in full Charles John Huffam Dickens
born Feb. 7, 1812, Portsmouth, Hampshire, Eng.
died June 9, 1870, Gad’s Hill, near Chatham, Kent
British novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian
The defining moment of Dickens’s life occurred when he was 12 years
old. With his father in debtors’ prison, he was withdrawn from school
and forced to work in a factory. This deeply affected the sensitive boy.
Though he returned to school at 13, his formal education ended at 15. As
a young man, he worked as a reporter. His fiction career began with
short pieces reprinted as Sketches by “Boz” (1836). He exhibited a great
ability to spin a story in an entertaining manner and this quality,
combined with the serialization of his comic novel The Pickwick Papers
(1837), made him the most popular English author of his time. The
serialization of such works as Oliver Twist (1838) and The Old Curiosity
Shop (1841) followed. After a trip to America, he wrote A Christmas
Carol (1843) in a few weeks. With Dombey and Son (1848), his novels
began to express a heightened uneasiness about the evils of Victorian
industrial society, which intensified in the semiautobiographical David
Copperfield (1850), as well as in Bleak House (1853), Little Dorrit
(1857), Great Expectations (1861), and others. A Tale of Two Cities
(1859) appeared in the period when he achieved great popularity for his
public readings. Dickens’s works are characterized by an encyclopaedic
knowledge of London, pathos, a vein of the macabre, a pervasive spirit
of benevolence and geniality, inexhaustible powers of character
creation, an acute ear for characteristic speech, and a highly
individual and inventive prose style.
English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian
era. His many volumes include such works as A Christmas Carol, David
Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and
Our Mutual Friend.
Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity than had any previous author
during his lifetime. Much in his work could appeal to simple and
sophisticated, to the poor and to the Queen, and technological
developments as well as the qualities of his work enabled his fame to
spread worldwide very quickly. His long career saw fluctuations in the
reception and sales of individual novels, but none of them was
negligible or uncharacteristic or disregarded, and, though he is now
admired for aspects and phases of his work that were given less weight
by his contemporaries, his popularity has never ceased and his present
critical standing is higher than ever before. The most abundantly comic
of English authors, he was much more than a great entertainer. The
range, compassion, and intelligence of his apprehension of his society
and its shortcomings enriched his novels and made him both one of the
great forces in 19th-century literature and an influential spokesman of
the conscience of his age.
Dickens left Portsmouth in infancy. His happiest childhood years were
spent in Chatham (1817–22), an area to which he often reverts in his
fiction. From 1822 he lived in London, until, in 1860, he moved
permanently to a country house, Gad’s Hill, near Chatham. His origins
were middle class, if of a newfound and precarious respectability; one
grandfather had been a domestic servant, and the other an embezzler. His
father, a clerk in the navy pay office, was well paid, but his
extravagance and ineptitude often brought the family to financial
embarrassment or disaster. (Some of his failings and his ebullience are
dramatized in Mr. Micawber in the partly autobiographical David
Copperfield.) In 1824 the family reached bottom. Charles, the eldest
son, had been withdrawn from school and was now set to manual work in a
factory, and his father went to prison for debt. These shocks deeply
affected Charles. Though abhorring this brief descent into the working
class, he began to gain that sympathetic knowledge of their life and
privations that informed his writings. Also, the images of the prison
and of the lost, oppressed, or bewildered child recur in many novels.
Much else in his character and art stems from this period, including, as
the 20th-century novelist Angus Wilson has argued, his later difficulty,
as man and author, in understanding women: this may be traced to his
bitter resentment against his mother, who had, he felt, failed
disastrously at this time to appreciate his sufferings. She had wanted
him to stay at work when his father’s release from prison and an
improvement in the family’s fortunes made the boy’s return to school
possible. Happily the father’s view prevailed.
His schooling, interrupted and unimpressive, ended at 15. He became a
clerk in a solicitor’s office, then a shorthand reporter in the
lawcourts (thus gaining a knowledge of the legal world often used in the
novels), and finally, like other members of his family, a parliamentary
and newspaper reporter. These years left him with a lasting affection
for journalism and contempt both for the law and for Parliament. His
coming to manhood in the reformist 1830s, and particularly his working
on the Liberal Benthamite Morning Chronicle (1834–36), greatly affected
his political outlook. Another influential event now was his rejection
as suitor to Maria Beadnell because his family and prospects were
unsatisfactory; his hopes of gaining and chagrin at losing her sharpened
his determination to succeed. His feelings about Maria then and at her
later brief and disillusioning reentry into his life are reflected in
David Copperfield’s adoration of Dora Spenlow and in the middle-aged
Arthur Clennam’s discovery (in Little Dorrit) that Flora Finching, who
had seemed enchanting years ago, was “diffuse and silly,” that Flora
“whom he had left a lily, had become a peony.”
Early years » Beginning of literary career
Much drawn to the theatre, Dickens nearly became a professional actor in
1832. In 1833 he began contributing stories and descriptive essays to
magazines and newspapers; these attracted attention and were reprinted
as Sketches by “Boz” (February 1836). The same month, he was invited to
provide a comic serial narrative to accompany engravings by a well-known
artist; seven weeks later the first installment of Pickwick Papers
appeared. Within a few months Pickwick was the rage and Dickens the most
popular author of the day. During 1836 he also wrote two plays and a
pamphlet on a topical issue (how the poor should be allowed to enjoy the
Sabbath) and, resigning from his newspaper job, undertook to edit a
monthly magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, in which he serialized Oliver
Twist (1837–39). Thus, he had two serial installments to write every
month. Already the first of his nine surviving children had been born;
he had married (in April 1836) Catherine, eldest daughter of a respected
Scottish journalist and man of letters, George Hogarth.
For several years his life continued at this intensity. Finding
serialization congenial and profitable, he repeated the Pickwick pattern
of 20 monthly parts in Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39); then he experimented
with shorter weekly installments for The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41)
and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Exhausted at last, he then took a five-month
vacation in America, touring strenuously and receiving quasi-royal
honours as a literary celebrity but offending national sensibilities by
protesting against the absence of copyright protection. A radical critic
of British institutions, he had expected more from “the republic of my
imagination,” but he found more vulgarity and sharp practice to detest
than social arrangements to admire. Some of these feelings appear in
American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44).
Early years » First novels
His writing during these prolific years was remarkably various and,
except for his plays, resourceful. Pickwick began as high-spirited farce
and contained many conventional comic butts and traditional jokes; like
other early works, it was manifestly indebted to the contemporary
theatre, the 18th-century English novelists, and a few foreign classics,
notably Don Quixote. But, besides giving new life to old stereotypes,
Pickwick displayed, if sometimes in embryo, many of the features that
were to be blended in varying proportions throughout his fiction:
attacks, satirical or denunciatory, on social evils and inadequate
institutions; topical references; an encyclopaedic knowledge of London
(always his predominant fictional locale); pathos; a vein of the
macabre; a delight in the demotic joys of Christmas; a pervasive spirit
of benevolence and geniality; inexhaustible powers of character
creation; a wonderful ear for characteristic speech, often imaginatively
heightened; a strong narrative impulse; and a prose style that, if here
overdependent on a few comic mannerisms, was highly individual and
inventive. Rapidly improvised and written only weeks or days ahead of
its serial publication, Pickwick contains weak and jejune passages and
is an unsatisfactory whole—partly because Dickens was rapidly developing
his craft as a novelist while writing and publishing it. What is
remarkable is that a first novel, written in such circumstances, not
only established him overnight and created a new tradition of popular
literature but also survived, despite its crudities, as one of the best
known novels in the world.
Early years » First novels » Oliver Twist and others
His self-assurance and artistic ambitiousness had appeared in Oliver
Twist, where he rejected the temptation to repeat the successful
Pickwick formula. Though containing much comedy still, Oliver Twist is
more centrally concerned with social and moral evil (the workhouse and
the criminal world); it culminates in Bill Sikes’s murdering Nancy and
Fagin’s last night in the condemned cell at Newgate. The latter episode
was memorably depicted in George Cruikshank’s engraving; the imaginative
potency of Dickens’ characters and settings owes much, indeed, to his
original illustrators (Cruikshank for Sketches by “Boz” and Oliver
Twist, “Phiz” [Hablot K. Browne] for most of the other novels until the
1860s). The currency of his fiction owed much, too, to its being so easy
to adapt into effective stage versions. Sometimes 20 London theatres
simultaneously were producing adaptations of his latest story; so even
nonreaders became acquainted with simplified versions of his works. The
theatre was often a subject of his fiction, too, as in the Crummles
troupe in Nicholas Nickleby. This novel reverted to the Pickwick shape
and atmosphere, though the indictment of the brutal Yorkshire schools
(Dotheboys Hall) continued the important innovation in English fiction
seen in Oliver Twist—the spectacle of the lost or oppressed child as an
occasion for pathos and social criticism. This was amplified in The Old
Curiosity Shop, where the death of Little Nell was found overwhelmingly
powerful at the time, though a few decades later it became a byword for
“Victorian sentimentality.” In Barnaby Rudge he attempted another genre,
the historical novel. Like his later attempt in this kind, A Tale of Two
Cities, it was set in the late 18th century and presented with great
vigour and understanding (and some ambivalence of attitude) the
spectacle of large-scale mob violence.
To create an artistic unity out of the wide range of moods and
materials included in every novel, with often several complicated plots
involving scores of characters, was made even more difficult by Dickens’
writing and publishing them serially. In Martin Chuzzlewit he tried “to
resist the temptation of the current Monthly Number, and to keep a
steadier eye upon the general purpose and design” (1844 Preface). Its
American episodes had, however, been unpremeditated (he suddenly decided
to boost the disappointing sales by some America-baiting and to revenge
himself against insults and injuries from the American press). A
concentration on “the general purpose and design” was more effective in
the next novel, Dombey and Son (1846–48), though the experience of
writing the shorter, and unserialized, Christmas books had helped him
obtain greater coherence.
Early years » First novels » Christmas books
A Christmas Carol, suddenly conceived and written in a few weeks, was
the first of these Christmas books (a new literary genre thus created
incidentally). Tossed off while he was amply engaged in writing
Chuzzlewit, it was an extraordinary achievement—the one great Christmas
myth of modern literature. His view of life was later to be described or
dismissed as “Christmas philosophy,” and he himself spoke of “Carol
philosophy” as the basis of a projected work. His “philosophy,” never
very elaborated, involved more than wanting the Christmas spirit to
prevail throughout the year, but his great attachment to Christmas (in
his family life as well as his writings) is indeed significant and has
contributed to his popularity. “Dickens dead?” exclaimed a London
costermonger’s girl in 1870. “Then will Father Christmas die too?”—a
tribute both to his association with Christmas and to the mythological
status of the man as well as of his work. The Carol immediately entered
the general consciousness; Thackeray, in a review, called it “a national
benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.”
Further Christmas books, essays, and stories followed annually (except
in 1847) through 1867. None equalled the Carol in potency, though some
achieved great immediate popularity. Cumulatively they represent a
celebration of Christmas attempted by no other great author.
Early years » First novels » Renown
How he struck his contemporaries in these early years appears in R.H.
Horne’s New Spirit of the Age (1844). Dickens occupied the first and
longest chapter, as
. . . manifestly the product of his age . . . a genuine emanation
from its aggregate and entire spirit. . . . He mixes extensively in
society, and continually. Few public meetings in a benevolent cause are
without him. He speaks effectively. . . . His influence upon his age is
extensive—pleasurable, instructive, healthy, reformatory. . . .
Mr. Dickens is, in private, very much what might be expected from his
works. . . . His conversation is genial . . . [He] has singular personal
activity, and is fond of games of practical skill. He is also a great
walker, and very much given to dancing Sir Roger de Coverley. In
private, the general impression of him is that of a first-rate practical
intellect, with “no nonsense” about him.
He was indeed very much a public figure, actively and centrally
involved in his world, and a man of confident presence. He was reckoned
the best after-dinner speaker of the age; other superlatives he
attracted included his having been the best shorthand reporter on the
London press and his being the best amateur actor on the stage. Later he
became one of the most successful periodical editors and the finest
dramatic recitalist of the day. He was splendidly endowed with many
skills. “Even irrespective of his literary genius,” wrote an obituarist,
“he was an able and strong-minded man, who would have succeeded in
almost any profession to which he devoted himself ” (Times, June 10,
1870). Few of his extraliterary skills and interests were irrelevant to
the range and mode of his fiction.
Privately in these early years, he was both domestic and social. He
loved home and family life and was a proud and efficient householder; he
once contemplated writing a cookbook. To his many children, he was a
devoted and delightful father, at least while they were young; relations
with them proved less happy during their adolescence. Apart from periods
in Italy (1844–45) and Switzerland and France (1846–47), he still lived
in London, moving from an apartment in Furnival’s Inn to larger houses
as his income and family grew. Here he entertained his many friends,
most of them popular authors, journalists, actors, or artists, though
some came from the law and other professions or from commerce and a few
from the aristocracy. Some friendships dating from his youth endured to
the end, and, though often exasperated by the financial demands of his
parents and other relatives, he was very fond of some of his family and
loyal to most of the rest. Some literary squabbles came later, but he
was on friendly terms with most of his fellow authors, of the older
generation as well as his own. Necessarily solitary while writing and
during the long walks (especially through the streets at night) that
became essential to his creative processes, he was generally social at
other times. He enjoyed society that was unpretentious and conversation
that was genial and sensible but not too intellectualized or exclusively
literary. High society he generally avoided, after a few early
incursions into the great houses; he hated to be lionized or patronized.
He had about him “a sort of swell and overflow as of a prodigality of
life,” an American journalist said. Everyone was struck by the
brilliance of his eyes and his smart, even dandyish, appearance (“I have
the fondness of a savage for finery,” he confessed). John Forster, his
intimate friend and future biographer, recalled him at the Pickwick
the quickness, keenness, and practical power, the eager, restless,
energetic outlook on each several feature [of his face] seemed to tell
so little of a student or writer of books, and so much of a man of
action and business in the world. Light and motion flashed from every
part of it.
He was proud of his art and devoted to improving it and using it to
good ends (his works would show, he wrote, that “Cheap Literature is not
behind-hand with the Age, but holds its place, and strives to do its
duty”), but his art never engaged all his formidable energies. He had no
desire to be narrowly literary.
A notable, though unsuccessful, demonstration of this was his being
founder-editor in 1846 of the Daily News (soon to become the leading
Liberal newspaper). His journalistic origins, his political convictions
and readiness to act as a leader of opinion, and his wish to secure a
steady income independent of his literary creativity and of any shifts
in novel readers’ tastes made him attempt or plan several periodical
ventures in the 1840s. The return to daily journalism soon proved a
mistake—the biggest fiasco in a career that included few such
misdirections or failures. A more limited but happier exercise of his
practical talents began soon afterward: for more than a decade he
directed, energetically and with great insight and compassion, a
reformatory home for young female delinquents, financed by his wealthy
friend Angela Burdett-Coutts. The benevolent spirit apparent in his
writings often found practical expression in his public speeches,
fund-raising activities, and private acts of charity.
Dombey and Son (1846–48) was a crucial novel in his development, a
product of more thorough planning and maturer thought and the first in
which “a pervasive uneasiness about contemporary society takes the place
of an intermittent concern with specific social wrongs” (Kathleen
Tillotson). Using railways prominently and effectively, it was very
up-to-date, though the questions posed included such perennial moral and
religious challenges as are suggested by the child Paul’s first words in
the story: “Papa, what’s money?” Some of the corruptions of money and
pride of place and the limitations of “respectable” values are explored,
virtue and human decency being discovered most often (as elsewhere in
Dickens) among the poor, humble, and simple. In Paul’s early death
Dickens offered another famous pathetic episode; in Mr. Dombey he made a
more ambitious attempt than before at serious and internal
characterization. David Copperfield (1849–50) has been described as a
“holiday” from these larger social concerns and most notable for its
childhood chapters, “an enchanting vein which he had never quite found
before and which he was never to find again” (Edmund Wilson). Largely
for this reason and for its autobiographical interest, it has always
been among his most popular novels and was Dickens’ own “favourite
child.” It incorporates material from the autobiography he had recently
begun but soon abandoned and is written in the first person, a new
technique for him. David differs from his creator in many ways, however,
though Dickens uses many early experiences that had meant much to
him—his period of work in the factory while his father was jailed, his
schooling and reading, his passion for Maria Beadnell, and (more
cursorily) his emergence from parliamentary reporting into successful
novel writing. In Micawber the novel presents one of the “Dickens
characters” whose imaginative potency extends far beyond the narratives
in which they figure; Pickwick and Sam Weller, Mrs. Gamp and Mr.
Pecksniff, and Scrooge are some others.
Middle years » Journalism
Dickens’ journalistic ambitions at last found a permanent form in
Household Words (1850–59) and its successor, All the Year Round
(1859–88). Popular weekly miscellanies of fiction, poetry, and essays on
a wide range of topics, these had substantial and increasing
circulations, reaching 300,000 for some of the Christmas numbers.
Dickens contributed some serials—the lamentable Child’s History of
England (1851–53), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and
Great Expectations (1860–61)—and essays, some of which were collected in
Reprinted Pieces (1858) and The Uncommercial Traveller (1861, later
amplified). Particularly in 1850–52 and during the Crimean War, he
contributed many items on current political and social affairs; in later
years he wrote less—much less on politics—and the magazine was less
political, too. Other distinguished novelists contributed serials,
including Mrs. Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, and Bulwer
Lytton. The poetry was uniformly feeble; Dickens was imperceptive here.
The reportage, often solidly based, was bright (sometimes painfully so)
in manner. His conduct of these weeklies shows his many skills as editor
and journalist but also some limitations in his tastes and intellectual
ambitions. The contents are revealing in relation to his novels: he took
responsibility for all the opinions expressed (for articles were
anonymous) and selected and amended contributions accordingly; thus
comments on topical events and so on may generally be taken as
representing his opinions, whether or not he wrote them. No English
author of comparable status has devoted 20 years of his maturity to such
unremitting editorial work, and the weeklies’ success was due not only
to his illustrious name but also to his practical sagacity and sustained
industry. Even in his creative work, as his eldest son said,
No city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no
humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged
with more punctuality, or with more businesslike regularity.
Middle years » Novels
The novels of these years, Bleak House (1852–53), Hard Times (1854), and
Little Dorrit (1855–57), were much “darker” than their predecessors.
Presenting a remarkably inclusive and increasingly sombre picture of
contemporary society, they were inevitably often seen at the time as
fictionalized propaganda about ephemeral issues. They are much more than
this, though it is never easy to state how Dickens’ imagination
transforms their many topicalities into an artistically coherent vision
that transcends their immediate historical context. Similar questions
are raised by his often basing fictional characters, places, and
institutions on actual originals. He once spoke of his mind’s taking “a
fanciful photograph” of a scene, and there is a continual interplay
between photographic realism and “fancy” (or imagination). “He describes
London like a special correspondent for posterity” (Walter Bagehot,
1858), and posterity has certainly found in his fiction the response of
an acute, knowledgeable, and concerned observer to the social and
political developments of “the moving age.” In the novels of the 1850s,
he is politically more despondent, emotionally more tragic. The satire
is harsher, the humour less genial and abundant, the “happy endings”
more subdued than in the early fiction. Technically, the later novels
are more coherent, plots being more fully related to themes, and themes
being often expressed through a more insistent use of imagery and
symbols (grim symbols, too, such as the fog in Bleak House or the prison
in Little Dorrit). His art here is more akin to poetry than to what is
suggested by the photographic or journalistic comparisons. “Dickensian”
characterization continues in the sharply defined and simplified
grotesque or comic figures, such as Chadband in Bleak House or Mrs.
Sparsit in Hard Times, but large-scale figures of this type are less
frequent (the Gamps and Micawbers belong to the first half of his
career). Characterization also has become more subordinate to “the
general purpose and design”; moreover, Dickens is presenting characters
of greater complexity, who provoke more complex responses in the reader
(William Dorrit, for instance). Even the juvenile leads, who had usually
been thinly conceived conventional figures, are now often more
complicated in their make-up and less easily rewarded by good fortune.
With his secular hopes diminishing, Dickens becomes more concerned with
“the great final secret of all life”—a phrase from Little Dorrit, where
the spiritual dimension of his work is most overt. Critics disagree as
to how far so worldly a novelist succeeds artistically in enlarging his
view to include the religious. These novels, too, being manifestly an
ambitious attempt to explore the prospects of humanity at this time,
raise questions, still much debated, about the intelligence and
profundity of his understanding of society.
Middle years » Personal unhappiness
Dickens’ spirits and confidence in the future had indeed declined: 1855
was “a year of much unsettled discontent for him,” his friend Forster
recalled, partly for political reasons (or, as Forster hints, his
political indignation was exacerbated by a “discontent” that had
personal origins). The Crimean War, besides exposing governmental
inefficiency, was distracting attention from the “poverty, hunger, and
ignorant desperation” at home. In Little Dorrit, “I have been blowing
off a little of indignant steam which would otherwise blow me up . . .
,” he wrote, “but I have no present political faith or hope—not a
grain.” Not only were the present government and Parliament contemptible
but “representative government is become altogether a failure with us, .
. . the whole thing has broken down . . . and has no hope in it.” Nor
had he a coherent alternative to suggest. This desperation coincided
with an acute state of personal unhappiness. The brief tragicomedy of
Maria Beadnell’s reentry into his life, in 1855, finally destroyed one
nostalgic illusion and also betrayed a perilous emotional immaturity and
hunger. He now openly identified himself with some of the sorrows
dramatized in the adult David Copperfield:
Why is it, that as with poor David, a sense comes always crushing on
me, now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed
in life, and one friend and companion I have never made?
This comes from the correspondence with Forster in 1854–55, which
contains the first admissions of his marital unhappiness; by 1856 he is
writing, “I find the skeleton in my domestic closet is becoming a pretty
big one”; by 1857–58, as Forster remarks, an “unsettled feeling” had
become almost habitual with him, “and the satisfactions which home
should have supplied, and which indeed were essential requirements of
his nature, he had failed to find in his home.” From May 1858, Catherine
Dickens lived apart from him. A painful scandal arose, and Dickens did
not act at this time with tact, patience, or consideration. The affair
disrupted some of his friendships and narrowed his social circle, but
surprisingly it seems not to have damaged his popularity with the
Catherine Dickens maintained a dignified silence, and most of
Dickens’ family and friends, including his official biographer, Forster,
were discreetly reticent about the separation. Not until 1939 did one of
his children (Katey), speaking posthumously through conversations
recorded by a friend, offer a candid inside account. It was
discreditable to him, and his self-justifying letters must be viewed
with caution. He there dated the unhappiness of his marriage back to
1838, attributed to his wife various “peculiarities” of temperament
(including her sometimes labouring under “a mental disorder”),
emphatically agreed with her (alleged) statement that “she felt herself
unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife,” and maintained that she
never cared for the children nor they for her. In more temperate
letters, where he acknowledged her “amiable and complying” qualities, he
simply and more acceptably asserted that their temperaments were utterly
incompatible. She was, apparently, pleasant but rather limited; such
faults as she had were rather negative than positive, though family
tradition from a household that knew the Dickenses well speaks of her as
“a whiney woman” and as having little understanding of, or patience
with, the artistic temperament.
Dickens’ self-justifying letters lack candour in omitting to mention
Ellen Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior, his passion for whom had
precipitated the separation. Two months earlier he had written more
frankly to an intimate friend:
The domestic unhappiness remains so strong upon me that I can’t
write, and (waking) can’t rest, one minute. I have never known a
moment’s peace or content, since the last night of The Frozen Deep.
The Frozen Deep was a play in which he and Nelly (as Ellen was
called) had performed together in August 1857. She was an intelligent
girl, of an old theatrical family; reports speak of her as having “a
pretty face and well-developed figure”—or “passably pretty and not much
of an actress.” She left the stage in 1860; after Dickens’ death she
married a clergyman and helped him run a school. The affair was hushed
up until the 1930s, and evidence about it remains scanty, but every
addition confirms that Dickens was deeply attached to her and that their
relationship lasted until his death. It seems likely that she became his
mistress, though probably not until the 1860s; assertions that a child,
or children, resulted remain unproved. Similarly, suggestions that the
anguish experienced by some of the lovers in the later novels may
reflect Dickens’ own feelings remain speculative. It is tempting,
indeed, to associate Nelly with some of their heroines (who are more
spirited and complex, less of the “legless angel,” than most of their
predecessors), especially as her given names, Ellen Lawless, seem to be
echoed by those of heroines in the three final novels—Estella, Bella,
and Helena Landless—but nothing definite is known about how she
responded to Dickens, what she felt for him at the time, or how close
any of these later love stories were to aspects or phases of their
“There is nothing very remarkable in the story,” commented one early
transmitter of it, and this seems just. Many middle-aged men feel an
itch to renew their emotional lives with a pretty young girl, even if,
unlike Dickens, they cannot plead indulgence for “the wayward and
unsettled feeling which is part (I suppose) of the tenure on which one
holds an imaginative life.” But the eventual disclosure of this episode
caused surprise, shock, or piquant satisfaction, being related of a man
whose rebelliousness against his society had seemed to take only
impeccably reformist shapes. A critic in 1851, listing the reasons for
his unique popularity, had cited “above all, his deep reverence for the
household sanctities, his enthusiastic worship of the household gods.”
After these disclosures he was, disconcertingly or intriguingly, a more
complex man; and, partly as a consequence, Dickens the novelist also
began to be seen as more complex, less conventional, than had been
realized. The stimulus was important, though Nelly’s significance,
biographically and critically, has proved far from inexhaustible.
Middle years » Public readings
In the longer term, Kathleen Tillotson’s remark is more suggestive: “his
lifelong love-affair with his reading public, when all is said, is by
far the most interesting love-affair of his life.” This took a new form,
about the time of Dickens’ separation from his wife, in his giving
public readings from his works, and it is significant that, when trying
to justify this enterprise as certain to succeed, he referred to “that
particular relation (personally affectionate and like no other man’s)
which subsists between me and the public.” The remark suggests how much
Dickens valued his public’s affection, not only as a stimulus to his
creativity and a condition for his commercial success but also as a
substitute for the love he could not find at home. He had been toying
with the idea of turning paid reader since 1853, when he began giving
occasional readings in aid of charity. The paid series began in April
1858, the immediate impulse being to find some energetic distraction
from his marital unhappiness. But the readings drew on more permanent
elements in him and his art: his remarkable histrionic talents, his love
of theatricals and of seeing and delighting an audience, and the
eminently performable nature of his fiction. Moreover, he could earn
more by reading than by writing, and more certainly; it was easier to
force himself to repeat a performance than create a book.
His initial repertoire consisted entirely of Christmas books but was
soon amplified by episodes from the novels and magazine Christmas
stories. A performance usually consisted of two items; of the 16
eventually performed, the most popular were “The Trial from Pickwick”
and the Carol. Comedy predominated, though pathos was important in the
repertoire, and horrifics were startlingly introduced in the last
reading he devised, “Sikes and Nancy,” with which he petrified his
audiences and half killed himself. Intermittently, until shortly before
his death, he gave seasons of readings in London and embarked upon
hardworking tours through the provinces and (in 1867–68) the United
States. Altogether he performed about 471 times. He was a magnificent
performer, and important elements in his art—the oral and dramatic
qualities—were demonstrated in these renderings. His insight and skill
revealed nuances in the narration and characterization that few readers
had noticed. Necessarily, such extracts or short stories, suitable for a
two-hour entertainment, excluded some of his larger and deeper
effects—notably, his social criticism and analysis—and his later novels
were underrepresented. Dickens never mentions these inadequacies. He
manifestly enjoyed the experience until, near the end, he was becoming
ill and exhausted. He was writing much less in the 1860s. It is
debatable how far this was because the readings exhausted his energies,
while providing the income, creative satisfaction, and continuous
contact with an audience that he had formerly obtained through the
novels. He gloried in his audiences’ admiration and love. Some friends
thought this too crude a gratification, too easy a triumph, and a sad
declension into a lesser and ephemeral art. In whatever way the episode
is judged, it was characteristic of him—of his relationship with his
public, his business sense, his stamina, his ostentatious display of
supplementary skills, and also of his originality. No important author
(at least, according to reviewers, since Homer) and no English author
since who has had anything like his stature has devoted so much time and
energy to this activity. The only comparable figure is his contemporary,
Mark Twain, who acknowledged Dickens as the pioneer.
Last years » Final novels
Tired and ailing though he was, he remained inventive and adventurous in
his final novels. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was an experiment, relying
less than before on characterization, dialogue, and humour. An exciting
and compact narrative, it lacks too many of his strengths to count among
his major works. Sydney Carton’s self-sacrifice was found deeply moving
by Dickens and by many readers; Dr. Manette now seems a more impressive
achievement in serious characterization. The French Revolution scenes
are vivid, if superficial in historical understanding. Great
Expectations (1860–61) resembles Copperfield in being a first-person
narration and in drawing on parts of Dickens’ personality and
experience. Compact like its predecessor, it lacks the panoramic
inclusiveness of Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, but,
though not his most ambitious, it is his most finely achieved novel. The
hero Pip’s mind is explored with great subtlety, and his development
through a childhood and youth beset with hard tests of character is
traced critically but sympathetically. Various “great expectations” in
the book proved ill founded—a comment as much on the values of the age
as on the characters’ weaknesses and misfortunes. Our Mutual Friend
(1864–65), a large inclusive novel, continues this critique of monetary
and class values. London is now grimmer than ever before, and the
corruption, complacency, and superficiality of “respectable” society are
fiercely attacked. Many new elements are introduced into Dickens’
fictional world, but his handling of the old comic-eccentrics (such as
Boffin, Wegg, and Venus) is sometimes tiresomely mechanical. How the
unfinished Edwin Drood (1870) would have developed is uncertain. Here
again Dickens left panoramic fiction to concentrate on a limited private
action. The central figure was evidently to be John Jasper, whose
eminent respectability as a cathedral organist was in extreme contrast
to his haunting low opium dens and, out of violent sexual jealousy,
murdering his nephew. It would have been his most elaborate treatment of
the themes of crime, evil, and psychological abnormality that had
recurred throughout his novels; a great celebrator of life, he was also
obsessed with death.
How greatly Dickens personally had changed appears in remarks by
friends who met him again, after many years, during the American reading
tour in 1867–68. “I sometimes think . . . ,” wrote one, “I must have
known two individuals bearing the same name, at various periods of my
own life.” But just as the fiction, despite many developments, still
contained many stylistic and narrative features continuous with the
earlier work, so, too, the man remained a “human hurricane,” though he
had aged considerably, his health had deteriorated, and his nerves had
been jangled by travelling ever since his being in a railway accident in
1865. Other Americans noted that, though grizzled, he was “as quick and
elastic in his movements as ever.” His photographs, wrote a journalist
after one of the readings, “give no idea of his genial expression. To us
he appears like a hearty, companionable man, with a deal of fun in him.”
But that very day Dickens was writing, “I am nearly used up,” and
listing the afflictions now “telling heavily upon me.” His pride and the
old-trouper tradition made him conceal his sufferings. And, if sometimes
by an effort of will, his old high spirits were often on display. “The
cheerfullest man of his age,” he was called by his American publisher,
J.T. Fields; Fields’s wife more perceptively noted, “Wonderful, the flow
of spirits C.D. has for a sad man.”
His fame remained undiminished, though critical opinion was
increasingly hostile to him. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, noting the
immense enthusiasm for him during the American tour, remarked: “One can
hardly take in the whole truth about it, and feel the universality of
his fame.” But in many respects he was “a sad man” in these later years.
He never was tranquil or relaxed. Various old friends were now estranged
or dead or for other reasons less available; he was now leading a less
social life and spending more time with young friends of a calibre
inferior to his former circle. His sons were causing much worry and
disappointment; “all his fame goes for nothing,” said a friend, “since
he has not the one thing. He is very unhappy in his children.” His life
was not all dreary, however. He loved his country house, Gad’s Hill, and
he could still “warm the social atmosphere wherever he appeared with
that summer glow which seemed to attend him.” T.A. Trollope (contributor
to Dickens’ All the Year Round and brother of the novelist Anthony
Trollope), who wrote that, despaired of giving people who had not met
him any idea of
the general charm of his manner. . . . His laugh was brimful of
enjoyment. . . . His enthusiasm was boundless. . . . He was a hearty
man, a large-hearted man, . . . a strikingly manly man.
Last years » Farewell readings
His health remained precarious after the punishing American tour and was
further impaired by his addiction to giving the strenuous “Sikes and
Nancy” reading. His farewell reading tour was abandoned when, in April
1869, he collapsed. He began writing another novel and gave a short
farewell season of readings in London, ending with the famous speech,
“From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore . . .”—words
repeated, less than three months later, on his funeral card. He died
suddenly in June 1870 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Assessment » Contemporary opinion
Ralph Waldo Emerson, attending one of Dickens’ readings in Boston,
“laughed as if he must crumble to pieces,” but, discussing Dickens
afterward, he said:
I am afraid he has too much talent for his genius; it is a fearful
locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from it nor set to
rest. . . . He daunts me! I have not the key.
There is no simple key to so prolific and multifarious an artist nor
to the complexities of the man, and interpretation of both is made
harder by his possessing and feeling the need to exercise so many
talents besides his imagination. How his fiction is related to these
talents—practical, journalistic, oratorical, histrionic—remains
controversial. Also the geniality and unequalled comedy of the novels
must be related to the sufferings, errors, and self-pity of their author
and to his concern both for social evils and for the perennial griefs
and limitations of humanity. The novels cover a wide range, social,
moral, emotional, and psychological. Thus, he is much concerned with
very ordinary people but also with abnormality (e.g., eccentricity,
depravity, madness, hallucinations, dream states). He is both the most
imaginative and fantastic and the most topical and documentary of great
novelists. He is unequal, too; a wonderfully inventive and poetic
writer, he can also, even in his mature novels, write with a painfully
Biographers have only since the mid-20th century known enough to
explore the complexity of Dickens’ nature. Critics have always been
challenged by his art, though from the start it contained enough easily
acceptable ingredients, evident skill and gusto, to ensure popularity.
The earlier novels were and by and large have continued to be Dickens’
most popular works: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit,
A Christmas Carol, and David Copperfield. Critics began to demur against
the later novels, deploring the loss of the freer comic spirit, baffled
by the more symbolic mode of his art, and uneasy when the simpler
reformism over isolated issues became a more radical questioning of
social assumptions and institutions. Dickens was never neglected or
forgotten and never lost his popularity, but for 70 years after his
death he received remarkably little serious attention (George Gissing,
G.K. Chesterton, and George Bernard Shaw being notable exceptions). F.R.
Leavis, later to revise his opinion, was speaking for many, in 1948,
when he asserted that “the adult mind doesn’t as a rule find in Dickens
a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness”; Dickens was indeed
a great genius, “but the genius was that of a great entertainer.”
Assessment » Modern criticism
Modern Dickens criticism dates from 1940–41, with the very different
impulses given by George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Humphry House. In
the 1950s, a substantial reassessment and re-editing of the works began,
his finest artistry and greatest depth now being discovered in the later
novels—Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations—and (less
unanimously) in Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend. Scholars have explored
his working methods, his relations with his public, and the ways in
which he was simultaneously an eminently Victorian figure and an author
“not of an age but for all time.” Biographically, little had been added
to Forster’s massive and intelligent Life (1872–74), except the Ellen
Ternan story, until Edgar Johnson’s in 1952. Since then, no radically
new view has emerged, though several works—including those by Joseph
Gold (1972) and Fred Kaplan (1975)—have given particular phases or
aspects fuller attention. The centenary in 1970 demonstrated a critical
consensus about his standing second only to William Shakespeare in
English literature, which would have seemed incredible 40 or even 20
G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Charles Dickens appeared in the 14th
edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (see the Britannica Classic:
Oliver Twist started life as one of Dickens' "Mudfog"
sketches, a series of papers written for the early numbers of
Bentiey's Miscellany.The first two monthly parts, depicting
Oliver's birth and upbringing in the workhouse, formed part of a
series of radical melodramatic attacks on the 1834 New Poor Law.
Oliver Twist is at once a picaresque story, a melodrama, and a
fairy tale romance in which the foundling is revealed to have
noble origins. It is also one of the first novels to feature a
child as the central character; though in contrast with Dickens'
later children Oliver both stays a pre-pubescent and remains
untouched by the traumas he experiences. Oliver's curious
blankness is central to Dickens's multiple purposes. It enables
him to remain the passive victim of institutionalized violence
in the workhouse—even the famous scene where he asks for more
gruel is not an act of self-assertion, but the result of drawing
lots. It allows him to remain free of corruption when he falls
in with Fagin's criminal gang (in contrast with the"Artful
Dodger") so that he can be recast as a middle-class child by his
rescuer Mr. Brownlow. The conspiracy between the wicked master
of the den of underage thieves, Fagin, and Oliver's half-brother
Monks to turn Oliver into a criminal produces the tension
between imprisonment and escape that drives and unites the
novel. Oliver escapes from the workhouse and from Fagin's
underworld den, only to be recaptured until he is finally united
with his aunt Rose Maylie and adopted by Brownlow. The fact that
this dismal pattern is eventually broken is entirely due to the
intervention of the prostitute Nancy, who brings the two worlds
together—but at the price of her violent murder by her lover
Bill Sykes, in one of Dickens's most bloodthirsty scenes.
Dickens had recently returned from a lecture tour to the U.S.,
and Martin Chuzzlewit contains his most caustic response to this
experience. He lampoons various aspects of the American
character, from widespread boastfulness and aggressive
nationalism, to poor manners at the dinner table. His satirical
targets are not limited to America, however. From the
large-scale, public fraud of the Anglo-Bengalee Assurance
Company to the arch-hypocrisy of Mr. Pecksniff, the novel
consistently attacks notions of self and selfishness,
emphasizing the importance of a developing social consciousness.
The complex, coincidence-laden plot develops Dickens's sense of
the way in which human lives interconnect by chance, the
underlying order that can emerge from apparent randomness.
Martin himself is overshadowed by the cast of eccentrics with
whom he is surrounded. Young Martin's travels have elements of
the picaresque, while the decline into villainy of the grasping,
violent Jonas Chuzzlewit anticipates the more fully developed
treatment of crime and detection in Bleak House.The novel also
contains a typical strain of sentimentality, particularly in the
characterization of the trusting, simplehearted Tom Pinch. Much
of the most distinctive writing in Martin Chuzzlewit is
character driven, however, and in Mr. Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp,
Dickens created two of his most memorable grotesques, both
developed with an attention to detail thattranscends simple
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
Dickens comes closest to the eighteenth-century picaresque novel
in Nicholas Nickieby, which follows the fortunes of the hero and
his sister Kate when they are pushed into the world after their
father's disastrous financial speculation. The novel is an
extended exploration of how families work as economic as much as
domestic units, and of how peoples'identities are shaped by the
roles they play. Nicholas and Kate are both forced into
exploitative labor by their wicked uncle Ralph. Kate becomes a
milliner at Madame Mantolini's, where she falls prey to the
sexual advances of the decadent roue Sir Mulberry Hawk. Nicholas
becomes an usher at the truly grotesque and brutal Dotheboys
Hall, the private school in which unwanted children are dumped
by uncaring parents. The depiction of Dotheboys Hall combines
grim comedy, in the figures of proprietors Mr. and Mrs. Squeers,
with pathos, in the form of Smike, the mentally stunted youth
abandoned as a child in the school. After fleeing the school,
Nicholas wanders the country with Smike in search of employment,
including work in Crummles's Theatre, a carnival world in which
even Smike can play a useful part. In a final series of stark
oppositions Nicholas and Kate once again find a home together,
restored to them by the Cheeryble brothers, benevolent figures
that magically reverse the family's misfortune.
A Christmas Carol
Over the course of a single Christmas Eve a miserly misanthrope,
Ebeneezer Scrooge, relives five incidents from his past, visits
scenes from the present Christmas to Twelfth Night, and is
presented with a vision of a future that connects his own death
to that of the child of Bob Cratchit, his long suffering clerk.
Accompanied upon these journeys by a trio of supernatural
guides, Scrooge finally repents and makes amends to those he has
The story is darkly comic and tinged with pathos, making the
customary Dickensian appeal to the transforming power of
sentiment. While Dickens's novels became increasingly
pessimistic about there ever being a society that would honor
its obligations to the poor and the dispossessed, this issue is
neatly sidestepped here. The prevailing fantasy of the story is
that a softening of character rather than a more radical
transformation of socio-economic structures is sufficient to
bring about social harmony. It is perhaps because of, rather
than in spite of, this collective wish fulfilment at the heart
of the narrative that the novel has consolidated its reputation,
not least through numerous film and stage adaptations.
Ultimately, though, it is the masterful storytelling that will
ensure A Christmas Carol's popularity—it would be a stony heart
indeed that did not warm to its charms.
Bleak House begins with fog: "Fog everywhere. Fog up the river,
where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river,
where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the
waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city." And at the
center of the fog, but murkier still, is the High Court. Legal
corruption permeates this novel like a disease, issuing in
particular from the Byzantine lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce,
with which all the book's characters have a connection.This
suit, the narrator tells us, has become so complicated and of
such longevity "that no man alive knows what it means." People
live and die as plaintiffs in the case. Structured around
Chancery's machinations, Dickens' narrative is less picaresque
than other of his works but nevertheless provides his customary,
witty dissection of the layers of Victorian society. Whether in
the sunny aristocratic milieu of the Dedlocks in Lincolnshire or
the slums of Tom-AII-Alone's in London, there is always someone
with a stake in the Jarndyce case.
Really, it is the public sphere in general that Bleak House
satirizes. Everything resembles Chancery: Parliament, the
provincial aristocracy, and even Christian philanthropy is
caricatured as moribund and self-serving. At some subterranean
level, all public life is tainted with complicity between class,
power, money, and law. Private and inner life is affected too.
The narrative, which is spfit between the third person and the
novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, concerns moral disposition as
much as social criticism. Characters—from the wearyingly earnest
to the brilliantly shallow, from the foolish and foppish to the
vampiristic and dangerous—are all illuminated in the darkness of
Dickens' outraged, urbane opus.
A Tale of Two Cities
London and Paris, at the time of the French Revolution and the
subsequent Terror, are the "two cities" of the title. Savage in
its attack on the excesses of a decadent French aristocracy,
this novel is equally severe in its censure of revolutionary
violence and mob hysteria. Yet Dickens seems unconsciously
fascinated by the violence he overtly condemns: the scenes of
revolutionary upheaval are written with a verve never achieved
in his descriptions of domestic happiness.
Structured according to a series of oppositions, the novel is
interested in the relationship between good and evil, "the best
"and" the worst." Much of the attraction of this book lies in
the uncanny effects that its plethora of doubles generates.
Charles Darnay, the novel's somewhat passive hero, renounces his
noble origins, and comes to England where he falls in love with
the equally virtuous Lucie Manette, daughter of a physician, who
has languished in a French prison for eighteen years. A long
period of domestic bliss ensues for all, which comes to an end
when Darnay nobly returns to France to save a servant, but is
himself imprisoned and condemned to death. His salvation comes
from his double and alter ego, Sidney Carton, a self-confessed
dissolute wastrel whose only good quality is a tender,
unrequited passion for Lucie. With an act far superior to
anything he has ever done before, Carton uses his physical
similarity to Darnay to bring the book to a memorableconclusion.
Great Expectations works on numerous levels; as a political
fairy-tale abouf'dirty money,"an exploration of memory and
writing, and a disturbing portrayal of the instability of
Looking back from some undistinguished and unspecified future,
Pip recalls his childhood, living with his fierce sister and her
gentle, blacksmith husband in the Thames marshland, and the
fateful effects of his encounter with the escaped convict
Magwitch by his parents'graveside. When Pip later comes into a
mysterious financial inheritance, he assumes that it can only
come from the mummified Miss Havisham, preserved eternally at
the moment of her own jilting. But Dickens'great stylistic coup
is to make ceiling and floor change places—as in an Escher
Shorter and more quickly composed than Dickens's giant social
panoramas of the 1850s, Great Expectations gains from this
pacing, as it unfolds like a fever-dream. Victorian writers were
fond of "fictional autobiographies," but Dickens' novel has
another layer of unsettling irony, in that it tells of someone
who has been constructing himself as a fictional character. And
as Pip shamefully reviews his past life on paper, it often seems
that the act of writing is the only thing holding his fractured
identities together. Perhaps autobiography should ideally be an
act of recovery, but Great Expectations dramatizes instead the
impossibility of Pip's lending his life coherence, or atoning
for the past.
Often regarded as Dickens' most autobiographical work, David's
account of his childhood ordeal working in his stepfather's
warehouse, and his training as a journalist and parliamentary
reporter certainly echo Charles Dickens' own experience. A
complex exploration of psychological development, David
Copperfield—a favorite of Sigmund Freud— succeeds in combining
elements of fairy tale with the open-ended form of the
bildungsroman. The fatherless child's idyllic infancy is
abruptly shattered by the patriarchal "firmness" of his
stepfather Mr. Murdstone. David's suffering is traced through
early years, his marriage to his "child-wife" Dora, and his
assumption of a mature middle-class identity as he finally
learns to tame his "undisciplined heart."
The narrative evokes the act of recollection whilst
investigating the nature of memory itself. David's development
is set beside other fatherless sons, while the punitive Mr.
Murdstone is counterposed to the carnivalesque Mr. Micawber.
Dickens also probed the anxieties that surround the
relationships between class and gender. This is particularly
evident in the seduction of working-class Emily by Steerforth,
and the designs on the saintly Agnes by Uriah, as well as
David's move from the infantilized sexuality of Dora to the
domesticated rationality of Agnes in his own quest for a family.
Type of work: Novel
Author: Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Type of plot: Sentimental romance
Time of plot: Early nineteenth century
First published: 1849-1850
One of the best-loved novels in the English language, David
Copperfield is a devastating expose of the treatment of children in the
nineteenth century. Admittedly autobiographical, it is a work of art
which can be read and reread, chiefly for its gallery of immortalized
characters. Though the novel has flaws, it enjoys a kind of freshness
and spontaneity stemming from the first-person recounting of events and
the sympathetic treatment of characters.
David Copperfield, the orphaned hero-narrator whose story of Viis early
years and growing maturity comprises one of the best-known works of
fiction in the English language. A posthumous child, extremely sensitive
in retrospect, he first experiences cruelty and tyranny when his young
widowed mother marries stern Mr. Murdstone, and he quickly forms
emotional alliances with the underprivileged and the victimized. His
loyalties are sometimes misplaced, as in the case of Steerforth, his
school friend who seduces Little Em'ly, but his heart remains sound and
generous toward even the erring. As he passes from childhood to
disillusioned adolescence, his perceptions increase, though he often
misses the truth because he misreads the evidence before him. His trust
is all the more remarkable when one considers the recurrence of error
which leads him from false friends to false love and on to near
catastrophe. Finally, unlike his creator, David finds balance and
completion in his literary career, his abiding friendships, and his
happy second marriage.
Clara Copperfield, David's childlike but understanding and beautiful
mother, destined to an early death because of her inability to cope with
life. Strong in her own attachments, she attributes to everyone motives
as good and generous as her own. Misled into a second marriage to an
unloving husband, she is torn between son and husband and dies soon
after giving birth to another child. Mother and child are buried in the
Edward Murdstone, Clara Copperfield's second husband and David's
irascible stepfather, who cruelly mistreats the sensitive young boy.
Self-seeking to an extreme degree, Murdstone has become a synonym for
the mean and low, the calculating and untrustworthy. His cruelty is
touched with sadism, and his egoism borders on the messianic.
Jane Murdstone, Edward Murdstone's sister. Like her brother, she is
harsh and unbending. Her severe nature is symbolized by the somber
colors and metallic beards she wears. Her suspicious mind is shown by
her belief that the maids have a man hidden somewhere in the house.
Oara Peggotty, Mis. Copperfie\d's devoted servant and David's nurse and
friend. Cheerful and plump, she always seems about to burst out of her
clothing, and when she moves buttons pop and fly in all directions.
Discharged after the death of her mistress, she marries Barkis, a
Daniel Peggotty, Clara Peggotty's brother, a Yarmouth fisherman whose
home is a boat beached on the sands. A generous, kind-hearted man, he
has made himself the protector of a niece and a nephew, Little Em'ly and
Ham, and of Mrs. Gummidge, the forlorn widow of his former partner. His
charity consists of thoughtful devotion as much as material support.
Ham Peggotty, Daniel Peggotty's stalwart nephew. He grows up to fall in
love with his cousin, Little Em'ly, but on the eve of their wedding she
elopes with James Steerforth, her seducer. Some years later, during a
great storm, Ham is drowned while trying to rescue Steerforth from a
ship in distress off Yarmouth beach.
Little Em'ly, Daniel Peggotty's niece and adopted daughter, a girl of
great beauty and charm and David's first love. Though engaged to marry
her cousin Ham, she runs away with James Steerforth. After he discards
her, Daniel Peggotty saves her from a life of further shame, and she and
her uncle join a party emigrating to Australia.
Barkis, the carrier between Blunderstone and Yarmouth. A bashful suitor,
he woos Peggotty by having David tell her that "Barkis is willin'!" This
tag line, frequently repeated, reveals the carter's good and simple
Mrs. Gummidge, the widow of Daniel Peggotty's fishing partner. After he
takes her into his home she spends most of her time by the fire,
meanwhile complaining sadly that she is a "lone, lorn creetur."
Miss Betsey Trotwood, David Copperfield's great-aunt, eccentric,
sharp-spoken, but essentially kindhearted. Present on the night of
David's birth, she has already made up her mind as to his sex and his
name, her own. When she learns that the child is a boy, she leaves the
house in great indignation. Eventually she becomes the benefactress of
destitute and desolate David, educates him, and lives to see him happily
married to Agnes Wick-field and established in his literary career.
Richard Babley, called Mr. Dick, a mildly mad and seemingly
irresponsible man befriended by Miss Trot-wood. He has great difficulty
in keeping the subject of King Charles the First out of his conversation
and the memorial he is writing. Miss Trotwood, who refuses to admit that
he is mad, always defers to him as a shrewd judge of character and
Dora Spenlow, the ornamental but helpless "child-wife" whom David loves
protectively, marries, and loses when she dies young. Her helplessness
in dealing with the ordinary situations of life is both amusing and
Agnes Wickfield, the daughter of Miss Trotwood's solicitor and David's
staunch friend for many years. Though David at first admires the father,
his admiration is soon transferred to the sensible, generous daughter.
She nurses Dora Copperfield at the time of her fatal illness, and Dora
on her deathbed advises David to marry Agnes. The delicacy with which
Agnes contains her love for many years makes her an appealing figure.
Eventually she and David are married, to Miss Trotwood's great delight.
Uriah Heep, the hypocritical villain who, beginning as a clerk in Mr.
Wickfield's law office, worms his way into the confidence of his
employer, becomes a partner in the firm, ruins Mr. Wickfield, and
embezzles Miss Trotwood's fortune. His insistence that he is a very
humble person provides the clue to his sly, conniving nature. His
villainy is finally uncovered by Wilkins Micawber, whom he has used as a
pawn, and he is forced to make restitution. After Mr. Wickfield and Miss
Trotwood refuse to charge him with fraud, he continues his sharp
practices in another section of the country until he is arrested for
forgery and imprisoned.
Wilkins Micawber, an impecunious man who is "always waiting for
something to turn up" while spending himself into debtors' prison,
writing grandiloquent letters, indulging in flowery rhetoric, and eking
out a shabbily genteel existence on the brink of disaster. David
Copperfield lodges with the Micawbers for a time in London, and to him
Mr. Micawber confides the sum of his worldly philosophy: "Annual income
twenty pounds; annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen, six—result
happiness. Annual income twenty pounds; annual expenditure twenty pounds
nought six—result misery." He tries a variety of occupations in the
course of the novel and is for a time employed by Uriah Heep, whose
villainy he contemptuously unmasks. Miss Trotwood aids him and his
family to immigrate to Australia, where he becomes a magistrate. A
figure of improvidence, alternating between high spirits and low,
well-meaning but without understanding of the ways of the world, Mr.
Micawber is one of Dickens' great comic creations.
Mrs. Emma Micawber, a woman of genteel birth (as she frequently insists)
and as mercurial in temperament as her husband. She is capable of
fainting over the prospect of financial ruin at three o'clock and of
eating with relish breaded lamb chops and drinking ale, bought with
money from two pawned teaspoons, at four. Loyal in nature, she says in
every crisis that she will never desert Mr. Micawber.
Master Wilkins and Miss Emma, the Micawber children.
James Steerforth, David Copperfield's fellow student at Salem House. The
handsome, spoiled son of a wealthy widow, he hides his true nature
behind pleasing manners and a seemingly engaging disposition. Introduced
by David into the Peggotty household at Yarmouth, he succeeds in
seducing Little Em'ly and persuading her to elope with him on the eve of
her marriage to Ham. Later he tires of her and plans to marry her off to
Littimer, the servant who aids him in his amorous conquests. He is
drowned when his ship breaks up during a storm off Yarmouth.
Mrs. Steerforth, James Steerforth's mother, a proud, austere woman, at
first devoted to her handsome, wayward son but eventually estranged from
Rosa Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth"s companion. Older than Steerforth but
deeply in love with him, she endures humiliation and many indignities
because of her unreasoning passion. Her lip is scarred, the result of a
wound suffered when Steerforth, in a childish fit of anger, threw a
hammer at her.
Littimer, Steerforth"s valet, a complete scoundrel. Tired of Little
Em'ly, Steerforth plans to marry her to his servant, but the girl runs
away in order to escape this degradation.
Miss Mowcher, a pursy dwarf. A hairdresser, she makes herself "useful"
to a number of people in a variety of ways. Steerforth avails himself of
Markham and Grainger, Steerforth's lively, amusing friends.
Francis Spenlow, a partner in the London firm of Spenlow and Jorkins,
proctors, in which David Copperfield becomes an articled clerk. During a
visit at the Spenlow country place David meets Dora, Mr. Spenlow's
lovely but childlike daughter and falls in love with her, but her father
opposes David's suit after Miss Trotwood loses her fortune. Mr. Spenlow
dies suddenly after a fall from his carriage and Dora is taken in charge
by two maiden aunts. Following the discovery that Mr. Spenlow's business
affairs were in great confusion and that he died almost penniless, David
Miss Clarissa and Miss Lavina Spenlow, Mr. Spenlow's sisters, who take
Dora into their home after her father's death.
Mr. Jorkins, Mr. Spenlow's business partner.
Mary Anne Paragon, a servant to David and Dora during their brief
Mr. Tiffey, an elderly, withered-looking clerk employed by Spenlow and
Mr. Wickfield, a solicitor of Canterbury and Miss Trotwood's man of
business, brought to ruin by Uriah Heep's scheming and adroit
mismanagement of the firm's accounts. He is saved from disaster when
Wilkins Micawber exposes Heep's machinations. Mr. Wickfield is a weak,
foolish, but high-principled man victimized by a scoundrel who exploits
Mr. Creakle, the master of Salem House, the wretched school to which Mr.
Murdstone sends David Copper-field. Lacking in scholarly qualities, he
prides himself on his strict discipline. Years later he becomes
interested in a model prison where Uriah Heep and Littimer are among the
Mrs. Creakle, his wife, the victim of her husband's tyranny.
Miss Creakle, their daughter, reported to be in love with Steerforth.
Charles Mell, a junior master at Salem House, discharged when Mr.
Creakle learns that the teacher's mother lives in an almshouse.
Immigrating to Australia, he eventually becomes the head of the Colonial
Salem-House Grammar School.
Mr. Sharp, the senior master at Salem House.
George Demple, one of David Copperfield's schoolmates at Salem House.
Thomas Traddles, another student at Salem House. As an unhappy schoolboy
he consoles himself by drawing skeletons. He studies law, marries the
daughter of a clergyman, and eventually becomes a judge. He, with David
Copperfield, acts for Miss Trotwood after Uriah Heep's villainy has been
Miss Sophy Crewler, the fourth daughter of a clergyman's family, a
pleasant, cheerful girl who marries Thomas Traddles. Her husband always
refers to her as "the dearest girl in the world."
The Reverend Horace Crewler, a poor clergyman and the father of a large
family of daughters.
Mrs. Crewler, his wife, a chronic invalid whose condition mends or grows
worse according to the pleasing or displeasing circumstances of her
Caroline, Sarah, Louisa, Lucy, and Margaret, the other Crewler
daughters. They and their husbands form part of the family circle
surrounding happy, generous Traddles.
Dr. Strong, the master of the school at Canterbury where Miss Trotwood
sends her great-nephew to be educated. After Miss Trotwood loses her
money. Dr. Strong hires David to help in compiling a classical
Mrs. Strong, a woman much younger than her husband.
Mrs. Markleham, the mother of Mrs. Strong. The boys at the Canterbury
school call her the "Old Soldier."
Mr. Quinion, the manager of the warehouse of Murdstone and Grinby, where
David Copperfield is sent to do menial work after his mother's death.
Miserable in these surroundings, David finally resolves to run away and
look for his only relative, Miss Betsey Trotwood. in Dover.
Tipp, a workman in the Murdstone and Grinby warehouse.
Mealy Potatoes and Mick Walker, two rough slum boys who work with David
at the warehouse of Murdstone and Grinby.
Miss Larkins, a dark-eyed, statuesque beauty with whom David Copperfield
falls in love when he is seventeen. She disappoints him by marrying Mr.
Chestle. a grower of hops.
Miss Shepherd, a student at Miss Nettingall's Establishment for Young
Ladies and another of David Copperfield's youthful loves.
Mrs. Crupp, David Copperfield's landlady while he is an articled clerk
in the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. She suffers from "the spazzums" and
takes quantities of peppermint for this strange disorder.
Martha Endell, the unfortunate young woman who helps to restore Little
Em'ly to her uncle.
Janet, Miss Betsey Trotwood's servant.
Jack Maldon, Mrs. Strong's cousin, a libertine for whom her kindhearted
husband finds employment.
David Copperfield was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, six months after
his father's death. Miss Betsey Trotwood, an eccentric grandaunt, was
present on the night of his birth, but she left the house abruptly and
indignantly when she learned that the child was a boy who could never
bear her name. David spent his early years with his pretty young mother,
Clara Copperfield, and a devoted servant named Peggotty. Peggotty was
plain and plump; when she bustled about the house, her buttons popped
off her dress.
The youthful widow was soon courted by Mr. Murdstone, who proved to be
stingy and cruel after marriage. When his mother married a second time,
David was packed off with Peggotty to visit her relatives at Yarmouth.
There her brother had converted an old boat into a seaside cottage,
where he lived with his niece, Little Em'ly, and his sturdy young
nephew, Ham. Little Em'ly and Ham were David's first real playmates, and
his visit to Yarmouth remained a happy memory of his lonely and unhappy
childhood. After Miss Jane Murdstone arrived to take charge of her
brother's household, David and his mother were never to feel free again
from the dark atmosphere of suspicion and gloom the Murdstones brought
One day in a fit of childish terror, David bit his stepfather on the
hand. He was immediately sent off to Salem House, a wretched school near
London. There his life was more miserable than ever under a brutal
headmaster named Creakle; but in spite of the harsh system of the school
and the bullyings of Mr. Creakle, his life was endurable because of his
friendship with two boys whom he was to meet again under much different
circumstances in later life—lovable Tommy Traddles and handsome, lordly
His school days ended suddenly with the death of his mother and her
infant child. When he returned home, he discovered that Mr. Murdstone
had dismissed Peggotty. Barkis, the stage driver, whose courtship had
been meager but earnest, had taken Peggotty away to become Mrs. Barkis,
and David was left friendless in the home of his cruel stepfather.
David was put to work in an export warehouse in which Murdstone had an
interest. As a ten-year-old worker in the dilapidated establishment of
the wine merchants Murdstone and Grinby, David was overworked and
half-starved. He loathed his job and associates such as young Mick
Walker and Mealy Potatoes. The youngster, however, met still another
person with whom he was to associate in later life: Wilkins Micawber, a
pompous ne'er-do-well in whose house David lodged. The impecunious Mr.
Micawber found himself in debtor's prison shortly afterward. On his
release, he decided to move with his brood in Plymouth. Having lost
these good friends, David decided to run away from the environment he
When David decided to leave Murdstone and Grinby, he knew he could not
return to his stepfather. The only other relative he could think of was
his father's aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, who had flounced indignantly
out of the house on the night of David's birth. Hopefully, he set out
for Dover where Miss Betsey lived, but not before he had been robbed of
all his possessions. Consequently, he arrived at Miss Betsey's home
physically and mentally wretched.
At first, David's reception was not cordial. Miss Betsey had never
forgotten the injustice done her when David was born a boy instead of a
girl; however, upon the advice of Mr. Dick, a feebleminded distant
kinsman who was staying with her, she decided to take David in, at least
until he had been washed thoroughly. While she was deliberating further
about what to do with her bedraggled nephew, she wrote to Mr. Murdstone,
who came with his sister to Dover to claim his stepson. Miss Betsey
decided she disliked both Murdstones intensely. Mr. Dick solved her
problem by suggesting that she keep David.
Much to David's joy and satisfaction, Miss Betsey planned to let the boy
continue his education and almost immediately sent him to a school in
Canterbury, run by a Mr. Strong, a headmaster quite different from Mr.
Creakle. During his stay at school, David lodged with Miss Betsey's
lawyer, Mr. Wickfield. David became very fond of Agnes, Wickfield's
daughter. At Wickfield's he also met Uriah Heep, Mr. Wickfield's
cringing clerk, whose hypocritical humility and clammy handclasp filled
David with disgust.
David finished school when he was seventeen years old. Miss Betsey
suggested that he travel for a time before deciding on a profession. On
his way to visit his old nurse Peggotty, David met James Steerforth and
went home with his former schoolmate. There he met Steerforth's mother
and Rosa Dartle, a girl passionately in love with Steerforth. Years
before, the quick-tempered Steerforth had struck Rosa, who carried a
scar as a reminder of Steerforth's brutality.
After a brief visit, David persuaded Steerforth to go with him to see
Peggotty and her family. At Yarmouth, Steerforth met Little Em'ly. In
spite of the fact that she was engaged to Ham, she and Steerforth were
immediately attracted to each other.
At length, David told his grandaunt that he wished to study law.
Accordingly, he was articled to the law firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. At
this time, David saw Agnes Wickfield, who told him she feared Steerforth
and asked David to stay away from him. Agnes also expressed a fear of
Uriah Heep, who was on the point of entering into partnership with her
senile father. Shortly after these revelations by Agnes, David
encountered Uriah himself, who confessed that he wanted to marry Agnes.
David was properly disgusted.
On a visit to the Spenlow home, David met and instantly fell in love
with Dora Spenlow, his employer's pretty but childish daughter. Soon
they became secretly engaged. Before this happy event, however, David
heard some startling news—Steerforth had run away with Little Em'ly.
This elopement was not the only blow to David's happiness. Shortly after
his engagement to Dora, David learned from his grandaunt that she had
lost all her money, and Agnes informed him that Uriah Heep had become
Mr. Wickfield's partner. David tried unsuccessfully to be released from
his contract with Spenlow and Jorkins. Determined to show his grandaunt
he could repay her, even in a small way, for her past sacrifices, he
took a part-time job as secretary to Mr. Strong, his former headmaster.
The job with Mr. Strong, however, paid very little; therefore, David
undertook to study for a position as a reporter of parliamentary
debates. Even poor, simple Mr. Dick came to Miss Betsey's rescue, for
Traddles, now a lawyer, gave him a job as a clerk.
The sudden death of Mr. Spenlow dissolved the partnership of Spenlow and
Jorkins, and David learned to his dismay that his former employer had
died almost penniless. With much study on his part, David became a
reporter. At the age of twenty-one, he married Dora, who, however, never
seemed capable of growing up. During these events, David had kept in
touch with Mr. Micawber, now Uriah Heep's confidential secretary.
Though something had finally turned up for Mr. Micaw-ber, his relations
with David and even with his own family were mysteriously strange, as
though he were hiding something.
David soon learned the nature of the trouble; Mr. Micawber's conscience
got the better of him. At a meeting arranged by him at Mr. Wickfield's,
he revealed in Uriah's presence and to an assembled company including
Agnes, Miss Betsey, David, and Traddles, the criminal perfidy of Uriah
Heep, who for years had robbed and cheated Mr. Wickfield. Miss Betsey
discovered that Uriah was also responsible for her own financial losses.
With the exposure of the villainous Uriah, partial restitution for her
and for Mr. Wickfield was not long in coming.
Mr. Micawber's conscience was cleared by his exposure of Uriah Heep's
villainy, and he proposed to take his family to Australia. There, he was
sure something would again turn up. Mr. Peggotty and Little Em'ly also
went to Australia; Little Em'ly had turned to her uncle in sorrow and
shame after Steerforth had deserted her. David watched as their ship put
out to sea. It seemed to him that the sunset was a bright promise for
them as they sailed away to a new life in the new land. The darkness
fell about him as he watched.
The great cloud now in David's life was his wife's delicate health. Day
after day she failed, and in spite of his tenderest care, he was forced
to see her grow more feeble and wan. Agnes Wickfield, like the true
friend she had always been, was with him on the night of Dora's death.
As in his earlier troubles, he turned to Agnes in the days that followed
and found comfort in her sympathy and understanding.
Upon her advice, he decided to go abroad for a while. First, however, he
went to Yarmouth to put a last letter from Little Em'ly into Ham's
hands. There he witnessed the final act of her betrayal. During a storm,
the heavy seas battered a ship in distress off the coast. Ham went to
his death in a stouthearted attempt to rescue a survivor clinging to a
broken mast. The bodies washed ashore by the rolling waves were those of
loyal Ham and the false Steerforth.
David lived in Europe for three years. On his return, he discovered
again his need for Agnes Wickfield's quiet friendship. One day, Miss
Betsey Trotwood slyly suggested that Agnes might soon be married. Heavy
in heart. David went off to offer her his good wishes. When she burst
into tears, he realized that what he had hoped was true—her heart was
already his. To the great delight of matchmaking Miss Betsey, Agnes and
David were married, and David settled down to begin his career as a
"But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favorite
child. And his name is David Copperfield."
This is Charles Dickens' final, affectionate judgment of the work that
stands exactly in the middle of his nov-elistic career, with seven
novels before and seven after (excluding the unfinished The Mystery of
Edwin Drood). When he began the novel, he was in his mid-thirties,
secure in continuing success that had begun with Sketches by Boz (1836)
and Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). It was a good time to take stock of his
life and to make use of the autobiographical manuscript he had put by
earlier; nor did he try to conceal the personal element from his public,
which eagerly awaited each of the nineteen numbers of David Copperfield.
The novel was issued serially from May, 1849, through November, 1850.
Charles Dickens, writer, is readily identified with David Copperfield,
writer, viewing his life through the "long Cop-perfieldian perspective,"
as Dickens called it.
Although much in the life of the first-person narrator corresponds to
Dickens' own life, details are significantly altered. Unlike David,
Dickens was not a genteel orphan but the eldest son of living and
improvident parents; his own father served as the model for Micawber.
Dickens' childhood stint in a shoeblacking factory seems to have been
somewhat shorter than David's drudgery in the warehouse of the wine
distributors Murdstone and Grinby, but the shame and suffering were
identical. Young Dickens failed in his romance with a pretty young girl,
but the author Dickens permits David to win his Dora. Dickens, however,
inflicts upon Dora as Mrs. Copperfield the faults of his own Kate, who,
unlike Dora, lived on as his wife until their separation in 1858.
However fascinating the autobiographical details, David Copperfield
stands primarily on its merits as a novel endowed with the bustling life
of Dickens' earlier works but controlled by his maturing sense of
design. The novel in its entirety answers affirmatively the question
posed by David himself in the opening sentence: "Whether I shall turn
out to be the hero of my own life."
In addition to the compelling characterization of the protagonist, the
novel abounds with memorable portrayals. The square face and black beard
of Mr. Murdstone, always viewed in conjunction with that "metallic
lady," Miss Murdstone, evoke the horror of dehumanized humanity. Uriah
Heep's writhing body, clammy skin, and peculiarly lidless eyes suggest a
subhuman form that is more terrifying than the revolting nature of his "umble-ness."
Above all the figures that crowd the lonely world of the orphan rises
the bald head of Wilkins Micawber, flourishing the English language and
his quizzing glass with equal impressiveness, confidently prepared in
case some opportunity turns up.
David Copperfield, nevertheless, is very definitely the hero of his own
story. This is a novel of initiation, organized around the two major
cycles of the hero's development—first in childhood, then in early
manhood. He makes his own choices, but each important stage of his moral
progress is marked by the intervention of Aunt Betsey Trot wood.
Initially, David is weak simply because he is a child, the hapless
victim of adult exploitation; but he is also heir to the moral weakness
of his childish mother and his dead father, who was an inept,
impractical man. Portentously, David's birth is the occasion of a
conflict between his mother's Copperfieldian softness and Aunt Betsey's
firmness, displayed in her rigidity of figure and countenance.
From a state of childish freedom, David falls into the Murdstone world.
The clanking chains of Miss Murd-stone's steel purse symbolize the
metaphorical prison that replaces his innocently happy home. Indeed, for
David, the world becomes a prison. After his five days of solitary
confinement at Blunderstone, he enters the jail-like Salem House School.
After his mother's death, he is placed in the grim warehouse, apparently
for life; nor is his involvement with the Micawbers any real escape, for
he is burdened with their problems and retains his place in the family
even after their incarceration in the King's Bench Prison.
Although David repudiates the tyrannical firmness of which he is a
victim, he does not actively rebel except for the one occasion when he
bites Mr. Murdstone. Instead, like his mother, he indulges his weakness;
he submits, fearfully to the Murdstones and Creakle, worshipfully to the
arrogant Steerforth. In addition, he escapes into the illusory freedom
of fantasy—through books and stories and through the lives of others,
which he invests with an enchantment that conceals from him whatever is
potentially tragic or sordid.
David's pliant nature, nevertheless, shares something of the resolute
spirit of Aunt Betsey, despite her disappearance on the night of his
birth. Looking back upon his wretched boyhood, David recalls that he
kept his own counsel and did his work. From having suffered in secret,
he moves to the decision to escape by his own act. The heroic flight is
rewarded when Aunt Betsey relents and takes him in. Appropriately, she
trusses up the small boy in adult clothes and announces her own goal of
making him a "fine fellow, with a will of your own," with a "strength of
character that is not to be influenced, except on good reason, by
anybody, or by anything." The first cycle of testing is complete.
The conventionally happy years in Dover and Canterbury mark an interlude
before the second major cycle of the novel, which commences with David's
reentry into the world as a young man. Significantly, he at first
resumes the docile patterns of childhood. Reunited with Steer-forth, he
once again takes pride in his friend's overbearing attitude. He allows
himself to be bullied by various inferiors. He evades the obligation to
choose his own career by entering into a profession that affects him
like an opiate. In Dora's childlike charms, he recaptures the girlish
image of his mother. At this point, however, the firm Aunt Betsey,
having cut short his childhood trials, deliberately sets into motion his
adult testing with her apparent bankruptcy.
In response to his new challenges. David is forced back upon his
childhood resources. At first, he unconsciously imitates Murdstone in
trying to mold Dora; but he again rejects tyranny, choosing instead
resignation, understanding that she can be no more than his
"child-wife." He responds with full sympathy to the tragedy of Little
Em'ly's affair with Steerforth, but he is finally disenchanted with the
splendid willfulness that had captivated his boyish heart. Most
important, he recovers the saving virtue of his childhood, his ability
to suffer in secrecy, to keep his own counsel, and to do his work. As
his trials pile up—poverty, overwork, disappointment in marriage, his
wife's death, and the tribulations of the friends to whom his tender
heart is wholly committed—he conquers his own undisciplined heart.
The mature man who emerges from his trials profits from his experiences
and heritage. His capacity for secret suffering is, for him as for Aunt
Betsey, a source of strength; but his, unlike hers, is joined to the
tenderheartedness inherited from his parents. Her distrust of mankind
has made her an eccentric. His trusting disposition, though rendering
him vulnerable, binds him to humanity.
While Aunt Betsey sets a goal of maturity before David, Agnes Wickfield
is the symbol of the hard-won self-discipline which he finally achieves.
She is from the beginning his "better angel." Like him, she is
tenderhearted and compliant; yet, though a passive character, she is not
submissive, and she is always in control of herself in even the most
difficult human relationships. Moreover, her firmness of character is
never distorted by fundamental distrust of mankind; thus hers is the
only influence that David should accept, "on good reason," in his
pursuit of the moral goal that Aunt Betsey sets before him.
By the time David has recognized his love for Agnes, he has also
attained a strength of character like hers. The appropriate conclusion
to his quest for maturity is his union with Agnes—who is from the
beginning a model of the self-disciplined person in whom gentleness and
strength are perfectly balanced. Furthermore, the home he builds with
her is the proper journey's end for the orphaned child who has grasped
at many versions of father, mother, family, and home: "Long miles of
road then opened out before my mind, and toiling on, I saw a ragged
way-worn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the
heart now beating against him, his own." He has outgrown the
child-mother, the child-wife, the childhood idols, even the childhood
terrors, and he is a mature man ready to accept love "founded on a
In the context of a successful completed quest, the novel ends with a
glimpse of the complete man, who writes far into the night to erase the
shadows of his past but whose control of the realities is sufficient in
the presence of the woman who is always, symbolically, "near me,
Type of work: Novel
Author: Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Type of plot: Mystery romance
Time of plot: Nineteenth century
First published: 1860-1861
From two events, Miss Havisham's desertion by her fiance on her
wedding day, and the youngster Pip's aid to an escaped prisoner, Dickens
weaves a story of vindictiveness on the one hand and gratitude on the
other. The motives combine to affect the life of young Pip, for Miss
Havisham has marked him as an object of her vindictiveness, while a
prisoner has sworn to reward the boy. The novel, though resolved on a
hopeful note, is primarily gloomy in tone, focusing on the constant
pressures placed on the orphan boy, Pip.
Philip Pirrip, called Pip, an orphan and the unwanted ward of his harsh
sister, Mrs. Joe. Although seemingly destined for the blacksmith shop,
he sees his fortunes improve after he meets a convict hiding in a
graveyard. Afterward, through Miss Havisham, he meets Estella, the
eccentric old woman's lovely young ward. Thinking Miss Havisham is his
benefactor, he goes to London to become a gentleman. Unfortunately for
his peace of mind, he forgets who his true friends are. Finally, after
Mag-witch dies and the Crown confiscates his fortune, Pip understands
that good clothes, well-spoken English, and a generous allowance do not
make one a gentleman.
Miss Havisham, a lonely, embittered old spinster. When her lover jilted
her at the altar, she refused ever to leave her gloomy chambers.
Instead, she has devoted her life to vengeance. With careful
indoctrination she teaches Estella how to break men's hearts. Just
before her death she begs Pip to forgive her cruelty.
Estella, Miss Havisham's ward. Cold, aloof, unfeeling, she tries to warn
Pip not to love her, for she is incapable of loving anyone; Miss
Havisham has taught her too well. But years later Pip meets her in the
garden near the ruins of Satis House, Miss Havisham's former home. She
has lost her cool aloofness and found maturity. Pip realizes that they
will never part again.
Joe Gargery, Pip's brother-in-law. Even though he is married to the
worst of shrews, Mrs. Joe, he manages to retain his gentle simplicity
and his selfless love for Pip. After he marries Biddy, he finds the
domestic bliss which he so richly deserves.
Mrs. Georgiana Maria Gargery, commonly called Mrs. Joe, Pip's
vituperative sister, who berates and misuses him and Joe with impunity.
When she verbally assails Joe's helper, Orlick, she makes a mortal enemy
who causes her death with the blow of a hammer. Later he tries to do the
same for Pip.
Abel Magwitch, alias Mrs. Provis, Pip's benefactor.
When Pip helps him, an escaped convict, Magwitch promises to repay the
debt. Transported to New South Wales, he eventually makes a large
fortune as a sheep farmer. When he returns illegally to England years
later, the escaped felon reveals himself as Pip's real patron. Casting
off his distaste, Pip finds a real affection for the rough old man and
attempts to get him safely out of England before the law apprehends him
once more. Recaptured, Magwitch dies in prison,
Mr. Jaggers, a criminal lawyer employed by Magwitch to provide for Pip's
future. He is a shrewd man with the ability to size up a person at a
glance. To him, personal feelings are unimportant; facts are the only
trustworthy things. Although completely unemotional, he deals with Pip
and Magwitch honestly throughout then-long association.
Herbert Pocket, Miss Havisham's young relative and Pip's roommate in
London. Almost always cheerful and uncomplaining, he is constantly
looking for ways to improve his prospects. With Pip's aid he is able to
establish himself in a profitable business.
John Wemmick, Mr. Jaggers' efficient law clerk. Dry and businesslike in
the office, he keeps his social and business life completely separate.
As a friend, he proves himself completely loyal to Pip.
Biddy, Joe Gargery's wife after the death of Mrs. Joe. A gentle, loving
girl, she is a good wife to him.
Compeyson, a complete villain, the man who jilted Miss Havisham and
betrayed Magwitch. He is killed by Magwitch as the two struggle
desperately just before the ex-convict is recaptured.
The Aged, John Wemmick's deaf old father. In their neat little home, his
chief pleasures are reading the newspaper aloud and listening to his
son's nightly firing of a small cannon.
Dolge Orlick, Joe Gargery's surly helper in the blacksmith shop. After
an altercation with Mrs. Joe, he attacks her with a hammer. Later he
plots to kill Pip, his hated enemy. Only the timely arrival of Herbert
Pocket and Startop prevents the crime.
Molly, Mr. Jaggers' housekeeper, a woman of strange, silent habits, with
extraordinarily strong hands. A murderess, she is also revealed as
Magwitch's former mistress and Estella's mother.
Matthew Pocket, Miss Havisham's distant relative and Pip's tutor during
his early years in London. He is also Herbert Pocket's father.
Mrs. Belinda Pocket, a fluttery, helpless woman, the daughter of a
knight who had expected his daughter to marry a title.
Alick, Joe, Fanny, and Jane, other children of the Pockets.
Sarah Pocket, another relative of Miss Havisham, a withered-appearing,
Uncle Pumblechook, a prosperous corn chandler and Joe Gargery's
relative. During Pip's childhood he constantly discusses the boy's
conduct and offers much platitudinous advice.
Clara Barley, a pretty, winning girl engaged to Herbert Pocket. Magwitch
is hidden in the Barley house while Pip is trying to smuggle the former
convict out of England.
Old Bill Barley, Clara's father. A former purser, he is afflicted by
gout and bedridden.
Mr. Wopsle, a parish clerk who later becomes an actor under the name of
Mr. Waldengarver. Pip and Herbert Pocket go to see his performance as
Bentley Drummle, called The Spider, a sulky, rich boy notable for his
bad manners. He is Pip's rival for Estella's love. After marrying her,
he treats her cruelly. Pip meets him while Drummle is being tutored by
Startop, a lively young man tutored by Mr. Pocket.
Mr. Trabb, a village tailor and undertaker.
Trabb's Boy, a young apprentice whose independence is a source of
irritation to Pip.
Mr. John (Raymond) Camilla, a toady.
Mrs. Camilla, his wife, Mr. Pocket's sister. She and her husband hope to
inherit a share of Miss Havisham's fortune.
Miss Skiffins, a woman of no certain age but the owner of "portable
property," who marries John Wemmick.
Clarriker, a young shipping broker in whose firm, Clarriker & Company,
Pip secretly buys Herbert Pocket a partnership.
Pepper, also called The Avenger, Pip's servant in the days of his great
Little Pip had been left an orphan when he was a small boy, and his
sister, much older than he, had grudgingly reared him in her cottage.
Pip's brother-in-law, Joe Gar-gery, on the other hand, was kind and
loving to the boy. In the marsh country where he lived with his sister
and Joe, Pip wandered alone. One day, he was accosted by a wild-looking
stranger who demanded that Pip secretly bring him some food, a request
which Pip feared to deny. The stranger, an escaped prisoner, asked Pip
to bring him a file to cut the iron chain that bound his leg. When Pip
returned to the man with a pork pie and file, he saw another mysterious
figure in the marsh. After a desperate struggle with the escaped
prisoner, the stranger escaped into the fog. The man Pip had aided was
later apprehended. He promised Pip that he would somehow repay the boy
for helping him.
Mrs. Joe sent Pip to the large mansion of strange Miss Havisham upon
that lady's request. Miss Havisham lived in a gloomy, locked house where
all the clocks had been stopped on the day her bridegroom failed to
appear for the wedding ceremony. She often dressed in her bridal robes;
a wedding breakfast molded on the table in an unused room. Pip went
there every day to visit the old lady and a beautiful young girl, named
Estella, who delighted in tormenting the shy boy. Miss Havisham enjoyed
watching the two children together, and she encouraged Estella in her
haughty teasing of Pip.
Living in the grim atmosphere of Joe's blacksmith shop and the
uneducated poverty of his sister's home, Pip was eager to learn. One
day, a London solicitor named Jaggers presented him with the opportunity
to go to London and become a gentleman. Both Pip and Joe accepted the
proposal. Pip imagined that his kind backer was Miss Havisham herself.
Perhaps she wanted to make a gentleman out of him so that he would be
fit someday to marry Estella.
In London Pip found a small apartment set up for him. Herbert Pocket, a
young relative of Miss Havisham, was his living companion. When Pip
needed money, he was instructed to go to Mr. Jaggers. Although Pip
pleaded with the lawyer to disclose the name of his benefactor, Jaggers
advised the eager young man not to make inquiries; when the proper time
arrived, Pip's benefactor would make himself known.
Soon Pip became one of a small group of London dandies, among them a
disagreeable chap named Bentley Drummle. Joe Gargery came to visit Pip,
much to Pip's disturbance; by now, he had outgrown his rural background,
and he was ashamed of Joe's manners. Herbert Pocket, however, cheerfully
helped Pip to entertain the uncomfortable Joe in their apartment. Simple
Joe loved Pip very much, and after he had gone, Pip felt ashamed of
himself. Joe had brought word that Miss Havisham wanted to see the young
man, and Pip returned with his brother-in-law. Miss Havisham and Estella
noted the changes in Pip, and when Estella had left Pip alone with the
old lady, she told him he must fall in love with the beautiful girl. She
also said it was time for Estella to come to London, and she wished Pip
to meet her adopted daughter when she arrived. This request made Pip
feel more certain he had been sent to London by Miss Havisham to be
groomed to marry Estella.
Estella had not been in London long before she had many suitors. Of all
the men who courted her, she seemed to favor Bentley Drummle. Pip saw
Estella frequently. Although she treated him kindly and with friendship,
he knew she did not return his love.
On his twenty-first birthday, Pip received a caller, the man whom Pip
had helped in the marsh many years before. Ugly and coarse, he told Pip
it was he who had been financing Pip ever since he had come to London.
At first, the boy was horrified to discover he owed so much to this
crude former criminal, Abel Magwitch. He told Pip that he had been sent
to the Colonies where he had grown rich. Now he had wanted Pip to enjoy
all the privileges he had been denied in life, and he had returned to
England to see the boy to whom he had tried to be a second father. He
warned Pip that he was in danger should his presence be discovered, for
it was death for a prisoner to return to England once he had been sent
to a convict colony. Pip detested his plight. Now he realized Miss
Havisham had had nothing to do with his great expectations in life, but
he was too conscious of his debt to consider abandoning the man whose
person he disliked. He determined to do all in his power to please his
benefactor. Magwitch was using the name Provis to hide his identity.
Furthermore, Pro vis told Pip that the man with whom Pip had seen him
struggling long ago in the marsh was his enemy, Compeyson, who had vowed
to destroy him. Herbert Pocket, a distant cousin of Miss Havisham, told
Pip that the lover who had betrayed her on her wedding day was named
Pip went to see Miss Havisham to denounce her for having allowed him to
believe she was helping him. On his arrival, he was informed that
Estella was to marry Bentley Drummle, Since Miss Havisham had suffered
at the hands of one faithless man, she had reared Estella to inflict as
much hurt as possible upon the many men who loved her. Estella reminded
Pip that she had warned him not to fall in love with her, since she had
no compassion for any human being. Pip returned once more to visit Miss
Havisham after Estella had married. An accident started a fire in the
old, dust-filled mansion; although Pip tried to save the old woman, she
died in the blaze that also badly damaged her gloomy house.
From Provis' story of his association with Compeyson and from other
evidence, Pip had learned that Provis was Estella's father; but he did
not reveal his discovery to anyone but Jaggers, whose housekeeper,
evidently, was Estella's mother. Pip had also learned that Compeyson was
in London and plotting to kill Provis. In order to protect the man who
had become a foster father to him, Pip arranged to smuggle Provis across
the channel to France with the help of Herbert Pocket. Pip intended to
join the old man there. Elaborate and secretive as their plans were,
Compeyson managed to overtake them as they were putting Provis on the
boat. The two enemies fought one last battle in the water, and Provis
killed his enemy. He was then taken to jail, where he died before he
could be brought to trial.
When Pip fell ill shortly afterward, it was Joe Gargery who came to
nurse him. Older and wiser from his many experiences, Pip realized that
he no longer needed to be ashamed of the kind man who had given so much
love to him when he was a boy. His sister. Mrs. Joe. had died and Joe
had married again, this time very happily. Pip returned to the
blacksmith's home to stay awhile, still desolate and unhappy because of
his lost Estella. Later, Herbert Pocket and Pip set up business together
Eleven years passed before Pip went to see Joe Gargery again. Curiosity
led Pip to the site of Miss Havisham's former mansion. There he found
Estella. now a widow, wandering over the grounds. During the years, she
had lost her cool aloofness and had softened a great deal. She told Pip
she had thought of him often. Pip was able to foresee that perhaps he
and Estella would never have to part again. The childhood friends walked
hand in hand from the place that had once played such an enormous part
in both of their lives.
G. K. Chesterton once observed that all Charles Dickens' novels could be
titled "Great Expectations," for they are full of an unsubstantial yet
ardent expectation of everything. Nevertheless, as Chesterton pointed
out with irony, the only book to which Dickens gave the actual title was
one in which most of the expectations were never realized. To the
Victorians, the word expectations had the specific meaning of a
potential legacy as well as the more general meaning still attached to
it today. In that closed society, one of the few means by which a person
born of the lower or lower-middle class could rise dramatically to
wealth and high status was through the inheritance of valuables. A major
theme of the Victorian social novel involved the hero's movement through
the class structure, and often the vehicle for that movement was money,
either bestowed before death or inherited. Unlike many nineteenth
century novels that rely upon the stale plot device of a surprise legacy
to enrich the for tunate protagonists, Great Expectations probes deeply
into the ethical and psychological dangers of advancing through the
class system by means of wealth acquired from the toil of others.
Although the story of Pip's expectations dominates the bulk of the
novel, he is not the only person who waits to benefit from another's
money. His beloved Estella, the ward of Miss Havisham, is wholly
dependent upon the caprices of the unstable old woman. Moreover, other
characters are the mysterious instrumentalities of legacies. The
solicitor Jaggers, who acts as the legal agent for both Miss Havisham
and Abel Magwitch, richly benefits from his services. Even his lackey
Mr. Wemmick, a mild soul who changes his personality from lamb to wolf
to please his employer, earns his living from the legal machinery of the
courts. Just as the source of Pip's money is revealed at last to be
socially corrupted, so the uses of tainted wealth inevitably bring about
In Bleak House (1852-1853), Dickens had already explored with great
skill the ruthless precincts of the law courts. His next three
novels—Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and A Tale of Two
Cities (1859)— were not so well sustained and, despite memorable scenes,
were less popular with the critics and the public alike. Great
Expectations (1860-1861, first published serially in All the Year Round)
recovered Dickens' supremacy with his vast reading audience. Serious,
controlled, and nearly as complex structurally as Bleak House, the novel
also reminded Victorian readers of David Copperfield (1849-1850). Both
are apprenticeship novels that treat the life-education of a hero. Great
Expectations is somewhat less autobiographical than David Copperfield,
but it repeats the basic formula of the genre: the story of an honest,
rather ingenuous but surely likable young man who, through a series of
often painful experiences, learns important lessons about life and
himself. These lessons are always designed to reveal the hero's
limitations. As he casts off his weaknesses and better understands the
dangers of the world, he succeeds by advancing through the class system
and ends up less brash, a chastened but wiser man.
Great Expectations differs from David Copperfield in the ways that the
hero matures to self-knowledge. In the beginning, both David and Pip are
young snobs (Pip more than David). Both suffer the traumas of a
shattered childhood and troubled adolescence; but David's childhood
suffering is fully motivated on the basis of his separation from loved
ones. An innocent, he is the victim of evil that he does not cause. Pip,
on the other hand, suffers from a childhood nightmare that forms a
pattern of his later experience. An orphan like David, he lives with his
brutal sister and her husband, the gentle blacksmith Joe Gargery. For
whatever abuse Pip endures from Mrs. Joe, he is more than compensated by
the brotherly affection of this simple, generous man. He also wins the
loving sympathy of Biddy, another loyal friend. Nevertheless, he is not
satisfied, and when he comes upon the convicts in the fog and is
terrified, he feels a sense of guilt— misplaced but psychologically
necessary—as much for his crimes against his protectors as for the theft
of a pork pie. Thereafter, his motives, cloudy as the scene of his
childhood terror, are weighted with secret apprehension and guilt. To
regain his lost innocence, he must purge himself of the causes of this
Pip's life apprenticeship, therefore, involves his fullest understanding
of "crimes" against his loved ones and the ways to redeem himself. The
causes of his guilt are— from lesser to greater—his snobbish pride, his
betrayal of friends and protectors, and finally his participation in the
machinery of corruption.
As a snob, he not only breaks the social mold into which he has been
cast but lords it over the underlings and unfortunates of the class
system. Because of his presumed great expectations, he believes himself
to be superior to the humbler Joe and Biddy. He makes such a pompous
fool of himself that Trabb's boy—that brilliant comic invention, at once
naughty boy and honest philosopher—parodies his absurd airs and
pretensions. His snobbery, however, costs him a dearer price than
humiliation by an urchin. He falls in love with Estella, like himself a
pretender to high social class, only to be rejected in place of a
worthless cad, Bentley Drummle. Finally, his fanciful dreams of social
distinction are shattered forever when he learns the bitter truth about
his benefactor, who is not the highborn Miss Havisham but the escaped
convict Magwitch, the wretched stranger of his terror in the fog.
As Pip comes to understand the rotten foundations for his social
position, he also learns terrible truths about his own weaknesses. Out
of foolish pride, he has betrayed his most loyal friends, Joe and Biddy.
In a sense, he has even betrayed Miss Havisham. He has mistaken her
insanity for mere eccentricity and allowed her to act out her fantasies
of romantic revenge. When he tries to confront her with the reality of
her life, he is too late. She dies in flames. He is almost too late, in
fact, to come to the service of his real benefactor, Magwitch. He is so
disturbed with the realization of the convict's sacrifice that he nearly
flees from the old man, now disguised as "Provis," when he is in danger.
At best, he can return to Magwitch gratitude, not love, and his sense of
guilt grows from his understanding that he cannot ever repay his debt to
a man he secretly loathes.
Pip's final lesson is that, no matter how pure might be his motives, he
has been one of the instruments of social corruption. In a sense, he is
the counterpart to the malcontent Dolge Orlick. Like Orlick, as a youth
he had been an apprentice at the forge; but whereas he was fortunate to
move upward into society, Orlick, consumed by hatred, failed in every
enterprise. In chapter 53, a climactic scene of the novel, Orlick
confronts his enemy and blames Pip for all of his failures. He even
accuses Pip of responsibility for the death of Mrs. Joe. The charge is
paranoiac and false: Orlick is the murderer. In his almost hallucinatory
terror, however, Pip can psychologically accept Orlick's reasoning. As a
child, Pip had hated his sister. If he had not been the active
instrument of her death, he nevertheless profited from it. Similarly,
Pip profited from the hard-earned toil of Magwitch. Indeed, most of the
success he had enjoyed, thanks to the astute protection of Mr. Jaggers,
had come not as his due but for a price, the payment of corrupted money.
Since he had been the ignorant recipient of the fruits of corruption,
his psychological guilt is all the greater.
Nevertheless, Pip, though chastened, is not overwhelmed by guilt. During
the course of his apprenticeship to life, he has learned something about
himself, some valuable truths about his limitations. By the end of the
novel, when his apprenticeship is over and he is a responsible, mature
being, he has cast off petty pride, snobbery, and the vexations of
corrupted wealth. Although he has lost his innocence forever, he can
truly appreciate Herbert Pocket, Joe, and Biddy, who have retained their
integrity. When he turns to Estella, also chastened by her wretched
marriage to the sadistic Drummle, he has at least the hope of beginning
a new life with her, one founded upon an accurate understanding of
himself and the dangers of the world.
Type of work: Novel
Author: Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Type of plot: Sentimental romance
Time of plot: Early nineteenth century
First published: 1838-1839
In spite of a general disorganization and confusion in the
plotting and the relative simplicity of the characterizations, Nicholas
Nickleby remains one of Dickens' finest early triumphs by virtue of its
energy, comedy, and social realism. His portrayal ofWackford Squeers's
mismanaged private school, based upon firsthand research, stimulated
much public discussion and indignation, and eventually led to important
Nicholas Nickleby, the handsome, warm-hearted, enterprising son of a
widow whose husband's death left her and her two children impoverished
as the result of unwise speculations. Through the grudging influence of
his uncle, a shrewd, miserly London businessman, he secures a post as an
assistant master at Dotheboys Hall, a wretched school for boys, at a
salary of five pounds a year. Finding conditions at the school
impossible to tolerate, he thrashes Wackford Squeers, his employer,
quits the place in disgust, and returns to London in the company of
Smike, a half-starved, broken-spirited drudge, and now his loyal friend,
whom he saved from the schoolmaster's brutality. After being cleared of
a false charge of thievery brought by his uncle and the vindictive
Squeers, he sets out again in the hope of bettering his fortune. He
becomes an actor in a traveling troupe but is called back to London on
behalf of his sister Kate, who has become the victim of the unwelcome
attentions of Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht, two
notorious rakes. After disabling one of her pursuers he finds work with
the generous Cheeryble brothers, and his fortunes improve, so that he is
able to provide a home for his mother and sister. He falls in love with
Madeline Bray and rescues her from marriage to an elderly miser. After
the romantic and financial complications of this situation have been
unraveled, Nicholas and Madeline are married.
Kate Nickleby, his refined, pretty sister. After her arrival in London
she first finds work with a dressmaker and later becomes a companion to
Mrs. Julia Witterly, a vulgar, silly middle-class woman; meanwhile her
uncle uses her as a snare to entrap two lustful noblemen. After Nicholas
goes to work for the Cheeryble brothers, her future becomes secure. In
love with Frank Cheeryble, the nephew of her brother's benefactors, she
marries him when she is convinced at last that the young man is truly in
love with her.
Mrs. Nickleby, their mother, an ineffective but wellmeaning woman who is
constantly building castles in Spain for her son and daughter. Because
of her poor judgment, she becomes the dupe of several coarse, mean
Ralph Nickleby, the miserly, treacherous uncle who finds ignominious
work for both Nicholas and Kate and then attempts to use them to further
his greed for wealth. After his schemes have been exposed and the
unfortunate Smike has been revealed as the son whom he supposed dead, he
Smike, Ralph Nickleby's lost son, who had been abandoned by a former
clerk to the harsh care of Wackford Squeers. Flogged and starved until
he resembles a scarecrow, he turns away from Dotheboys Hall to share the
fortunes of Nicholas Nickleby. When Nicholas joins a theatrical troupe,
Smike plays the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. Recaptured by Squeers,
he escapes with the aid of John Browdie, a stout-hearted Yorkshireman,
and finds sanctuary with Nicholas once more. He falls in love with Kate
Nickleby, despairingly because he is dying of tuberculosis. After his
death it is revealed that he was the son of Ralph Nickleby.
Madeline Bray, a beautiful girl whose devotion to her selfish, dissolute
father leads her to accept the proposal of Arthur Gride. Her father
dying suddenly, Nicholas and Kate save her from the clutches of Gride
and his friend, Ralph Nickleby. Later a lost will, concealed by Gride,
is recovered, and Madeline becomes an heiress. She and Nicholas Nickleby
are married after both experience reversals of fortune.
Walter Bray, Madeline's father. For his own selfish purposes, he plans
to marry his daughter to an unwelcome and much older suitor, Arthur
Edwin and Charles Cheeryble, two benevolent brothers who make Nicholas
Nickleby a clerk in their countinghouse, establish his family in a
comfortable cottage, help to thwart the schemes of Ralph Nickleby, and
finally bring about the marriages of Nicholas to Madeline Bray and Kate
Nickleby to their nephew.
Frank Cheeryble, the gentfeman/y nephew of the Cheeryble brothers. He
marries Kate Nickleby after the uncles have set right her mistaken
belief that Frank loves Madeline Bray.
Wackford Squeers, the brutal, predatory proprietor of Dotheboys Hall and
an underling of Ralph Nickleby. Thrashed by Nicholas Nickleby for his
treatment of Smike and his cruelty to the helpless boys entrusted to his
care, he tries to get revenge with Ralph's help. Arrested for stealing
the will which provides for Madeline Bray's inheritance, he is sentenced
to transportation for seven years.
Mrs. Squeers, his wife, a worthy helpmeet for her cruel, rapacious
Fanny Squeers, their daughter, a twenty-three-year-old shrew. She is at
first attracted to Nicholas Nickleby, her father's underpaid assistant,
but later turns against him when he rebuffs her advances and declares
that his only desire is to get away from detested Dotheboys Hall.
Wackford Squeers (Junior), a nasty boy who combines the worst traits of
Newman Noggs, Ralph Nickleby's eccentric, kind-hearted clerk and drudge.
Ruined by Ralph's knavery, he enters the miser's employ in order to
unmask his villainies. He aids Nicholas Nickleby and Smike on several
occasions and is instrumental in securing Madeline Bray's inheritance.
After Ralph's death he is restored to respectability.
Brooker, a felon, at one time Ralph Nickleby's clerk, later his enemy.
He makes Ralph believe that his son is dead as part of a scheme for
extorting money from his former employer. He reveals Smike's true
identity and thus causes Ralph's suicide.
Arthur Gride, Madeline Bray's miserly old suitor, who makes Ralph
Nickleby his accomplice in keeping the girl's inheritance a secret. He
is later killed by robbers.
Lord Frederick Verisopht, a gullible young rake, the ruined dupe of Sir
Mulberry Hawk. Enamored of Kate Nickleby, he tries to seduce her. Later
he quarrels with Sir Mulberry and is killed in a duel by his mentor in
Sir Mulberry Hawk, a man of fashion, a gambler, and a knave, severely
punished by Nicholas Nickleby for his attempt to ruin the young man's
sister. Sir Mulberry quarrels with his foolish dupe, Lord Frederick
Verisopht, and kills him in a duel.
Tom Linkinwater, the Cheerybles' chief clerk, a man as amiable and
cheerful as his employers. He marries Miss La Creevy.
Miss Linkinwater, his sister.
Miss La Creevy, a spinster of fifty springs, a miniature painter, and
the landlady of the Nicklebys when they first come to London. She
marries Tom Linkinwater.
Peg Sliderskew, Arthur Gride's wizened, deaf, ugly old housekeeper. She
steals her master's papers, including the will bequeathing money to
Madeline Bray. Squeers, hired by Ralph Nickleby to secure the document,
is apprehended by Newman Noggs and Frank Cheeryble while in the act of
Mr. Snawley, a smooth-spoken hypocrite who sends his two stepsons to
Dotheboys Hall. Ralph Nickleby's tool, he commits perjury by swearing
that Smike is his son, abducted by Nicholas Nickleby. Later, when his
guilt is revealed, he confesses, implicating Ralph and Squeers as his
Mrs. Snawley, his wife.
Madame Mantalini, the owner of a fashionable dressmaking establishment
in which Kate Nickleby works for a time. She goes bankrupt because of
her husband's extravagance.
Alfred Mantalini, born Muntle, a spendthrift. When cajolery and flattery
fail to get him the money he wants, he resorts to threats of suicide in
order to obtain funds from his wife. Eventually his wasteful, foppish
habits bring her to bankruptcy, and she secures a separation.
Imprisoned, he is befriended by a sympathetic washerwoman who secures
his release. Before long she tires of his idleness and airy manners, and
she puts him to work turning a mangle "like a demd old horse in a
Mr. Kenwigs, a turner in ivory who lives with his family in the same
boarding house with Newman Noggs.
Mrs. Kenwigs, his wife, a woman genteelly born.
Morleena Kenwigs, their older daughter. Her attendance at a dancing
school helps to establish her mother's pretensions to gentility.
Mr. Lillyvick, Mrs. Kenwigs' uncle and a collector of water rates. At a
party he meets Henrietta Petowker, an actress from the Theatre Royal,
follows her to Portsmouth, and marries her. His marriage brings dismay
to his niece and her husband, who had regarded themselves as his heirs.
After his fickle wife deserts him, he makes a will in favor of the
Henrietta Petowker, an actress who marries Mr. Lillyvick and then elopes
with a captain on half-pay.
Matilda Price, a Yorkshire lass and Fanny Squeers's friend, engaged to
John Browdie. The two women quarrel when Matilda flirts with Nicholas
Nickleby, whom Fanny has marked as her own.
John Browdie, a hearty, open-handed young York-shireman who becomes
jealous of Nicholas Nickleby when Matilda Price, his betrothed, flirts
with the young man. Later, realizing that Nicholas was completely
innocent, John lends him money to return to London. He releases Smike
from the custody of Wackford Squeers.
Miss Knag, the forewoman in Madame Mantalini's dressmaking
establishment. She is kind to Kate Nickleby at first but later turns
against her. She takes over the business when Madame Mantalini goes
Celia Bobster, the girl whom Newman Noggs mistakes for Madeline Bray and
at whose house Nicholas Nickleby calls before the error is discovered.
Mr. Bobster, her hot-tempered father.
Mrs. Julia Witterly, a woman of middle-class background and aristocratic
pretense, who hires Kate Nickleby as her companion.
Henry Witterly, her husband. He believes that his wife is "of a very
excitable nature, very delicate, very fragile, a hot-house plant, an
Mr. Bonney, Ralph Nickleby's friend and a promoter of the United
Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company, of
which Ralph is a director.
Mr. Gregsby, a member of Parliament, a pompous politician to whom
Nicholas Nickleby applies for a position as a private secretary.
Nicholas declines the situation after Mr. Gregsby explains fully the
duties and responsibilities he expects a secretary to assume.
Vincent Crummies, the manager of a traveling theatrical company which
Nicholas Nickleby and Smike join for a time; Nicholas adapts plays and
acts in them, and Smike plays the part of the apothecary in Romeo and
Juliet. Nicholas and his employer become close friends.
Mrs. Crummies, his wife.
Ninetta Crummies, their daughter, billed as the "Infant Phenomenon."
Miss Snevellicci, Mr. and Mrs. Snevellicci, her parents, Miss Belvawney,
Mrs. Grudden, Thomas Len-ville, Miss Bravassa, Miss Ledbrook, and The
African Knife Swallower, members of the Crummies theatrical troupe.
Tomkins, Belling, Graymarsh, Cobbey, Bolder, Mobbs, Jennings, and
Brooks, pupils at Dotheboys Hall.
Mr. Curdle, an amateur critic of the drama and the author of a
sixty-four-page pamphlet on the deceased husband of the nurse in Romeo
Ðóêå, a servant of Sir Mulberry Hawk.
Captain Adams and Mr. Westwood, seconds in the duel between Sir Mulberry
Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht.
When Nicholas Nickleby was nineteen years old, his father died a
bankrupt. A short time after their bereavement, Nicholas, his sister
Kate, and their mother went to London. There they hoped to get aid from
the late Mr. Nickleby's brother Ralph; but Ralph Nickleby, a moneylender
and miser, refused to help them except on his own terms. Ralph and his
ways had to be accepted by the other Nicklebys, although they were not
sure where life was taking them with Ralph as their protector.
Ralph Nickleby first secured a position for Nicholas as assistant to
Wackford Squeers, who operated a boys' boarding school in Yorkshire.
When Nicholas arrived at the school, he found it a terrible place where
the boys were starved and mistreated almost beyond human imagination.
Nicholas nevertheless had to put up with the situation, for his uncle
had warned him that any help given to his sister and mother depended
upon his remaining at the school where he had been placed. A crisis
arose, however, when Wackford Squeers unmercifully beat an older boy
named Smike, who was little better than an idiot. Nicholas interfered by
taking the whip from Squeers and beating the schoolmaster in place of
the boy. Immediately afterward, Smike and Nicholas left the school and
headed toward London.
In London, meanwhile, Mrs. Nickleby and Kate had been lodged in an old
weatherbeaten cottage belonging to Ralph Nickleby, who hoped to use Kate
to attract young Lord Verisopht into borrowing money at high rates. He
also found work for Kate in a dressmaking establishment, where there was
a great deal of labor and almost no pay. Kate did not mind the work at
the dressmaker's, but she bitterly resented the leers that she had to
endure when invited to her uncle's home to dine with Lord Verisopht and
Sir Mulberry Hawk. Not long after she had taken the job, the dressmaker
went bankrupt; Kate then found work for herself as companion to a rich
but neurotic woman.
When Nicholas arrived in London, he sought out Newman Noggs, his uncle's
clerk, who had promised aid if it became necessary. Newman Noggs helped
Nicholas to clear himself of false charges brought by Wackford Squeers
and Ralph Nickleby, for the latter had denounced Nicholas as a thief.
With some notion of becoming sailors, Nicholas and Smike decided to go
to Bristol. On the way, they met Vincent Crummies, a theatrical
producer, and they joined his troupe. Both Smike and Nicholas were
successful as actors. In addition, Nicholas adapted plays for the
company to produce. After some weeks, however, Nicholas received a
letter from Newman Noggs warning him that his presence was required in
London. Upon his arrival in London, Nicholas accidentally met Sir
Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht at a tavern, where they were speaking
maliciously of Kate. Nicholas remonstrated with them and caused Sir
Mulberry's horse to bolt. The baronet, thrown from his carriage and
severely injured, vowed to take revenge.
Kate, meanwhile, had been exposed to the continued attentions of Sir
Mulberry and Lord Verisopht, for Mrs. Nickleby, who failed to see them
as villains, courted their favor and invited them into Kate's company.
The future seemed very bleak indeed, until Nicholas, while looking for
work at an employment agency, became acquainted with a kindly man who
offered him a job. The man turned out to be one of the Cheeryble
brothers, great workers of philanthropy. The Cheeryble brothers gave
a job in their countinghouse at a decent salary, rented him a cottage
reasonably, and helped him to furnish it for himself, Kate, and their
mother. Suddenly, the fortunes of the little family seemed much
One day, a beautiful young woman came into the Cheeryble brothers'
office, and Nicholas fell in love with her. Shortly afterward, Kate also
fell in love with Frank Cheeryble, nephew of Nicholas' employers. Only
Smike seemed unhappy; he, too, had fallen in love with Kate. Worse
adventures were in store for him, however, for Wackford Squeers and
Ralph Nickleby conspired to have Smike sent back to Squeers's school.
Smike, recaptured after one escape, ran away a second time, and Nicholas
managed to keep the lad from Squeers's clutches, much to the idiot's
relief. But Smike's new happiness was shortlived. Sick with
tuberculosis, he died a few months later.
By then, Nicholas had discovered that his beloved's name was Madeline
Bray and that her father was a bankrupt ne'er-do-well who lived off the
little income she made by sewing and painting. Unknown to Nicholas,
Ralph Nickleby and a fellow miser, Arthur Gride, were planning to force
Madeline into a marriage with Gride, who was seventy years old.
Fortunately, Madeline's father died just an hour before he was to hand
his daughter over to the old miser. Nicholas arrived on the scene and
took the girl to his home, to be cared for by Kate and his mother.
Meanwhile, Gride's housekeeper, an old crone, left in a fit of jealousy
and stole some of her employer's papers. One of the documents was a will
which, if known, would have made Madeline Bray a rich woman. Ralph
learned of the will and had Squeers steal it from her. When he did,
however, Frank Cheeryble and Newman Noggs caught him and turned him over
to the police. The prisoner then confessed his part in the plot and also
the conspiracy between Ralph and Gride to get Madeline's fortune.
As if Ralph Nickleby's fortunes were all against him, an old employee
appeared and revealed to the Cheeryble brothers that Smike had been
Ralph's son. Having always believed that the child had died in infancy,
Ralph, when given the news, went home and hanged himself.
Nicholas thought that Frank Cheeryble was in love with Madeline; he
asked the Cheeryble brothers to see that she was taken care of
elsewhere. Kate, who also believed that Frank was in love with Madeline,
gave up seeing him. The Cheeryble brothers, in their goodhearted way,
took the situation under observation and soon learned the true state of
affairs. They then proceeded to unravel the lovers' troubles. They
revealed to Nicholas that Frank was in love with Kate, and Frank readily
admitted his love. While one Cheeryble brother did that, the other told
the girls how matters stood. All four were, of course, exceedingly glad
to have their affairs in order, and they were married shortly
Years passed, and both couples prospered. Nicholas had invested his
wife's fortune in the Cheeryble brothers' firm, and he later became a
partner in the house along with Frank Cheeryble. Newman Noggs, the
Nickleby clerk who had helped Nicholas many times, was restored to
respectability; he had been a wealthy gentleman before he had fallen
into Ralph Nickleby's hands. Old Gride, who had tried to marry Madeline
for her money, was murdered by robbers; Lord Verisopht was killed in a
duel, and Sir Mulberry Hawk came to a violent end. Therefore, the
righteous prospered, and the villains received their just desserts.
During the 1830s, the English heard many rumors that certain private
schools in the north of England were badly mismanaged. Charles Dickens
made a trip to investigate the terrible conditions that were said to
exist. The results of his findings appear in the academy run by Wackford
Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby, a school where boys are not taught a thing
but are simply whipped, starved, and cowed in order to keep their
spirits and the proprietor's expenses down. It has been claimed that the
credit can be given to Dickens alone for arousing the wave of
indignation that forced many institutions to close or to change. This
novel, which also contains the Cheeryble brothers, the first of a series
of exceptionally virtuous characters, was the first of Dickens' novels
to have a truly complex plot. As such, it was a fitting antecedent for
such later novels as A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
Although Prime Minister Gladstone and Thomas Arnold, headmaster of
Rugby, objected to Nicholas Nickleby on the grounds that the novel was
insufficiently-edifying, more Victorian readers—including Dickens'
rival, Thackeray—admired it; from its initial sale of fifty thousand
copies, the book was one of Dickens' triumphs. The first of his novels
in which the love story is the main subject, Nicholas Nickleby still
retains many picaresque elements that appeared in The Pickwick Papers
(1836-1837) and Oliver Twist (1837-1838). The characters still tend to
be eccentrics dominated by a single passion (almost in the manner of Ben
Jonson's "humours" characters, although lacking Jonson's theory of the
psychology of humours); the minor characters in particular seem to be
grotesques. Nevertheless, there is a vitality in the farcical elements
of the novel that is delightful, despite the excesses. The influence of
Smollett, in both the comedy and the tendency to realistic detail, is
still strong in this early novel; Dickens' greatest strength in Nicholas
Nickleby lies in the marvelous descriptions of people and places.
Although the influence of the popular melodrama still colors the plot,
Dickens breathes new life into old stock situations.
The reader feels the tremendous force of life, of the changing times, of
youth and growth, on every page. Tales within tales seem to blossom;
countless life stories crowd the chapters. It is a young man's creation,
indignant, farcical, and romantic in turn; and it is filled with vivid
scenes. At this stage of his career, Dickens was still attempting to
provide something for everybody.
Dickens, however, was not wholly successful in working out the
psychology of the novel because of his complicated, melodramatic plot.
As critic Douglas Bush has observed, the characters of Dickens' early
fiction are given over to self-dramatization. Mrs. Nickleby, in
particular, evades the responsibilities of her troubled life by nearly
withdrawing into a blissful vision of the past. As she sees herself, she
is a romantic heroine, although her admirer is a lunatic neighbor who
throws cucumbers over the wall. Like many other characters of the
book—among them Vincent Crummies, Smike, and Nicholas himself—she is
isolated in her own imagination and locked in an often inimical world.
Her eccentricity, like that of most of the minor characters, is an
outward symbol of estrangement from the hostile social mechanisms of
convention, order, and mysterious power. Nicholas succeeds in love and
fortune, not so much by his own resources but through chance—good luck
with the Cheeryble brothers, for example—and through his own amiable
disposition. At this point in his development as a novelist, Dickens was
unable to create—as he eventually would in David Copperfield, Pip, and
other protagonists—a hero who is fully aware of his isolation and
confronts his sense of guilt. The reader must accept Nicholas on the
level of the author's uncomplicated psychology: as a genial, deserving
fellow whose good luck, good friends, and honest nature reward him with
happiness, affection, and prosperity.
THE PICKWICK PAPERS
Type of work: Novel
Author: Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Type of plot: Comic romance
Time of plot: 1827-1828
First published: 1836-1837 (serial), 1838 (book)
These sketches, originally published in serial form, were planned
as prose accompaniments to caricatures by a popular artist. The title
derives from the character of Mr. Pickwick, a naive, generous, lovable
old gentleman who reigns over the activities of the Pickwick Club. Many
of the comic highlights in the work spring from the imperturbable
presence of mind and ready wit of Sam Weller, whose cleverness and humor
are indispensable to the Pickwickians.
Mr. Samuel Pickwick, the stout, amiable founder and perpetual president
of the Pickwick Club. An observer of human nature, a lover of good food
and drink, and a boon companion, he spends his time traveling about the
countryside with his friends, accepting invitations from local squires
and dignitaries, pursuing Mr. Alfred Jingle in an effort to thwart that
rascal's schemes, and promoting his friends' romances. The height of his
development occurs at the Fleet Prison where, because of a breach of
promise suit, he observes human suffering and learns to forgive his
enemies. A rather pompously bustling and fatuous person at first, he
grows in the course of events to be a truly monumental character.
Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, the sportsman of the group. Inept and humane, he
finds himself involved in hunting misadventures, romances, and duels. In
the end he wins Arabella Allen, his true love, over the objections of
her brother, her suitor, and his own father.
Mr. Augustus Snodgrass, the poetic member of the Pickwick Club. Although
he keeps extensive notes, he never writes verses. Eventually he gains
his sweetheart, Emily Wardle, after several visits to Manor Farm.
Mr. Tracy Tupman, a rotund member of the Pickwick Club, so susceptible
that he is constantly falling in and out of love. Longing for romance,
he finds himself thwarted at every turn. His flirtation with Miss Rachel
Wardle, ends dismally when she elopes with Mr. Alfred Jingle.
Mr. Wardle, the owner of Manor Farm, Dingley Dell, the robust, genial,
but sometimes hot-tempered host of the four Pickwickians. A patriarch,
he rescues his sister from Mr. Jingle at the cost of one hundred and
twenty pounds, and he objects at first to his daughter's romance with
Mr. Snodgrass. Finally he gives the young couple his blessing.
Miss Rachel Wardle, a spinster of uncertain age. She flirts coyly with
the susceptible Mr. Tupman but abandons him for the blandishments of Mr.
Jingle, who has designs on her supposed wealth. Mr. Pickwick and Mr.
Wardle pursue the elopers, Mr. Wardle buys off the rascal, and Miss
Wardle returns husbandless to Manor Farm.
Mrs. Wardle, the aged, deaf mother of Mr. Wardle and Miss Rachel.
Emily Wardle, Mr. Wardle's vivacious daughter, in love with Mr.
Snodgrass, whom she eventually marries.
Isabella Wardle, another daughter. She marries Mr. Trundle.
Mr. Trundle, Isabella Wardle's suitor. Though frequently on the scene,
he remains a minor figure in the novel.
Joe, Mr. Wardle's fat, sleepy young servant. He is characterized by his
ability to go to sleep at any time and under almost any circumstances, a
trait which both amuses and irritates his master.
Mrs. Martha Bardell, Mr. Pickwick's landlady. When he consults her as to
the advisability of taking a servant, she mistakes his remarks for a
proposal of marriage and accepts him, much to Mr. Pickwick's dismay. The
misunderstanding leads to the famous breach of promise suit of Bardell
vs. Pickwick. Mr. Pickwick, refusing to pay damages, is sent to the
Fleet Prison. After his refusal to pay, Mrs. Bardell's attorneys, unable
to collect their fee, have her arrested and also sent to the Fleet
Prison. Her plight finally arouses Mr. Pickwick's pity, and he pays the
damages in order to release her and to free himself to aid his friend
Mr. Winkle, who has eloped with Arabella Allen.
Tommy Bardell, Mrs. Bardell's young son.
Serjeant Buzfuz, Mrs. Bardell's counsel at the trial, a bombastic man
noted for his bullying tactics with witnesses.
Mr. Skimpin, the assistant counsel to Serjeant Buzfuz.
Mr. Dodson and Mr. Fogg, Mrs. Bardell's unscrupulous attorneys. Having
taken the suit without fee, they have their client arrested and sent to
prison when Mr. Pickwick refuses to pay damages after the suit has been
decided against him.
Mr. Alfred Jingle, an amiable, impudent strolling player remarkable for
his constant flow of disjointed sentences. He makes several attempts to
marry women for their money, but Mr. Pickwick thwarts his plans in every
case. He ends up in the Fleet Prison, from which he is rescued by Mr.
Pickwick's generosity. He keeps his promise to reform.
Job Trotter, Mr. Jingle's cunning accomplice and servant. He is the only
person whose wits prove sharper than those of Sam Weller.
Jem Huntley, a melancholy actor called Dismal Jemmy, Mr. Jingle's friend
and Job Trotter's brother.
Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick's jaunty, quick-witted, devoted Cockney
servant. He and Mr. Pickwick meet at the inn to which Mr. Wardle has
traced his sister and Mr. Jingle. Mr. Pickwick's decision to hire Sam as
his valet leads to the famous breach of promise suit brought by Mrs.
Bardell. Sam's aphorisms, anecdotes, and exploits make him one of
Dickens' great comic creations, the embodiment of Cockney life and
Tony Weller, Sam Weller's hardy, affable father, a coachman who loves
food, drink, and tobacco, and wants nothing from his shrewish wife
except the opportunity to enjoy them.
Mrs. Susan Weller, formerly Mrs. Clarke, a shrew, a hypocrite, and a
religious fanatic. At her death her husband inherits a small estate she
The Reverend Mr. Stiggins, called the Shepherd, a canting, hypocritical,
alcoholic clergyman, greatly admired by Mrs. Weller, who gives him every
opportunity to sponge off her husband.
Arabella Allen, a lovely girl whom Mr. Winkle first meets at Manor Farm.
Her brother, Benjamin Allen, wants his sister to marry his friend Bob
Sawyer, but Arabella rejects her brother's choice. After she marries Mr.
Winkle in secret, Mr. Pickwick pays his friend's debts, effects a
reconciliation between the young couple and Arabella's brother, and
breaks the news of the marriage to Mr. Winkle's father.
Benjamin Allen, Arabella's coarse, roistering brother, a medical
student. With no regard for his sister's feelings, he stubbornly insists
upon her marriage to Bob Sawyer.
Mr. Winkle (Senior), a practical man of business, much opposed to his
son's romance with Arabella Allen. He changes his mind when, through the
services of Mr. Pickwick, he meets his daughter-in-law. He builds the
couple a new house and makes his son an assistant in the family
Bob Sawyer, Benjamin Allen's friend and Arabella's unwelcome, oafish
suitor. He hangs up his shingle in Bristol and practices medicine there.
Eventually he and Benjamin Allen take service with the East India
Bob Cripps, Bob Sawyer's servant.
Mrs. Mary Ann Raddle, Bob Sawyer's landlady, a shrew.
Mr. Raddle, her husband.
Mrs. Betsey Cluppins, Mrs. Raddle's sister and a friend of Mrs. Bardell.
Mr. Gunter, a friend of Bob Sawyer.
Jack Hopkins, a medical student, Bob Sawyer's friend. He tells Mr.
Pickwick the story of a child who swallowed a necklace of large wooden
beads that rattled and clacked whenever the child moved.
Peter Magnus, a traveler who journeys with Mr. Pickwick from London to
Ipswich. He is on his way to make a proposal of marriage.
Miss Witherfield, his beloved, into whose room Mr. Pickwick, unable to
find his own, accidentally blunders at the inn in Ipswich.
The Hon. Samuel Slumkey, a candidate for Parliament from the borough of
Eatanswill. He is victorious over his opponent, Horatio Fizkin, Esq.
Mr. Slurk, the editor of "The Eatanswill Independent."
Mr. Pott, the editor of "The Eatanswill Gazette."
Mrs. Pott, his wife.
Mrs. Leo Hunter, a lady of literary pretensions, the author of "Ode to
an Expiring Frog," whom Mr. Pickwick meets in Eatanswill.
Mr. Leo Hunter, who lives in his wife's reflected glory.
Count Smorltork, a traveling nobleman whom Mr. Pickwick meets at a
breakfast given by Mrs. Leo Hunter.
Horatio Fizkin, Esq., defeated in the election at Eatanswill.
Mr. Perker, the agent for the Hon. Samuel Slumkey in the Eatanswill
election, later Mr. Pickwick's attorney in the suit of Bardell vs.
Pickwick. After his client has been sentenced to prison, Perker advises
him to pay the damages in order to gain his freedom.
Serjeant Snubbin, Mr. Pickwick's lantern-faced, dull-eyed senior counsel
in the breach of promise suit.
Mr. Justice Starleigh, the judge who presides at the trial of Bardell
Mr. Phunky, the assistant counsel to Serjeant Snub-bin; he is called an
"infant barrister" because he has seen only eight years at the bar.
Thomas Groffin, a chemist, and Richard Upwitch, a grocer, jurors at the
trial of Bardell vs. Pickwick.
Mr. Jackson and Mr. Wicks, clerks in the office of Dodson and Fogg.
Mr. Lowten, clerk to Mr. Perker.
Captain Boldwig, a peppery-tempered landowner on whose grounds the
Pickwickians accidentally trespass while hunting.
Dr. Slammer, the surgeon of the 97th Regiment. At a charity ball in
Rochester he challenges Mr. Jingle to a duel, but because the player is
wearing a borrowed coat Mr. Winkle is the one actually called upon to
meet the hot-tempered surgeon. Mr. Winkle, having been drunk, cannot
remember what his conduct was or whom he might have insulted the night
before. The situation is eventually resolved and Mr. Winkle and the
doctor shake hands and part on friendly terms.
Lieutenant Tappleton, Dr. Slammer's second.
Colonel Bulder, the commanding officer of the military garrison at
Mrs. Bulder, his wife.
Miss Bulder, his daughter.
Mrs. Budger, a widow, Mr. Tupman's partner at the charity ball in
Mr. Dowler, a blustering, cowardly ex-army officer whom Mr. Pickwick
meets at the White Horse Cellar. The Dowlers travel with Mr. Pickwick to
Mrs. Dowler, his wife.
Lord Mutanhed, a man of fashion and Mr. Dowling's friend, whom Mr.
Pickwick meets in Bath.
The Hon. Mr. Crushton, another friend of Mr. Dowler.
Angelo Cyrus Bantam, Esq., a friend of Mr. and Mrs. Dowling and a master
of ceremonies at Bath.
George Nupkins, Esq., the mayor of Ipswich, before whom Mr. Pickwick is
brought on the charge, made by Miss Witherfield, that he is planning to
fight a duel. The mayor has recently entertained Mr. Jingle who, calling
himself Captain Fitz-Marshall, was courting Miss Henrietta Nupkins.
Mrs. Nupkins, the mayor's wife.
Henrietta Nupkins, their daughter, the object of one of Mr. Jingle's
Mary, Mrs. Nupkins' pretty young servant. She eventually marries Sam
Weller and both make their home with Mr. Pickwick in his happy,
unadventurous old age.
Mr. Jinks, the clerk of the mayor's court at Ipswich.
Daniel Grummer, the constable of the mayor's court at Ipswich.
Frank Simmery, Esq., a young stock broker.
Solomon Pell, an attorney who, to his profit, assists in settling the
deceased Mrs. Weller's modest estate.
Miss Tomkins, mistress of Westgate House, a boarding school for young
ladies, at Bury St. Edmunds. Mr. Pickwick, tricked into believing that
Mr. Jingle is planning to elope with one of the pupils, ventures into
the school premises at night and finds himself in an embarrassing
Tom Roker, a turnkey at the Fleet Prison.
Smangle, Mivins, called The Zephyr, Martin, Simpson, and The Chancery
Prisoner, inmates of the Fleet Prison during Mr. Pickwick's detention.
Mrs. Budkin, Susannah Sanders, Mrs. Mudberry, and Mrs. Rogers, Mrs.
Bardell's friends and neighbors.
Anthony Humm, chairman of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand
Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association. Mr. Weller takes his son Sam
to a lively meeting of the association.
Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, was the founder and perpetual president of the
justly famous Pickwick Club. To extend his own researches into the
quaint and curious phenomena of life, he suggested that he and three
other Pickwickians should make journeys to places remote from London and
report on their findings to the stay-at-home members of the club. The
first destination decided upon was Rochester. As Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Tracy
Tupman, Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, and Mr. Augustus Snodgrass went to their
coach, they were waylaid by a rough gang of cab drivers. Fortunately,
the men were rescued by a stranger who was poorly dressed but of a
magnificently friendly nature. The stranger, who introduced himself as
Alfred Jingle, also appeared to be going to Rochester, and the party
mounted the coach together.
After they had arrived at their destination, Mr. Tupman's curiosity was
aroused when Mr. Jingle told him that there was to be a ball at the inn
that evening and that many lovely young ladies would be present. Because
his luggage had gone astray, said Mr. Jingle, he had no evening clothes
and so it would be impossible for him to attend the affair. This was a
regrettable circumstance because he had hoped to introduce Mr. Tupman to
the many young ladies of wealth and fashion who would be present. Eager
to meet these young ladies, Mr. Tupman borrowed Mr. Winkle's suit for
the stranger. At the ball, Mr. Jingle observed a doctor in faithful
attendance upon a middle-aged lady. Attracting her attention, he danced
with her, much to the anger of the doctor. Introducing himself as Dr.
Slammer, the angry gentleman challenged Mr. Jingle to a duel.
The next morning, a servant identified Mr. Winkle from the description
given of the suit the stranger had worn; he then told Mr. Winkle that an
insolent drunken man had insulted Dr. Slammer the previous evening and
that the doctor was awaiting his appearance to fight a duel. Mr. Winkle
had been drunk the night before, and he decided he was being called out
because he had conducted himself in an unseemly manner that he could no
longer remember. With Mr. Snodgrass as his second, Mr. Winkle
tremblingly approached the battlefield. Much to his relief. Dr. Slammer
roared that he was the wrong man. After much misunderstanding, the
situation was satisfactorily explained, and no blood was shed.
During the afternoon, the travelers attended a parade, where they met
Mr. Wardle in a coach with his two daughters and his sister. Miss Rachel
Wardle, a plump old maid. Mr. Tupman was impressed by the elder Miss
Wardle and accepted for his friends Mr. Wardle's invitation to visit his
estate. Manor Farm. The next day, the four Pickwickians departed for the
farm, which was a distance of about ten miles from the inn where they
were staying. They encountered difficulties with their horses and
arrived at Manor Farm in a disheveled state, but they were soon washed
and mended under the kind assistance of Mr. Wardle's daughters. In the
evening, they played a hearty game of whist, and Mr. Tupman squeezed
Miss Wardle's hand under the table.
The next day, Mr. Wardle took his guests rook hunting. Mr. Winkle, who
would not admit he couldn't hunt, was given the gun to try his skill. He
proved his inexperience, though, by accidentally shooting Mr. Tupman in
the arm. Miss Wardle offered her aid to the stricken man. Observing that
their friend was in good hands, the others went off to a neighboring
town to watch the cricket matches. There Mr. Pickwick unexpectedly
encountered Mr. Jingle, and Mr. Wardle invited the fellow to return to
Manor Farm with his party.
Convinced that Miss Wardle had a great deal of money, Mr. Jingle
misrepresented Mr. Tupman's intentions to Miss Wardle and persuaded the
spinster to elope with him. Mr. Wardle and Mr. Pickwick pursued the
couple to London. There, with the help of Mr. Wardle's lawyer, Mr.
Perker, they went from one inn to another in an attempt to find the
elopers. Finally, through a sharp-featured young man cleaning boots in
the yard of the White Hart Inn, they were able to identify Mr. Jingle.
They indignantly confronted him as he was displaying a marriage license.
After a heated argument, Mr. Jingle resigned his matrimonial plans for
the sum of one hundred and twenty pounds. Miss Wardle tearfully went
back to Manor Farm. The Pickwickians returned to London, where Mr.
Pickwick engaged as his servant Sam Weller, the sharp, shrewd young
bootblack of the White Hart Inn.
Mr. Pickwick was destined to meet the villainous Mr. Jingle soon again.
Mrs. Leo Hunter invited the learned man and his friends to a party.
There Mr. Pickwick spied Mr. Jingle, who, upon seeing his former
acquaintance, disappeared into the crowd. Mrs. Hunter told Mr. Pickwick
that Mr. Jingle lived at Bury St. Edmonds. Mr. Pickwick set out in
pursuit in company with his servant, Sam Weller, for the old gentleman
was determined to deter the scoundrel from any fresh deceptions he might
be planning. At the inn where Mr. Jingle was reported to be staying, Mr.
Pickwick learned that the rascal was planning to elope with a rich young
lady who stayed at a boarding school nearby. Mr. Pickwick agreed with
the suggestion that in order to rescue the young lady he should hide in
the garden from which Mr. Jingle was planning to steal her. When Mr.
Pickwick sneaked into the garden, he found nothing of a suspicious
nature; in short, he had been deceived, and the blackguard had escaped.
Mr. Pickwick's housekeeper was Mrs. Bardell, a widow. When he was about
to hire Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick had spoken to her in such a manner that
she had mistaken his words for a proposal of marriage. One day, Mr.
Pickwick was resting in his room when he received a notice from the
legal firm of Dodgson and Fogg that Mrs. Bardell was suing him for
breach of promise. The summons was distressing; but first, Mr. Pickwick
had more important business to occupy his time. After securing the
services of Mr. Perker to defend him, he went to Ipswich upon learning
that Mr. Jingle had been seen in that vicinity. The trip to Ipswich was
successful. The Pickwickians were able to catch Mr. Jingle in his latest
scheme of deception and to expose him before he had carried out his
At the trial for the breach of promise suit brought by Mrs. Bardell,
lawyers Dodgson and Fogg argued so eloquently against Mr. Pickwick that
the jury fined him seven hundred and fifty pounds. When the trial was
over, Mr. Pickwick told Dodgson and Fogg that even if they put him in
prison he would never pay one cent of the damages, since he knew as well
as they that there had been no true grounds for suit.
Shortly afterward, the Pickwickians went to Bath, where fresh adventures
awaited Mr. Pickwick and his friends. On that occasion, Mr. Winkle's
weakness for the fair sex involved them in difficulties. In Bath, the
Pickwickians met two young medical students, Mr. Allen and Mr. Bob
Sawyer. Mr. Allen hoped to marry his sister Arabella to his friend Mr.
Sawyer, but Miss Allen professed extreme dislike for her brother's
choice. When Mr. Winkle learned that Arabella had refused Mr. Sawyer
because another man had won her heart, he felt that he must be the
fortunate man, because she had displayed an interest in him when they
had met earlier at Manor Farm. Mr. Pickwick kindly arranged to have Mr.
Winkle meet Arabella in a garden, where the distraught lover could plead
Mr. Pickwick's plans to further his friend's romance were interrupted,
however, by a subpoena delivered because he had refused to pay money to
Mrs. Bardell. Still stubbornly refusing to pay the damages, Mr. Pickwick
found himself returned to London and lodged in Fleet Street prison. With
the help of Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick arranged his prison quarters as
comfortably as possible and remained deaf to the entreaties of Sam
Weller or Mr. Perker, who thought that he should pay his debt and regain
his freedom. Dodgson and Fogg proved to be of lower caliber than even
Mr. Pickwick had suspected. They had taken Mrs. BardelPs case without
fee, gambling on Mr. Pickwick's payment to cover the costs of the case.
When they saw no payment forthcoming, they had Mrs. Bardell also
arrested and sent to the Fleet Street prison.
While Mr. Pickwick was trying to decide what to do. Mr. Winkle with his
new wife, Arabella, came to the prison and asked Mr. Pickwick to pay his
debts so that he could visit Mr. Allen with the news of Mr. Winkle's
marriage to Arabella. Arabella felt that Mr. Pickwick was the only
person who could arrange a proper reconciliation between her brother and
her new husband. Kindness prevailed; Mr. Pickwick paid the damages to
Mrs. Bar-dell so that he would be free to help his friends in distress.
Winning Mr. Allen's approval of the match was not difficult for Mr.
Pickwick, but when he approached the elder Mr. Winkle, the bridegroom's
father objected to the marriage and threatened to cut off his son
without a cent. To add to Mr. Pickwick's problems, Mr. Wardle came to
London to tell him that his daughter Emily was in love with Mr.
Snodgrass and to ask Mr. Pickwick's advice. Mr. Wardle had brought Emily
to London with him.
The entire party came together in Arabella's apartment. All
misunderstandings happily ended for the two lovers, and a jolly party
followed. The elder Mr. Winkle paid a call on his new daughter-in-law.
Upon seeing what a charming and lovely girl she was, he relented his
decision to disinherit his son, and the family was reconciled. After Mr.
Snodgrass had married Emily Wardle, Mr. Pickwick dissolved the Pickwick
Club and retired to a home in the country with his faithful servant, Sam
Weller. Several times, Mr. Pickwick was called upon to be a godfather to
little Winkles and Snodgrasses; for the most part, however, he led a
quiet life, respected by his neighbors and loved by all of his friends.
Mr. Pickwick, the lovable, generous old gentleman of Charles Dickens'
novel, is one of the best-known characters of fiction. Mr. Pickwick
benignly reigns over all activities of the Pickwick Club; under every
circumstance, he is satisfied that he has helped his fellow creatures by
his well-meaning efforts. The height of this Dickensian comedy, however,
lies in Sam Weller and his father. Sam's imperturbable presence of mind
and his ready wit are indispensable to the Pickwickians. The novel has
importance beyond humorous incidents and characterizations. It is the
first novel of a literary movement to present the life and manners of
lower and middle-class life.
When in 1836 a publisher proposed that Dickens write the text for a
series of pictures by the sporting artist Robert Seymour, Dickens was
experiencing the first thrill of fame as the author of Sketches by Boz.
He was twenty-four years old and had been for some years a court
reporter and free-lance journalist; Sketches by Boz was his first
literary effort of any length. The work that the publisher proposed was
of a similar kind: short, usually humorous descriptions of cosmopolitan
life, sometimes illustrated, and published monthly. Although Dickens
already had the plan of a novel in mind, he was in need of cash and
accepted the offer as a stopgap. He made one stipulation: that he and
not Seymour have the choice of scenes to be treated. He did this because
he himself was no sportsman and as a cockney had little knowledge of the
country beyond what his journalistic travels had shown him. It is
evident that he viewed the enterprise as an expedient from the
digressive character of the first few chapters.
Dickens was able to disguise his ignorance of country life by a canny
selection of scenes and topics. Actual sporting scenes are kept to a
minimum and treated with broad humor and slight detail. On the other
hand, he knew country elections, magistrates, and newspapers well, and
the chapters describing the Eatanswill election and dealing with Mr.
Nupkins, the mayor of Ipswich, and Mr. Pott, the editor of the
Eatanswill Gazette, abound in atmosphere and choice observation. Most
useful of all was his intimate knowledge of stagecoach travel, of life
upon the road, and of the inhabitants and manners of inns great and
small. The device of a journey by coach unifies the first part of the
novel, and a large portion of the action, including several key scenes,
takes place in inns and public houses; for example, Mr. Pickwick meets
Sam Weller at the White Hart Inn, Mrs. Bardell is apprehended at the
Spaniards, Sam is reunited with his father at the Marquis of Granby, and
the Wellers plot Stiggins' discomfiture at the Blue Boar.
A theme that Dickens developed in later works appears in embryo here:
the quicksand quality of litigation. Readers note that every figure
connected with the law is portrayed as venal if not downright criminal,
except Mr. Perker, who is merely depicted as a remarkably cold fish.
Another feature of later works anticipated here is the awkward treatment
of women. The author's attitude toward women is extremely ambiguous. Two
of the women in the novel are unqualifiedly good. Sam's Mary is
described perennially as "the pretty housemaid," and the fact that Sam
loves her appears to complete the list of her virtues in Dickens' view.
As a character, she has neither depth nor ethical range; no more has
Arabella Allen, the dark-eyed girl with the "very nice little pair of
boots." She is distinguished at first by flirtatious archness and later
by a rather servile docility. The daughters of old Wardle first come to
the reader's attention in the act of spiting their spinster aunt and
never redeem this impression. Other female characters are rather poorly
developed. None has, as do some of the male figures such as Jingle and
Trotter, a human dimension.
The author's sentiments about the institution of marriage are also
curious. Mr. Winkle makes a runaway match, Mr. Snodgrass is only
forestalled from doing so by a lack of parental opposition, and Mr.
Tupman escapes after a ludicrously close call. Mr. Pickwick, the great
advocate of heart over head, however, is not and never has been married,
and in fact, he shows his greatest strength as a character in his
struggle for justice in a breach-of-prom-ise suit; while Mr. Weller, the
other beneficent father-figure of the work, makes no bones about his
aversion to the connubial state: " 'vether it's worth while goin'
through so much, to learn so little. . . is a matter o' taste. I rayther
think it isn't.' "
Angus Wilson, among others, contends that Pickwick Papers, like most
first novels, is autobiographical, however well disguised. There is
evidence for this position in the fact that Dickens' estimation of the
women in his life also tended to extremes of adulation and contempt.
More pertinent to the main thrust of the novel, which is the development
of Pickwick from buffoon to "angel in tights," and the concurrent
development of Sam, is the author's relationship to his father, whom he
adored. The elder Dickens' imprisonment for debt in 1824 was the great
trauma of the author's childhood; it was made the more galling by the
fact that he, the eldest son, was put out to work at a blacking factory
and was able to join the family circle in the prison only on Sundays.
Scarcely more than a child, he felt unable either to aid or to comfort
his father in his distress; at the same time, he felt that his father
had abandoned him to an ungentle world. As a young man, Dickens wrote
into his first novel an account of those times as he would have wished
them to be. Mr. Pickwick is the epitome of those qualities of Dickens
senior that so endeared him to his son: unsink-able good spirits and
kindness that does not count the cost. To these, Pickwick adds financial
sense, ethical size, and most important, a sensitivity to the best
feelings of his spiritual son, Sam Weller. Sam, in turn, bends all of
his cockney keenness of eye and wit, all of his courage and
steadfastness, to the service not only of this ideal father unjustly
imprisoned but also of his immensely endearing shadow-father Tony
Weller. Clearly, this material has its roots in Dickens' life; but it is
just as clear that his genius tapped a universal longing of sons to see
their fathers as heroes and themselves as heroic helpers.