In his preface to Oliver Twist, Dickens emphatically expressed resentment at the practice in popular literature of depicting rogues, like Macheath in The Beggar's Opera, as dashing figures, leading lively and colorful lives. He considers such misrepresentations as a potentially harmful influence on impressionable minds. Dickens firmly maintains that the nature and behavior of his seemingly extreme characters reflect truth without distortion, however implausible they may seem.
Dickens is frequently charged with offering a view of the world that exaggerates reality. A novelist, however, communicates his interpretation of life through the medium of fiction. His accomplishment grows out of a blend of experience and imagination. In judging the writer's success, we have to grant his purposes and goal. Dickens was fascinated by extreme behavior and attitudes. He had a peculiar talent for exaggeration. For him, real life was the springboard for fancy. Thus the world of story he created is a mirror in which the truths of the real world are reflected.
Oliver Twist is a good illustration of Dickens's belief that the novel should do more than merely entertain. It should, he believed, be directed toward social reform. This does not mean Dickens was a propagandist who held forth idealistic goals as cures for the ills of the world. Although he bitterly attacks the defects of existing institutions — government, the law, education, penal systems — and mercilessly exposes the injustice and wretchedness inflicted by them, he does not suggest the overthrow of the established order. Nor will you find any easy answers or pat solutions.
Dickens's attitudes and themes reflect a general approval of the English state and society. He could not have had such enormous popularity if he had not in a large measure voiced sentiments and values that motivated the readers of his times. Dickens looked upon almost all institutions with suspicion, including religious movements. In Hard Times, trade unionism is shown to be loaded with the potential for mischief, in the manner of all oppressive forces when those in power fall prey to corruption and abuse. Dickens had little confidence in systems as agencies of good but placed his faith in people.
To bring about improvements, he depended upon the release of the goodness that he felt to be inherent in all human nature. Dickens kept a strong belief that people, if they were not stifled, would behave with fairness. As a result, he firmly hated all individuals, institutions, and systems that he regarded as standing in the way of natural human goodness. He does not believe this endowment of human goodness is indestructible. In Oliver Twist, he acknowledges that the trait of goodness in humanity can be irretrievably lost if it is subjected to ungoverned corrupting influences.
For this reason, Dickens lays great stress on environment in the development of character and regulation of conduct. Although he had little faith in the operation of politics, he rested his hopes for progress on education. But schooling must be well conceived and administered. In many of his books, Dickens demonstrates with the full strength of his satiric lash how education, in the hands of the wrong authority figures, can become as bad if not worse than ignorance. It is noteworthy that whenever Oliver Twist's fortunes begin to rise, his benefactors immediately take an interest in his education.
Dickens is often accused of being weak or lacking in character portrayal. But in this regard, as in other feats of dramatic exposition, Dickens's distinctive gifts as a storyteller yielded the most remarkable creations. Dickens was more concerned with the outer behavior of people than he was with the exploration of psychological depths. For the most part, his characters are considered "flat" because they don't reveal varied facets of personality or develop as the narrative unfolds. Instead, they remain unchanged through the course of events and interaction with other characters. Since they are not gradually built up into complex human beings, characters may sometimes suddenly act contrary to expectations.
Some of Dickens's more eccentric characters may seem overdrawn, but they usually discharge a serious function in his fiction. They are not to be looked upon as representative types of actual humanity. Second-rank characters regularly are given some identity tag or trait when they are first introduced, often by being labeled with some idiosyncrasy. They are readily remembered thereafter by the recurring peculiarity of speech or behavior, even when they have little to do with the mainstream of action. Thus, Dickens's secondary characters are usually the most memorable. His unsavory figures also tend to stand out more than the models of rectitude and propriety. This is because it is more difficult for a writer to dramatize or signify by a phrase or gesture. As a result, Dickens's protagonists are frequently pallid, unconvincing figures who lack the vitality and individuality that distinguish the villains and secondary characters.
Dickens loved the operatic and demonstrative narrative intensity that has been called melodrama. His characters reflect this. The principals fall into two groups whose natures are predominantly white (virtuous or proper) or black (villainous and mean-spirited bordering on violent) . The serious characters between whom the essential conflict takes place therefore embody the extremes of virtue and viciousness.
The novels of Dickens are marked — many would insist marred — by an erratic looseness of construction that may confuse readers who are more used to unified works. In the case of Dickens, it may be difficult to discover what the center of a work is — what it is precisely about — which should be expressible in a succinct statement. The plot is woven out of an involved central intrigue that can be hard to unravel because of the distractions of subordinate and irrelevant incidents.
The resort to melodrama, particularly in the rendition of great crucial scenes, can defeat the writer's designs. When the effort to portray tragic intensity lapses into melodrama and sentimentality, the effect upon the reader is reduced. Pathos must be utilized with care, otherwise readers may resent having their feelings exploited.
In his humor , Dickens's exuberance also carried him beyond the bounds of moderation, but he seldom lost sight of his intentions. He liberally indulged in humorous riffs solely to ornament the story and amuse his audience. He also made use of humor for satiric effect by exaggerating weakness or vice to reduce it to maximum absurdity. When particularly aroused by an offense against humanity, Dickens may introduce the exaggeration of caustic irony — saying the opposite of what he really meant, but trusting the reader to "get" the true intent — that resolves into open sarcasm.
But whatever faults Dickens may have, they are the faults of genius. Many of the technical flaws in his works were imposed by historical circumstances. He was not only a confirmed moralist but a supreme storyteller. He fully recognized that in order for the world to receive his message, his books had to be read. That meant that he had subtly to attract his readers by taking into account their tastes and desires.
When Dickens began writing, the novel had not yet reached the state of development and acceptance it was later to reach. People who read novels expected to be entertained. Fiction was looked upon as light reading and at the time was not always considered respectable. Shrewd novelist that he was, Dickens provided his readers with lively diversion while soothing their consciences with moral flavoring.
The novel as a literary form was still developing ,so Dickens followed the eighteenth-century tradition that favored long, rambling tales, freely embellished with uplifting attributes. In addition, the form of Dickens's books was partially dictated by the needs of serial publication. Serialization prescribed an episodic structure rather than a tightly contrived plot conveyed by a dexterously linked story. Each installment needed to be in some degree an independent entity with its own center of interest, while at the same time leading up to a height of suspense in anticipation of the next issue.
For Dickens, this episodic format meant that he was often writing the installments of a particular novel to keep up with the publication schedule of a magazine, sometimes barely keeping ahead of the typesetters. He had no opportunity for revising and polishing his efforts after a novel was finished, and a work might never be planned as a whole. The author sometimes knew no better than his readers what was to happen next. On November 3, 1837, writing about Oliver Twist, Dickens observed to his friend and biographer, John Forster: "I hope to do great things with Nancy. If I can only work out the idea I have formed of her, and of the female who is to contrast with her. . . ." In September 1838, when the novel was almost completed, he confided to Forster that he had not yet "disposed of the Jew Fagin, who is such an out and outer that I don't know what to make of him." In that same work, the author had intended to have Rose Maylie die, but he later rejected the opportunity for a pathetic scene and allowed her to recover.
Whatever imperfections Dickens's writing may contain, his extraordinary popularity can leave no doubt that he was the reigning literary figure of his day. His works represented the blending of his genius with a tradition he inherited from the times in which he lived. In spite of his occasional grouchiness, Dickens supported the best of which Victorian England was capable. And each succeeding generation has affirmed the original judgment by paying homage to the generosity of his spirit and the immensity of his creative achievement.