-interest and cruelty.

The last and most obvious reason for the term anti-comedy is indeed this blackness. Though the novel deals with the comic theme of illusion and reality, it suggests that happiness is illusory and that the only reality is misery: "Reality on being proved — was obdurate to the sight and touch, and relaxed nothing of its old indomitable grimness — the one tender recollection of his experience would not bear the same test, and melted away" (I.XIII). In one extraordinary passage the impulse of Pickwick Papers is specifically reversed: "And he [Arthur] thought; who has not thought for a moment, sometimes? That it might be better to flow away monotonously, like the river, and to compound for its insensibility to happiness with its insensibility to pain" (I. XVI). So, in almost the same language, had argued Pickwick's Dismal Jemmy: "Did it ever strike you, on such a morning as this, that drowning would be happiness and peace?" (V). The vision which was once hurriedly dismissed as perverse, even ridiculous, has now become established. In the world of Little Dorrit, even the wonderful and hospitable inns of Pickwick have become "cruel houses", out to cheat any traveller (II. XVIII). The mock cruelty of Quilp has become the real physical cruelty of Flintwinch, and everywhere is bleak hopelessness and terror.


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Last Modified 10 March 2010