Charles Dickens is the greatest representative of English critical realism, a classic of world literature. His name stands first in the list of authors belonging to the 'brilliant school'. Charles Dickens, the great outstanding novelist of the period, was one of the protesting liberals. Himself a member of a bourgeois family, unexpectedly ruined, he knew first-hand the sufferings and hardship of that group.
He was born in Landport, Portsmouth. His father was a clerk in the navy Pay Office. When the boy was ten years old, the family settled in a mean quarter in London. Things went from bad to worse until Dickens' father was imprisoned for debt. The little boy, weak and sensitive, was now sent to work in a blacking factory for six shillings a week. He lived in miserable lodgings and led a half-starving existence. His poverty, however, brought him into contract with the homes of very poor and he saw with his own eyes all the horrors and cruelty in a large capitalist city. He later described this period of his childhood.
When his father's affairs took a turn for the better, Dickens was sent to school where 'the boys trained white mice much better than the master trained the boys'.
In fact, his education consisted in extensive reading of miscellaneous books. After his schooldays, he entered the employment of an attorney and in his spare time studied shorthand writing.
At the end of 19, Dickens became a parliamentary reporter. This work led naturally to journalism and journalism to novel-writing. (At the beginning of the forties Dickens made a journey to the USA after which his faith in the ideas of bourgeois democracy was considerably shaken. The result of the journey came in two works — 'American Notes' and the novel 'Martin Chuzzlewit').
His first novel 'The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club' appeared in 1836. This work at once lifted Dickens into the foremost rank as a popular writer of fiction. He followed up this triumph with a quick succession of outstanding novels in which he masterly depicted the life of contemporary society.
'The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club' recounted the droll adventures of the four intimate friends, the representatives of the middle class. Dickens stressed the comedy side of life, people were convulsed with laughter at the droll characters, the comical dialogues and the ludicrous incidents.
Besides its humor the novel was a success as it depicted everyday life and everyday people. On the whole the novel is a humorous and optimistic epopee of the contemporary life though the author touched some social problems: English court and justice, the episode of election and others.
Charles Dickens is famous as one of the world's best humorists, but among his humorous books there is only one that can be called essentially humorous, and that is his earliest novel 'The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club'. Dickens proceeded through novel after novel to create over a thousand characters, no two of whom are alike, all interesting and individual, even if often exaggerated and caricatured.
Dickens' characters — humorous, comic or brutal live in the memory as living types.
As elsewhere the Pickwickians are shown in the novel as men who are utterly unpractical and unable to perform the simplest things, without being assisted or guided. To render the description more humorous Dickens makes his characters behave in the most serious and even solemn manner. This contradicting manner of presentation is one of the most characteristic features of Dickens' style in 'The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club'.
Problems of childhood and education in his novels
His novel 'Oliver Twist' published in 1837-9 deals with social problems and is one of the best works of Dickens.
The novel tells the story of a little boy born in a workhouse and left an orphan. Brought up under cruel conditions, the hero runs away from the workhouse to London. The boy kind and honest by nature falls into the hands of a gang of thieves and lives through dreadful hardship. The adventures of the hero boy were used by Dickens to describe the lower depths of London. He makes his readers aware of the inhumanity of city life under the conditions of capitalism.
In the preface to the 3d edition Dickens proclaimed himself a realist, and in fact he does appear as such in 'Oliver Twist'. As Dickens believes in the inevitable triumph of good over evil, it is only natural, therefore, that Oliver Twist overcomes all difficulties and eventually eludes all dangers. The novel ends in a happy issue which has become a characteristic feature of the greater part of Dickens' works.
With 'Oliver Twist' still in hand Dickens began to work on his next novel 'Nicholas Nickleby' which describes the awful conditions under which the children of the poor were brought up and exposes the cruelty of the bourgeoisie. 'Nicholas Nickleby' appeared in 1838-39. The book deals with another burning question of the day – that of the education of children in English private schools. Nicholas Nickleby becomes a teacher of a typical English boarding school for children of parents of modest means. The half-starved boarders are mercilessly exploited by the master of the schools and his wife who use children for domestic employment. There is no question of real education at the 'school' and its pupils are destined to become moral and physical wrecks. Its master, Mr. Squeers, is a total ignorance. He is beastly cruel to the children and his only aim in life is to squeeze as much profit as possible out of his establishment.
Immediately after the publication of the novel Dickens was bombarded with letters protesting the veracity of his statements. But the fact being proved to be true, a school reform was carried out in England.
In 1841 Dickens visited the USA to lecture on his work. Dickens spent in the USA several months visiting different parts of the country. It is with great indignation that he describes the conditions under which the Negroes live in America. The prison system of the USA, the yellow press and a number of other aspects of American life were described by him in a critical manner. The writer's impression of the USA was summed up in his 'American Notes'. He was disappointed in the much-vaunted American democracy: 'This is not the republic I came to see, this is not the republic of my imagination. Freedom of opinions, where is it? I see a press more mean..., and silly and disgraceful than in any country I ever knew'.
'Martin Chuzzlewit' is one of Dickens' satirical representations of the bourgeois society of his days. It was written in 1834-44. The significance of the novel lies in its criticism of both the British and American bourgeoisie. As a novel of social satire it is one of Dickens' masterpieces. In 'Martin Chuzzlewit' Dickens brings to
light the corruption influence of the American bourgeois press on the minds of the public. The Chuzzlewits represent a typical English bourgeois family with great variety of characters. Jones Chuzzlewit – Martin's uncle – is one of the most impressive and at the same time repulsive characters in the novel. Brutal and unscrupulous, he stops at nothing to acquire wealth. His lust of money leads him to criminal actions. He is a typical representative of the bourgeois society of that time. The first word he had learnt was 'profit', the second one – 'money'. His father taught him to deceive everyone and the son finally began to deceive his own father and at last he decided to poison him.
The old Martin Chuzzlewit (the grandfather of the hero) came to the conclusion that money spoiled people. Brother against brother, son against father – that is the picture of the bourgeois society. The plot of the novel is built around the character of young Martin Chuzzlewit. In search of fortune he goes to America. To describe his experiences there, Dickens used his own impression gathered during his trip over the USA. Dickens brought to light the bourgeois reality. At the beginning of this novel the hero is a typical bourgeois but under the influence of his friend he became another person – Dickens saw the way out in moral self-perfection.
In 1847 Dickens began to publish one of his most popular novels 'Dombey and Son'. The central figure of the novel is Mr. Dombey, a prosperous businessman. Naughty and selfish, he bends down only before the power of gold and looks upon the natural relations between men from a business point of view only. He and his assistant Carker are typical representatives of the capitalist society. At the end of the novel Carker ruins Dombey but perishes himself. Dombey, now penniless, steps out on the path of reformation. As it always is the case with Dickens, in contrast to the negative characters he introduces positive characters which embody his humanist ideals. Thus we see the striking figure of Mrs. Dombey who breaks off with the world of business, Florence Dombey who is all gentleness and high-mindedness, and others.
In 1850 he wrote 'David Copperfield' which is to a great extent, an autobiographical novel. In the character of David Copperfield Dickens disclosed many features of his own life. The hero of the novel is a virtuous young man who lives through hardships and injustices but finally attains well-being. Clinging to the idea that a hard-working and honest man can achieve his little individual happiness in capitalist society Dickens tinges the novel with optimism.
In 1852-53 Dickens writes 'Bleak House'. The novel is a bitter criticism of England's court of justice and aristocracy. In 1854 Dickens published 'Hard Times' – a novel of social criticism directed against the English bourgeoisie and its reactionary ideology. The novel describes an imaginary town Cocktown, an industrial city resembling similar industrial centers of Middle England. It was a town of red brick, a town of machinery and tall chimneys. It had vast piles of
buildings full of windows where there was a rattling and trembling all day long. It contained several large and small people all very like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours to do the same work and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow. The population of the town is sharply divided into two classes, the bourgeoisie and the working class.
'Little Dorrit' (1855-57) – is the story of a little girl whose parents are thrown into a debtors' prison. The complicated plot of the novel serves as a background against which the author lays bare the reactionary essence of the English state system.
Dickens' next novel 'A Tale of Two Cities' (1859) is devoted to the events of the French revolution (1789-94).
Dickens' genius has created novels and tales which have won a standing in the treasury of the world literature. Dickens naively believed in the moral self-perfection of the wicked classes and did not accept the necessity of struggle of the masses against their oppressors. But in spite of these drawbacks Dickens remains a great humanist and castigator of the vices of the capitalist world. The greatest English realist of the time Charles Dickens with a striking force and truthfulness created pictures of bourgeois civilization of his time. In his works he utters his protest against workhouses, debtors' prisons, bad schools, the exploitation of children, the rich class. In spite of his sympathy for the poor there are few portrayals of proletarians in his novels, and there are no typical characters of the working class. Dickens never allied himself with the latter even when he worked at a factory for a living. He remains from beginning to end a humane, sentimentally kind petty bourgeois intellectual. His pathos and laughter are means of touching the hearts, especially of the hard capitalists, of whom he had created numerous types in his works. He wants to teach and reform these exploiters rather than stir up revolution among the suffering and exploited. Clinging to the idea that a hard-working and honest man can achieve his little individual happiness in capitalist society Dickens tinges the novel with optimism.