Sunday, March 10, 2013

What I Can’t Decide on in Little Dorrit

In the last two posts, I wrote about, first, what I like in Little Dorrit and, most recently, what I don’t like about the book. But I couldn’t decide which post to include one of the most prominent features of the book in: I can’t settle on an opinion about the religious language and figures that fill this novel.

In the last letter Dickens ever wrote, he said, “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour.” In Allegory in Dickens, scholar Jane Vogel says more specifically that Dickens’s purpose in almost every novel is to show the superiority of the New Testament religion to religion of the Old Testament. “Old Testament religion” doesn’t necessarily refer here to Judaism. Dickens consistently showed far more concern over a dour and vengeful brand of Christianity that he saw as a counterfeit. And he certainly spends a lot of words in Little Dorrit delivering his judgment on the counterfeit, although he doesn’t have a lot to say in this instance to finish the comparison and lift up what he saw as the true Christianity.

I’m not sure that the kind of Christians Dickens had in mind are still around in our time. The Murdstones in David Copperfield, for instance, and Mrs Clennam in Little Dorrit seem to be Puritans, the kind of Puritans who outlawed Christmas turkeys and decorative buttons when they took charge of Great Britain in the 1600s: they wear black, show no joy, read the Bible and biblical commentary exclusively, and remain constantly aware of sin. Mrs Clennam outlines her theological doctrine at one point, a Calvinism gone horribly wrong: “This scene, the Earth, is expressly meant to be a scene of gloom, and hardship, and dark trial, for the creatures who are made out of its dust . . . . We are, every one, the subject (most justly subject) of a wrath that must be satisfied . . . . But I take it as a grace and favour to be elected to make the satisfaction I am making here [by suffering].” The people most like these characters whom I have known dress modestly but in color, go to Pentecostal or nondenominational churches rather than Presbyterian churches, and smile rather often (until you bring up your interest in Harry Potter). But despite the differences, I think I recognize a similar spirit.

Having grown up in a family of this sort, Arthur Clennam, the male hero of Little Dorrit has no fondness for Christianity or its earthly elements. Walking alone through London one Sunday, a dismal church bell “revived a long train of miserable Sundays.” Arthur has rejected the fiery creed of his parents, but hasn’t adopted a more suitable Christian doctrine. “The fierce dark teaching of his childhood had never sunk into his heart,” the narration says, so he keeps his mind on Earth and never thinks about Heaven.

But the dismal grays overflow Arthur’s heart and pervade the rest of the world of Little Dorrit as well. The streets of London have a special squalor in this book, their shadows have an extra darkness, their crowds an exaggerated animosity. Words from and allusions to Scripture and the Prayer Book appear frequently throughout the novel, almost always used ironically. Take for instance this perverted hymn of praise for Mr Merdle, the ungentlemanly gentleman: “Merdle! O ye sun, moon, and stars, the great man! The rich man, who had in a manner revised the New Testament, and already entered into the kingdom of Heaven.”

Of course ultimately it’s the characters who have perverted Christian truth, not the narrator. Summing up Mrs Clennam near the end of the book, that narrator tells us that “she still abided by her old impiety--still reversed the order of Creation, and breathed her own breath into a clay image of her Creator.” But still, the dreary doctrine fills almost the whole book, since Dickens launches his attack against it by ironically adopting it in the narration. C. S. Lewis said that The Screwtape Letters was a very difficult book to write since the topsy-turvy perspective of evil was so oppressive to sustain. In a similar way, as much as I agree with Dickens’s judgment (and I do agree to a great extent), I find the expression of it oppressive to read. And that’s why I can’t decide what I think about it. Good reading doesn’t equal pleasurable reading. The prophecy of Jeremiah isn’t pleasant to read, and yet it is good. But Little Dorrit is quite a bit longer than Jeremiah. I knew resolution was near when, very close to the end of the book, sunlight shining on the bars of the Marshalsea Prison made them look golden; until that point, all movement of the sun serves to move the dark prison shadow around the gloomy yard. But was it worthwhile for me to pace that gloomy yard for 340,000 words in order to enjoy the golden light for only the last few hundred?

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