Other Literary Forms
Although he wrote stories, essays, and theatricals, Charles Dickens is chiefly remembered for his many novels.
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...
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