Charles Dickens
& His Greatest Novels
A CultureMap®
by Marjorie Killingsworth
Published on 7/10/13

The teeming streets of London at the beginning of the Industrial Age have been forever colored for us by the imagination of Charles Dickens. His indelible portraits of hapless orphans, scheming lawyers, small-minded bureaucrats and cruel businessmen became stock character types. Few writers of fiction have had such a lasting effect on Western society. This map examines five of Dickens’s most enduring novels and their persistence in contemporary culture.

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Charles Dickens  (1812–1870 | English novelist)
to  Oliver Twist  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1838)

Orphaned moments after birth, Oliver Twist spends the first nine years of his life in a workhouse for boys. One day the half-starved inmates decide to ask their keeper for larger portions of gruel. They draw lots, and the task falls to Oliver, who utters these fateful words: “Please, sir, I want some more.” For his impudence, the good-hearted orphan is cast out of the house; he works briefly with an undertaker and then falls in with a band of thieves. Meanwhile, he’s being tracked by various long-lost relatives, not all of whom have his best interests in mind.

Charles Dickens grew up poor and was forced into factory work at the age of 12 when his father was remanded to a debtors’ prison. Thirteen years later, the early installments of Dickens’s serialized novel catapulted him to fame in Great Britain—and, eventually, all over the world. Oliver Twist (1838) was his second novel, published after The Pickwick Papers (1837).

Oliver Twist has been adapted many times for stage, film and television. The best-known renderings are David Lean’s 1948 film starring Alec Guinness as Fagin, the master thief under whose influence Oliver falls, and the musical Oliver! (stage 1960; film 1968).

Charles Dickens  (1812–1870 | English novelist)
to  A Christmas Carol  (Charles Dickens | novella | 1843)

Late one Christmas Eve, the miserly and coldhearted Ebenezer Scrooge is called upon by the ghost of his dead business partner. “You will be haunted,” Jacob Marley tells him, “by Three Spirits.” In the course of the night Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come.

The ghosts warm not only Scrooge’s heart; they have warmed the hearts of millions of readers, television viewers and theater and film audiences. A Christmas Carol is Dickens’s most popular book—and so much a part of Anglo-American culture that our mostly secular Christmas would not be the same without it. Besides the greeting “Merry Christmas!” its legacy includes the message that each of us too might be improved if we would invite the Christmas spirit into our lives.

A Christmas Carol has been endlessly adapted in school plays and on Broadway, in movies, cartoons and television sitcoms, even by Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, in Wild Strawberries (1957). Some memorable versions are the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim, the 1970 movie musical Scrooge with Alec Guinness and Albert Finney, the made-for-TV Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) and Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) with Scrooge McDuck.

Charles Dickens  (1812–1870 | English novelist)
to  Bleak House  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1853)

Bleak House is Charles Dickens’s most acclaimed novel. According to literary scholar Harold Bloom, “The Dickens cosmos, his phantasmagoric London and visionary England, emerges in Bleak House with a clarity and pungency that surpasses the rest of his work, before and after.”

Largely an indictment of the ineffectual and tortuously slow Chancery courts, told in both the first and third person, the book weaves a dark, complex, satirical tale with many plots and subplots and myriad characters. Lady Dedlock has a dark past she would rather keep secret. Young Esther Summerson, ignorant of her parents’ identity and raised under the hard tutelage of an aunt, comes to live with Mr. John Jarndyce, who is also the guardian of two wards in a drawn-out legal case concerning a contested will. A conniving lawyer is murdered, Esther discovers the identity of her mother, and Lady Dedlock goes missing. To this complicated fray add two retired soldiers, a despicable moneylender, an amorous if inconstant law clerk and Inspector Bucket, whose appearance makes this book one of the earliest examples of a detective story.

The BBC’s well-received 15-episode treatment (2005) is one worthy adaptation that took the time to unravel the story’s many threads.

Oliver Twist  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1838)
to  Bleak House  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1853)

Oliver Twist spends most of his childhood in a workhouse, a quasi-prison in which the destitute of Victorian England were held. The houses amounted to an indentured servitude about which Dickens wrote, “All poor people should have the alternative…of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.” Some of Dickens’s most poignant passages concern the plight of the poor and downtrodden. His own father was always broke and when Dickens was 12 spent about three months in debtors’ prison; at that time, the future novelist went to work in a factory, applying labels to bottles of boot blacking. Dickens tackled the cruelties of debtors’ prison and factory work in his novels Little Dorrit (1857) and Hard Times (1854), respectively.

While Dickens was aware of the failures of Victorian welfare institutions—and often satirized them viciously—it is not quite accurate to cast him as a liberal social reformer. He often seemed to suggest that the poor would be just as well off without society’s meddling. In Bleak House, he has nothing but disdain for Mrs. Jellyby, who in her efforts to help the Africans of Borrioboola-Gha all but abandons her family.

Charles Dickens  (1812–1870 | English novelist)
to  A Tale of Two Cities  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1859)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So begins one of Charles Dickens’s most action-packed novels. Drawing heavily from The French Revolution (1837), written by Dickens’s close friend Thomas Carlyle, A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris during the tumultuous years preceding the revolution. In France, a sadistic marquis imprisons an English doctor in the Bastille. Released 18 years later, Dr. Mannette returns to England and his daughter, Lucie.

Charles Darnay, secretly a relative of the marquis, marries Lucie but returns to France to help a friend as the Reign of Terror approaches. Accused of crimes by Monsieur and Madame Defarge, enemies of the marquis, Darnay is sentenced to die. But his place on the guillotine is taken by Sydney Carton, who sacrifices his life so Darnay may return to Lucie. Carton is one of the few lawyers in Dickens’s works to achieve redemption. The book’s last words are nearly as famous as its first: “It is a far, far better thing that I do,” Carton says, “than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Charles Dickens  (1812–1870 | English novelist)
to  Great Expectations  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1861)

In the opening scene of Great Expectations, six-year-old Pip is accosted in a graveyard by an escaped convict and forced to steal food and a file to remove the man’s chains. Soon after this encounter Pip is invited to the house of an elderly shut-in, Miss Havisham, where he meets and falls in love with the callous Estella, who scorns him for his poverty. Pip subsequently acquires a great deal of wealth from an anonymous benefactor, moves to London and becomes something of a gadabout. It is only much later, after Pip sees Estella again, hears the true story of the mysterious Miss Havisham and learns the surprising identity of his benefactor that he comes to terms with his “great expectations.”

Great Expectations has been much adapted—and adulterated. David Lean’s 1946 version was one of the filmmaker’s two Dickens adaptations; under his direction Alec Guinness played Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket and the evil Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948). A 1998 film set in modern-day New York, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, won considerably less acclaim. “Pip,” a South Park episode that aired in 2000, follows the first half of the book fairly closely. Then the robot monkeys show up.

Oliver Twist  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1838)
to  Great Expectations  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1861)

Dickens’s readers loved the unfortunate, parentless waifs who people his novels, from the hero of Oliver Twist (1838), orphaned at birth, to little Pip, who visits his parents’ graves in the opening scene of Great Expectations (1861). Readers of the serialized version of The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841) experienced what Dickens called “anguish unspeakable” anticipating the fate of the orphan little Nell—which surely helped sell the next installment. The writer stocked his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), with four orphans, including the title character.

Although not an orphan, Dickens never forgot the frightening period during his childhood when he was essentially abandoned while his father was in debtors’ prison. Shame about his poor upbringing is echoed in the character of Pip, who as a moneyed young man disdains his origins.

Dickens’s success as a writer surely influenced another of his common plot devices: the mysterious benefactor. Both Oliver and Pip are eventually saved from poverty by unexpected (and wealthy) patrons. The simple goodness of Oliver in the earlier novel yields to a more complex, and flawed, character in Pip—a shift that may reflect Dickens’s maturing view of humankind.

A Christmas Carol  (Charles Dickens | novella | 1843)
to  Great Expectations  (Charles Dickens | novel | 1861)

A theme that runs through Charles Dickens’s novels, from his earliest books to his last, is personal redemption. The rich, miserly and lonely subject of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge, greets “Merry Christmas” with a sour “Bah! Humbug!” His inner misery is matched only by the suffering he inflicts on others, especially his impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit. But Dickens wants us to believe that even the terrible Scrooge can change. A Christmas Eve look into his past, his present and his awful future encourages him to mend his heartless ways. The next morning Scrooge opens his window to whoop the phrases he had so recently mocked: “A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!”

The redemptions in Great Expectations are myriad and more complex, if less supernatural. The seed of Abel Magwitch’s redemption is planted in his encounter with the six-year-old Pip. Miss Havisham, having used Pip and Estella for her own ends, ultimately asks forgiveness, and Estella too regrets her unkindness to Pip. As the novel’s narrator, Pip must come to terms with the humanity in each of the others and his own ungrateful treatment of his kind brother-in-law, Joe.