Charles Dickens

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Dickens, Charles

Dickens, Charles, 1812–70, English author, b. Portsmouth, one of the world's most popular, prolific, and skilled novelists.

Early Life and Works

The son of a naval clerk, Dickens spent his early childhood in London and in Chatham. When he was 12 his father was imprisoned for debt, and Charles was compelled to work in a blacking warehouse. He never forgot this double humiliation. At 17 he was a court stenographer, and later he was an expert parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle. His sketches, mostly of London life (signed Boz), began appearing in periodicals in 1833, and the collection Sketches by Boz (1836) was a success.

Soon Dickens was commissioned to write burlesque sporting sketches; the result was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836–37), which promptly made Dickens and his characters, especially Sam Weller and Mr. Pickwick, famous. In 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth, who was to bear him 10 children; the marriage, however, was never happy. Dickens had a tender regard for Catherine's sister Mary Hogarth, who died young, and a lifelong friendship with another sister, Georgina Hogarth.


The early-won fame never deserted Dickens. His readers were eager and ever more numerous, representing every English social strata—from barely literate factory workers to Queen Victoria—and Dickens worked vigorously for them, producing novels that appeared first in monthly installments and then were made into books. Oliver Twist (in book form, 1838) was followed by Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and by two works originally intended to start a series called Master Humphrey's Clock: The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Throughout the mid-19th cent. Dickens was probably the best-known and most beloved man in England.

Dickens wrote rapidly, sometimes working on more than one novel at a time, and usually finished an installment just when it was due. Haste did not prevent his loosely strung and intricately plotted books from being the most popular novels of his day. When he visited America in 1842, he was received with ovations but awakened some displeasure by his remarks on copyright protection and his approval of the abolition of slavery. He replied with sharp criticism of America in American Notes (1842) and the novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). The first of his Christmas books was the well-loved A Christmas Carol (1843). In later years other short novels and stories written for the season followed, notably The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth.

Dickens lived in Italy in 1844 and in Switzerland in 1846. Dombey and Son (1848) was the first in a string of triumphant novels including David Copperfield (1850), his own favorite novel, which was partly autobiographical; Bleak House (1853); Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); Great Expectations (1861); and Our Mutual Friend (1865). In 1856 he bought his long-desired country home at Gadshill. Two years later, because of Dickens's attentions to a young actress, Ellen Ternan, his wife ended their marriage by formal separation. Her sister Georgina remained with Dickens to care for his household and the younger children.

Dickens was working furiously, editing and contributing to the magazines Household Words (1850–59) and All the Year Round (1858–70) and managing amateur theatricals. To these labors he added platform readings from his own works; three tours in the British Isles (1858, 1861–65, 1866–67) were followed by one in America (1867–68). When he undertook another English tour of readings (1869–70), his health broke, and he died soon afterward, leaving his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. His grave is in Westminster Abbey.

Dickens's Genius

Charles Dickens is one of the giants of English literature. He wrote from his own experience a great deal—the Marshalsea prison dominates Little Dorrit, and his father was at least partially the model for Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. Although he was expert at journalistic reporting, he wrote nothing that was not transformed from actuality by his imagination. Sharp depiction of the eccentricities and characteristic traits of people was stretched into caricature, and for generations of readers the names of his characters—Mr. Pickwick, Uriah Heep, Miss Havisham, Ebenezer Scrooge—have been household words.

His enormous warmth of feeling sometimes spilled into sentimental pathos, sometimes flowed as pure tragedy. Dickens was particularly successful at evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of London, and the customs of his day. He attacked the injustices of the law and social hypocrisy and evils, but after many of the ills he pictured had been cured he gained still more readers. Some critics complain of his disorderliness in structure and of his sentimentality, but none has attempted to deny his genius at revealing the very pulse of life.


See his letters ed. by M. House et al. (12 vol., 1965–2002) and selected letters ed. by J. Hartley (2012). The old standard biography of Dickens is by his friend John Forster (3 vol., 1872–74; new ed. 1928, repr. 1969). See also biographies by E. Johnson (2 vol., 1952), P. Collins (1987), F. Kaplan (1988), P. Ackroyd (1990), M. Slater (2009), R. Douglas-Fairhurst (2011), C. Tomalin (2011), and R. L. Patten (2012); C. Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1991, repr. 2001), L. Nayder, The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth (2010), and R. Gottlieb, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens (2012); studies by M. Engel (1959), I. Brown (1964 and 1970), A. Wilson (1970), A. E. Dyson (1971), J. Carey (1974), E. Johnson, (1986), and J. Smiley (2002); P. Collins, ed., Dickens: The Critical Heritage (1971); M. and M. Hardwick, The Charles Dickens Encyclopedia (1973, repr. 1993), P. Hobsbaum, A Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens (1973), N. Page, A Dickens Companion (1987), P. Ackroyd, Dickens' London (1988), and S. Ledger and H. Furneaux, ed., Charles Dickens in Context (2011).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dickens, Charles


Born Feb. 7, 1812, in Landport, near Portsmouth; died June 9, 1870, in Gad’s Hill. English writer.

Charles Dickens was the son of a port official. As a boy, Dickens worked to support his family, because his father was financially ruined and confined to debtors’ prison. Later he became a parliamentary stenographer and newspaper reporter. Dickens’ first work, Sketches by Boz (1836), revealed his penchant for realistic satire and his life-loving humor and sentimental ardor, which stemmed from social compassion. The novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837) is a comic epic whose central figure is the magnanimous eccentric Mr. Pickwick, a naïve, touching benefactor of mankind.

Subsequently, Dickens began to write works in the style of critical realism. The novel The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1938) was written in response to the Poor Laws, which condemned unemployed and poor people to death by starvation in the workhouses. Dickens embodied his indignation at the intolerable conditions of existence of the masses in this story of a boy born in an almshouse and condemned to scrabble about the gloomy slums of London. At the end of the novel, however, the traditional moral scheme prevails, and a benefactor, a personification of the “good” capitalist, triumphs. The novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839) emphasized descriptions of the terrifying methods of school upbringing for children and exposéd the power of “evil money.” However, at the end of the novel the fictitious, compromising social force of “good money” triumphs again. In Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), which was written after Dickens’ first visit to America, the basis of the plot is a critical description of not only American reality but also English bourgeois society, as personified by Pecksniff and the Chuzzlewits. Dickens was especially indignant over Negro slavery in the southern states.

With the passing years Dickens became convinced that the positive tendencies in contemporary society, which were manifested in the moral superiority of the poor over the rich, were concentrated only among the oppressed masses. A sentimental mood was expressed particularly in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and the Christmas books (1843-46), in which the author used the fairy tale as a foundation.

Two of Dickens’ novels that are popular with young readers mark the transition from his early works to a mature, realistic creative art. The central figure in Dombey and Son (1848) is a cruel property owner. David Copperfield (1850)—a Bildungsroman —traces the life of its hero, which is reminiscent of Dickens’ own.

The failures of the Chartist movement in Great Britain and the halfway results of the revolutions of 1848 on the Continent facilitated the revelation of the exploitative essence of the capitalist system. By this time Dickens had penetrated more deeply into bourgeois society and had perceived it as a uniform system of evil. He turned away from the novel of adventure that he had previously favored and made the transition to the novel of social problems. The action was no longer modeled on the biographical novel but consisted of a complex interweaving of several plot lines. An example of this structure is the novel Bleak House (1853), in which the action revolves around a court case that lasts for several years. Conceived as a satire on bourgeois legal procedures, Bleak House grew into a symbol of the senselessness of human existence when confronted with soulless paper laws that destroy normal human relations, as embodied in such characters as Jarndyce, Esther, and Ada.

In the novel Hard Times (1854) the place of action is the monstrous fictitious city of Coketown. Dickens created unsurpassed satirically grotesque figures of bourgeois businessmen, for whom “facts and figures” are the only realities. Although he did not show an understanding of the necessity for a revolutionary struggle by the workers, the author’s sympathies are consistently on the side of the oppressed. Little Dorrit (1857) depicts the gloomy debtors’ prison of Marshalsea, where Dickens’ father had been confined at one time. Another sphere of action in the novel centers on government institutions in bourgeois Britain, which Dickens satirically immortalized in the Circumlocution Office. Dickens gave a symbolically generalized description of the sinister legalities of the capitalist system, which transform the individual human being into a toy of hostile forces unknown to him.

Somewhat unique among Dickens’ mature works is the historical novel about the Great French Revolution A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Depicting the poverty and lack of rights of the masses, Dickens expressed great indignation at their oppressors and voiced the opinion that the revolution had been inevitable. Nevertheless, he condemned the harsh actions of the people from the viewpoint of the Christian ideal. Dickens’ last novels, Great Expectations (1861), Our Mutual Friend (1865), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished, 1870), combine elements of the detective and criminal genres with profound treatment of social problems.

Dickens’ achieved worldwide fame immediately after the publication of his first few books. In Russia his works were very influential beginning in the 1840’s. The opinions of V. G. Belinskii, N. G. Chernyshevskii, A. N. Ostrovskii, I. A. Goncharov, V. G. Korolenko, L. N. Tolstoy, F. M. Dostoevsky, and M. Gorky concerning Dickens’ novels emphasized above all their remarkable humor, democratic sentiments, and humanism. Continuing these 19th-century tendencies, Soviet literary criticism has analyzed Dickens’ realistic manner, his satirical exposé of social conditions, and his sympathy for the common people.


The Complete Works, vols. 1–30. London [1900].
Works, vols. 1–23. Bloomsbury, 1937–38.
The Letters, vols. 1–3. Bloomsbury, 1938.
In Russian translation:
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–10. St. Petersburg, 1892–97.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–35. St. Petersburg, 1896–99.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–33. St. Petersburg [1905-09]
Poln. sobr. soch., books 1–49. St. Petersburg, 1909–10.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–30. Moscow, 1957–63.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Ob iskusstve, vol. 1. Moscow, 1967. Pages 447, 487.
Alekseev, M. P. “Belinskii i Dikkens.” In the collection Venok Belinskomu. [Moscow] 1924.
Lunacharskii, A., and R. Shor. Dikkens. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931.
Ivasheva, V. V. Tvorchestvo Dikkensa. Moscow, 1954.
Nersesova, M. A. Tvorchestvo Ch. Dikkensa. Moscow, 1957.
Katarskii, I. M. Dikkens v Rossii. Moscow, 1966.
Sil’man T. Dikkens: Ocherki tvorchestva. Leningrad, 1970.
Charl’z Dikkens: Ukazatel’ vazhneishei literatury na russkom iazyke (1838-1945). Introduction by M. P. Alekseev. Leningrad, 1946.
Charl’z Dikkens: Bibliografiia russkikh perevodov i kriticheskoi literatury na russkom iazyke, 1838–1960. Compiled by Iu. V. Fridlender and I. M. Katarskii. Moscow, 1962.
Chesterton, G. K. Dikkens. Leningrad, 1929.
Forster, J. The Life of Charles Dickens, vols. 1–3. London, 1872–74.
Hay ward, A. L. The Dickens Encyclopaedia. London-New York, 1924.
Jackson, T. A. Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical. London, 1937.
Johnson, E. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, vols. 1–2. New York, 1952.
Engel, M. The Maturity of Dickens. Cambridge, Mass., 1959.
Dickens: Modern Judgments. Edited by A. E. Dyson. [London, 1968.]
Manning, S. B. Dickens as Satirist. New Haven-London, 1971.
Wilson, A. The World of Charles Dickens. London [1970].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.