Charles Dickens is the most widely read Victorian writer. The Victorian era, 1837-1901, was an era of new social developments that caused many of the writers of the period to take positions on the new developments in society. Dickens petitioned that social consciousness would overcome social misery. He often wrote in satire of the society around him, a smug and genius approach to the social injustices that he witnessed, making it widely available to the general public, educating them of the abuses that plagued the Victorian age.
Dickens’ popularity as a writer gave some importance to his written attacks on the abuses of courts and schools, whose objects were not the education of children or the justice of citizens, but the fortification of the proprietors. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England in 1812 to John and Elizabeth Dickens. (http://www. helsinki. fi/kasv/nokol/dickens. html) He was the second of eight children and he was raised on the assumption that he would receive an education if he worked hard.
Charles Dickens’ father, John, on whom Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield is based, fell into deep financial debt and was arrested and imprisoned. Due to his families financial crisis, Dickens went to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory labeling bottles, but after his father’s debts were paid, he continued his education at Wellington House Academy from 1824 to 1826. After his education was complete, he became a court reporter for various newspaper sources until he devoted his time to writing.
Dickens’ first published work appeared in December of 1833 in the Monthly Magazine, followed by nine other works. These writings were collected into two volumes Turner2 and published in 1836. The time spent as a reporter made Dickens familiar with the middle and lower classes of London and his familiarity is displayed in the two volume set of his early works. These volumes also reveal his humor and concern for the less fortunate classes and his desires for social justice, two popular themes that often dominate his novels.
Dickens wed Catherine Hogarth and they had ten children before their separation in 1858. Regardless of his wedding vows to Catherine, he was always secretly in love with her younger sister Mary, who lived with the Dickens’ shortly after the honeymoon. When Mary died, Dickens grieved her death and this led some to speculate that he had always loved Mary instead of Catherine. Dickens’ ideals of women were shaped entirely by his unrequited romance with Mary.
The introduction of Sam Weller in the fourth issue of The Pickwick Papers (1836-37) launched Dickens into the most popular literary career in the history of Victorian literature. The Pickwick Papers became a literary and publishing phenomenon, selling over forty-thousand copies of each issue. Published in installments, the Pickwick Papers took England by storm: everyone was reading it. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club chronicled the life and times of Mr. Pickwick, a lovable character that seeks to discover the world with his companions, parodies of the lover, the sportsman, and the poet.
While the Papers begin as a hilarious romp parodying the eighteenth-century novels that Dickens had examined over his childhood, they eventually assumed the shape of rising to the pentacle level of great literature. Pickwick’s education, under the guidance of Sam Weller, his streetwise manservant, guides him into his discovery of a world filled Turner3 with shyster lawyers, craftiness, corruption, dishonesty, vice, and imprisonment. The Pickwick Papers also displayed interpolated tales of madness, betrayal, and murder.
Due to several unfortunate turns of event, Mister Pickwick is forced to become a prisoner in his own room in the Fleet for three months. The horrors that Charles Dickens had witnessed as a small child while working in the blacking warehouse are not eliminated from Pickwick’s world; It is through his awareness of their existence that Mister Pickwick is allowed to become a optimistic, if finally not fully effective human being, who, with Sam’s help, can see reality and ease the sting of evil to the best of his limited abilities. (http://www. helsinki. /kasv/nokol/dickens. html)
When Pickwick Papers was at the height of its success, Dickens began writing Oliver Twist in 1837. It was originally published as The Parish Boy’s Progress and it appeared in monthly installments in various newspapers. In Oliver Twist Dickens explored the social abuses and evils inflicted on a political economy that made the pauper status prominent in England in the Nineteenth century. In Oliver Twist a young orphan named Oliver is stationed in a boys workhouse before he is sold to the Sowerbys’ where he apprentices as an undertaker.
After fleeing Sowerbys he is befriended by the ever-impressible Artful Dodger and begins his life as an honestly dishonest pickpocket with Fagin and his crew of miscreants. Through this tale, Dickens presents a portrait of the filth and immorality that surround poverty. Refusing to romanticize the criminal world, and making it clear that this district has been forgotten by society just as surely as Oliver and the other boys have been abandoned by an indifferent society, this is the world that Dickens saw at the blacking warehouse as a child.
Turner 4 After Oliver Twist, Dickens began writing Barnaby Rudge. Upon completion of Barnaby Rudge, Dickens visited America and quickly became disenchanted with America after he realized that both he and Catherine’s privacy were hot topics on the American gossip circuit. In American Notes (1842) he expresses his reservations about America, much to the chagrin of his American audience.
In The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens resumed his monthly publishings in twenty installments 1843 to 1844. (http://www. helsinki. fi/kasv/nokol/dickens. ml) The story of Martin Chuzzlewit is organized around the theme of self-centeredness and lack of consideration to others, and marks an advance in Dickens’ development as a literary novelist. Some have argued that the themes of this novel were inspired by his and Catherine’s experiences in America. Unfortunately, sales dropped off to twenty thousand, and in an effort to increase sales, Dickens sent Martin Chuzzlewit to America where the main character discovers the boorish behavior Dickens had only gently portrayed in American Notes .
In December of 1843, Dickens published the most popular and beloved of all his works, A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol was a work that expresses succinctly his “Carol philosophy. ” Scrooge has sacrificed joy, love, and beauty for the pursuit of money and selfishness and represents a society whose economic philosophy damns the less fortunate citizens to lives of lack and oppression. The ghosts help him to discover a Wordsworthian reminiscence of his youth and the promise of a being a better person, and as a result, Scrooge’s imagination is reaches sympathetically beyond himself and he is redeemed.
Dickens’s vision of a “society redeemed through love and generosity” will haunt all of his works from this point onward Turner5 In 1844 Dickens traveled through Europe writing his next Christmas themed story, The Chimes, as a continued assault on the economical phosphates displayed in A Christmas Carol. Through his works, it is becoming obvious that he is starting to believe that the social problems in England are an inevitable byproduct of an economic philosophy that is fundamentally incorrect.
The Cricket and the Hearth (1845) and The Battle of Life (1846) both continue the Christmas themed books, and Pictures from Italy (1846) (http://www. elsinki. fi/kasv/nokol/dickens. html )recounts Dickens’s impressions of his Italian/European travels. It is such trips like these that caused Dickens to thrive in his writing because his novels examined the common man. Examples of this can be seen in Oliver Twist and how Oliver was an average person in nineteenth century poverty trying to survive in an optimistic fashion. Memory has an importance in Dickens’ next Christmas book.
The importance of memory once again becomes central to Dickens’s next Christmas book, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). This story is the tale of a man who gets his wish to lose all memory of sorrow at the expense of losing the attendant sensibility that comes with the loss of memory. It is at this time in his writing career that Dickens is writing the autobiographical fragments he shares in his most autobiographical novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield, published in twenty monthly installments from May of 1849 to November of 1850.
David Copperfield opens with David, the narrator, indicating that the pages of his book must show whether he will turn out to be the hero of his own life. After surviving Turner6 nd triumphing the brutal events based on Dickens’ own experiences at the blacking warehouse, David eventually marries, sets up a household, establishes a growing reputation as a novelist, and yet discovers “a vague unhappy loss or want of something” in his life. He wonders if this unhappiness is the product of having given in to “the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart” by marrying his child-wife, or if it is symbolic of the human condition.
He does know it would have been better if his wife “could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts to which I had no partner; and that this might have been; I knew. Dickens was also experiencing a similar sense of vague displeasure and discontentment at this time and may have wondered if his wife was not partly responsible for his unhappiness. Whether she was to entirely to blame or whether Dickens was experiencing the angst that every major Victorian thinker suffered is undeterminable by the average spectator.
However we do know that David’s problem is settled by Dora’s early death and David’s realization that Agnes has loved him all along and that he had loved her too. They marry, have a lovely family, and share a fulfilled existence. The novel ends with David’s exclamations to his wife: “Oh Agnes, Oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward! ” (David Copperfield) In his Preface to the novel, Dickens talks about “dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world” as he finishes David Copperfield.
Both Dickens and David equate the world of vision with the world of actuality believing that one is as temporary as the other. For David and Dickens, Agnes symbolizes a world that he hopes will last beyond the worlds of shadow. In 1842, Dickens had wrote: “I feel, in the best aspects of this Turner7 welcome, something of the presence and influence of that spirit which directs my life, and through a heavy sorrow has pointed upward with unchanging finger for more than four years past. ” (http://www. helsinki. fi/kasv/nokol/dickens. tml)
He is referring, of course, to Mary Hogarth, the object of his unrequited lust. Dickens extended his talent for addressing social issues and providing ntertainment by founding Household Words, a weekly magazine that first appeared in March of 1850, and successfully continued until he replaced it with All the Year Round, which he founded and edited in 1859. In 1850 he helped to establish the Guild of Literature and Art to create a bequest for struggling artists and writers. Money was raised for the Guild through amateur theatrical performances that Dickens usually performed in, directed, and managed.
Dickens was a brilliant actor and loved the stage, producing plays throughout his career as fund raisers for the many charitable concerns he worked tirelessly to support. His love for the theater culminated in his captivating public readings from his own novels. (www. lang. nagoya-u. ac. jp/matsuoka/Dickens. html) Dickens’ next writing, Bleak House, appeared in twenty monthly installments. It was a sarcastic condemnation of government, law, philanthropy, religion, and society in nineteenth century England. (www. idnet. com/dap1955/dickens/)
The organizing principle of the plot is the hopelessly entangled lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which destroys the lives of all who become enmeshed in the Court of Chancery through the suit. The legal system is exposed as itself a symptom of what is wrong with a society that is structurally flawed. The mud, ooze, slime, and fog in the story that symbolically dominate the world of this novel suggest that this society cannot be redeemed through a simple Turner8 restructuring.
The spontaneous combustion of Krook, the counterpart of the Lord Chancellor, both indicate that society must be fundamentally changed or it will explode of its own internal corruption. Jo, the crossing sweep, has neither the energy nor the tools to sweep away the mud and slime which the slum of Tom-all-Alone’s is crumbling into. And Tom-all-Alone’s is infecting all of London, just as surely as Jo’s smallpox infects the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson. If this society is to be redeemed, Dickens insists that it will be through the values represented by Esther Summerson.
Jo’s broom cannot sweep away the mud of Tom-all-Alone’s, but the transparency and kindness of Esther’s sympathetic love may be capable, of illuminating this world and dissipating the fog. Esther and Allan Woodcourt, the physician who attends Jo at his death, marry, displays the order and love that must be transmitted to society if it is to be saved. However, Dickens is not sure, at this point, if what Esther and Allan represent can withstand the evils of London and the world. In April 30 of 1859, Dickens launched a weekly journal entitled All the Year Round . http://www. helsinki. fi/kasv/nokol/dickens. html)
To get the journal off to a good start and gain reader interest, the first installment of A Tale of Two Cities appeared in the November 1859. The story was set during the French Revolution, this novel yet again looked at the potential for revolution that Dickens had delved into in Barnaby Rudge. Dickens proposed that if the ruling class in England didn’t take the French Revolution seriously, it was possible for revolutionary violence to outbreak again.
Dickens hated violence, however, he sympathized with the victims of oppression and clearly understood why violence was needed. Dickens felt that only the kind of sacrificial love represented by Sydney Carton’s willing sacrifice of himself for his loved ones would be able to prevent a revolution if society continued along its course of corruption and selfishness. Turner9 Sales began to decrease, and in an effort to pick up the declining sales of All the Year Round, Dickens began publishing a novel in weekly installments of the journal called Great Expectations.
Great Expectations ran from December 1, 1860 to August 3, 1861. Charles and Catherine had just recently separated after twenty years of marriage. Perhaps in an attempt to come to terms with his personal and marital discords, Dickens returned to the first person narrator in Great Expectations. After Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend was published in twenty installments from May of 1864 to November of 1865. Through this work Dickens made another advance in his artistic vision.
The recurring theme of death and resurrection indicates Dickens’ development in understanding the meaning of personal fulfillment that he explores in earlier novels, specifically in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Our Mutual Friend ends with Mortimer Lightwood, who, like Dickens, says he has “the eyes of Europe upon him” as he tells his stories at the Veneerings’ dinner parties, seeking the true voice of society while he reports the story of Eugene and Lizzie. He discovers it in Twemlow, what it means to behave in a noble fashion.
Some speculate that Dickens must have been wondering about the voice of society with regard to his personal situation, and probably with Mortimer’s perspective. Neither Dickens nor Mortimer participate directly in the happiness of those they tell stories about. But they share the vision and take joy in seeing the results of the stories and the effects those stories have on Turner10 their audiences. It is safe to assume that most of Charles Dickens life shaped the lives of the characters in his novels.
Dickens was able to draw from his own experiences and project them into his literary works. Dickens possessed excellent observation, greater than that of any writer at the time and he was able to put his observations into the public eye and cause attention to be drawn to them. He was mostly a political writer, writing about society and how he and his characters fit into it. Charles Dickens is regarded by many to be the greatest writer in the English language.
The epitaph on his tombstone in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey reads: “He was a sympathizer to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world”. And it is my belief that the inscription on his headstone sums up why Charles Dickens is significant to literature. He causes his readers to think, and to have cathartic experiences through his characters to reach a deeper layer of themselves. He encourages us to stand up against social injustice, to remain optimistic and self sacrificing and to never forget those less fortunate than ourselves.