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Charles Dickens 1812-1870

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Charles Dickens 1812-l870

Charles Dickens was born at Portsmouth. When Charles was ten the family moved to London and there he was given regular schooling until his father was sent to prison for debt. Charles was forced to go to work in a factory. The prison, the poor quarters of London, life in the city streets and the other boys working in the factory remained in his mind and profoundly influenced his novels.

Charles was taken from the factory and attended school intermittently until he went to work as a clerk in a legal office. There he soon developed a permanent hatred for lawyers and the law as an institution. He then became a parliamentary reporter. This work helped him to understand the feelings and reactions of his readers.

His personal life was not happy. He married Catherine Hogarth, but rapidly became disillusioned, although they had ten children. He seems to have become more conscious of social injustice, political incompetence, the poverty and suffering of the great mass of the people, and the class conflicts of Victorian England, and the result was an increasingly critical attitude towards contemporary society.

An example is Oliver Twist, which tells the suffering of an orphan brought up in a workhouse, who then runs away to London and joins a gang of thieves made up of children. In Hard Times he deals with the sufferings of the factory system and the harm done by the Utilitarian philosophy.

Later, Dickens turned to semi autobiographical themes. David Copperfield drew on many of his own experiences and contains a splendid fictionalised portrait of his father in Mr Mecawber. Great Expectations is a well-organised novel, again on the theme of ‘growing up’, as well as the social themes of pride and snobbery.

Dickens always loved the theatre and was a gifted actor. In middle age he began to give public readings of passages from his own works, as well as from other authors.

In his own lifetime Dickens was extraordinarily popular and he still remains the best-known English novelist. Contemporary critics tend to see his works as combining social realism with the poetical devices of metaphor and symbolism.

Some of the wealth he acquired from his activities he used to found charities to help the poor, especially children, for whom he founded schools. His life was cut short by a stroke in 1870.


● Setting

Dickens’ novels present a variety of settings, from the countryside and the merry old England through the provincial towns, which ure in most of his stories to the industrial settlements of the North. However, Dickens’ most typical sceneries are those of London. Just as London was the first great metropolis of modern times, so he was the first novelist of life in the metropolis: London life was essential do Dickens’ imagination.

● Art and humour

Dickens’ ability to create dialogue is unmatched by any other English novelist. Hundreds of sayings from his works have passed permanently into the English language.

The main strength of Dickens’ style is his humour, through which he makes the strong points of his novels unforgettable, and also manages to hide, or make more acceptable, his weakness.

● Characters

Dickens’ characters portray a vivid picture of Victorian England. They are mainly from the lower and middle class, and their physical features, ways of dressing and moving, accent are captured by Dickens. Upper class and aristocratic characters are much less well portrayed and tend to fall into stereotypes. A fault frequently found with his characters is that they are too easily divided into good and bad, to the point of becoming almost purely symbolic.

● Plots

As for the plots of his novels, they are all complex. They involve many characters, many parallel stories, plots and subplots, intrigue, often mystery and incredible coincidences.


● “Coketown” (from Hard Times)

● “Jacob’s Island” (from Oliver Twist)


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