Charles Dickens' 'Little Dorrit': Compassion even toward Mr. Merdle—a swindler like Wall Street's Bernard Madoff

image image In his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov said, “If it were possible I would like to devote the fifty minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens.” Exactly. Go download some Dickens and bathe in the River Charles. Along the way you might even meet Bernard Madoff, the disgraced Wall Street swindler (left photo)---well, in the person of "Mr. Merdle," a character in Dickens' novel Little Dorrit. It's available for free in E from Feedbooks and Manybooks, and you can buy it on paper from Amazon and elsewhere. Possibly the kindest and most humane of all writers, Dickens just can’t help doing full verbose justice to every sentence in Little Dorrit. And why not, when the result is this:

“Nobody knew that the Merdle of such high renown had ever done any good to any one, alive or dead, or to any earthly thing; nobody knew that he had any capacity or utterance of any sort in him, which had ever thrown, for any creature, the feeblest farthing-candle ray of light on any path of duty or diversion, pain or pleasure, toil or rest, fact or fancy, among the multiplicity of paths in the labyrinth trodden by the sons of Adam; nobody had the smallest reason for supposing the clay of which this object of worship was made, to be other than the commonest clay, with as clogged a wick smouldering inside of it as ever kept an image of humanity from tumbling to pieces. All people knew (or thought they knew) that he had made himself immensely rich; and, for that reason alone, prostrated themselves before him, more degradedly and less excusably than the darkest savage creeps out of his hole in the ground to propitiate, in some log or reptile, the Deity of his benighted soul.”

All right, so that was two sentences; but they nicely illustrate Little Dorrit’s twin virtues: art and social commentary. Today’s Madoff is merely Merdle reborn,  at least almost. Merdle commits suicide, while his present-day counterpart cringes in a mansion hoping for parole. What a demonstration of the chasm between Dicken’s artistic temperament and the real world’s shabby realities! Of course, Dickens is under no illusions that justice will prevail:

“’I hope,’ said Arthur, ‘that he and his dupes may be a warning to people not to have so much done with them again.’

‘My dear Mr Clennam,’ returned Ferdinand, laughing, ‘have you really such a verdant hope? The next man who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling, will succeed as well. Pardon me, but I think you really have no idea how the human bees will swarm to the beating of any old tin kettle; in that fact lies the complete manual of governing them.’”

But Little Dorrit is no mere morality tale. Dickens is too big-hearted to be a scold. In fact, he loves his characters so exquisitely he can’t let the bad world happen to them. Oh, they undergo various trials and predicaments. Some even die. But Dickens the Kind Creator gives no one a burden she cannot bear or one that does not ultimately improve her or doesn’t testify to her inherent goodness.

He can’t even stand to create a truly evil character. The villains have a cartoonish quality, cut-out understudies for evil, not evil itself. The cigar-puffing black-outfitted Blandois is so farcical a portrait of a villainy I doubt even Dickens’ contemporaries took it seriously. The preposterous incompetence of the bureaucrats in the Circumlocution Office (i.e., the British Treasury) is a lampooning of all red tape ever spilled anywhere. The hapless prisoners of the Marshalsea and the poor residents of Bleeding Heart Yard have their foibles, their sins and blindnesses. The puffed-up rich and powerful are cast from their false pedestals with contempt. Thus does Dickens reveal the common humanity of them all. He hasn’t a need to debase his characters with barbarity or subject them to violence, actual or spiritual. Like a loving father he gently prods them to light, and like wayward children, they obey. As in Little Dorrit herself:

“So diminutive she looked, so fragile and defenceless against the bleak damp weather, flitting along in the shuffling shadow of her charge, that he felt, in his compassion, and in his habit of considering her a child apart from the rest of the rough world, as if he would have been glad to take her up in his arms and carry her to her journey’s end.”

Needless to say, Little Dorrit takes her place in the Dickensian pantheon of shamefully mistreated heroes who eventually triumph. The inevitable happy ending arrives with all the grandeur of a duckling in the rain, Little Dorrit‘s rickety narrative structure a hair’s breadth from collapse.

But you don’t read this book to get to the end. You read it for the endlessly artful sentences and the droll insight into the nature of the human beast. Few contemporary works have this kind of ambition and so appear trivial in comparison.

“The wide stare stared itself out for one while; the Sun went down in a red, green, golden glory; the stars came out in the heavens, and the fire-flies mimicked them in the lower air, as men may feebly imitate the goodness of a better order of beings.”

Such is the task Dickens set himself in Little Dorrit, if not all his works. He did not entirely succeed, but for long stretches he comes admirably close, and where he fails, well, he fails grandly indeed.

* * *

Despite more moaning about eyestrain (“For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around”), I plowed through Little Dorrit, 1024 pages on paper, on the Kindle with no eyestrain or unhandiness. By now I don’t even notice the blinking of a page turn nor the button-pushing.

I have dog-eared hundreds of books with the intention of returning to choice quotes. But since I don’t read with a pen in hand, these remain lost on the page even on those rare occasions when I pick up a book again. That isn’t a problem with the Kindle. Exact quotes are highlighted and stored. A remarkably handy feature that serves as a reminder of why you treasured a fine book in the first place.

10 Comments on Charles Dickens' 'Little Dorrit': Compassion even toward Mr. Merdle—a swindler like Wall Street's Bernard Madoff

  1. Well, done, Court—and so timely! I hope other TeleBlog readers will submit reviews of classics and use a similar in-the-news approach if possible.

    People don’t just read us for news and views. They also want to learn. You helped the cause.


  2. Damn, that really annoys me, Court. I have had all of Dickens’s tales for many years and still I haven’t read them all. My novel shortcomings are all too apparent when people such as yourself highlight their fictional armory!

    My favourite author … but I don’t think I could ever contemplate reading him in ebook form. Sorry, Telereaders!

  3. So, Chris, what’ll it take for you to read Dickens in E? Enlighten us. Meanwhile thanks for your candor!


  4. Garson O'Toole // February 21, 2009 at 3:37 am //

    Court Merrigan quotes Dickens “Nobody knew that the Merdle of such high renown had ever done any good to any one, alive or dead, or to any earthly thing …” The parallel with Bernard Madoff is imperfect because he and his family did give generously to at least one charity, and this apparent munificence was known to others.

    The Madoff Family Foundation contributed more than $1 million in 2007 alone to the Lymphoma Research Foundation says Fortune magazine. Andy Madoff, Madoff’s son who was diagnosed with lymphoma, was a Board member of the charity and it invested absolutely nothing with Madoff Securities, so it was not damaged during the collapse of the alleged Ponzi scheme. Sadly, many other charities were destroyed.

    On a lighter note, since self-publishing is a perennial topic on TeleRead here is a question some might find entertaining: What best-selling book of 1843 that is very popular today was self-published as a risky and expensive vanity project? Hint: the book has been adapted dozens of times into films with actors such as Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, and Bill Murray appearing in different productions.

    His publisher, Chapman and Hall, expressed little enthusiasm for the book, so Dickens decided to have the firm bring it out “for publication on his own account.” All the risk would be his own: “He would be responsible for the costs of the book’s production, which would be deducted from its sales. He would also oversee the book’s design, hire its illustrator, and consult on its advertising. In essence, his publishers — which would receive a fixed commission tied to sales — had become merely his printer. In contemporary terms, then, A Christmas Carol was to be an exercise in vanity publishing.”

    The above is an excerpt from the review of The Man Who Invented Christmas in the Washington Post.

  5. David, I’ve got a dust-covered, complete works of Dickens sitting on a bookshelf alongside other notable titles such as ‘Adrenalin Adventures in Australia’ and a perennial favourite of mine, ‘The Concise English Dictionary’, replete with 5th grader inscription – If found please return, please!! Thank You (signed) CRBates.

    My crappy copy of the Pickwick Papers (my first Dickens read) was printed in 1953 and contains a birthday well-wish for a previous owner from his mother, dated 1957. The fact that it had been presented to ‘Glen’ disarms me now as that is the same name and generation of my recently deceased uncle who took his own life. It’s a reminder of how we parted on very bad terms, regrettably.

    There too in the corner is the ever-present 2nd-hand bookstore stamp. Chapter 10 and 11 are missing completely but this short-coming is made up for by a double printing of Chapters 13 & 14 … page 207-8 are also consigned to the printer’s excuse file.

    All these print errors were a major pain-in-the-butt upon first reading but now they have taken on special significance. This is my introduction to Dickens, it was also quite possibly many others – all from the same book. Its pages are cheap and flimsy like the leaves of those endless copies of motel-hibernating bibles one comes across in transit.

    These books will end up in my childrens’ hands, possibly even sold for lack of interest, and yet I’m still not convinced that an ebook will match the experience I had with these books – warts and all.

    Unusually sentimental coming from someone who isn’t. Strange, huh?!

  6. Hey, Chris, you’re entitled. But some e-book lovers have their own memories—and their own Rocket eBooks and other artifacts to keep around. As for the words, they live on, no matter what the platform. Meanwhile thanks for explaining so articulately why you won’t read Dickens in E.


  7. David – Thanks very much. Hopefully the next books on my reading list will be equally applicable.

    Chris – those are all eminently reasonably reasons why you won’t be reading Dickens in e-form. I’d note, though, that the majority of editions of Dickens p-books are “Penguin Classic”-type form – i.e., printed as cheaply as possible. Meaning they won’t last to be passed on to kids and grandkids – particularly not in the tropics where I currently am. Whereas my DRM-free copy of Little Dorrit will remain in perfect condition as long as there are electronic devices to transfer it to.

    Garson – this points to the ‘cut-out’ nature of Dickens’ villains; as you point out, real-life villains like Madoff are capable of doing some good even as they bilk billions from the unsuspecting. But I’m sure Dickens rhetorical power would have been up to handling a swindler like Madoff, if he were alive today.

    I didn’t know that about A Christmas Carol . Fascinating and hopeful anecdote. Thanks. Since he took on all the responsibility for the project, I wonder if he received all the proceeds …?

  8. Don’t get me wrong, David, I think the immediacy and practicality of ebooks is fantastic, after all I’m a very impatient consumer. If I want a title, I want it now. None of this ship-next-day stuff.

    However, I do bemoan the fact that piracy will change the written word. This is not the fault of ebooks per se, more an indictment on our cultural valuing of authors and the respective value vis-a-vis their ownership of personal craft.

    I have had this banter with Mr Meadows on previous posts. I’m 36 years of age and yet I pine for the glory years of cinema screenwriting. I wonder what wonderful movies will be released in 2009? Probably nothing to compare with 70 years ago (1939): Gone with the Wind; The Wizard of Oz; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; Gulliver’s Travels; Of Mice and Men; Stagecoach; Wuthering Heights. A year later production began on Citizen Kane.

    Lots of novel adaptions there. Not so now. I wonder how the bestseller list for books and box office leaders for film will stack up artistically in 5 years from now?

    When an author’s work is deemed to be worth zero payment … there will be zero output from talented authors. They will simply move to where the money is and a the craft of long-form writing will slowly disappear. It is happening already.

    I guess, my gripe isn’t with the technology of ebooks, it’s with the communal psychology of fre-ebooks.

  9. BTW, Court, I agree with David – nice work. I’m not really sure how you find time to write this stuff … surely you must be welded to a plastic chair in a cheap Thai restaurant? I know I would be. Man, how I ache for endless bowls of Tom Ka Gai.

    I envy you … bastard!

  10. Chris – time is actually running short, so I’m not able to address your concerns: “When an author’s work is deemed to be worth zero payment … there will be zero output from talented authors.” I’m not going to class myself as “talented author” but I have been writing for a few years, for no remuneration. I posted tangentially on this on my blog a while back. Basically I think that the free-economy, as it were, may serve to separate the wheat from the chaff: those in for much else than the art of it will, as you suggest, fade away (though I suppose there will always be room at the other end of the spectrum for those writing purely for entertainment’s sake).

    I am welded to a plastic chair but it’s not in a Thai restaurant – these days I do my best to avoid ’em. There is such a thing as too much tom ka gai, that’s for sure!

    Thanks for your comments.

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