Writing Center
Fall 2009 Edition

The Fickleness of Justice in Dickens's Little Dorrit

Eric Smith
Argumentative 1010 1st Place
Professor: Dr. Kurt Harris

Dennis Wholey writes, "Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting a bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian" (par 2). Justice, or rather a karmatic sense of justice, can't necessarily be controlled by our actions but they do influence how justice reacts. Sometimes justice acts to protect the oppressed, sometimes it attacks the fraudulent, and sometimes it shows indifference to people. For the most part, justice will seek out those who are in the wrong and those who are being exploited, and it will do its best to bring about reform; however, in some cases, justice does not step in at all. Justice is versatile, it changes over time; complete fairness cannot be entirely achieved for every human being. This is evident in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit. The world Dickens creates is not a society where things happen coincidentally, but one where justice permeates throughout all the characters' lives. Although, to some of the characters' heartache, justice remains ambivalent, in other cases, justice has to intervene in the written community that is set up. It tears down the foundations of the psyche and the accomplishments of some, yet remains ambiguous to many other people's suffering. To the very lucky few, it gives wealth. In the novel, the lives that represent the effects of justice most are Mrs. Clennam, young John Chivery, and Amy Dorrit.

When looking into the gloomy existence of Mrs. Clennam, the effects of her actions are illustrated by the description that Dickens uses: "worn-out," "maimed," and "cripple[d];" she says of herself, "I have lost the use of my limbs...I know nothing of summer and winter, shut up here" (73-74). These phrases suggest her body is decrepit and dying, but if we look into her actions and how she treats other human beings (for example the controlling nature she uses over Jeremiah Flintwich or the cold manner in which she treats her supposed son, Arthur Clennam), the question becomes: is it old age or her heart that has caused this crippling? Is this justice being manifested? While old age may play a part in this wearing of the body, it seems that the greatest strain on Mrs. Clennam is from her conscience. Justice is entangling her in her own guilt and forcing a physical retribution upon her. She stays in her house for over twenty years to cover up the sin of her husband as well as her own sin. She cannot fully bear the fact that Arthur Clennam is not her son due to the "affairs" of her husband, making the transgression more potent to the religiously zealous woman. Her own sin of keeping Amy Dorrit and her family from receiving the inheritance that they rightfully deserve wears on her conscience. The guilt of her transgression pushes her to suppress the truth and also motivates her decision to hide in her house. This remorse is accentuated by her noticeable lack of hygiene described in Little Dorrit: "There was a smell of black dye in the airless room, which the fire had been drawing out of the crape and stuff of the widow's dress for fifteen months" (73). She not only starts to deteriorate in her home but starts to settle into her isolation. This is justice playing upon the mind of Mrs. Clennam to cause angst over these offenses. After all, how many people in the world wear the same clothes for fifteen months and stay in the same relative place for years on end?

However, this habitation is soon ruined upon the arrival of Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit. The constant reminder of the sin of Mr. Clennam begins to occur when Arthur comes back into Mrs. Clennam's life. She also hires Amy as a seamstress, which reminds her of her own wrongdoing of keeping the Dorrit inheritance concealed. The increased companionship of both Arthur and Amy with Mrs. Clennam starts Mrs. Clennam's downfall. She is soon overcome with the grief of her transgression and the thought that justice will finally catch up to her. The events escalate to allow her a final redemption—she tells Amy the sins which she has kept hidden, but the demands of justice still require her absolute downfall: In one swift instant the old house was before them…another thundering sound, and it heaved, surged outward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed, and fell…there, Mrs. Clennam dropped upon the stones; and she never from that hour moved so much as a finger again, or had the power to speak one word. (827)

Mrs. Clennam's payment is not only her mortal body but also everything that she has worked for and tried to build; her house, which was old like herself, collapses and ruins everything that she put value in. Mrs. Clennam is dealt her demise by the hand of justice, even though she shows penance.

In contrast to Mrs. Clennam, in the life of young John Chivery, there seems to be a lack of fairness. He is always dealt the short stick, even in appearance: "Young John was small of stature, with rather weak legs…One of his eyes (perhaps the eye that used to peep through the keyhole) was also weak" (229). John starts off with an imperfect, malformed body. His appearance probably also affects how he interacts with his fellow man and most likely inspires his desire to stay within the boundaries of the Marshalsea Debtor's Prison. He fits in perfectly with the bunch of misfits in the prison and no one criticizes him. The prevalence of the Marshalsea overshadows young John Chivery, and it seems that his fate is the same as that of the place which surrounds him: a life full of disappointment. No matter how hard he works or whatever he does, he remains in the Marshalsea; he remains in his own personal prison. Even though he is from the jailer family and even though he is able to go in and out of town, the Marshalsea Prison consumes his happiness and his opportunity to grow. By the place in which he lives, he is locked in just like another prisoner.

However, John does have a glimmer of hope for happiness: Amy Dorrit. Glyn Hughes, the British novelist, describes John's feelings by stating: "young John waited upon him [William Dorrit]; and it was young John who explained that he did this not on the ground of the prisoner's merits, but because of the merits of another, of one who loved the prisoner [Amy]" (par 94). Amy gives John hope for a decent life, and in return, he desires Amy as a bride. This is his only chance to escape the dreary life of the Marshalsea. Unfortunately, Amy does not feel that kind of love for him, which crushes his dreams and all the aspirations he has had. This locks him in as a self-imprisoned inhabitant of the birdcage which he is in charge of. Justice does not step into John Chivery's life; it does not reward him, nor does it punish him. It simply ignores him. But why would justice leave him to his isolation? Is it that John is being punished for something? Or is it merely that this karmatic justice does not care about him? Young John Chivery's life is filled with inequality and hardships. He needs an intercessory hand, and he gets nothing. He gets passed over again and again. His misfortune increases as the novel goes on. His suffering does not awaken the hand of justice. It may see John's hard luck, but justice does not deem his trials worthy of intervention. After all, John is not at the bottom of the economic chain. He has an occupation. He has a future, however dim it may be. John's trials affect his subconscious; justice cannot rescue John from his own mind. John is plagued with physical and emotional ailments and not economic burdens or moral wrongs. Justice passes over the life of John, deciding that benefitting him would be unnecessary.

Though justice may be cruel or ignore those in need of it, sometimes the system of justice has an extremely beneficial effect. This is seen in the life of Amy Dorrit. At the beginning of Little Dorrit, Amy is at the bottom of the social hierarchy, living in the Marshalsea Prison, but by the end of the novel she is extremely affluent and is able to find true love. How can such a dramatic change come about? One answer is the honesty and integrity of an honorable man. The change in Amy's life begins with the righteous intentions of Arthur Clennam. He aims to help the Dorrit family out of their current destitution by trying to rectify the deeds done by his mother in concealing the acknowledgment of the Dorrit fortune. Due to Arthur's help, the cruel fates that are placed on Amy Dorrit begin to change for the better. However, the amends made to the Dorrits are not always clear, as stated by Amy after she learns the secret sin of Mrs. Clennam: "'My mind is so hurried, and so sorry, and has so much to pity that it has not been able to follow all I have read'" (823). This revelation only happens after the guilt of Mrs. Clennam reaches an overbearing level, causing her to confess not only her sin, but her husband's as well, to Amy. Justice allows Amy to learn the truth, which had kept her in the dark and kept her from receiving an ample life.

Amy is finally allowed to fully enjoy all the aspects of life and to be free from the effect of the Marshalsea Prison. She was given the ultimate satisfaction of justice: true love. The most endearing example of this is the dialogue between Arthur and Amy, "'Does the charm want any words to be said?' asked Arthur…'You can say (if you don't mind) I love you!' answered Little Dorrit" (857). Amy Dorrit is allowed not only to have justice in gaining her state of affluence and to be free from the emotional burden of the Marshalsea, but she is able to find love. Justice smiles on the fate of Amy Dorrit. Justice plays many roles in life. It sometimes entangles people in their own sins, or oftentimes it shows indifference. However, justice can also turn the misfortunes of some into blessings. In Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, a world is created where the spectrum of justice is visible. There are many examples of the fickleness of justice, where it likes to intervene only in its favorite characters' lives. At times, it crashes down; sometimes it disregards. The essence of justice plays differently for every character in Little Dorrit. Mrs. Clennam appears to have it all working out, and then due to her transgressions, her prosperity is torn down right in front of her. Young John Chivery is dealt out hard luck and receives nothing. Amy Dorrit rises from the bottom class of London to the top of the social hierarchy. Justice is fickle in the novel. The characters are forced to play its charades and hope that it acts in their benefit.

Works Cited
Wholey, Dennis. "This is America." ThinkExist. N.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. 1857. London: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
Hughes, Glyn. "Little Dorrit." Squashed Writers. N.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.