Little Dorrit was George Bernard Shaw's favorite Dickens novel. Though often overshadowed by the accessibility of A Tale of Two Cities or the first-person appeal of Great Expectations, it's essentially the bridge between Dickens's early style and his more mature work. Understated and realistic as the earlier books were not, it is less a hobby-horse for the author's social concerns and more an exploration of the human spirit and the individual pursuit of dignity and legacy.
Old Mr. Dorrit's affectations of nobility in debtors' prison are comically absurd, as is his superiority over the other prisoners. But he's deeply tragic. When he still assumes airs in the midst of a debilitating fever, we're more prone to cry than laugh. His treatment of everyone, especially his own family, is not comedic; it reveals his destructiveselfishness. Dickens's humor is alive and well, but there are more tears, more reflection, more quiet moments of tenderness and sadness.
Little Amy Dorrit is a paragon of virtue. But while many readers criticize Dickens for the sentimentality of his female leads, claiming they're perfect and therefore unrealistic, her virtue is not seamless. Her demuring nature is beneficial in some circumstances, but Dickens suggests throughout that her inability to stand up to her overbearing father isn't the virtue Victorian society made it. That Arthur Clennam is there to rescue her is fortuitous—other young women were not so fortunate.
Then there's the prose itself. Dickens was a stylist without equal—few English writers achieved Dickens's elasticity, embracing every aspect of life from the most sacred to the most profane through sheer brilliance of word-craftsmanship. Little Dorrit reads like an extended poem, an ode to beauty, an ode to life itself. Whether you love Dickens or are wary of his lengthy novels, thisone should be near the top of your reading list.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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