Little Dorrit: Strategies of Paradox
in the World Turned Upside Down

Mitsuharu Matsuoka

It is the scientist whose truth requires a language purged
of every trace of paradox; apparently the truth which
the poet utters can be approached only in terms of paradox.
(Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn) 1


Second only to the New Testament, Dickens frequently quotes from or alludes to Shakespeare's plays in his works. Shakespeare himself is referred to in David Copperfield (1849-50) as "the illustrious ornament of the Elizabethan Era" (LII) by Mr. Micawber, the most Dickensian of all Shakespearean comic characters. Robert F. Fleissner, expounding the connection between Dickens and Shakespeare, affirms that "the major influence upon Dickens was neither Fielding nor Smollett but rather that which has had the most pervasive effect upon English writers after their own history and biblical writings, namely the plays of Shakespeare." 2 Dickens's enthusiasm for Shakespeare, it is to be noted, was awakened by a delight in the plays which the Theatre Royal gave him when he was a happy boy at Chatham. As Angus Wilson wrote on Dickens's life at Chatham, "the theatre was for him a constant haven from a real world that he often found hideous." 3 It is impossible to exaggerate the fact that his fiction was much nourished by the theatre. And besides, inspired by a Shakespearean actor of the age, William Macready, Dickens gave his later years to amateur theatricals and public readings. Judging from his theatrical ability, and his stagecraft skills as director, playwright, and actor, Dickens must have been profoundly influenced by England's greatest dramatist, not least in the presentation of his creative genius and originality to the public.

In Dickens's fiction, most readers have little difficulty finding a lot of fragments from Hamlet (1600) and Macbeth (1605) in particular. This is undoubtedly true of Little Dorrit (1855-57). 4 Personally, however, I am puzzled by the fact that Dickens makes no allusion to King Lear (1605) at all in the novel. I am continually haunted by the indebtedness of the novel to this great tragedy of Shakespeare. There is a wonderful similarity between the two works in the personae and their characterisation: a failed father and his three children (the youngest being the most faithful). The reader, familiar with King Lear, might well recall a similar pattern in several fairy tales such as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. We can also find similarities in tone between King Lear and Little Dorrit. Critical opinion has moved steadily towards acceptance of Little Dorrit as "Dickens's darkest novel" 5 or "Dickens's most tragic novel," 6 though it would be wrong to suggest that it is "a work of unrelieved gloom." 7 And critics have agreed widely on the tone of King Lear. G. Wilson Knight, for example, views it as "a play whose abiding gloom is so heavy, whose reading of human destiny and human actions so starkly tragic." 8

George H. Ford has disseminated the influence of King Lear on The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), arguing that the "parallel is especially marked in the scenes describing the old grandfather's grief after Nell's death. . . ." 9 Such significance is quite certain. 10 It seems to me no less certain, though, that the most significant instance of a major Shakespearean influence on Dickens is that of King Lear on Little Dorrit, an interesting fact most critics fail to recognise. This influence is most evident in the presentation of the world as turned upside down, a major element in the total composition of the novel. It is a critical commonplace that in King Lear Shakespeare deals with the world turned upside down, a world with its own reversed pattern of values. 11 As is true of Dickens, Shakespeare's ethics are those of the New Testament. We can safely assume, therefore, that the world turned upside down is of a kind that suggests the world of Thomas Hobbes, a world in which each man regards his own self-preservation as his highest end, and one in which the good behaviour of his fellows is guaranteed by creating a power sufficient to keep them in awe. Lear, we note, is paradoxically both a promoter and a victim of the world turned upside down, where the folly of trustfulness and affection prompts his two faithless daughters to contradict traditional values and reverse that kind of parental-filial relationship which even animals feel. 12 That Lear and Mr. Dorrit are much alike can be substantiated only partially in terms of the parent-and-child reversal. This is pure surmise, of course, but one thing can surely be said--Dickens tried in Little Dorrit to convey to his readers something like the world turned upside down in King Lear, without actually touching upon the play directly.

Little Dorrit, it is generally acknowledged, is "a . . . gloomy or pessimistic novel about society as an intolerable prison." 13 The binding force of the novel, both thematically and structurally, is prison. Many critics have concerned themselves obsessively with "the Prison of Society" theme and all its ramifications, none more cogently than Edgar Johnson. 14 The prison is "the practical instrument for the negation of man's will which the will of society has contrived," as Lionel Trilling notes in his valuable criticism of the novel. 15 Apart from the physical confinement, most--if not all--characters outside the prison produce the ironic impression of their being mentally imprisoned by their moral corruptions. And, the concept of mental imprisonment, or, perhaps one might say, self-incarceration is paradoxical in the sense that they play both the roles of a jailor and a prisoner, and that they are more corrupted in their free activities than they are when physically confined.

There is, thus, no doubt in my mind that Dickens had no choice but to use the rhetoric of paradox for a faithful depiction of complicated Victorian society, a society he cannot explain in simple, dualistic terms of black or white. The society is a true magnification of what we find in Covent Garden which, "seen with Little Dorrit's eyes," looks like a paradoxical mixture, "a place of past and present mystery, romance, abundance, want, beauty, ugliness, fair country gardens, and foul street-gutters, all confused together" (159). "The thing is as true as it ever was" (185), but it has been more difficult to understand the truth since the Industrial Revolution. My own belief is that, when representing such a complicated society, Dickens has very similar views to Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian, who believed that no truth can be told but by paradox. From his earliest work, Dickens wielded the rhetoric of irony, with considerable effect, as the ablest weapon of social criticism. A detailed examination of Little Dorrit, however, will reveal that the novel is a product of his organic linkage of paradox to irony. Paradox is Dickens's main attitude towards his themes and subjects in the novel. Consequently, I shall focus in the following discussion on the world turned upside down which the novel is much about, and, excluding the logic of the plot from immediate attention, analyse the author's strategies of paradox.


On the whole, Dickens's social vision in Little Dorrit (and this is centrally related to other works) is that if a society becomes oppressive, human relationships are warped within that society. The reader catches something of the mood of oppression from the novel's opening pages. The repetition of the word "staring," with which the book opens, is accompanied with its implication of oppression: "Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there." (1) Dickens scrutinises the powerful effects of society on personal will and individuality. In this view, we shall be driven to agree with John Lucas, I think, that Little Dorrit is about "society as a prison from which nobody can escape and by which everyone is tainted." 16 Dickens's greatest strength in the novel resides in the marvellous descriptions of a prison as a symbol of society. The equation of society with a prison permeates the work, an equation which the least sophisticated reader can hardly miss. The motif of prison, acting to bring to light many of the elements of Dickens's social vision, seems to suggest an interesting hypothesis; he intended that the novel should revolve around the principle of inversion. At first sight, this hypothesis might sound wild, but there are a great number of facts to verify it--so many that they cannot be quite coincidental. They are the signatures of the author intent on impressing his readers with the topos of the world turned upside down.

As a unifying concept of cultural negation, Barbara A. Babcock has used the term "symbolical inversion," which may be broadly defined as "any act of expressive behavior which inverts, contradicts, abrogates, or in some fashion presents an alternative to commonly held cultural codes, values, and norms. . . ." 17 The relevance of this definition to the prison is immediately apparent, because it is one of the most noticeable of many symbolical inversions. According to Babcock, the world turned upside down is "a more or less familiar environment arranged to contrast with the way it is commonly experienced." 18 The world turned upside down, if it represents an existing society, reveals the society as perverse. The concept of inversion is also essential for our throwing doubt on the absoluteness and the usefulness of this social order. Nowhere in his previous works had Dickens used such an organising principle of the world turned upside down as an instrument of social interpretation And, particularly significant is the fact that Dickens embodied in the world turned upside down the concept of inversion which is central to the literary notions of paradox and irony. This is probably the way he challenges orthodoxy and authority with an incisive criticism of absolute judgements and conventions. Let us now examine some of the hints of symbolical inversion that the book gives about the world turned upside down.

In Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) Montague Tigg, a seedy swindler, remarks that there is no answer to "that celebrated conundrum, 'Why's a man in jail like a man out of jail?'" (IV) Little Dorrit, it seems to me, centres on the answer more than any other Dickens's novel. The book begins with a delineation of "a villainous prison" (2) in Marseilles, a milieu which strikes the keynote of the whole so forcefully as to become a metaphor of the greater society outside its walls. In other words, the prison in Marseilles--where the gentlemanly Rigaud, otherwise known as Blandois or Lagnier, condescends to give the remains of his wine to the submissive John Baptist Cavaletto--is described in a way that makes it not merely a prison but a reflection in miniature of English society, in which the hierarchy of the ruling classes embodies total power over the ruled. Such an ironic parody of aristocratic patronage in mid-Victorian England could be paralleled only by Mr. Dorrit's "magnanimous protection" (367) of the other prisoners, and of old Nandy in particular. The prison, here, seems to represent a blending together in Dickens's mind of the two men, Rigaud and Cavaletto. Although they look quite different in terms of social levels, there is still a criminal analogy between them in the prison. And, Mr. Dorrit has a wonderful satisfaction in detaching himself from old Nandy who is now in the workhouse: "In the Workhouse, sir, the Union: no privacy, no visitors, no station, no respect, no speciality. Most deplorable!" (358) There is little to choose between the two, notwithstanding. We see an apparently unsuspected paradox in the closeness of "the extremities of rich and poor" (518), a paradox which is recognised as characteristic of one aspect of Dickens's later works.

As Geoffrey Thurley has warned us on some level of the verbal consciousness, it would surely be an impercipient reader who did not catch "a delicate assonantal likeness between the word Marseilles and the word that is to come so often later, Marshalsea." 19 The Marshalsea Prison, the very essence of English society, is a world turned upside down, typical of many in the book, where everything has turned topsy-turvy. "London, gloomy, close and stale" (26), with the Marshalsea as its centre, is also a prison itself. 20 As an illustration of symbolical inversion in the Marshalsea we may cite the following speech of Dr. Haggard: ". . . We are quiet here; we don't get badgered here; there's no knocker here, sir, to be hammered at by creditors and bring a man's heart into his mouth. . . . It's freedom, sir, it's freedom! . . . We . . . know the worst of it; we have got to the bottom, we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the word for it. Peace." (63) This is the kind of speech which shows a reversal of the doctor's feelings in imprisonment and "freedom." As though disputing the conventional proverb that there is no "peace" for the wicked, he presents us with a puzzling paradox that no one, feeling oneself free, will run away from anywhere. From his paradoxical conviction that one is physically confined but mentally released, it seems safe to surmise that the quantity of "freedom" in any prison is exactly equal to the quantity of restraint in the outside society. This idea, I believe, is always at the forefront of Dickens's mind in Little Dorrit. It must not be forgotten, however, that the doctor is "an old jail-bird" himself and "more sodden than usual" (63). He is, as it were, an unreliable speaker, and we suspect that he is uttering irony. Or, in spite of his topsy-turvy mind, he might mean what he says, but his "red-facedness" (63) compels us to interpret his words ironically.

Whether the doctor is in earnest is disputable, but there can be little doubt that much of what he says applies to William Dorrit, "the Father of the Marshalsea." (65) This is doubtless because "[c]rushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it." (63) In fact, the prison is "a womblike haven in which he is protected from the dangers of the outside world." 21 To my mind, though, there could be no more ridiculous paradox than the fact that while "Frederick the free, was so humbled, bowed, withered, and faded; William the bond was so courtly, condescending, and benevolently conscious of a position." (214) With "a wonderful air of benignity and patronage in his manner" (79), Mr. Dorrit is condescending towards his brother, on whom he projects his own weaknesses. It is in the highest degree paradoxical that Frederick, while allowing himself to be patronised, protects him from his shame about his own moral degradation. Mr. Dorrit enjoys living in the Marshalsea, "a place of refuge and peace" (766), "plainly indicating that his brother [is] to be pitied for not being under lock and key. . . ." (219) Nevertheless, the utter falseness of "peace" in the world turned upside down is made clear by that "unnatural peace" (699) which Arthur Clennam experiences when he finds himself in the Marshalsea as "a dull imprisoned bird" (704). It is "the first change of feeling which the prison most commonly induced, and from which dangerous resting-place so many men had slipped down to the depths of degradation and disgrace, by so many ways" (699). Mr. Dorrit is conscious that he has reached the top of the social ladder in the prison, but his self-deceiving consciousness is enough to show us his real situation, and to produce the ironical discrepancy in point of view between his preposterous sense of increasing social rank and our sense of his increasing "degradation and disgrace."

It may be paradoxical (or so it sounds to me), but the prison, constructed as an active agent of punishment for debtors, is in actuality turned upside down into the passive instrument for their comfort and pleasure. In the world turned upside down, they have come to "regard insolvency as the normal state of mankind, and the payment of debts as a disease that occasionally broke out." (84) This kind of symbolical inversion is a product of their delusionary fiction to escape from the stern realities of life. Like Mr. Plornish, a simple, good-natured plasterer, all the inmates speak of Mr. Dorrit's manners and polish "with a perverse admiration of what [they] ought to have pitied or despised" (133), and maintain the fiction of him as the Father of the Marshalsea, which is one grand incongruity: a splendid delusion. 22 And besides, impressed by "his forlorn gentility" (72), they give cash "Testimonial" (80) to him. Philip M. Weinstein has plausibly said of their admiration that "[t]o sustain Dorrit's fictive posture is in a small measure to dignify their own." Certainly this is true in some sense--but not, I think, in the way he suggests: ". . . eventually they take it[Mr. Dorrit's deception] for the truth." 23 The important thing to note here is that they know for sure Mr. Dorrit had a disposition "to exaggerate the number of years he had been there," and that "he was vain." (65) They are guilty here, I would guess, of the same paralogism as the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen.18:20), who thought that as long as they could go on enjoying themselves, they would rather pay the tribute money to their conqueror, the king of Elam, than fight to free themselves.

This paralogism will be made clearer if we return to that portraiture of the freed prisoners after the destruction of Newgate in Barnaby Rudge (1841) which so impressed Dickens: "Many of the convicts, drawn back to their old place of captivity by some indescribable attraction . . . seemed to have no object in view but to prowl and lounge about the old place. . . ." (LXVII) They are basically happy as prisoners, though they hate "the prison's poverty, and shabbiness, and dirt" (734). In short, they can perhaps best be described as unhappy in the free world and afraid of freedom outside the prison. Their preposterous attitude is that deep-rooted complex, which one might be tempted to name 'agoraphobia,' the fear of open places like the child's fear of the dark, or 'claustrophilia,' a morbid desire to be enclosed within a confined space. With a stroke of genius, Dickens brilliantly observes the prisoners' mentality, showing their physical confinement in the world turned upside down.


Even more interesting in this light is Dickens's delineation of the "Circumlocution Office" (100) as one of the most striking embodiments of symbolical inversion in Little Dorrit. The Circumlocution Office, "the most important Department under government" (100), is a satirical name applied to Government Offices, characterised by their bureaucratic muddle and red-tape, like the Court of Chancery in Bleak House (1852-53). Dickens gives a panoramic view of English society and the institutions of his age, using the Office as a second centre to the prison in Little Dorrit. J. Hillis Miller has perceived the image of a labyrinth or a maze as equal to that of the prison. He is surely right in suggesting that it is "Dickens' way of expressing the idea that the human world is an incomprehensible tangle." 24 Just as the human world is "the labyrinthian world" (214), so the Circumlocution Office is the labyrinthian prison. The question arises here why Dickens chose to give such a name to the Civil Service. The reason is probably to be found not only in the circuitous formality by which the Office delays giving information, but also in the paradox that those who are convinced of their own freedom in the Circumlocution Office cannot get anywhere, "always going round and round" (395) in such circular patterns of repetition as implied by the name. It seems as if they turned the tangled skein of their situation about and about, "like a blind man who was trying to find some beginning or end to it. . . ." (137) But, I would imagine their circular "perpetual motion" (395), seen in broad perspective, means nothing but stillness. This is a paradoxical implication carried by the Barnacles that "condescend to keep the Circumlocution Office" (302), a family of atrophy which attach themselves to--and will not be dismissed from--the bottom of the Official Ship. 25

In the Circumlocution Office, we can also find suggestions of symbolical inversion. Is it possible, then, to identify the Office with the world turned upside down? In the function performed by point of view lies the key to the solution of this question. Point of view is not a structural device in the novel but one of the ideas that run through it (430, 504, 571, 716), and Dickens alerts us to the nature of the world turned upside down by using the idea. Consider, for example, the following words of Ferdinand, the best of the young Barnacles, who refutes Arthur's argument against the Office:

"You don't regard it from the right point of view. It is the point of view that is the essential thing. Regard our place from the point of view that we only ask you to leave us alone, and we are as capital a Department as you'll find anywhere." (716)
Later on, in "the convent of the Great Saint Bernard" (420) which itself is overtly compared with a prison, Dickens permits the monk to say that "almost all objects [have] their various points of view." (430) This would help to explain a point which puzzles Ferdinand into confident unawareness: the fact that quite a different impression will be produced by reversing the point of view. It is true that the reader can see from Arthur's point of vantage that the victim of irony is serenely unaware that each of his adjectives, "right" and "capital," conveys quite a different meaning. And further, we must not disregard the author's trenchant criticism on the Barnacles that resist all attempts at Parliamentary reforms, believing in the economic theory of laissez faire in English society--"the express intention that everything shall be left alone" (716).

We are, thus, subjected to Dickens's sustained ironic invective about the Circumlocution Office. He takes time to assure his readers (in a somewhat prolix style, I think, that would otherwise become monotonous) that the Office is an imitation of English authority and orthodoxy in such a way as to make them appear topsy-turvy. The Office claims to uphold "How Not To Do It," which is "the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country" (100). To put it another way, the Office is based upon a familiar natural principle which, when reversed, reveals its unnaturalness as a social anomaly. At this point, we can tell that the author's purpose is to satirise the self-deception of the Office, and besides, to question, ridicule, and reduce to nothing, its authority and orthodoxy with boisterous laughter. This kind of irony, it should be noticed, is fittingly expressed with a deep insight into symbolical inversion through the introduction of Edmund Sparkler as an example of "the . . . altogether most lovable jackass" (569). Despite his inability to sparkle in mind, Mr. Sparkler is "made one of the Lords of the Circumlocution Office" (553).

The irony is further heightened by Henry Gowan, a dilettante artist, who paradoxically says that there is "nothing to do, and [Edmund will] do it charmingly. . . ." (569) And, it appears to me that Daniel Doyce, an "honest, self-helpful, indefatigable old man" (692), dramatises well the irony of an ironist unconsciously being ironical about the Office. He is an engineer who has spent years trying to induce the Office to adopt "an invention" (103). The likely supposition is that in the figure of Doyce is embodied the startling paradox that "a very ingenious man," who "has been trying to turn his ingenuity to his country's service," is changed into "a public offender" (113) in the world turned upside down. He is treated, though, "like a born nobleman" (796) for his invention out in North Africa, which is, in effect, beyond the world in reverse. If Doyce symbolises anything, it is truth; he had "a calm knowledge that what was true must remain true . . . and would be just the truth. . . ." (186) In this regard, we shall see later that he is thematically connected with the heroine, a symbol of love. All in all, these characters mentioned above contribute to our impression that symbolical inversion defines the Office as "a politico diplomatico hocus pocus piece of machinery" (111). We are now left in no doubt how much the world turned upside down oppresses those who are loyal and useful.


A further examination of the world turned upside down is presented in "the social mazes" (436), or Society, capitalised to denote the social life of the rich, aristocratic, and powerful. That is, symbolical inversion is bodied forth in Society. Much the same case may be made about the theatre, where the fashionable are first introduced to us. If this is so, the theatre is also matter for examination. Amy Dorrit comes to the theatre, where her sister Fanny and Uncle Frederick are engaged, and finds several gentlemen here "looking not at all unlike Collegians[inmates in the Marshalsea]" (226). As in the case of the Marshalsea, the theatre produces the following image of a labyrinth:

At last [Amy] came into a maze of dust, where a quantity of people were tumbling over one another, and where there was such a confusion of unaccountable shapes of beams, bulk-heads, brick walls, ropes, and rollers, and such a mixing of gaslight and daylight, that [she] seemed to have got on the wrong side of the pattern of the universe. (227)
This citation is made to show that the theatre is a world almost literally on "the wrong side of the pattern of the universe." It is here that we can see most clearly how the labyrinthian world, mixing the natural "daylight" and the artificial "gaslight," reverses the heroine's point of view. Far more important, the theatre seems to give us the opportunity to anticipate the atmosphere of the house of Mrs. Merdle, who is so accomplished in the paradoxical art of "seeming to make things of no account, and really enhancing them in the process" (569), that she "represent[s] and express[es] Society so well." (383) Fanny takes her sister to visit Mrs. Merdle after leaving the theatre. This anticipated correspondence, I believe, must be the author's intention, in that Society and the theatre are closely related as demander and supplier of entertainment.

The world turned upside down we have found in Society is also symbolically represented by a parrot, the first thing we see in Mrs. Merdle's drawing-room:

. . . there was a parrot on the outside of a golden cage holding on by its beak with its scaly legs in the air, and putting itself into many strange upside-down postures. This peculiarity has been observed in birds of quite another feather, climbing upon golden wires. (233)
Human beings and their characteristics, as so often with Dickens, are ascribed to inanimate objects, and, more particularly, to animals, such as Mr. Carker's parrot in Dombey and Son (1846-48) and Barnaby Rudge's pet raven. In the above passage, Dickens makes the fullest possible use of the parrot, whose preposterously "upside-down" attitudes suggest the behaviour of people in Society who "turned night into day." (453) I agree with Philip Hobsbaum in his comment on this bird that "[t]he fact that Dickens chose such a symbol to sum up and parody Society carries an ironic weight all of its own." 26 However, Hobsbaum's position needs a little modification, because I think perhaps he may not be aware that Mrs. Merdle (inflated pompousness) is symbolically mirrored by the parrot--the concave mirror which gives us a topsy-turvy image of her personality.

Although she looks upon the world as their "artificial system" (236), Mrs. Merdle is a satiric illustration of such unnatural surfaces: "The lady was not young and fresh from the hand of Nature, but was young and fresh from the hand of her maid." (233) She is, in this sense, explicitly associated with Mrs. General, all "surface and varnish, and show without substance" (490), who is a genteel chaperon employed by Mr. Dorrit to look after his daughters. In Mrs. Merdle's conversation, which is at once punctuated and derided by her bird's raucous shrieks, we can find her fervent wish to be "a child of nature" (235) and to be "in a more primitive state" (384). Certainly, in the way it is expressed, this wish is a product of the kind of topsy-turvydom which she reveals in her deterministic statement: "Society suppresses us and dominates us. . . ." (235) I say 'certainly' because "Nature" is the very opposite of "Society," which one may define as the artificial world turned upside down.

It seems of crucial importance, moreover, that the cage is a microcosm of Society. Society is a "golden" world of prisoners circumscribed within narrow limits, of which Mrs. Merdle is a willing prisoner. The situation here is enough to make us suspect that a criminal is kept out of prison. The criminal is not Mrs. Merdle but her husband who, it transpires much later, is "the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows." (691) Amy Dorrit, in fact, feels that the expatriate Society in Venice, where the Dorrits are moving after their arrival in Italy, looks like "a superior sort of Marshalsea" (497). Dickens, using Amy as an observer, shows us how intimately related are those two worlds seemingly separate. Figuratively speaking, the paradox suggests that flowers and weeds on the ground get their roots inextricably entangled underneath. Consequently, there is no incongruity in the author's treatment of people in Society and criminals--what appear to be totally different social levels in the English hierarchy--as equivalent. As such, the equivalence is a fitting antecedent for that of Estella in the upper classes to her father Magwitch, the convict in Great Expectations (1860-61). 27

Mr. Merdle, we are told, is "a man still detained in the clutch of giant enterprises" (243). He is commonly known in the business world as "a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without ears, who turned all he touched to gold" (241), though "nobody knew with the least precision what Mr. Merdle's business was. . . ." (386) Like a sort of alchemist he has reversed the values in the business world under his sway. What is "all he touched," but an ironical expression of excrement, as implied by the French word merde which his name derives from? Dickens's social vision is underlined by the identification of merde with money, which is implicit in the dust heaps of Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). What also is more likely than that Mr. Merdle should be "one of the greatest converters of the root of all evil into the root of all good" (245)? According to "the last new polite reading of the parable of the camel and the needle's eye," all people in the business world speak highly of Mr. Merdle as "[t]he rich man, who had in a manner revised the New Testament, and already entered into the kingdom of Heaven" (593). Nothing but 'revision,' the author's euphemism for reversion, has enabled Mr. Merdle to be "a gentleman who was disposed to maintain the best interests of Society" (243). And here is, I think, a sarcastic appreciation of the incongruity of his presence in "the kingdom of Heaven" or "Society." It may not be fruitless to refer again to the world turned upside down in King Lear; Edgar, Son to Gloucester, says, "The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. . . ." (III, iv) Mr. Merdle's 'revision' is a fraudulent means of reversing the values in the business world. Without his 'revision' this "gentleman" would fall into the bottom of hell, because hell is only an inversion of "the kingdom of Heaven." This false construction of Mr. Merdle's is clearly put on the parable: "It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matt.19:24)

It can be urged here, and entirely with reason, that Mr. Merdle's 'revision' carries the irony of events. All his worshippers, including Pancks, Arthur, and Mr. Dorrit, have invested their wealth in his hands, despite their ignorance of his real identity. Arthur's paradoxical words "[b]lind leaders of the blind" (692) exactly fit the case of their mutual involvement in the Merdle enterprise--an ironic commentary on the futility of their vain hopes. The ironic implication of Mr. Merdle's 'revision' only becomes apparent after the denouement, when they are informed that he is a confidence trickster. It would seem, then, that Mr. Merdle's suicide, the sudden turn of events, reverses their circumstances, dispels the illusion that time will fulfil their desires, and exposes their laughable but deplorable ignorance. In the world turned upside down, Dickens dramatises the analogical paradox that the rich are something akin, in imposition, to criminals. I can quote nothing more apposite to fortify the paradox than the words of Henry Gowan, an inverted snob: 28

". . . I am happy to tell you I find the most worthless of men to be the dearest old fellow too; and am in a condition to make the gratifying report, that there is much less difference than you are inclined to suppose between an honest man and a scoundrel." (200)
Certainly his words serve to make us recognise an essential analogy between the two extremities. So, I do not wholly agree with Trilling's reading of Gowan as "the cynical, incompetent gentleman-artist." 29 Dickens, it may be objected, makes him paradoxically astute in moral insights, with all his moral shallowness and cynical carelessness. Like Steerforth, Carstone, Harthouse, and finally Wrayburne, Gowan is deeply indulged in dilettantism. He admires and enjoys nothing, despises and censures everything. However, we cannot help placing high value on his critical intelligence; he can find fault, though by sneers and sarcasms, with the seeming sincerity and goodness of human motives and actions. He is meant for nothing here if not for a competent cynic.


"The Child is father of the Man. . . ." 30 This phrase is universally acknowledged as one of the most famous paradoxes in English literature. The child means a great deal to William Wordsworth. For example, the paradoxical line insists on the significance of the child's innocence and naivety, by which the man is able to feel curiosity about all things in nature. In Little Dorrit, however, Dickens seems to demonstrate the paradox literally with no such connotation.

So far, we have said nothing of the inversion of human relationships, an inversion which is for Dickens one of the most important of all his ideas. The inversion of parental-filial roles is noteworthy in the Dorrit family, together with that of fraternal roles: "[Amy] took the place of eldest of the three, in all things but precedence; was the head of the fallen family; and bore, in her own heart, its anxieties and shames." (70) Mr. Dorrit, indeed, as we have seen, is called the Father of the Marshalsea in the world turned upside down, but Amy knows "well--no one better--that a man so broken as to be the Father of the Marshalsea, could be no father to his own children." (70) Mr. Dorrit is, Dickens says, "a captive with the jail-rot upon him, and the impurity of his prison worn into the grain of his soul" (222). One of the ironies of the Dorrits is that the father's childishness forces his youngest daughter to play the role of a parent: ". . . she had nursed her father in that room when she had been but a baby, needing all the care from others that she took of them." (736) From her mother's death, when she was a little girl aged eight, "the protection that her wondering eyes had expressed towards him, became embodied in action, and the Child of the Marshalsea took upon herself a new relation towards the Father." (70) The child must become a mother to the father turned child, as she has done, like "light children nursing heavy ones" (130), to the mentally retarded Maggy about twenty eight, who calls her "Little mother" (96).

A symbolical inversion of the order of parent and child is dramatised in the following scene. Amy's rejection of John Chivery's advances makes his father not quite as attentive to her father as usual. Mr. Dorrit thus tries to insinuate her into leading John Chivery on, so as to ensure his comfort in the Marshalsea. Still, her painful reticence makes him feel ashamed of his behaviour:

He burst into tears of maudlin pity for himself, and at length suffering her to embrace him, and take charge of him, let his grey head rest against her cheek, and bewailed his wretchedness. . . . Then he reverted to himself, and weakly told her how much better she would have loved him if she had known him in his vanished character. . . . (222)
Reflecting on the pride Mr. Dorrit takes in his own care of his daughter soon afterwards, we might best describe him as a down-right paradox, a person of perplexingly inconsistent feelings. The paradox of Mr. Dorrit is here set before us in all its sham self-respect and real self-pity. The synchronous "boasting" and "despairing" (222) are a partial manifestation of schizophrenic ambivalence. Of great interest to some readers, however, is the psychological rightness of this seemingly paradoxical attitude of Mr. Dorrit's. A. C. Swinburne defines Mr. Dorrit as "an everlasting figure of comedy in its most tragic aspect and tragedy in its most comic phase." 31 This combination of humourous and pathetic elements is an apt characterisation of the essential features of Mr. Dorrit's real life. But, no definition will serve to cover every aspect of his nature. We can say, though, that this particular limitation is a main source of the vitality in the novel. His lack of self-awareness is a moral disadvantage, but his many-sided personality is an advantage of no ordinary literary charm.

The passage now concerning us is a dramatic scene, which it is left to the reader to imagine. In this striking tableau, we might imagine Amy is Euphrasia, wife of Phocion, who visited her father Evander in prison, the deposed king of Syracuse, and fed him there with the milk of her breasts. This story is found in a tragedy The Grecian Daughter (1772) by Arthur Murphy. We notice the same kind of symbolical inversion in the illustrated iconographies of Dickens's other works (as witness some illustrations by Chattermole and 'Phiz' in The Old Curiosity Shop). On the other hand, the tableau in the passage might also lead us to imagine this is the configuration of an Electra complex, an opinion probably shared by many twentieth-century readers. However, it is doubtful whether Amy's attraction towards her father is anything more than her heroic love and pity for him. Like Florence Dombey, Agnes Wickfield, and Esther Summerson before her, Amy Dorrit is one of Dickens's strong female characters, all of whom the reader is intended to admire. We are entirely convinced that some Dickensian women have inexhaustible resources of courageous love and eternal truth. And, the relationship of father and daughter brings out the contrast between fiction and truth. The implication in Amy's silent rejection of her father's insinuation is delicate but firm; she is a character endowed with a capacity for moral judgement, not disconnected with reality. She is not so blind to reality that Fanny calls her "Mole" or "Miss Bat" (570). Dickens seems to suggest here that Amy can defend her moral integrity with all her love for her father. Edmund Wilson argues that Amy is "the devoted and self-effacing little mouse, who hardly aspires to be loved." 32 His argument is a little short of the mark, nevertheless; it is clear that her secret wish to be loved by Arthur keeps her from sacrificing her integrity or chastity for her father. She is "a ministering angel" (Mark 1:13; Hamlet V, i), to be sure: "Amy, you're an Angel" (571), but we must recognise that she has a sense of reality despite her superhuman nature.

Dealing with an empirical psychological and social analysis of the two modes of existence, being and having, Erich Fromm says:

. . . the greatest enjoyment perhaps is not so much in owning material things as in owning living beings. In a patriarchal society even the most miserable of men in the poorest of classes can be an owner of property--in his relationship to his wife, his children, his animals, over whom he is absolute master. At least for the man in a patriarchal society, having many children is the only way to own persons without needing to work to attain ownership, and with little capital investment. 33
Amy is forced to work outside the prison to support her father's dolce far niente, which reminds us of Mr. Sparkler's sweet doing nothing, "his usual occupation, and one for which he was particularly qualified" (487). This reversal of parental-filial roles is symbolically replaced with the mutually inverse relationship between Maggy and Amy, "the little mother attended by her big child" (100). 34 It is a notable feature of Maggy's presentation, however, to clarify the difference of her from Mr. Dorrit. It is obvious that the characterisation of Maggy partakes of the paradoxical nature of her dementia, which is enough to arouse the reader's curiosity. When Amy was "not very well" (283), supposing the tenderness still to exist between Arthur and Flora, the object of his boyish affections, her "great staring child[Maggy] tenderly embraced her; and having smoothed her hair, and bathed her forehead with cold water . . . hugged her again. . . ." (284) In this respect, the irony is not in Maggy's character but in Mr. Dorrit's; he cannot be expected to do what she did. And further, Amy has said of Maggy to Arthur in a triumphant tone, "She earns her own living entirely. Entirely, sir!" (96) If we read this statement as Dickens would have us read it, we will find the point clear that her words make her father morally lower than the retarded Maggy, though Fanny flatters herself that "he is master of his own actions. . . ." (386)

Self-deception is the most serious of Mr. Dorrit's moral weaknesses (224) because least suspected. He deceives himself about the parent-and-child relationship into saying to Amy, "As to taking care of me; I can--ha--take care of myself. . . . I--ha hum--I cannot, my dear child, think of engrossing, and--ha--as it were, sacrificing you." (590) Roger D. Lund supposes that every catch in Mr. Dorrit's voice indicates "his uncertainty as to which euphemism to select, which fiction to express." 35 This point there is no disputing. It seems a more likely supposition, however, that Mr. Dorrit's "unconnected and embarrassed manner" results from "a touch of shame" (220) or remorse for his self-deception. At any rate, the story of Mr. Dorrit is a total expression of how deeply he is affected with self-deception in the topsy-turvy world. It is characteristic of Little Dorrit that she resigns herself to her father's moral infirmities. Mr. Meagles's oxymoronic phrase "active resignation" (788) is a felicitous remark on her young life. It follows justly that she deceives herself into believing that her father was a different man outside the prison: "No, no, I have never seen him in my life!" (225) This must be taken as meaning that she does not wish to dispel his self-delusions and break his "Spirit" (362). The continuation of his self-deception depends upon the impossibility of its destruction by his motherly child. Again, Dickens calls this self-deception of hers, by the verbally compressed form of oxymoron, a "pious fraud" (75). In her case, of course, this fraud is but a venial sin incidental to her self-sacrifice.

And, before Bk.I, Ch.19 is brought to an end, we are allowed a glance at her pity for her father's misfortune: ". . . she kneeled beside his bed again, and prayed "O spare his life! O save him to me! O look down upon my dear, long-suffering, unfortunate, much changed, dear dear father!"" (224) This sounds like an ordinary prayer, but there is a verbal irony concealed in its banality. It is undeniable, I think, though perhaps also unprovable, that Dickens does not intend us to miss the verbal irony. Indeed, she earnestly prays God will "look down upon[watch over]" her unfortunate father. But, on the contrary, her earnestness carries the stronger suggestion that she has every reason to "look down upon[despise]" her morally disqualified father. The verb phrase is clearly intended to be ambiguous, but the reader is expected to catch the irony of the double entendre. Needless to say, it is the point of view that is essentially vital in the world turned upside down.


I shall now take the opportunity of discussing the inversion of male-and- female roles, and then the inversion of a master-and-servant relationship in the world turned upside down. The principle of this inversion is that there are two parties--the one ruling and the other ruled--whose roles are simply reversed in some action typifying their relationship. The reversal is hierarchical, involving, in Adlerian words, 'a will to power.' One of the main concepts of Alfred Adler, the founder of individual psychology, is that the dominant human motive is a striving for superiority, perfection, or self-assertion (the will to power being a good indication of this striving), in compensation for the inferiority feeling postulated for everyone. Little Dorrit is rich in suggestive hints of the inversion of human relationships characterised by their power struggle. The male-and-female reversal is crystalised in the wife's domination over her husband in the family. In Dickens's view, female domination of the home is always a clear indication of domestic devastation.

The case of Mrs. Clennam, for instance, is instructive on this point. She is best understood as the embodiment of all Dickens detested about an extreme Protestant/Calvinist religion, based on the Old Testament ideas of divine vengeance (Exod.21:24-25):

More than forty years of strife and struggle with the whisper that, by whatever name she called her vindictive pride and rage, nothing through all eternity could change their nature. . . . 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. (754)
In order to justify herself in her claims of piety and her vengeance against Arthur's parents, Mrs. Clennam asserts that she is "but a servant and a minister" (754) to divine justice or "an instrument of severity against sin" (770). It sounds fairly clear, however, that she deceives herself about her own identification with the god she has created from her evil passions. Her self-deception may be proved in terms of the paradoxical truth that she is "cold as the stone, but raging as the fire" (751).

Mrs. Clennam is, as Weinstein has truly pointed out, "the closest approximation in all of Dickens to Nietzschean ressentiment," though we ought to say in addition that her resentment is always directed against her inferiors. 36 In fact, she exhibits the form of behaviour which results from repressed aggressive feelings. But, we must distinguish her ressentiment from superficially similar but essentially different types of healthy vengeance, as that of Fanny when she swears at her superior Mrs. Merdle. Mrs. Clennam has "lost the use of [her] limbs" (34) as a result of her sins of omission and commission. So, her ressentiment, being impotent to express itself in immediate action, poisons, consumes, and paralyzes her body and soul. Mrs. Clennam's religion, characterised by its perversion, is also "a gloomy sacrifice of tastes and sympathies that were never [her] own, offered up as a part of a bargain for the security of [her] possessions" (20). This is the heart of the Victorian paradox, "the paradox of an evangelical spirit," as Denis Walder puts it, "which denied the world, the flesh and the devil, while compromising itself with a thorough-going, dutiful materialism." 37 Her stern religion is nothing but an inversion of her "impiety" or "gammon" (760), and its essence lies in the desire for money and power. Fulfilling this desire is for her "the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country" (154).

Some readers will sense that Mrs. Clennam has had life-and-death power over her husband both in the family and in the business, a fact pointed out by her adopted son Arthur: "You were much the stronger, mother, and directed him. As a child, I knew it as well as I know it now." (46) With "a will that can break the weak to powder" (751), she has forced her husband to connive at her repression of the codicil leaving some legacy to Little Dorrit. To cite her servant Flintwinch, "[s]he will do as she likes" (603), and does look like "a female Lucifer in appetite for power" (760). The story of Mrs. Clennam clearly expresses an enduring concern of the novelist with the desire for power in the acquisitive Victorian society--a society that rests on private property, profit, and power as the pillars of its existence. The acquisitive mode of existence necessarily produces the desire for power. All this makes it clear that one, to control others, needs to use power to break their existence.

Something of the same kind may be said about Fanny Dorrit. Like her brother Tip, the name redolent of her father's Testimonial given for doing nothing, she is solely dependent on her sister Amy: "You are my Anchor." (571) This shows their sororal inversion. Fanny, a proud and self-willed girl, is very conscious of the "family dignity" (485), such as it is. And, she is determined in her wealth to get revenge on Mrs. Merdle for treating her insolently in her poverty (573). This is probably why she tries to captivate the heart of Edmund Sparkler, Mrs. Merdle's son. Ross H. Dabney argues that Fanny's motives are "to avoid being subject to Mrs General . . . and to achieve a position from which she can torment Mrs Merdle." 38 At profounder levels, however, there appear to be some other impulses which have motivated her marriage with the aristocratic young man who she thinks is "almost an idiot" (237). The following two confessions we obtain from her reveal her motivations:

"I shall make him fetch and carry, my dear, and I shall make him subject to me. . . ." (485)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"And as to the question of clever or not clever, I doubt very much whether a clever husband would be suitable to me. I cannot submit. I should not be able to defer to him enough." (572)

That Fanny's impulses are something like Mrs. Clennam's bourgeois obsession with power, needs no stressing here. Mr. Sparkler is nothing to her if not a piece of "drawing-room furniture" (677) to possess. Nevertheless, these confessions help to emphasise a hinted at resemblance of Fanny to her competitor Mrs. Merdle, "who ruled all hearts at her supreme pleasure" (580), including her husband. It is remarkable--and significantly so--that much of such a dominating woman's disposition to turn the home topsy-turvy arises from the influence of the acquisitive world in reverse.


To continue our argument, there are also several kinds of symbolical inversion at work in the master-and-servant relationship. This inversion, I imagine, gives a heavy irony to the falsity of the master's social status and authority, with a hint of the discrepancy in his character between appearance and reality. Mr. Merdle is a wonderful illustration of this. He is fawned upon at the dinner party by many social magnates, and is ignorantly admired as "one of England's world-famed capitalists and merchant-princes" (244). We learn too that the physician--the only exception in the magnates that Dickens compares with "the Divine Master" (683)--can find nothing physically wrong with Mr. Merdle, who looks so uncomfortable. The irony is heightened if one holds, as I do, that his "deep-seated recondite complaint" (247) is a sort of mental claustrophobia, a dread of being hemmed in by people for some reason. And, interestingly enough, the physician proceeds to say, "As to nerves, Mr. Merdle . . . is about as invulnerable, I should say, as Achilles." (247) The inference might be drawn here that the presentation of "the chief butler" (246) is meant for Mr. Merdle's Achilles tendon. The nature of the master-and-servant relationship is conveyed through the eye imagery. Mr. Merdle cannot look anyone in the face, especially the chief butler whose eye--"the index of that stupendous creature's thoughts" (541)--is always "a basilisk" (540) to him. Except for a few easily passed over hints, it is not until after Mr. Merdle's suicide that we definitely know the reason why he instinctively keeps away from his servant's deadly glance just as venomous to him as the Gorgon's head. The chief butler is not shocked at all by his master's death, saying, "Sir, Mr. Merdle never was the gentleman, and no gentlemanly act on Mr. Merdle's part would surprise me." (689) The effect of this observation, of course, is to disclose the master's secret that his servant has penetrated. It is a secret which has reversed their respective roles, just as the roles have been reversed in the relationship between Mrs. Clennam and Flintwinch, the coercive servant blackmailing her with her family skeleton.

This symbolical inversion is further stressed by a series of ingenious parallels between Mr. Merdle and Mr. Dorrit. It may be worth noting here again the running contrast between the former's incarceration among a horde of sycophants in the business world, and the latter's in the Marshalsea, "a close and confined prison for debtors" (58). The two patriarchs have much in common: more, I suppose, than can be attributed solely to the semblances. No matter how deferentially he is treated after receiving the legacy, Mr. Dorrit still feels himself "a poor ruin and a poor wretch in the midst of his wealth" (465). Paradoxically, the gate of the Marshalsea is a way out of the source of poverty for "the bird about to be so grandly free" (417) on one hand, and an entrance to the larger cage of society on the other. The maxim "no out is good but out of prison" means nothing to him. To be more precise, "the day . . . when Mr. Dorrit and his family were to leave the prison for ever" (410) is just the beginning of their unhappy end. By the way, Arthur's stress on his own age has disquieted Amy: "I found that I had climbed the hill, and passed the level ground upon the top, and was descending quickly." (374) This stress sounds like an ironic anticipation of the future for Mr. Dorrit, when he will stand against "the highest ridges of the Alps" (419), farthest in altitude from the Marshalsea. In other words, the dawn of his new life--an interlude marked before the second major cycle of the novel--is just a process of the quick delivery of his abominable past to the future. This is probably because he is physically released but still mentally confined. Some such obsession seems foreshadowed by an early passage in Bk.I, Ch.2. Dickens makes Mr. Meagles, just released out of the quarantine station in Marseilles, unconsciously ironical about Mr. Dorrit who is not there: "One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it's left behind; I dare say a prisoner begins to relent towards his prison, after he is let out." (21) Our sharp lookout, therefore, is always required for Dickens's characteristic devices of anticipation and foreshadowing, which, while engaging our attention, serve to prepare us for things to come.

Thus it is that Mr. Dorrit keeps "a jealous eye upon [Tinkler the valet] . . . mistrusting that he might have something in his mind prejudicial to the family dignity. . . ." (461) Or, at Mr. Merdle's party he suspects the chief butler has him "in his supercilious eye," and "this confinement in his eye" (597) is disagreeable to him. Dickens seems to be clearly urging his readers to pay attention to his depiction of these reactions of Mr. Dorrit's as manifestations of a guilty conscience over "the miserably ragged old fiction of the family gentility" (207). 39 My main concern is to show in what ways Dickens uses the physical traits of his characters, including their eyes and hands, to define their moral essence. Such characterisation strongly recalls the equally unforgettable description of Mr. Merdle's recurring habit of "clasping his wrists as if he were taking himself into custody" (386, 541, 546, 592, 679). It turns out, here, that Mr. Merdle is "morally handcuffed to" (30) Mr. Dorrit. Dickens, with a remarkable pre-Freudian insight, takes us into Mr. Merdle's mind in depth; the character acts out his sense of guilt latent in "his oppressed soul" (390). The kind of psychosomatic expression, in which much more is implied than described, is all the more effective and impressive in Mr. Merdle's case, because we know "how taciturn and reserved he is." (685)

As to the characterisation of Christopher Casby, the rack-renting landlord of Bleeding Heart Yard and other properties, I believe most readers will notice much patriarchal analogy with Mr. Dorrit and Mr. Merdle. Mr. Casby looks so "benevolent" that various old ladies speak of him as "[t]he Last of the Patriarchs" (139). Dickens, of course, employs this laudatory expression to imply condemnation or contempt; "the Last of the Patriarchs," that is to say, "a father to the orphan and a friend to the friendless" (139) is not what he really is. In reality, Mr. Casby is "a crafty impostor" (142) and "a screwer by deputy, a wringer, and squeezer, and shaver by substitute" (777). Pancks his grubber, who always refers to the master as his "proprietor" (269), is instigated to extort high rents from the poor tenants. Hobsbaum has read more into this instigation than is justified, arguing that "the paradox of a Society that denies wages while demanding rent is bitterly set down here." 40 Yet, Mr. Casby's parsimony is of no great moment here. The "deputy" or "substitute" is exactly the way in which he is able to conceal his predatory nature behind a benign, patriarchal mask. For a better communication of the discrepancy in his master's character between appearance and reality to the tenants, Pancks, the voice of the novelist, adopts the rhetoric of oxymoron to denounce the master as "a philanthropic sneak" (777).

Eventually, Pancks shows up the double-faced master and triumphs over him by shearing his "long grey hair which looked so benevolent" (139), thereby reducing his proprietor from patriarchal respectability to "[a] bare-polled, goggle-eyed, big-headed, lumbering personage . . . not in the least impressive, not in the least venerable" (780). We are confronted again with the reversal of master and servant. This reversal is suggested by the image of "Tug" (273) which always accompanys Pancks. Dickens's descriptive names and tag lines help to identify his characters. The utility of the "Tug" is not confined only to manipulating the Patriarchal Vessel, but its powerful steam is used to submerge her at last. This unexpected reversal is a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and appropriateness of things.

Furthermore, the reversal is a kind of comic relief like the Fool's mockery in King Lear. Dickens changes the atmosphere completely in Bk.II, Ch.32, giving us relief from the denouement. His aim is to relax the tension caused by the preceding chapter, entitled "Closed," where Rigaud, the only accomplished villain in the book and the motivating force for much of its action, is crushed by the fall of the house of Clennam (771-2). A persuasive suggestion is that the comic principle of inversion involves a sudden, comic switching of expected roles. The domination of servant over master evokes much laughter by destroying picturesque appearance and exposing grotesque reality. The essence of such laughter-producing inversion is a disclosure of grotesque reality to make an end of the unreal, picturesque status quo, or "the great social Exhibition," where "accessories are often accepted in lieu of the interior character." (142) The raison d'être of the world turned upside down is an attack on the closed system of society, or, in the words of Henri Bergson, on "the irreversibility of the order of phenomena, the perfect individuality of a perfectly self-contained series." 41


Finally, a few closing remarks on the author's strategies of paradox require taking into account the heroine's characterisation. Dickens often describes Little Dorrit as childish: "So diminutive she looked, so fragile and defenceless. . . ." (166) Why is it, then, that he accentuates her undersized figure so often? It is clear that much of the novelist's concern is to direct our attention to her "inward fortitude" (737), since she is portrayed as "the weak figure with its strong purpose" (162), or as "a slender child in body, a strong heroine in soul" (374). Little Dorrit is full of Christian paradoxes; the seemingly weak are strong--strong enough to face up to the inequalities of the topsy-turvy world in which they live. Little Dorrit is never "a plain domestic little creature, without the great and sage experiences of the rest," though Fanny is sure she "know[s] so much more of the world" (227) than Amy. The truth is that a prostitute cannot speak to Amy in a manner appropriate to an innocent child: "You are kind and innocent; but you can't look at me out of a child's eyes." (170)

"Worldly wise in hard and poor necessities," Little Dorrit is "innocent in all other things." (76) Her innocence, however, is that "which knows and understands the wickedness of the world, and is able to accept and love even that." 42 Her goodness is linked with kindness learned through realistic, practical experience. I hope, then, that we are justified in arguing she is an embodied paradox, the paradox that internal firmness is compatible with external frailty. Michael Slater's comments on Dickens and women clearly reinforce our argument: "The 'mildness' or gentle, passive sweetness that Dickens and his age regarded as an ideal quality in a young lady needs to be joined with the more active virtue of 'gameness' or courageous readiness to affront dangers and difficulties. . . ." 43 It is natural that Little Dorrit should meet Dickens's ideal as a paradoxical mixture of "mildness" and "gameness," as contrasted with, for instance, Betsey Trotwood, whose firmness is shown in her stiffness of figure and countenance.

At the end of Arthur's first meeting with Mrs. Clennam, we are given an introductory glimpse of Little Dorrit so far kept in the background. Asked about her, Affery the servant answers to him, "Oh! She? Little Dorrit? She's nothing. . . ." (40) Her name hints at the diminutiveness of her physical appearance, but the epithet "Little" is not mere negation. Dickens's employment of the epithet as a term of ambivalence seems to furnish the key to a better understanding of the heroine's characterisation. It is a matter of course that, as in a later scene when Pancks tells her he is "nobody" (281), the word "nothing" means a person of no importance. Beginning to occupy the foreground of the novel, however, she is so far from "nothing" that she becomes 'everything,' the most important person. We are reminded here that "nothing," like the word "Nature" which changes its meaning in the course of time, is one of the key words reiterated throughout King Lear. 44 "In Shakespeare the word nothing," says Northrop Frye, "when it means something called nothing, usually refers to the loss of essence, not to the end of existence." 45 Still, this meaning needs to be attached to the terms the Fool uses after Lear gives away his crown: ". . . I am a fool, thou art nothing." (I, iv) The word "nothing" may be interpreted in another context as a symbol of the never-changing truth, namely Cordelia's love, which is 'everything.' To Lear's question ". . . what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?" Cordelia only replies, "Nothing, my lord." (I, i)

The word "nothing" is dual in character in Little Dorrit, too; it can be a straight negative, but can also be used syntactically to refer to a positive entity. 46 In the world turned upside down, no attentive reader of Little Dorrit can fail to perceive, "nothing" is changed into 'everything,' which is the most important thing, namely love. Little Dorrit is love itself. Hornback has made only passing commentary on Doyce's invention "of great importance to his country and his fellow creatures" (113), but his paradoxical reading of it as "love," which is akin to mine, is richly suggestive here. 47 Little Dorrit and Daniel Doyce may be described quite literally as love and truth. Amy, the first name of Little Dorrit, is particularly welcome for this reason in its revelation of "Old French amée, Modern French aimée, past participle of the verb aimer, 'to love.'" 48 The character of Amy is revealed in her name. Suffice it to say here that love is 'everything' in Little Dorrit; the topos of love is common to the Dickens's oeuvre as a whole.

What of the hero, then? Dickens's thoughts at the denouement, I suppose, must have been running upon the Christian paradox that "Arthur Clennam's deepest failures, his blindness to love as well as his involvement with the Merdle enterprise, bring him to the point where he can be saved." 49 The point, of course, is "the Marshalsea College" (357), which is anything but the world turned upside down for Arthur as well as Amy. This is a place of initiation where, as suggested by the heading of Bk.II, Ch.27, "The Pupil of the Marshalsea," he is able to recognise her love and what she has been to him. And, the Marshalsea is for Amy "the Promised Land" (Gen.12:7) or "[s]uch a Ev'nly place" (99), because, needed inside the gate in ways she is not needed outside, she can bring her ability into the fullest possible play.

The paradox that the poverty of Arthur and Amy allows them to marry is very strongly underlined at the end of the novel. Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the novel is the manner in which the author describes their happy ending:

They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and in shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar. (802)
This is a realistic, much restrained happy ending, based upon the paradoxical nature of intermixed light and shadow imagery, or, as James R. Zimmerman puts it pertinently, upon "the dialectic of light and dark imagery that is designed to produce a trustful portrait of a complex world." 50 That is to say, Dickens gives us, by means of paradox, some notion of how Arthur and Amy must live in the prison of society. The stern realities of "roaring streets" and "usual uproar" of human conflict exemplify the prison of society with no escape, which surrounds London and, by extension, all of English life. There appears to be no hope for the improvement of society or the reversal of the world turned upside down. However, the book's final pages are much concerned with a qualified hope for the individual, the kind of hope which can be gained by recognising how to become free within the prison of society, not how to escape from it, or how to "burn it down, or raze it to the ground" (22). All these descriptions of the qualified happy ending, I think, serve to lead us to the conclusion that we should make the dark shadow of society paradoxically bright to look at, individually through "love and truth" (699, 792).


  1. Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1947) 3.
  2. Robert F. Fleissner, Dickens and Shakespeare (New York: Haskell House, 1965) 38.
  3. Angus Wilson, The World of Charles Dickens (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970) 38.
  4. E.g. "marshalling him the way that he should go" (208); "balsam for a wounded mind" (394); "a journeyman Hamlet in conversation with his father's spirit" (567); "observed of all observers" (594); "he would have merely made the difference of Banquo in it" (684). All quotations are taken from the Clarendon Dickens edition of Little Dorrit, edited by Harvey Peter Sucksmith (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979). All further references by page number are to this edition and will be incorporated into the text. Citations from the other works are by chapter number.
  5. J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1958) 227.
  6. John Wain, "Little Dorrit." Dickens and the Twentieth Century, eds. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962) 176.
  7. A. O. J. Cockshut, The Imagination of Charles Dickens (London: Collins, 1961) 157.
  8. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London: Methuen, 1956) 160.
  9. George H. Ford, Dickens and His Reader (New York: Gordian Press, 1974) 69.
  10. For a detailed study of the Lear-Cordelia motif in The Old Curiosity Shop, see Fleissner, pp.258-73.
  11. For example, see Soji Iwasaki, "The World Turned Upside Down in King Lear." Renaissance Monographs IX: Poetry and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare eds. Peter Milward and Tetsuo Anzai (Tokyo: The Renaissance Institute, 1982), pp.139-55.
  12. Another symbolical inversion is hinted at in King Lear. D. A. Traversi, for example, says wisely and well: "The first step in bringing to light the deeper causes of his tragedy is taken through the Fool. In the relationship, during the tempest, between the King and his Fool, we have a clear case of those significant inversions of which this play is particularly fond. King and Fool, master and slave as they have so far been, now become, in the hour of Lear's helplessness, something very different; the bond between them grows ever closer and, in the inversion of Lear's mind, through which he sees himself, as it were, turned upside down, in reflection, we become aware of a deeper relation of contraries, that of the "wise man" and the "fool." The essence of this relationship consists in a reversal of accepted values." (D. A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare [New York: Doubleday & Co., 1956] 193.) Lear, the blind "fool" who lost everything, including his wits, has begun to be a sufficiently "wise man" at the initiation of the Fool to see the inner truth of the world turned upside down surrounding him, and to know he is merely a baby who is come to "the great stage of fools" (IV, vi). It is not far-fetched to propose that, after the example of Shakespeare's employment of the paradox "Reason in madness" (IV, vi), or following the paradoxical convention that fools and madmen see and speak the truth, Dickens must have portrayed a greater number of divine idiots endowed with criticism of worldly wisdom and self-deception in Little Dorrit.
  13. John Lucas, The Melancholy Man (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1980) 251.
  14. See Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (London: Victor Gollancz, 1953), pp.883-903.
  15. Lionel Trilling, "Introduction" to Little Dorrit. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974) vi.
  16. Lucas, 244.
  17. Barbara A. Babcock, ed. The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society (Ithaka: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978) 14.
  18. Ibid., 16.
  19. Geoffrey Thurley, The Dickens Myth (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976) 229.
  20. Dickens's London is depicted as a vehement protest against the mental pressures that "the lock of this world" (65), or "the prison of this lower world" (741), brings on its inhabitants. On returning to London, Arthur thinks that he "could not have felt more depressed and cast away if he had been in a wilderness." (155) "A sense of isolation within a crowded city" (James M. Brown, Dickens: Novelist in the Market-Place [London: Macmillan, 1982] 87.) is the paradox of Dickens's London. When considering Dickens's London, I am reminded of William Blake, who loved London but at the same time was depressed by its darkness and the moral corruptions of its citizens. "London" in Songs and Experience (1794) is a record of his depression. He denounces the prison of the city, primarily represented by the authorities of church and state, as producing the "mind-forg'd manacles." (David V. Erdman, ed. The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake [New York: Anchor Books, 1982] 27.)
  21. Randolph Splitter, "Guilt and the Trappings of Melodrama in Little Dorrit." Dickens Studies Annual (New York: AMS Press, 1980) VI, 120.
  22. Their delusions are only an indication of their madness. Rigaud affirms the Marshalsea is "[a] hospital for imbeciles" (729), and this is just the right thing to say. Darkroom confinement, which the prisoners appear to enjoy in the Marshalsea, was "a recognised treatment for madmen." (Ad de Vries, Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery [Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1976] 129.) Shakespeare often describes it as the contemporary way of dealing with the violence of the insane. Noteworthy among such examples is the madly-used Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1599). As another example may be cited Rosalind's words in As You Like It (1599): "Love is merely a madness, and I tell you, deserves / as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do. . . ." (III, ii)
  23. Philip M. Weinstein, The Semantics of Desire: Changing Models of Identity from Dickens to Joyce (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984) 65.
  24. Miller, 232.
  25. Bert G. Hornback has discussed the collection of Genesis references in Little Dorrit, and in particular "the builders of Babel" (1), whose effect appears throughout in "the inability of people to communicate with each other." He is surely correct in arguing that "[t]he most important failure of communication is that which keeps Arthur and Amy from saying they love each other." (Bert G. Hornback, Noah's Arkitecture: A Study of Dickens' Mythology [Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1972], pp.104-5.) However, I would suggest that, for Dickens, it was the Circumlocution Office that symbolised the image of the tower of Babel, the chaotic world in reverse. For, the parliamentary Barnacles are all pointlessly talkative (394-6).
  26. Philip Hobsbaum, A Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973) 203-3.
  27. It is not without interest in this novel that Dickens, as we are aware from the opening chapter, makes Magwitch hold Pip upside down through his blackmailing conversation. While held by the convict, Pip sees the steeple of the church under his feet. G. R. Stange's commentary is full of suggestions here: "Charles Dickens's satire asks us to try reversing the accepted code of values which is represented by the church, and to think of the world's goods as the world's evils." (G. R. Stange, "Expectations Well Lost: Dickens' Fable for His Time." The Dickens Critics eds. G. H. Ford and Lauriat Lane Jr. [New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966] 297.) This commentary is reminiscent of one of the main themes of Macbeth, of the reversal of values: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." (I, i)
  28. This inverted snob has seduced and abandoned Miss Wade. Their relationship has fallen into critical shade, but it is not to be lightly disregarded. Perversion is the greatest of points at which they meet on common ground. "To bring deserving things down by setting undeserving things up" is one of Gowan's "perverted delights" (472). Miss Wade, "turning everything the wrong way, and twisting all good into evil" (787), seems to live an inverted life with Tattycoram in "the dull confined room" (643) in Calais. The prison of her room is the world turned upside down where inversion, which used to denote homosexuality among psychologists, is used in the sense of perversion. The truth is that Mr. Meagles regards her as "a woman, who, from whatever cause, has a perverted delight in making a sister-woman as wretched as she is" (323). Symbolical inversion makes her misunderstand the world around her and leads her to believe others hate her as much as she hates them. Her misunderstanding and beliefs, I would suppose, are both ascribable to orphan vulnerability, which has distorted her point of view and reversed her values. The paradox that she has "the misfortune of not being a fool" (644), may help to demonstrate the special significance of her vulnerability.
  29. Trilling, "Little Dorrit." The Dickens Critics, 287.
  30. Thomas Hutchinson, ed. The Poetical Works of Wordsworth (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959) 62.
  31. A. C. Swinburne, Charles Dickens (London: Chatto and Windus, 1913) 44.
  32. Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947) 58.
  33. Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1981) 58.
  34. This mutually understood inversion is an oblique parody on Tattycoram's inverse relationship with Pet Meagles, about which she speaks with fury: "I am younger than she is by two or three years, and yet it's me that looks after her, as if I was old, and it's she that's always petted and called Baby!" (25)
  35. Roger D. Lund, "Genteel Fictions: Caricature and Satirical Design in Little Dorrit." Dickens Studies Annual (New York: AMS Press, 1982) X, 60.
  36. Weinstein, 54.
  37. Denis Walder, Dickens and Religion (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981) 185.
  38. Ross H. Dabney, Love and Property in the Novels of Dickens (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967) 116.
  39. For a discussion of Arthur's guilty conscience, see my article, "Arthur Clennam's Sense of Guilt in Little Dorrit," Kagoshima Studies in English Language and Literature, 20 (1989), 193-243.
  40. Hobsbaum, 209.
  41. To take the counterpart of each of these, Bergson gives "three processes which might be called repetition, inversion, reciprocal interference of series." He goes on to maintain in the second process that "the root idea involves an inversion of rôles, and a situation which recoils on the head of its author." Henri Bergson, "Laughter." Comedy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1956) 118,123.
  42. Miller, 241.
  43. Michael Slater, Dickens and Women (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1983) 253.
  44. See John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (London: Faber and Faber, n.d.).
  45. Northrop Frye, Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1967) 108.
  46. More important than "nothing" is the word "nobody" in Little Dorrit. Biographers from John Forster onwards have noted that the novel was originally to be called "Nobody's Fault." (John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens [London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1966] II, 179.) The original title, it appears, must have meant for Dickens 'everybody's fault': "As to who was to blame for it, Mr. Plornish didn't know who was to blame for it. He could tell you who suffered, but he couldn't tell you whose fault it was." (136) The concept of 'everybody's fault' takes on a new meaning of 'nobody's fault' in the world turned upside down, an indictment of irresponsibility both personal and social, which has left society stagnant and infected with evils.
  47. Hornback, 102.
  48. E. G. Withycombe, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987) 20.
  49. Walder, 189.
  50. James R. Zimmerman, "Sun and Shadow in Little Dorrit." The Dickensian, LXXXIII (1987) 94.

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