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Charles Dickens

Charles John Huffam Dickens (February 7, 1812 - June 9, 1870) was an English writer of the Victorian era. His books remain in print.

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Early Life

Charles was born in Portsmouth, England, to John Dickens(1785 - 1851), a naval pay clerk and his wife Elizabeth Barrow(1789 - 1863). When he was five, the family moved to Chatham. When he was ten, the family moved to Camden Town.

He received some education at a private school but when his father was imprisoned for debt, Charles wound up working 10-hours a day in a London boot-blacking factory, when he was twelve. Resentment of his situation and the conditions working-class people lived under became major themes of his works. Dickens wrote, "No advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support from anyone that I can call to mind, so help me God!"


Dickens became a journalist, reporting parliamentary debate and travelling Britain by stagecoach to report election campaigns. His journalism informed his first collection of pieces Sketches by Boz[?]. Most of his novels first appeared in serialized form. He made his name with The Pickwick Papers[?].


Among his best known works are Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby[?] and A Christmas Carol. David Copperfield is argued by some to be his best novel; it is certainly his most autobiographical; however, the claims of Little Dorrit, a masterpiece of acerbic satire masquerading as a rags-to-riches story is on a par with the very best of Jonathan Swift and should not be overlooked.

Dickens' novels were, among other things, works of social commentary. He was a fierce critic of the poverty and social stratification of Victorian society.

Dickens was fascinated by the theatre as an escape from the world, and theaters and theatrical people appear in Nicholas Nickleby[?]. Dickens himself had a flourishing career as a performer, reading scenes from his works. He travelled widely in Britain and America on stage tours.

Dickens' writing style is florid and poetic, with a strong comic touch. His satires of British aristocratic snobbery -- he calls one character the "Noble Refrigerator" -- are wickedly funny. Some of his characters are grotesques; he loved the style of 18th century gothic romance[?] though it had already become a bit of joke (see Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey for a parodic example ).

Like several of his contemporaries, some of his works in today's context, are perceived as being marred by anti-Semitism. For example, the character Fagin in Oliver Twist is depicted as a stereotypical Jew, with passages describing his hooked nose and greedy eyes. Dickens, it should be remembered, lived in a society which pre-existed the Holocaust, and it can be argued that he was writing for dramatic effect: Fagin, when all is said and done, is a caricature, one of the great pantomime villains of fictions.

Dickens had few dealings with flesh and blood Jews until 1860 when Dickens sold his home, Tavistock House to a Mr. Davis, a Jewish banker. His journal entries are initially deprecatory; the subsequent conduct of the banker and the ease with which the transaction was effected caused him to rethink and revise his whole position in this area.

Dickens' response to the (mild) criticism of Fagin emanating from the Mrs Davis (the wife of the self-same banker), writing in the Jewish Chronicle[?], is revealing:

"Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is a Jew, because it unfortunately was true of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew ... and secondly, that he is called 'the Jew' not because of his religion but because of his race."

It should be noted that in an 1867 revision of the text, most of the Jewish references were excised. Fagin should also be balanced against the sympathetic portrayal of the Jew Riah in Our Mutual Friend, his last complete novel. It has been argued by some that this represents a process of change in Dickens' approach to issues relating to ethnicity.

Mrs. Davis was pleased with Dickens' creation of a good Jew and sent him a copy of a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. Dickens was gratitude personified in his response, asserting:

"There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not wilfully have given an offense or done an injustice for any worldly consideration. Believe me, Very faithfully yours, Charles Dickens."

Much of Dickens's writing seems sentimental today, like the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop[?]. Even where the leading characters are sentimental, as in Bleak House[?], the many other colorful characters and events, the satire and subplots, reward the reader.

Throughout his works, Dickens retained an empathy for the common man and a skepticism for the fine folk.

Dickens died in 1870, and was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads: "He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."

See also: A child's history of England

In the 1980s the historic Eastgate House in Rochester, Kent was converted into a Charles Dickens museum, and an annual Dickens Festival is held in the city.

List of Major Works

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