Saturday, June 30, 2007

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

Of all the Dickens novels I've read thus far (and I've now read twelve of 'em), this was, without a doubt, the roughest one to get through. Maybe it was the timing: I had just finished teaching a ten-week course on David Copperfield and Bleak House -- which is the equivalent of eating a seven-course meal at a German shmorgasbord -- and I was either too Boz'ed out to attempt another one of his 900-page tomes, or I was still reeling from the sublimity of Copperfield and Bleak. Regardless, I spent a good three months pluggin' away at this bugger, and I found Little Dorrit extremely difficult to get into, let alone enjoy at any level whatsoever.

The title character is the daughter of William Dorrit, an insolvent who has been long imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debts unpaid. His daughter Amy is born and raised within the confines of the prison, and the first half of the novel focuses on numerous characters as their trajectories weave in and out of that of Dorrit, the "Father of the Marshalsea." Due to a mysterious and coincidental stroke of fortune, Dorrit falls into wealth ... and the second half of the novel follows the same peripheral characters as they move in and out of Dorrit's newfound circumstances outside the walls of the debtors' prison.

In a way, Dickens is at his subtlest here, working with a fairly simple theme -- imprisonment -- but exploring carefully the nuances of that theme as they affect the lives of the wealthy, the destitute, the young and old, the villainous and innocent. Unfortunately (for me, at least), I found few characters who were likeable (except for the one everyone seems to delight in, Flora Finching), I thought the plot was too plodding and convoluted, and there were far too many instances of Dickens "telling" us what to think rather than "showing" us -- as if, late in his literary career, he had developed the neophyte's habit of beating the reader over the head with his social commentary.

In Dickens's defense, I also get the disinct impression that I simply didn't give this book a fair shake ... that for whatever reason I just wasn't ready to read this novel and gluttonously forced it down before I'd let the previous two digest properly. Now I'm suffering for it in the bathroom. Make of that metaphor what you will ...

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