Charles Dicken's Novels: Literary Criticism
Something about Charles Dickens and his ability to take his reader to
unbelievable places with his imaginative powers allows him the honor of being
the most popular English novelist of the 19th century. Dickens has thrilled his
readers for many years with his down-to-earth stories about real people forced
into real situations. Charles Dickens has the ability to tell his stories from
personal experiences. He fine-tuned his ability to tell his own story through
the life of another character or cast of characters.
Born on the evening of February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens was the second child of
his parents, John and Elizabeth Dickens. His parents lived in Portsmouth, which
is located on England's southern coast. The family was in the lower division of
the middle class. Charles Dickens' father, John, was a clerk at the Navy Pay
Office in Portsmouth. Dickens's mother was very affectionate and rather foolish
in practical matters. John was a vivacious and generous man, but often lived
outside the boundaries of his tight pocketbook. Later in life Dickens used his
father as the basis for his fictional character, Mr. Micawber and his mother as
Mrs. Nickleby in the Brothers Cheeryble (Constable 25).
In 1814 John Dickens was transferred from the post in Portsworth to one in
London. Three years later the family moved to Chatham to be closer to their
father who was working steadily at the post. Charles Dickens's mother taught
him to read when he was barely five and for the next few years Dickens lived
wonderfully, reading every book he could get his hands on. He quickly read
through his father's collection of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Defoe, Smollett,
Fielding, and Goldsmith. Every one of these authors left a mark on the young
mind of Charles Dickens which is easy to see in his style and attitude
throughout writings (Carey 6).
During this time Dickens started attending school where he excelled and pleased
his father greatly. Although he was a solitary child, Dickens was observant and
good natured and often participated in different comical routines for the class.
Looking back on this period of his life, Dickens thought of it as the golden age
(Carey 6). In the first novel that he wrote, The Pickwick Papers, Dickens tries
to bring back the good old times as he remembers them with their picturesque
nature. Gary Carey believes that this novel displays the happiness of innocence
and the playful spirit of the youth during the time of Dickens's youthful days
Overtaken by financial difficulties, the Dickens family was forced to move into
a shabby suburb of Camden Town. This move must have shown the family how good
they had it back in Chatham. There Dickens was removed from school and forced
to work degrading menial jobs in an effort to help his struggling father put
food on the table. Dickens was put to work in a blackening factory among many
rough and cruel employees, probably the worst job in town. Shortly after
Dickens started working in the factory his father was thrown into jail for
failure to pay his debts, only to be released three months later. This period
of time affected Dickens greatly as he went into a period of depression. He
felt abandoned and destroyed by this evil roller-coaster ride of life he was on.
From this time period come many of the major themes of his more popular novels.
Perhaps the most popular of these novels is David Copperfield. In this novel
Dickens depicts a young man who grows up in a very similar way to that of his
own (Allen 28).
Dickens' sympathy for the victimized, his fascination with prisons and money,
the desire to vindicate his heroes' status as gentlemen, and the idea of London
as an awesome, lively, and rather threatening environment all reflect the
experiences he had during his time on his own. On his own at the age of twelve,
Dickens learned many necessary life skills which also developed in him a driving
ambition and a boundless energy that transferred into every thing that he did
It would be a mistake to think of Charles Dickens as an uneducated man just
because he had little formal schooling. Dickens did what everyone should do,
learn from life. His entire writing career was a continuing process of
development and experimentation. Many of his themes keep repeating themselves
throughout his pieces and those themes most certainly stem from his early life.
From his early Pickwick Papers to his one of his last pieces The Mystery of
Edwin Drood Dickens never ceased to develop his writing abilities and skill,
establishing himself as the major and primary Victorian novelist (Bloom 189).
The journey from boyhood into manhood is a momentous one, and definitely
something that has a lasting effect on one's person. Charles Dickens in his
novel David Copperfield describes the journey into manhood by telling a story
similar to his own life through the life of "David Copperfield." There isn't
one underlining theme in this novel there are many. The journey is one that
along with "David's" is longing for what is lost in the past and the humiliation
he feels from being an orphan. Dickens has written an excellent novel
describing the troubles of growing up and the benefits of having a rough
childhood. Through the rough experiences that he had, Dickens was able to look
back on his early life and write world-famous stories about them. Calvin Brown
feel that these experiences also helped shape the man the Dickens became, as do
all experiences in life for everyone (Brown 144)
The structure of Dickens's Copperfield has the freeness and the unity of a
wonderful journey. As the scene moves from place to place in the story each
move also represents a critical step in David's spiritual journey to manhood.
Dickens uses the pattern of changing scenes to provide both variety and contrast
of mood. The atmosphere changes as the story moves along from the Salem House
to Blunderstone, giving the story diversity. Dickens constantly shows how the
life of David would have been much easier had he had a decent father figure in
his home while he was growing up.
David is constantly searching for what he has lost in the past. He recalls the
beautiful world of the Peggottys when he says, "It seems to me at this hour that
I have never seen such sunlight as on those bright April afternoons, that I have
never seen such a sunny little figure as I used to see, sitting in the doorway
of the old boat..."(Copperfield 7) This writing of Dickens binds the reader to
the story. David remembers the "olden" days and thinks of them as the "golden"
days (Allen 28).
As the beginning of the story describes, David Copperfield has many hard
childhood experiences, such as Dickens's own humiliating days spent working in
the blackening factory in London. The despair and humiliation that he suffered
there and the rejection of his parents and the loss of all his hopes of self-
fulfillment are relived through David in this book. Dickens tells his own story
well through the life of David Copperfield. He isn't looking for the readers'
sympathy. He simply wants the reader to understand that just because he had a
rough life doesn't mean it was a bad one.
A journey into adulthood, something that everyone must go through, although it
may be easier for some than others. Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield,
describes this journey as he makes the reader a vital part of David
Copperfield's life. This journey is a theme in this novel as well as "David's"
longing for what is lost in the past and the humiliation he feels from being an
orphan. Dickens has developed his character, David, into a hero much like he
wanted to be remembered as (Andreola 3). Many critics today think he achieved
Charles Dickens also wrote many other books throughout his creative writing
career. In his book A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens causes the reader to ask
what the novel is really about, just what the driving theme is. Although each
reader will come up with a different answer to this question, most of the
answers fall into one of three categories.
Some readers will say that this novel is about the different personalities of
the many different and well-described characters throughout his novel. The
story portrays a French physician, Dr. Manette, who has been wrongly put into
prison in the Bastille for nearly eighteen years before the story even begins
(Constable 24). Because he witnessed the aftermath of a crime that was
committed by two other fellows, the doctor was thrown into prison. The entire
prison experience is something that he can never fully shake free from. In
moments of stress throughout the novel Dr. Manette often goes insane, a result
of his time in prison. The story also concerns a man by the name of Jarvis
Lorry, who, in the beginning of the book, is on his way to retrieve the doctor
from the prison (Constable 13).
Another group of readers will believe that this book is about the French
Revolution. Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities starts out in 1775 while the
Revolution was still in its underground preliminary stages. The book covers
eighteen years ending with one of the bloodiest battles, the Reign of Terror in
1973. Although most of the major revolution events take place off stage in the
novel, they do have a major effect on the lives of the characters in the story.
It would certainly be no error to say the events of the French Revolution, which
make up so much of the setting in this novel, is what the theme of the novel
really is (Carey 11).
The third category of readers will say the novel's theme is beyond the fictional
characters and historical events and is more of a symbol. These readers will
see that the actions relate to Dickens's vision of life and the reason for it.
This group will say that the book presents a picture of human life using the
dramatic language of characters and their actions (Carey 12).
Anyway that a reader approaches A Tale of Two Cities, it is a hard book to read
although it does become interesting at times and in the end brings the reader
into an understanding of personal life trials during the time of the French
Revolution. Whether the reader believes that the novel is about its characters,
historical events or symbolism, it doesn't matter. Charles Dickens wanted the
readers of enjoy this novel not fight over what the meaning behind it is (Carey
Sadly, many of the greatest books that have strengthened and shaped Western
civilization are drifting out of modern life and thought. But it doesn't have to
be this way. Someone must responsibly keep the literary lights such as Charles
Dickens burning brightly for the benefit of younger generations. (Andreola 2)
It is time to rescue Dickens from the attic and let him stir the hearts of
people today. Dickens can challenge, motivate, and entertain in ways the Hardy
Boys never could. Dickens became famous writing stories that highlighted the
difference between right and wrong in his own time. His stories invite readers
to form an opinion and make decisions about a character's right or wrong actions.
As only an artist could. Dickens paints a moral picture of life. To paint the
moral for children is more effective than to "point" it. Here lays the help the
younger generation of today needs to develop a "moral imagination."
When reading episodes from Dickens's stories it is easy to get to know his
characters more intimately than neighbors. The experience of life along with his
characters is something that the readers feel. Feelings arouse for them as the
characters struggle in difficult situations (Andreola 2).
In Terry W. Glaspey's Great Books of the Christian Tradition, he says, "Dickens
could sometimes be faulted for being overlong and sentimental, but his novels
seem to lodge in the memory long after they are read. His ability to create a
multitude of memorable characters gave us the adjective 'Dickensian.' His
staunch Victorian morality is a pleasant contrast to our modern sense of moral
drift." And what wonderful characters they are! His heroes are people of
everyday life who supply readers with a vision of goodness (Andreola 3)
Clearly without the writing of Charles Dickens the literary world of today would
be suffering a great loss. Dickens thought his many years of life experiences
was able to use his talents as a writer to express to the everyday reader what
the true meaning of life is. Charles Dickens did for the literary world what
stories like that of small town basketball sensation, Larry Bird, did for small
town athletes around the United States. Dickens helped readers understand
themselves, those who are the common folk. Middle to lower class.