Charles Dickens - An Introduction
Charles Dickens is not only the most famous of the Victorian novelists, he is also the most typical. Only surpassed by William Shakespeare, he is the most cherished English writer of all times; his books have never been allowed to gather dust on the shelf. His heartrending and close-to-life tales of the human destinies behind the success of industrial England are an important documentation of the Victorian Age.
Pre-reading task: Look at the following Dickens quotations; do they tell you something?
- "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times..."
- "If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers."
- "In this life we want nothing but facts, sir, nothing but facts."
- "It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and
the wind blows cold - when it is summer in the light and winter in
- "He was bolder in the daylight - most men are."
- "There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger
in its contrasts."
A common institution of Victorian England was the debtor's prison, where people ended up when they could not pay their debt according to the terms agreed upon. Dickens's father once had to serve time in such a prison, and young Charles had to work to make ends meet for the family. This experience may have introduced him to what was later to become his literary project. Otherwise, Charles had a fairly happy childhood and a good middle-class education,after which he started a legal career; he learned short-hand and had practice as a gallery reporter in the House of Commons. He also worked as a legal reporter in a court of law, employed by several newspapers and periodicals. Dickens’s thematic approaches in his future novels would clearly bear evidence of what he experienced during this face-to-face encounter with political procedures and legislation. He was appalled by what he saw as pompous and silly proceedings from the ruling class to protect its own interests. There were victims and culprits, and in Dickens’s enormous gallery his characters all seem, in one way or other, to end up either as wrongdoers or benefactors. Dickens had a lifelong contempt for the aristocracy and any class distinction because he had seen how these institutions were hypocritical oppressors of honest and decent people who struggled to get by during “hard times”. His figures take on a universal and symbolic value, and even if he may give them a somewhat stereotypical portrayal, they were rooted in real life. There were many mean factory owners and capitalists like Mr Bounderby, and materialist educators like Mr Gradgrind; the London underworld had many Fagins, and there were many orphans like Oliver Twist, suffering the abhorrent conditions in the workhouses. The corrupt legal practice of Bleak House, the debtors’ prison of Little Dorrit are other examples of how Dickens used his legal competence and his own life experience to create realistic literature.
Moralist or Sentimentalist?
The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities sum up his literary project brilliantly: “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.” What were the best of times for some at the top were definitely the worst of times for those who sacrificed their lifeblood and dignity to keep the wheels turning in the “workshop of the world.” He fought his battle with humour and satire and his characters are wonderfully portrayed. If he is a moralist, which many critics may claim, his gospel is entertaining and wonderfully told. Dickens’s talent for painting detailed and vivid pictures is undisputable, though some of his characters are close to caricatures. Another common objection to Dickens is that he is a sentimentalist. That may be true as well, but he belongs to the realistic trend in literature and he openly manipulates the readers by his narrative technique and his use of child protagonists. His intention is to move the readers and invoke their feelings for these poor victims of greedy mill owners and an unscrupulous ruling class. He also wants to expose the inhumanity of institutions like the Church, the court of justice and the workhouse.
Charles Dickens’s stories gained a huge audience, and like many of his contemporary writers his first works were published as monthly sequels in periodicals. This was a handy way for a writer to obtain a close contact with his readers. One of his most famous novels, Oliver Twist, was published in that way. It is the story of the orphan Oliver who is sold from the workhouse and ends up in the bad company of Fagin and his band of thieves and pickpockets in the dark and foggy backstreets of London. After much drama and commotion Oliver ends up in the care of a nice and wealthy gentleman and the plot has a happy ending. Like so many of Dickens’s stories it is moving and vividly told, and has a list of ingredients that in sum give a fairly accurate description of Victorian London, for better or for worse. Read more about Olver Twist here: Oliver Twist's Story
Dickens’s vast production includes titles and characters that are familiar to the reading audience also today. Some of his most famous and popular novels are The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Our Mutual Friend, A Christmas Carol – the list is long. Charles Dickens holds a monumental position in English literature and his works are rated as world classics.
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The Industrial Revolution
- What did Dickens’s early career mean for his later work as an author?
- The literary method of the Victorian Age is also called Realism. How does Dickens comply with that label?
- What does it mean that some of Dickens’s characters are close to caricatures?
- Many of Dickens’s novels were published in sequels in different magazines (like the works of many of his contemporaries.) What would such a publishing process imply for the writer – and for the reading audience?
- If you check the quotes in the pre-reading task again, you will see there are many references to light and dark. How do you interpret this?
Project Work: Victorian Philanthropists
Conditions in Victorian England were not so black-and-white as history tends to tell. There were many benevolent factory owners who provided health care, education and good accommodation for their workers. These were influential people who saw the injustice and wanted to improve conditions for the workers. Such people are called philanthropists, and they worked both practically within their own local community, or politically to bring about the poor laws and different protection acts. These benefactors were often driven by a Christian vocation, like for example William Booth, who worked for the poor in the sordid backstreets of Whitechapel in London. His movement was to be the start of the Salvation Army. Go on the net and research Victorian philanthropists and then make a presentation for the class. Some key figures are:
- Angela Burdett-Coutts
- Sir Thomas Barnardo
- Robert James Lees
- William Booth
- Frederick Charrington
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