Charles Dickens World Literature Analysis
Dickens is one of the accidental giants of literature: Only William Shakespeare has commanded anything like the same level of both extraordinary popularity and critical esteem. Dickens was the first mainstream nineteenth century writer to reach out to hundreds of thousands of lower-class semiliterate readers, for whom he retained a conscientious concern that was only partly paternalistic: When one reads in Our Mutual Friend that the urchin Sloppy, who turns the washer-woman’s mangle, is “a beautiful reader of a newspaper,” because “He do the police in different voices,” one can laugh yet be respectful. Dickens himself did much to bring his works within the reach of ordinary people: Monthly serial parts at a shilling (one twentieth of a pound), in an age when a standard novel cost more than thirty times as much, put fiction within the reach of the lower middle classes; the twopence (a sixth of a shilling) weekly cost of Household Words made quality entertainment and useful information available to a mass audience.
One secret of Dickens’s success, as the detective novelist and critic G. K. Chesterton wrote in 1906, was that Dickens was both genius and Everyman: He wanted what the people wanted. That helps explain why about a dozen pirated adaptations of Oliver Twist were playing popular theaters across London before Dickens had even finished writing the novel and why early cinema invested so heavily in his novels—the second British feature film, in 1912, was an adaptation of the very same novel. It partly accounts, too, for the wild fluctuations in his critical reputation during his lifetime and after. Other sources for this are probably his period sentimentality and his resounding anti-intellectualism—he was, above all, an instinctive performer and semieducated improviser, the master of the carnival, a self-made man who thought he had a few hard-won truths to tell but who, unconsciously, revealed considerably more. He was not really, Chesterton argues, a novelist at all, but “the last of the mythologists,” whose godlike characters, from Pickwick and Sam Weller on, exist “in a perpetual summer of being themselves.” A Dickens novel is theater, even circus. Not until Dombey and Son in 1846 did he (regretfully) move on from the episodic and freewheeling “life and adventures” structure of his early novels.
When the twelve-year-old Dickens walked alone through London to the blacking factory, the scene of his degradation, he learned step-by-step the map of the sprawling and frightening city that looms in nearly every one of his works, the first modern metropolis, where only one in two poor children would survive to precarious adulthood. It takes the first detective in fiction to penetrate such a labyrinth, and Dickens invents him, in Bleak House’s Police Inspector Bucket. To express the image of the great city, it takes an imaginative identification of people with their houses, like the kind Dickens achieves in Little Dorrit, or the intrusion of a gigantic symbol, such as the (real-life) dustheaps that loom over the urban wasteland of Our Mutual Friend, and through which scavengers sift for coins, spoons, rags, and bits of human bone.
The story of his childhood degradation was also the source of his relentless, even desperate, creative energy and the core of the central myth he created of lost and violated childhood. As if upping the stakes of helplessness and terror, in The Old Curiosity Shop and the much-later Little Dorrit, he projects his anguish through the female persona of Little Nell, to whose deathbed the narrative inevitably marches, and “little” Amy Dorrit, the child born and bred in the Marshalsea Prison, who rises by force of humility of spirit above its degradation. In Bleak House, perhaps his masterpiece, he speaks, still more startlingly, directly through another female character, illegitimate and unattractive Esther Summerson.
In every one of Dickens’s novels is embedded an attack on a specific social abuse. In Bleak House, it is the dilatory injustice of the legal system. His portrait of the vampiric lawyer Mr. Vholes, a minor character who might at any moment step to center stage, perhaps typifies Dickens’s method and its biblical roots: Attempting to reassure a client, Vholes thumps his coffinlike desk, making a sound as if ashes were falling on ashes, and dust on dust. This very same example, however, points back toward the true source of Dickens’s art: not a thirst for social justice, though he devoutly felt this, but an eye for the weirdness of the world and the estranged unfamiliarity of the ordinary—Vholes “skinning” his black gloves from his hands.
First published: 1837-1839 (originally published as The Adventures of Oliver Twist)
Type of work: Novel
An orphan survives the workhouse and London’s criminal underworld to be rescued by a rich benefactor.
The first chapters of Dickens’s first “true” novel, Oliver Twist, which he began to write concurrently with the picaresque adventures of Mr. Pickwick, form a hard-hitting satire on the inhuman cruelties of the New Poor Laws of 1834. These dictated that society’s jobless and desperate should be virtually imprisoned in harsh institutions known as workhouses. Into one of these a little bastard boy is born—the lowest of the low, christened “Oliver Twist” by a pompous parish official, Mr. Bumble the beadle. Yet Oliver is in fact a gentleman by blood, with a fortune awaiting him, for his story is also a romance of origins, a battered child’s wish fulfillment.
The Parish Boy’s Progress (to use Dickens’s subtitle) really starts when Oliver draws the short straw among a group of starving workhouse boys and must approach the master at dinnertime to utter his famous request: “Please, sir, I want some more.” He is promptly sold to an undertaker, whose wife locks him up among the coffins for punishment. He escapes to London, where he is befriended by a streetwise boy, the Artful Dodger, who initiates him into the all-boy household of an “old gentleman” called Fagin (the name of one of Dickens’s companions at the blacking factory), a criminal mastermind. Innocent as ever, it is not until Oliver is mistakenly arrested that he realizes that his new friends are pickpockets. During his trial at the police court, the gentleman, Mr. Brownlow, whom he is supposed to have robbed, recognizes Oliver’s innate goodness and takes him into his home.
All seems safe—but Oliver knows too much about wily, demonic Fagin and his companion-in-crime, Bill Sikes. Sikes’s woman, Nancy, a prostitute, is employed to steal Oliver back—an act that she immediately regrets and tries to repair. Sikes tries to seal Oliver’s degradation and his power over him by employing him on a housebreaking expedition. The plan misfires...
(The entire section is 2862 words.)
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