Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"The Wiles of Insolvency": Gain and Loss in Little Dorrit

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"The Wiles of Insolvency": Gain and Loss in Little Dorrit

Article excerpt

George Bernard Shaw's well-known remark that Little Dorrit was a "more seditious book than Das Kapital" is often cited by critics to point to Dickens's resistance to Victorian ideology. But Barbara Hardy prudently reminds the reader that "Shaw was nearly right but Dickens was not Marx. Perhaps he was Kafka, who admired and emulated him" (12). The Kafkaesque streak is certainly to be found in the treatment of the economy and is no doubt an index of Dickens's ambivalent attitude towards capitalism. After all, the epilogue features no act of rebellion; rather it is a sad, modest ending reflecting a muted vision of the human condition without any of the anger stoked up earlier in the novel. Dickens's resistance to the encroaching influence of capitalism is best conveyed through his complex exploration of the intricacies of an economic system, whose mechanisms are increasingly beyond the grasp of human understanding, what the narrator describes as "the wiles of insolvency and bankruptcy" (99; bk. 1, ch. 6) to account for the fact that William Dorrit has been imprisoned for nearly two decades without being able to explain how he has run into heavy debts nor who exactly he owes money to. A most Kafkaesque predicament indeed!

Dickensian scholars have often seen in Little Dorrit a vitriolic criticism of government institutions in the context of the Crimean crisis. On the other hand, more specifically, it would of course be tempting to state as a preamble that the issue of class and society is intrinsically connected to the whole of Dickens's creation, if only for purely biographical reasons. One American critic, Edmund Wilson, drew extensively from Dickens's own life to propound his theory of a Dostoyevskian Dickens divided between bourgeois optimism and deep personal pain and social despair. This ambivalence could be ascribed to an initial trauma when, as a result of his father's imprisonment at the Marshalsea, the future novelist saw all his expectations of social elevation suddenly collapse and found himself obliged to work as a menial in a blacking factory. This humiliating experience is said to have profoundly upset the novelist and to account for his more somber later works: Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend. In a way, it can be claimed, somewhat candidly perhaps, that a contingent family event in the form of a financial loss was to contribute a significant gain for literature, through some kind of compensatory mechanism. The second sense in which resistance can be approached is close to the biological one, i.e. to develop the ability to withstand the intrusion of external forces. In Dickens's case the curse of a return to poverty was exorcized by the act of literary creation. The fear of impoverishment and the acute awareness of the precarious comfort which riches afford are indeed constant themes in Dickens's fiction, where sudden gains or losses result in unpredictable reversals of fortune. In his biography Peter Ackroyd wrote: "It was just that his early experiences in the Marshalsea and blacking factory provoked an anxiety which only the assurance of financial well-being could assuage. Money was a defence for him" (197). Defence can of course also be understood in its psychoanalytical sense, a means of protecting the integrity of the subject in a class-ridden society, where class boundaries are still not firmly fixed. In her study of Great Expectations Anny Sadrin highlights this constant pendulum movement between gain and loss, between poverty and riches, or, more aptly, the constant presence of deprivation as a constant Doppelganger to wealth: "For the work of Dickens is clearly the work of a man who never forgot, a man who remained to the end a prisoner of the hated past and who, novel after novel, like Dorrit in dotage, welcomed his readers to the Marshalsea" (73).

The novel's interest in commerce, business transaction and, more generally, the circulation of money is first steeped in the Victorian tradition of the legacy plot, with its many wiles. …

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