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Reasons Behind the Fame and Popularity of Charles Dickens

Updated on March 24, 2013
Dickens in the English Dictionary
Dickens in the English Dictionary | Source

Dickens in a Blacking Factory as a Child

Dickens Working at a Blacking Factory, aged between eight and twelve years old. Published in 'The Leisure Hour' in 1904.
Dickens Working at a Blacking Factory, aged between eight and twelve years old. Published in 'The Leisure Hour' in 1904. | Source

Dickens and Social Commentary

Dickens commented, through his novels and stories, on society at its highest and lowest. He commented on its largest institutions, and he commented on the quality of personal interactions.

He highlighted misery, poverty, illness, disease and the appalling conditions that made life a living hell for a huge proportion of the population in Victorian England, eschewing sentimentality in favour of a quiet poignancy, and used his robust and often startling humour to satirise the people he loathed, which included the moralistic; the righteously religious; the socially or personally irresponsible; and the opportunistic.

The names of his characters have passed from fiction into the English dictionary, and as of March 2013, the Internet Movie Database lists 335 adaptations, films, parodies, shorts and spin-offs based on his works. He is one of the most recognisable figures in English Literature, and though many of his views are debatable and even questionable, there is no doubt that he is one of the most popular authors who ever wielded a pen.

Dickens's Rise to Fame

After working as a court reprter at the Doctors' Commons, and then as a parliamentary reporter, Dickens began to have stories accepted for publication in periodicals when he was in his early twenties, but it was Pickwick Papers, which was published serially from 1836 when he was still only in his mid-twenties, which first brought him real public acclaim.

He maintained the admiration of his audience by writing and publishing works of calibre, such as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby in the following years, and then embarked upon his own periodical, Household Words, which he sold for pennies a copy and featured a wide range of authors, some of whom - such as Elizabeth Gaskell - would become household names in their own right

The Artful Dodger introducing Oliver Twist to Fagin.
The Artful Dodger introducing Oliver Twist to Fagin. | Source

Stereotypes in Dickens's Characters

The characters in Dickens's novels can be stereotypical and two-dimensional. Women are often either motherly paragons of angelic perfection, or are shrewish, cold, and might even have violent tendencies. The portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist has led to accusations of anti-Semitism, and in most of his works, the author affords redemption only to those who were born into 'reputable' families – reputable being defined in this case as relatively wealthy and middle-class.

But these faults are also an asset to Dickens's popularity, and although accusations of misogyny and intolerance are not wholly unfounded, the characters and their purposes within the stories are more complex and nuanced than they first appear.

Reader Identification Through Stereotyping

By making his characters receptacles of common and recognisable 'traits', Dickens cast his net wide and made all of his characters instantly identifiable. If Jo the young, neglected and isolated street sweep in Bleak House had had a backstory, or a distinguishing personality, the readers to whom Dickens was appealing could have separated Jo from the young urchins they saw on the streets of London every day, but by making him a stereotype of the young, friendless and poor of the city, the author tried to ensure that those with the means to do something about the plight of these children might not walk impassively by.

Dickens Receiving his Characters


Appeal for Kindness, Justice and Fairness

Flattering the Middle Classes

Dickens used a similar psychological trick in his portrayal of the middle classes. In Oliver Twist, Oliver is an orphan, and throughout the tale he is unremittingly 'good'. Although temptations fall across his path time and time again, and despite that his life is one full of poverty and excruciating bad luck, no dark side to his nature ever emerges. In the end, it is revealed that this orphan was actually born into a reputable middle-class family, which to contemporary readers explained satisfactorily why Oliver always did the morally correct thing – he was fated to rise above his circumstances and have something of a fairytale ending. The poor and the working classes received minimal education in the nineteenth century, and so much of Dickens's reading audience was either middle-class themselves or had aspirations in that direction.

The Importance of Responsibility

But 'good' birth alone does not bring automatic happiness. In Bleak House we witness the fall of a young man, Richard Carstone, who is born into a 'good' family but by greed and indecision tumbles into desperate circumstances, taking his sweetheart Ada Clare with him. For a happy ending, a good birth must be accompanied by selflessness, responsibility and determination.

Feeding Aspirations

The writer presented the middle class to themselves as good and decent people who were happy to demonstrate kindness to those less fortunate – and what's more, he made this an inherent trait of their aspirations. The 'good' middle class characters have happy endings – Oliver, Esther Summerson, John Jarndyce; the 'bad', greedy, and money-obsessed come to rather more sticky ends.

Morality Tales

Richard Carstone throws his privilege away chasing a dream of fabulous wealth, and there are many characters, like Micawber in David Copperfield, or William Dorrit in Little Dorrit, who mismanage their finances and end up in debtors' prison, with devastating results for their families. Although novels such as Bleak House and Little Dorrit are stern indictments of the laws and bureaucratic machinery and institutions that destroyed lives, Dickens did not simply let the victims of these off the hook, and he implies strongly that diligence, hard work and a certain steadfastness are necessary traits of the privileged who live well.

Tom All Alone's

Detail of illustration for 'Bleak House' - the slum of 'Tom All Alone's' by Phiz.
Detail of illustration for 'Bleak House' - the slum of 'Tom All Alone's' by Phiz. | Source

No Hope for the Lower Classes in Dickens Except by the Kindness of the Fortunate

In Bleak House, Jo the street sweep is a boy bereft of friends, money and any luck whatsoever. He lives and sleeps where he can, often sleeping rough in the nooks and crannies of the terrifying rookery slum of 'Tom All Alone's', and even in the worst ravages of illness he is 'moved on' again and again by the authorities.

Jo is diligent, honest and hardworking, but without the fortune of a 'good' birth he is doomed. Eventually he will be shown some limited kindness, but no fairy godfather figure will ultimately rescue the boy from his miserable life or untimely death.

Rousing Readers to Action - A Direct Appeal for Compassion

In the final paragraph of chapter forty-seven, after the young and friendless Jo dies in abject misery and poverty, the word ‘dead’ tolls like a bell in rhythmic repetition, a clang of doom and an urgent plea that the reader sees the misery and waste of human life surrounding them:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And Dying thus around us every day. (Bleak House, ch.47)

The lines are poetic, a call to the rich – to queens and lords, and to the compassionate. The supposed keepers of morality are not exempt from their duties to the less fortunate, ‘Wrong Reverends’ invokes the pompous and self-righteous character of Chadband, who earlier in the novel preached to Jo, but did nothing practical to help the boy.

The Marshalsea Becomes an Orphan, by Phiz - 'Little Dorrit' illustration (1855)
The Marshalsea Becomes an Orphan, by Phiz - 'Little Dorrit' illustration (1855) | Source

Humour, Despair and Human Interaction – An Emotional Rollercoaster

The Catch-22 of Debtors' Prison

Dickens's writing is both poignant and humorous. In Little Dorrit we see the black gallows humour in William Dorrit's situation – he has been sent to Marshalsea debtors' prison, from which he will not be freed until he pays his debts, but whilst in prison he will be unable to work in order to earn the money to pay his debts, and so, barring a miracle, he will remain incarcerated, in a catch-22 situation, for the rest of his life.

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Similarly dark humour – painfully and ironically ridiculous from a distance, but which in personal, human terms is deeply disturbing – is liberally sprinkled throughout Dickens's works. In Bleak House, a harmless and eccentric rag-and-bottle merchant, Krook, dies in the unlikely event of his own spontaneous human combustion – that is, he simply explodes.

There is little rhyme or reason to Krook's death, and especially in so spectacular a fashion, but his passing serves two purposes. It demonstrates – in stunning style – the utterly random and inexplicable nature of life – and in its aftermath it reveals a great deal about human interaction, and the dark ramifications of its absence.

Krook's Death and Isolated Life

Krook is an illiterate, self-styled ‘Lord Chancellor’ who is a rather pathetic figure of fun. He feeds his delusions of importance by collecting legal documents that he cannot read. And his manner of death is ridiculous - spontaneous human combustion - rather than the more heavyweight diseases and semi-starvation that have thus far afflicted the characters. There is no chain of causality for Krook’s death, he simply explodes.

Krook's death is explosive not only in its manner, but in its aftermath, and it highlights some of the ramifications of the social ills of the time. Krook has collected, among the random legal papers that are piled high around him, a last will and testament that if it had emerged earlier would have ended a years-long legal case and perhaps saved lives.

'What if...?' and the Subtext of a Better Alternative World

The episode (and many others like it in Dickens's works) prompts 'What if?' questions that ask 'just what is it that is broken in society?' For if Krook had not been so isolated, alone, mocked and somewhat shunned by the people around him, if instead he had been befriended and taught to read, the papers would have come to light much earlier and a great deal of misery would have been halted.

The institutions Dickens frowns on are only part of the problem, these incidents say, and there is an interconnectedness between people that cannot be escaped except at great cost. He is a social commentator and reformer, but not simply at the widest levels: he commented too on the very small and personal interactions between people and saw they were just as important, or even more so, than the incompetent State and professional interventions and injustices he despised so deeply.

Fagin in his Cell, Awaiting Execution


Why Does Dickens Remain so Popular?

Caricatures and Stereotypes

Dickens's universe is larger than life. It is peopled by extraordinary characters who have all the common and recognisable faults, foibles, goodness and badness of the 'everyman' on the street. The less comfortable side of this is his prejudiced negative stereotyping of women and the infamously Jewish Fagin, which are to many (both then and now) offensive to the point of indefensible, and it is worth noting and exploring that some of his popularity does stem from oversimplification and generalisations.

Acts of Human Kindness

He genuinely wanted to make the world a better place, but had no manifesto or set of rules – the world in his novels is made better by small incremental degrees coming from acts of human kindness.

Life as Random

He neither blames nor praises, but shows - almost in reportage style - situations, events and outcomes. Dickens's fictional world is a random place, where good things and bad things happen beyond the control of the characters. Fortunes are made and lost, illness and starvation are real threats, and sometimes even harmless elderly men explode.

A Hopeful Vision of a Possible World

Many of the characters and situations in Dickens's works are brutal and shocking, but the stories end on a hopeful note, and the 'What if...?' questions give rise to a kind of subtext and a possible alternative world - such as with Krook, above, who could have made the world a better place if only he had been given the chance to fulfill his greatest ambition of learning to read.

Human interaction is an inescapable and vital web. Though the world is random, every action has cause and consequence. Selfish and thoughtless actions destroy lives; kind and responsible actions lead – often but not always - to some measure of happiness. It is a naïve assessment of the world, but one that is hopeful and plays to our aspirations and the better side of our humanity.


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    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 4 years ago

      This is a fantastic Hub; thank you. It always kills me when I hear people say that they want to have a Dicken's Christmas. Obviously they have missed the dark side of London and the poverty and misery of the masses.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Of course there was also the spell Dickens spent with his father and the rest of the family at an early stage in his life because of his father's spendthrift ways - living beyond his means - in Debtors' Prison. You only got out when you paid your fine and you ate what others could bring you. Many died in there, through suicide or starvation, and some got out when others paid their fines.

      Dickens' drawback for me is his writing style. Civil Service English - like French or German - has a tendency to tie the reader in knots trying to follow the storyline. I prefer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Kingsley ('Water Babies').

      Kingsley was another social observer who used a more straightforward prose style. His story about the child chimney sweep in Yorkshire ending in a sort of 'heaven' masked a tragedy of child labour amongst the struggling classes of the 19th Century, just as Dickens highlighted injustice and social depravation, but in a more roundabout way.

      I 'did' Pickwick Papers' for my GCE 'O' level exam (back in the 60's) as well as 'Macbeth' and found 'Macbeth' much easier to follow, despite the fact that there'd been at least two shifts in English between Shakespeare's and modern times.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 4 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      I'll make it a thumbs up and useful. Subject well covered. I would add that Dickens thought that the Americans were onto something with their spelling of English. He travelled to America and was disappointed to discover that unauthorized copies of his own books were being sold there. Copyright was still a fairly new concept and as yet there was no international understanding of it.

      I would also note that because his novels came out in chapbook form first, a couple of chapters at a time, many of his chapters have cliffhanger endings of one sort or another to keep the reader coming back for more. This was typical of the Victorian age and Dickens did this well.

      My own favorites among the works of Dickens would have to be the Christmas stories including A Christmas Carol.

    • Peanutritious profile image

      Tara Carbery 4 years ago from Cheshire, UK

      Yay! Red, i'm delighted for you on your well earned 'hub of the day'. You richly deserve it.

      I love Dickens, particularly his rich imagery, you can almost smell those victorian sewers!

      I always get irritated by his zealous stereotyping though; The evil characters were hideous, gnarled characters and the good ones looked like cherubic little angels!

      Good for you girl, dead chuffed for you.

      Tara x

    • renegadetory profile image

      Carolyn Dahl 4 years ago from Ottawa, Ontario

      I had to read Dickens when I was in high school and the first book we had to read was Great Expectations. I could not understand what the heck he was saying so I needed Coles Notes for it. I did not like that book, so I assumed that Dickens was boring and basically torture to read.

      Then I had to read A Tale of Two Cities and I fell in love with the story. It is one of my favourites to this day.

    • stuff4kids profile image

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      This is a fabulous, wonderful hub more than deserving of being hub of the day.

      I say this not just because I am a Dickens fan (which I am) but because you have so thoroughly researched and carefully composed this extensive and pretty much comprehensive guide to Dickens' work, motives as a writer and intentions that this is surely destined to become the go-to guide on this subject online.

      I thoroughly enjoyed this and am really inspired, not just by the content of this hub but by seeing this quality of work on Hubpages.

      Voted up and ticked. Fantastic! Bless you :)

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      thebiologyofleah 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great hub, I am slowly making my way through Dickens' work and although I do agree with alancaster149 about the language and difficultly getting through certain works of his I have found that it is worth it in the end. Even though the style and language are so dated, the themes are timeless.

    • jbshaban profile image

      jbshaban 4 years ago from California

      Great article. I was trying to figure out which book to read next. It looks like it shall be Bleak House.

    • pinto2011 profile image

      Subhas 4 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Hi Jane! You have rekindled my passion for this master craftsman. He was a man who always make you visualize his characters right in front of you as if they are dancing in all flesh and blood. Great Expectations and Tale Of Two Cities are my favorite.

    • TheKatsMeow profile image

      TheKatsMeow 4 years ago from Canada

      This was a good read! I love Charles Dickens so it was interesting to read more about him! Congrats on making Hub of the day, it is well deserved! Voted up and interesting :)

    • Scribenet profile image

      Scribenet 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Being a fan of Dicken's writings I thank you for this Hub. It sheds a light on the writer that I enjoyed. I have a book of his stories I must go back to and enjoy!

    • Ernest Hemingway3 profile image

      Ernest Hemingway III 4 years ago from The World

      Lovely, comprehensive piece about one of my favourite authors. I have read most of his novels and the one thing that is common to all of them is that Dickens was a great storyteller.

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