Dickens, Charles John Huffam (1812-1870), probably the best-known and, to many people, the greatest English novelist of the 19th century. A moralist, satirist, and social reformer, Dickens crafted complex plots and striking characters that capture the panorama of English society.
Dickens’s novels criticize the injustices of his time, especially the brutal treatment of the poor in a society sharply divided by differences of wealth. But he presents this criticism through the lives of characters that seem to live and breathe. Paradoxically, they often do so by being flamboyantly larger than life: The 20th-century poet and critic T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dickens’s characters are real because there is no one like them.” Yet though these characters range through the sentimental, grotesque, and humorous, few authors match Dickens’s psychological realism and depth. Dickens’s novels rank among the funniest and most gripping ever written, among the most passionate and persuasive on the topic of social justice, and among the most psychologically telling and insightful works of fiction. They are also some of the most masterful works in terms of artistic form, including narrative structure, repeated motifs, consistent imagery, juxtaposition of symbols, stylization of characters and settings, and command of language.
Dickens established (and made profitable) the method of first publishing novels in serial installments in monthly magazines. He thereby reached a larger audience including those who could only afford their reading on such an installment plan. This form of publication soon became popular with other writers in Britain and the United States.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth, on England’s southern coast. His father was a clerk in the British Navy pay office—a respectable position, but with little social status. His paternal grandparents, a steward (property manager) and a housekeeper, possessed even less status, having been servants, and Dickens later concealed their background. Dickens’s mother supposedly came from a more respectable family. Yet two years before Dickens’s birth, his mother’s father was caught embezzling and fled to Europe, never to return.
The family’s increasing poverty forced Dickens out of school at age 12 to work in Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, a shoe-polish factory, where the other working boys mocked him as “the young gentleman.” His father was then imprisoned for debt. The humiliations of his father’s imprisonment and his labor in the blacking factory formed Dickens’s greatest wound and became his deepest secret. He could not confide them even to his wife, although they provide the unacknowledged foundation of his fiction.
Soon after his father’s release from prison, Dickens got a better job as errand boy in law offices. He taught himself shorthand to get an even better job later as a court stenographer and as a reporter in Parliament. At the same time, Dickens, who had a reporter’s eye for transcribing the life around him, especially anything comic or odd, submitted short sketches to obscure magazines. The first published sketch, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” (later retitled “Mr. Minns and His Cousin”) brought tears to Dickens’s eyes when he discovered it in the pages of The Monthly Magazine in 1833. From then on his sketches, which appeared under the pen name “Boz” (rhymes with “rose”) in The Evening Chronicle, earned him a modest reputation. Boz originated as a childhood nickname for Dickens’s younger brother Augustus.
Dickens became a regular visitor at the home of George Hogarth, editor of The Evening Chronicle, and in 1835 became engaged to Hogarth’s daughter Catherine. Publication of the collected Sketches by Boz in 1836 gave Dickens sufficient income to marry Catherine Hogarth that year. The marriage proved unhappy.
Soon after Sketches by Boz appeared, the fledgling publishing firm of Chapman and Hall approached Dickens to write a story in monthly installments. The publisher intended the story as a backdrop for a series of woodcuts by the then-famous artist Robert Seymour, who had originated the idea for the story. With characteristic confidence, Dickens, although younger and relatively unknown, successfully insisted that Seymour’s pictures illustrate his own story instead. After the first installment, Dickens wrote to the artist he had displaced to correct a drawing he felt was not faithful enough to his prose. Seymour made the change, went into his backyard, and expressed his displeasure by blowing his brains out. Dickens and his publishers simply pressed on with a new artist. The comic novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, appeared serially in 1836 and 1837 and was first published in book form in 1837.
The runaway success of The Pickwick Papers, as it is generally known today, clinched Dickens’s fame. There were Pickwick coats and Pickwick cigars, and the plump, spectacled hero, Samuel Pickwick, became a national figure. Four years later, Dickens’s readers found Dolly Varden, the heroine of Barnaby Rudge (1841), so irresistible that they named a waltz, a rose, and even a trout for her. The widespread familiarity today with Ebenezer Scrooge and his proverbial hard-heartedness from A Christmas Carol (1843) demonstrate that Dickens’s characters live on in the popular imagination.
Dickens published 15 novels, one of which was left unfinished at his death. These novels are, in order of publication with serialization dates given first: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-1837; 1837); The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-1839; 1838); The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839; 1839); The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841; 1841); Barnaby Rudge (1841); The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844; 1844); Dombey and Son (1846-1848; 1848); The Personal History of David Copperfield (1849-1850; 1850); Bleak House (1852-1853; 1853); Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1855-1857; 1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); Great Expectations (1860-1861; 1861); Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865; 1865); and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished; 1870).
Through his fiction Dickens did much to highlight the worst abuses of 19th-century society and to prick the public conscience. But running through the main plot of the novels are a host of subplots concerning fascinating and sometime ludicrous minor characters. Much of the humor of the novels derives from Dickens’s descriptions of these characters and from his ability to capture their speech mannerisms and idiosyncratic traits.
A. Early Fiction
Dickens was influenced by the reading of his youth and even by the stories his nursemaid created, such as the continuing saga of Captain Murderer. These childhood stories, as well as the melodramas and pantomimes he saw in the theater as a boy, fired Dickens’s imagination throughout his life. His favorite boyhood readings included picaresque novels such as Don Quixote by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and Tom Jones by English novelist Henry Fielding, as well as the Arabian Nights. In these long comic works, a roguish hero’s exploits and adventures loosely link a series of stories.
The Pickwick Papers, for example, is a wandering comic epic in which Samuel Pickwick acts as a plump and cheerful Don Quixote, and Sam Weller as a cockney version of Quixote’s knowing servant, Sancho Panza. The novel’s preposterous characters, high spirits, and absurd adventures delighted readers.
After Pickwick, Dickens plunged into a bleaker world. In Oliver Twist, he traces an orphan’s progress from the workhouse to the criminal slums of London. Nicholas Nickleby, his next novel, combines the darkness of Oliver Twist with the sunlight of Pickwick. Rascality and crime are part of its jubilant mirth.
The Old Curiosity Shop broke hearts across Britain and North America when it first appeared. Later readers, however, have found it excessively sentimental, especially the pathos surrounding the death of its child-heroine Little Nell. Dickens’s next two works proved less popular with the public.
Barnaby Rudge, Dickens’s first historical novel, revolves around anti-Catholic riots that broke out in London in 1780. The events in Martin Chuzzlewit become a vehicle for the novel’s theme: selfishness and its evils. The characters, especially the Chuzzlewit family, present a multitude of perspectives on greed and unscrupulous self-interest. Dickens wrote it after a trip to the United States in 1842.
B. Mature Fiction
Many critics have cited Dombey and Son as the work in which Dickens’s style matures and he succeeds in bringing multiple episodes together in a tight narrative. Set in the world of railroad-building during the 1840s, Dombey and Son looks at the social effects of the profit-driven approach to business. The novel was immediately successful.
Dickens always considered David Copperfield to be his best novel and the one he most liked. The beginning seems to be autobiographical, with David’s childhood experiences recalling Dickens’s own in the blacking factory. The unifying theme of the book is the “undisciplined heart” of the young David, which leads to all his mistakes, including the greatest of them, his mistaken first marriage.
Bleak House ushers in Dickens’s final period as a satirist and social critic. A court case involving an inheritance forms the mainspring of the plot, and ultimately connects all of the characters in the novel. The dominant image in the book is fog, which envelops, entangles, veils, and obscures. The fog stands for the law, the courts, vested interests, and corrupt institutions. Dickens had a long-standing dislike of the legal system and protracted lawsuits from his days as a reporter in the courts.
A novel about industry, Hard Times, followed Bleak House in 1854. In Hard Times, Dickens satirizes the theories of political economists through exaggerated characters such as Mr. Bounderby, the self-made man motivated by greed, and Mr. Gradgrind, the schoolmaster who emphasizes facts and figures over all else. In Bounderby’s mines, lives are ground down; in Gradgrind’s classroom, imagination and feelings are strangled.
The pervading image of Little Dorrit is the jail. Dickens’s memory of his own father’s time in debtors’ prison adds an autobiographical touch to the novel. Little Dorrit also contains Dickens’s invention of the Circumlocution Office, the archetype of all bureaucracies, where nothing ever gets done. Through this critique and others, such as the circular legal system in Bleak House, Dickens also investigated the ways in which art makes meaning and the workings of his own narrative style.
A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris during the French Revolution (1789-1799). It stands out among the novels as a work driven by incident and event rather than by character and is critical both of the violence of the mob and of the abuses of the aristocracy, which prompted the revolution. The successful Tale of Two Cities was soon followed by Great Expectations, which marked a return to the more familiar Dickensian style of character-driven narrative. Its main character, Pip, tells his own story. Pip’s “great expectations” are to lead an idle life of luxury. Through Pip, Dickens exposes that ideal as false.
Dickens’s last complete novel is the dark and powerful Our Mutual Friend. A tale of greed and obsession, it takes place in an ill-lit and dirty London, with images of darkness and decay throughout. Only 6 of the 12 intended parts of Edwin Drood had been completed by the time Dickens died. He intended it as a mystery story concerning the disappearance of the title character.
The end of Dickens’s life was emotionally scarred by his separation from his dutiful wife, Catherine, as the result of his involvement with a young actress, Ellen Ternan. Catherine bore him ten children during their 22-year marriage, but he found her increasingly dull and unsympathetic. Against the advice of editors, Dickens published a letter vehemently justifying his actions to his readers, who would otherwise have known nothing about them.
Following the separation, Dickens continued his hectic schedule of novel, story, essay, and letter writing (his collected letters alone stretch thousands of pages); reform activities; amateur theatricals and readings; in addition to nightly social engagements and long midnight walks through London. His energy had always seemed to his friends inhuman, but he maintained this activity in his later years in disregard of failing health. Dickens died of a stroke shortly after his farewell reading tour, while writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Dickens’s social critique in his novels was sharp and pointed. As his biographer Edgar Johnson observed in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952), Dickens’s criticism was aimed not just at “the cruelty of the workhouse and the foundling asylum, the enslavement of human beings in mines and factories, the hideous evil of slums where crime simmered and proliferated, the injustices of the law, and the cynical corruption of the lawmakers” but also at “the great evil permeating every field of human endeavor: the entire structure of exploitation on which the social order was founded.”
British writer George Orwell felt that Dickens was not a revolutionary, however, despite his criticism of society’s ills. Orwell points out that Dickens “has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong.” That instinctive feeling becomes so moving in the novels because Dickens made the injustices he hated concrete and specific, not abstract and general. His readers feel the abuses of 19th-century society as real through the life of his characters. Underlying and reinforcing that illusion of reality, however, is a rich and complicated system of symbolic imagery resulting from superb artistry.
Through his characters, Dickens also touched a range of readers, which was perhaps his greatest talent. As his friend John Forster wrote, his stories enthralled “judges on the bench and boys in the street” alike. The illiterate, often too poor to buy installments themselves, pooled their pennies and got someone to read aloud to them.
Near the end of the serialization of The Old Curiosity Shop, crowds thronged to a New York pier to await the ship from London carrying the latest installment. As it came to the dock people roared, “Is Little Nell dead?” The pathetic death of the novel’s child-heroine, Nell Trent, became one of the most celebrated scenes in 19th-century fiction. Such public concern over Little Nell’s end guaranteed that Dickens’s social message would be heard, not only by his avid readers, but also by those in power.
Dickens was a careful craftsman, with a strong sense of design; his books were strictly outlined. Any current notions that Dickens’s novels are long because he was paid by the word, or sloppy because he wrote them under pressure of monthly deadlines, are simply untrue. What organizes Dickens’s stories is sometimes not apparent at first glance, although it makes sense in novels that emphasize character. It is the logic of psychology, the tensions and contradictions of our drives and emotions, which Dickens plumbed, laying side by side the best and the worst of the human heart. This is a very different logic from the order of realism that rests on common sense. Dickens detested common sense, seeing in its seeming obviousness a form of tyranny.
The theater was a crucial influence on Dickens’s work. As a young man Dickens tried to go on stage, but he missed his audition because of a cold. Not only did Dickens later write comic plays, melodramas, and libretti (words for musical dramas), he was also often involved in amateur theatricals for good causes, and spent his last two decades reading his own stories to packed audiences. Dickens’s readings were as much a sensation in England and America as was his writing, and they proved as profitable. The readings revealed the part of the man that made him a practiced magician and hypnotist as well.
Dickens’s love of the theatrical makes his works lend themselves readily to media adaptations. Motion-picture or television versions exist for almost every one of them. A Christmas Carol was one of the earliest to be adapted, first appearing as the silent film Scrooge (1901), directed by Walter R. Booth. The most notable adaptations include A Christmas Carol (1938), directed by Edwin L. Marin and starring Reginald Owen, and, probably the most famous of all, A Christmas Carol (1951), directed by Brian Desmond Hart and starring Alastair Sim. A later production titled Scrooged (1988) was directed by Richard Donner and starred Bill Murray. David Lean directed the most famous of the many versions of Great Expectations (1946). The film Oliver! (1968), a musical based on Oliver Twist and directed by Carol Reed, won six Academy Awards. Nowadays people are probably more familiar with the many BBC television miniseries productions of Dickens’s works.