Academic |Bodily Prisons: A Look at Illness in Dickens' Littie Dorrit by Sneha Mantri
Little Dorrit is, above all, a novel about prisons. In addition to the literal Marshalsea prison that is home for the Dorrit family in the first half of the novel, we are taken to the Circumlocution Office, a bureaucratic imprisonment of any sort of innovation, and the Clennam house, which Mrs. Clennam never leaves. Dickens is equally interested in psychological prisons. Various characters are imprisoned by their emotional attachment to the past (such as Flora Finching) or their desire for material and social gain (like Fanny Dorrit). These are not literal prisons but prisons of desire. But the most subtle and interesting imprisonment in the novel is neither literal nor psychological but embodied. Dickens turns even illness into a form of imprisonment, through the characters of Maggy and Frederick Dorrit. I would like to suggest that these characters have two major roles in the novel. First, they represent a new way of thinking of illness as imprisonment. Secondly, as foils and shadows for more prominent characters, Maggy and Frederick Dorrit blur the lines between illness and health. In this conference paper, I situate Maggy and Frederick in a tradition of illness narratives, in order to demonstrate the need for a new type of illness narrative: one of the prison.
In order to understand the current dialogue regarding the cultural depiction and construction of illness, I would like to turn to The Wounded Storyteller, a foundational work by sociologist Arthur Frank. Frank lays out three major illness narrative types: restitution, chaos, and quest. To define and elaborate on these, Frank draws on a number of examples, both from sociology and from literature. I want to look at each of these three illness narratives in turn, with an attempt to apply them to Maggy and Frederick Dorrit. In this way, I hope to demonstrate the inadequacy of these three models for capturing the illness experiences Dickens describes.
The restitution narrative is what Arthur Frank calls the “storyline of restoring health” (77). It is complete resolution of illness and return to a prior state of perfect health. The sick person will become, as the popular phrase, as good as new. Restitution narratives abound in Western medicine, from pharmaceutical advertisements to the “quest for the cure” mentality that drives research funding. Restitution is equally the preferred literary narrative, according to Frank. He uses the Book of Job as the archetypal restitution narrative; by the end of his trials, Job’s wealth and family are completely restored to him (Frank 80). Clearly, Maggy and Frederick Dorrit cannot have restitution narratives. There is no expectation in the novel that they will be cured of their respective illnesses and restored to perfect health. Rather, they must continue as they are, indefinitely.
Frank’s second narrative type is the chaos narrative, or as he calls it, the “anti-narrative” (98). To use Frank’s words, chaos narratives are “raw…anxiety-provoking…wounded” (98). Tellingly, however, chaos cannot be narrated; it lies in silent spaces. Indeed, Frank’s examples of chaos narratives are drawn from the inability of many Holocaust victims to tell their stories, as well as amnestic events that dissociate the self from his or her own life. Maggy, in contrast, has a narratable story, a linear tale of her fever and hospitalization. When Amy Dorrit tells Maggy’s story, Maggy is able to recognize herself in the telling. She is far from dissociated; instead, she has a “Little Mother” (Dickens 97) in Amy Dorrit and a defined sense of herself as a whole person. Frederick Dorrit, too, is deeply connected with his family. Despite his immobility, he is responsible, at least in part, for the connection between the Clennam and Dorrit families, as I will discuss in more detail shortly. The chaos narrative, though better than the restitution narrative for understanding Maggy and Frederick Dorrit, does not adequately capture their experience.
Frank’s third and last narrative type is the quest narrative. Drawing on Joseph Campbell’s analysis of archetypal quest tales, as well as John Donne and Freidrich Nietzsche, this is a narrative of an illness as “spiritual journey” (Frank 116). The ill person may not be cured of their illness, but they become involved in the community, as a patient advocate or a force for social change, thus bringing hope to others. This, too, does not adequately explain the roles of Maggy and Frederick Dorrit in the world of Little Dorrit. Neither seems to gain any greater understanding of the self or the world through their illness. As peripheral characters, they cannot create social change. They stand on the edge of the novel's world and are affected by events, rather acting themselves to produce change in the novel.
We see, then, that none of Frank’s three illness narratives, neither restitution, nor chaos, nor quest, captures the experience of Maggy and Frederick Dorrit. Rather, their experiences can be better understood in terms of the overarching themes of the novel itself. Like most of the other characters in Little Dorrit, Maggy and Frederick Dorrit are imprisoned. Their prison arises not from the literal walls of the Marshalsea, nor from the psychological desire for the unattainable. Rather, their prison is their illness. In order to demonstrate this, I now turn to the text of the novel, particularly the descriptions of Maggy and Frederick Dorrit.
We meet Maggy through the eyes of Arthur Clennam, who encounters her just outside the Marshalsea Prison:
She was about eight-and-twenty, with large bones, large features, large feet and hands, large eyes and no hair. Her large eyes were limpid and almost colourless; they seemed to be very little affected by light, and to stand unnaturally still. There was also that attentive listening expression in her face, which is seen in the faces of the blind; but she was not blind, having one tolerably serviceable eye. Her face was not exceedingly ugly, though it was only redeemed from being so by a smile; a good-humoured smile, and pleasant in itself, but rendered pitiable by being constantly there. A great white cap, with a quantity of opaque frilling that was always flapping about, apologised for Maggy's baldness, and made it so very difficult for her old black bonnet to retain its place upon her head, that it held on round her neck like a gipsy's baby. A commission of haberdashers could alone have reported what the rest of her poor dress was made of, but it had a strong general resemblance to seaweed, with here and there a gigantic tea-leaf. Her shawl looked particularly like a tea-leaf after long infusion (Dickens 97).
Maggy’s primary quality, in this description, is of comic relief. Her tolerably serviceable eye, her good-humoured smile, her flapping frilled cap, and her seaweed/tea-leaf clothing is Dickens at his amused best. In this, Maggy is a contrast to Amy Dorrit’s serious demeanor. As presented to the reader, Amy is the ideal Victorian woman; Maggy is merely grotesque. The accompanying illustration reinforces this: Maggy resembles a gargoyle more than a human being. Amy Dorrit, on the hand, is a delicate, almost porcelain figure with a sweet expression of saintliness on her face. Another sharp contrast between the two women is their size. Bones, features, feet and hands, eyes…every physical quality about Maggy appears enormous, at least to Clennam, and thus to the reader. Immediately, then, she is a contrast and foil to Amy, who is repeatedly described as “little.” Yet Maggy’s physical hugeness is deceptive; though she is large, she is also compared to a baby. Dickens thus uses physical descriptors as evidence of mental state. Maggy is, in essence, an overgrown baby.
Dickens draws particular attention to Maggy’s eyes, which “stand unnaturally still.” Maggy’s life, too, stands unnaturally still. When Amy asks this woman of “about eight-and-twenty” to state her age, Maggy reveals that she believes herself to be ten years old. Her mental age seems even younger; Dickens specifically notes that Maggy is barely literate. Maggy, then, has been mentally imprisoned in childhood, even as she has physically grown to adulthood. Again, this is a contrast to Amy, whom Dickens describes as having “all the manner and much of the appearance of a subdued child” (54). Amy demonstrates maturity and wisdom that belie her physical appearance, even mothering her own father. Maggy, on the other hand, displays a curious lack of the adult understanding that should accompany her chronological age.
To resolve the discrepancy between Maggy’s physical appearance and her mental understanding, Amy proceeds to narrate Maggy’s history for her, in a fairy-tale tone that makes it clear that she is telling the tale not for Arthur Clennam’s benefit but for Maggy’s ears. Yet Maggy’s interjections resist Amy’s interpretation of the story. Until this point, Maggy’s words have been mere echoes of Amy’s, turning her into a child-shadow of Amy’s stronger, more mature self. During the narration of Maggy’s history, however, Maggy contributes more information than Amy does. Whereas Amy glosses over the abusive nature of Maggy’s grandmother as “not so kind,” Maggy’s broken “Gin… Broom-handles and pokers” accompanied by physical mimics of alcoholism and beating (Dickens 98), express her situation more eloquently than Amy’s words.
The hospital where Maggy was treated is itself the kind of physical prison that encloses most of the other characters in the novel. As Amy puts it, Maggy “stopped there as long as she could.” The image of stopping, never progressing, is indeed one of imprisonment. Yet for Maggy, the hospital is an “Evnly place” (Dickens 98). She remembers it as a place of delicious foods and drinks—“Such Chicking!” she cries—and implies that her hospitalization was, ironically, the most idyllic moment in her existence. Amy notices this, too, explaining to Arthur than Maggy had “never been at peace before” she entered the hospital. In a sense, the hospital, as a prison, is nevertheless a source of liberation for Maggy from her abusive grandmother.
In order to make sense of Maggy’s history, we cannot use any of Arthur Frank’s narrative types, outlined earlier. There can be no restitution for Maggy, who will be mentally ten years old no matter how much she grows. Her story is not chaotic because it can be narrated in a straightforward, linear way, as Amy Dorrit demonstrates. If anything, the illness seems to have removed her from the chaos of her abusive, alcoholic grandmother. Maggy undergoes no spiritual journey to come to a greater understanding of herself as an agent of change. Instead, illness for Maggy is indeed a sort of imprisonment. The fever has caused Maggy to stop developing at the age of ten. Just as other characters in Little Dorrit have stopped their psychological growth at various key points in their past, Maggy demonstrates a new type of illness narrative, one of imprisonment. Like the characters that are bounded by the physical walls of the Marshalsea, Maggy is stuck with the mental development of a child of ten or possibly even younger.
As soon as the narration of her illness ends, Maggy returns to being merely an echo of Amy. As an active character, she fades as the novel progresses. Although she appears sporadically throughout the second book, she rarely speaks. Instead, Maggy seems to accompany Amy everywhere as a silent witness to turning points in Amy’s life, including Arthur Clennam’s proposal. In her wild joy—weeping, galumphing down the stairs “like a clog-hornpipe,” (Dickens 771) to pass on the knowledge to anyone she meets— Maggy expresses the intense emotions that Dickens cannot depict in calm, sweet, sedate, Victorian Amy Dorrit. Thus, as the novel turns away from Maggy’s story toward Amy’s, Maggy becomes increasingly important only as an outlet for Amy’s emotions. Because her illness has caused her to “stop” at age ten, she is re-imprisoned as Amy’s comic shadow, rather than a character in her own right, with adult forms of agency.
The other character in Little Dorrit whose illness is a source of imprisonment is Frederick Dorrit. Like Maggy, Frederick relates to the other characters primarily through Amy, his niece. Unlike Maggy’s, however, Frederick’s illness is not developmental but degenerative. They thus present two ends of the illness spectrum, one as child and one as elder. Frederick is introduced, in the same chapter as Maggy and again through Arthur Clennam’s perspective, when Arthur visits him in his lodgings just outside the Marshalsea prison:
Turning himself as slowly as he turned in his mind whatever he heard or said, he led the way up the narrow stairs…. The old man mumbling to himself, after some consideration, that Fanny had run away, went to the next room to fetch her back…. The uncle, without appearing to come to any conclusion, shuffled in again, sat down in his chair, and began warming his hands at the fire; not that it was cold, or that he had any waking idea whether it was or not…. When he by-and- by discovered what he was doing, [he] left off, reached over to the chimney-piece, and took his clarionet case down….He discovered, in due time, that it was not the little paper of snuff (which was also on the chimney-piece), put it back again, took down the snuff instead, and solaced himself with a pinch. He was as feeble, spare, and slow in his pinches as in everything else, but a certain little trickling of enjoyment of them played in the poor worn nerves about the corners of his eyes and mouth (Dickens 90).
If Maggy’s appearance was comic, Frederick’s is pitiable. The reason for this difference is that we hear less of Frederick’s “illness narrative,” in a traditional, Frankian sense, than we do of Maggy’s. Certainly, there is no tale of either slow decline or sudden change. Frederick, unlike Maggy, has no narrator. The reader is left with the impression that Frederick Dorrit has always been a stooped, shuffling old man. Unlike Maggy’s clearly delineated, almost fairy tale-like story, Frederick’s narrative is entirely static.
We can piece together something of an illness story based on Mrs. Clennam’s ravings when the Clennam-Dorrit mystery is resolved. Mrs. Clennam accuses Frederick of enabling her husband’s infidelity with one of Frederick’s music students. Essentially, at some point after the incident with Mr. Clennam and the music student, Frederick gave up his music school and became progressively more reclusive. In Mrs. Clennam’s opinion, what she calls Frederick’s “imbecility” is a divine punishment for his deal with “Satan” (Dickens 736-737). To her Puritanical mind, he is metaphorically imprisoned, just as his brother is literally imprisoned.
It is important to note, however, that Mrs. Clennam’s version of the young Frederick Dorrit as a knowing procurer is highly suspect. Her single-minded desire for punishment makes her inherently unreliable. We as readers have no outside corroboration as to Frederick’s true role in the affair between Mr. Clennam and the young singer. We trust Amy Dorrit’s version of Maggy’s illness partly because we trust Amy herself but also because Maggy corroborates the story about her abusive grandmother’s unkindness. Frederick gets no such response to Mrs. Clennam’s ravings.
Because there is no reliable history of illness, the reader must rely almost entirely on the physical description of Frederick. Dickens’ careful description of the old man’s movements provides further reasons why one might think of him as imprisoned by his illness. Based on Dickens’ description, it seems highly likely that Frederick Dorrit suffers from Parkinson’s disease, characterized by tremor, slow movements and shuffling gait. James Parkinson had described the “shaking palsy” in 1817, about thirty years before the publication of Little Dorrit. Whether or not Dickens had read Parkinson’s essay, he has produced here a superb observational description of an individual with parkinsonism. Parkinson’s disease has four major symptoms: tremor, rigidity, akinesia (or lack of movement), and postural instability. The very mnemonic for these characteristics, T-R-A-P, emphasizes that those with Parkinson’s disease are trapped by their illness.
Frederick Dorrit demonstrates classic signs of parkinsonism, from the slow turning in the doorway to the shuffling gait to the weakness of his pinches of snuff. All these contribute to an increasing physical immobility. As a degenerative condition, Parkinson’s disease leads to increasing physical incapacitation. Certainly, Frederick Dorrit is severely physically limited. He appears to spend all his time in the confines of his house, much as his brother spends all his time in the Marshalsea prison next door. Another aspect of Parkinson’s disease is the dementia that often results. Frederick displays an inability to distinguish objects when he mistakes his clarionet case for his snuffbox. Whereas Maggy’s illness was a developmental “stop” that nevertheless did not affect her physical maturation, Frederick’s is a physical degeneration that affects his intellectual abilities.
Like Maggy’s, Frederick Dorrit’s story cannot be explained by any of Arthur Frank’s three illness narratives. He does not experience a restitution to complete physical health. Indeed, the novel refuses to presuppose, except through the ravings of Mrs. Clennam, that he was ever in complete physical health. Similarly, his narrative, though more shadowy and uncertain than Maggy’s, is fundamentally not one of chaos. He plays a central role in the Clennam-Dorrit mystery that lies at the heart of the novel. Frederick is the key link in the highly logical, if somewhat improbable, chain that leads from Arthur Clennam to Amy Dorrit. Lastly, Frank proposes the quest narrative, yet even this does not fit Frederick’s story. Just as with Maggy, Frederick seems to have no sense that he should experience an emotional or spiritual journey through his illness. Instead, he remains a static character throughout the novel, and he is always defined in relation to his nieces and brother. Frederick’s family encapsulates him, in every sense of the word. His mental and physical limitations seem to prevent him from escaping their prisons and journeying anywhere at all, in a metaphorical sense.
In a literal sense, Frederick does accompany his brother’s family to Italy, but he does so in a curiously inevitable way. There is no discussion, no understanding that Frederick might stay in England if he chooses; rather he is carried along by the new Dorrit fortune to Rome. In this, Frederick, like Maggy, is a mere echo, a shadow, of a stronger character. In his case, he is a foil for his brother William. In the early part of the novel, the brothers lead distinct, if intertwined lives. Yet just as Maggy’s independence slowly becomes subsumed into Amy’s shadow, the characters of Frederick and William Dorrit bleed into each other. When the two brothers converse, Frederick repeatedly defers to William’s opinion. William’s speech begins to imitate Frederick’s in its hesitations and stammers. After he leaves the Marshalsea, William Dorrit begins to experience a rapid decline in his own health. The prison, it seems, was a protective shield for him, just as was Maggy’s heavenly hospital. The brothers die within pages of each other, implying that Frederick literally cannot live without William. Thus, Frederick is killed not only by his physical illness but also by his dependence on his brother. To bring the matter full circle, the inheritance that was to have gone to Frederick’s daughter goes, by default, to William’s. Even legally, then, the brothers are interchangeable.
In many ways, the slippage between Frederick and William mimics the shadowing of Maggy by Amy. By positing severely ill characters in such close relation to the healthy, Dickens challenges the traditional line between health and illness. Maggy, the severely mentally retarded overgrown child, is the shadow of Amy, the perfect Victorian woman. Frederick Dorrit’s neurologic hesitations come to bear in William’s stammering speech and eventual death. The characters in these pairs, Amy-Maggy and William-Frederick, complement each other. They are two halves of a common whole. Maggy is able to vocalize joy and fear in a way that Amy cannot without violating standards of propriety, yet Maggy is wholly dependent on Amy for kindness and shelter. Frederick and William, together, provide an inheritance for their common legatee and a resolution to the major mystery in the plot. Neither half is complete without the other.
The final scene of Little Dorrit, the marriage between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit, is one of integration and completion. Most other characters are integrated by the novel’s end, removed from their individual prisons to join in a greater social good. Flora, for instance, redeems herself by “giving up” Arthur to Amy and blessing their marriage. Fanny has entered the high society she craves. Maggy and Frederick Dorrit, however, cannot be integrated. They cannot escape their imprisoning illnesses. Instead, they must remain on the periphery of action throughout the novel. The most they can do is serve as foils to the novel’s more prominent characters, Amy Dorrit and her father. Since Amy and William Dorrit subsume Maggy and Frederick as shadows of themselves, Dickens forces us to reconsider the seemingly distinct division between the society of the healthy and the society of the incurably ill.
In the end, Maggy and Frederick are not individual actors but merely parts of their stronger counterparts. Perhaps this is why they, unlike many of the characters, cannot escape their prisons. Maggy and Frederick fundamentally lack agency. Just as they cannot be liberated from their illness prisons, Maggy and Frederick Dorrit resist interpretation by what Arthur Frank identified as the three major narratives of illness: restitution, chaos, and quest. To understand them, we must posit a fourth type of illness narrative, one of imprisonment and stasis.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. 1857. London: Wordsworth Classics, 1996.
Frank, Arthur. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Sneha is an Editor at The Intima