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Friday, August 19, 2011

Imprisonment in Little Dorrit, Part One

A recurring theme in Little Dorrit is imprisonment.  Obviously, the Marshalsea has an dominating presence in Part One of the novel.  Mr. Dorrit is imprisoned there over 20 years and sees his youngest child Amy born there.  Even after he is released, Mr. Dorrit is still haunted by the pervasive nature of the prison, as much as he tries to banish it from his memory.  Mr. Dorrit tries to maintain his dignity while in prison, acquiring the title of "Father of the Marshalsea," which is considered a moniker of respect.  Also, he pretends to be ignorant of his children's attempts to earn money for the family, so that the pang of his failure towards them will lessen.  The effect of the prison on its inhabitants is a role reversal.

One way in which this effect is illustrated is through the relationships Little Dorrit develops with her father and Little Maggy.  To her father Little Dorrit becomes the provider, making money for the family while guaranteeing that Mr. Dorrit has his meals.  With Maggy, though Little Dorrit is much younger, her maternal actions towards the Maggy causes the latter to call the former "Little Mother."  Mr. Meagles notices the stifling, suffocating atmosphere of the prison, causing him to have trouble breathing.  Dickens portrays that stifling dimension of the prison in Maggy's inability to conceive of herself as older than ten, and in Little Dorrit's small stature, despite her obvious maturity.  Tip, Little Dorrit's brother, leaves the prison on multiple occasions, only to return every time.  The prison refuses to relinquish its hold on him, in spite of his attempts to escape its grasp.  However, few are able to escape, including the turnkey who dies in the prison only to have his son succeed him.  The only persons to escape successfully are Arthur and Amy, and they do it together.  After Arthur becomes a victim of Merdle's scheme and is sent to prison, Amy with the help of Meagles, frees Arthur.  The shared trait between Arthur and Amy is that neither bows at the altar of Mammon and both show a willingness to sacrifice everything they have for just reasons.   Therefore, neither of the two remain within the hold of a prison whose inhabitants were jailed for debts, symbolizing greed.

Nevertheless, the Marshalsea is not the only prison on which those in Little Dorrit find themselves.  Others are imprisoned figuratively.  One example is Mrs. Clennam, who is a prisoner in her own house.  Bound to a wheelchair, Mrs. Clennam never leaves her room, though she receives visitors.  Everything about the house reminds one of a prison; it is an old, dilapidated edifice, always dark and airless, like the Marshalsea.  Mrs. Clennam's self-imposed sentence reflects her guilt over the unjust treatment of the Dorrit family at the hands of the Clennams.  Consequently, her imprisonment is an act of penance though she is only truly released from her prison when she decides to reveal the truth about the past.  Only then does she leave the premises (to go to the Marshalsea, ironically). 

Nevertheless, she is partly responsible for Affery's imprisonment in the same domicile.  Forced to marry the butler, Affery is trapped in a loveless relationship with an abusive husband.  She sees a lot that she is not supposed to see but is told that he has dreamed it.  Affery is stuck in a dream world and is only released when the truth is revealed at the end.

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