Charles Dickens Charles Dickens World Literature Analysis

Charles Dickens book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Charles Dickens Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Charles Dickens World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2,862 words.)