On Greatest Lit list:
• Oliver Twist (1839)
• A Christmas Carol (1843)
• David Copperfield (1850)
• Bleak House (1853)
• Hard Times (1854)
• Little Dorrit (1857)
• A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
• Great Expectations (1861)
• Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
• Dombey and Son (1848)
Oliver Twist is probably the novel most associated with Dickens, though not nearly his best nor most admired. It is also the first novel to take a child as the central character, which.... more
Everyone knows the story of A Christmas Carol, if not from reading Dickens, then from incessant showings of the many film versions, especially around the holiday season.... more
The first half of David Copperfield, concerning the struggles of the young boy against repressive step-parents and draconian schoolmasters, is one of the greatest, most.... more
Bleak House has both its ardent admirers who declare it among Dickens's masterpieces, as well as its detractors who call it one of his most grotesque potboilers. The.... more
What's to like about Hard Times: A lot. It's short, for a Dickens novel. It's accessible—anyone can read it without a great deal of learning and without getting lost in..... more
It's the most political of Charles Dickens's novels, it's the least political—even anti-political—of Dickens's novels in some ways. But its position on politics, revolution.... more
Chances are, you think of Charles Dickens in one of two opposite ways. As the writer, the very icon of the great and popular author for the masses, against whose work all subsequent fiction is to be measured. Or as the epitome of an old-fashioned, wordy, sentimental style that had to be swept away before real modern writing could flourish.
In either case, you've got good company. Both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were great Dickens fan. Today some wonderful writers like John Irving still strive to present vast novels of quirky, interrelated characters like those Dickens became famous for. At least one recently popular novel (The Quincunx) by Charles Palliser, 1989) has created an entire Dickensian world, complete with characters and setting typical of Dickens' works.
On the other hand, novelists after Dickens have generally striven to strip from their writing the features associated Dickens's writing (long descriptions, authorial intrusions, incredible narrative coincidences, leisurely pace, overt sentimentality) to produce terser, more realistic, understated prose appropriate for jaded twentieth-century readers with shorter attention spans. The narrator of J.D. Salinger's ground-breaking The Catcher in the Rye (1951) famously refused to relate "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" about his childhood.
Yet Dickens remains the author in ways that both sides recognize. No other fiction writer has created so many characters that everyone still knows today: Little Nell, Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger, Fagin, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep, Pip, Mr. Gradgrind.... Apart from Shakespeare, no other writer, living or dead, has produced as many works considered classics today—with eight novels and stories on our "Greatest Literature of All Time" list and arguments to be made for including more.
You may know my tendency to sort writers into those who mythologize (build up, simplify, transcend, create things to believe in) and those who demythologize (break down, reveal complexities, ground, debunk). Dickens, like some other of the greatest authors, does both.
He is a social realist, revealing the seamy side of Victorian culture, undercutting lofty notions of civilization and progress, exposing poverty and injustice. Many of his memorable negative characters embody the hypocrisies of British class and the cruel practices of commercial enterprise.
But Dickens also propounds new, supposedly more humane, lofty notions. Goodness of heart wins out over the evils he exposes. Conscience and noble intentions may cause their holders to suffer for a time but eventually they have an almost magical effect in countering socially embedded injustices. To read Dickens is often to become so absorbed by the positive characters and their plights that we willingly accept the most outrageously unbelievable outcomes. We accept them because we love the characters. We want the destinies Dickens prepares for them, even if it means accepting glorious notions of the unfettered human heart triumphing over narrow-minded interests. We want the new myth to replace the destroyed one.
When this romantic drive is too obvious, we criticize Dickens for being sentimental, for constructing ridiculous coincidences, for going on and on. But when it works, we are transported.
(You can see better how this dichotomy of demythologizing and re-mythologizing plays out in some of the commentaries on individual works, especially in the write-up on David Copperfield.)
Dickens' life is probably more widely known than that of any other writer. But in case you are unfamiliar with it, here's a bare outline:
1812 Born in Landport, Hampshire, in England.
1824 Father thrown into Marshalsea debtor's prison (experiences used in Little Dorrit). Charles sent to work in a blacking warehouse at age twelve.
1824–36 Studied at schools, worked as a law office clerk and then as a shorthand reporter at Doctor's Commons, and then as a parliamentary reporter for several periodicals (all experiences used in David Copperfield). Short stories, sketches and essays started appearing in periodicals under his pen name Boz in 1833.
1836–37 Collection of pieces, Sketches by 'Boz', published in book form. Also The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, a connected string of stories. published in a monthly serial, about blithely humorous characters travelling together. The Pickwick Papers, as it is known, won Dickens great fame and readership in his day, although it is difficult for today's readers to follow.
1836 Married Catherine Hogarth with whom he had ten surviving children and from whom he separated in 1858. Dickens is thought also to have been in love with two of Catherine's sisters, one of whom, Mary, died young in his arms and was probably the model for Dora in David Copperfield.
1837–39 Novel Oliver Twist, appeared in monthly instalments in Bentley's Miscellany which Dickens edited, depicting the hard life of a guileless orphan caught up in the London underworld. Also Nicholas Nickleby, again about a boy's hard life and young adulthood, is serialized.
1840–41 Weekly magazine Master Humphrey's Clock, written entirely by Dickens, launched with instalments of The Old Curiosity Shop, telling the travails of young Nell raised by her junk-store owning grandfather, and Barnaby Rudge, which is set during England's anti-Catholic riots of 1780.
1842 Upset caused by Dickens's American Notes, concerning his disillusionment with United States after a visit. He criticized slavery, among other things.
1843–45 Published A Christmas Carol (1843), his first of several Christmas books and stories, later including The Chimes (1845), The Cricket on the Hearth (1846). Novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-45) caused further controversy in United States for its perceived stereotyped presentation of Americans. Lived in Italy, Switzerland and France 1844–45.
1846–48 Founded radical paper London Daily News. Contributed article "Pictures from Italy". Wrote Dombey and Son.
1849–50 The semi-autobiographical David Copperfield appeared in monthly instalments. Considered his masterpiece by many, the novel again follows the harsh life and loves of an orphaned boy who in this case grows into a famous writer like Dickens.
1850–57 Founding editor of the weekly Household Words, until it was incorporated into All the Year Round. Published irregularly appearing chapters of A Child's History of England (1851-2) with a radical view of British History. Classic novels published in this decade include Bleak House (1852–53), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855–57).
1857–58 Became intensely involved in theatrical productions and met actress Ellen Ternan. Separated from Catherine and is thought to have henceforth lived a double life split between the home he shared with his children and residence with Ternan, possibly including retreats in France. Kept his relationship with Ternan secret the rest of his life.
1858–60 Gave highly popular lecture tours in Britain and the United States 1858-60. In 1859 started editing All the Year Round, which succeeded Household Words, and continued until his death. A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution, published.
1860–61 Great Expectations published, once again following the childhood and early adult life of a young man, in this case who has a mysterious wealthy benefactor.
1864–65 Our Mutual Friend, which starts with a murder mystery and features a secret, double life.
1867–69 Another highly acclaimed reading tour of the United States and the British provinces.
1870 The Mystery of Edwin Drood left unfinished when Dickens died of a stroke and probably exhaustion. Based on Dickens's skimpy notes (which did not reveal the ending) Edwin Drood has been finished by various authors, from immediately after Dickens's death up to 1980, although none have satisfied Dickens fans.