Originally published March 5th, 2015
Alright. Full disclosure time: this was required reading for my book club. I had actually reached a point in my reading experience where I had decided I had read enough Dickens. No need to read any more. A Christmas Carol? Check. Great Expectations? Twice, at least. David Copperfield? One of my favourites. Oliver Twist AND A Tale of Two Cities? Check and check. I picked through Pickwick Papers and slogged through the mire that was Bleak House. Yes ladies, gentlemen, and all, I had read enough Dickens.
And then we chose the book club upcoming reading list and this 900-page behemoth appeared out of the literary haze. Looming over my future like a papery colossus.
Now, I’ve read some big books in my time. Possession. Don Quixote. War and Peace. Anna Karenina. All tucked under my belt. Or at least they would be, if my belt were that long. I am not intimidated by a weighty tome. However, rarely do I get to the end of a really long book and think to myself: “Yes. I am glad the author made this as long as they did. There is definitely no way this could have been any shorter and still been an enjoyable, educational, perspective-altering reading experience.” (Except for Possession. Solid gold.) When I got to the end of Little Dorrit that was essentially how I felt. Why was this so long? What contribution did these characters make to the overall direction of the novel? I really wanted to read it as a serialized publication; maybe a chapter a week in the local Sunday paper? You have to keep a running list of characters as you go anyways, just to keep everything straight in your head. It wouldn’t be that much more difficult to add a brief synopsis of each chapter to your character list so that in the almost-18-months it would take you to finish this book you wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting what was going on. Plus it would almost eliminate the number of wrist injuries sustained during the reading of this tome, since people wouldn’t need to hold up all 200 lbs of it. The savings to the health care system alone would be almost incalculable. Let alone the reduction in injury-related work-absences. This could completely revitalize the North American economy.
And that’s my first of two complaints with this book. Why is it so long? I’m aware of the level of arrogance it takes to criticize an author like Dickens, but nevertheless: why so long? Was there any purpose to some of these characters beyond showing us how many different plot-lines Dickens could squish together in a story and all the different people he could make up? Would Little Dorrit be any different without Miss Wade? Or the Plornishes? What if we left the Meagles out entirely? Does the dimension we see added to Blandois’ reprehensiblity through his relationship with the Gowan family really tell us anything we needed to know before the climax of the story? Or did Dickens add all these people in because his favourite thing to do is write just one more character?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not advocating that every novel needs to go through a relentless paring down process where anything not vital to the solution of the main plot line is removed. I enjoy side quests as much as the next reader. And I guess this book was written in an age where books were the equivalent of video games; the more hours of game play you could get out of it the better. When I think of it that way it makes way more sense: Little Dorrit is a video game. Dickens was writing in side quests that didn’t really have anything to do with the main plot line to keep his readers busy for longer. So they could get more out of it.
And maybe to show off, just a little bit.
My last quibble is the difference between the vilification of Mrs. Clennam and Mr. Merdle. [Contains some spoilers] Merdle deceives an entire nation and destitutes a good portion of it. Clennam paupers one family. Each of them act out of personal failings: Clennam out of a desire for revenge which she has justified to herself as divinely commanded because she can’t bear to look at her own flaws and emotions; Merdle out of pride, greed, and cowardice. But Clennam is personally and directly lambasted by multiple central characters (some of whom played their own part in the Dorrits’ incarceration) for her selfishness, and then punished with additional physical disability by the author. Merdle escapes a good portion of punishment by committing suicide, but when his duplicity is unveiled the bulk of the negative commentary is generic disgust from Dickens’ version of “the mob”, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Minor characters view him as a sympathetic tragedy, not a vile scoundrel; with the exception of the Chief Butler. Major characters blame themselves for being caught up in the collective hysteria surrounding his investment sagacity. No one rakes Merdle over the coals. Not even in the afterlife, and you can’t tell me Dickens wouldn’t have written in a scene with a disapproving angel coming to collect Merdle’s soul if that’s what he had wanted to include. Merdle’s evil is a mirrored and magnified version of Clennam’s, but her punishment is much greater than his. Did Dickens view Clennam’s religious obsession and her decision to style herself the hand of god as less forgiveable than Merdle’s cowardice and greed? Is it? Or does it have something to do with her gender? Merdle arguably ruined the lives of more people, and in both cases their victims wound up in the Marshalsea. Shouldn’t his punishment have been at least as stern as Clennam’s? Or is she also being punished for overstepping her societal boundaries? Essentially, commanding men and wielding power while being a woman? And don’t even get me started on how Flintwinch gets off scot-free in spite of not only being directly responsible for Blandois’ blackmail but also spending nearly the entire novel beating his wife. Which wasn’t considered a crime then, but even Dickens seems to think it makes him a bit of a skunk since it’s not a trait he gives to likeable characters. Nothing bad happens to Flintwinch. It’s all on Clennam. If Dickens had another reason for treating Clennam and Merdle so differently I’m having a tough time thinking of it. I realize Dickens was still a product of the time and sexism was de rigueur, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Or that I can’t spend a few hundred words ranting about the logical inconsistencies sexism tends to produce. Furthermore it always prickles my britches when people lamenting societal unfairness in one area inattentively and thoughtlessly continue the unfairness in another. But hey, nobody’s perfect. I firmly believe Dickens was doing the best he could, and he did better than many. It’s a long journey made entirely of baby steps to arrive at real, pervasive, and meaningful equality. We’ll make it yet.
*it does not escape me that the longest book review I’ve written was mainly whining about the length of the book I reviewed. These things happen.