Charles Dickens Dickens, Charles (1812 - 1870) - Essay


(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.


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 spent much time traveling and campaigning against social evils with his pamphlets and other writings. He also founded and edited several periodicals and wrote scores of essays. From 1844 to 1845 Dickens lived in Italy, Switzerland, and Paris. He continued to publish prolifically and became an extremely wealthy man. In 1858 Dickens separated from his wife and formed a close relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. He also gave a great number of public readings from his works in both England and America, which left him exhausted. Many believe that increasing physical and mental strain led to the stroke Dickens suffered while working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), left unfinished at his death. When he died in 1870, England mourned the death of one of its favorite authors. His tombstone reads: "He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."


Many of Dickens's novels are clearly inspired by the Gothic tradition: Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), Hard Times (1854), The Old Curiosity Shop, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son (1848), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood all contain Gothic elements within their humorous, picaresque structure, employing melodrama, hyperbole, and horror to drive home their themes. Of the novels, only Edwin Drood—a whodunit in which the prime suspect is John Jasper, uncle of the missing Edwin, who frequents opium dens and conceals a secret passion beneath his seeming respectability—has a plot that one traditionally associates with Gothic literature. The rest, from Oliver Twist, about the life of an orphan who escapes from a workhouse only to endure the horrors of life on the London streets, to A Tale of Two Cities, which chronicles the lives of the aristocracy and lower classes through the times leading up to and during the French Revolution, use Gothic-inspired characters, atmosphere, melodramatic moments, and sensational situations within a more conventional frame to underscore the horrors of modern industrial life as the author saw them.

Dickens's ghost stories are mostly light comedies sharpened with a spice of terror. A Christmas Carol is the most famous of all nineteenth-century ghost stories. It is about the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a miser to a generous being, and is a moral allegory as well, but one that makes judicious use of horror. Dickens's other Christmas ghost tales include The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1846), and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848). His two best non-Christmas ghost stories are considered "The Trial for Murder," in which the ghost of a murdered man becomes a thirteenth juror in order to make certain that justice is done, and "The Signalman," a tale of premonitory apparitions in which a luckless signalman fails to make advantageous use of his warnings and their ultimate betrayal of his confidence.


Few authors have achieved the critical and popular success Dickens enjoyed both during his lifetime and after. Before he was thirty he had become one of the most successful writers England had known, and by the time he was forty he was an international celebrity. Dickens's critical and popular appeal continues unabated to this day; his works have been made into motion pictures and have generated more critical commentary than any other English author save Shakespeare. Scholarship on Dickens's writing is extensive, but those interested in the Gothic elements of his fiction have concentrated on several areas. They have noted how Dickens modifies the devices found in Gothic romance for his own purposes, using elements of surrealism and humor to paint portraits of darkly comic characters who become representatives of moral decay, corruption, greed, and evil in the modern world. Critics have also discussed Dickens's Gothic settings, attempted to trace the Gothic influences on his work, explored the use of Gothic touches in various works, and admired his skillful use of horror to offer sharp social critiques. They acknowledge, though, that Dickens's ultimate interest was not in the supernatural and thus he was not a pioneer or key figure in Gothic fiction. Rather, the general consensus is that Dickens used the Gothic in his own work as a genre that he enjoyed in order to entertain as well as edify, modifying and reworking the Gothic mode to make it his own and to create a fictional universe that would highlight for his readers what Dickens viewed as many of the most pressing social issues of his time.

Principal Works

(Gothic Literature)

Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People [as Boz] (sketches and short stories) 1836
Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (novel) 1837
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839
Barnaby Rudge (novel) 1841
The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841
American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842
A Christmas Carol in Prose (short story) 1843
The Chimes (short story) 1844
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844
The Cricket on the Hearth (short story) 1846
Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846
Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son (novel) 1848
The Haunted Man, and The Ghost's Bargain (short stories) 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
The Uncommercial Traveller (sketches and short stories) 1861
Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865
No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (play) 1867
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870

∗ All of Dickens's novels were originally published...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Primary Sources

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Dickens, Charles. "The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton." In Great Ghost Stories: 34 Classic Tales of the Supernatural, compiled by Robin Brockman, pp. 251-61. New York: Gramercy Books, 2002.

The following excerpt is from a short story originally published in The Pickwick Papers, 1836–1837.

Gabriel started up, and stood rooted to the spot with astonishment and terror; for his eyes rested on a form that made his blood run cold.

Seated on an upright tombstone, close to him, was a strange unearthly figure, whom Gabriel felt at once, was no being of this world. His long fantastic legs which might have...

(The entire section is 2026 words.)

General Commentary

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Wolfreys, Julian. "'I Wants to Make Your Flesh Creep': Notes toward a Reading of the ComicGothic in Dickens." In Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys, pp. 31-59. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

In the following excerpt, Wolfreys examines the complementary use of comedy and the Gothic in Dickens's works.

It is the fear one needs: the price one pays for coming contentedly to terms with a social body based on irrationality and menace.

Franco Moretti

Gothic novels are...

(The entire section is 7220 words.)

Bleak House

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: Ronald, Ann. "Dickens' Gloomiest Gothic Castle." Dickens Studies Newsletter 6, no. 3 (September 1975): 71-5.

In the following essay, Ronald traces Dickens's use of the Gothic in Bleak House.

In most eighteenth-century Gothic novels the physical setting was key. The enormous, often ruined medieval castle, filled with gloomy, mysterious interiors, internally connected by labyrinthine passageways and externally obscured by mists and fog, fascinated readers of Mrs. Radcliffe's age. When following generations lost interest in the Gothic novel, the Gothic castle...

(The entire section is 2668 words.)

Great Expectations

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: Loe, Thomas. "Gothic Plot in Great Expectations." Dickens Quarterly 6, no. 3 (September 1989): 102-10.

In the following essay, Loe explores the origins of the Gothic plot devices used in Great Expectations.

In spite of the enormous amount of critical attention the plot of Great Expectations has received in the last two decades, there has been a reluctance on the part of critics to identify its structure in terms of traditional genres. The novel's length, number of characters, and elaborate texture make plot identification a subtle issue, especially...

(The entire section is 4779 words.)

Little Dorrit

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: Jarrett, David. "The Fall of the House of Clennam: Gothic Conventions in Little Dorrit." Dickensian 73, no. 383 (September 1977): 155-61.

In the following essay, Jarrett analyzes Dickens's use of the Gothic in Little Dorrit.

Charles Dickens had no time for the kind of romance of history celebrated by the garish Mrs Skewton in Dombey and Son (1847–8). 'Those darling bygone times,' she exclaims to Mr Carker in Warwick Castle, 'with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic...

(The entire section is 3318 words.)

Further Reading

(Gothic Literature)


Cordery, Gareth. "The Cathedral as Setting and Symbol in The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Dickens Studies Newsletter 10, no. 4 (December 1979): 97-103.

Explores the symbolic function of the cathedral in Edwin Drood as it functions as a backdrop to the story.

Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 295 p.

Examines the relationship between the revival of the romance form and the ascendancy of the novel in British literary culture, from 1760 to 1850; begins...

(The entire section is 824 words.)