It did not occur to me until page 751 that one of Dickens’ subjects in Little Dorrit is the very creation of narrative. Of course in a book this big the author’s got a lot of preoccupations and I wonder if this was even something he was conscious of. Here was the tip-off: Our Hero Arthur Clennam (hardworking, honorable, loyal) was raised by a cruel, harsh mother who justified her life as religiously motivated. All of her hardness and coldness and rigidity was for Jesus. Near the end she miraculously recovers from her paralysis and rushes out to find Little Dorrit. She is disoriented by the street (she’s been shut in for years) and the people she sees out there. Dickens comments on “the want of likeness between the controllable pictures her imagination had often drawn of the life from which she was secluded, and the overwhelming rush of the reality…”
The disparity between the “controllable pictures” and the “rush of the reality.” Ouch. Then I thought about some of the secondary characters like Miss Wade, whose flawed perception of the world has been demonstrated, or Mr. Merdle, whose public persona as The Man of the Age was a fantasy.
But don’t we all create pictures in our imaginations? Don’t we all form our experiences into narratives? Don’t we all craft our personal presentation into the most flattering possible form?
Little Dorrit doesn’t. She is almost entirely un-self-conscious. She just does her duty. The same is true of the more amiable secondary characters like Pancks and the Plornishes. Flora Finching, Arthur’s childhood sweetheart, might straddle the line here. She has invented a magical romantic memory of their long-ago relationship that almost obscures her ability to forge a new one. Dickens is a little kinder to her, though, allowing her to enjoy her rosy dream and also revealing her innate generosity.
I’m not at all sure what’s going on. I don’t quite believe that Dickens is suggesting that the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives are harmful. It’s going to take more thought to work that out. In the meantime I wanted to record the book’s end, one of my all-time favorites. Arthur and Little Dorrit have just been married and stand on the steps of the church portico “looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun’s bright rays, and then went down.
“Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness…. They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and in shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.”