What has happened to the literary canon? Is Dickens no longer on it?February 7, 2012 is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the author who created such memorable characters as Scrooge, Nicholas...

What has happened to the literary canon? Is Dickens no longer on it?

February 7, 2012 is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the author who created such memorable characters as Scrooge, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Fagin, Madame Defarge, Sydney Carton, Harold Skimpole, Miss Havisham, Pip, and others.  His themes are universal and still relevant, yet there are many students who have never read anything by Dickens, and teachers who feel that popular novels are more interesting to students.  Is he  "too difficult" now, or "too old"?

Expert Answers
hawnsmith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A lot of good comments have  made about the reading of Dickens and I agree with them, so I'll only include what hasn't been covered, which is that reading Dickens is hard.  It is hard because of the vocabulary and length and complexity of his sentences.  If schools stop teaching books that are too hard, students can hardly learn how to read them. That means that a huge portion of manknid's best thinking will be closed to them.  This not only concerns literature but philosophy and history.  

In political debates today, there is so much thinking that is sloppy or just plain wrong.  Without a knowledge of the thinking that created our democracy or which undergirds our society, people make very short sighted decisions which are hard to take back once  acted on.  Dickens and others give us a compelling picture of many of the terrible decisions made at the dawn of the industrial revolution and their consequences.  Without the ability to read these great works, society will be condemned to repeat earlier mistakes.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I was a little surprised that some of the people here did not seem to think Dickens was important. I don't think he's absent from our culture. There is a new movie version of Great Expectations. Google celebrated his birthday with a beautiful icon, he graced the cover of the Smithsonian, and Time spent the last two weeks counting down his best books. (Bleak House was number one, not surprisingly.). Personally, Dickens is my favorite author so I know I'm biased. I teach two of his works at this point: A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations. My students enjoyed his books. Yes, the language can be challenging. It is so worth it to show them how to get through it, understand it, and love it.
stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think the increasing need to consider time invested in a work in terms of potential benefit to students taking high-stakes assessments or evaluations is impacting the choice of literature in many cases. When teachers have to focus more of their effort very specifically on skills that students will need to perform well on these tests, use of class time and effort learning how to translate and appreciate phrases and descriptions used by authors including Dickens (writing that is wonderfully worded but seriously out of date for contemporary usage) goes by the wayside.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a very subjective discussion, because we need to ask "whose canon." As the world becomes more multi-cultural, there are new books to read from different cultures. For this reason, books from the Western "canon" are being squeezed out. Dickens, unfortunately, is one of them in many school. The issue is that there are so may great authors. If we read Dickens, then who do we leave out? Sophocles? Plato? Shakespeare? As you can see, the decision is not an easy one.

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I hope that Dickens has not fallen out of the high school canon. He's still taught in college, but it is in high schools that people are first exposed to "great" or "canonical" literature, and it seems a shame that fewer and fewer people, apparently, are interested in reading and/or teaching Dickens.  This may be due to all the emphasis lately (i.e., the past fifty years) on content rather than form, on meaning rather than style, on "relevance" rather than writing.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would chime in with a question of my own on this topic and ask if the American literary cannon has become more thoroughly American over the last decade or two.

Is there less emphasis on the "developmental" or "derivational" cannon in the 21st century than there was 50 years ago? Could this explain a tendency to ignore Dickens (and Tolstoy and Virgil)?


thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The concept of literary canon itself is treated as somewhat problematic by many literary scholars. Dickens remains a standard author in surveys of the novel and in Victorian literature surveys at the university level. Historians of the book are particularly interested in the relationship between his serial publications and his triple-deckers and his editorial work.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I certainly consider Charles Dickens one of the greatest writers in the English language, but as many teachers have found out, today's students are often turned off by the difficulty of the language (also a major complaint about reading Shakespeare). Many students can't see past this obstacle, and many teachers give up trying to forcefeed the literature upon them.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I hope he is not too difficult or too old! On the one hand, I can sympathise with teachers who are tempted to move away from Dickens. His language can be rather difficult for students to understand, as I have found out myself. However, at the same time, there is real richness in his works that need to be shared with new generations of readers. We must persevere!

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that one of the reasons, sadly enough, is that Dickens' works are all so long.  It is hard to get high school students to pay attention through books that are that long and have relatively little action in them.  When you combine that with somewhat outdated (in most teens' minds) themes, it seems unlikely that Dickens will really return to popularity.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would say that for many teachers, Dickens has indeed fallen out of the literary canon. I have never taught at a school where students were required to read his works. I don't disagree with the sentiment of the question, but in a time where relevance is increasingly emphasized in curricula, many people aren't as persuaded as we are that Dickens is relevant.

Zac Egs | Student

*[...] the literary canon.

Zac Egs | Student


My answer would be as follows:

Personally I think that Dickens did not follow the literary. His works remain a savant mixture of lampoon, picaresque adventure and farce. But beyond this perfunctory aspect we can notice that Dickens, unlike other novelists, was truly interested in social issues.

He was aware of the evils of his times since he came from a poor background. In that, his early years provided him with the material he needed to write 'mammoth novels'. He had an immense (and accurate) knowledge of English life and remains one of the most famous English novelists of all times.


Zac Egs

paula15412 | Student

Charles Dickens is one of my best writers.Most of his books are preffered in most colleges. He is not too 'old' as you put it, neither to 'diffilcult'. One needs to follow on what we call the flow of a writing in his literary works. His writings are a bit intellectual and thats why his literary works are used in colleges mostly and not in secondary schools. His canonical literature, according to me ain't standard for high school minds. His english is known to be difficulty though very intresting when clearly understood and hence probably might scare away the high school learners. How i wish he still exists in the canon. kudos Dickens!!

shenkerism | Student

Teenagers at my school still read Dickens, but not without much contempt and confusion. That is not to say that the teacher is not explaining it thoroughly enough, but the students just aren't smart enought to understand. High School sophomores should still be expected to understand Tale of Two Cities. Students today may be interested in more popular or contemporary works, but that doesn't make the number of lessons for the reader and the writer that can be extruded any less numerous or important.