“Nobody knew that the Merdle of such high renown had ever done any good to any one, alive or dead, or to any earthly thing; nobody knew that he had any capacity or utterance of any sort in him, which had ever thrown, for any creature, the feeblest farthing-candle ray of light on any path of duty or diversion, pain or pleasure, toil or rest, fact or fancy, among the multiplicity of paths in the labyrinth trodden by the sons of Adam; nobody had the smallest reason for supposing the clay of which this object of worship was made, to be other than the commonest clay, with as clogged a wick smouldering inside of it as ever kept an image of humanity from tumbling to pieces. All people knew (or thought they knew) that he had made himself immensely rich; and, for that reason alone, prostrated themselves before him, more degradedly and less excusably than the darkest savage creeps out of his hole in the ground to propitiate, in some log or reptile, the Deity of his benighted soul.”
All right, so that was two sentences; but they nicely illustrate Little Dorrit’s twin virtues: art and social commentary. Today’s Madoff is merely Merdle reborn, at least almost. Merdle commits suicide, while his present-day counterpart cringes in a mansion hoping for parole. What a demonstration of the chasm between Dicken’s artistic temperament and the real world’s shabby realities! Of course, Dickens is under no illusions that justice will prevail:
“’I hope,’ said Arthur, ‘that he and his dupes may be a warning to people not to have so much done with them again.’
‘My dear Mr Clennam,’ returned Ferdinand, laughing, ‘have you really such a verdant hope? The next man who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling, will succeed as well. Pardon me, but I think you really have no idea how the human bees will swarm to the beating of any old tin kettle; in that fact lies the complete manual of governing them.’”
But Little Dorrit is no mere morality tale. Dickens is too big-hearted to be a scold. In fact, he loves his characters so exquisitely he can’t let the bad world happen to them. Oh, they undergo various trials and predicaments. Some even die. But Dickens the Kind Creator gives no one a burden she cannot bear or one that does not ultimately improve her or doesn’t testify to her inherent goodness.
He can’t even stand to create a truly evil character. The villains have a cartoonish quality, cut-out understudies for evil, not evil itself. The cigar-puffing black-outfitted Blandois is so farcical a portrait of a villainy I doubt even Dickens’ contemporaries took it seriously. The preposterous incompetence of the bureaucrats in the Circumlocution Office (i.e., the British Treasury) is a lampooning of all red tape ever spilled anywhere. The hapless prisoners of the Marshalsea and the poor residents of Bleeding Heart Yard have their foibles, their sins and blindnesses. The puffed-up rich and powerful are cast from their false pedestals with contempt. Thus does Dickens reveal the common humanity of them all. He hasn’t a need to debase his characters with barbarity or subject them to violence, actual or spiritual. Like a loving father he gently prods them to light, and like wayward children, they obey. As in Little Dorrit herself:
“So diminutive she looked, so fragile and defenceless against the bleak damp weather, flitting along in the shuffling shadow of her charge, that he felt, in his compassion, and in his habit of considering her a child apart from the rest of the rough world, as if he would have been glad to take her up in his arms and carry her to her journey’s end.”
Needless to say, Little Dorrit takes her place in the Dickensian pantheon of shamefully mistreated heroes who eventually triumph. The inevitable happy ending arrives with all the grandeur of a duckling in the rain, Little Dorrit‘s rickety narrative structure a hair’s breadth from collapse.
But you don’t read this book to get to the end. You read it for the endlessly artful sentences and the droll insight into the nature of the human beast. Few contemporary works have this kind of ambition and so appear trivial in comparison.
“The wide stare stared itself out for one while; the Sun went down in a red, green, golden glory; the stars came out in the heavens, and the fire-flies mimicked them in the lower air, as men may feebly imitate the goodness of a better order of beings.”
Such is the task Dickens set himself in Little Dorrit, if not all his works. He did not entirely succeed, but for long stretches he comes admirably close, and where he fails, well, he fails grandly indeed.
* * *
Despite more moaning about eyestrain (“For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around”), I plowed through Little Dorrit, 1024 pages on paper, on the Kindle with no eyestrain or unhandiness. By now I don’t even notice the blinking of a page turn nor the button-pushing.
I have dog-eared hundreds of books with the intention of returning to choice quotes. But since I don’t read with a pen in hand, these remain lost on the page even on those rare occasions when I pick up a book again. That isn’t a problem with the Kindle. Exact quotes are highlighted and stored. A remarkably handy feature that serves as a reminder of why you treasured a fine book in the first place.