As promised, I am finally getting around to writing about classic books. Little Dorrit is an 800 page book, so it takes time to get through it, and I did. I couldn’t help but noticing that the melodrama increases mightily in Dickens as we near the end, as does the sentimentality. I didn’t mind.
I think a reasonable question is what can a modern genre writer use from a classic book to improve their writing. In Little Dorrit, Dickens develops a true portrait of a good man undergoing midlife crisis–the character of Arthur Clennam. Arthur’s journey is a subplot modern writers can relate to.
As we begin the book, Arthur returns from the Orient after spending most of his life in the family business. He feels keenly from his dying father that there is some reparation his family must make, but he cannot get his father to admit what that reparation is. Arthur returns to a strict, loveless mother, and finds her silent upon the subject. He decides to leave the family business and devote himself to a pursuit that might give his life some purpose. Simultaneously, he casts himself in the role of protector of a young woman working in his mother’s household–Amy Dorrit, and he does what he can to help herself and her imprisoned father.
Arthur reveals a desire to protect and aid the Dorrit family. He also feels he finds purpose in love–a young woman, Pet Meagles. Pet is in love with a less worthy, younger man, and even though Arthur has the approval and love of Pet’s parents, Pet sees him solely as a friend. This rejection causes Arthur to feel he is too old for love, and makes him feel even more keenly the role of Little Dorrit’s protector. Ultimately, Arthur enters into a partnership with a friend of the Meagles, finding new purpose, and creates himself in the image of an older man
The fortunes of the Dorrit family change, and Arthur and Little Dorrit are cast apart as she journeys into the world of wealth. Arthur has poor fortune in the world of business, and finds himself in the same debtors prison where the Dorrit family were originally. Ultimately he discovers that he is loved by Amy Dorrit. His friends care for him and his fortune as well. His character shines through, rather than his misconceived notions about who he is, and he is transformed by those around him into who he really is, rather than the misconceptions he has imposed upon himself.
While the Dickensian world focuses often around bizarre caricatures and unusual circumstances, and Little Dorrit is no exception, Arthur’s journey of self-discovery, self-delusion, and ultimate acceptance of his fine qualities is handled in a fashion that modern readers can relate to. It is also written with subtlety and distinction.
It is true that Arthur finds love with a younger woman, but rather than the modern context of a trophy wife, the May-December relationship of Little Dorrit and Arthur is more acceptable in the Victorian context, where men were often expected to make their fortunes before they married eligibly. Arthur’s flaws in the novel are more about his lack of confidence in himself, rather than trying to reinvent himself as someone younger. In the end, Dickens portrays Arthur’s journey as self-realization, showing us Arthur’s thoughts constantly to give us an accurate picture of Arthur’s sense of self.
When we return to classic books, I plan to talk about character reversals in Little Dorrit. There are several supporting characters in the novel that surprise the reader, because they start in the realms of caricature, but transform through their actions into multi-dimensional characters.