Thursday, March 7, 2013

What I Don’t Like about Little Dorrit

I said that Little Dorrit was my least favorite Dickens novel, and it’s been good for me to analyze the problem and explain to myself why. As I did yesterday, I’ll start with characters and say the obvious: too many of them are unlikeable in this book. I don’t just mean that the cast contains too many villains; I mean that the villains don’t carry many attractions for the reader. Who doesn’t love to read about the Scrooge from the beginning of the Christmas Carol? And Bill Sikes, Wackford Squeers, Daniel Quilp, and Uriah Heep are villainous in such deliciously interesting ways. These are likeable villains, in that the reader likes to read about them. But Rigaud, Mr Dorrit, Mr Merdle, and Mrs Clennam all just go about their cruel, selfish routines, hurting the characters we care about, and, like Mark Twain reading Cooper, I wish they would all just go drown. The middle part of the book is especially tough going. The Swiss-and-Italian episode brings several of these self-centered people together for many uninterrupted chapters, and their tedious complaints about each other, society, travel, and foreigners just go on and on. Amy remains good through this period (because she is always good), but she doesn’t have any kind of crisis to make her interesting: she’s just patient annd forgiving. Many of the other “good guys” in the novel either are annoying or don’t appear enough. Flora offers a good example of the first category. Dickens performed grammatical miracles in writing long passages for Flora that never add up to actual sentences in any known language, but she’s a one joke character, so these nonsensical monologues get old fast. Mr Meagles stands in the second category. This three-dimensional fellow has strengths (honesty, love for his family, generosity) and weaknesses (insensitivity to his ward’s feelings and impatience with conditions of foreign travel) and a fantastic backstory including a twin daughter who died very young, leaving an image in her twin sister of the years of growth she never enjoyed; but he really only has three major scenes in the book when he’s the kind of character that should have ten.

But most unsatisfactory of all, the plot has confused and frustrated me both times that I’ve read the book. Most Dickens novels involve a major secret valuable to both hero and villain. Somewhere early in the second half, the drive toward possession of this secret begins, and somewhere in the last 10% of the book, the secret’s revelation brings about the downfall of the villain and starts the resolution process for the heroes. But in Little Dorrit, the plot drive just doesn’t work for me. The initiation of the crisis occurs when Rigaud supposedly disappears. Arthur Clennam senses an urgency to find him, but (1) all he knows about Rigaud is that he’s undesirable, so I would think he would be happy to see him go, and (2) from page 1, Rigaud has traveled all over Europe, so why should anyone, myself included, care at all that he has left London for a while? Ah, well! A Tale of Two Cities next year and Great Expectations in 2015, and I know I’ll relish every word.

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