Reasons Behind the Fame and Popularity of Charles Dickens
Dickens in a Blacking Factory as a Child
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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