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61 pages 2 hours read

Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1857

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Charles Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit was originally published in serialized form between 1855 and 1857. In this novel, the author satirizes government and society at large, with a specific focus on debtors’ prisons that incarcerated those in debt. The prison in Little Dorrit is the Marshalsea, where at one time, Charles Dickens’s father was imprisoned for debt. Little Dorrit explores common Dickensian themes such as economic class, duty, and societal issues.

This study guide refers to the Project Gutenberg e-book edition of the text.

Content Warning: The source text depicts murder, suicide, domestic abuse, ableism, animal cruelty, and sexist ideas of feminine propriety.

Plot Summary

The first part of the novel, “Poverty,” introduces William Dorrit, who is an unsuccessful businessperson but a gentleman of good character. He is in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in London because he is unable to meet his obligations to his creditors. The law allows Dorrit’s family to live with him in the prison, so his wife and their two children, Fanny and Tip, join him. They have another, Amy, who is born in the prison. Amy is nicknamed “Little Dorrit” because she is small and slight. Her father’s fellow inmates and the prison’s warden adore her for her selflessness and gentle manner.

Amy’s mother dies when Amy is eight years old, and she grows up into a responsible young girl. Amy takes on the responsibility of financially supporting her family by doing sewing work outside of the prison without her father’s knowledge. William Dorrit becomes known as “the Father of the Marshalsea” since he enjoys helping the other prisoners, especially when other people can observe him doing so; this gives him a sense of superiority.

Another family is introduced into the plot when businessperson Arthur Clennam returns to London after living and working in China for 20 years. A year earlier, his father died, and Clennam’s main reason for returning to London is to see his mother. Before his father’s death, he had given Clennam a watch with the inscription D.N.F. on it— meaning “Do Not Forget.” Assuming that the watch was for his mother, he had it shipped to her from China, but she will not speak with him about it. On his way back to England, Clennam becomes acquainted with his fellow passengers. He meets Miss Wade, a couple named Meagles and their daughter Pet, and an orphan they adopted to be their servant named Tattycoram. Once in London, Clennam plans to inform his mother that he wants to leave the family business, and he senses that there are secrets in his parents’ past.

Amy, meanwhile, helps her siblings get jobs outside the prison. She works as a seamstress in the home of Arthur Clennam’s mother, where she and Clennam meet. Amy is now 22 years old, though she looks younger. Clennam is curious about her and notices her entering the Marshalsea after work. Clennam is struck by her hardships and hopes to help her. Amy falls in love with him but keeps her feelings to herself. Unknown to Amy, the prison turnkey’s son is in love with her. Clennam suspects that Amy is somehow linked to his suspicions about his father’s past, and he asks her if she knows of some connection between their families, but Amy does not. Clennam tries to find out what he can about the Dorrit family’s debt. One thing leads to another, and Clennam discovers that William Dorrit is an heir to a fortune and, after more than two decades, he can pay off his debts and finally leave prison.

The second part of the book, “Riches,” finds the Dorrit family regaining its former social status and taking a trip through Europe. Apart from Amy, the family adopts an air of superiority. William is critical of his once-favored Amy for not fitting into high society. He also plans to marry her off to a member of the upper class, though she is still in love with Clennam. However, William dies, and Amy goes to live with her sister and her husband. The family’s financial good fortune does not last long as it is squandered away in a poor investment. Clennam, too, is financially ruined and ends up in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison.

A French fugitive, Rigaud, discovers that Arthur Clennam is not actually Mrs. Clennam’s son but his father’s illegitimate child. Clennam’s father married Mrs. Clennam under pressure from a wealthy uncle and they raised Arthur as their own. The guilty uncle, in an attempt to ease his conscience, left his estate to the youngest relation of a friend of Clennam’s birth mother, who happens to be Amy. When Rigaud tries to extort her, Mrs. Clennam tells Amy the secrets of her past but dies shortly after. Not wanting to upset Clennam with the truth about his parentage, Amy keeps it secret and in doing so, does not claim the inheritance that belongs to her. The story ends with Clennam’s business partner returning to London with a newfound fortune. Clennam is released from prison and marries Amy.

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