ut this black, anti-comic novel is filled with laughter. By mixing the humorous with the vicious, the sad, the terrifying, and the disgusting, Dickens establishes a tone which disrupts our comfortable relation to the novel and which engages us in a rhetoric that defines the loneliness and emptiness common to all the novel's characters. It is a grotesque and hopeless world, but these qualities are made to move us most deeply when they are touched, briefly and poignantly, by the sanity and hopefulness of laughter. The dark world is in fact made all the darker by Dickens's explicit insistence on the absence of the important comic qualities. The humour continually urges [203/204] us to acknowledge the importance of what is missing and, correspondingly, the force of the darkness that is present.
The humour in Little Dorrit is almost always joined with the most serious and grim issues, as, for example, in the description of Arthur's childhood Sundays:
There was the dreary Sunday of his childhood, when he sat with his hands before him, seared out of his senses by a horrible tract which commenced business with the poor child by asking him in its title, why he was going to Perdition? — a piece of curiosity that he really in a frock and drawers was not in a condition to satisfy and which, for the further attraction of his infant mind, had a parenthesis in every other line with some such hiccupping reference as 2 Ep. Thess. c. iii. v. 6 & 7.... There was the interminable Sunday of his nonage; when his mother, stern of face and unrelenting of heart, would sit all day behind a bible — bound, like her own construction of it, in the hardest, barest, and straitest boards. [I. III]
The appeals for sympathy, the statements of cruelty, the record of repression and frustration are interwoven with jokes on the same subject. There is no question of comic relief or of reversal; the funny and the frightening are simply coincident. As a result the pain is doubly emphasized, precisely because the perspective for laughter is absolutely denied Arthur. There never was the freedom or joy in his childhood from which he could see, for a moment, the fun in 2 Ep. Thess. c. iii. v. 6 & 7. The fact that this liberated perspective is for a brief moment given to us establishes, by contrast, the repression of the imprisoned child, marched to chapel "morally handcuffed to another boy" (I. III).
Occasionally, instead of the staccato reversals, the humour is maintained a little longer in order to emphasize more dramatically the black and real alternative. Mrs. Bangham, [204/205] for instance, who is called in as "fly-catcher and general attendant" at the birth of Amy Dorrit, is a wonderful comic presence, garrulous, open, and cheerful, with the ability of Sairey Gamp to twist every occasion into pleasantness and comfort. She even does it with the huge flies that blacken the walls of the debtor's room:
"P'raps they're sent as a consolation, if we only know'd it.... And to think of a sweet little cherub being born inside the lock! Now ain't it pretty, ain't that something to carry you through it pleasant ? ... And you a crying too?" said Mrs. Bangham, to rally the patient more and more. "You! Making yourself so famous! With the flies a falling into the gallipots, by fifties! And everything a going on so well!" [I. VI]
The jokes on providence, imprisonment, and death are barbed, but they come off so quickly that Mrs. Bangham begins to look like a genuinely comic figure, economizing all our pity and disgust and turning them into amusement. Her partnership with Dr. Haggage turns the delivery into a wild, brandy-tilled party and further supports the comedy. Finally, however, the tone switches abruptly: "Three or four hours passed; the flies fell into the traps by hundreds; and at length one little life, hardly stronger than theirs, appeared among the multitude of lesser deaths" (I. VI). Untouched by this irony, Mrs. Bangham and Dr. Haggage are back at fetching and drinking brandy immediately after the birth. Comic joy is seen as callous escape, and the humour has supported only an illusion of happiness. The joke's disguises come suddenly off, reveal a black truth, and then are put on again. The laughter mixes with the shock and the pity and supports the pathos of the little girl, the central hope of the novel and "hardly stronger" nor, we feel, more socially significant than the flies who die by the hundreds.
As the novel proceeds, the technique of shifting perspective becomes refined until it sometimes appears in adjacent sentences, where the distant and polite is juxtaposed against the committed and the savage: "Mews Street, Grosvenor Square, was not absolutely Grosvenor Square itself, but it was very near it. It was a hideous little street of dead wall, stables, and dung-hills" (I. X). Similarly, the mixture of the awful and the funny becomes so subtle that it often appears in a single word, [205/206] as in the recurrent joke on Arthur's suppressed love for Pet Meagles, in which he is termed "Nobody". These techniques are then applied to two basic kinds of humour, governing two large areas of the novel: first, a functional and negative humour growing out of the Circumlocution Office to the Barnacles and the Merdles, Mr. Casby, Mrs. General, Mr. Dorrit, his daughter Fanny, even to Mr. Meagles and the tenants of Bleeding Heart Yard, and, second, a thin and sad positive humour radiating from Flora Finching and touching lightly a few others, among them Affery and John Chivery.
By far the most prominent is the humour which is centered in the heart of Little Dorrit's society, the Circumlocution Office. It is a humour which reveals the full horror of that institution and the aptness of its symbolic duty as representative of England itself. The Circumlocution Office is, above all things, both a symbol and a prime cause of the national paralysis. Their motto, "How Not to Do It", suggests not doing things the wrong way but not doing them at all. They stand to preserve the ossified status quo. Their officialized inactivity manifests itself, most significantly, in the specifically modern substitutes for true activity: sheer bulk and meaningless flurry: ". . . within the short compass of the last financial half-year, this much-maligned Department (Cheers) had written and received fifteen thousand letters (Loud cheers), had made twenty-four thousand minutes (Louder cheers), and thirty-two thousand five hundred and seventeen memoranda (Vehement cheering)" (II. VIII). The Circumlocution Office obligingly carries out the principles of Parkinson's Law.
But it is more than inactive; it is fiercely inactive, and much of the humour subtly disguises the fierceness only to reveal it later with extra force:
If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office. [I. X]
The ungrammatical correspondence seems at first to be just delightful Dickensian exuberance, the "squiggle on the edge of [206/207] the page" Orwell noted (p. 61). That squiggle is delightful in this case because it directs attention away from the danger of the Office and suggests its ludicrous incompetence. Dickens then proceeds, however, in paragraphs too long to quote here, to build a chorus of parallel clauses, beginning and ending with "it", until we begin to sense that the way in which the Circumlocation Office is ungrammatical is that it reduces all grammar to the sputtering, spitting, impersonal particle. The Office, finally, is anything but impotent: "Because the Circumlocution Office was down upon any ill-advised public servant who was going to do it, or who appeared by any surprising accident in remote danger of doing it, with a minute, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions, that extinguished him" (I. X). It extinguishes all who try to get in the way of its grand object: the denial of the human ability to know, the establishment of a madhouse world of institutionalized blankness which simply throws back all inquiry and reduces all humanity to the same inhuman level. "Upon my soul you mustn't come into the place saying you want to know, you know" (I. X) is, in this sense, the key joke in the novel.
The Circumlocution Office is manned and guided by the Barnacles, parasites not so much on England as on life itself, The Barnacles, in fact, are not enemies of England so much as they are England, a cross-section which includes the snobbish and the open, the austere and the friendly, the mean and the kind. The real problem with the Barnacles and therefore with the country is that they have no moral sense at all. They are all, like three of their younger members, "doing the marriage as they would have 'done' the Nile, Old Rome, the new singer, or Jerusalem" (I. XXXIV). It's all one to them; they are equally at home as spectators at a wedding or at the national decline. The point is that, "they are only spectators. They share the national disease, too, of being unable quite to catch hold of the language: Lord Decimus proposed "happiness to the bride and bridegroom in a series of platitudes, that would have made the hair of any sincere disciple and believer stand on end; and trotting, with the complacency of an idiotic elephant, among howling labyrinths of sentences which he seemed to take for high roads, and never so much as wanted to get out of" [207/208] (I. XXXIV). The humour is dark indeed; for in this madhouse world, it is suggested, any words will do, since everybody is nobody and nothing is to be done.
The most consistent humour, however, is connected to the "best and brightest of the Barnacles" (II. XXVIII), the amiable Ferdinand, in some ways the friendliest person in the novel. Very much like Sam Weller, Ferdinand is a wit and a cynic: "I can give you plenty of forms to fill up. Lots of 'em here. You can have a dozen if you like. But you'll never go on with It" (I. X). But unlike Sam he is very much a part of the system; he implies by his presence that the Circumlocution Office can easily contain hostile elements, that it is impervious to this or any human attack that laughter certainly can't help. Ferdinand really recognizes the power of the institution and, in his light way, is as vitriolic as Miss Wade and as blasphemous Mrs. Clennam, proposing that the Circumlocution Office is established by Providence: "You'll say we are a Humbug. I won't say we are not; but all that sort of thing is intended to be, and must be". Echoing Mr. Perker, he suggests that "it is the point of view that is the essential thing". Both he and Perker present the difficult spectacle of the good man inside the vicious system, and both require a simultaneous response of affection and condemnation. Ferdinand's vision is deeper, though, and consequently more bitter. He argues that the real purpose of the Circumlocution Office is to support the most natural of all human inclinations — isolation: "You have no idea how many people want to be left alone. You have no idea how the Genius of the country ... tends to being left alone". The black humour of this insight is completed with the final truth that the Circumlocution Office is only England itself: "'Our place is not a wicked Giant to be charged at full tilt; but, only a windmill showing you, as it grinds immense quantities of chaff, which way the country wind blows" (II. XXVIII).
Both the chief cog and the chief victim of this national grinding windmill is Mr. Merdle, "the man of his time" and "the name of the age" (II. V). He is married to a perfect bosom, used not to nurture little Micawbers but to hang jewels on. Mrs. Merdle is, as she so often says, the perfect image of Society and, at the same time, a parody of a human being. She [208/209] is a kind of continual check to comedy, forever parading by inversion her inhumanity: "My feelings are touched in a moment"; "I am the creature of impulse.'" But her bosom is huge only because it "seemed essential to her having room enough to be unfeeling in" (I. XX).
She is dangerous, certainly, but she is no Mrs. Corney, presumably because Merdle hasn't even enough substance tough be henpecked, When he enters — purely by accident, since he is only running from the butler — a room where his wife is present, he mumbles, "I beg your pardon . . . I didn't know there was anybody here but the parrot" (I. XXXIII). This complex joke works first by identifying the artificial Mrs. Merdle and her bird, but it hints, beyond this, that Mr. Merdle is fit company only for a parrot. Because the jokes, we are soon likely to build up really a large supply of laughter at this epitome of loneliness and detachment, a man who "stopped, and looked at the table-cloth; when he found himself observed or listened to" (II. XII). He is the archetypally alienated man — "Let Mrs. Merdle announce, with all her might, that she was at Home ever so many nights in a season, she could not announce more widely and unmistakably than Mr. Merdle did that he was never at home" (I, XXXIII) — and his condition, though irresistibly funny, is also pathetic.
It is, further, ominous; for in the end we are asked to laugh at the primal condition of the novel, which might be called nobodiness. Merdle's position suggests that the insidious social machine elevates those most capable of being nothing, that he becomes a funny and terrifying God of Nobodies, the grand cipher. The climax of this dark humour comes at the time of his death, in a series of some of the finest scenes in Dickens. Merdle visits Fanny and Edmund, needing to borrow, significantly, a penknife, having no kind of potency about him. As he leaves to exert himself to one perverse act of will, Dickens suddenly shifts the perspective to Fanny, and Merdle waltzes off to commit suicide: "Waters of vexation filled her eyes; and they had the effect of making the famous Mr. Merdle, in going down the street, appear to leap, and waltz, and gyrate, as if he were possessed by several Devils" (II, XXIV). This combination of the ridiculous and the awful is characteristic of the [209/210] treatment of Merdle. It is capped only by the final black joke, appropriately involving Merdle's enemy, the Chief Butler:
"Mr. Merdle is dead" [said Physician]. "I should wish," said the Chief Butler, "to give a month's notice." "Mr. Merdle has destroyed himself." "Sir," said the Chief Butler, "that is very unpleasant to the feelings of one in my position, as calculated to awaken prejudice; and I should wish to leave immediately." [II. XXV]
Nobody has been killed, and a new Nobody will take his place. There is no reason for feeling in the world of the Chief Butler and other non-humans, and the humour brings home the full terror of the situation.
This group, the Merdles, the Barnacles, and the Circumlocution Office, are at the centre of the negative humour, and radiating out from this centre are the same falsity, snobbery, rigidity, and dangerous inhumanity, touching almost all the characters in the novel and completely infecting many of them. One of the must corrupt is "The Last of the Patriachs", a darkly ironic phrase attached repeatedly to Christopher Casby, who has established his reputation by having been "formerly town-agent to Lord Decimals Tite Barnacle" (I. XIII). It is clear that in this connection he picked up much of that family's secret and became a kind of deputy Barnacle himself. The humour associated with him functions most obviously to support the general attack the novel makes on appearances, particulary, in the case of this "boiling-over old Christian" (I. XXXV), on merciful and kindly appearances. The Patriarch seems, in one way, to be very much like Mr. Pecksniff: "I beard from Flora ... that she was coming to call, coming to call. And being out, I thought I'd come also, thought I'd come also". Dickens says that the Patriarch's manner made his declaration seem worth putting down among the noblest sentiments enunciated by the best of men". But Pecksniff could transform platitudes into comfort by the exercise of his great artistic style; with Mr. Casby the repetitions indicate not style but emptiness and reflect not on his imagination — for he has [210/211] none — but on the pathetically deluded condition of the listeners whom he impresses. He is a vacant head with benign white whiskers, but the condition of nothingness — or nobodiness — is not completely funny. He is simply a reduced version of the central nothing, Mr. Merdle, and he is, as it turns out, dangerous in the same way; he is behind the misery of Bleeding Heart Yard.
He is also behind Mr. Pancks, one of Dickens's most complex humorous eccentrics, representing, most prominently, the man who transforms himself into a snorting and puffing machine both to satirize the system and to fit into it. His reflections on the position of man in a commercial economy are both funny and accurate: "Keep me always at it, and I'll keep you always at it. There you are with the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country" (I. XIII). The "it" is undefined both because there are no distinctions between functions in "a commercial country" and because it ties Pancks to the mad and powerful indefiniteness of the Circumlocution Office. Arthur is never sure that his friend isn't joking when he says such things, but their quality of humorous exaggeration is conditioned by the fact that they do seem to describe Pancks pretty well. He is, in fact, a man caught in the commercial trap, the basically good man who, ironically, helps corrupt Arthur. He does, at the end, break out of that trap in one of the few scenes of liberation in this novel of imprisonment, but even his revenge on Casby is deceptive. It is purely personal and humorous, not, as we are likely to hope, social and comic. He does not change the condition of Bleeding Heart Yard; he only frees himself from the Circumlocution Office bondage.
But that escape, even though limited, is made doubly important by its difficulty and obvious rarity; for the Circumlocution Office is everywhere, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in Mrs. General, who seems to come naturally, as a representative of Society, to the Dorrits along with their new-found wealth. Her dedication to the surfaces and to the proprieties ties her, ironically, to Blandois and to the novel's deep distrust of the basic assumption of the realistic comedy of manners: that surfaces reflect depths. In Little Dorrit the surface either falsifies the real or simply varnishes an emptiness. Mrs. General, for instance, is dedicated entirely to a life defined by others: [211/212] "But, like other inconvenient places ... it must be seen. As a place much spoken of, it is necessary to see it" (II. I). While this is, at least potentially, sad, it is actually dangerous, as is her whole notion of "forming the mind", that is to say, the lips, by repeating "Prunes and Prism", as if it were a religious incantation. This half-funny phrase not only indicates a reduction of life to the level of manikins; it is also ail instance of one of the most interesting symbols that recurs in the novel: the malign or ignorant use of language to reflect a world where communication is dying and where one hangs on to sense only tenuously. Mrs. General is really another zero, one of the globular things that split off from the Circumlocution Office and assume a mock identity. While this recognition of Mrs. General's nothingness is, in itself, funny, the concurrent recognition that her social function is to hollow others out is not. "A truly refined mind will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid, and pleasant" (II. V), she says, and since, in this dark novel, nothing is really proper, placid, or pleasant, she is counselling a life in the void. Mrs. General is, finally, the humorous and dangerous agent of falsification.
But it is not really Mrs. General who infects the Dorrit family; she simply comes to them when they need her, in order to put the finishing touches on tendencies that have been fully developed — even in the Marshalsea. Swinburne said of the Patriarch of the prison, "Mr. Dorrit is an everlasting figure of comedy in its most tragic aspect and tragedy in its most comic phase" (p. 29). This expresses very well the mixed response one must have to this exceptional figure. He turns the potentially comic fact that he is a "very amiable and very helpless middle-aged gentleman" (I. V) into a terrible weapon against his children. He is an excellent "Father of the Marshalsea" but of nothing else, a symbol of an institution but a black parody of parental love and responsibility. He gets "relish" — Mr. Micawber's term, we remember — only from condescension and from such things as Mr. Nandy's "infirmities and failings", which he loves to point out "as if he were a gracious Keeper, making a running commentary on the decline of the harmless animal he exhibited" (L. XXXI). He is, as much as Merdle, a [212/213] symbol of petrified nothingness, who is paid liberally by all who know him for being and doing nothing so well.
It is difficult, however, to react simply to Mr. Dorrit, principally because he is both despicable and funny, both self-deluding and self-conscious: "While he spoke, he was opening and shutting his hands like valves; so conscious all the time of that touch of shame, that he shrunk before his own knowledge of his meaning" (I. XIX). After a comic speech to his institutional children, he retires to persuade Amy to flirt with young John Chivery. He is stirred by her response, however, into a brief glimpse of his own ugly meaning and to tears of self-pity which reveal "his degenerate state to his affectionate child". The narrator then makes explicit the necessity of a complex response to this weak man: "Little reeked the Collegians who were laughing in their rooms over his late address in the Lodge, what a serious picture they had in their obscure gallery of the Marshalsea that Sunday night" (I. XIX).
After his release, Mr. Dorrit becomes a truer copy of Merdle, similarly afraid of servants, similarly powerful, and similarly alienated from his own home. Though still a partially humorous figure, he becomes more and more representative of a generalized condition of man, "so full of contradictions, vacillations, inconsistencies, the little peevish perplexities of this ignorant life" (II. XIX). When he finally breaks down, in the climactic scene where the world of Society is equated with the world of the Marshalsea, the humour is the blackest in the novel. Mr. Dorrit is a victim of the system and victimizer of his children, both prisoner and jailer.
We see his influence most clearly in his daughter, Fanny, who is a kind of Elizabeth Bennet gone wrong. Possessed of spirit and great retaliatory wit, she alone in the family appears capable of generating comedy, of seeing through Mrs. General and Mrs. Merdle and demolishing their false world in her grand and "irrepressible" way. But she really hasn't a chance; she is forced not to attack but to compete with Mrs. Merdle, and, thus, her happy rebellion against Mrs. General is only superficial. She invariably and wittily rejects any suggestion Mrs. General makes, but "she always stored it up in her mind, and adopted it another time" (II. V). Given her training, there is no course open to her but Mrs. General's, and she finally [213/214] becomes "almost as well composed in the graceful indifference of her attitude as Mrs. Merdle herself" (II. VI). She finally marries Mrs. Merdle's son, another vacuum, and mixes, for the rest of her life, triumph and misery. In the last view we have of her, she is continuing the system of vengeance and cruelty, making "little victims" of her own children, She is true to her upbringing; if Amy is the Daughter of the Marshalsea, Fanny is surely the daughter of the Circumlocution Office.
As we move further out from the centre, the influence of that Office becomes more subtle and less easy to detect, but it is strong everywhere. It actually touches almost all of the good people, most notably Mr. Meagles, Dickens's final repudiation of the good man of the establishment. Meagles is a more complex and much darker Brownlow, who is not only good-natured, "comely and healthy, with a pleasant English face", but actually goes "trotting about the world" (I. II). His insularity — he "never by any accident acquired any knowledge whatever of the language of any country into which he travelled" (I. II) — and condescension to foreigners, however, are seen as incipient Podsnappery. Meagles, like Mrs. General, simply shuts out what he doesn't want to hear, suggesting not only an inability to learn but also a smug capitulation to all things English. And in this novel nothing is more English than the Circumlocution Office. Meagles's "curious sense of a general superiority to Daniel Doyce" (I. XVI) reflects a frame of mind which really assumes the primacy of the Barnacle values, and he is as much a Barnacle-Merdle worshipper as anyone. Even after losing his daughter to a man he knows very well is a scoundrel, Meagles reflects happily on the Barnacles in attendance at the wedding, "It's very gratifying. . . Such high company!" (I XXXIV), Dickens is quite explicit finally about the egoism and snobbery that tie Merdle to the Circumlocution Office: "Clennam could not help speculating ... whether there might be in the breast of this honest, affectionate, and cordial Mr. Meagles, any microscopic portion of the mustard-seed that had sprung up into the great tree of the Circumlocution Office" (I. XVI). This good and amiable man's lack of full humanity is made more and more clear:
"Now would you believe, Clennam," said Mr. Meagles, with a [214/215] hearty enjoyment of his friend's eccentricity, "that I had a whole morning in What's-his-name Yard — " "Bleeding Heart?" [I. XXIII]
And, at the end of the novel, Dickens's rhetoric establishes definitely the sad limitations of Meagles:
"You remind me of the days," said Mr. Meagles, suddenly drooping — "but she's very fond of him, and hides his faults, and thinks that no one sees them — and he certainly is well connected, and of a very good family!" It was the only comfort he had in the loss of his daughter, and if he made the most of it, who could blame him? [II. XXXIII]
He escapes blame only because he could not escape the Circumlocution Office. His fault is everybody's fault, and his humour is mixed always with this dark insight.
Darker still is Dickens's treatment of the poor. Even the tenants of Bleeding Heart Yard do not escape the same corrupt attitudes which lie behind slums and poverty. They are actually part of the system that exploits them:
"Ah! And there's manners! There's polish! There's a gentleman to have run to seed in the Marshalsea Jail! Why, perhaps you are not aware," said Plornish, lowering his voice, and speaking with a perverse admiration of what he ought to have pitied or despised, "not aware that Miss Dorrit and her sister dursn't let him know that they work for a living. No!" [I. XIII]
Everyone, it appears, finds his nothingness to worship, overlooking entirely the suffering their snobbish gods cause. The elaborate and extended jokes concerning Mrs. Plornish's mastering the Italian language — "Me ope you leg well soon" — are immediately connected to a general Bleeding Heart Yard prejudice against foreigners, partly the result of long and careful training "by the Barnacles and the Stiltstalkings" but also going beyond even their leaders' bigotry: "They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decirims Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing" (I. XXV). Dickens does make it clear that the Plornishes are good people, generous, open, and warm, and Mrs.Plornish's linguistic pretences are undeniably funny. But we must also recognize that they are in part an offshoot of the Circumlocution Office.
All this Circumlocution Office humour is, in the end, much [215/216] like the country scene painted inside the Plornish house: "No Poetry and no Art ever charmed the imagination more than the union of the two in this counterfeit cottage charmed Mrs. Plornish" (II. XIII). The values of another world are there, but they are "counterfeit", unrealized, and to a large extent unrealizable in this world. Even the best attempts to live by these values are unsuccessful. There are, however, characters who give it a good try and whose relative failure is expressed in a kind of mixed humour quite different from the sort connected with the Circumlocution Office. Instead of infecting the funny with the bitter or disgusting, it is qualified with weakness, sadness, or a consciousness of limitations. The character coming closest to a full comic existence is undoubtedly Flora Pinching, but there are at least two others, Affery and John Chivery, who, though much less complex, do have distinct comic powers. Most often, however, we are asked with these two to recognize not so much the fact of their comic force but the degree to which it is severely qualified.
In another novel Affery would doubtless have been like Mrs. Bedwin or Peggotty, a tender-hearted servant, secretly wiser and more powerful than her master. Here, however, she is so very limited, so much a real victim of physical cruelty, that her comic powers have very little room in which to expand. She expresses, above all things, the extremely limited powers of the good, but she does so, significantly, in lines that are, at least partly, funny. Discussing her marriage to Flintwinch he explains, "It was no doing o'mine. I'd never thought of it". "What's the use of considering?" she proceeds, "If them two clever ones have made up their minds to it, what's left for me to do? Nothing" (I. III). The humour here works with the central issues of power, wilt, and evil. Very quickly, though, we see that Affery really is "swallowed up" (I. V) in her husband and Mrs. Clennam, and that those two clever and evil ones render her good-hearted instincts nearly powerless: "Why if it had been — a Smothering instead of a Wedding ... I couldn't have said a word upon it, against them two clever ones" (I. III). It is almost a smothering, and even though she does rouse herself in the end to do some good and, more important, suggest that the human will is not entirely without power, the good she does is limited, and our dominant impression of her [216/217] is of a woman who is, indeed, lucky to get off without being killed. The amusement is there but it is never pure, being so mixed with sensations of cruelty and danger.
John Chivery, on the other hand, appears at first to be an excellent economizer of these Sensations, a character who can turn the energies of pity into laughter. Any person so happily and ingeniously concerned with his own epitaph we are likely to feel can hardly be hurt by death, much less by any smaller enemy. He is so much a "sentimental son of a turnkey" (I. XVIII), anticipating so quickly any dolorous feelings, that he seems likely to be able to turn them off for us. He also plays the sort of role we are used to in earlier Dickens novels: the weak-headed but gentle lover, who is perfectly willing to accept at the fend a secondary reward or none at all. The heroine invariably offers him not love but Christian kindness. Here, however, Little Dorrit meets him with a look "of fright and something like dislike", and the potentially funny character almost instantly changes to a serious one: "The mournfulness of his spirits, and the gorgeousness of his appearance, might have made him ridiculous, but that his delicacy made him respectable" (I. XVIII). Finally, the humour is turned to a sadness which, if sentimental, is probably the most effective sentimentality in all of Dickens: "As she held out her hand to him with these words, the heart that was under the waistcoat of sprigs — mere slopwork, if the truth must be known — swelled to the size of the heart of a gentleman; and the poor common little fellow, having no room to hold it, burst into tears" (I. XVIII). His pain is the pain of all the "common little fellows", and the brilliant aside on the "slop-work" suggests that he feels the hurt of all the poor who try for something better. His epitaphs, then, while still funny, are, at the same time, the darkest expressions of the comic ego in Dickens. Behind the fun is the sense that if John is to have any rewards they will be in death:
Here lie the mortal remains of JOHN CHIVERY. Never anything worth mentioning, Who died about the end of the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six, Of a broken heart, Requesting with his last breath that the word AMY might be inscribed over his ashes, Which was accordingly directed to be done, By his afflicted Parents. [I. XVIII]
His satisfactions are there, but they are certainly extreme. [217/218] As the novel proceeds, John's delicacy and loyalty are made more and more important, but his ridiculousness never disappears: "The world may sneer at a turnkey, but he's a man when he isn't a woman, which among female criminals he's expected to be." For once, Dickens's rhetoric, conscious of its own brilliant effects, simply explains itself: "Ridiculous as the innocence of his talk was, there was yet a truthfulness in Young John's simple, sentimental character, and a sense of being wounded in some very tender respect, expressed in the burning face and in the agitation of his voice and manner, which Arthur must have been cruel to disregard" (II. XXVIX). One must not disregard his pain, and it is very difficult to disregard his humour.
With Flora, there is even more to balance and to hold in mind. This great comedienne functions, finally, as the most important attack on comedy. She is to Arthur, as the narrator says the past is to "most men", the repository of "all the locked-up wealth of his affection and imagination" (I. XIII), and when she again appears, it is with a "fatal shock". She reminds Arthur that all happiness is illusory and that the only constant is misery. Her humorous attempts to revive the old days only make the pain sharper, and it is, ironically, her attempt to be what he wants — the Flora of the past — that makes the affair both funny and sad. Flora's implicit repudiation of our sense of the past is, more basically, a repudiation of the continuity necessary for comedy, of the sense of a stability that underlies growth and makes possible such formulae as "they lived happily ever after". Here it is implied that the natural order of things is one of decay, not growth, and that only disillusionment is stable. Little Dorrit is a very sharp attack on the very reminiscent tone that made David Copperfield so strong. Eden is not lost here; rather it is suggested [218/219] that, even if there ever had been an Eden, it was filled with weeds.
But Flora has more than these simple negative functions. Even if the novel is anti-comic, she is, by herself, a true comic character. Her motto, "We do not break but bend" (I. XXIV), might be that of all the important comic characters. Like them, Flora has enormous internal resources for fighting the darkness — She combats loneliness, for instance, by providing both sides to a conversation: "Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account! ... but of course you never did why should you, pray don't answer, I don't know where I'm running to" (I XIII). There is the sense, of course, that she must keep talking or the other person will ruin things. But she does keep talking; not only that, she performs her favourite imitation of the past — "Papa! Hush, Arthur, for Mercy's sake!" — with "infinite relish" (I. XXIII). Flora's verbal resources, in other words, are not purely negative and defensive; they are also happy and expansive.
More important, perhaps, is the fact that through it all she has preserved a powerful "warmth of heart", a preservation that runs counter to the novel's main ironic direction, which implies that only the values of the Circumlocution Office are preserved. Flora, in this very basic way, offers a small but very significant comic hope. She is remarkably kind not only to Arthur and to Little Dorrit but to her symbolic legacy from the world, Mr. F's Aunt, a comic essence of hostility (the relationship of Mr. F's Aunt to the principles of darkness and aggression in the novel is explored in a fine article by Alan Wilde). To some extent, I suppose, Mr. F's Aunt is a double figure, a symbolic completion of Flora, adding the maliciousness that has been drained out of her protector. More centrally, though, she serves as a satire on all the assurances of language and human knowledge, screaming out, with "mortal hostility towards the human race", "There's mile-stones on the Dover road!" (I. XXIII). To Mr. F's Aunt, all such facts are reasons for "bitterness and scorn", and she madly but pointedly shouts out the fact of her disappointment and her humiliation. She also looks for a cause for this pain, gradually becoming more and more [219/220] personal: "You can't make a head and brains out of a brass knob with nothing in it. You couldn't do it when your Uncle George was living; much less when he's dead" (I. XXIII). She finally settles on Arthur as a representative cause: "Drat him, give him a meal of chaff" (II. IX). The astonishing comic point is that her pain is uncaused and that her mad search for a source is, in the end, about as reasonable as anyone's. Mr. F's Aunt's vengeance is only an extension of Fanny's and Miss Wade's. Thematically, then, her position is not purely amusing, and the increasingly sharp focus of her hostility makes laughter more and more difficult, Still, her maliciousness highlights, by contrast, Flora's gentleness and kindness.
These last qualities are all the more impressive because they are so solidly founded in Flora. When Arthur tries lamely to assure her that he is happy to see her, she responds with a melancholy shrewdness:
"You don't seem so ... you take it very coolly, but however I know you are disappointed in me, I suppose the Chinese ladies — Mandarinesses if you call them so — are the cause or perhaps I am the cause myself, it's just as likely." "No, no," Clennam entreated, "don't say that." "Oh I must you know," said Flora, in a positive tone, "what nonsense not to, I know I am not what you expected, I know that very well." [I. XIII]
She understands Arthur's feelings and the cause of those feelings. Flora is amazing because, for all her imaginative games, she is not a self-deceiver. She sees disappointment and somehow manages to keep going. Unlike Arthur she does not really romanticize the past: "Mr. F was so devoted to me that he never could bear me out of his sight ... though of course I am unable to say how long that might have lasted if he hadn't been cut short while I was a new broom, worthy Vian but not poetical manly prose but not romance" (I. XXIV). She is a person who builds comic resiliency in the midst of pain, not, like Mrs. Gamp, transcending the pain, but holding it in balance with the joy. For us, as for Arthur, then, the "sense of the sorrowful" and the "sense of the comical" must be "curiosly blended" (I. XIII).
To make matters more complex, there are times when Flora presents a vulnerable side to us, even a slightly defensive one. [220/221] Her volubility is often really only a desire to talk, to get all her feelings out, and it expresses, at these times, a pathetic fear of silence: "Good gracious, Arthur, — I should say Mi. Clennam, far more proper — the climb we have had to get up here and how ever to get down again without a fire-escape and Mr. F's Aunt slipping through the steps and bruised all over and you in the machinery and foundry way too only think, and never told us!" (I. XXIII). There is, further, a real sense in which Arthur is unkind to her: "as Mr. F himself said if seeing is believing not seeing is believing too and when you don't see you may fully believe you're not remembered" (II. IX). Her desperate loneliness, thus, sometimes comes to the surface, and she appears terribly vulnerable:
"so true it is that oft in the stilly night ere slumber's chain has bound people, fond memory brings the light of other days around people — very polite but more polite than true I am afraid, for to go into the machinery business without so much as sending a line or a card to papa — I don't say me though there was a time but that is past and stern reality has now my gracious never mind — does not look like it you must confess". [I. XXIII]
She really knows what "stern reality" is, and it is horribly cruel to her. The mixture of the comic and the painful, the poetic flight and the sad moment of self-consciousness appears over and over again in her speech. She cannot, finally, rest on poetic platitude. Micawber would have wonderfully embellished the notion of "oft in the stilly night"; he would certainly never have questioned it.
In the end, Flora is a picture of hopeless devotion rather sadly if imaginatively parodying herself: "Papa sees so many and such odd people ... that I shouldn't venture to go down for any one but you Arthur but for you I would willingly go down in a diving-bell much more a dining-room" (II. IX). This self-parody is, apparently, the only outlet for the comic spirit in the novel. Not only is the opening very limited, but it clearly takes great courage and spirit even to try for it. Flora has certain roots in earlier comic conceptions — the basic sexual humour of Rachael Wardle and Miggs, Sairey Gamp's happy parodies of the instability of existence, the transcendent use of language of Dick Swiveller and Micawber. She expands all these roles, adds a much deeper self-consciousness and presents, paradoxically, not only amusement but melancholy. At the close of the novel she is forced to admit "that I don't know after all whether it wasn't all nonsense between us though pleasant at the time". It is true that she bounces back with a Micawber spring — "'The withered chaplet my dear,' ,said Flora, with great enjoyment, 'is then perished the column is crumbled'" (II. XXXIV) — but there is no possibility of triumph. She is left with Mr. F's Aunt and her loneliness. The best we can say is that she is not done for.
There is a certain aptness, then, in the final, wildly malicious response of Mr. F's Aunt: "Bring him for'ard, and I'll chuck him out o' winder!" Whoever has killed comedy ought certainly to be chucked "out o' winder!" But here, as elsewhere in the novel, the enemy can't be located. It is Nobody's Fault.
Last Modified 10 March 2010