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The novel begins in Marseille "thirty years ago" (i.e. ca. 1826) with the notorious murderer Rigaud informing his cellmate that he has murdered his wife. There is also the character Arthur Clennam, who is returning to London to see his mother following the death of his father with whom he had lived for twenty years in China. As he died, his father had given Arthur a mysterious watch, murmuring, "Your mother." Naturally Arthur had assumed that it was intended for Mrs Clennam, whom he and the world supposed to be his mother.

Inside the watch casing was an old silk paper with the initials D N F (Do Not Forget) worked into it in beads. It was a message, but when Arthur shows it to harsh and implacable Mrs Clennam, a religious fanatic, she refuses to reveal what it means, and the two become estranged.

In London, William Dorrit, imprisoned as a debtor, has been a resident of Marshalsea debtor's prison for so long that his three children — snobbish Fanny, idle Edward (known as Tip), and Amy (known as Little Dorrit) — have all grown up there, though they are free to pass in and out of the prison as they please. Amy is devoted to her father and through her sewing, has been financially supporting the two of them.

Once in London, Arthur is reacquainted with his former fiancée Flora Finching, who is now overweight and simpering. Arthur's mother, Mrs Clennam, although paralyzed and a wheelchair user, still runs the family business with the help of her servant Jeremiah Flintwinch and his downtrodden wife Affery. When Arthur learns that Mrs Clennam has employed Little Dorrit as a seamstress, showing her unusual kindness, he wonders if the young girl might be connected with the mystery of the watch. Suspecting that his mother played a part in the misfortunes of the Dorrits, Arthur follows the girl to the Marshalsea. He vainly tries to inquire about William Dorrit's debt at the poorly run Circumlocution Office and acts as a benefactor to her father and brother. While at the Circumlocution Office, Arthur meets the struggling inventor Daniel Doyce, whom he decides to help by becoming his business partner. The grateful Little Dorrit falls in love with Arthur, much to the dismay of the son of the Marshalsea jailer, John Chivery, who has loved her since childhood; Arthur, however, fails to recognize Amy's interest. At last, aided by the indefatigable debt-collector Pancks, Arthur discovers that William Dorrit is the lost heir to a large fortune and he is finally able to pay his way out of prison.

William Dorrit decides that as a now respectable family, they should go on a tour of Europe. They travel over the Alps and take up residence for a time in Venice, and finally in Rome, carrying, with the exception of Amy, an air of conceit at their new-found wealth. Eventually after a spell of delirium, Mr Dorrit dies in Rome, and his distraught brother Frederick, a kindhearted musician, who has always stood by him, also passes away. Amy is left alone and returns to London to stay with newly married Fanny and her husband, the foppish Edmund Sparkler.

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