Charles Dickens Dickens, Charles (1812 - 1870)

Charles Dickens book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Charles Dickens Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Gothic Literature)

CHARLES DICKENS (1812 - 1870)

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Boz) English novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and essayist.

Since the publication of his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837; better known as The Pickwick Papers), Dickens has achieved popular and critical recognition of a level rarely equaled in English letters. Almost all of his novels display, to varying degrees, his comic gift, his deep social concerns, and his extraordinary talent for creating unforgettable characters. Many of his creations, most notably Scrooge from the ghost story A Christmas Carol (1843), have become familiar English literary stereotypes. Some of his characters are grotesques; Dickens loved the style of eighteenth-century Gothic romance, even though the popularity of those novels was on the wane, and his fiction features many elements of that genre. Dickens was thus a late contributor to the development of Gothic English literature. However, he played a major role in establishing the "Christmas ghost story" as an institution, and many eminent Victorian writers dabbled in the production of ghost stories only because he championed the form. Novels by Dickens that owe a debt to the Gothic tradition include The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Bleak House (1853), Little Dorrit (1857), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). In these works Dickens combines social realism with exaggeration, surrealism, fantasy, and the picaresque to tackle important questions about the poor and disadvantaged in English society and to dramatize the consequences of rapid industrialization on its victims. He used the devices of literary horror to arouse public consciousness about terrible social conditions and to explore themes of greed, corruption, individual and institutional evil, reality versus unreality, imprisonment, and death. Although Dickens's Gothic-inspired fiction is highly entertaining, he also used it as a vehicle to express his moral outrage at the state of the social order and as a platform to reform what he saw as the worst excesses and injustices in English society.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Dickens was the son of John Dickens, a minor government official who constantly lived beyond his means and was eventually sent to debtor's prison. This humiliation deeply troubled young Dickens, and even as an adult he was rarely able to speak of it. As a boy, he was forced to work in a factory for meager wages until his father was released from prison. Although he was an excellent student, he left school at fifteen, as was the norm, and did not attend university. What he lacked in formal education, however, he made up for by spending long hours at the British Museum Library, reading works of English history and literature, especially Shakespeare. Late in his teens, Dickens learned shorthand and became a court reporter, which introduced him to journalism and aroused his contempt for politics. His early short stories and sketches, first published in newspapers and magazines, were later collected as Sketches by Boz (1836). The book sold well and received generally favorable notices. That year he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of his friend George Hogarth, who edited the newly established Evening Chronicle; Dickens was to have ten children with her. His next literary venture was The Pickwick Papers. By the time the fourth monthly installment was published, Dickens was the most popular author in England. His fame soon spread throughout the rest of the English-speaking world, and eventually to the Continent.

Success followed upon success for Dickens, and the number of his readers continued to grow. In 1842 he traveled to the United States, hoping to find an embodiment of his liberal political ideals. He returned to England deeply disappointed, dismayed by America's lack of support for an international copyright law, acceptance of the inhumane practice of slavery, and what he judged as the vulgarity of the American people. He then...

(The entire section is 22,378 words.)