Laurel Ann Nattress
Public Broadcasting Service
, March 2009
Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit is a fable for our times. Originally published as a serial novel between 1855 and 1857, it could be inspired by the headlines of today’s economic crisis. It is all about money—how society and government deal with its abundance and shortcomings—and the effect on the individual. If you think we should be more socially evolved since this tale appeared one hundred and fifty years ago, think again. Sadly, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Too true!
In comparing the story of Little Dorrit to our current economic woes, we can look to the spirit of the individual for salvation. Charles Dickens is renowned for his characterizations and again he presents us with a few positive characters surrounded by a generous array of souls representing the folly and vices that plague humanity: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Yep! Those famous seven deadly sins hell bent on ruining our lives (and all our fun) in the eyes of society. It is the stuff that best sellers are still made of…When Dickens embarked on his eleventh novel, he was an established ’best selling’ author of his day motivated to expose the current crippling bureaucracy and social injustices that were plaguing Britain in the 1850s. As with his other stories, he draws heavily from his own life experiences as a child. Little Dorrit is a huge, sprawling story set in the 1820s England where the penalty for financial insolvency is imprisonment, a topic very close to his heart since his own family (like the Dorrit’s) were imprisoned at Marshalsea prison for debt. The novel totals over 750 pages in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, and I must confess to being more than a bit intimidated by its size when it landed on my doorstep. In preparation for the Masterpiece Classic presentation, I chose instead to listen to a 35 hour audio book (which was still a monumental, but enjoyable endeavour) and found an excellent unabridged edition from Naxos read by Anton Lesser…Though Dickens’ pen dwells on guilty and misery like no other can, this fable is also about facing temptations and what we do with them. How we are emotionally and financially in debt to society and our families from the day we are born. How honor and virtue can save us. Oh my! This is sounding like a sermon. Dickens would approve. He was a strong social activist, using his novels as a sounding board to reach the public and rally change. So, as we look closely at Dickens tale of temptation and avarice…and are painfully reminded that Ponzi schemes and bankruptcies are as old as the ages, it is reassuring to know that Little Dorrit does have a happy ending. It is about hope, love and renewal of the individual spirit and society. While some will continue to think “a large income is the best recipe for happiness” I will look beyond the power of pewter and believe “money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give.”