Characteristics of Charles Dickens Novels

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      According to David Cecil, “Dickens is the most representative of the Victorian novelists. Although, we have noted the drawbacks in his novels, yet he surpasses them all in his basic humanity, a childlike naivete and an amazing fecund imagination”. C.E. Eckersley well remarks: “It is doubtful whether any English writer has ever been so popular as Dickens was in his lifetime, popular not only with one class or one generation, but with all classes, rich and poor, young and old alike”. Campbell, the famous Lord Chief Justice, remarked that he would have been prouder of having written Pickwick Paper than of all the honors he earned at the Bar.

Variety and Range of Dickens’s Novels

      Dickens never lost his sympathy for the poor and the mistreated. His best novels are of victims of the slums, the poor houses, the debtors’ prisons, and of the seamy sides of London life. The novels of Dickens are filled with stark realism and with a kindly humor. He never became bitter or bitingly satirical, but even when dealing with the most miserable of social conditions, his tone is one of idealism and his situations are sketched with understanding and sympathetic feelings. He was a novelist of the people and his creations have had a continuous popularity with all classes of people to the present day.

      Dickens did his best in the novels to call public attention to slum conditions and the miseries of the lower strata of the English society. He did not approve the industrial system and propagandized endlessly for the abolition of the evils in the legal system, the workhouses and the debtors’ prisons, and the miserable conditions in the factory system. In most of his novels he was a social writer who never lost his faith in the basic goodness of human character. He was a reformer, a humanitarian, and a mild romantic.

      Dickens was a good reporter and many of his novels read as though the events recounted had happened last night and are now before the reader’s eyes in the early morning edition. Dickens is known best for his humor and the many unforgettable characters he created. His characters range throughout the English society, criminals, little children, misers, pickpockets, lawyers, gentlemen, servants, gossipers, etc. In these creations he the author’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Too often his fictional personages seem caricatures and show exaggerated traits of the cartoon. Dickens had a keen theatrical sense and often his incidents descend to mere melodrama. Dickens was close to the picaresque fiction of Smollett and of the great Spanish development of an earlier day in much of his work. But he was an ideal Victorian blend of the romantic and the realistic. His reportorial experience gets reflected in many of his novels. He often has more than one novel running concurrently in newspapers and magazines and these show the broken plot effects of the serial method of writing.

Creative Imagination of Charles Dickens

      David Cecil remarks: “Creative imagination may not be the only quality necessary to the novelist, but it is the first quality. And no English novelist had it quite in the way Dickens had. Scott’s imagination and Emily Bronte’s were of a finer quality. Jane Austen’s was more exactly articulated, but none of them had an imagination as one so forceful, so varied, and so self-dependent as Dickens’s. Indeed his best passages have an immediate, irresistible music. Unassisted by substitute or intellectual interest he sweeps away, as Wager does, by sheer dramatic intensity. That is why, his popularity has not declined”.

      Dickens’s world is not lifelike, but it is extraordinarily alive. This is so because he was exceptionally gifted with creative imagination. A street in London as described by Dickens is certainly a street in London, yet it is different too. “For Dickens has used the real world to create his own world, to add a country to the geography of the imagination”. As Hugh Walker avers: “He is the romancer of London life, and his romances, are founded on reality”.

      Dickens’s creative imagination is also seen in inventing dramatic and picturesque incidents. Many such dramatic incidents readily come to the mind of all readers of Dickens. Again, his creative imagination makes them excel in humor. Humour is, by its very nature, creative. It is not a mere record of fact but a comment on them; it makes something new of them. “All the great Victorian novelists are humorists, and each is a humorist in a style of his own.” Dickens has created countless comic figures. Mr. Micawber, uncle Pumblechook and others, are all comic, each in his own way. Finally, his creative imagination is reflected in the fact that his characters are extremely alive. His characters are real, living, breathing human beings. His characters are so vital and lifelike that they linger in the memory even when the actual incidents of the novel have been forgotten. His characters are immortal personages due to his rich creative imagination.

Plot Construction of Dickens’s Novels

      Plot is the one element of Dickens’s novels, which fails to display the dramatic quality in which art chiefly consists. In their structure, they carry on the tradition of the picaresque romance, following a titular hero, with many digressions and side-plots. Several of his novels mock the very idea of structure or even any other principle of pattern. It was only in his latest novels, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend that Dickens was able to offer somewhat coherent plots. For the rest, they all exhibit a gross neglect of all architectonic principles. For one thing, Dickens is always more interested in individual episodes and individual characters than in the job of integrating them into a well-proportioned pattern. Regarding his plot construction, it may be noted that he is a traditionalist as he accepts the formal pattern of the novel handed over to him by Richardson, Fielding and Smollett. Some of his novels depict the career of the hero from his infancy to manhood. This naturally involved him in the handling of mass of vicissitudes as variegated as life itself.

Dickens’s Realism

      He appeared to know all the different classes except the higher classes. So far as the external features of manners, surroundings, and the particularities of different classes go, especially in the humbler walks of life, he was not only omniscient but extremely faithful. His pictures are crammed with the rich detail gathered by an untiring observer. Nothing seems to have escaped his eye; nothing was beneath his sympathy and affection.

Dickens’s Idealism

      His genius was essentially creative, humorous, and fantastic. He was an idealist and a poetic dreamer. What he had observed of human nature served him as raw material. His sleepless imagination exaggerated the comic side of everything, and developed the suggestions of reality into humorous idealism far transcending the proportions of ordinary life. David Copperfield is richer in personal experience than the work of any other novelist.

Dickens’s Sentimentalism

      Dickens’s imaginative sympathy gave a rare tenderness and a compassionate insight to his drawing of poor human creatures; his idealism tended to dwell on the beauty of human pathos, and to evolve sentimental types akin in imaginative scope to his humorous creation. We owe not a little to Dickens for arousing this very sense of fellowship, even with the meanest and commonest.

Dickens: A Successful Story-Teller

      Although, Dickens did not succeed in plot construction, yet he was very successful in telling the story. David Cecil has very rightly said: “He may not construct the story well: but he tells it admirably.”

Dickens: The Novelist of the Realities of London Life

      Charles Dickens was essentially a novelist of London life. He has portrayed London life in all its aspects. This life is portrayed not like a photographer. His imagination has always stood in good stead. Through his imagination, he has tried to give rich color and variety to the realities of London life. Hugh Walker has rightly said: “What Dickens gives us is not the bare hard fact, but the fact suffused with the glow of a rich imagination”.

Dickens’s Humour

      The main ingredient of Dickens’s outlook on life is humor and as a humorist, he takes rank with Chaucer, Shakespeare and Lamb and all those masters of the typically English humor which springs from humanity and easily blends with the pathos. Dickens’s novels abound in all the varieties of humor, farcical situations, grotesque descriptions, verbal twists and mannerisms of speech and above all, the sympathetic laughter which bathes a character and illumines its inmost depth of heart and nature. But there is a remarkable flexibility in the distribution of this sympathetic laughter among the different kinds of characters. It is at its tenderest in the sketches of the good and generous figures, such as Mrs. Gamp, Mrs. Micawber and Joe Gregory who stand transfigured in a poetic light because they have been conceived with tender love and sympathy blended with a sweet smile. Satire is the less characteristic half of Dickens’s humor. Dickens’s unique position as a humorist lies in his mastery of pure humor, jokes that are funny not for the satirical light they throw; but just in themselves.

Dickens’s Pathos

      As the humor of Dickens sprang from his humanity it easily harmonized with pathos. Dickens had his own share in the sentimentalism of his readers and was fully satisfied to hear them sob and cry. His heart went out in sympathy for suffering children and innocent victims of social injustice and human cruelty At times he was prone to elaborate on the pathetic situation and exploit their emotional appeal to enlist the patronage of his readers, thereby sacrificing the decorum of his art.

The Humanitarian Note in Dickens’s Novels

      The humanitarian novel with which the name of Dickens is preeminently associated is the popular section of an extensive humanitarian literature, and as such it is a very valuable record of a deep and far-reaching philosophic movement, which had its beginning in the eighteenth century, and rose to its sentimental culmination in the nineteenth century The humanitarian movement gave us the humanitarian novel and in turn, the novel probably accelerated the movement. Dickens became a sort of professor of humanitarianism, and he held this position for nearly thirty years. The light of that knowledge which was indeed somewhat false and misleading, and the light of an imagination of strange and alluring splendor, he turned upon a great variety of English scenes and characters, but especially upon workhouse, debtor’s prisons, pawnbroker’s shop, hovels of the poor, law offices, dark streets and dark alleys, all the London haunts the lurking places of crime and vice and pain. His theme was always the downtrodden and the oppressed.

Dickens and Social Reform

      In his novels, Charles Dickens has tried to satirize the social, political and economic evils of the time. We know that he has caricatured the working of the law and the courts, educational institutions and the cruelties of the teachers and other such evil practices. In fact he wanted to make evil a vehicle of justice and morality. That is why we also see that he has succeeded in portraying those characters more successfully that have virtues in them. On the other hand, characters with vices have not been portrayed so successfully

Element of Caricature in Dickens’s Novels

      Some critics have charged Charles Dickens of making his characters into caricatures. These critics are of the view that the (characters of Charles Dickens are more of caricatures than living human beings. These characters do not belong to the world of reality This impression is not very correct. If some people find that his characters are caricatures, it is only one account of over-drawing of the oddities and eccentricities of these characters.

Symbolism in Dickens’s Novels

      As David Cecil avers: “Thus Picksniff is not only Mr. Picksniff, he is the type of all hypocrites; Mrs. Jellyby is not only Mrs. Jellyby she is also the type of all professional philanthropist; Mr. Sergeant Buzfuz is not just Mr. Sergeant Buzfuz, he is the type of all legal advocates; Mr. Dombey is not just Mr. Dombey but the type of all those in whom pride is symbolized. Like the writers of the old Moralities, Dickens peoples his stage with virtues, and vices, and like them he does it gaily presenting them as no frigid abstraction, but as clowns and zanies, thwacking his bladders, exuberant in Motley and Bell”.

Dickens’s Master Hand at Depicting Child Characters

      Charles Dickens was great expert at drawing child characters. In fact, no figure of English literature can compare with Charles Dickens in this regard. In depicting a child persecuted by the society he excelled everyone else. Gissing remarks: “A third type of character which Dickens developed, and which in his time made immensely for his popularity was that of the victim of the society usually a child. The possibilities of childhood for romance or pathos had been suggested by Shakespeare, by Fielding and by Blake; but none of these had brought children into the very center of the action or had made them highly individual”.

Dickens’s Portrayal of Female Characters

      Charles Dickens has not succeeded in successfully depicting female characters. He had portrayed these characters weakly and artificially, the characters, as they are depicted, seem to show lack of understanding of sex life. If he had succeeded in regard to woman characters, he has succeeded only in the portrayal of abnormal woman characters.

Dickens: A Moralist

      We have seen it more than once that Charles Dickens was essentially a moralist. His novels, are, in fact, means of preaching his morals. In fact, he wanted to establish the moral virtues. To quote George Gissing: “Dickens may be disappointing, considered purely as an artist. But he is something more than an artist. He is also a prophet. He is out to expound a gospel, a view of life, a scale of values which he wishes his fellowmen to accept.”

Dickens’s Handling of Villains

      Charles Dickens was a moralist. He has depicted the villains as horrible figures and made them face the consequences in the end. He wanted to uphold moral values and he had done so in this manner. In spite of the exposure of the villains, we find that Charles Dickens has not presented them as detestable figures. We do not hate them. To quote David Cecil: “To hate Sikes, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Scrooge and all the other villainous freaks and misfits who whine and roar their way through his books, is really to love them, because they are tangible, they take us by the heart and enjoy our acquaintance not only with humanity as it is, but as it might become if life should take another slant”.

Dickens’s Descriptive and Narrative Power

      Charles Dickens was a very successful story-teller. He had a very strong power of description. The power exhibited itself in the best form in the description of nature and countryside. To quote George Gissing: “This power of suggesting country atmosphere is remarkable in Dickens. He hardly even mentions a tree of flower by its name; he never elaborates, perhaps never scales a landscape, yet we see and feel the open-air surroundings. The secret is his own delight in the road and the meadow, and has infinite power of suggestion in seemingly unconsidered words”.

Dickens’s Love for Exaggeration

      Dickens’s love for exaggeration is ultimately traceable to his hypersensitive imagination and a childlike vision of the world. It is evident in all important aspects of his characterization, humor pathos and descriptions.

      Dickens’s power to create vivid characters is one of his greatest gifts. His art of characterization is based on exaggeration. Dickens’s humor is one of his strongest qualities. His humor rests too much on, exaggeration.

      Dickens’s sentimentality is his major defect as a novelist. It results from emotion in excess of a situation.

      Dickens’s love for exaggeration has been to him something between a hindrance and a help.

Dickens: A Novelist of International Repute

      His novels have achieved importance and fame not only in England, but in other parts of the world also. He is pretty famous in America as well as in India. Even in Russia, Italy and Germany his novels made their mark. The greatest Russian novelist, Tolstoy, thought a great deal of him. And when he died, an Italian newspaper bore very characteristically for its headline news: “Our Charles Dickens is dead”. Indeed, Dickens was not of his country alone, but of all the world. He will be read as long as books are read.

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