As this analysis of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens seeks to explore, it is of the persistent preoccupations in Charles Dickens’s novels is the careful and detailed study of the social problems that troubled 19th century England. Little Dorrit is no exception, and it is in this novel that Dickens explores the dark and, curiously, light sides of the criminal justice system by locating much of the action in this Dickens novel within the Marshalsea Prison. Beyond serving as the obvious symbol of failed or corrupted justice, however, a deeper analysis of the Marshalsea Prison both as an object and as a symbol can help the reader learn how to enter the complicated world of this Dickens novel in order to understand how other spaces, both physical and psychological, function. Dickens suggests that all institutions and spaces, no matter how dysfunctional, serve a certain social purpose within the larger notions of society while also functioning on a small level in terms of community and family. While Dickens does not advocate imprisonment as a means of social control, he acknowledges that the prisoners and staff of the Marshalsea accept their conditions and are therefore capable of adapting to their harsh circumstances. In fact, compared to the other communities and institutions portrayed in the novel, the Marshalsea functions best. The Marshalsea, then, becomes the paradoxical symbol of human triumph over external conditions.
The reader is introduced to the Marshalsea Prison in Chapter VI. The prison itself is an imposing physical structure, described by the narrator in one of the important quotes from Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens as “an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses…so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked top…a close and confined prison….” (Dickens 72). In short, the Marshalsea, like any other prison, is not intended to be comfortable or aesthetically pleasing for its captives or for those who view it from the outside, for that matter. Rather, it is meant to be stark, spare, and foreboding; a stay at the Marshalsea should serve as a deterrent for recidivism among the debtors who are fortunate enough to be released and the imposing structure itself should serve as a grim reminder of the penalties of violations against society. Within the dulling atmosphere of this typical prison, however, there is a surprising range of character types and possibilities for meaningful relationships. There is, in many ways predictably, the cadre of inept administrators and incompetent paper-pushers. Men from “some Office” would appear “to go through some form of overlooking something, which neither he nor anybody else knew anything about…neatly epitomizing the administration of most of the public affairs in our right little, tight little, island” (Dickens 73).
This observation foreshadows the character types the reader will meet in the Circumlocution Office, where ineptitude and the capacity for bumbling along in a rather stiff way seems to be a job requirement. At the same time, however, there are Marshalsea guards who are friendly and even compassionate, which might offers some readers a different image of such guards than might be expected in such a foreboding setting. In fact, instead of having a set power structure, there is a sense of community and many of the inhabitants at Marshalsea Prison are more like family than anything else. Over the years, for instance, Mr. Dorrit and the turnkey become quite close, and before he dies, Mr. Dorrit is declared by the turnkey to be the “Father of the Marshalsea” (Dickens 80), a title that Dorrit assumes with unexpected pride and sobriety. Between these two extremes, there are also other characters who inhabit the prison and serve as representatives of the various types of people one encounters in society. There is the Dickens character of the doctor, for example, who is “amazingly shabby” (Dickens 76). When the reader first meets him, the doctor is in a “positive degree of hoarseness, puffiness, red-facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt, and brandy” (Dickens 76). There are also those characters who appear to be wholly dependent upon the prison, and who need to feel part of its strange community, particularly those who are inmates. For example, one inmate is described as having “broke[n] into prison with as much pains as other men have broken out of it” (Dickens 449) which indicates there is something about the control of the structure itself that lends itself to being viewed as something safe or stable in this area.
Another example of this would be how the doctor, too, seems to feel at home as if among family or a community when in the prison. He comments to Mr. Dorrit in one of the important quotes from “Little Dorrit” by Dickens that all he wants is “A little more elbow room,” and he expounds upon the benefits of their incarceration and the prison environment: “We are quiet here; we don’t get badgered here… It’s freedom, sir, it’s freedom!….Elsewhere, people are restless, worried, hurried about, anxious respecting one thing, anxious respecting another. Nothing of the kind here, sir” (Dickens 78-79). Quite paradoxically, the doctor concludes by proclaiming, “[W]e have got to the bottom, we can’t fall, and what have we found? Peace” (Dickens 78-79). Mr. Dorrit recognizes that he actually agrees with the doctor, acknowledging that while he was “[c]rushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it” (Dickens 79).
There is a certain sense of family and community that develops at the Marshalsea. Although the Marhsalsea Prison is an artificially constructed community and its inhabitants might not have chosen to live together or associate with one another under normal circumstances, they recognize that their time there will be more bearable if they simulate a functioning community as much as possible. Therefore, interestingly, there is the sense that in some ways this prison as a structure serves a higher function or purpose and may even live up to its mission of rehabilitating society in the sense that it forces the creation of these communities. It is also worth noting that, to that end, most characters strive to play a certain role and to develop cordial relationships. In fact, on multiple occasions the narrator observes that the inhabitants of the Marhsalsea Prison form a kind of ragtag family. The birth of Little Dorrit, for example, provides a reason for people to come together much in the same way a nuclear family gathers at a new birth or life-changing event.
Everyone cares of the Dorrits’ baby, the narrator reports in one of the important quotes from Little Dorritby Charles Dickens explains “and [they] claimed a kind of proprietorship in her” (Dickens 79). Little Dorrit spends her childhood in prison, where the “iron bars of the inner gateway [signified] ‘Home’” (Dickens 84). It would not be accurate, of course, to argue that the prison society is a completely functional one, and Little Dorrit herself provides the best example to refute such an argument. Because she was born within the confines of the Marshalsea and had never been beyond its walls, she could not imagine what the outside world was like and is, in many ways, part of the prison in that she reflects both the positive and negative aspects of the community that has arisen, not to mention the structure itself. In a conversation explained with the turnkey, they talk about fields and Little Dorrit asks, “‘Does anybody open and shut them? Are they locked?’” (Dickens 84). Little Dorrit has no frame of reference for knowing what a field is or knowing that the outside world does not operate exactly as the prison society.
Or does it? As the reader encounters the other communities and institutions in this Dickens novel, he or she sees how each is a replica, in one way or another, of the prison whether it is in the context of community, family, or more generally speaking society at large. While those other institutions and communities may not have bars and locks and overseers, they share many of the same negative characteristics as Marshalsea and are as psychologically limiting as a prison. The Circumlocution Office, for instance, has more than its fair share of incompetent administrators and draconian regulations that no one can explain. For its part, Bleeding Heart Yard is described in the same terms as a prison might be.
The inhabitants of this poor community are described by the narrator as “inmates” (Dickens 150) and share many similarities with the residents and workers at the prison. It is also worth pointing out that the choice of the particular word “inmates” alludes that the inhabitants of this one-time “aspiring city” have no choice as to whether they wish to stay or leave (Dickens 150) and are all under the thumb of some unnamed ruler or law-giver who has the power to decide the fate and outcomes of those in this setting. All of the institutions and communities described by Dickens are, in their own way, incredibly oppressive. In a certain sense, then, the community in Marshalsea is perhaps more functional than the other institutions and communities that are portrayed in Little Dorrit. Dickens was deeply concerned about social problems and wrote extensively about them in his novels. In Little Dorrit, set as it is in a prison, the reader might expect that Dickens would condemn the institution completely. While Dickens was no advocate of imprisonment, he clearly acknowledges that most institutions have limiting, restrictive qualities that oppress its inhabitants. It is how the inhabitants respond to the limitations of the institution that defines just how confining their experiences and relationships will be.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Character Complexity in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. New York: Penguin, 1998.