Charles Dickens: the Victorian Celebrity

Charles Dickens_wl (1)Charles Dickens (February 7,1812- June 9,1870) was a writer who could not have anticipated in childhood the celebrity status he would receive as an adult. When he was 12 years old, his father was imprisoned, and Dickens had to work at a boot-blacking factory in London.

In retrospect this was the instance when he felt betrayed and cast away, and this is an emotion that runs through almost all his novels.

But when Dickens was 15, his education was stalled. He dropped out of school and worked as an office boy to contribute to his family’s income. This job became the inception of his writing career.

Within a year, he was working as a freelance reporter at the courts of London. After a few years, he was reporting for two major newspapers in London. In 1833, he began to submit sketches to various magazines and newspapers under the pseudonym “Boz.”

Dickens was a writer who created a moral center in all his works. He constantly denounced the hypocrisy of the London society, and his works make it clear that he had very high moral expectations from the nature of man, and he was repeatedly disappointed by the inhumanity of humanity. It was his moral purpose that led the London Times to call Dickens “the greatest instructor of the Nineteenth Century” in his obituary. His works are not ordinary and yet they are not supernatural. He had the indescribable knack for combining contrast- the brutal with the innocent, the bleak with the fantastic. His characters are various portraits- romantic, eccentric, pedantic, dramatic. He novels were read and loved widely, and he was treated like a celebrity wherever he went. His fans would follow him around even when he went to deliver lectures in the United States. His first novel Pickwick Papers is an exuberantly comical narrative, but as he encountered more of the world, his works started to reflect the darkness he witnessed and the disillusionment that followed. This element became so conspicuous that it soon began to disconcert his readers and critics.

He portrays the plight of abandoned, neglected, and abused children in virtually all of his novels, but most powerfully Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop. He explores the cost of substance abuse in works like David Copperfield, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, he brings out issues of social class, snobbery, and prejudice, the fountainheads of social injustice and cruelty.

After Dickens’ death, his literary reputation was clouded by the rising readership of Russian writers, but what is ironic is that even Russian writers like Dostoevsky were heavily influenced by Dickens. Soon, opinion about the art of Charles Dickens became bifurcated, and this division stands till date. On one hand, Edgar Johnson referred to Dickens as someone “far more than a great entertainer”, someone who “looks into the abyss…one of the great poets of the novel, a genius of his art.” On the other hand, novelist George Meredith felt that Dickens was “the incarnation of cockneydom, a caricaturist who aped the moralist; he should have kept to short stories. If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in them.”

All said and done, the genius of Dickens has stood the test of time. Despite radical changes in the novel form he continues to be a formative pillar of English literature. His novels appear stilted and difficult to read, yet the more we read, the more we absorb and at the same time, discover.

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