4 of Air - William Dorrit
aka The Father of the Marshalsea
When William Dorrit enters the Marshalsea for a debt of 400 pounds, his very incarceration robs him of any way to remunerate those he owes and free himself from its purgatory. After 23 years in this prison, he has also been robbed of his dignity. Yet with his title Father of the Marshalsea, he maintains the trappings of respectability. This pretense of self-respect comes at a terrible cost to his family – blindly adhering to social standards he refuses to see his son Edward's dissolute lifestyle or his daughter Fanny's dubious career as a dancer. Most unsavoury and difficult to square, however, is his mistreatment of Amy Dorrit, born into this world of servitude and captivity, who from her father's disgrace looks the other way while he dines on what meat she has set aside from her own meagre repasts. In their small Marshalsea window, Amy tends for her father Dickens' favourite flower, geranium, symbol of gentility and determination.
William Dorrit, compelled to rely on charity and his children's labour to support him and themselves, stands as the antithesis of the Victorian patriarch. His existence has been so reduced to keeping up appearances that his soul has lost all solvency. His empty snobbery swells to such a degree that he entertains the surrender of Amy's virtue for a few prison privileges. Amy's response is the abject pity of a mourner: “She looked down into the living grave on which the sun had risen, with her father in it.” Truth told, as Dickens' novel Little Dorrit attests, life inside the Marshalsea was not much worse than it was for those who lived in penury and destitution outside it.
When William Dorrit and his family are freed, thanks in no small part to Arthur Clennam's industriousness and perseverance, the Father of the Marshalsea is unable to express gratitude; he can't escape his own inner confinement. Where once he felt Amy to be his rock and foundation, he now feels his daughter – as unchanged and steadfast as ever – to be a millstone and a reminder of his shameful past. He is a balloon filled with hot air, floating across the opulence of Europe while the Father of the Marshalsea withers away within. At a pompous dinner party hosted by the equally embalmed Merdles, Mr. Dorrit addresses those gathered as fellow inmates – a final mental breach between Dorrit's real and imagined worlds which results in an inadvertent truth.
In William Dorrit, Charles Dickens has created a more serious and realistic Wilkins Micawber - which is to say John Dickens, the author's own father. As Dickens says of Dorrit:
“Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it. He was under lock and key; but the lock and key that kept him in, kept numbers of his troubles out. If he had been a man with strength of purpose to face those troubles and fight them, he might have broken the net that held him, or broken his heart; but being what he was, he languidly slipped into this smooth descent, and never more took one step upward.”
John Dickens died in 1851. His son Charles wasn't able to begin this sober portrayal of his ne'er-do-well and oft-times humiliating father until 1855, four years after his death.
Shorthand : Much dignity - probably too much - balm through troubled times - venerable old-timer - stoic to a fault - austere indeed - reconciliation of sorts - recuperating from battles lost - making the best of a bad situation - mind over matter - sad sanctuary - mere hospitalization - some bending of the knee - seeks assistance from outside sources - what do you know? a windfall! - deserving - my wits desert me - cowardly reluctance to countenance reality - base imprisonment - compensating delusions of grandeur - gloomy ghosts - debts paid - coming to terms with one's past - at last, surrender.