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."
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.
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."
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
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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 real, while you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.' It is a clever answer; and as applicable now as when the archbishop put the question. Indifference makes sorry work of Truth, in half of what is going on around us; and what truthful and serious work may be made of Fiction, Mr Dickens helps us to discern.
We do not know the earnestness to compare with his, for the power of its manifestation and its uses. It is delightful to see it in his hands, and observe by what tenure he secures the popularity it has given him. Generous sympathies and kindest thoughts, are the constant renewal of his fame; and in such wise fashion as the little book before us, he does homage for his title and his territory. A...
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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 casual reader away from the fact that Dickens wrote four other Christmas books on a similar plan. I do not claim that The Chimes is worthy to stand beside the incomparable Carol. I do not even think it attains the stature of The Cricket on the Hearth. But it does happen to afford an unusually interesting test case for the contemplation of Dickens as both artist and prophet: first, because we know more about the circumstances of its genesis and growth than we do of many of his works; and, second, because its social and moral teaching is not only daring but interestingly anticipative of some more recent attitudes.
The Chimes was written in Genoa in 1844. This time Dickens began not with a...
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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 which had previously appeared in various publications. The publisher was John Macrone, and Dickens's correspondence with him was first published in The Dickensian in 1934. These letters threw many a side-light on the struggling young journalist, and showed the assistance given him by the editor of the Morning Chronicle in singing the praises of the new author.
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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 criticism may not be amiss.
I should like to give some honest opinions on the Christmas Book; and by the Christmas Book I mean A Christmas Carol, the best known of all the Christmas Books, the one that everybody knows—Dickens readers and others—the one on which young people so often cut their Dickens-teeth.
You will understand that these are my personal opinions. It is probable that a large number of you will disagree with me; if you do I hope you will get up and say so. Discussion is the life-blood of study, and we are a study-circle. Discussion is as good for the intellect as confession is for the soul.
Well, my candid opinion of A Christmas Carol is that it is...
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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 nature into a complete pattern. The truth applies to a man's traits and to a man's books.
There are really many kinds of threads we can use to gather together an author's works: characters, situations, devices of craftsmanship, direct revelation, and many more. Some of the characters created by Dickens had an imaginative life in Sketches by Boz before they joined the novels. Naturally, we find more of them in the earlier novels than in the later. In three of them we see figures that were later to be called Nancy and Bill Sikes. They are a drunkard ruffian and the loyal, uncomplaining wife whom he neglects or beats. In the sketch, "The Hospital Patient," the woman, before she dies of her husband's blows and kicks,...
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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' sentiments about the Christmas season are the laughter and tenderness and jollity he poured into the Carol. What is not so widely understood is that it was also consistently and deliberately created as a critical blast against the very rationale of industrialism and its assumptions about the organizing principles of society. It is an attack upon both the economic behavior of the nineteenth-century business man and the supporting theory of doctrinaire utilitarianism. As such it is a good deal more significant than the mere outburst of warmhearted sentimentality it is often taken to be.
Its sharper intent is, indeed, ingeniously disguised. Not even the festivities at Dingley Dell, in Pickwick Papers, seem to have...
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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' to 'A Dinner at Poplar Walk'—is there, 'in all the glory of print'. Thrusting his way through the crowded Strand, the young Charles Dickens hurries blindly towards Westminster Hall where he may pace in solitude—'my eyes so dimmed with pride and joy, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen'.
The delight of seeing his work in print was the only reward offered by The Monthly Magazine, whose Editor presently sent a 'polite and flattering communication' asking for more. He was duly supplied with 'Horatio Sparkins', 'The Bloomsbury Christening', and 'The Boarding House'. This last was the first sketch to bear the author's signature—'Boz'. The pseudonym was, as he afterwards put it, 'the...
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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 character within such limits, believing that it could not succeed'. And yet what memorable characters he did in fact create within the narrowest limits. In the novels one immediately recalls Trabb's boy and, within the narrowest limits imaginable, the nervous young man interposing in a conversation and getting no further than Esker . . . ? and then stopping dead. In the short articles we are to consider in this [essay], when space was indeed narrow, examples abound, perhaps less known but scarcely less remarkable.
It was as a journalist that Dickens first made his mark with the reading public, and a good case could be made out for the theory that if Dickens had never published a novel his collected journalistic pieces...
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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. " ]
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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 works—many award-winning—include 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 Dombey and Son (1847-48). The first half of Dombey is almost perfect in conception and execution; each scene connects with the next, each throws light on what has come before and what is yet to come. Dickens calls up intricate themes and images, develops them, sustains them, and finally merges them with one another. He introduces experimental techniques—the child's point of view, the microcosmic world as chorus—and does so with great assurance. But above all, he masters a new structural method, a method which fuses autobiography, psychology, symbolism, and fancy.
This transformation had hardly been hinted at in Dickens' earlier novels. His six previous novels blended the rich heritage of the...
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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 lose. For a week or fortnight I can write prodigiously in a retired place (as at Broadstairs), and a day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern, is IMMENSE!! [W. Dexter, The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. I, 1938.]
The Sketches by Boz is Dickens's first published work, and it is appropriate that it should record his intimacy with London and its citizens.
In Thoughts About People' (Characters, I), where Dickens describes a group of London apprentices on a Sunday jaunt, we can discern the stimulation the want of which he felt in Lausanne:
We walked down the...
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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 as an oyster." In reality, and in short, one is a party-pooper, afflicted with general overtones of inhumanity.
This is the popular definition of the word Scrooge, and it is unfairly the usual description of Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge, of A Christmas Carol Scrooge's conversion to a permanent goodness, which is every bit up to those impossible standards met by the totally admirable Cheerybles and Mr. Brownlow, seems to have been utterly forgotten, or ignored. Popularly lost is Dickens' last word on Scrooge: " . . .it was always said of him that he knew how to keep a Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge." By common consent Scrooge has been a villain at every Christmas season since...
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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 of A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge apparently lacks a heart, he is at all times the undisputed heart of the story he inhabits. It is thus entirely fitting that this formal introduction to the miser's objectionable qualities, occurring in the piece's sixth paragraph, anticipates much in the narrative fabric that follows. We could, for example, profitably begin an interpretation of the tale with the first two figures in the description—the "tight-fisted hand" and the unproductive "flint"—for from them spring the images of closed and open and clasped and touching hands; feeble and potent fires; and brightness and darkness through which Dickens' Christmas message palpably appeals to the imaginations of its readers. And yet, the...
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Churchill, R. C, ed. A Bibliography of Dickensian Criticism, 1836-1975. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. 12. New York: Garland Publishing, 1975, 314 p.
Guide to writings about Dickens published between 1836 and 1975.
Cohn, Alan M., and Collins, K. K. The Cumulated Dickens Checklist, 1970-1979. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Co., 1982, 391 p.
Listing of 1970s publications on Dickens and his works.
Gold, Joseph. The Stature of Dickens: A Centenary Bibliography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971, 236 p.
Catalogue of biographical and critical studies on Dickens.
Darton, F. J. Harvey. "Dickens the Beginner: 1833-1836." The Quarterly Review 262, No. 519 (January 1934): 52-69.
Portrays Dickens's early years as a writer.
Dexter, Walter. "The Genesis of Sketches by Boz." The Dickensian XXX, No. 230 (Spring 1934): 105-11.
Recounts the first periodical printings of Dickens's sketches and short stories later compiled in Sketches by Boz.
Forster, John. Forster's Life of Dickens. Abridged and revised by George Gissing. London: Chapman & Hall, 1907, 349 p.
Standard biography for many years, written by Dickens's friend....
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