Metonymics in Little Dorit Metonymy Essay
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One cannot build the right sort of house -- the houses are not really adequate, "Blinds, shutter, curtains, awnings, were all closed and drawn to keep out the star. Grant it but a chink or keyhole, and it shot in like a white-hot arrow." The stare here is the metonymic device -- we assume it is stranger, the outside vs. The inside, but for some reason, it is also the authority involved, and one that is able to ensure adequacy. In a similar vein, the "churches were freest from it," but they offer only an homage' to safety, and use their power to shut people out from the light that "made the eyes ache" and had been inhumanly oppressive. The prison, though, is "so repulsive a place that even the obtrusive star blinked at it and left it to such refuse of reflected light as could find." The stare is back, this time obtrusive, which points towards a greater degree of active nature.
Dickens also uses body parts such as hands, head, eyes, ears, etc., which are favorite sources of synecdoche in his works. For example:
Hands: Used to express the idea of work, certainly, but also of the impact that the external has on the process of living. In Victorian society, a woman's hands were to be small, delicate, impeccable; and one could tell a gentleman from the look of their fingernails and grooming. "Can you guess," said Little Dorritt, folding her small hands tight in one another…" (246). Contrast with the use of "hands" as a metaphor for responsibility and design, "Mr. Casby should put his rents in his hands, and never know him in his true light….. If a gentleman…. Took his rents into his own hands…. Things would be very different" (401).
Lips: Not only the expression of physical or emotional intimacy, but in some cases the ability to gauge the healthful nature of the character, or a combination between the coquette and the maid. "She appeared from the motion of her lips to repeat the words herself…." (64). She pressed her lips together again, and took a long deep breath" (282). Her lips were a little parted, as if her heart beat faster than usual" (134). "… her grey hair was not more immovable… than were her firm lips" (69). "Tattycoram set her full red lips together, and crossed her arms…" (282).
Head -- the head is the symbol for the mind, the soul, but for Dickens the inner nature of the character -- one might have a bumpy head, a wicked head, etc., but it is almost always in relation to the manner in which that character is juxtaposed with another -- usually opposite -- emotion. "So grey, so slow, so quiet, so impassionate, so very bumpy in the head, Patriarch was the word for him" (208). "… round his wicked head… only his wicked head shown…" (190). Note the combination of hair and head to engender this character as scurrilous: "Wire black hair striking out from his head in prongs, like forks…. He had dirty hands and dirty broken nails…. He was in perspiration and snorted and sniffed and puffed…" (212). "It's not put into his head to be buried… it's put into his head to be useful…" (272).
Eyes -- it is interesting to note that Dickens, and many other Victorian writers, used the eyes as the truth to the soul -- the very nature of the person. However, in Little Dorrit, we are fooled a bit by this. Typically, for Dickens, blue eyes connote innocence, depth of soul, and in a man, some of the nature of being a boy. Christopher Casby, has blue eyes; "There was the same smooth face and forehead, the same calm blue eye, the same placid air…" (207). In truth, Casby is a ruthless landlord who conceals his penchant for cruelly under the guise of innocence -- and uses this in power over others despite his benevolent exterior (Hori, 21).
The England of Little Dorrit is a droll, dirty, and shabby place -- words like "stale," "dingy," and "grimy" are often used as a descriptor. When Arthur returns to London, for example, he finds the city, "gloomy, close and stale," (31), its rain has "foul, stale smells," and the exterior of his mother's house is, like Frederick, "dirt worn… decayed…. Dingy"( 91). The contrast between the elegant and dingy, too, comes out with the sense of smell, "To the sense of smell the [Barnacle] house was like a sort of bottle filled with a strong
distillation of mews… (308-9)." This idea of an obsession with commerce is "used to trope not archetypal themes of greed and corruption, but a specific dissatisfaction with contemporary ways of thinking about social life" (Freegood, 000, 6)
Dirt, smell, squalor -- all take on object names and symbols of the area. Similarly, dirt has an opposite in Little Dorrit. We know that dirt can be cleaned off -- it can be washed, and can be rendered impermanent. However, dirt's opposition -- the glitter of false wealth and the cleanliness of false innocence and part and parcel of the Victorian sense of propriety -- which in the truer sense is the notion of hypocrisy. Many of the characters have little choice about their shabbiness or "parlour" (131), but there is a combination of metonyms with Mrs. Merdle appearing as "the Bosom," on which Merdle lays out the visible evidence of his wealth, the idea that it might be appropriate for external bragging, but in fact, is fleeting and quite unimportant in the long-term.
Too, there is balance between practical Victorian nature and the unseemly idea of economics. Combine the symbolism here with that above and the circle is almost complete -- we see a complexity in the external environment of Little Dorrit that will continue to follow us through the tale. Mrs. Merdle offhandedly remarks to Mrs. Gowan that primitive societies keep cows and sheep but Victorian England "banker's accounts." Not only are cows and sheep part of the natural, down to earth, honest part of life, but their care is easier -- do a and b and get c. Banker's account, however, form the basics of tragedy throughout the book: bankruptcy is the reason so many are assigned to the prison -- the lack of an account; "money is never used in commerce, except to pay balances and debts," and yet the complexities that surround the system of even being able to pay one's debt are mired in countless lines of bureaucracy; some so deep that even those who work for the government are reluctant to get involved with this hydra of evil. Dickens is ever the social reformer, and in Little Dorrit, he uses descriptive language and symbolism to prove that child labor is wrong, and that "all suffer from the pangs of poverty and all have to face untold trials and tribulations of life" (Sharma, 2002, 74).
And yet what controls the very nature and action of the plot but commerce? The encounters between Amy and Mrs. Clennam that finally result in happiness first start out as almost servitude. That the Dorrit's become first freed from their literal prison and thrust on to another is completely economics; that Arthur loses all, and is then found again is based on the chances of investment, of the nature and fleetingness of external factors well out of individual control, yet the responsibilities are almost school "marmish" -- if you stray from the rules, this is how you shall be punished.
It is also important to understand why Dickens was writing about this boom and bust issue and was so focused on the inhumanity of debtor's prison. The entire focus of the Victorian empire was to trade -- import and export, use the colonies to prosper, allow Britain her expected might over all she surveyed. Between this and the massive increase in railways there was a need for more financing, more complex fiscal transactions, and thus more banks. In fact, between 1852 and 1957 "the deposits in a set of five London banks grew from £17.7 million to over £40 and the typical amount of bills of exchange were in circulation increased to 200 million from just 66 million" (Houston, 2005, 71). This "boom" occurred all over England, and the importing of goods flourished, so did stock speculation which mean that some won heavily and others became destitute -- and resentful at the same time. In addition, we must remember that England backed the Confederate States in the War Between the States since much of her cotton and raw materials came from there. Of course, Britain did not want the northern factories to outpace their own industrialization, which also increased the speculation and likelihood of making a poor fiscal decision.
Dickens describes the economic victories as "happy strokes of calculation and combination," or "Gigantic combinations…
Sources Used in Documents:
Labor in Little Dorrit." Journal of the Novel. 31 (1) 21+.
Young, Arlene. (1996). "Virtue Domesticated: Dickens and the Lower Middle
Class." Victorian Studies. 39 (4): 483+.
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