I recently found a new hero to measure against and to find inspiration for life; Arthur Clennam of ‘Little Dorrit’. It’s been a while since I last found a male hero in a book who I’ve liked so much. He’s not much of a hero; the book he’s in isn’t even named after him. The guy who plays him in the BBC series is clean shaven and always wide eyed. At least in the Charles Dickens original he is described with rugged features and in the accompanying drawings he has manly (though ridiculous) facial hair.
But, for starters, Clennam is resilient; he is thrown from one disaster – the loss of the woman he loves to a richer, younger, better looking but altogether selfish man – to other disasters – the death of his mother and his bankruptcy – but he holds on. And he doesn’t stop with his kindness when he is up against it; he always helps people around him in anyway possible. He realises this also makes him feel better about himself. He is, above and beyond all other things, able to move on (eventually) from previous disappointments and eventually to realise who the most important people in his life are. His meeting with his former lover on his return from China after 10 years abroad is hilarious and also painfully true; Dickens had experienced a similar situation when meeting a childhood sweetheart a year before he wrote ‘Little Dorrit’. Clennam looks at Flora – now overweight, muddled and very sentimental, and sees how wrong the memories of her he nursed are. At the same time, his feelings of love for her flicker into life only to be drowned by her crude flirting and sickly nostalgia of the past relationship.
In the end, Clennam moves on, both from Flora and then from Pet, and comes to realise love is much closer and warmer than he ever thought it would be; he falls in love with Amy Dorrit. Both he and Amy are trapped in their physical and mental prisons. Clennam spends the whole of his time trapped; trapped in disappointment when his old hopes for himself and especially for a future wife don’t come true, trapped by his love of his mother who is cold and bitter in return, and finally trapped in an actual prison for debt after he loses his and his friend’s money in a financial crisis. He breaks out of these prisons through his love for Amy Dorrit. She actually pays his debt but she also gives him something to live for and to make the best out of life for. For Amy, Clennam’s true kindness to her means she can break out of her own mental trap of denying herself happiness for the sake of others.
All this is inspiring for life. Heroes change as your life change. But with Clennam something strikes a deep chord. He waited before disappointment and finally made good his happiness. It’s not quite James Bond but it’ll will do for many of us.