- “As number one referred him to number two, and as number two referred him to number three, he had occasion to state it three times before they all referred him to number four, to whom he stated it again” is a quotation from Little Dorrit (Book 1, Chapter 10).
This quotation is a description of the Circumlocution Office, a bureaucratic government department in Little Dorrit. The quote illustrates the amount of unecessary bureaucracy Dickens was highlighting in the Civil Service of the time, here being passed by one official to another and another.
Arthur Clennam has visted the Circumlocution Office, looking to speak to Tite Barnacle, who he has been told knows about the case of William Dorrit’s debts. At the office is he directed to Tite Barnacle’s house, where he meets with him, but is fobbed off and sent back to the Circumlocution Office. On his return visit he finds he is again passed back and forth from the bureaucrats there.
Background: Dickens and The Circumlocution Office.
In Book 1, Chapter 10 of Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam visits a government department called the Circumlocution Office trying to find out about the case against a man called William Dorrit, who has been imprisoned for debt. He is passed from official to official trying to find a satisfactory answer. The officials in charge of the department are typified by the nepotic and self-serving upper-class Barnacle family, who revel in obfuscation and red tape. Charles Dickens deliberately introduced the Circumlocution Office into the novel to parody civil service mismanagement. At the time Dickens was writing and publishing the early chapters of Little Dorrit there was a public outcry at government mismanagement of the Crimean War, a conflict that had started in October 1853 between Russia and an alliance that included Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. Graphic descriptions had appeared in the British press of troops serving in the war suffering from disease, hunger and neglect. The alarming reports of mismanagement led to an enquiry by a parliamentary select committee. Public opposition culminated in a riot on Sunday, 21 January 1855, in London’s Trafalgar Square. Less than two weeks later the government, a coalition of political factions under the leadership of Lord Aberdeen, fell and the Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, took over as the new Prime Minister. The Crimean War ended with the signing of The Treaty of Paris in March 1856. Little Dorrit was serialized in twenty monthly parts from December 1855 through to June 1857, followed shortly after by the whole novel in one volume.
A few steps brought him to the second door on the left in the next passage. In that room he found three gentlemen; number one doing nothing particular, number two doing nothing particular, number three doing nothing particular. They seemed, however, to be more directly concerned than the others had been in the effective execution of the great principle of the office, as there was an awful inner apartment with a double door, in which the Circumlocution Sages appeared to be assembled in council, and out of which there was an imposing coming of papers, and into which there was an imposing going of papers, almost constantly; wherein another gentleman, number four, was the active instrument.
‘I want to know,’ said Arthur Clennam,—and again stated his case in the same barrel-organ way. As number one referred him to number two, and as number two referred him to number three, he had occasion to state it three times before they all referred him to number four, to whom he stated it again.
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