Charles Dickens: Biography, Life & Literary Works

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      Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the most popular of all English novelists, was born in poverty. Before he was ten, he was earning his living in a murky London warehouse, while his father was held in a debtor’s prison. He later worked for a solicitor and finally found his vocation that was to make him famous as a news reporter. It was when he was about twenty-five that his newspaper sketches and satirical tales began to attract a large number of people. His Sketches by Boz and the sporting characters of his Pickwick Paper made young Dickens a famous caricaturist of English manners. When in 1837, he wrote his first social novel, Oliver Twist, his future course and fame as a novelist were assured by readers for a long time to come.

A Christmas Carol

      Dickens wrote about 15 major novels and many short stories and sketches. Some of the short works of the author are his most read and dramatized work. Every English speaking person knows almost by memory, his A Christmas Carol (1843) with the unforgettable Scrooge, the Jolly Bob Cratchit, and the lovable Tiny Tim. Dickens is part and parcel of the Christmas spirit in England and the United States. The reform of the miserly Scrooge has become one of the humanity’s greatest symbols of the meaning of the Yuletide season.

Pickwick: Pickwick, first of the Immortal Characters

      The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837) is the first book that might be called a novel to come from the pen of Dickens. This is a series of humorous sketches about the very diverse members of the Pickwick Club. The book is pure fire from beginning to end as there is no serious attempt at drama or plot continuity. It merely presents the episodes and amusing incidents which happen to the group of unforgettable characters which form this 19th century English Club, founded by a genial old gentleman named Samuel Pickwick. Pickwick’s land-lady faints in his arms on one auspicious occasion and leaves the entirely innocent Pickwick in a rather compromising position. She sues for breach of promise and the very amusing court-room scene follows. From this type of incident the reader is treated to a long series of comic episodes and happenings in the lives of the range of ludicrous types who belonged to the Pickwick Club.

The Social Novels

      With, Oliver Twist (1837) Dickens began his series of novels dealing with criminal types and with his campaign for social improvement. Here he is concerned with the corruption of children by a master pickpocket Fagin and the foul atmosphere of the workhouses. In Nicholas Nickleby (1839), he turns to the miserable condition prevailing in certain English schools. In Bleak House (1852), Dickens turns his indignation upon the delays and corruption of the chancery courts. Hard Times (1854) deals with the grinding existence of industrial workers. Little Dorrit (1855) strikes at the inefficiency of English government offices. Also, the debtors’ prison comes in for censure in this social novel.

Novels with Superb Character Creations

      In another group, Dickens is mainly concerned with social manners and with individual shortcomings of character. In the Old Curiosity Shop, (1840), he is concerned with the evil of gambling and the effects it can have on the individual. This novel is one of the most charming books that Dickens wrote, containing one of the most lovable girl characters in world action-Little Nell. Martin Chuzzlewit (1843) deals with selfishness as a central theme. Dombey and Son (1846) studies the inhumanity of a capitalist and the subsequent humbling of his arrogant pride. Great Expectations (1861), is considered by many the author’s finest plot. Here snobbishness and ingratitude come in for censure. Our Mutual Friends (1864) is a mystery story as well as being a satire of the manners of the polite society of Dickens’s day.

The Historical Novels

      Dickens tried the historical novel in Barnaby Rudge (1841). The result here is a melodramatic thriller of the 18th century which is rather flat. But in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) Dickens wrote one of the greatest of the English historical novels, with a background of the French Revolution. This has been a highly popular story, but lacks the usual humor and droll characterization of the author’s other novels.

David Copperfield: Dickens’s Masterpiece

      Dickens’s closest approach to autobiography and his acknowledged masterpiece is David Copperfield (1849-50), a long novel of the early life of his central character. This work is filled with realistic incident of a picaresque nature and a memorable Dickens’s portrait gallery of characters. Not since Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has an English book contained a more sympathetic treatment of a cross section of the various strata of English society.

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