Charles Dickens: life and works

Mag 4, 2022

Charles Dickens was an English writer and social critic. He is considered the greatest novelist of the Victorian era and he is the father of some of the world’s best-known fictional characters. During his lifetime, his works enjoyed unprecedented popularity and nowadays critics recognize him as a literary genius. Some of his well-known novels are A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. 

The biography of Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)

Charles John Huffam Dickens

Born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812, he spent his childhood in Chatham, an area to which he often reverted in his fiction. From 1822 he lived in London and in 1824 he had to leave school to work in a factory when his father was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison. This shock deeply affected him, but through this experience he was able to denounce the condition of the working class later in life. At 15 years old he became a clerk in a solicitor office, then a shorthand reporter in the lawcourts (where he gained a knowledge of the legal world often used in his novels). Finally, he became a parliamentary and a newspaper reporter

The beginning of Dickens’ career

In 1833 he began writing stories and descriptive essays to magazines and newspapers. One of his first works are The Pickwick Papers, first published serially in 1836-1837 under the pseudonym Boz. This work was originally commissioned as a series of captions for the work of a caricaturist. However, the witty, episodic accounts of the kindly, naive Samuel Pickwick and his friends in the Pickwick Club were instantly successful in their own right and made Dickens the most popular author of the day. 

Dickens and the serial publication

Within a few years, Dickens had become a literary celebrity, famous for his humor, satire and keen observation of society. His novels, most of them published in monthly or weekly installments, pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction. This became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publication. He also utilized cliffhanger endings to keep readers in suspense. The installment format allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience’s reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on readers’ feedback.

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, was published serially under the pseudonym Boz from 1837 to 1839. It was also published in a three-volume book in 1838. The novel is the first of Dickens’ works to depict the impoverished London underworld and to illustrate his belief that poverty leads to crime.

Plot summary

The novel follows the journey of Oliver Twist. He is an orphan since birth who spends much of his childhood at a “child farm” (orphanage) with too many children and too little food. After suffering repeated mistreatment, Oliver goes to London. He soon finds himself in the house of Fagin and some other boys, who he discovers are pickpockets. On an outing, Oliver witnesses the boys take a handkerchief from Mr. Brownlow. The elderly man has him arrested

However, after learning more about Oliver, Mr. Brownlow realizes his mistake and offers to take care of him at his home. Later, Fagin takes him back and sends him on a burglary mission, where Oliver is shot. In the end, he reunites with Mr. Brownlow and Oliver discovers that he is entitled to a large fortune

Main characters

  • Oliver Twist is the protagonist. He is an orphan born in a workhouse, and Dickens uses his situation to criticize public policy toward the poors in 1830s England. His true identity is the central mystery of the novel.
  • Fagin takes in homeless children and trains them to pick pockets for him. He rarely commits crimes himself, preferring to employ others to commit them. Dickens’s portrait of Fagin displays the influence of anti-Semitic stereotypes.
  • Mr. Brownlow is an erudite gentleman who serves as Oliver’s first benefactor. Throughout the novel, he behaves with compassion and common sense.
  • Agnes Fleming is Oliver’s mother, she was a retired naval officer’s daughter. After falling in love with and becoming pregnant by Mr. Leeford, she chooses to die anonymously in a workhouse rather than stain her family’s reputation. 

Main themes

Oliver Twist deals with some of the main issues of the XIX century England:

  • The failure of charity. Much of the first part of Oliver Twist challenges the organizations of charity run by the church and the government in Dickens’s time. Dickens describes with sarcasm the greed, laziness, and arrogance of charitable workers.
  • The system of the workhouse. The system Dickens describes was put into place by the Poor Law of 1834, which stipulated that the poors could only receive government assistance if they moved to the workhouses. Here, labor was required, families were separated, and rations of food and clothing were meager. The workhouses operated on the principle that poverty was the consequence of laziness and that the dreadful conditions in the workhouse would inspire the poor to better their own circumstances. Yet the workhouses did not provide any means for social or economic betterment.

David Copperfield

David Copperfield belongs to the Bildungsroman genre (from German) and it is a semi-autobiographical novel. It is narrated from the point of view of his protagonist, David Copperfield, who tells his adventures in his journey from infancy to maturity. It was first published as a serial in 1849-1850 and as a book in 1850.

Plot summary

The story is told in the first person by a middle-aged David Copperfield, who is looking back on his life. David is born six months after the death of his father, and he is raised by his mother and her devoted housekeeper, Clara Peggotty. As a young child, he spends a few days with Peggotty at the home of her brother. When the visit ends, David learns that his mother has married the cruel and controlling Mr. Edward Murdstone. Murdstone’s sister also moves in and assumes the management of the household. One day Mr. Murdstone takes David to his bedroom to beat him, and David bites his hand. After that, the eight-year-old David is sent to a boarding school

At the age of 10 he is sent to work at a wine-bottling factory in London. Later, David runs away to find his great-aunt and she takes him in. He marries a girl named Dora but she dies soon after. He then leaves the country to travel abroad and when he returns, he marries Agnes, and they have several children. David pursues his writing career with increasing commercial success.

Main characters

  • David Copperfield is the protagonist and narrator of the novel. He is innocent, trusting, and naïve. He is also idealistic and impulsive and remains honest and loving. 
  • Agnes Wickfield is David’s true love and second wife, the daughter of Mr. Wickfield. She suffers patiently through David’s other romances. Agnes always comforts David with kind words or advice when he needs support.
  • Clara Peggotty is David’s nanny and caretaker. She is gentle and selfless, opening herself and her family to David whenever he is in need. In her kind motherliness, Peggotty contrasts with the cruel and unloving Miss Murdstone.
  • Dora Spenlow is David’s first wife. She is foolish and more interested in playing with her dog than in keeping house with David.

Main themes

  • The abuse of the weak. Throughout the book, the powerful abuse the weak and helpless. The author focuses on orphans, women, and the mentally disabled to show how exploitation is the only rule in an industrial society. He describes the inhumanity of child labor and debtors’ prison. 
  • Wealth and class. Dickens criticizes his society’s view of wealth and class as measures of a person’s value. He uses Steerforth, who is wealthy, powerful, and noble, to show that these traits are more likely to corrupt than improve a person’s character. At the same time, he does not suggest that all poor people are absolutely noble and that all rich people are evil: poor people frequently attack David when he is young, even though he too is poor and helpless. He does not paint a black-and-white society, but shows that wealth and class are unreliable indicators of character and morality

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is a novel written by Charles Dickens in 1843. It tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly, mean-spirited miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. After their visits, Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler man. (It’s interesting to note that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during a period when the British were exploring and re-evaluating past Christmas traditions and newer customs, such as Christmas trees). 

The book can be read as an allegory: Scrooge represents all the values that are opposed to the idea of Christmas (greed, selfishness, and lack of goodwill toward one’s fellow man); the Ghost of Christmas Past, with his glowing head symbolizing the mind, represents memory; the Ghost of Christmas Present represents generosity, empathy, and the Christmas spirit; and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come represents the fear of death and moral reckoning. 
This work is also a social commentary. Dickens often uses Scrooge as a spokesperson to express the excuses used to defend the harsh treatment of the poor. Asked whether he wishes to support a charity, Scrooge replies that he does support charities: prisons and workhouses, which are all the charity the poor need. Dickens strongly criticizes these attitudes and presents a sympathetic view of the poor through his depiction of the Cratchits.

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