[This example of fine work written by a first-year university student in 1993 has historical importance because it exemplifies a very early (pre-Web) use of hypertext in education. The essay originated as a portion of one answer to a multipart seminar assignment, the results of which were then uploaded into a pre-WWW hypertext system, Eastgate System's Storyspace. I forgot to transfer full bibliographical information from the larger assignment, but I believe we used the Penguin edition of Little Dorrit. — George P. Landow.]

Little Dorrit, like many of Charles Dickens' novels, has an extensive cast of characters, each of whom makes an important contribution to the plot. Despite the number of characters in the novel, each one can be easily distinguished and remembered--even when left un-mentioned for several chapters--due to Dickens's brilliant characterization techniques. One of the methods that he employs to enhance the uniqueness of his characters involves describing them connected to their surroundings. He creates landscapes and residences that parallel the essence of the character found within. When Arthur Clennam returns home to visit his mother, his first glimpse of the house foreshadows the gloom he will see in his mother only a few moments later:

An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square courtyard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty. Many years ago it had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance (71).

Three striking images in this passage appear again in the description of Mrs. Clennam. The most overwhelming aspect of the dingy house centers on its resemblance to a prison. The iron railings enclose the house, separating it from the rest of the world, isolating the house in the same way as a person isolated in a cell. Mrs. Clennam, who has remained in the house for most of the last fifteen years of her life, behaves like the prisoner that one would expect to find within the walls of such an enclosure. Although she has the freedom to venture out, Mrs. Clennam remains not only within her house, but within her own room.

The dinginess or filthiness of the Clennam house makes it almost black in appearance, and this blackness reflects not only the mood of sorrow and guilt within the house, but also the very appearance of Mrs. Clennam, who has worn only her black widow's dress for the past fifteen months. "There was a smell of black dye in the airless room, which the fire had been drawing out of the crape and stuff of the widow's dress for fifteen months" (73). The last image of the dingy house emerges from the description of the supports needed to keep the little house from sliding sideways and collapsing. Like her house, Mrs. Clennam requires her own support (hers in the form of a black bier-like sofa). She rarely moves from this reclining place and it, as well as the room and the house itself, are the supports that hold her up both physically and emotionally. "On a black bier-like sofa in this hollow, propped up behind with one great angular black bolster like the block at a state execution in the good old times, sat his mother in a widow's dress" (73). Although within the isolation of her own house, propped up by her bolster, Mrs. Clennam can act strong and in control, the reader can clearly see that these supports are only superficial and are, in reality, more like the executioner's block that the bolster resembles.

Characterization of this kind appears numerous times in Little Dorrit , often in a less subtle form. The description of the Meagles' home includes details of Pet's charm and thus directly links the character to her setting: "It was a charming place (none the worse for being a little eccentric), on the road by the river. It stood in a garden, no doubt as fresh and beautiful in the May of the year as Pet now was in the May of her life; and it was defended by a goodly show of handsome trees and spreading evergreens, as Pet was by Mr. and Mrs. Meagles" (235). This powerful technique gives the numerous characters in Dickens' novel both memorability and distinction.

Dickens, like Bronte and MacDonald, usse the technique of linking characters to the scenery surrounding them with parallel descriptions. In Little Dorrit, Dickens uses the technique to create more memorable characters that are easy to follow throughout his long novel, filled with complex characters. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë employs the technique to enhance the intensity of her characters' emotions, and to create elements of foreshadowing. In Phantastes, a novel very different from Little Dorrit and Jane Eyre, George MacDonald takes this technique to its limit by physically fusing some of his characters to their surroundings. This mixing of human and non-human elements creates instant metaphors that give the reader a richer notion of what a certain character looks, smells, feels and sounds like. All three Victorian authors, each in their own way, have created characters who fit in with their surroundings and thus have more depth, complexity and appeal than characters who exist without this unique link.

Related Material

Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Little Dorrit

Last modified 24 October 2002