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The Air of Periperformativity in Little Dorrit

Ann M. Mazur, University of Virginia

The Air of Periperformativity in Little Dorrit
Little Dorrit is particularly unusual among Dickens’s work for his heightened attention to the power inherent in language. What this paper will suggest, is that in Little Dorrit, Dickens endues words with a power and precision to manipulate the space of reality not found in his other novels. If Dickens is generally the Flora Casby of the Victorian novelists, in Little Dorrit at least, he works his way into an uncommon relationship with words which fire themselves into the textual space like the interjections of Mr. F’s aunt. The now tired “critical cliché” that the prison is the interpretive key to the novel is revitalized by acknowledging that the prison of space is often the prison of the word.@ The repetitive theatricality of dialogue and theatre-spaces in Little Dorrit, the theatrical blurring of the unreal/real and dreaming/waking, can all be traced back to the performative effects of words on the actual air of the novel. Words themselves are actual “beings,” which function as containers, made of “characters” (pun intended), with an intrinsic theatricality; the signified escapes the signifier to infiltrate the literal atmosphere of the world of Little Dorrit.
This extension of words into a real physicality is, of course, performative, but the intense spatiality (rather than just the “doing”) which accompanies Little Dorrit’s words requires a more lively vocabulary. Any advanced critical dialogue on the complex of performativity’s truly complex dynamics in nineteenth-century novels is indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s introduction of the term “periperformative.”@ Sedgwick defines these “sentence and sentence complexes” as those which do not fall into the category of the performative utterance, but instead “allude to explicit performative utterances: not, that is, ‘we dedicate’ or ‘we hereby consecrate,’ but we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate.” She “call[s] them periperformatives, signifying that, though not themselves performatives, they are about performatives, and more properly, cluster around performatives”.@ Sedgwick’s important move which shifts the temporality or causality of the performative into a spatiality is especially vital to an understanding of how language works in the air of Little Dorrit. When words are periperformative, they infiltrate space and air in a more pervasive, infectious manner than the more straightforwardly affecting performative speech act arrow. Especially important for my purposes is Sedgwick’s recognition that “the localness of the periperformative is lodged in a metaphorics of space” (emphasis added) to explain the essential spatiality of the novel’s language—in both the space of infection by repetitive speech and the mistier provocation of periperformative speech. Air in this spatial sense becomes a convenient tool in the novel through which Dickens can examine the metaphysical power of words. Little Dorrit’s words become analogous to physical spaces; the word as signifier is a prison for the more ethereal and less pinpointable meaning/signified.
After first discussing the unusual function (even for Dickens) of the act of naming in the novel, I will proceed to an analysis of the novel’s recognition of words as “forms” to be filled by meaning. Several important female characters then provide examples of the explosion of words from their forms, in their use of the periperformative—rather than the more conventional and theatrical performative. Finally, this infiltration of words into the physical air culminates in the unmasking of the novel’s most high profile men through both Dicken’s use of the air metaphor and a dismantling of the performative through which they have hitherto reigned.
Naming: Characters contained by the characters
Throughout Little Dorrit, characters names themselves and one another in an effort to control both “character” and space. Name controls the air or aura of a character’s character. Naming becomes a way of possessing; just as the Meagles’ “Pet” becomes “Mrs. Gowan”, it is significant that the tug-of-war between the Meagles and Miss Wade over Tattycoram is also a battle over her name. Will she retain the “detest[ed]” (21) name of “Tattycoram” or revert back to “Harriet,” her true name as insisted upon by her new spinster guardian? The Meagles’ initial naming of Tattycoram indicates their realization that names, as words with connotations, have a deeper influence on the personality of the named: “Harriet we changed into Hatty, and then into Tatty, because as practical people, we thought that even a playful name might be a new things to her, and might have a softening and affectionate kind of effect” (15).
The name as a word is potentially a web of complexities which extend out from the simple signifier, into the very air of the person named. Possession, like the connotations of words, is a somewhat intangible though powerfully latent energy existing “in the air” in a sense, not entirely pinpointable in its source of vitality (like the airy, spacey periperformative). Names negotiate the air of the text like missiles. With not a quarter of the novel complete, already Arthur’s pet name of “Little Dorrit” for Amy Dorrit, “had already begun, between those two, to stand for a hundred gentle phrases” (145).@ This complicates the more public signification of words, by becoming privately owned (perhaps like “Tattycoram”). Even Flora’s verbosity recognizes she cannot describe all that “Little Dorrit” signifies: it is “of all the strangest names I ever heard the strangest, like a place down in the country with a turnpike, or a favorite pony or a puppy or a bird or something from a seed-shop to be put in a garden or a flower-pot and come up speckled” (226).@ The yoking of the idea of possession to a name’s cloud of meanings demonstrates the periperformativity of names in Little Dorrit—which is in fact, perhaps unsurprising. As Sedgwick explains, the spatiality of the periperformative allows the invocation of more than one illocutionary act; “if the periperformative is the neighborhood of a performative, there might well be another performative neighborhood not so very far off to the north or northwest of this one.”@ Flora’s recognition that “Little Dorrit” contains a multitude of meanings in its periperformative air extends Sedgwick’s periperformative spatiality to an analogous relationship with words “in the air” more generally; many meanings (of flower pots, a favorite pony) are yoked together under the one phrase “Little Dorrit.”
Recognizing Words as Spaces
The characters of Little Dorrit can hardly be blamed for trying to lock up and hoard their own special meanings for words, because words otherwise fly indiscriminately and uncontrollably through the text. Dickens recognizes the anxiety over pinning down a word’s true content—much like the lawyers of Great Expectations demand absolute precision in receiving answers from their clients. Mr. Barnacle is unable to pronounce “the—Public” (94) without the intervening dash; he is “always checked a little by that word of impertinent signification.” The Public, indeed, as a representative witness to language—and a large abstraction “in the air” like novel’s governing body of Society—is rather precariously attached to its own signified (what is the Public?) as it is itself responsible for assigning the meanings of language. With this limbo thrown into the governing bodies of language—the Public and Society, but most obviously the Circumlocution Office—the spatiality of the novel’s world is equally unassignable. If the novel’s places are not represented as prisons or theatres, they generally cannot be found in England. In searching for the run-away “Tattycoram”—in some ways both she and her name have run off—Mr. Meagles and Clennam end up with a name of a street on a slip of paper:
“Here is no number,” said Arthur, looking over it.
“No number, my dear Clennam?’ returned his friend. “No anything! The very name of the street may have been floating in the air, for, as I tell you, none of my people can say where they got it from.” (272)
Both the prisons of words and the idea of containing the self become comforting (Little Dorrit imagines her father living better within the Marshalsea than without), because both the space of a word’s characters and literal space are up in the air, or undetermined or untraceable – as in the difficulty of finding both Miss Wade’s physical house and the origins of the words on the paper slip. Both physical space and language share an anxiety over their respective abilities to be pinpointed, and the way in which they can be duplicated. The replicability of the signifier serves a very important plot function because it reveals (though it very nearly does not reveal) Little Dorrit’s fortune: Pancks initially brushes off any connection between Amy Dorrit and the Dorrits of Dorsetshire, because “having often found two exactly similar names, even belonging to the same place, to involve no traceable consanguinity, near or distant, he did not at first give much heed to this” (343).
Little Dorrit’s “Un-conventional” Women and the Periperformative
If a deeper place of meaning is reached, it is ironically found in that very ambivalent twisting quality of language that leads to the periperformative. Even more intriguing than those overtly theatricalized and varnished characters are those who appear to resist theatricality but are moved within a theatrical neighborhood of action despite themselves. Mrs. Clennam, Miss Wade, and Little Dorrit are the three female characters most opposed to the upkeep of social forms for forms’ sake. Yet, their ability to be seen as the most unpretentious women of the text belies their unique relationship with Sedgwick’s periperformative utterance; the odd theatricality of their periperformative use of words is responsible for changing the air and atmosphere of Little Dorrit’s social relations, even more so than the drastic in-your-face theatricality of Rigaud and company.
Miss Wade and Mrs. Clennam use the periperformative utterance to gain control of social situations. Though Miss Wade is introduced as “the reserved Englishwoman” (18) with “no pretence” (19) in her face, she is later repeatedly described as “repressed” (275) and alternates between states of supreme calm and outbursts of emotion; this suggests her utter inability to manipulate herself to the forms which are demanded by society (made even more clear by her perverse interpretation of her life as given in her oddly ill-fitting story chapter). Yet, Miss Wade is weirdly able to direct the scenes in which she interacts with Arthur. When he first visits with Mr. Meagles, Arthur’s suggestion that they would make allowances for Tattycoram’s outbursts is met only with Miss Wade’s own unique brand of hospitality: “The lady broke into a smile, as she turned her eyes upon him. ‘Indeed?’ was all she answered” (275). Miss Wade’s utter composition at this moment has a frightening effect on Meagles and Clennam; her command of the awkward silence forces them to fill the missing gaps in the conversation. Her complete disregard for the typical ways of showing contempt imparts a weird manipulation of the scene’s power dynamics, so that she is in charge—similarly to how the unconventionality of the periperformative (versus the performative) permits a more explosive and uncontained reaction. Besides Miss Wade’s “Indeed?” utterance, her other speech is frequently found along the periperformative borders—especially enabled by her going against the typically expected antagonistic response. In another instance, her “slur[ring] of the word gentleman …[which] was more contemptuous than any emphasis” (446) results in Arthur’s “looking at the surrounding objects for assurance that he was not in an odd dream” (446-7). While Sedgwick describes the classification of periperformatives as slightly elusive, (if you think an utterance is probably periperformative, it probably is, she explains), the periperformative does appear to be centered on a dismantling of either the plain performative, or, any expected social form of response. The periperformative rests upon the disruption of the formulaic.
Similarly, Mrs. Clennam becomes a perfect character for introducing the important correlation between a release (or containment) of language and the physical air which inhabits a space. If her exchanges with Arthur are characterized by a sort of holding back, even in the use of the periperformative “I will renounce you” which clouds their relationship, then it is unsurprising and surely no coincidence that Mrs. Clennam’s climactic confrontation with Rigaud over her secret is accompanied with a change in her room’s enclosed air. Her room “was in its usual state; except that one of the windows was wide open … there was a nameless air of preparation in the room” (637). With Mrs. Clennam’s subsequent rushing out from her bedroom, onto the street for the first time in decades, she is “[m]ade giddy by … the confusing sensation of being in the air” (656) which brings on its breeze “unexpected changes in half-remembered objects, and the want of likeness between the controllable pictures her imagination had often drawn of the life from which she was secluded, and the overwhelming rush of reality.” Again, once Mrs. Clennam reaches the Dorrit residence, “[t]he air was heavy and hot; the closeness of the place oppressive” (657); as she passes her secret to Amy – and receives Amy’s promise that she will not share it, Mrs. Clennam spits out the uncharacteristic performative “GOD bless you!” (659). Having emitted this, Mrs. Clennam implodes on herself in an act of spontaneous collapsion; she follows the ways of her house, which fantastically crumpled to the ground upon her return to it; the enclosed space no longer exists to hold her secret – it has been transferred textually to Amy.
Little Dorrit, likewise, though she tries to deny the theatre, is always the scene of the theatre. She is not the theatre, but clusters around scenes of theatre. In fact, these three female characters – Miss Wade, Mrs. Clennam, and Amy – so integral to the action of the plot, form a more legitimate and genuine (because unrepetitive) alternative universe of theatricality in Little Dorrit through their persistent periperformativity and general refusal of unconventional forms of manipulation. At moments when Amy overcomes her annoyingly persistent silence, her dialogue works again along the lines of the periperformative, especially in her letters to Arthur. Near the conclusion of her last lengthy letter, she ends paragraphs with repetitive and somewhat theatrical-seeming disclosures of her emotion: “I have the same feeling often-often” (462) and “So dearly do I love the scene of my poverty and your kindness. O so dearly, O so dearly!” (463, emphasis added). Yet, alternating with these more obviously theatricalized (because emotionally-revealing and repetitive) statements are two more subtle paragraph conclusion sentences, of a very periperformative sub-textual nature. She abruptly cuts off the first of my highlighted paragraphs, after a discussion of Fanny’s romantic trials, with “I have no lover, of course” (462), and then culminates a dialogue on her dreams with the concluding statement “I have never even dreamed of you” (463).@ The obvious suggestiveness of these statements towards her affection for Arthur still leaves unsaid her affection as they simultaneously imply it. She renegotiates her agency with Arthur through a less direct means than the potential performativity of a statement like “I love you.”
An Explosion of the Theatre of Words: Pressure
An important realization is that these moments with Miss Wade, Mrs. Clennam and Amy are opposed to the more foregrounded notions of theatre in Little Dorrit—in the theatre at which Fanny and William Dorrit are employed, and “the drama under representation” (126) every time Flora reenacts her love scenes with Arthur, but most obviously in Mrs. Merdle, also known as the parrot of Society. Interestingly, Mrs. Merdle is associated not only with the extreme theatricality and imprisoning forms of society, but also the direct performative utterance. “In the grammar of Mrs. Merdle’s verbs … [in trying to get money for her son], there was only one Mood, the Imperative; and that Mood has only one Tense, the Present” (465). The theatre elsewhere is undoubtedly a place of repetition; the novel’s first visit there is marked by the dialogue of the “monotonous boy” (197) being echoed by a “sprightly gentleman” – “Less noise there, ladies!” becomes “Less noise there, darlings!”, “Look out there, ladies!” becomes “Look out there, darlings!”, etc. until “Everybody at eleven to-morrow, ladies!” (198) and “Everyone at eleven to-morrow, darlings!” reinforces the never-ending nature of the theatre’s repetition. Likewise, the Circumlocution Office runs in ceaseless circles in which Arthur’s repeated “monotonous inquiry” of “I want to know” (95) is met only with a repetitive and meaningless doubling of his words by Barnacle’s “Look here … you know, you know.”@
The circularity of language becomes a prison ready to rupture; language is “nothing but a raging swell of sound” (11) that accumulates in the enclosed spaces of words and in the physical prisons of the locked cell and of the skull. This swelling pushes against the falseness of words, and culminates finally in the exposure of both Merdle and Casby as false idols at the novel’s conclusion. The exhaustive attention to the smells of enclosed spaces results in a continual “choking for want of air” (353) – exhibited also by Mr. Merdle’s relative lack of voice.@ The Merdle residence itself is “at all times stuffed and close as if it had an incurable cold in its head” (579). From the repetitive reverberation of the Merdle-centered theatricality grows a metaphysical “moral infection” (476) – the spreading of which is as assured as the “breath[ing of] an atmosphere”:
As a vast fire will fill the air to a great distance with its roar, so the sacred flame which the mighty Barnacles fanned caused the air to resound more and more, with the name of Merdle. It was deposited on every lip, and carried into every ear.
On the night on which Merdle kills himself, “the night air [was] laden with a heavy muttering of the name of Merdle, coupled with every form of execration” (593), that is subsequently transferred to the humidity of the bath in which Merdle does the deed. Though—as with Mrs. Clennam’s latterly open window— “a skylight had been opened, to release the steam with which the room had been filled … it hung, condensed in water-drops, heavily upon the walls, and heavily upon the face and figure in the bath” (590). Merdle kills himself because he, as “public mind” (592) so satisfactorily concludes, succumbed to “Pressure” —the theories about which spread along lines similarly to the original “Merdle” infection. It is not only the pressure which results when consumed by (repetitive) “work, work, work!” (593), but the discrepancy between Merdle’s representation as the shining light of his time and the reality that he is “the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows” (594). Merdle’s true definition of self resists placement in the word of his name as Society has seen it. Significantly, Merdle kills himself with a letter opener; his death emits a suicide note which reveals his true self – death is the means by which he escapes the falseness of the language which has linguistically entrapped him in his envelope of public perception.
Similarly, Casby’s house is haunted by the air of “faded scents of truth … like a wintry breath” (121). Casby’s deception is put in more linguistic terms; the title of “Patriarch … which many people delighted to give him” results entirely from Casby’s benevolent-suggesting physical appearance. This is a clear case, like “Merdle,” of the container (name) not fitting the object (character). Of Casby it is said: “[t]he benign wisdom he infused into [a] declaration (not of itself profound), by means of his blue eyes, his shining head, and his long white hair, was most impressive. It seemed worth putting down among the noblest sentiments enunciated by the best of men” (227). As Pancks declares when exposing Casby: “Oh, it is a mighty fine signpost, is the Casby’s head” (669). While it first may appear ironic to some extent that Pancks enacts a kind of melodramatic performance when revealing Casby to the populace—a series of narratorial comments regards Pancks’ gesticulations as a “singular performance repeated” (667) and “repeating the popular performance”—this culminates in the snipping of Casby’s white hair to leave “[a] bare-polled, goggle-eyed, big-headed, lumbering personage … not in the least impressive, not in the least venerable” (669). This total disruption of the standard performative universe (because it is now Pancks, the employed, directing, rather than Casby, the employer) rests on a disruption of the performative utterance. Before the final stoke falls upon Casby, Pancks declares:
I merely wish to remark that the task this Proprietor has set me, has been, never leave off conjugating the Imperative Mood Present Tense of the verb To keep always at it. Keep thou always at it. Let him keep always at it. Keep we or do we keep always at it. Keep ye or do ye or you keep always at it. Let them keep always at it. (669)
Pancks’s total obliteration of the expected pattern of conjugation is also an obliteration, most importantly, of the imperative and thus-far-performative effects of Casby’s sign-post head’s always-enacted directions “Keep at it.”
Conclusion: Turnkeys and the Periperformative
Finally, repetitive linguistic buildup of Little Dorrit can seemingly only be alleviated through revisions of the performative utterance. This improved reinstatement of the performative works not only through the periperformative, but through a reembodiment of a subsequent generation, which reinvents the role of the performative (in a new act of inheritance)—specifically in Young John Chivery’s replacement of his father as turnkey. The original turnkey is introduced as a word become person, in that he embodies his material-turnkey as a person-turnkey—he as a body functions as a key in and out of the Marshalsea prison. The turnkey’s words are performative in his naming of William Dorrit at the novel’s opening; his benediction of “you’ll be the Father of the Marshalsea” (54) is “remembered and repeated … handed down from generation to generation” as a living speech after the turnkey’s death. Yet, the pure performative hits a ceiling of influence. Though the turnkey “promised and vowed and renounced on [Amy Dorrit’s] behalf” (56-7) in order to become her godfather, he is unable despite his best efforts to performatively will any of his property to her. Young John corrects the failings of his ancestors when he prods Arthur, “why not be open through a turnkey?” (608); John’s sacrificing sincerity and complete openness of speech allows Arthur to final admit to himself that Amy Dorrit has been in love with him. In a sense, this is Amy Dorrit’s true inheritance finally bequeathed to her, rather than the fortune she inherits midway through the novel.
So, while the novel ends with Amy and Arthur’s marriage, that seems to imply an obviously explicit performative utterance of “I do”, the extremely unspoken nature of the conclusion revises this.
So they stood before the fire, waiting. Clennam with his arm about her waist, and the fire shining, as fire in that same place had often shone, in Little Dorrit’s eyes. “Is it bright enough now?” said Arthur. “Quite bright enough now,” said Little Dorrit. “Does the charm want any words to be said?” asked Arthur, as he held the paper over the flame. “You can say (if you don’t mind) ‘I love you!’ ” answered Little Dorrit. So he said it, and the paper burned away. (687)
The fire becomes a new shining light of the time, but spreads not in a publicly Merdle-ous infection; instead marriage and light is a sealing of privacy; Arthur unknowingly burns the paper of secrets which Mrs.Clennam passed on to Amy. Additionally, no one actually says “I love you”; Little Dorrit’s words that “[y]ou can say (if you don’t mind) ‘I love you!’” (especially with the added parenthetical clause) become a performative prodding of Arthur’s subtextual (“he said it”) “I love you.” Rather than meeting an “I do” with “I do,” or an “I love you” with “I love you too,” Amy and Arthur evade the traditional theatrical channels of marriage. This permits, in the very final sentences, Amy and Arthur to remain separate from the “raging swell of sound” present at the novel’s beginning—alternatively, “they went down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and in shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar” (688).

Ann M. Mazur is a Ph. D. student at the University of Virginia, where she is working on her dissertation, The Nineteenth-Century Home Theatre:  Women and Periperformativity.  Her current work involves performativity and manipulations of space within Victorian theatre sites.  Additionally, she is president/founder of the graduate student-run Victorian Theatricals Society at the University of Virginia, whose past performances include Henry J. Byron's Sensation Dramas for the Back Drawing Room (1864) for the past two Victorian Institute Conferences, as well as adaptations of Lady Audley's Secret and Gilbert's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the UVa graduate population at large.

Works Cited
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