‘I have all Dickens’ books…it takes a long time to read them all—more than two years…’
~ E. Waugh, ‘The Man Who Loved Dickens’
A poor boy struggling to rise above poverty-stricken adversity. A grumpy old man that needs to find redemption through understanding the meaning of Christmas spirit. A chronicle of drama and war during the eighteenth century French-English conflicts…
Few writers ever cover so many themes, characters, and ideas in their lifetime. Yet during the first half of the nineteenth century, British writer Charles Dickens seemed to cover them all effortlessly. In fact, it’s hard to overestimate just how great Dickens’ influence was on literature, language, and later, films, animation, and television.
From the Depths
Dickens came from a difficult background. His father served time in a debtors’ prison and Dickens had to work in a shoe polish factory to help support his family. As a result, many of his novels, including Little Dorrit and Oliver Twist, deal with poverty, especially concerning children in impoverished conditions. Not only did this serve for good dramatic settings, it also brought attention to poverty and the plight of the working class in Victorian England to the public at large.
More is More
If you’ve ever tried to read Bleak House or The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, you know you’ll be reading for a while. They are big books with sentences that can take up most of the page! Dickens’ books were often long epics that spanned an entire character’s lifetime. Many have attributed this to Dickens’ work as a journalist during a time where serialising narratives in magazines was common. While some people are put off by so much reading, many appreciate his attention to detail and diction, including writers like Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov, who often incorporated these writing traits into their own work.
A Taste for the Grotesque
In Great Expectations, the elderly matriarch Miss Havisham, dressed in her wedding dress, yells commands like, ‘Feel the dark side!’. In The Old Curiosity Shop, the dwarf Daniel Quilp is ill-tempered and villainous. With these and many others, many readers noticed how much Dickens enjoyed creating grotesque characters to counter his interest in realistic themes. Funny and poignant, they often make his books that much more interesting, leaving real, memorable imprints in the reader’s mind.
A penny-pinching, rude old entrepreneur named Ebenezer Scrooge needs to renew his outlook on human-life and values. The solution? Send a couple of ghosts to his house, including the horrific spirit of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, bound in purgatory with chains and lock boxes.
Who would have thought that a warm, Christmas classic like A Christmas Carol is actually more of a horror or supernatural tale? Along with his taste for the grotesque, Dickens also managed to incorporate gothic and terror-inducing themes into his work that continues to influence writers today.
A World All of His Own
With so many unique characters and settings for his narratives, many scholars have ascribed terms like the ‘Dickensian novel’, ‘a Dickens-eque London’, ‘paragraphs that are Dickens in length’. In the end, this is all a testament to Dickens’ legacy and his influence. Writers as diverse as John Irving, Roald Dahl, and Ray Bradbury all pointed to Dickens’ great ability to create a universe all of his own, and how it’s inspired them to do the same in their work—along with all the subsequent film/TV adaptations—like The World According to Garp, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Martian Chronicles. Thus it’s completely understandable why horror writer Stephen King called Dickens, ‘the Shakespeare of the novel’.
You might have your own ambitions to write great fictional works like Dickens, or just improve your basic writing skills. If so, check out The Language Gallery’s General Writing or Communication and Critical Thinking courses. You can improve your grammar and sentence construction skills, while exploring your creative ideas as well.