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 when Oliver is shot crawling through the window of a country house and is taken in by the gentle people he is supposed to be robbing—an old lady and her ward, who eventually turns out to be Oliver’s aunt.
As this excess of coincidences indicates, the second half of the novel is inferior to the first. Good eventually defeats evil, and Oliver inherits the heaven of respectable middle-classness, hardly a radical solution to a novel that trumpets its social criticism. Creative energy dissipates, however, when the action leaves the nightmare underworld of London, which seems almost a projection or map of Dickens’s own childhood terrors. The real climax of the novel is Sikes’s brutal murder of Nancy—one of the scenes that led some commentators to worry that the novel belied its author’s fascination with the criminality that it denounced.
First published: 1838-1839 (originally published as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby)
Type of work: Novel
A young gentleman restores the flagging fortunes of his family and exposes the villainy of his uncle.
The title character of Nicholas Nickleby sets off to be a schoolmaster in the north of England when the death of his father leaves the Nickleby family in bad straits—a trial his pretentiously genteel and garrulous mother (a comic portrait of Dickens’s own mother) finds hard to bear. At Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, Nicholas wins a test of strength with the evil headmaster Squeers, whose reign of terror has resulted in the abuse and deaths of his cringing charges, all of whom are orphans and unwanted children—a fictionalization of the real-life horrors that Dickens documented during a visit to Yorkshire with his illustrator.
Next, Nicholas becomes an actor in the hilariously inept touring company of Mr. and Mrs. Crummies, a development that allows Dickens to demonstrate both his knowledge and his affection for the theater. Meanwhile, the rather precarious main plot of the novel concerns the pathetic Smike, a handicapped boy whom Nicholas rescued from Dotheboys; its climax occurs when the boy is revealed to be the illegitimate son of Nicholas’s evil uncle, Ralph Nickleby, who has also plotted against the innocence of Nicholas’s sister, Kate. Father and son both perish, but a happy conclusion is brought about by the fairy-tale benevolence of the Cheeryble Brothers. Not surprisingly, they have long been targets of attack for critics who believe that Dickens has no practical or political solutions to offer to the abuses that he exposes.
First published: 1849-1850 (originally published as The Personal History of David Copperfield)
Type of work: Novel
David Copperfield’s autobiography duplicates the rags-to-riches shape of Dickens’s own life: from castaway factory boy to famous author and self-made gentleman.
Dickens’s eighth novel, his favorite, has an intimate relationship to his own story: “C. D.” becomes “D. C.” Some months before he began it, he had satdown to write the story of his childhood degradation for the first and only time in his life. The experience was too painful and Dickens abandoned the autobiographical attempt. Yet the material found its way, often word for word, directly into the first-person fiction of David Copperfield, which, as Dickens puts it semijokingly in the subtitle, the hero “never meant to be published on any account.”
Fatherless David Copperfield’s idyllic relationship to his pretty and childlike mother is utterly ended by her second marriage. Austere Mr. Murdstone lives up to the fairy-tale model of the wicked stepparent, whipping the terrified boy when he stammers over impossibly long sums, sending him away to school (where he meets and worships handsome Steerforth), and finally depriving David of his inheritance when his mother dies in childbirth, consigning him instead to the hell of Murdstone and Grinby’s (that is, Warren’s) factory. Comfort, however, is provided by the feckless, wordy, self-important Mr. Micawber, a masterly comic transformation of Dickens’s own father, with whom the lonely boy takes lodgings. Micawber suffers the same fate of imprisonment in debtors’ prison but remains convinced that his luck will change.
Meanwhile, an important subplot centers on the seafaring folk David meets through his devoted nurse, Peggotty: her brother Daniel, whose house is an upturned boat, the stalwart fisherman Ham, and Little Em’ly, the reckless and beautiful girl who is eventually seduced and ruined by Steerforth, David’s idol. Steerforth’s treatment of Little Em’ly is only partially redeemed by his death in a storm at sea, which also kills Ham, who had hoped to marry Little Em’ly.
When Micawber departs in search of his fortune, David also leaves London in quest of love and family. Robbed even of his clothes, he walks the long miles to Dover, where his is rewarded by the half-unexpected affection of his cantankerous and eccentric Aunt Betsy. She provides the schooling proper to a gentleman at Dr. Strong’s academy and sets David on the path to becoming a successful professional writer. The text pays little attention to his work; however, his romantic life looms far larger. David enters into an unsuitable marriage to sweet, frivolous, luxurious Dora Spenlow, who calls herself his child-wife.
On her deathbed—tragic but inevitable, given her inadequacies—Dora commends David to the woman who will be her successor, Dr. Strong’s daughter, Agnes, an incarnation of the Victorian ideal of the domestic angel, and, as such, somewhat lifeless and unbelievable. Embedded in this development is a hint at Dickens’s dissatisfaction with his own marriage and his desire for escape. Yet several hurdles must be negotiated before David can be safely delivered into the haven of a proper Victorian marriage. Dr. Strong and Agnes must be rescued from the clutches of the reptilian, mock-humble Uriah Heep, largely through the agency of Micawber. Little Em’ly must be found and rescued; old Daniel Peggotty finally immigrates with her to Australia—a treatment of the taboo fallen woman theme that was radical and humane for its time, and which reflects the lessons that Dickens learned in his ten-year involvement with a home for fallen women, Urania Cottage.
First published: 1860-1861
Type of work: Novel
The mysterious benefactor who turns Pip into a gentleman proves to be not the aristocratic lady he supposed but a runaway convict.
Not one of Dickens’s child characters enjoys a happy and uncomplicated relationship with two living parents. In his fiction, Dickens found it necessary not only to orphan himself of the parents who shamed him but also to re-create them in ideal shapes—and sometimes, too, to be fair to them. That is what happens in Great Expectations. What strikes one most powerfully about this compact and streamlined narrative—technically, perhaps Dickens’s best—is the excessive and apparently unmotivated guilt of its hero: guilt, perhaps, for the terrible snobbery into which he falls as he tries to climb the social ladder,guilt at his rejection of his parents, or the guilt of the human condition.
Pip is a village orphan brought up roughly by his unmotherly sister (her bosom bristles with pins), the wife of gentle blacksmith Joe Gargery. In the first chapter of the novel, on the memorable day when he becomes aware for the first time of his identity and his place in a hostile world, Pip meets, in the graveyard where his parents lie buried, a shivering, ravenous, and monstrous man, an escapee from the prison ships across the marshes, who terrorizes Pip into stealing food and drink for him. The convict is eventually recaptured, but not before Pip (and Joe) has come to pity him or before he has lied that it was he who stole a pie and brandy from the Gargery larder.
Next, Pip also meets the rich, weird recluse Miss Havisham, who lives in a darkened and dusty room where time has stood still, dressed always in a yellowing wedding dress. He falls in love with her petulant and beautiful ward, Estella, whom the old woman is training to break men’s hearts as vengeance for her own abandonment at the altar.
Some years later, a lawyer named Jaggers appears at the smithy with the news that Pip, now Joe’s apprentice, has been left a fortune and is to become a gentleman. Pip leaves for London, and inevitably a wedge is driven between him and his best friend, illiterate Joe, of whom Pip sinks so low as to become ashamed. Miss Havisham (the wordplay on “sham” is appropriate) lets Pip believe that it is she who is his benefactor, but the real benefactor is actually the least likely person imaginable: Magwitch, the monstrous convict, who has made good in Australia and now returns to England (thereby breaking the rules of his sentence) in hopes that the boy he has “made” will return his devoted affection. Pip is horrified and disgusted: His money is contaminated. The lesson of love and human decency that he must learn comes very hard indeed. Yet he learns it: By the time poor Magwitch is reclaimed by justice, Pip is prepared to stand holding his hand in the public court. Thankfully, Magwitch dies in prison before he can be hanged. Pip himself now falls seriously ill and is nursed back to life by Joe. No one, however, can turn back the clock: The moment Pip is better, Joe (calling him “sir”) retreats to the village. Pip’s loneliness at the end of the novel seems mediated only by a vague promise that a chastened Estella may some day be his—a modification of the harsher original ending Dickens had intended.
Great Expectations is psychologically Dickens’s most mature and realistic novel, although it works through his usual system of displacements and dark doublings. Loutish Orlick, Joe’s other apprentice, for example, seems to function as Pip’s alter ego when he attacks his uncaring sister, Mrs. Joe. It is also a novel that depicts the powerful influence of environment as well as of heredity: Magwitch, the convict, and bitter Miss Havisham were themselves both abused and lonely as children. For all of its somber coloring, however, the novel is also riotously funny in the characteristically Dickensian mode of excess: Pontificating Uncle Pumblechook, a seed merchant who subjected the boy Pip to humiliation over Christmas dinner, gets his poetic comeuppance, Joe reports, when Orlick robs him, “stuff[ing] his mouth full of flowering annuals to perwent his crying out.”