[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.]

Although Dickens's representation of prisons differs from Barrett Browning's, both make central the effects of internalizing negative emotions. Dickens introduces and maintains his theme by using a debtors' prison, the Marshalsea. He invites readers to draw a parallel between the material reality of the Marshalsea and the less tangible, though no less present, internal prisons of his characters. Mr. Dorrit and his son, Tip, must live as inmates of the debtors' prison, but when they become free to leave its walls--whether permanently at the end of the first book or temporarily as when Tip seeks work--they retain the prison mentality: "Wherever he went, this foredoomed Tip appeared to take the prison walls with him. . .until the real immovable Marshalsea walls asserted their fascination over him, and brought him back" (p.116). The reader comes to see that most characters live in their own, internal prisons. Mrs. Clennam, confined to the physical prison of her room, also suffers with the guilt of withholding wealth from her son. Her prison corrodes her being: "But let him look at me, in prison, and in bonds here. I endure without murmuring, because it is appointed that I shall so make reparation for my sins." (p.89) Merdle finds himself imprisoned by his reputation, the Barnacles by their thirst for power and the lack of power in their bureaucracy. The theme that the prison destructively confines echoes throughout Little Dorrit.

Like Barrettt Browning, Dickens believes that only love can free one from society's prisons. Only after Arthur Clennam breaks free from the confines of society, and embraces wholeheartedly the love and goodness of Little Dorrit, can he find peace: "Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone. They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun's bright rays, and then went down. Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. . .They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed" (895). Dickens suggests, with the phrases "fresh perspective" and "inseparable and blessed," that authentic partnership and love provide the only solution to imprisonment.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Little Dorrit

Last modified 24 October 2002