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The gospel of Amy: biblical teaching and learning in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit.

Abstract: This article argues for a revised view of Charles Dickens as a more mature and profound Christian thinker than his reputation has suggested. The author disputes critic Janet Larson's view that Little Dorrit increasingly reflects a "broken scripture," a Bible that has lost meaning in an industrialized world. In contrast, this article argues that the figure of Amy Dorrit is one intended to engage the reader in addressing the moral and ethical concerns of this world, not to present the ominous shadow of a failed apocalypse. Dickens' work represents not a decline in theology, but the development of a new kind of theology.


When intellectuals consider Victorian fiction in the context of serious Christian theology, Charles Dickens may be the writer they think of the least. (1) For one thing, Dickens' fiction has strong sentimentalist tendencies, and sentimentality has often been depicted as the enemy of strict, intellectually rigorous, Christian doctrine. Ann Douglas, for example, claims in her influential 1977 book, The Feminization of American Culture, that the "debased religiosity" of popular nineteenth-century writers and their "sentimental peddling of Christian belief for its nostalgic value" at least in part caused the demise of "the intellectual rigor and imaginative precision" of American theological tradition (Douglas 6-7). To be sure, Douglas' attack is not meant to apply to Dickens, but to the popular women writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner, who dominated the American literary market of the nineteenth century. Her main interest is in nineteenth-century America, of course, and she contends at the beginning of her book that British Victorian culture was more cohesive and untroubled by the cultural polarization that placed the American authors we now hold in high regard, such as Herman Melville, in opposition to the tide of "sentimental" popular culture. She maintains that the mid-nineteenth-century British authors we respect, including Dickens, were, on the other hand, also "admired by their contemporaries" (Douglas 6).

This formulation of the issue does not take into account the history of Dickens' critical reception. Dickens' fiction was deeply engaged with the very sentimentalism that Douglas deplores in the women writers she discusses. Moreover, Dickens' sentimentality did injure his literary standing, and he did have a lowbrow reputation that led intellectuals and critics to describe his religious, moral, and ethical beliefs in vague, even dismissive, terms. This dismissiveness began even during Dickens' own lifetime; for instance, Dickens' contemporary, the writer and critic George Henry Lewes, was appalled to find, when first visiting the novelist early in his career, that his bookshelves were largely empty of "serious" reading matter, such as theology, philosophy, and science. (2) This encounter formed Lewes' essential view of Dickens as an intellectually weak writer, "merely an animal intelligence, i.e., restricted to perceptions" (Lewes 105). Other contemporary critics, mainly upper-class, university-educated men, shared Lewes' conclusion. (3) The assumption soon became general that Dickens' religious thought was well-meaning but theologically weak and inconsistent. In 1903, the French critic Louis Cazamian described Dickens' beliefs as "the philosophy of Christmas," embodying "the best qualities of Dickens' heart and all the limitations of his head" (Cazamian 137), and Humphry House argued in 1941 that Dickens' use of "Christian imagery" was a weakness, a "mask to conceal some inability to control or express his emotion" (House 132). Even as recently as 2000, Robert Garnett stated that "Dickens could not interest himself in any manner of historical, dogmatic or sacramental faith, and he was not ordinarily disposed to question his ... sentimental religion of heaven, angels, and the sweet faces of the dead" (494).

On the other hand, Dickens had a powerful cultural influence on popular Christian belief and practice. Even today, more people probably celebrate the "true meaning of Christmas" on Christmas Eve by reading Dickens' Christmas Carol than by reading the Christmas story from the New Testament, and many commonly practiced English and American Christmas customs derive from the Victorian, Dickens-influenced, understanding of Christmas. Even when one puts the issue of Christmas aside, it is still evident that Dickens had a profound impact on the practice of Christianity in the English speaking world. There is no other fiction writer who so openly influenced such a large audience, no other writer who so consistently used his position as a popular novelist to move his readers toward moral action, while all the time allowing his own theology to remain in the background. This enigma of Dickens' religious faith is unique in Victorian intellectual history. Although many other Victorian public figures, like George Eliot, Thomas Carlyle, Cardinal Newman, and John Stuart Mill, were torn between faith and doubt or involved in controversies among various theological factions, Dickens seems to have remained aloof from such concerns, which is one reason why there has been relatively little critical discussion of his theological views. At the same time, Dickens' novels are suffused with Biblical allusions and, in my opinion, with Biblical teaching--in particular New Testament teaching. Dickens has never been given enough credit for the seriousness of his applied Christianity, as it is exemplified in his fiction.

I. Dickens and the New Testament

On one occasion late in his life, Dickens was roused to defend his religious beliefs in a letter to a reader who objected to an 'irreverent' Biblical reference in The Mystery of Edwin Drood: "I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour. ... But I have never made proclamation of this from the housetops" (qtd. in Vogel ix). (4) This statement contains two important elements, both of which are critical to an understanding of Dickens and his use of the New Testament. First, he refers to the "life" and the "lessons" of Christ. The first word indicates that Dickens saw the message of the New Testament as fundamentally concerned with lessons on how to live daily life. This is an important observation, since many more orthodox understandings of the Bible regard the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ as theological and metaphysical realities which far outweigh Christ's life and deeds in religious importance, and see the New Testament itself primarily as a preparation for an afterlife and a comfort in the face of death. Recognizing Dickens' interest in the active life and ministry of Christ, as opposed to the more obscure theological matters of the Incarnation and Resurrection, also points to the second key word: lessons. This word highlights the fact that Dickens saw the New Testament essentially as a teaching text, which, if understood and followed, would provide the key to a happy and useful worldly existence.

Second, Dickens' statement that he "never made proclamation of this from the housetops," is typical of Dickens' essential reticence about his own religious beliefs. Although he constantly professed a more conventional type of piety in speeches and in his fiction, especially in his earlier novels, he also had a deep distrust of organized Christianity which emerges not only in his life but in his work. The crusading Mrs. Pardiggle and the hypocritical Mr. Chadband in Bleak House are among the many well known Dickensian satires of religion and religious figures. Dissatisfied with the dogmatism and intolerance of both Anglicanism and Evangelicalism, Dickens went through a period in the 1840s in which he became a Unitarian, but eventually drifted back into a kind of nominal "Broad Church" Anglicanism. (5) Moreover, Dickens was "profoundly uninterested in the theology and doctrines of any church ... with no use for any authoritative system of ritual or belief, and with a high confidence in his own ability to understand the plain (to him) meaning of the Gospels" (Garnett 492).

As quoted in his friend John Forster's authorized biography, Dickens' will exhorted his children "humbly to try to guide themselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man's narrow construction of its letter here or there" (859). Similar statements abound in Dickens' letters as well. He wrote virtually identical letters to his sons as they left home, all of which say something like the following:

I put a New Testament among your books, for the very same reasons, and with the very same hopes that made me write an easy account of it for you when you were a little child; because it is the best book that ever was or will be known in the world, and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty can possibly be guided. (Dickens, Selected Letters 168)

This letter, written to his youngest son Edward "Plorn" Bulwer Lytton Dickens, emphasizes the same features that the "housetops" quotation above does: that Dickens was primarily interested in the New Testament as a teaching text, a collection of the "best lessons." The "easy account" to which Dickens refers is his own posthumously published version of the life of Christ called The Life of Our Lord. This work, which calls Jesus Savior because "He did such good, and taught people how to love God," again reasserts both the didacticism and practicality of Dickens' view of the New Testament (33). Its final page presents a vision of Christianity which, despite the fact that it was a private document written for Dickens' own children, has relevance for the novels:

Remember!--It is Christianity TO DO GOOD, always--even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbors as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to show that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. (Dickens, Life of Our Lord 124)

This quotation again emphasizes the essential pragmatism of Dickens' Christianity, as it is defined not by belief but by action--and that action takes place in the living, physical world. Dickens put his faith in the good hearts and good deeds of ordinary people. As Kenneth Sroka has recently suggested,
   Dickens continually depicts the world as intrinsically sacred, a
   creation to be wondered at, not acquired, and witnessed and
   safeguarded by the artistic imagination. In all his novels, human
   life as well as the world of nature and objects ... can rise above
   lifeless "thingness" and become breathing, soulful creatures.
   Similarly the world of spirit is not other-worldly for Dickens but
   inherently this-worldly, wonderful, and miraculous. (185)

Sroka's idea that Dickens' fiction "links worldly and spiritual experience" by bringing readers to a "heightened sacramental consciousness" rightly calls attention to the special role of art (especially literary art) in Dickens' religious philosophy, but it also reinforces my argument that Dickens defined the Christian life as one that lives the ideals of the New Testament in a worldly sphere (Sroka 186).

II. Little Dorrit, the New Testament, and the Critics

Dickens' ambivalence about organized religion has led, inevitably, to critical disagreement about Christian themes in the novels. His vagueness and reticence about his own beliefs seem to invite argument. When Dickens stated in his will, for instance, that he wanted his children to follow the New Testament in its "broad spirit," what does that mean? What parts of the New Testament would he have found to be important? What parts would he have found to be unnecessary? To these three questions, The Life of Our Lord can provide some answers, but it is important to remember that it was written at only one point in Dickens' career, and that his beliefs were in flux throughout his lifetime. The most important critical resource, therefore, will always be the novels themselves, as separate texts, and as a progression of texts, that can reveal something about the evolution of Dickens' views and their impact on his art. Little Dorrit, in particular, has had a prominent role in the development of criticism on this topic, because, as Dennis Walder has stated: "it is in Little Dorrit that Dickens makes his most serious attempt to find a religious 'answer' to life's painful mysteries" (Walder xiii).

The most compelling reason for this interest in the novel is the enigma of its central character, Amy ("Little") Dorrit, and the way that she seems more closely related to the New Testament itself than to the realm of "realistic" Victorian fiction. Lionel Trilling, in his 1953 essay on the novel, wrote that she is "the Paraclete in human form ... the Child of the Parable" (231-32), which refers to the passage in the Gospel of John that promises "another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth" (John 14:16-17). Alexander Welsh has commented that "it was apparently possible for the Victorians, perhaps easier for the Victorians, to confuse the ministrations of this Spirit with the ministrations of heroines" (177). Welsh here refers to a common Victorian cultural icon, that of the female "spirit of love and truth," (also sometimes called "the angel in the house") who embodies all the ideals of the domestic religion and who self-sacrificingly leads her mate and her family into virtue and happiness. Amy Dorrit, however, presents a model which seems to go beyond even that. Dickens not only associates her by description with New Testament texts, he makes her the mouthpiece and the actor of them, so that she is, as Janet Larson has said, the "Ideal embodied in the Actual, a living gospel"(184). In a sense, therefore, the success of Little Dorrit as a "religious" novel depends on the success of Amy as the heroine, and on whether the ideals that she embodies respond to the world of the novel.

Amy seems especially out of place in a novel as troubled, and as dark, as Little Dorrit. The central motif of the book is that of imprisonment. The main characters in the novel, Amy and her family, have been incarcerated for many years in the Marshalsea, the debtor's prison. Midway through the book, they are freed from this humiliation by the discovery that they are heirs to a huge, unclaimed estate, and are now extremely rich. Rapidly transplanted from the dismally enclosed world of the Marshalsea to the mainstream of society, the Dorrits eventually discover the world outside the Marshalsea to be equally as dismal, and equally as enclosed. In a very real sense, this novel seems to begin in a prison and never to get out of it, simply because imprisonment manifests itself in so many ways that to be freed from one prison only means entering another. Characters suffer not only in physical prisons such as the Marshalsea and the Marseilles jail that begins the novel, but also in metaphorical prisons like the Circumlocution Office and the polite society of the Merdles and the Barnacles, psychological prisons such as those of Henry Gowan and Miss Wade, and religious prisons like the rigid Calvinism of Mrs. Clennam.

Many critics have seen Little Dorrit as a critique on the human condition in which this state of imprisonment is opposed by a great liberating principle manifested in the figure of Amy herself. Amy frees herself, and others, from these prisons either by her actual agency or by her example. Some scholars have even stated the opposition between imprisonment and liberation in specifically Scriptural terms, as a contention between the Old Testament and the New. Dennis Walder, for example, has successfully pointed out how many of the imprisoning codes in the novel can be traced back to Old Testament themes. He presents the prison-like "Sunday evening" passage at the beginning of Part I, Chapter 3 in the context of Sabbatarianism, an example of the Old Testament codification that turns the essential goodness of religion into evil. (6) This idolatrous and legalistic Old Testament ethos, represented par excellence by the stern and inflexible Calvinist, Mrs. Clennam, runs contrary to the forgiving, liberating New Testament ethos manifested in Amy Dorrit. Mrs. Clennam has trapped herself "in a rigidly mechanistic conception of sin and guilt so as to 'pay' for withholding the codicil which would have released the Dorrits from servitude" (Walder 188). Little Dorrit, as the representative of New Testament mercy, frees both Arthur and his mother from the prison of their guilt.

Janet Larsons 1985 book Dickens and the Broken Scripture is still the most theoretically sophisticated and comprehensive attempt so far to discuss Dickens' works in terms of their biblical subtexts. She considers Little Dorrit to be a crucial text in that it "seems ... to confess, suppress, and cope with a religious and vocational crisis of the mid-1850s" and calls Little Dorrit herself "Dickens' most successful 'religious' heroine'"(xii). Larson's specific analysis of Little Dorrit, however, in her chapter entitled "The Seer, the Preacher, and the Living Gospel: Vision and Revision in Little Dorrit" states that it is "Dickens' most profoundly divided novel," implying that Dickens is not wholly successful in presenting a religious answer to the painful issues that the novel represents (179). This point of view, of course, relates to the overall critical program of Larsons book, which is to prove that Dickens' Bible, or the version of the Bible that Dickens presents in his novels, is a fractured code, a "broken scripture" that fails to provide an adequate answer to the realities of industrial Victorian England.

Larson sees Little Dorrit as a conflict between two key biblical texts, the book of Ecclesiastes and the book of Revelation:
   The opening chapter, "Sun and Shadow," presents a paradigm of this
   contention and its partial resolution, engaging in dialectical
   interplay two Theorems of the Universe, both biblical, that contend
   for mastery down to the last words of Dickens' text.... Put
   simply, throughout this novel the transcendent anticipations of the
   Seer's "Behold I make all things new" [Revelation] are modified by
   the this-worldly pessimism of the Preacher's "there is no new thing
   under the sun [Ecclesiastes]." (179)

Ecclesiastes, in fact, is for Larson "the primary biblical subtext" of the novel, a subtext which subverts and contradicts its rival text of Revelation (181). So, for Larson, the force of goodness and transcendence as revealed in Little Dorrit, "the bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21:2) does not complete or fulfill (in the Frank Kermode sense of kairos) the pessimism of the Preacher's vision, which revolves around the theme that all of life is meaningless and vain (Kermode 45-51). (7)

Larson defines Amy Dorrit as an essentially apocalyptic figure; to support this conclusion, she cites the appearance of Little Dorrit's monthly cover design, which features "Little Dorrit gliding through the prison door haloed by light as the central emblem (see Rev. 3:20, 4:1), surrounded by visual signs of Britain/Babylon's latter days" (239). Amy is associated not only with the book of Revelation but with the Sermon on the Mount, the Christian "wisdom text" which counters Ecclesiastes. This association works for Larson's argument because she defines the Sermon as Jesus' evocation of the Kingdom of God, and as such an otherworldly text, a kind of "sublime nonsense" that makes no attempt to reconcile with the world's vain Ecclesiastian realities (Larson 265). Revelation also fits into Larson's "sublime nonsense" category because, as it expresses only the hope of future apocalypse and judgment, it doesn't respond to the day-to-day corruption and injustice of this world. This unstable center is what makes the novel, for Larson, so profoundly divided. Amy is the "living gospel," the one hope in the "living grave" of this world, yet she is also an enigmatic figure who somehow fails to adequately counteract the very real social problems depicted in the novel (Dickens LD 194).

Larson's interpretation is useful in its assertion that the novel is structured around the juxtaposition of Ecclesiastian vanity against an evocation of the New Testament in Amy Dorrit. I suggest, however, that the Christian ethos which Amy represents is not necessarily an apocalyptic one. It may also present an ethical and moral vision more responsive to the novel's realities than Larson is willing to admit. Larson concludes that Little Dorrit subverts its New Testament subtexts by failing to realize "the Apocalyptic's yearning for total Presence" (276). Does Little Dorrit ever really expect that kind of total regeneration of a "new heaven and a new earth?" Does the success of Amy's activity as a heroine depend on her ability to bring about the total revision of the world, in the apocalyptic sense?

III. The Gospel of Amy: Another Reading of Little Dorrit

In an 1858 speech at the prize-giving of the Institutional Association of Lancashire and Cheshire, Dickens spoke of the power of the New Testament to inspire the imagination and therefore impel human action in the world:

As the utmost results of the wisdom of men can be at last to help to raise this earth to that condition to which His [Christ's] doctrine, untainted by the blindnesses and passions of men, would have exalted it long ago; so let us always remember that He set us the example of blending the understanding and the imagination, and that, following it ourselves, we tread in His steps, and help our race on to its better and best days. (Dickens Speeches 284-5)

This statement, made slightly after the serial publication of Little Dorrit in 1855-57, again proves my earlier point about the didacticism of Dickens' religious attitudes. With it in mind, we can see the value of looking at the novel through some alternative New Testament texts. Larson attempts to prove that Dickens' Bible is a "broken scripture" which came to have less and less validity for him as a social document. Little Dorrit is a crucial text for her argument, and her almost exclusive use of eschatological New Testament literature (Revelation and the Sermon on the Mount) in her interpretation of the novel supports her conclusion that Little Dorrit's "living gospel" considerably modifies the expectations of these New Testament texts. This conclusion would change if we were to look at Little Dorrit through other New Testament texts which have considerably more relevance to the day-to-day existence of a Christian in a fallen world. We have already seen that although Larson exclusively uses Ecclesiastes as the Old Testament subtext to the novel, Walder has convincingly held that it also evokes the rigidly legalistic Old Testament law books (such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and the prophetic books which threaten the wrath of an angry and vengeful God (Jeremiah). If alternative Old Testament subtexts exist in the novel, it seems likely that alternative New Testament subtexts exist as well. One particularly relevant text is that of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 13. Even though she admits that Paul was "a favorite saint to the Victorians" (29), Larson denigrates this essential scriptural passage as "St. Paul's little sermon on love" (268) and ignores it almost completely in her discussion of Little Dorrit. I contend that this Pauline passage shows how Dickens' vision of Amy Dorrit should be seen as a figure not of apocalypse but of social action.

Unlike Revelation, which is essentially an eschatological text, this chapter in I Corinthians is part of a pastoral letter written to crystallize Jesus' teachings in order to address specific day-to-day issues in the life of the Corinthian church and deals "primarily with ethical and practical questions" (Interpreters Bible 9). This is not to say, of course, that I Corinthians does not express faith in the coming of the eschatological Kingdom of God; to the contrary, Paul even refers to this hope when he greets the people as "waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 1:7-8). The letter itself, however, is very much concerned with the problems of this world, and it is these that the "little sermon" addresses. The church at Corinth apparently was plagued by inner turmoil and dissension, and in this chapter Paul suggests his idea of charity, or love, without which no community can be built. The original Greek word that he uses, agape, was used by the early Christians to refer to the undeserved grace which they had received from God, and responded to by trying to love their fellow men and women in the same way (Interpreter's Bible 166). (8)

What does this mean for Little Dorrit? First of all, it means that it is possible to interpret Amy Dorrit not only in the light of apocalyptic prophecy, but within the more ethical and practical tradition of the pastoral letter. Paul, specifically addressing the problems of this fledgling church, speaks of the value of love in the Christian life. Note that the mood here is "instructive fully as much as lyrical" (Interpreter's Bible 165):

But covet earnestly the best gilts: and yet show I unto you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. (I Cor. 12:31-13:3)

These statements obviously resonate throughout the novel and could apply to several characters and situations. The "tongues of men and of angels" refer to the examples of false eloquence and beautiful outward appearances that mean nothing since they have no true charity to back them up. Mr. Casby, for example, has the outward appearance of a shiningly benevolent figure whose statements are always accepted as "exemplars of both [benevolence and wisdom] that one would have liked to have a copy of" (Dickens, LD 578). Mr. Pancks explicitly defines Casby as a perversion of the New Testament when he reveals Casby's instructions to the people of Bleeding Heart Yard in a recognizable parody of Biblical language: "Keep thou always at it. Let him keep always at it. Keep we or do we keep always at it. Keep ye or do ye or you keep always at it. Let them keep always at it. Here is your benevolent Patriarch of a Casby, and there is his golden rule" (669).

Paul's second statement, regarding the uselessness of prophecy, wisdom, or knowledge without the presence of love could also refer to many characters in the novel. The worldly-wise "wisdom" of the Barnacle/Gowan/Merdle/General school is shown to be purely specious, and of no significance or help in achieving a meaningful existence. Miss Wade's bleak prophecies to Pet and Mrs. Meagles at the end of Book I, Chapter 2, do eventually come true, in a sense, but only because Miss Wade wills them to be so. She knows that Rigaud, "the vilest sweepings of this very town," will come to play a role in Pet's life, but this is because of Miss Wade's own plan for vengeance on Pet, not because Miss Wade has any true powers of "prophecy." An example of false "wisdom" is that of Mrs. General, a supposed "prodigy of piety, learning, virtue, and gentility," whose mind is actually only possessed of "a little circular set of mental grooves or rails, on which she started little trains of other people's opinions, which never overtook one another, and never got anywhere" (Dickens, LD 375, 377).

There is false faith in this novel as well--faith that has no value because it is without love. William Dorrit's placid faith that his daughter will somehow provide for him, without displaying any anxiety about how she does it, is surely not to be taken as an example of virtue. Little Dorrit's father truly "toils not" (Matt. 6:28) but his is a faith without meaning, because it is without love: "All this time he had never once thought of her dress, her shoes, her need of anything. No person on earth, save herself, could have been so unmindful of her wants" (193). And all of this false prophecy, wisdom, and faith profits nothing without love: "If I ... have not charity, it profiteth me nothing" (I Cor. 13:3). Paul's statement is similar to the words of Jesus in the book of Luke: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.... For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?" (Luke 9: 23, 25). For Paul, clearly, charity was a necessary aspect of following the way of Christ, and his language in Corinthians, with its key use of the word "profit," echoes Ecclesiastes: "vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?" (Eccl. 1:2-3). St. Paul's answer to this question is: without love, nothing. This New Testament text responds more clearly than Revelation to the questions raised in Ecclesiastes, Larson's "dominant subtext" of Little Dorrit, and therefore plainly presents the key to any kind of balanced interpretation of the novel's engagement with the Bible.

The most important relationship between the "little sermon" and Little Dorrit, however, is the analogy that is drawn in the novel between Amy Dorrit and the Pauline definition of love. This analogy is possible first because of Amy's own name, which is derived from the French verb aimer, to love. Dickens often uses the names of characters significantly; one of the many examples in Little Dorrit is Jeremiah Flintwich, whose first name evokes the Old Testament vengeance ethic of his associate Mrs. Clennam, and second name the flintlike hardness of his heart. Like Flintwich, Little Dorrit exemplifies her biblical text not only in name but in action:

Charity [love] suffereth long and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (I Cor. 13:4-7)

Little Dorrit, clearly, embodies many of these virtues. She suffers throughout all the years of the Marshalsea, becoming a "fountain of love and fidelity" to her family and to others about her, like the mentally disabled and penniless Maggy and the destitute old pensioner, Nandy (192). She "envieth not," desiring to be "ever as good a friend as I can" to Pet Meagles, even though she knows that Arthur Clennam, the object of her adoration, apparently loves the other woman (391). Her lack of pride and self importance manifests itself in her shyness and timidity; she glides like a silent shadow from place to place, refusing even to assert her own name. That she is not self-seeking is shown by her determination to support and advance her loved ones at the expense of her peace of mind: she is "the head of the fallen family; and [bears], in her heart, its anxieties and shames" (160). She also, at the end of the novel, refuses to take advantage of the money that has been kept from her by Mrs. Clennam, burning the damning codicil before her marriage in order to save the pride and peace of mind of her humbled and contrite mother-in-law.

Robert Garnett has asserted that Dickens' heroines represent his "true religion"--a faith that is misdirected away from traditional religion and is directed at "the adoration of a feminine ideal based on Mary Hogarth ... She became for him the model of affectionate sisterly (or daughterly) love, sweetness of temper, unwavering loyalty, domestic order, quiet moral strength, cheerful self-denial, and absolute purity. This feminine ideal--not the mysteries of Christianity--was the religion that genuinely moved Dickens" (Garnett 495). (9) He fails to recognize, however, how Amy Dorrit, one of these heroines, is not a feminine ideal gleaned from Victorian conduct books, but from Biblical texts and ideas. In her refusal to take revenge, Little Dorrit self-consciously becomes a "living gospel"; she both articulates and acts in a manner which exemplifies her biblical subtexts. To borrow the words of St. Paul, she "shows" a "more excellent way" (I Cor. 12:31), and this same biblical didacticism holds true for almost all of her other actions in the novel. We have already seen that these actions make Amy an evocation of New Testament love; this love is constantly held out as an example for the other characters in the novel and therefore, also implicitly for us as readers. Mr. Meagles, for example, uses her example to teach his bitter and resentful maidservant Tattycoram:
   If she [Little Dorrit] had constantly thought of herself, and
   settled with herself that everybody visited this place upon her,
   turned it against her, and cast it at her, she would have led an
   irritable and probably a useless existence. Yet you have heard
   tell, Tattycoram, that her young life has been one of active
   resignation, goodness, and noble service. (677)

Although Mr. Meagles' sanctimonious moralizing is somewhat annoying, this passage does serve one important function--to highlight Amy's role as an active "teacher" of New Testament themes, not just a passive vehicle for biblical allusions.

Amy Dorrit's role of teacher means that this is not a matter of duelling Biblical passages--Revelation vs. I Corinthians--but of the conveyance of general Christian teaching. The purpose of the pastoral letter was to summarize and "teach" the message of Jesus' teachings, just as Amy's words and actions teach the other characters in Little Dorrit, so that she comes to represent the teachings of the New Testament more generally, rather than a specific Biblical passage. In the scene where Amy forgives Mrs. Clennam, the scene in which she most perfectly exemplifies her New Testament subtext, she herself articulates her role as teacher:
   "O, Mrs. Clennam, Mrs. Clennam," said Little Dorrit, "angry
   feelings and unforgiving deeds are no comfort and no guide to you
   and me. My life has been passed in this poor prison, and my
   teaching has been very defective; but let me implore you to
   remember later and better days. Be guided by the healer of the
   sick, the raiser of the dead, the friend of all who were afflicted
   and forlorn, the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for
   our infirmities. We cannot but be right if we put all the rest
   away, and do everything in remembrance of Him." (660-61)

When Amy says in the above passage, however, that her "teaching has been defective," that statement can be read in two ways, one of which maybe ironic. Since she says later on in the passage that her major source of inspiration and instruction has been the New Testament itself, and this example has had such a positive moral effect on her character, her "teaching" (in the sense of her being taught) has clearly not been defective; rather, her statement can be taken as an example of her humility. The second possible interpretation of the ambiguous "teaching," though, is more problematic. Has Little Dorrit been as successful in teaching others as she is in teaching herself? She has been able to help and to achieve a change of heart in a few people, like Mrs. Clennam, and is held up as an example by other characters, but has not succeeded in making any significant material changes in her world.

What I find most interesting about Amy Dorrit's role as a teacher, however, is the way that it seems to be more addressed to the reader than it is to the other characters. The literary theorist Wolfgang Iser has stated that "the convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence," and this issue of reader participation is crucial to a writer like Dickens, who enjoyed, and still enjoys, an affectionate and intimate relationship with his readers (Iser 50). Janet Larson also contends that Dickens' biblical allusions were largely directed to his readers, but refers to this kind of reader-directed allusion as the "unimaginative phase of Dickens' style," in which "the Bible and the Prayer Book become repositories of cliches from which to draw and to evoke automatic reactions for certain kinds of novelistic occasions, such as ... the exaltation of the heroine's virtues" (6).

Larson also says that these allusions "call on the reader to do no creative work," a statement with which I have to disagree (Larson 7). Much as Jennifer Gribble has identified that the Good Samaritan parable "provides interpretive clues to ... Hard Times [by linking] the oppositional discourses of Christian altruism and market-driven utilitarian self-interest with the parable's narrative of redemptive love" (428), I argue that Dickens' biblical allusions are essential to understanding Little Dorrit. A close look at the way the novel engages the reader reveals that Dickens' use of Amy Dorrit as an evocation of Christian love is far from complacent, but is in fact a direct challenge to the reader. Near the beginning of the novel, for example, when the narrator describes Amy's history as the Child of the Marshalsea, he openly includes both the reader and himself in a "we" that seems to refer to Amy's true audience:
   It is enough that she was inspired to be something that was not
   what the rest [of the Dorrit family] were, and to be that something
   different and laborious, for the sake of the rest. Inspired? Yes.
   Shall we speak of the inspiration of a poet or a priest, and not of
   the heart impelled by love and self-devotion to the lowliest work
   in the lowliest way of life! (39, emphasis added)

Even though this is the only time that the reader is addressed directly, the narrator often speaks of Amy in a rhetorical, clearly reader-directed tone. After relating an episode in which Amy comforts her father, the narrator says: "There was a classical daughter once--perhaps--who ministered to her father in prison as her father had ministered to her. Little Dorrit, though of unheroic modern stock, and mere English, did much more ..." (192). Though I am sure that this type of effusion was, and is, accepted complacently by unimaginative readers, I contend that a truly imaginative reader, a reader "of unheroic modern stock" who puts him or herself within the world of the novel and attempts to visualize his or her own responses to the situations with which Amy is faced, cannot be unchallenged by it.

Larson maintains that Amy's failure as a figure of apocalypse, the fact that she has not succeeded in creating "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21:1), betrays her inadequacy as a heroine. This brings us back to the issue of whether Dickens has raised any sweeping, eschatological, expectations in this novel. In Amy Dorrit, Dickens has created a character who exemplifies as much as is humanly possible the New Testament ideal of love. This love is not eschatological; it is real, practical, and earthbound. When Amy and Arthur Clennam marry at the end of the novel, the narrator describes them as going "down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness" (688). Amy Dorrit does not bring "a new heaven and a new earth" but the acceptance of a life contained within the three parish registers that she is associated with at the end of the book: the birth register, the marriage register, and the burial register.

However, this ending is not so much that of the bleak vision of Ecclesiastes, which sees all of human life as meaningless vanity, but that of the provisional message of Paul's letter which addresses specific problems and provides a guide meant for a time when "that which is perfect" is not yet come (I Cor. 13: 10). This "perfect" time is still anticipated at the end of the book when, as Amy and Arthur prepare to descend the church steps, they see a "fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning's bright rays" (688). Since this same street is later described as "roaring" and "noisy and eager," the original perspective that Amy and Arthur see is not that of the real street, but the street of the "perfect" vision which is beyond their power to create. They are still "blessed," however, because they have at least partially succeeded, in Trilling's terms, in "transcending the personal will" (231) to a higher good in which the love that "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" is the one sanctification of a prison world. Amy and Arthur must, it is clear, replace the otherworldliness of the "perfect" with the hardworking realities of the imperfect: going "down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness" (688). This ending is in a sense even more "biblical" than an apocalyptic ending would have been, since it involves the reader in a direct challenge to live the same kind of life that Amy and Arthur accept at the end of the novel, in much the same way that Paul's letter proposes "a more excellent way" to the Corinthians. The figure of Amy Dorrit is one intended to engage the reader in addressing the moral and ethical concerns of this world, not present the ominous shadow of a failed apocalypse. If Little Dorrit is meant to evoke the biblical promise of a Paraclete, as Trilling suggests, she is a Paraclete who is more concerned with life in the world than out of it--a fully domesticated Holy Spirit.

One of the things that Dickens satirized so bitterly about Mrs. Clennam's type of Calvinism was its otherworldliness, its willingness to accept the injustices of this world in its concentration on the next. The theology of Dickens is in direct contrast to this otherworldliness. Some critics may lament the demise of an abstract theology's "intellectual rigor" (Douglas 7), but Dickens' Christianity, with its emphasis on feelings and on action as opposed to abstract thought, presents a different kind of rigor, an insistence "that religion [is] valid only when put into action" (Jahn 367-68). Dickens' world was one in which new technologies made it increasingly easy for people to isolate themselves from the misery of others, and his works directly responded to this isolation by challenging his readers. In his funeral sermon for Dickens, Dean Arthur Stanley celebrated this moral quality in the writer's work:

By him that veil was rent asunder which parts the various classes of society. Through his genius the rich man ... was made to see and feel the presence of the Lazarus at his gate. The unhappy inmates of the workhouse, the neglected children in the dens and caves of our great cities ... far from the observation of men ... had been, it may be sometimes, in exaggerated forms, made to stand and speak before those who hardly dreamed of their existence. (Stanley)

Dickens' work, therefore, represents not a decline in theology, but the development of a new kind of theology--a theology, I would suggest, that both was and is better suited to an urbanized and industrialized world.

University of Wisconsin-Parkside


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Collins, Philip. Dickens: Interviews and Recollections, Vol. I. London: Macmillan, 1981.

--. Dickens: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes 8c Noble, 1971. Dickens, Charles. The Life of Our Lord. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1934.

--. Little Dorrit. Ed. Harvey Peter Sucksmith. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

--. Selected Letters. Ed. David Paroissien. London: Macmillan, 1985.

--. Speeches. Ed. K. J. Fielding. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1960.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. Ed. J.W.T. Ley. London: Whitefriars, 1928.

Garnett, Robert. "Oliver Twist's Nancy: The Angel in Chains." Religion and the Arts 4.4 (2000): 491-516.

Gribble, Jennifer. "Why the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist: Dickens' Parable for Hard Times." Literature and Theology 18.4 (2004): 427-41.

House, Humphry. The Dickens World. London: Oxford UP, 1942.

The Interpreters Bible, Vol. 10. New York: Abingdon Cokesbury P, 1953.

Iser, Wofgang. "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach." Reader Response Criticism. Ed. Jane Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Jahn, Karen. "Fit to Survive: Christian Ethics in Bleak House!' Studies in the Novel 18(1986), 367-79.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.

Larson, Janet. Dickens and the Broken Scripture. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

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Sroka, Kenneth. "The Death of Spirit and the Failure of Art in Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop!' Religion and the Arts 4.2 (2000): 184-216.

Stanley, Arthur. "Sermon in Westminster Abbey." Project Canterbury: Documenting Anglican History Online, n.d. Web. August 1,2012.

Stephen, Fitzjames. "Mr. Dickens as a Politician." Saturday Review of Politics, Science, and Literature. 3 (1857): 9.

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Vogel, Jane. Allegory in Dickens. Montgomery: U of Alabama P, 1977.

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(1) For example, Robert Garnett's comment that "Dickens does not often figure prominently in discussions of Victorian religious literature" (Garnett 491).

(2) This incident is described in Philip Collins, Dickens: Interviews and Recollections, vol. I.

(3) Fitzjames Stephen, for example, complained that Dickens was "utterly destitute of solid acquirements." (Fitzjames Stephen was a lawyer, a part time journalist for the Saturday Review, and of course the brother of Leslie Stephen and uncle of Virginia Woolf.)

(4) Critic Jane Vogel explains that Dickens reacted to a critical reader (John M. Makeham) who found an allusion in Edwin Drood to be "irreverent."

(5) Dickens' religious vacillations are detailed by Dennis Walder in Dickens and Religion. Walder concludes that Dickens' religion was "personal, and modest" (208).

(6) Sabbatarianism was a movement by the more conservative religious groups to legally enforce the gloomy Calvinist Sunday. In April 1855 (around the same time that Little Dorrit was written) a bill was introduced to the House of Commons which would have regulated Sunday trading. This bill was withdrawn due to public outcry. The following summer, however, the Sabbatarians succeeded in stopping Sunday military band performances in Kensington Gardens. Some early reviewers of Little Dorrit from the conservative end of the religious spectrum recognized and condemned this passage while liberal reviewers praised it. See Walder, 176-78.

(7) In his book The Sense of an Ending, Kermode discusses the difference between chronos and kairos: "waiting" time and meaningful apocalyptic time.

(8) The Greek agape is translated into Latin as caritas, a word which the King James Version of the Bible retains as charity. For my biblical quotations, I quote from the Authorized (King James) Version in this article because it is the one with which Dickens would have been most familiar. I agree with the editors of the Interpreter's Bible, however, when they say that charity should be understood as love.

(9) Garnett here refers to Dickens' young sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who died suddenly and unexpectedly while living with the newly wed Charles and Catherine Dickens. All Dickens biographers and scholars agree that this event was a devastating emotional crisis for the young author, and influenced his portrayals of young heroines like Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist and Little Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop.
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Author:Lenard, Mary
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Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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