I. If there is one word that sums up the pervading atmosphere of Little Dorrit, it is claustrophobic. From the very first chapter, the reader is inducted into a world primarily made up of rigidly enclosed spaces; every level of the novel is in some way bound, restricted within literal or, more interestingly, metaphorical confining structures. This theme of imprisonment gives rise to, and is inextricable from, its emotional response, a feeling of victimization and resentment, an element that lends the novel a suggestively subversive uneasiness that extends beyond the bounds of the novel, to the very heart of Dickens' literary form. The powerful humanity of Little Dorrit lies in Dickens' masterful arrangement of his characters and the various ways in which they deal with imprisonment; the intriguing ambiguity lies in whether or not they ultimately transcend the walls that confine them, and indeed, whether this question is even relevant.
II. The novel's central prison, the Marshalsea, and the Dorrits, the literal prisoners within, form the origins of the prison theme, from which the images of other, figurative prisons and their inhabitants draw their potency and pathos. Part of the idiosyncrasy of a Dickens novel is the...
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