Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit
originally appeared in serialized form between 1855 and 1857. Government and society at large are satirized with a specific focus on debtors’ prisons, which incarcerated those in debt who were unable to pay, rendering them unable to work and keeping them imprisoned until they were able to pay. The prison in Little Dorrit
is Marshalsea, where at one time the father of Charles Dickens was imprisoned.
The first part of the novel, “Poverty,” introduces William Dorrit, who is an unsuccessful businessman but a gentleman of good character. He is sent to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in London when he is unable to meet his obligations to his creditors. The law allows for Dorrit’s family to live in his cell with him, so his wife and their two children, Fanny and Tip, join him. They have an additional child, Amy, who is born in prison. Amy is given the nickname Little Dorrit because of her small size. Her father’s fellow inmates and the prison’s warden pamper her.
The mother of Little Dorrit dies when Little Dorrit is eight years old. This loss is followed within a few years by the death of Mrs. Bangham, who helped deliver her, and of the jailer who was also close to the young girl. After the warden dies, William Dorrit becomes known as the father of the Marshalsea, and Little Dorrit, who has turned sixteen, is called the daughter of the Marshalsea. Little Dorrit takes on the responsibility of financially supporting her family by doing sewing work.
Another family is introduced into the plot when businessman Arthur Clennam returns from the Orient to London. 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 containing a piece of paper with the letters D.N.F. on it—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 of the watch or the note. On his way back to Europe, Chennam’s boat docks at Marseilles in France, and he is quarantined with other passengers. He meets Miss Wade, a couple named Meagles and their daughter Pet, and an orphan they adopted to be their servant named Tattycorum. Once in London, Clennam plans to inform his mother that he wants to leave the family company, but he senses that something is wrong with the company and that something untold had existed in his parents’ relationship.
Little Dorrit, meanwhile, helps her siblings get jobs and leave the prison. She works as a household servant in the home of Arthur Clennam’s mother, where she and Arthur meet. By now, Little Dorrit is twenty-two years old. Arthur is attracted to Little Dorrit and follows her when she goes to the Marshalsea where she still resides with her father. Clennam sees the poverty that is her existence and hopes to be able to take care of her. Little Dorrit is in love with him but keeps her feelings to herself. Unknown to Little Dorrit, the warden’s son is in love with her. Clennam asks Little Dorrit if she ever heard his family name before working for his mother. She says she did not, but they both feel that there is some sort of connection between their families. Clennam enlists the help of Titus Barnacle, a bureaucrat, to find out what he can about the Dorrit family’s debt. As one thing leads to another, Clennam discovers that William Dorrit is an heir to a fortune and, after more than two decades, is able to pay his debts and leave prison.
The second part of the book, “Wealth,” finds the Dorrit family regaining its social status and taking a trip through Europe. With the exception of Little Dorrit, the family adopts an air of superiority. William is critical of his once favored Little Dorrit for not fitting into the high society of which they are now a part. He also plots marrying her off to a member of the upper class, while she remains in love with Arthur Clennam. This marriage does not happen as William dies, and Little Dorrit goes to live with her sister and her husband, Edmund Sparkler. The family’s financial good fortune does not last long as Edmund squanders it in an investment gone badly. Arthur Clennam is financially ruined as well and along with the Dorrit family, ends up in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison.
A French fugitive from justice discovers that Arthur is not actually Mrs. Clennam’s son but his father’s illegitimate child. Arthur married Mrs. Clennam under pressure from a wealthy uncle and they raised Arthur as their own child. The guilty uncle, in attempt to ease his conscience, left his estate to Mrs. Clennam and the youngest daughter, who is Little Dorrit, as the uncle had no children of his own. Mrs. Clennam tells Little Dorrit the secrets of her past and the house begins to fall around her. Not wanting to upset Arthur with the truth about his mother, Little Dorrit keeps it secret and in so doing, does not claim the inheritance. The story ends with an event that might be considered contrived. A wealthy business partner of Arthur’s arrives from Turkey and Arthur is freed from prison and marries Little Dorrit.