William Dorrit’s Self-Deception

July 16, 2019 by Essay Writer

This essay will focus on the collapse of William Dorrit (Bk 2, ch 19) and examine William’s imprisonment to self-deception in this passage as a consequence of his moral debts to society and Amy, what effects this has on his character in the novel as a whole, and if his collapse and death can be seen as an escape from, or a submission to, the “paralysing stagnation” (Daleski, 1970) of his imprisonment.Self-deception is not unique to William, and Showalter (1979, pp. 23) implies that it could even be a means of survival in the Marshalsea, that the “inhabitants sustain a precarious identity by systematically denying the reality of their situation.” Just as the prisoners refer to themselves as collegians, Dorrit too makes pretences above his station; his welcoming speech asserts that he is “not a beggar” (Dickens 1996, pp. 614) and he survives on euphemistically termed ‘testimonials, ‘subscriptions’ and ‘tributes’ which he creatively fails to acknowledge, for example by taking them in concealed packages or via handshake. Self-deception, then, could be argued to be what keeps William alive and well for so long; it is into the safe haven of self-deception and Marshalsea grandeur that William retreats in his final days. When Amy first refuses Arthur’s help she recognises this point, that release from the Marshalsea “might be anything but a service to him…He might not be so gently dealt with outside… he might not be so fit himself for the life outside” (Dickens 1996, pp. 95). This duality of the Marshalsea in providing both imprisonment and protection is mirrored by Dickens in William’s prison of self-deception; it is a means of survival as much as a means of imprisonment.Self-deception for William, however, is more exaggerated than for the collegians because his debt is much more exaggerated; he owes not only substantial financial debts, but also a deep moral debt to Amy, what Scott calls a “human debt” growing from his obsession with status burdening Amy with care of him and her siblings; a debt which, as for the testimonials, he “creatively refuses to acknowledge” even when “the payment of [these human debts]…is their mere acknowledgment” (Scott 1979, pp. 161-165). The effect of this imprisonment on William is shown by his internal conflict, the “interjections of ‘ha’ and ‘hem’…suggest that he undergoes some struggle with himself” (McKnight 1993, pp. 64, cited in Smith 2005) and become more frequent as his deception deepens; his Marshalsea speech in Rome contains 23 stutters plus numerous repetitions. This internal conflict is destructive for William, showing “the human mind’s…inability…to credit its own lies” (Scott 1979, pp.159). William’s eventual collapse is the “awful revenge of [this] mind that eventually breaks out of its own prison and destroys its gaoler in the process” (Lucas, 1970). The self-deception that kept him in the Marshalsea has now killed William in wealth, but the impact can be seen as influencing his life further when self-deception is taken as a basis for his greed and social pretentiousness. William’s obsession with status is rooted in his self-deception and assumed need to maintain “a tone” (Dickens 1996, pp. 614) in the Marshalsea, showing the self-deception of not only William but the collegians who provide the subscriptions, and this status obsession pervades his character throughout whilst also fuelling further deception, for example by not talking of his life in the Marshalsea or when he commissions a portrait. Greed, too, is directly linked to William’s imprisonment in self-deception; firstly the necessary worship of money to maintain his status (in the Marshalsea, demanding tribute; in wealth, spending overtly), but his greed for Amy’s attention shows not only his human debt to her by the stresses he places upon her – even on his deathbed, William does “not spare her” nor is he “fearful of her being spent by watching or fatigue” (Dickens, 1996, p615) when she attends him once more. Indeed, his self-deception continues in that he still claims to be “content to have undergone a great deal for her sake” (ibid). This monopoly over Little Dorrit’s attention is further greed which is fuelled by William’s self-deception and a belief that he should have such a monopoly on Amy’s attention despite the duty of care for the rest of the family he places on her by virtue of his own pretentiousness.Self-deception, greed, social pretentiousness and the worship of money have become character traits for William and it is therefore logical that, extending from Lucas’ (1970) argument, his only escape is in his own destruction. From this perspective, then, William cannot be judged to escape from his prison any more than a death row prisoner escapes when they enter the gas chamber. Any escape for Dorrit can only come from him escaping his history of greed, self-deception and social pretentiousness – a feat which he fails to achieve. Instead, his only acts of repentance are when he offers his personal items to be pawned in order to restore some genuine dignity, and the collapse itself which goes some way to showing a “still a human value…which has not been eliminated.” (Scott 1979, pp. 165).Dorrit can be judged to stay forever in the debt of his daughter and imprisoned in his own lies, leaving him to die, like Merdle, without redemption. Crucially, however, Dorrit is in the pretence of his dignified existence as Father of the Marshalsea and therefore dies a relatively dignified death; family at his side, humanity redeemed (ibid) and personal items pawned from his deathbed to provide for a funeral. Whilst this dignity only exists in the comfort of his mental prison cell, it is there he has found most comfort throughout the novel and it is perhaps a fitting end: William Dorrit makes no escape because he is comfortable as a captive.To conclude, William Dorrit is imprisoned by his own self-deception fuelled by a self-perpetuating greed and a human debt to Amy Dorrit. This has impact upon him throughout his life and death, but ultimately his remaining humanity (be it triggered by Little Dorrit or otherwise) allows him a greater redemption than Merdle and he dies loving his daughter “in his old way” (Dickens 1996, pp. 615) through choice of residing in the comfort of his personal mental prison that maintains him in death as his social pretentiousness determined him to be in life, separate from those around him and judged by a different, and altogether kinder, standard. BibliographyDaleski, H. (1970). Dickens and the Art of Analogy. New York: Schocken. Cited in ENG236 Assignments 1 & 2 Handout.Dickens, C. (1996). Little Dorrit. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth ClassicsLucas, J. (1970). The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens. London: Methuen. McKnight, N. (1993). Idiots, Madmen, and Other Prisoners in Dickens. New York: St Martin’s Press.Scott, P. (1979). Reality and Comic Confidence in Charles Dickens. London: Macmillan.Showalter, E. (1979). Guilt, Authority, and the Shadows of Little Dorrit. Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 34. Pp. 20-40

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