There is one person at the heart of Victorian era storytelling whose name, perhaps more than all others, echoes through the halls of literary greatness. That person, is Charles Dickens. Famous for his vivid characters and detailed depictions of Victorian life, Dickens wasn’t just a writer, he was a mirror reflecting the society of his time. He had plenty of personal experience to draw from, and exceptional talent which made him very popular with the people (but not will all of his peers) during his lifetime and hugely influential ever since.
- Lifespan – February 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870
- Birthplace – Portsmouth, England
- Residences – Lived in various places, including London and Kent
- Known For – Novelist, social critic
- Crowning Achievement – Renowned as one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era
Early Life and Influences on Charles Dickens
Born into a modest family, young Charles experienced both the warmth of family life and the sting of financial hardship. His father’s imprisonment for debt and Charles’s own stint in a blacking factory (at the age of 12) left an indelible mark on him. It wasn’t until he reached 15 years of age that he was able to return to school. These early struggles provided ample fuel to ignite a fire in Dickens. His popular works are littered with themes of social reform and empathy for the underprivileged.
Charles Dickens Is Famous For…
Dickens is largely regarded as one of the best and most influential novelists to have ever lived. Fictional characters like Ebenezer Scrooge and Oliver Twist painted a meaningful portrayal of the duality of life in the Victorian era. They may have been fictional but they resonated deeply with social realities of the time. In fact they continue to be popular characters even to this day.
Charles Dickens also brought the narrative fiction genre to life. Some of his early stories became very popular through serialising. Stories would be told in parts, from week to week and the audience were left on a cliff-hanger until the next episode, This became a very popular form of fictional writing after proving to be very popular.
His novels were filled with humour, satire, and drama, but at the same time brought to life the struggles and joys of ordinary people across the social spectra. He became a household name within his lifetime, not just in the UK, but around the world.
Dickens as a Social Critic
Dickens keen observations of the Victorian society were the heartbeat in his writings. They cut like a sharp razor straight through the blindfold to the conscience of society. His portrayal of injustice and plight made him a significant social critic. Here’s how he used his pen to critique society:
- Exposing the Underbelly of Industrialization – Dickens highlighted the dark side of the Industrial Revolution. That for all the progress and advancement, there was a dark price to those at the bottom of society. Early novels like ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby‘ depicted the grim realities for poor children, the plight of workers, and the environmental degradation caused by industrial progress.
- Critiquing the Class System – He was critical of the rigid class system of Victorian England. Through characters at all levels of the social strata, he depicted with great passion, the struggles of the poor and the moral corruption often found in the upper classes.
- Highlighting the Plight of the Poor and Homeless – Dickens’ works frequently portrayed the struggles of the poor and homeless, bringing attention to their plight in a rapidly changing society.
- Challenging the Legal System – In novels like ‘Bleak House,’ Dickens criticized the inefficiency and corruption within the legal system, which often led to prolonged and unfair trials.
Dickens As A Social Reformer
Charles Dickens used his influence and his writings not just to critique but also to advocate for social reforms.
- Advocating for Child Labour Laws – Dickens’ own experience as a child labourer – working in a boot-blacking factory at 12 years old – deeply influenced his writing. A raw portrayal of this injustice in ‘Oliver Twist,’ exposed the harsh realities of child labour, contributing to the growing calls for reform in this area. This story in particular complemented the efforts of those like Dr. Barnardo, who also took inspiration from his experience of a homeless orphan, Jim Jarvis.
- Highlighting the Need for Child Welfare – His fictional stories often showed the neglect and abuse of children. Riding the wave of the growing philanthropic movement, Dickens serial writing helped society recognise the need for a change in child welfare and protection laws.
- Criticising the Education System – Dickens was a vocal critic of the education system of his time. He could see the inequalities and blatant, systematic neglect of the needs of the poor. In ‘Hard Times,’ he was particularly critical of the utilitarian approach to education, advocating for a more humane and comprehensive system.
- Prison Reforms – After visiting several prisons and observing their deplorable conditions, Dickens could see first-hand the real need for reform. His own father had served time in debtors prison, and while not as harsh as these criminal prisons, it gave him early insight to the cause. He wrote about his experiences, and started to advocate for more humane treatment of prisoners.
- Advocating for the Homeless and Disenfranchised – His vivid descriptions of poverty and homelessness in London helped raise awareness about these issues. He would campaign fiercely and also use the public readings of his stories to increase support for social welfare programs.
List of Charles Dickens Novels
- The Pickwick Papers (1836) – Dickens’ first novel, a series of loosely-related adventures.
- Oliver Twist (1837) – A novel highlighting the struggles of an orphan in a workhouse.
- Nicholas Nickleby (1838) – A story that tackles social injustices through the adventures of a young man.
- The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) – A tale of the journey of a young girl and her grandfather.
- Barnaby Rudge (1841) – A historical novel set during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.
- Martin Chuzzlewit (1843) – A novel satirizing selfishness, particularly targeting America and England.
- Dombey and Son (1848) – Focusing on the business world of Victorian England.
- David Copperfield (1850) – A semi-autobiographical novel considered by many as his masterpiece.
- Bleak House (1853) – A critique of the British judiciary system.
- Hard Times (1854) – A novel set in an industrial town during the height of the Industrial Revolution.
- Little Dorrit (1857) – A work focusing on the shortcomings of the debtors’ prisons.
- A Tale of Two Cities (1859) – A historical novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.
- Great Expectations (1861) – A coming-of-age novel exploring themes of class and personal growth.
- Our Mutual Friend (1865) – Dickens’ last completed novel, examining the social and moral values of Victorian society.
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870, unfinished) – This was Dickens’ final novel and remained unfinished at the time of his death. It’s a mystery story that has intrigued readers and scholars for years, as it ends abruptly with the mystery unresolved.
Charles Dickens’ Novellas
- A Christmas Carol (1843) – Perhaps the most famous of Dickens’ novellas, this beloved story introduces the iconic character Ebenezer Scrooge and delivers a powerful message about redemption and the spirit of Christmas. It’s a powerful story that has been brought to live on stage and screen many times.
- The Chimes (1844) – The second of Dickens’ Christmas books, this novella is a social commentary on the class system and the plight of the poor in England, much like his other works.
- The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) – Another in his series of Christmas books, this novella is a heart-warming tale that explores themes of family, love, and the joy of the holiday season.
- The Battle of Life (1846) – This is the fourth of his Christmas books. Unlike his other novellas, this one does not have a supernatural theme but instead focuses on the struggles and triumphs of its characters.
- The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) – The last of his Christmas books, this novella revisits the theme of supernatural visitation, exploring themes of bitterness, forgiveness, and the impact of the past on the present.
These novellas, particularly ‘A Christmas Carol,’ played a huge role in shaping the traditional Victorian Christmas.
Dickens Short Stories and Non Fiction Articles
On top of his many novels and novellas, Dickens was also a prolific writer of short stories. He wrote over 60 (at least) across the span of his career. As an editor of several periodicals including ‘Household Words’ and ‘All the Year Round’, he had the perfect platform for his stories to be published. In a similar style to his longer form novels, his short stories range from humorous and whimsical tales to more serious and critical narratives. Today, these short stories are often sold collectively in volumes.
While it is his fictional storytelling that Dickens is most famous for, he also wrote many more non-fiction articles and letters.
A Pioneer of Serial Writing and Narrative Fiction
Dickens writing was not just revolutionary in it’s narrative format, but in how his work was released. Before many of his popular novels were sold in their complete form, they were first released as serial instalments. This innovative method involved releasing chapters on a monthly or weekly basis in regular publications.
Releasing his stories in this way made his stories financially accessible to a broader public and kept readers in suspense, eagerly awaiting the next chapter of the story. It was akin to the modern-day TV series, becoming a regular part of the Victorian household’s life. Stories would often be left on a cliff-hanger, with fans eagerly awaiting to see how the plot would unfold.
Dickens narrative form was masterful. Full of complex, memorable characters and intricate plots, rich in detail and social commentary. His novels were not just mere stories, but windows offering a look into the human psyche. He made it easy to empathise with characters like Oliver or to see the inner workings of a mind like Scrooge. This psychological depth is what set his work apart. Adding a new dimension to fiction in a narrative style that would inspire a whole new genre of writers to come.
Dickens Impact on Victorian Society and Children
There were many wheels of change in Victorian Society. Many commentators that could see the other side of the coin to the industrial boom. Dickens’ works can be counted amongst those that shone the brightest lights on the contemporary issues in Victorian society. Particularly in how it viewed the lower classes and children. Through vivid and often harrowing depictions of poverty, child labour and social injustice, these issues were brought passionately to the forefront of public consciousness.
- Humanizing the Poor – Dickens’ characters were not mere caricatures, they were intelligently fleshed-out individuals with hopes, dreams, and struggles. They were richly developed and humanised, which helped readers to connect to a sense of empathy with the less fortunate. The funny was clearly funny, and the injustice was clearly unjust. This helped to change public perception and attitudes towards the poor.
- Highlighting Child Labour and Abuse – Through works like ‘Oliver Twist,’ Dickens exposed the grim realities of child labour and abuse. His writing and impassioned public readings reached a wide audience. Raising awareness of the harsh (often brutal) conditions children faced in workhouses and factories. Encouraging a growing public outcry for reform.
- Influencing Social Policy – Influencing Social Policy – Dickens’ portrayal of societal ills didn’t just evoke empathy, as suggested above, it spurred action. His writing is often credited for influencing legislation and reforms. Particularly in policies related to child labour laws, education and the treatment of the poor and homeless.
Charles Dickens Legacy
Dickens’ legacy in narrative fiction is profound. His style went on to influence lots of writers and storytellers. Setting a new standard for narrative fiction that combined elements of humour, satire, drama, and social commentary. Other famous authors like Mark Twain were big fans of Dickens work, and his influence is clear in their work. It is suggested by some, that Twain even ‘borrowed’ some of Dicken’s characters, reinterpreting them into his own work. Regardless, the influence is clear.
Jules Verne also counted Dickens amongst his favourite authors. As did Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He proved to be as popular abroad as he was at home with the British public.
Not all of his peers were fans however, and there were some quite scathing reviews from other affluent Victorian authors at the time, notably George Meredith or William Wordsworth who considered Dickens to be a ‘very talkative, vulgar young person‘.
His impact extends beyond literature, influencing modern media, including TV series, episodic podcasts, and web series. Like others who rattled the shackles of tradition and familiarity, Dickens was not just a literary icon but a pioneer. He helped reshape the landscape of storytelling and narrative fiction. Perhaps more than any other.
His legacy is not just in his rich characters and narrative writing, but in his enduring impact on social awareness and reforms. Dickens’s work continues to inspire and educate, transcending time and culture.
10 Fun Charles Dickens Facts
- Early Start: Dickens started working at a very young age, which deeply influenced his writing.
- Pseudonym: He sometimes wrote under the pseudonym “Boz.”
- Ghostly Interests: Dickens had a fascination with the paranormal and was a member of The Ghost Club, dedicated to exploring the supernatural.
- Public Readings: He was famous for his public readings of his works, which were highly theatrical and immensely popular.
- Pet Raven: Dickens had a pet raven named Grip, which inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.”
- Secret Door: In his study, Dickens had a secret door designed like a bookcase.
- Love for Cats: He loved cats and once had a cat paw letter opener.
- Theater Enthusiast: Dickens was an avid theater-goer and even wrote plays.
- Traveler: He traveled extensively, giving readings in Europe and America.
- Unfinished Work: His novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” was left unfinished at his death.