Study Guide

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens Essay - Dickens, Charles

Dickens, Charles

Introduction

Dickens, Charles 1812-1870

(Full name Charles John Huffam Dickens; also wrote under the pseudonym of Boz) English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist.

Although Dickens is perhaps best known for his novels, he wrote short fiction throughout his career, from the early Sketches by Boz to the acclaimed Christmas stories and the journalistic Uncommercial Traveller. Dickens's short stories, like his longer works, mix humor with macabre imagery to create vivid illustrations of the lives of ordinary people. Designed to uncover social injustices and promote reform in his own time, the endearing characterizations and moving situations presented in Dickens's shorter pieces have appealed to audiences up to the present day; indeed, his short story A Christmas Carol is one of his most enduring works. For much of the Englishspeaking world, this tale has played an important role in defining the Yule spirit; according to May Lamberton Becker, "every year at Christmas time, thousands of families wherever the English language is known would scarcely think Christmas really Christmas without listening to this story read aloud."

Biographical Information

Dickens was the son of John Dickens, a minor government official who, because he continually lived beyond his means, was briefly imprisoned for debt. During his father's confinement, the twelve-year-old Dickens was forced to leave home and work in dreadful conditions in a blacking (shoe polish) warehouse. This experience left an indelible impression on Dickens, who portrayed the difficulties of the poor in most of his writings. Late in his teens, Dickens learned shorthand and worked as a reporter. In 1833 he began contributing sketches and short stories to various periodicals. These were eventually compiled into two volumes under the title Sketches by Boz. He continued to use serial publication for all of his works, including his novels, for he cherished the constant contact with his readers the method provided. Throughout his career, Dickens gave numerous public readings from his works in both England and America, an activity that left him exhausted. Many believe that increasing physical and mental strain led to the stroke Dickens suffered while working on the novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he left unfinished at his death.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In his short fiction, Dickens variously combines humor, sentiment, autobiography, spirituality, and both Gothic and realistic elements. Sketches by Boz, provides comic and closely observed characterizations drawn from Victorian London's lower and middle classes. Celebrated stories from this compilation include: "A Visit to Newgate," which details a criminal's final hours before his execution; "The Black Veil," a tale about a woman whose life is evaluated according to the worth of her husband; and "Mr. Minns and His Cousin," which shows that adherence to social conventions can cause misery. Continuing to focus on the lives of ordinary people, Dickens began writing Christmas stories, which include A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain. His intention for these tales was, he wrote, "a whimsical kind of masque which the good humor of the season justified, to waken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." Generally, these books feature fallen protagonists who, through a chain of remarkable, even otherworldly, events, realize the mistakes they have made in life. For example, A Christmas Carol chronicles the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge (Dickens's most famous character) from a miser to a generous being after he receives startling visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. In The Chimes Toby Veck represents members of the lower class who have acceded to society's opinion that the poor are inferior; his conversion involves restoring faith in himself and his class. The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain—the most sophisticated version of the common theme in the estimation of many critics—portrays Mr. Redlaw's realization that his new-found ability to erase memories is harmful to others. After writing these holiday tales, Dickens, using material from his own life, penned the more journalistic The Uncommercial Traveller. One story in this collection, "Dullborough Town," describes the setting of Dickens's childhood, and another, "City of London Churches," recounts a love affair similar to the writer's first relationship.

Critical Reception

Hailed for his comic and journalistic abilities, powerful and provoking depictions of the poor, unforgettable characters, and the moral-filled Christmas stories, Dickens was one of the most successful writers of his time. Enormously popular in England, he was, before he turned thirty, honorably received in America as well. Dickens wrote of the reception: "There never was a king or emperor upon the earth so cheered and followed by crowds, and entertained in public at splendid halls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds." Although some critics have asserted that Sketches by Boz focuses too heavily on the lower class and that the author's stories are at times too sentimental and laden with exaggeration, many have extolled them for their expressions of a fundamental faith in humanity and their unflagging censure of social injustice. A. Edward Newton perhaps best summarized the high esteem in which countless readers hold Dickens when he declared that "in the resplendent firmament of English literature there is only one name I would rank above his for sheer genius: Shakespeare."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Sketches by Boz [as Boz] 1836

A Christmas Carol 1843

The Chimes 1844

The Cricket on the Hearth 1845

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain 1848

Reprinted Pieces 1858

The Uncommercial Traveller 1861

*Other Major Works

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (novel) 1837

Oliver Twist (novel) 1838

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby (novel) 1839

Barnaby Rudge (novel) 1841

The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841

American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844

Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son (novel) 1848

The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Bleak House (novel) 1853

Hard Times for These Times (novel) 1854

Little Dorrit (novel) 1857

A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859

Great Expectations (novel) 1861

Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865

No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (drama) 1867

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870

*All of Dickens's novels were first published serially in magazines, usually over periods ranging from one to two years.

Criticism

The Edinburgh Review (essay date 1845)

SOURCE: A review of The Chimes, in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LXXXI, January, 1845, pp. 181-89.

[In the excerpt below, the anonymous critic discusses Dickens's exposure of the plight of the poor in The Chimes.]

Tray, Mr Betterton,' asked the good Archbishop Sancroft of the celebrated actor, 'can you inform me what is the reason you actors on the stage, speaking of things imaginary, affect your audience as if they were real; while we in the church speak of things real, which our congregations receive only as if they were imaginary?' 'Why, really, my lord,' answered Betterton, 'I don't know; unless it is that we actors speak of things imaginary as if they were...

(The entire section is 4478 words.)

Edward Wagenknecht (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "Dickens at Work: The Chimes," in Dickens and the Scandalmongers: Essays in Criticism, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, pp. 50-70.

[Wagenknecht is an American biographer and critic. His works include critical surveys of the English and American novel and studies of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Henry James, among many others. In the following excerpt, which was originally published in the 1931 edition of The Chimes, Wagenknecht asserts that this story is an important source for understanding Dickens's art and spirit.]

The enormous vogue of A Christinas Carol has probably served, in a measure at least, to draw the attention of at least...

(The entire section is 6540 words.)

The Dickensian (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "The Reception of Dickens's First Book," in The Dickensian, Vol. XXXII, No. 237, December, 1935, pp. 43-50.

[In the following essay, the critic presents extracts of original reviews of Sketches by Boz.]

The Centenary of Pickwick is likely to overshadow another very important centenary in the life of Dickens, and we must not lose sight of the fact that Dickens's first book was published only about two months before the immortal Pickwick made his first bow to the public.

Sketches by Boz in two volumes at one guinea was published on or about 8th February, 1836; as we all know, it was a collection of short stories and sketches...

(The entire section is 3753 words.)

Norman Berrow (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "Some Candid Opinions on A Christmas Carol "in The Dickensian, Vol. XXXIV, No. 245, December, 1937-38, pp. 20-4.

[Here, in an essay that was originally presented as a lecture in May, 1937, Berrow reacts negatively to A Christmas Carol.]

There has been much said this evening in praise, I might almost say in adulation, of Charles Dickens. Just by way of a change I want to offer a few words of criticism. In case some of you might consider these words as something of the nature of an attack, I should like to point out, though there is really no need to do so, that a man who stands in such an impregnable position as Dickens does not fear attack. But a little...

(The entire section is 2134 words.)

Ernest Boll (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "The Sketches by 'Boz'," in The Dickensian, Vol. XXXVI, No. 254, Spring, 1940, pp. 69-73.

[In the essay below, American educator Boll examines how the stories in Sketches by Boz anticipate the themes and characters of Dickens's later novels.]

We gain something worth while when, to our enjoyment of the individual writings of an author we add an understanding of his works as a comprehensive whole. We enjoy a person's sense of humour, or his good taste in clothes, or his power of quick sympathy, and dislike his bad temper, his penuriousness, or his accent; but we do not understand him until we make an effort to knit together the various threads of his...

(The entire section is 2210 words.)

Edgar Johnson (essay date 1951-52)

SOURCE: "The Christmas Carol and the Economic Man," in The American Scholar, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1951-52, pp. 91-8.

[Johnson is a major Dickens scholar whose Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952) is considered the definitive biography of the novelist In the following essay adapted from that work, Johnson expounds on the social importance of A Christmas Carol.]

Everyone knows Dickens' Christmas Carol for its colorful painting of a rosy fireside good cheer and warmth of feeling, made all the more vivid by the contrasting chill wintry darkness in which its radiant scenes are framed. Most readers realize too how characteristic of all Dickens'...

(The entire section is 2949 words.)

Thea Holme (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: An introduction to Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens, Oxford University Press, London, 1957, pp. v-xi.

[In the essay below, Holme praises Dickens's descriptive writing style in Sketches by Boz.]

One evening in the autumn of 1832 the manuscript of a fictional sketch entitled 'A Sunday out of Town' was dropped 'with fear and trembling into a dark letter-box in a dark office up a dark court in Fleet Street'. Its author, describing the event to a friend, gives a picture of the sequel. We see him in a Strand bookshop, hurriedly searching through a copy of The Monthly Magazine. He pauses, gazing at the page before him. His sketch—its name 'transmogrified'...

(The entire section is 2422 words.)

Leslie C. Staples (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Uncommercial Traveller and Reprinted Pieces, Etc. by Charles Dickens, Oxford University Press, London, 1958, pp. v-x.

[In the following essay. Staples centers on Dickens's use of autobiographical material in The Uncommercial Traveller and Reprinted Pieces.]

The genius of Dickens needed space to attain its full stature. Twenty monthly 'parts' of thirty-two pages each were not too much for the telling of his tales. In the preface to the best known of his shorter works he complained of the difficulty of its construction within a 'narrow space'. He remarked that he 'never attempted great elaboration of detail in the working out of...

(The entire section is 2110 words.)

C. B. Cox (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Comic Viewpoints in Sketches by Boz, " in English, Vol. XII, No. 69, Autumn, 1958, pp. 132-35.

[In the essay below, English scholar and critic Cox traces the humor in Sketches by Boz, finding that the characters depicted represent for Dickens "the comic situation of man in the universe. " ]

(The entire section is 2485 words.)

Harry Stone (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Dickens' Artistry and The Haunted Man," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 492-505.

[Stone is an American scholar and critic, whose worksmany award-winninginclude Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making (1979) and The Night Side of Dickens: Cannibalism, Passion, Necessity (1991), In the following excerpt, Stone examines the evolution of Dickens's writing style as evidenced by his skillful uniting of elements of fairy tale, allegory, autobiography, and psychology in The Haunted Man.]

If one reads Dickens' novels chronologically, one is astonished upon beginning...

(The entire section is 5377 words.)

Robert Browning (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Sketches by Boz," in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, edited by John Gross and Gabriel Pearson, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, pp. 19-34.

[In the following essay, Browning depicts Sketches by Boz as a realistic account of early Victorian England.]

Writing To John Forster from Lausanne in 1846, Dickens declared that he found it difficult to write fast when away from London:

I suppose this is partly the effect of two years' ease, and partly of the absence of streets and numbers of figures. I can't express how much I want these. It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to...

(The entire section is 6803 words.)

William E. Morris (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Conversion of Scrooge: A Defense of That Good Man's Motivation," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 46-55.

[In the following essay, Morris examines Ebenezer Scrooge's "conversion" in A Christmas Carol. According to Morris, "Dickens does not intend Scrooge's awakening to be a promise for all covetous old sinners, but only a possibility to be individually hoped for. "]

As everyone knows, being called a "scrooge" is bad. When labeled like this, one is considered "a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone . . . Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and selfcontained, and solitary...

(The entire section is 4022 words.)

Craig Buckwald (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Stalking the Figurative Oyster: The Excursive Ideal in A Christmas Carol" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 1-14.

[Here, Buckwald examines the theme of restriction and containment in A Christmas Carol, as exemplified by the description of Scrooge as "solitary as an oyster. "]

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and selfcontained, and solitary as an oyster.

If at the beginning...

(The entire section is 5658 words.)