Gift-Giving in the Proper Dickens Spirit
This post has been contributed by Clara Defilippis.
Throughout Little Dorrit, Dickens peppers his narrative with individuals who give and receive favors and gifts. In his treatment of presents and tokens within the novel, Dickens contrasts the prideful and manipulative behavior of Mr. Dorrit with the genuine goodwill of Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. For Mr. Dorrit, gifts symbolize an individual’s low or high status in society. In contrast, Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam consider a gift as an indication of a person’s good will. During this Christmas season, Dickens provides us with his perspective on what gifts are of true value and the proper virtues necessary to participate in the gift-giving season with a genuine Christmas spirit.
Through the character of Mr. Dorrit, Dickens illustrates what he considers a few of the greatest flaws in a poor gift-giver. Unwilling to acknowledge his dependence on the goodwill of others, Mr. Dorrit outwardly considers gifts he receives as indications of his own higher status. Dorrit receives the donations from other inmates of the Marshalea as a form of “tribute,” enabling him to consider himself above the rest of his current society (67-68). When Mr. Dorrit is about to leave the Marshalsea, his collegians present him with a gift in “a neat frame and glass.” He thanks them in a letter; “In that document he assured them, in a Royal manner, that he received the profession of their attachment with a full conviction of its sincerity; and again generally exhorted them to follow his example” (441). In this situation, the present is a means for Mr. Dorrit to demonstrate the lowliness of his supporters.
Furthermore, Mr. Dorrit assumes when he awards gifts that these tokens are a sign of his patronage (380). When reluctantly welcoming Mr. Nandy into his rooms, Mr. Dorrit offers him tea and treats Nandy as a vassal (380).When giving this gift, Mr. Dorrit ensures his superiority as patron by degrading the receiver with constant comments about Nandy’s feeble and pitiable state (388-390). Mr. Dorrit implies that anyone who requires a gift necessarily is lower in the eyes of others. His treatment of Nandy points to his own shame in taking the charity of others.
This underlying shame explains another of Mr. Dorrit’s flaws in gift-giving. When Mr. Dorrit overcomes his misfortunes and comes into money, he feels obligated to repay all of the gifts he has received in his time of need (435). Mr. Dorrit cannot understand fully the unconditional concern and love of his friends, such as Arthur Clennam. In Mr. Dorrit’s mind, gifts, given due to a need, are a symbol of lower status. Rather than graciously and humbly receiving the gifts as tokens of affection and respect, he must give gifts in return so that he does not need to be in anyone’s debt. From Mr. Dorrit’s perspective, gifts indicate an obligation to the patronage of a benefactor. When he is in a position to do so, his pride will not allow him to receive favors, such as assistance from his daughter when tired (666). During his time in Italy, Mr. Dorrit is outraged when he feels that someone “pities” him and is giving him “solicitude” (666). Gifts are too closely tied up with the value of Mr. Dorrit’s identity and his dependence on, and place in, society.
In Little Dorrit, Dickens contrasts Mr. Dorrit’s treatment of the gifts or “testimonials” (68; 86) presented to him by the other inmates by repeatedly presenting examples of proper gift-giving and -receiving. Dickens advocates supporting the needy with occasions to earn their own living. For instance, Clennam thanks Flora for providing Little Dorrit with work (282), and Little Dorrit shows gratitude to Flora (297-298) for this opportunity. Dickens suggests that the more fortunate should give the poor the opportunity to work for their necessities, rather than leave them to beg for money, as Mr. Dorrit does to the shame of his daughter. However, Dickens does not seem to imply that charity is an inappropriate gift towards the needy. Instead, he indicates the importance of ensuring the dignity of the needy with the gift of work.
Another kind of present championed by Dickens is an act of service towards a loved one, especially an act that provides an inconvenience to the doer. Mrs. Chivery thanks Arthur Clennam for taking the “trouble” to aid her son (269). Little Dorrit, Clennam, and other characters go out of their way to support, encourage, and assist others at the expense of their own feelings or health. The Plonish family provides dinner for Mr. Nandy and others despite their frugal life-style (381). When first arriving in England, Arthur has not found employment and is living off of his savings. Despite his tentative circumstances, Clennam spares no expense in aiding the Dorrit family in their difficulties. Dickens presents characters who desire to provide a “lasting service” to others (399), sacrificing something dear to themselves for the good of another.
Throughout Little Dorrit, Dickens positively presents examples of individuals who receive non-physical or material goods as gifts. Many of these tokens are given through conversation and indicate the giver’s goodwill towards friends and family. These presents include remembering another person kindly from the past and having this memory influence actions in the present, as when Arthur Clennam thanks Flora for her “remembrance” (278) of their affection, which impacts her employment of Little Dorrit. Another kind gesture emphasized within the novel is the gift of a compliment towards another. For instance, Mr. Meagle thanks Arthur for his kind compliments concerning Minnie (335). These gifts all demonstrate the inner love and admiration of the other and are given without obligation or expectation of return.
Arthur’s interview with Minnie upon her engagement indicates many additional proper gifts promoted by Dickens, which include forgiveness, companionship, trust, and confidence. Minnie asks Clennam to forgive her for any wrong that she may have done to him through her engagement (351). As a kindness to herself, she asks him to be a friend and consolation to her father after her marriage (350), which Arthur gladly agrees to do. Furthermore, Arthur asks for the gift of her trust and thanks her for her confidence (348). Little Dorrit includes multiple scenes in which characters consider the faith of other individuals as the greatest token possible to receive. Forgiveness and trust bring individuals into communion allowing them to rid themselves of the isolating expectations of society and to focus on another’s true humanity.
Considering Dickens’s promotion of gift-giving as a means of creating community, it seems fitting to conclude this discussion of presents and gift-giving with a gift which seems particularly close to Dickens’s heart: the meal. Sharing food together seems to be a unique gift that Dickens celebrates in many of his stories. In Little Dorrit, the Plornish family’s simple meal with Mr. Nandy for his birthday demonstrates the humble gratitude and hopeful spirit of these simple and true folk: “‘John Edward Nandy. Sir. While there’s a ounce of wittles or drink of any sort in this present roof, you’re fully welcome to your share on it’” (381). Even Cavalletto in prison “gratefully” takes the “no great gift” of a bit of wine from Rigaud at the beginning of the novel (8). This gift, and all the good gifts presented in Little Dorrit, symbolizes so well the Christmas spirit, for in this season, we come together to celebrate with hope what truly matters.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. New York: A.L. Burt Company.