In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens dominated the literary world like few writers before or since. His career coincided with the first half of the reign of Queen Victoria, before Charles Darwin and Karl Marx had eroded that century’s liberal consensus. Although best known for his novels, his shorter works, particularly his Christmas stories, also gained lasting fame; largely because of his influence, fiction became the property of an increasingly democratic and literate society on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Dickens mastered the serial novel, producing most of his major works in parts that were published monthly. His exaggerated humor and sentimentality touched a deep chord in the reading public of the day, and his cast of legendary characters is legion. A social commentator of both private and public evils, he criticized his age for the destructive nature of the new factory system in Hard Times (1854), the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), the dehumanizing greed exhibited by Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and legal corruption in Bleak House (1852-1853). Not only did Dickens entertain, but also his moral concerns helped shape the public conscience of his own and later times.
Other literary forms
All of Charles Dickens’s novels were published in bound form after serialization, the Oxford edition being the most complete modern collection. A prolific writer, Dickens also published a number of other works. He founded and edited the periodicals Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840-1841), Household Words (1850-1859), and All the Year Round (1859-1870), in which many of his essays, collaborative works, and Christmas stories were originally published. Some of the essays have been collected: Sketches by Boz (1836), for example, comprises Dickens’s periodical contributions from 1833 to 1836, and The Uncommercial Traveller (1860) reprints essays from All the Year Round. In addition to the Christmas stories, Dickens published five Christmas books, all collected in 1852. He recorded his travel experiences as well: American Notes (1842) depicts his first tour of the United States, and Pictures from Italy (1846) is a collection of essays first printed in the Daily News. Finally, the texts of his public readings have appeared, along with reprints of his dramatic productions. Many of Dickens’s works have been anthologized and adapted for stage and screen, and the definitive Pilgrim Edition of his letters, The Letters of Charles Dickens, was completed in 1995.
Known for his biting satire of social conditions as well as for his comic worldview, Charles Dickens began, with Pickwick Papers, to establish an enduring novelistic reputation. In fourteen completed novels and countless essays, sketches, and stories, he emerged as a champion of generosity and warmth of spirit, those human traits most likely to atrophy in an industrialized society. In his own day, he appealed to all levels of society but especially to members of the growing middle class, whose newfound literacy made them educable to eradicate the social evils they themselves had fostered. Dickens was extremely popular in the United States despite his ongoing attack on the lack of an international copyright agreement, an attack directed in part against the Americans who had a financial stake in pirated editions of his works.
Above all, Dickens appealed to his readers’ emotions and, through them, to an awakened social sense. To be sure, Dickens’s sentimentality offends as many modern readers as it pleased Victorian ones. Indeed, the twenty-first century reader may study his novels primarily for the enjoyment of his craft, but to do so is to ignore Dickens’s purpose: to argue on the side of intuition against materialism, as Angus Wilson puts it, or on the side of the individual against the system, as Philip Hosbaum has commented. In his facility for comic language, for example, Dickens created the unforgettable Sairey Gamp, Flora Finching, and Alfred Jingle, whose manic lingo creates worlds with a preposterous logic of their own, but such lingo is sometimes a shield for a warm heart and sometimes an indicator of fragmentation and despair. The reader also finds that Dickens’s attacks on certain social institutions, such as the Poor Law in Oliver Twist or the Court of Chancery in Bleak House, are actually attacks on universal human evils—the greed, hypocrisy, and lust for power that lead to dehumanization and make, for example, a “species of frozen gentleman” out of Mr. Dombey instead of a warm, affectionate human being.
Although Charles Dickens did not gain his fame as a writer of mystery and detective fiction, he was unquestionably the nineteenth century master of the genre known as the “sensation novel,” a melodramatic fiction in which mystery, crime, villainy, and secret evil predominate. Moreover, Dickens made use of his knowledge of the newly created Metropolitan Police Force in England, focusing on the force’s detective procedures in several short works and in one of his most respected novels, Bleak House (1852-1853). His unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), because it has stimulated many readers to provide their own ending, has become one of the most famous detective novels in literary history.
By what literary techniques does Charles Dickens avoid falling into bitterness, like that which his own early life produced in him, when he writes of socially deprived characters?
Discuss Sam Weller as Dickens’s most instigative early character.
Dickens was not a particularly successful family man, but he wrote convincingly of successful family life. What factors in his life made this achievement possible—even likely—in his case?
Explain whether David Copperfield or Great Expectations is the more convincing bildungsroman.
Offer evidence to show that Dickens’s capacity for humor suffered (or did not suffer) in Bleak House and later works.
Was Dickens off course in A Tale of Two Cities?
Was there a negative side to Dickens’s highly popular readings from his works on stage?
If many readers have difficulty reading Dickens’s novels today, should they be severely edited to accommodate such readers?
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair- Stevenson, 1990. The author, a major English novelist, writes a biography of Dickens that warrants the characterization of being Dickensian both in its length and in the quality of its portrayal of the nineteenth century writer and his times. In re-creating that past, Ackroyd has produced a brilliant work of historical imagination. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.
Butterword, R. D. “A Christmas Carol and the Masque.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Winter, 1993): 63-69. Discusses how Dickens’s famous Christmas story embodies many of the characteristics of the masque tradition. Considers some of the implications of this tradition for the story, such as the foreshortening of character development.
Carey, John. The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, 1979. The number of works about Dickens and the various aspects of his career is enormous. Carey, in one insightful Dickens study, focuses on Dickens’s fascination with various human oddities as a spur to his artistic inspiration.
Connor, Steven, ed. Charles Dickens. London: Longman, 1996. Part of the Longman Critical Readers series, this is a good reference for interpretation and criticism of Dickens.
Davis, Paul B. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 1998. An excellent handbook for the student of Dickens.
Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Dickens: Being a Good-Natured Guide to the Art and Adventures of the Man Who Invented Scrooge. New York: Viking, 1998. An interesting study of Dickens. Includes bibliographical references, an index, and a filmography.
Erickson, Lee. “The Primitive Keynesianism of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 30 (Spring, 1997): 51-66. A Keynesian reading of Dickens’s story that shows how Scrooge is an economic hoarder because of his fear of the financial future and his need for complete financial liquidity. Claims that Dickens correctly diagnoses the economic depression of Christmas, 1843.
Flint, Kate. Dickens. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1986. Looks at paradoxes within his novels and between his novels and his culture. Includes a select bibliography and an index.
Ford, George H., and Lauriat Lane, Jr., eds. The Dickens Critics. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1961. This collection consists of more than thirty essays concerned with various aspects of Dickens’s literary life. Represented are notables such as Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Graham Greene, and Edgar Johnson.
Hawes, Donald. Who’s Who in Dickens. New York: Routledge, 1998. The Who’s Who series provides another excellent guide to the characters that populate Dickens’s fiction.
Hobsbaum, Philip. A Reader’s Guide to Charles Dickens. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998. Part of the Reader’s Guide series, this is a good manual for beginning students.
Jacobson, Wendy S., ed. Dickens and the Children of Empire. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A collection of fourteen essays focusing on child images and colonial paternalism in the work of Dickens.
Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. Subtitled “His Tragedy and Triumph,” this work was perhaps the first major scholarly biography of Dickens. The author integrates into his study an excellent discussion and analysis of Dickens’s writings. It remains a classic.
Jordan, John O., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. From the Cambridge Companions to Literature series. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988. Published a generation later than Edgar Johnson’s study of Dickens, Kaplan’s biography is more forthright about Dickens’s family life and personal qualities, especially his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. An interesting and well-written work.
Newlin, George, ed. and comp. Every Thing in Dickens: Ideas and Subjects Discussed by Charles Dickens in His Complete Works—A Topicon. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. A thorough guide to Dickens’s oeuvre. Includes bibliographical references, an index, and quotations.
Newsom, Robert. Charles Dickens Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000. From Twayne’s English Authors series. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Newton, Ruth, and Naomi Lebowitz. The Impossible Romance: Dickens, Manzoni, Zola, and James. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990. Discusses the impact of religious sensibility on literary form and ideology in Dickens’s fiction.
Reed, John Robert. Dickens and Thackeray. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. Discusses how beliefs about punishment and forgiveness affect how Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray told their stories. Discusses Dickens’s major fiction in terms of moral and narrative issues.
Smiley, Jane. Charles Dickens. New York: Viking, 2002. A Dickens biography by a noted American novelist. Includes bibliographical references.
Smith, Grahame. Charles Dickens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A strong biography of Dickens.
Tytler, Graeme. “Dickens’s ‘The Signalman.’” The Explicator 53 (Fall, 1994): 26- 29. Argues that the story is about a man suffering from a type of insanity known in the nineteenth century as lypemania or monomania; discusses the symptoms of the signalman.
Wilson, Angus. The World of Charles Dickens. New York: Viking Press, 1970. The author, an Englishman, has been a professor of literature, has published a major work on Rudyard Kipling, and has written several novels. This relatively brief study is enriched by many period illustrations ranging from George Cruikshank to Gustave Doré.