Fiction, History, Literature, Novels, Victorians

Guest Blog: Why Read Dickens?

By Alexander Atkins, and posted last year on his excellent blog for the Dickens bicentenary. The image below was designed by him to mark the occasion

This  200th article on Bookshelf is dedicated to my teacher, mentor, and dear friend, Tom A., who taught me how to understand the human condition and the world through the lens of literature, and cultivated a lifelong love affair with books.


Since February 7, 2012 marked the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the Dickens Bicentennial has been celebrated with enthralling exhibits, lectures, and festivals celebrating the legendary author’s life and work. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which owns the largest collection of Dickens manuscripts and letters in the U.S., introduced “Charles Dickens at 200.” The New York Public Library, home of the Berg Collection of Literature with an extensive Dickens collection, recently opened “Charles Dickens: The Key to Character.” Across the pond, the Victoria and Albert Museum, which owns the largest collection of manuscripts, letters, first editions, illustrations and photographs, displayed various exhibits focusing on Victorian life, and the life and novels of the author. The Museum of London developed the “Dickens in London” that exhibited rare manuscripts, photographs, and objects in a setting that recreated the sights and sounds of Victorian London. Also within the past year, four major novels based on Dickens’s life and three new biographies have been published. The BBC, which has developed most of the major novels into miniseries and movies, has developed compelling new productions of the most popular novels.

All of this Dickensmania underscores the enduring value of the Dickens canon — realize that his books have never been out of print — and has initiated numerous articles and discussions, in and outside the academe, about why Dickens is still relevant. Indeed, the celebration of the Dickens Bicentennial begs the question: why read Dickens?

Among literary critics and English professors there is no middle ground: either you love Dickens or you hate him. Despite these polarized inclinations, there is an unequivocal agreement that Dickens had an amazingly fertile imagination and was an absolutlely brilliant storyteller. Dickens had a cinematic style that enabled him to develop vivid characters and settings that leaped fully-formed from the page. In short, reading a Dickens novel is like watching a film. And Dickens — like another literary genius, Mark Twain — had a great ear for spoken language and dialect: each character has a colorful, distinct voice and presence. Moreover, Dickens, like other Victorian writers (Hardy, Thackeray, and Trollope, to name a few) had an expansive vocabulary. To read Dickens — and generally you need a dictionary by your side — you fully experience the richness, depth, and sheer beauty of the English language. One of the most obvious reason that Dickens endures is how his work, particularly the Christmas Books, influenced and changed our perceptions of Christmas. Watching Scrooge’s transformation in A Christmas Carol, whether on screen or stage, is a cherished annual Christmas tradition around the world. And finally, Dickens is regarded by many critics as one of the most influential authors in the pantheon of literature, joining such luminaries as Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes.

During the Dickens Bicentennial many Dickens scholars have weighed in on the question of the year — why read Dickens? Perhaps one of the most insightful and thoughtful answers comes from Jon Varese, currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a research assistant at The Dickens Project: “We read Dickens not just because he was a man of his own times, but because he was a man for our times as well. We read Dickens because his perception and investigation of the human psyche is deep, precise, and illuminating, and because he tells us things about ourselves by portraying personality traits and habits that might seem all too familiar. His messages about poverty and charity have travelled through decades, and we can learn from the experiences of his characters almost as easily as we can learn from our own experiences… These are all wonderful reasons to read Dickens. But these are not exactly the reasons why I read Dickens. My search for a [definitive] answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came from a high school student, whose essay I was reviewing for a writing contest. “We need to read Dickens’s novels,” she wrote, “because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”

“What truly gives Charles Dickens his immortality is neither the life he lived nor the commercial genius that spurred enormous sales of his works [perhaps as much as $68 million in today’s dollars]. His immortality rests on the inimitable characters he created in his novels,” writes Elliot Engel, who has taught literature at the University of North Carolina, and North Caroline State University, and is President of the Dickens Fellowship of North Carolina. Engel elaborates: “He doesn’t give you realistic characters. Instead, Dickens makes sure that his characters, rather than being real people, are walking, talking, living, breathing personifications of a universal feeling. Scrooge represents stinginess in everything he does… Tiny Tim represents the victory of benevolence over handicap… Ultimately, [Dickens’s] characters will live forever because they never lived in the first place.” Engel makes an apt comparison to the Bard: “[Dickens’s] characters represent unchanging human emotion and feeling. In this way, his characters are similar to Shakespeare’s because they are timeless. Like Shakespeare, Dickens bursts through the age in which he lives… Dickens remains today as great a novelist as Shakespeare was a dramatist.”

Jonathan Yardley, a book critic and columnist for the Washington Post, dismisses the criticism that Dickens’s characters lacked depth: “I’ve believed in his characters all my life… I find myself very emotionally engaged when I read Dickens, and that doesn’t happen unless I care about the characters. Sure, David Copperfield can seem too perfect and priggish… but melodrama was part of Dickens’s arsenal. He wanted people to feel strongly. And the various fictive techniques and characterizations he used were not idly chosen.” Once again the comparison of Dickens to Shakespeare is compelling: “The world changes, but people don’t,” Yardlye continues. “Dickens’s understanding of human character is as pertinent now as then; you can find in public and private life types who exactly fit the Dickensian mold. Shakespeare understood everything! There are a lot of things Dickens doesn’t understand. Dickens was not given the gift of subtlety; he was prolix. He probably oversimplified things; he was guilty of sentimentality and melodrama and so forth, but he did have that same visceral sense of Homo Sapiens.”

It is clear that characterization is central to the Dickens canon. In a recent interview, Dr. William Moeck, curator of “Charles Dickens: The Key to Character” on exhibition at the New York Public Library, notes Dickens’s mastery of melodrama and his remarkable visual style: “[Dickens] continues to make us laugh and continues to make us cry, often on the same page. Although that melodrama may not be to everyone’s taste, the philosopher George Santayana nailed it when he said that although Dickens’s taste is sometimes wanting, no one can deny his genius… [The] reason why Dickens has continued to be powerful is because of the visualizable quality of his way of drawing characters, and that has made him a natural for cinematography. Early screenwriters said they were influenced by Dickens because they found in his novels such pre-cinematic techniques as panning, close-ups, montage, and parallel plotting. Since we live in a visually oriented culture, I think that’s probably his power. He speaks to our mind’s eye.”

Radhika Jones, executive editor of Time magazine and former managing editor of The Paris Review, focuses on Dickens’s theatricality and masterful use of language: “Dickens had trained to be an actor, and the aural quality of language was always on his mind. [His novels] were often read aloud among families and communities, and eventually Dickens performed scenes himself, in his series of wildly popular theatrical reading tours. This strategy broadened his audience, primed them and motivated them. And it shaped his style. All those characters with funny names and verbal tics and signature accents — their words beg to be spoken. Even his most complex sentences have a natural rhythm to them. They work out loud and on the page.”

Michael Feingold, writing in the Village Voice about Simon Callow’s recent biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, recognizes not only Dickens’s theatricality, but also his enormous reach and influence: “Dickens’s creativity, merging with his trauma-powered drive for success, gave his art unexampled reach: he went everywhere and noted everything he saw. Casting his net so widely over his own time, he ensnared his successors: Without Dickens, you wouldn’t have Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Kafka, all of whom cherished him… His innate theatricality drove his novels onto the stage; some were pirated even before he’d finished writing them.”

This theme of reach and influence is echoed by Peter Ackroyd, who wrote the most definitive and comprehensive biography in recent times about Dickens. Ackroyd notes: “In Dickens’s work — in Dickens’s life itself — there is the unmistakable urge to encompass everything. In this he is a part of his period, the man exemplifying the spirit of his time in his energetic pursuit of some complete vision of the world. The intricacy, the complexity, the momentum, the evolution, the very length of his narratives indicate as much, so great a concern for the central human progress of the world, and yet such a longing for transcendence also. Charles Dickens was the last of the great eighteenth-century novelists and the first of the great symbolic novelists, and in the crushing equilibrium between these two forces dwells the real strength of his art.”

Author John Irving correctly identifies Dickens’s “abiding faith in the innocence and magic of children” that explains why his work still appeals to new generations of readers. “Dickens believed that his own imagination — in fact, his overall well-being — depended on the contact he kept with his childhood. Furthermore, his popularity with his fellow Victorians, which is reflected in the ongoing interest of young readers today, is rooted in Dickens’s remarkable ability for rendering realistically what many adults condescendingly call fantasy.”

Biographer Fred Kaplan, who has written a highly-regarded biography of Dickens, shared a very illuminating story of when Henry James and Dickens met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1867. Although terribly brief, their encounter was an epiphany in James’s life. He observed Dickens alone in a room and noted his aura of authority and discipline; James described the famous author’s look as a “merciless, military gaze.” Kaplan explains: “[James] realized that Dickens could get maximum amount of life out of the smallest experience. That, combined with his talent, was conducive to the creation of great art… James learned that the great artist has to use his energy in the most disciplined and ruthless way.” Like Shakespeare, Dickens had the instinctive ability to placing humanity under a microscope — meticulously probing, dissecting, distilling, analyzing  – to collect the fodder for his life’s work.

Read related posts:
Words Invented by Dickens
The Origin of Scrooge
The Life of Charles Dickens
Most Famous Quotations in British Literature
Most Influential Authors

For further reading:
The Friendly Dickens by Norrie Epstein, Viking (1998). A Dab of Dickens & A Touch of Twain by Elliot Engel, Pocket Books (2002). A Christmas Carol and Other Stories by Charles Dickens with an Introduction by John Irving, Modern Library (1995). Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the Worldby Simon Callow, Vintage (2012). The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued his Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford, Crown (2008). Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan, Morrow (1988). Charles Dickens by Michael Slater, Yale (2009). Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhust, Harvard University Press (2011). Dickens by Peter Ackroyd, Harper Collins (1990). The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated Edition by John Forster, Sterling (2011). Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, Insight Editions (2011).

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  1. Penguin Classics have an excellent ‘Christmas’ anthology; Christmas Carol and other Christmas Writings. The prototype story for Christmas Carol is in there!

  2. Reblogged this on Mary Blowers, Author and commented:
    Who are you reading these days?

  3. One of my favorite books is “Hard Times.” It truly captures the changes and human spirite ushered in by that the industrial revolution. Great post. Thank you!

  4. Great post, I have read A Tale of Two Cities and I haven’t found a novel with such a captivating opening paragraph. Hopefully I will read more of his novels.

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  6. Pingback: Classics I want To Read | The Streetlight Reader

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  8. I just stumbled on this. I’m reading Oliver Twist, I started yesterday! I first read it as a young girl many years ago, it brings back fond memories. I love how he brings the scenes to life. I especially love this passage I just read where Mr Brownlow “…called up before his mind’s eye a vast amphitheatre of faces over which a dusky curtain had hung for many years”.

  9. Reblogged this on Wildflower of Bristol and commented:
    I’m reading my way through all of his books, and this gives me the perfect answer to the pesky question I get of, “Why are you reading these fat, old books?”

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  11. I enjoyed this article but I feel 2 important things were left out. The first would be Dicken’s ability to bring 18th century London to life. Something anyone who’s lived or travelled extensively in London can very much relate to. Which could even be considered as documenting the birth of the modern city and society which might be as great a reason for his continued popularity as his universal themes. Also I can’t believe this left out mention of the Claire Tomalin biography: “Charles Dickens, A Life”. Imho it’s the definitive biography on the man, and not Peter Ackroyd’s despite my otherwise immense respect for him.

  12. Oliver Twist is my first book report homework as literature student in university, so I would never forget…

  13. “He doesn’t give you realistic characters. Instead, Dickens makes sure that his characters, rather than being real people, are walking, talking, living, breathing personifications of a universal feeling.” I love this.

    I started reading Dickens last year – and haven’t looked back. I started with The Pickwick Papers, and I just remember finishing it and feeling so changed, and hungry for more.

    He’s definitely a challenge, and when I sit down to read at first I always feel taken aback by the language, but if I stay a little while longer I find myself getting into the groove and not wanting to leave.

  14. Undoubtedly a great writer, otherwise he would have lasted as long as he has. That being said I don’t have much of an interest in his works. Comparing him to Shakespeare for me is almost laughable given the power of language in Shakespeare works compared to that of Dickens. My POV regarding the complexity of people and life is much closer to the tragedies and comedies of The Bard than it is to Charles Dickens. At the same time I respect and honor the man’s accomplishments.

  15. Dickens lived at a time when novels were serialised before publication as a separate book, and he had an intimacy with his audience as a result of this that no author today seems to have. He could and did respond to readers’ reactions as he went along, and I reckon his writing and his readers’ pleasure were both enriched.

    But to me if Dickens was a child of the serial era with the remarkable wit to exploit it, he was also to some degree its victim. There was a virtue in spinning it out, and sometimes it shows: he can take a really, really, really long time to get to the end…Jarndyce and Jarndyce indeed! Today we have a similar luxury if that is the right word with the net: we can write and write and write and write if we choose, and it’s no big deal to publish it. But it is a big deal to read it.

    Of course this is a matter of taste at least to some degree. But while I am endlessly fascinated by Shakespeare, willing to go further and further in my desire to fully gain all the immense benefits there are from his writing, I don’t get this feeling with Dickens. Yes, his books are fun and more to read. But they do not repay rereading in the same way to me.

  16. Very interesting post. I guess I ´ve got the urge to read more of Dickens, Becuase till now, I have only read a few stories. Thanks so much for generating reading initiatives!

    Aquileana ;)

  17. Loved this post on Dickens. So many new things brought to light about the author and his accompishments. Until now, I have never really thought about the fact that his novels have never gone out of print. Boggles the mind! Thanks do muchfir shating the info.

  18. Reblogged this on Ninteenth Centuryist and commented:
    The more obscure my Dickens reading gets, the more important this question becomes: why should we care?

  19. Love this post! Thanks for such an insightful review. I love reading the classics and Dickens is certainly one of my favorites. I recently read his short story Captain Murderer (flash fiction, only 1000 words) and featured it on my blog. I was surprised that so many readers still want to experience his writing. Dickens has so many short reads out there (nearly 100), we often forget this. And this month, May, being National Short Story Month, this is the month to read, blog, comment, and tweet about short stories, contemporary and classic. So, if you’re interested in experiencing Dickens, start with his short stories. I highly recommend Captain Murderer, The Haunted House, The Ghost of Art.

  20. Pingback: From Interesting Literature: Guest Blog: Why Read Dickens? | 1WriteWay

  21. This quote sums it up: “We need to read Dickens’s novels,” she wrote, “because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”

  22. when I started writing I was told I had to read Dickens. A decade later, I still haven’t – he’s like the Beatles – so much praise is heaped on him I can’t believe he’s that good, so don’t want to be disappointed. But he is cited so often I feel like I know his works without first hand knowledge. I admire him for how hard he worked as a writer, and how he exposed the horrors of the lower classes of his age. I;m surprised he is lower on the citation list than Milton etc. I thought he would be up there behind shakespeare. Great post.

  23. I like reading Dickens. Although, as a non-native I admit it is quite tough to read his books in original language – English.