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Book Report: Little Dorrit

I think Little Dorrit may be, in some sense, the most sophisticated, clever, well-constructed and rewarding of Charles Dickens’s’s’s novels. It’s not my favorite, which of course is Bleak House. Favorite, though, has a lot to do with things that aren’t in the book itself, as well as my own priority for things other than good construction, sophistication and reward. As a plot fiend, I have to admit that Dorrit leaves something to be desired.

Not that Mr. Dickens skimps on plot, once we get into it. No, the problem is that it takes a while to get into it. Where Bleak House (f’r’ex) has a mystery by the end of Chapter Two and hooks me in Chapter Three, and by the end of Chapter Three has me absolutely entranced, Dorritt doesn’t introduce us to Little Dorritt herself until Chapter Five, and not to the Father of the Marshalsea until Chapter Six. And, in fact, one reason why the Father of the Marshalsea is such a magnificent creation, why the arc of his story packs such a wallop, why his growing monstrosity draws us in and captivates us, is because it starts so slowly. I understand that. And it does work, it works extremely well. In fact, any fan of the other novels who was turned off by the first few chapters would be well-advised to start again and persevere for the eventual reward. You know, there’s this thing that Mr. Dickens does in the first chapter, where he sets the stage, tunes up his verbal orchestra and plays a sort of non-narrative overture. Some of them are magnificent pieces in themselves; the start of A Tale of Two Cities can be enjoyed as an independent short work, although it also provides the reader with some tools for interpreting the opening of the plot in Chapter Two. Still, you could start the book with Chapter Two and not need a synopsis. Bleak House, as well, acts as an overture, but it does lay out some stuff needed to get the rest of the play (although of course Mr. Dickens repeats any important plot point three or four times, for the readers who may have forgotten in since the last number was published). Hard Times has a picture-story Chapter One, short and harsh like the book itself. Martin Chuzzlewit has a ponderously humourous Chapter One, again without appreciable narrative. He doesn’t always do it—Chapter One of Dombey and Son is packed with incident, and introduces half-a-dozen major characters—but often enough the first chapter is a work by itself.

Dorritt starts with Marseilles in the sun, and then has a strange and inconclusive scene of Monsieur Rigaud and JohnBaptist Cavaletto. Then, say, in Chapter Three or Four, we’re wondering whether any more of the book will take place in the sun-baked Marseilles evoked in Chapter One, and whether the first characters we meet are going to be major or minor characters, and in fact whether they will turn up again at all. They do, of course, briefly, as does Marseilles. But we don’t know that. And so, unlike Bleak House’s fog and Two Cities’s’ history lesson, and unlike Chuzzlewit’s mock geneology and unlike Dombey’s straightforward plot, the appetizer doesn’t whet my appetite but dulls it.

Which, perhaps, is on purpose, as Mr. Dickens would just as soon we don’t gobble this one, but savor it. Maybe.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,