Mother of Air - Mrs. Clennam

Character:

Mrs. Clennam

Book:

Little Dorrit

    For reasons unknown but perhaps intuited, Mrs. Clennam is confined to her wheelchair. She is physically trapped in her house and body, just as her mind and soul are trapped in the Bible she clutches and her self-imposed penance. Her God is the angry, punitive God of the Old Testament, who weighs her in the balance and finds her wanting. In the words of her son Arthur, she is a woman who "weighed, measured, and priced everything; for whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced, had no existence".

 

 Arthur gives his mother the watch his father died holding, his last words being: “Your mother”. Inside is a piece of silk which has written on it: Do Not Forget. What it all means is kept from Arthur by his mother, just as his mother is kept from him in more ways than one.

 

 Mrs. Clennam's outer world is one of sackcloth and ashes, fire and brimstone which emits no light and covers everything in soot. Exactly what the family business Clennam & Co. does remains obscure; with an office in China, the suspicion is they are speculators profiteering off the Opium Wars. Mrs. Clennam's inner world is an endless plain of obsidian; like her husband's death-bed keepsake, a place where time has stopped; an end time where an unforgiving memory keeps watch. In the pitch of Clennam House and the shady workings of Clennam & Co., Dickens draws a liminal connection between Mrs. Clennam and Little Dorrit – the one night to the other's day. The young girl's industry, purity, and love as right response to injustice is set in stark relief to the crone's evil workings. Mrs. Clennam knows of the Dorrit legacy but withholds the information, keeping them in penury and servitude, unable to stand on their own two feet. So conflicted is the old woman's desire for love, she must reject it at every turn; so unable to find love in herself, she must despise everyone else. Mrs. Clennam's actions are motivated by a need she cannot admit – her crippled spirit is locked away behind the loveless, lifeless letters of religious law. Dickens, in kind, affords her no Christian name. Her need for love has become her need to punish herself.

 

 When Dickens was touring America, an anti-abolitionist explained to the author that as it was in a man's best interest to keep his slaves in good working order, slavery was a self-regulating system in which no harm came to those indentured. Dickens immediately responded that just as it is in a man's best interest not to become drunk and act an ass, men nevertheless do. This is an insight into human behaviour which Dostoyevsky picked up from Dickens, and which Nietzsche in turn picked up from him. Mrs. Clennam is trapped in a cage to which she holds the key. So unshakable is her grasp that, in the end, the cage itself shatters from her grip. When the edifice finally collapses, the lie is revealed: Mrs. Clennam is no mother to Arthur, not just for all intents and purposes but literally.

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 Shorthand : Severe, to be sure - attentive to detail - Biblical bitterness - psychosomatic condition - Holier Than Thou - poison penance - love leveraged and withheld - factitious of reasoning - rigidity, brittle - punctilio - alert to motive - high of opinion, high of hand - formidable adversary - righteousness employed as smokescreen - strange inability to forget - genuine desire for atonement - a deathbed repentance at last.