Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Charm of Charles Dickens: Characters, Creativity, and Charity

What Makes Dickens So Great

What does the name “Charles Dickens” conjure in your brain? A sorrowful and neglected orphan? Three ghosts of Christmas? Lectures from a high school English teacher? Large leather-bound volumes that collect dust on your grandparents’ bookshelves? Perhaps you watch a version of A Christmas Carol every year, you tried to open a Dickens novel once but felt like you were drowning in words, or maybe you’re quite a fan and you’ve tried to read his entire works—wherever you are with Dickens, you have certainly heard the nearly two-hundred-year-old name. But why? Why is Dickens “the foremost English novelist of the Victorian era” and “one of the English language’s greatest writers”? The charm with which Dickens has captivated readers for nearly two centuries comes from his ingenious characters, creativity, and charity.
It’s not difficult to bring a Dickens character to mind—think of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Little Nell, Pip, or Lady Havisham to name a few. Apart from distinct and honorable heroes—such as Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield—Dickens’ novels are peppered with interesting characters of all sorts—the horrid Uncle Ralph Nickleby and Mr. Squeers, the generous Cheeryble brothers or Aunt Betsy, and the comical Mr. Micawber or Mr. Dick. The numbers of characters that Dickens juggles in his novels is an astonishing feat. Many of these characters are given life histories and great consideration even if they don’t play a major role in the overall novel. I can’t help but think that in the variety of characters, all of which play unique roles in their respective novels, is very alike to real life. We meet so many interesting people every day. Some are villainous; some are friendly. Some we only pass on the street and some are an intricate part of our lives for years. Like Dickens’ protagonists, our life experiences are constantly shaped by the people we meet along the way.
In addition to his broad spectrum of characters, Dickens novels are teemed with his creativity with language and visual imagination. His descriptions of a walk through nineteenth century London, teatime with a country family, or following a mysterious figure through the slums that skirt the river are vivid and captivating. While it is true that Dickens was usually paid by word count, a fact that has caused some cynical criticism that his writing is too wordy, his descriptions are detailed and so interesting. Open A Christmas Carol to any page for a good example of Dickens’ creative language and descriptions. As we travel with Scrooge to numerous and diverse scenes, we see absolutely everything in vivid detail, thanks to Dickens’ narrative genius. Through this literary creativity, reading Dickens is like reading a real-life history of his times in setting and visual descriptions. But apart from Dickens’ interesting characters and detailed creativity, it is his charity that is, what I believe, has made his works so timeless. Dickens’ are infused with social commentary, and this powerful effect was engineered on purpose. For example, when some friends asked Dickens to pen a political pamphlet about the oppressed poor of his day, he responded by writing A Christmas Carol. He called the work “a sludge-hammer” for social change. Even today, no reader of this work is immune to the story’s vivid power. Some critics laugh that most of Dickens’ main characters are poor, friendless orphans, but Dickens was, thankfully, one of the first literary voices to the plight of the children that were and are still in need. His lobby for social change, through his literary works, not only affected the people of his time, but continue to remind modern readers of the importance of helping those in need.
Charles Dickens’ characters, creativity, and charity set him apart as “one of history’s greatest novelists.” If you’ve never had the chance to read Dickens before, consider starting; there’s a reason why he’s still so famous, and I promise that you will enjoy the adventure into the Dickens library.

Getting Started with Dickens

I readily admit that the length of most Dickens novels—usually about a good eight hundred pages—is very daunting. The key is to start out slow. The following list of five novels to get you started will help you ease into the full Dickens library.

1. A Christmas Carol
If you’ve never read the original short story of A Christmas Carol, I guarantee that you already know several lines of it by heart. There are countless adaptations—movies, plays, and musicals—of this classic Christmas story. It’s well worth reading in its original form both in and out of the Christmas season. A Christmas Carol is especially a good starter Dickens work because it’s short but still contains the interesting characters, creative descriptions, and charitable purpose that drive the charm of all his works.
2. Oliver Twist
I suggest this as the second Dickens volume to tackle because most people are already familiar with at least the basic plot and setting of Oliver Twist. As with A Christmas Carol, I promise that you will be amazed, and charmed, with how good Dickens’ original work is. You will fall in love with sweet Oliver Twist and become an advocate for his plight yourself.
3. Hard Times
Hard Times is one of Dickens’ lesser-known works. I suggest trying it out next because it’s shorter and you probably won’t know anything about it, which will give you good practice in following his style before you try to tackle one of the longer novels. In my personal opinion, Hard Times is Dickens most powerful commentary. He touches on the injustice of class differences, the horrors of industrialization, the terrible exploitation of the working class, and even the complicated problems of unhappy marriages.
4. A Tale of Two Cities
You already know the first line of this book: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” If you are like I was several years ago, you’ve heard this line so much that it sounds like the most boring book in the world. It’s a shame that Dickens’ ingenious opening has become so overused, but the story and plot of this book is far more captivating than you could imagine. Reading A Tale of Two Cities next will begin to introduce you to a longer novel and there’s no way you’ll be disappointed in its plot and tantalizing action.

5. David Copperfield
After reading this fifth book you’ll be ready to take off the training wheels and fully wander throughout the Dickens library on your own. Unlike the gripping style of A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield reads like an autobiography, although it is still very fictional. The autobiographical feel, however, creates a narrative style that is very easy to follow, even though it’s still over eight hundred pages. I like how Dickens lets you get to know David for the first fourth of the book as a child so you care deeply about him throughout the rest of the story as he tries to find his place in the world as a young man.
As you read these five books to get started with Dickens, remember to take time to enjoy the verbal pictures of Dickens’ own world that he paints with words in his works. Enjoy the overall charm of Charles Dickens—the variety of characters, the creative descriptions of places, and evident charity and meaning in his subject matter—as you learn for yourself why he popular even among modern readers of today.

Dickens Trivia

· Dickens originally wrote under the penname “Boz.”
· His full name was Charles John Huffam Dickens.
· Dickens’ novels were published in a serial format, a chapter at a time in a periodical, first and then released as a complete volume.
· Many publications of Dickens’ novels have been printed with the original illustrations. In these illustrations, notice how the villains faces are always large and ominous and the hero’s face is much more refined.
· In Dickens’ time William Shakespeare’s name was spelled “Shakspeare.”
· The four March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women were intense Dickens fans. They created their own “Pickwick Society,” modeled after the characters in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ first successful novel. The sisters even took on the names of Dickens’ characters in their own society.
· Dickens loved holding concert readings of his works where he would read them aloud. Every year from the time it was published until his death Dickens held a public Christmastime reading of A Christmas Carol.
· David Copperfield is a very popular Dickens novel that is actually semi-autobiographical in that he fashioned David’s character after his own. In the classic film Gone With the Wind, Melanie begins reading David Copperfield aloud to Scarlet and the other women while their husbands are on a dangerous mission to clear out the black shanty town in Atlanta.
· In over a hundred and fifty years, not one of Dickens’ novels and short stories has ever gone out of print.
· Dickens’ signature is terrible—nearly illegible!
· In his later years, Dickens wrote a volume entitled The Life of Our Lord for his children. The book recounts the New Testament and life of Christ as the very best story. Although this book was not distributed publicly during Dickens’ lifetime, you can find it in print today.

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