Studium anglistiky na KAA UPOL

(8) Portrayal of Social Panorama and the Method of Critical Realism in the Works of C. Dickens.

T h e  V i c t o r i a n  P e r i o d  (1830 - 1901)

[See "Background for Topics 6-11..."]


C h a r l e s  D i c k e n s  ( 1 8 1 2 – 7 0 )

L i f e :

- son of a clerk; the family suffered financial insecurity, moved from place to place, and ended up in London

- his father imprisoned for debt, the family went to live with him x but: C. remained outside and worked in a shoe-blacking factory

= a traumatic experience, an intense feeling of injury and abandonment

- a sense of himself as ‘a child of singular abilities’ suffering unjustly <=> his Oliver Twist (1837 – 38), David Copperfield (1849), and Pip in Great Expectations (1860 – 61)

- became a clerk, a freelance nwsp reporter, and author of fiction under the pseudonym Boz

- (a) refused by his 1st love, a sense of having lost his ideal love > (a) his women characters as unreachable ideals

- (b) married the daughter of a fellow journalist, Catherine Hogarth (1816 – 79), had 10 children, frustrated by the household chaos > (b) his women characters as inadequate keepers of domestic order

- separated from his wife

- underwent a series of lucrative professional readings, resulted in his exhaustion and sudden death

W o r k :

- author of baggy plots filled with incident and a multitude of characters

- an acute observer of gesture and habit, London streets and interiors, spontaneity and misery

- an acute ear for speech and its aberrations, a constant inventor of metaphorical language


- employs a reductive technique of characterisation (used by E[dward] M[organ] Forster as an example to illust. the ‘flat’ character x as opposed to the ‘round’ one)

- builds a character from a repeated set of gestures, phrases, and metaphors

x but: the repeated tics identifying his characters repres. their emotional fixations and social distortions: whenever Mrs Micawber enters the story in David Copperfield, she repeats: ‘I will never desert Mr Micawber.’

- observes in great detail the outward character traits x does not speculate about the workings of the characters’ minds and consciences

x but: perhaps the finest delineator of mental aberration, creator of a varied line of murderers, self-tormentors, and Gothic villains

- realises and exploits the relationship btw character and environment


= the wittiest, the most persuasive, and the most influential voice

(a) appeals for action and earnestness

(b) remains faithful to Christianity as a moral basis for thought, action, and writing

(c) => favourite with a broad spectrum of Victorian readers

x but: a political edge and awareness of sth being wrong with the society

(a) early period:

= a comedy of humours

- conc. = social abuses: the workhouses in Oliver Twist, the abusive schools in Nicholas Nickleby (1838 – 39), etc.

(b) mature period:

= a grotesque

- his grotesque distortions reflect failures of humanity

- his increasingly dark social vision accompanied by an urgent social criticism: Hard Times (1854) subtitled For These Times and dedicated to T. Carlyle = in the tradition of C.’s social indictment Signs of the Times (1829)

- his vision reinforced by the systemically organised metaphors: Bleak House (1852 – 53), on the failing the legal system x but: symptomatic of a larger social ill symbolised by the fog in the opening

- recurrent subjects of prisons = a particular social abuse, and a metaphor for the psychological captivity: A Visit to Newgate [= London’s criminal prison], Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers (1836 – 37), and Little Dorrit (1855 – 57)

- fiction = a tool to stir the human heart and evoke humanitarian feelings

x but: his sentimental endings inconsistent with his social analysis, his characters never change the world outside, and end with an assertion of the virtues of home and heart

=> his novels together reflect the nature of the Victorian urban society with its conflicts and disharmonies, and the values to shape its perceptions, incl. its sentimentality

J o u r n a l i s m :

- founder & ed. of the weekly magazine Household Words (1850 – 59, [< the title from the line in W. Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599): ‘Familiar in his mouth and household words’]), publ. works on political and social issues, incl. his own work, E. Gaskell, & oth.

> due to a dispute btw D. and the publishers later replaced by All the Year Round (1859 – 83)

- his novels publ. as monthly / weekly serialisations => intimate relationship with his readers

> (a) early period: readily responded to what the public wanted

> (b) later period: restless about the burgeoning nature of his career

Sketches by Boz (1836):

= an anecdotal and descriptive coll.

> successful => offered to publ. a book in serial instalments accompanied by illustr.

F i c t i o n :

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836 – 37):

= generally known as Pickwick Papers

= a picaresque novel

- conc.: the adventures of Mr P. and his friends travelling around En.

- successful => next instalments

Oliver Twist: or The Parish Boy’s Progress (1837 – 38):

- the opening criticises the effects of the workhouse system

- contrasts the insecurities of criminal life x the comforts of bourgeois respectability

=> contrasts different scenes, moods, and narrative styles

Nicholas Nickleby (1838 – 39):

- criticises the exploitation of unwanted children in a bleak Yorkshire school

=> criticises the do-nothing and snobbish aristocracy, the inefficiency of Parliament, and the aggression of market capitalism

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840 – 41):

- follows Little Nell to her rural death-bed => moves the reader with her mortality

Barnaby Rudge (1841):

= a historical novel, set in London of the Gordon Riots (1780, [< named for Lord George Gordon, founder of the Protestant Association = initiated a series of predominantly Protestant religious uprisings against the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1778) = ensured certain benevolence to Rom. Cath.]

A Christmas Carol (1843), The Chimes (1844), & oth.:

= from his series of Christmas books

Martin Chuzzlewit (1843 – 44):

- criticises selfishness, self-centredness, criminality, and exploitation

- M. finds Am. as much corrupted as his native En.

Dombey and Son (1846 – 48):

- thematically consistent and almost symphonic in its use of motifs, repeated phrases, and images

David Copperfield (1849):

< semi-autobiog.

- conc.: the 1st person narrator’s slow ‘disciplining’ of the heart

Bleak House (1852 – 53):

= a satire on the workings of the Court of Chancery

- solves private mysteries, lawsuits, and crimes x but: does not tackle the underlying problems of dirt, disease, and urban decay

- a complex and demanding double narrative: one narrator employs the present tense, the oth. the past tense = together give a sense of an unfolding mystery

Hard Times (1854):

= a satire on the effects of the Industrial Rev. in northern En.

Little Dorrit (1855 – 57):

= his most sombre novel

- set in a London debtors’ prison x but: gives a broader Eur. frame of reference

A Tale of Two Cities (1859):

= a revolutionary novel

< T. Carlyle

- set in London / Paris, in the prisons Newgate / the Bastille, and in 1770s / 1780s

=> the overturn of old oppressions and the introd. of new ones

Also a passionate amateur actor and a professional role-player on public platforms => fascinated with double lives and masks:

Great Expectations (1860 – 61):

- the 1st person narrator and protagonist = Pip, gets manipulated and left empty

Our Mutual Friend (1864 – 65):

- the protagonist = obliged to adopt the persona of a dead man

- incl. some of D.’s most fluently inventive dialogue and some of his finest black comedy

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870):

- the protagonist = probably a murderer with one respectable life as a cathedral choirman x another as a London-based opium addict

- left unfinished


Abrams, Meyer Howard, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Barnard, Robert. Stručné dějiny anglické literatury. Praha: Brána, 1997.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Other Sources

Jelínková, Ema. Semináře: Britská literatura 1. ZS 2004/05.


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