Without further ado, the new intro to the Little Dorrit section of Chapter 3.

In fact, that’s why I started out telling the story: I think I meant it as a fairly simple story about scale. Just to say how the right scale of doll for my older sister was the wrong scale for me, how I needed something chunkier. I needed, or thought I did, something with decent-scale, plastic, resiliently articulated parts that I could manipulate freely and safely (safely for it as well as me): this seemed to be the condition for my loving or identifying with the creature, even just not abandoning it. (Sedgwick, “Melanie Klein” 627-628)

I first read Little Dorrit in Eve Sedgwick’s Fall 2007 seminar on “Reading Relations.” Given all the attention paid in recent years to her notion of reparative reading, and Eve’s own attention to this scene in class, Arthur’s words to his mother soon after his return from China have a particular buoyancy for me:

“Is it possible, mother,” her son leaned forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and laid his hand nervously upon her desk, “is it possible, mother, that he had unhappily wronged any one, and made no reparation?” (62, emphasis mine)

And, soon afterwards:

“In grasping at money and in driving hard bargains… some one may have been grievously deceived, injured, ruined. You were the moving power of all this machinery before my birth; your stronger spirit has been infused into all my father’s dealings, for more than two score years… If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made to any one, let us know it and make it. Nay, mother, if within my means, let me make it. I have seen so little happiness come of money; it has brought within my knowledge so little peace to this house, or to any one belonging to it; that it is worth less to me than to another.” (63, first emphasis mine)

There has been no shortage of readings attuned to Arthur’s strange, vague sense of guilt, among them Wenying Xu’s argument with which I began this chapter, that his individual guilt is symptomatic of Britain’s national guilt concerning its participation in the Chinese opium trade. (We’ll need a big ole omnibus footnote here.) What if, though, we focus not on Arthur’s guilt, but on his desire to make reparation? What if, in other words, we consider Arthur not as a Foucauldian subject of power/knowledge, but a Sedgwickian reparative reader?

For Sedgwick, reparative practices originate from the Kleinian depressive position, the threshold of which is breached with “the simple, foundational, authentically very difficult understanding that good and bad tend to be inseparable at every level” (“Melanie” 637). Sedgwick’s reparative reader inhabits a world sometimes hostile, sometimes merely inhospitable, and, in recognition of the cloud firmly attached to every silver lining, undertakes a “movement toward what Foucault calls ‘care of the self,’ the often very fragile concern to provide the self with pleasure and nourishment in an environment that is perceived as not particularly offering them” (“Paranoid” 137). Noting the persistent gloom surrounding Sedgwick’s writing on reparative reading, Ellis Hanson quips in a recent article, “Just as paranoid reading can never be too paranoid, reparative reading can never be too depressed” (106).

Arthur certainly meets this criterion, having seen “so little happiness come of money,” imagining that others have not merely been wronged by his family’s business, but “grievously deceived, injured, ruined.” When he is coldly greeted by Flintwinch after his long absence, he says to himself, “How weak am I… that I could shed tears at this reception! I, who have never experienced anything else; who have never expected anything else” (48). Arthur, “lean[ing] forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and la[ying] his hand nervously upon her desk,” demonstrates the fragility associated with the reparative situation.

Little Dorrit, I propose, can be read as a novel with a “reparative plot”; that is to say, it starts out from a position of psychic damage, and derives its most powerfully affective moments when the novel depicts the attempts made, in Sedgwick’s Kleinian words, “to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole–though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole” (“Paranoid” 128, original emphasis). If the novel is most frequently thought of as an extensive treatment of the prison in its literal, social, and psychological manifestations, of characters hemmed in, constrained, rendered immobile, a reading attuned to the reparative plot is invested not so much in the moments of liberation experienced, or in the exposure of the truth of imprisonment underlying some condition of putative freedom, but in the novel’s construction of a large and varied world in which are assembled both good and bad objects, freedom and constraint.

But what has any of this to do with my dissertation’s larger concern, China?

I’ll admit, not much. However, this reparative plot also did not figure largely if at all in Dickens’ original conception of the novel.At this stage he had selected China as Arthur’s land of exile, and part of my argument is that because of this shift in the novel’s direction, the narrative places little emphasis on Arthur’s Chinese origins after the first few chapters.

What China does contribute to the world of Little Dorrit is a sense of scale. Like young Eve Kosofsky’s desire for a larger, chunkier doll, Arthur’s trajectory might also be thought of as a story about scale. In his case, though, the scale appropriate for him is the small-scale child-body of Amy Dorrit. Near the end of the novel, alone in his prison cell, after he finally discovers that Little Dorrit has been in love with him, he thinks to himself, “Looking back upon his own poor story, she was its vanishing point. Everything in its perspective led to her innocent figure. He had travelled thousands of miles towards it; previous hopes and doubts had worked themselves out before it; it was the centre of interest of his life” (766-767).

Scale extends in two directions here. On the one hand there is the narrowing of focus, the shrinking of dimensions that accompanies Clennam’s concentration of interest on Little Dorrit. One of the chief effects of contemplating objects on a miniature scale, Susan Stewart argues in On Longing, is the achievement of psychological interiority. The moments of affective intensity guiding the novel’s reparative plot depend upon the construction of multiple layers of interiority.

On the other hand, the “thousands of miles,” the many years of Clennam’s life spent in exile, function on a macrocosmic scale. China, with its immense population, may be metonymically linked to the bureaucratic workings of the Circumlocution Office, the genteel Society of Mrs. General, and the flows of capital associated with Merdle. These faceless, alienating, disorienting institutions dwarf the individual trapped within, in contrast to the highly individuated space of tiny interiors. However, this experience of spatial alienation accentuates the moments of containment and reorientation, increases the effect of psychological interiority. Britain’s expansion outward into what was in effect a globalized economy also led to an expansion inwards.

Not just space but time as well buttresses the affective structure of Little Dorrit. Throughout Dickens’ fiction, an aesthetics of arrested temporality marks some of Dickens’ most characteristically animated prose. Stopped time is also a feature of the miniature object–and, of course, of the Celestial Empire. I thus argue that China occupies an affectively ambivalent position in the novel: it would make sense to treat China with satirical contempt, on a par with the Circumlocution Office and haute bourgeois Society, but the target of that contempt, its refusal of growth and progress, its worship of small and constricted objects and female bodies, in fact play a key role in sustaining the novel’s reparative energies.