Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Major Works: Pickwick Papers (1836-37), Oliver Twist (1837-38), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1849-50), Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57), Great Expectations (1860-61).
Biographical Notes: Dickens had a happy early childhood near the sea in Chatham, where his father, John, was a Navy pay office clerk. Following a series of financial setbacks due in large part to John Dickens's extravagance and improvidence, the family ended up in London, where for several months John and all the family but Charles were imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor's prison. While his family lived in the prison and for several months after, 12-year-old Charles supported himself and his family by working in a shoe-blacking factory pasting labels on bottles. This early experience with poverty and social degradation had a profound lifelong influence on Dickens, and much of his life and fiction seems a clear reaction against the horrors of this year-long period in the blacking factory. After intermittent schooling, Dickens was apprenticed as a law clerk. He learned shorthand and became a reporter of court proceedings; later he became a parliamentary reporter. He also published a series of fictional sketches (Sketches by Boz, 1836-37) which were received with enthusiasm. Close after, the overwhelming popularity of The Pickwick Papers (1836-37) quickly established Dickens as a major novelist. From 1837 until his death and beyond, Dickens reigned supreme as the world's most popular novelist. In 1858 Dickens endured scandal when he separated from his wife, Catherine, with whom he had ten children, and set up a house for his 18-year-old mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan. In his final years Dickens gave a series of exhausting public readings, which together with his continued writing and the management of his weekly magazine All the Year Round led to a fatal stroke in 1870.
Mixed reaction, then and now
From his time to ours, critics have tried to condemn Dickens as a "mere entertainer"not someone to be regarded as a serious literary artist by scholars and serious readers. In part, the sheer persistence of Dickens's popularityhe still sells well in commercial bookstores, and of course he figures prominently on the college syllabusthis persistent popularity is reinforced by some scholars who see Dickens as a great natural genius and conscious artist in fiction despite his undeniable commercialism. [Consistently the 20th century determined that popularity is the "artist's" greatest nightmare.] Several decades of renewed attention to the symbolism, the social commentary, and the narrative technique in Dickens's later novels has allowed him a measure of critical respectability he did not enjoy in the first 40 years of the 20th century. To me, the dispute over Dickens's relative "artistic merit" boils down to each individual's personal reaction to Dickens: some people are charmed by his humor and his peculiarly "Dickensian" language and wildly eccentric characters, others are not. Those who believe that art must always be serious and preferably "realistically negative" or pessimistic; or that "real art" must be too complex for non-academic readers to enjoywell, . . . these people don't think much of Dickens.
Dickens under fire: frequent criticisms
His books were too popular to be really any goodhe catered to the public instead of adhering to a personal sense of artistic integrity.
Too sentimentaltoo often overtly appealing to the emotions: tears, anger, laughter.
Too sensationalnovels depict unrealistic extremes in life.
Too melodramaticgood characters are too good, bad characters are too "bad."
Too much coincidence in his intricate plotsplots are not plausible, sometimes not neatly unified, characters introduced "as needed."
Characters are not realistic, especially women and the more eccentric minor characters.
His books are too openly polemicalthat is, he often tells the reader what to think instead of allowing the characters and events speak for themselves.
Before they were issued as bound books, Dickens's novels were published in weekly or monthly installments, often in Dickens's own magazines (Household Words until 1859, subsequently All the Year Round. Great Expectations was published serially in weekly installments in All the Year Round). Serial publication explains in part the "cliffhanger" endings to many of Dickens's chapters, and too, it may explain Dickens's tendency to draw such extravagantly eccentric characters. Often, readers had to keep up with a dizzying array of characters in the novels over a period of 18 or 19 months: the more outlandish the characters, the easier they were to recall.
Influenced largely by the popular theater of his day, Dickens's two main strategies of humor are caricature and farce, two forms of exaggeration. Typically, his comic characters are given specific exaggerated traits or speech-characteristics ("tags") that by force of repetition may be funny (e.g. Wemmick's "aged P" and Mrs. Joe's saying "bring you up by hand" in Great Expectations]. Farce involves exaggeration not of characteristics but of action (Bitzer's definition of "horse," e.g., in Hard Times).
Through satire, irony, and outright didacticism and rhetorical declamation, most of Dickens's novels take aim at particular aspects or institutions of Victorian society: workhouse reforms in Oliver Twist, Chancery courts in Bleak House, prisons in Little Dorrit, America in Martin Chuzzlewit, and Utilitarianism in Hard Times, for instance.
Themes and motifs to consider in Great Expectations:
Various characters' "expectations" of different sorts
Family relations and responsibilities
Relations between men and women
The definition of "gentleman"
Social structure and class differences; the value of work?
Crime and punishment
The law and the legal profession
The novel as a bildungsroman (novel of maturation or coming-of-age novel)
Psychological realism? Especially relating to children?
Concentrated focus on orphans or abandoned children
Contemporary relevance of the novel today
Autobiographical elements: Dickens himself in Great Expectations
Melodrama: extremes of good and evil; sentimentality
Depiction of women
Form more on Dickens, see: