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The central figure is Amy aka Little Dorrit, the 'Child of the Marshalsea'. Which is to say, she was born in this debtor's prison -- a nineteenth-century English institution in which defaulters were incarcerated, along with their families as necessary, until such time as they were able to pay what they owed.
As the story opens, Amy's father William Dorrit has likewise earned the title of 'Father of the Marshalsea' as the longest-serving inmate; his particular debts are so involved -- and, it must be said, he himself so helpless -- that he's been locked up for twenty-five years now with no hope of release anytime soon. With little to work with save her own innate goodness, young Amy determinedly takes charge of the family after her mother dies, fiercely guarding her father's pretences to being merely a gentleman temporarily down on his luck to the extent of not telling him that she's also arranged for her older siblings and herself to work outside the prison.
At the same time, in a more upscale part of London, Arthur Clennam has returned to his gloomy, forbidding childhood home after years abroad in the family firm. Fortysomething and vaguely depressed over what he considers a wasted life, Clennam is nevertheless still a gentle and idealistic man. His father's last words have given Arthur reason to believe that his stern, fanatically religious mother may be hiding knowledge of a serious injury the firm may have done to parties unknown. Arthur is determined to find and right this wrong as far as in him lies, even after his mother angrily rejects the idea out of hand... especially after he discovers that nevertheless, in a burst of completely uncharacteristic altruism, she has hired Little Dorrit to work in her house.
As per usual in Dickens, their stories intersect not only with each other's, but with those of Loads and Loads of Characters. Clennam's interest in the Dorrits' case soon leads to a stunning reversal of fortune: as it turns out William Dorrit is the long-lost heir to a great estate. To Amy's frank bewilderment, her family's unswerving goal thereafter becomes acceptance in the highest circles of Society, as led by the great financier Merdle -- or, more accurately, by his wife and her 'fine bosom'. As a corollary, of course, the Dorrits' efforts require blotting out all memory of their past... up to and definitely including Little Dorrit's years of patient care and loyalty. To better make this clean break, they embark on a grand tour of Europe.
Meanwhile back in London, Clennam, having resigned from the family firm, is slowly-but-surely beginning to find real purpose in life with the help of his steadfast friends, eccentric genius inventor Daniel Doyce and retired banker Mr. Meagles -- and despite the hindrance of the Barnacles who staff the infamous Circumlocution Office, the official bastion of How Not to Do It. Also prominent in the mix is Meagles' daughter, pretty, spoilt Pet, whose eventual marriage to a rogue convinces Arthur he's now far too old for romance. Instead -- between intervals of wondering just why a certain sinister foreigner is suddenly being welcomed into his mother's house -- Clennam throws himself into helping make Doyce's manufacturing works a success...
...until the looming shadow of money, secrets and pretense that has hovered over the entire cast lowers once more.
There are two noteworthy adaptations of the novel: the Oscar-nominated 1988 film duology with Derek Jacobi as Arthur Clennam and Alec Guinness as William Dorrit, and the Emmy-winning 2008 BBC miniseries with Claire Foy as Amy Dorrit, Matthew Mac Fadyen as Arthur, and Andy Serkis as the villain Rigaud.
Little Dorrit contains examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Mrs. Clennam and Mr. Dorrit are both emotionally, if not physically, abusive.
- Adult Child: Maggy, who is twenty-eight but whose mental development was stopped by an accident at ten years old.
- Blackmail: Rigaud discovers that Arthur is not Mrs. Clennam's child, resulting in this trope.
- Card-Carrying Villain: Rigaud, practically into Dastardly Whiplash territory.
- Children Raise You: A rather sad example, with Amy providing money, food and emotional support to her helpless father and careless siblings even though she's the youngest of them all.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Mr. F's aunt.
- Con Artist: Rigaud, Casby, and Merdle.
- Creepy Twins: Ephraim and Jeremiah Flintwinch.
- Crusty Caretaker: Jeremiah.
- Dating What Daddy Hates: Pet's flirtation with Henry Gowan, of which her parents strongly disapprove due to his lazy, cynical attitude and his many debts.
- Dead Little Sister: Pet Meagles' twin, which makes her Doting Parents especially protective.
- Death by Childbirth: Amy's mother.
- Disabled Means Helpless: Subverted with Maggy, who, despite being severely affected by Brain Fever, can still take care of herself. Played straight with Mrs. Clennam, who in spite of her forceful character is paralyzed in a wheelchair and unable to leave the upper floor of her house.
- Domestic Abuse: Jeremiah enjoys scaring the daylights out of his wife Affery.
- The Dragon: Pancks is this to Casby, albeit reluctantly.
- Driven to Suicide: Mr. Merdle, when his financial shenanigans are about to collapse.
- Driven to Madness: Mr. Dorrit has been imprisoned for so long that exposure to the outside world (and the loss of his fellow inmates' respect) causes him to break down and die.
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: Rigaud is crushed under the ruins of the Clennam house.
- Dysfunctional Family: The Dorrits and the Clennams.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The narrator refers to Mr. Merdle's powerful acquaintances by their careers: Bar (a lawyer), Physician, Bishop and Treasury.
- Evil Lawyer Joke: Bar often makes them at his own expense.
- First Love: Flora Finching to Arthur.
- Fish Out of Water: Amy as an upper-class tourist in Italy.
- The Fundamentalist: Mrs. Clennam.
- Gadgeteer Genius: Daniel Doyce.
- Gaol Time: The Dorrits spend years in the Marshalsea. Arthur eventually winds up there, too. And then there's Mr. Merdle's habit of handcuffing himself.
- Gold Digger: Fanny Dorrit.
- Hates Being Touched: Mrs. Clennam, because it aggravates the chronic pain she's in.
- Henpecked Husband: Mr. Merdle. His stepson Edmund Sparkler becomes one for Fanny in the end.
- I Have This Friend: Amy tells Maggy a fairy tale about a small hardworking woman (herself) who treasures the shadow which a kind man (Mr. Clennam) left behind.
- Mr. Dorrit tells Amy about a "friend" whose "sister" ought to lead her suitor on (meaning John Chivery) in order to make life easier for her "brother".
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Amy towards Arthur; Arthur towards Pet when she marries Henry Gowan.
- John Chivery lives this trope.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Amy Dorrit isn't tempted by anything. Despite one of the most umpromising upbringings in all of literature, she doesn't so much as speak with a trace of a rough accent.
- Karma Houdini: Flintwinch runs away to Holland with Mrs. Clennam's money.
- Kick the Dog: Henry Cowan literally beats his dog.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: As per the norm for a Dickens novel.
- Lonely At the Top: Mr. Merdle.
- Love Dodecahedron
- Memento MacGuffin: The mysterious watch Clennam's father entrusts to his son on his deathbed.
- Married Name Doodling: John Chivery blissfully daydreams about matching marital tombstones for himself and Amy.
- May-December Romance: Arthur and Pet Meagles; Arthur and Amy Dorrit.
- Meaningful Name: Well, it is Dickens. Most notably, Merdle, Mrs. General, Sparkler, the Barnacles, Flintwinch, and Tattycoram.
- Morality Pet: Hiring Amy is the only charitable thing Mrs. Clennam ever does, due to feeling guilty because she's responsible for the Dorrits' imprisonment.
- Motor Mouth: Flora.
- My Name Is Not Durwood: Tattycoram's name is actually Harriet, but no one calls her that except Miss Wade.
- Mysterious Parent: Arthur's mother.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Merdle's shenanigans, along with his suicide, were partly based on the exploits of mid-Victorian financial con artist John Sadleir.
- No Name Given: Mrs. F's Aunt.
- No Sympathy: Mr. Merdle. He may be a fraud who kills himself to escape the consequences, but he's also ill, overworked, obviously guilty (the handcuffing gesture) and unbelievably lonely. His wife nags him for not being sociable enough, his stepson is too stupid to talk to, his own butler looks down on him, and everyone else worships his money without really knowing him. Even the author seems to have no sympathy for him.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: Egad, the Barnacles. There's a reason -- and not at all a subtle one -- that it's called the Circumlocution Office.
- Old Dark House: The House of Clennam.
- OOC Is Serious Business: When Arthur sees his harsh, bitter mother being kind to Amy, he concludes that something must be wrong.
- Parental Issues: Amy and Arthur.
- Parental Marriage Veto: Arthur and Flora's backstory.
- Politeness Judo: Fanny and Mrs. Merdle.
- Ponzi: How Mr. Merdle makes his fortune.
- Proper Lady: Despite having been born in debtor's prison, Amy Dorrit embodies this trope. Furthermore, she does so in spite of her father's small-minded attempts to hold on to gentility, shining as an example of true nobility of soul, rather than class or wealth.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules: Amy Dorrit.
- She Is Not My Girlfriend: Arthur denies his crush on Pet even to himself, transferring all his jealousy and anxiety onto a "Nobody" in his own mind.
- Shrinking Violet: Amy.
- Sibling Yin-Yang: Mr. Dorrit and his brother Frederick; Fanny and Amy.
- Spoiled Sweet: Pet.
- The Cynic: Henry Gowan.
- The Dog Bites Back: Pancks bites back at Casby (see "The Reason You Suck" Speech). Affery bites back at Flintwinch and Mrs. Clennam by supporting Rigaud's evidence. Flintwinch bites back at mrs. Clennam by revealing that he kept a certain document instead of destroying it.
- The Jeeves: Mr. Merdle's eerily capable butler, who makes him feel like an intruder in his own mansion.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Pancks gives an epic one to Casby in front of all their tenants, showing them once and for all who's really been exploiting them. Then he hacks off Casby's hair.
- The Reveal: Subverted. Amy Dorrit chooses not to tell Arthur Clennam about his real mother.
- The Un-Smile/Slasher Smile: When Rigaud's mustache comes up and his nose comes down, it's never a good sign.
- Those Two Guys: Bar and Physician often comment to each other at the Merdle dinners. They wind up discovering Mr. Merdle's dead body.
- Terms of Endangerment: Rigaud showers them on everyone he meets, including the men.
- Terms of Endearment: Amy, being small and cute, is often a target for these.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Maggy's "Chicking".
- Trophy Wife: Mrs. Merdle has a "bosom to hang jewels upon, and Mr. Merdle had bought her for the purpose".
- Ungrateful Bastard: The Dorrits, so much. When Amy works all day to support her father, he complains that she doesn't spend enough time with him. When she feels homesick for the Marshalsea after they're freed, he calls her insensitive for even mentioning it. Fanny accuses her sister of a lack of family pride for refusing to take bribes from Mrs. Merdle, and the whole lot of them (except Amy) completely ignore Mr. Clennam once they're free even though he is responsible for getting them out of jail.
- Unexpected Inheritance: Two of them. The first gets Mr. Dorrit out of prison. Amy Dorrit refuses the second one, because it would mean revealing that Mrs. Clennam has covered up Arthur's real parentage.
- Upperclass Twit: Edmund Sparkler and Tite Barnacle Junior.
- Vast Bureaucracy: The Circumlocution Office again. It's some of Dickens' most devastating political satire.
- Woman Scorned: Miss Wade hires Rigaud to spy on her former lover, Henry Cowan.
- You ALL Share My Story: Though not quite as tied together as Bleak House, nearly every character shares in the denoument.