Charles Dickens Biography


From 1837 to 1838, Dickens continued his literary success with Oliver Twist, a story of an orphan boy's experiences with the criminal world of London. He followed that with Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), which exposed the abusive nature of Yorkshire boarding schools and narrated the humorous adventures of a traveling theater company. Victorian audiences made his next book, The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), phenomenally popular — the morality tale of Little Nell roaming the countryside with her mad grandfather as they try to evade the malicious Daniel Quilp enthralled readers and sold over 100,000 copies a week.

However, the Victorian audience did not take to Dickens' next two books, Barnaby Rudge (1841) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). Dickens' first historical novel, Barnaby Rudge dealt with the Gordon Riots that occurred in England in 1780, and its poorly structured story resulted in a steady drop in sales. In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens returned to Victorian England as a setting and used the materialism of the Chuzzlewit family to highlight a theme of selfishness. Martin Chuzzlewit received mixed reviews and sales that improved slightly throughout the course of its publication.

Technically superior to Dickens' earlier works, with a more cohesive plot and characters, Dombey and Son (1846-48) signals the beginning of Dickens' more mature works. The novel explores the theme of pride through the story of the Dombeys, a family of wealthy merchants. Dickens followed Dombey and Son with David Copperfield (1849-50), an autobiographical novel that examines Copperfield's early hardship and later rise to prominence through a first-person narrative.

Continuing to build upon his skills, Dickens was not afraid to experiment in his novels. In Bleak House (1852-53), his satire of the chancery courts and examination of Victorian society, Dickens uses both a third-person narrative and a first-person narrator to connect the societal perspective with a personal one. In his shortest book, Hard Times (1854), Dickens highlights industrial and education issues through a moral fable. Meanwhile, scholars consider Dickens' eleventh novel, Little Dorrit (1855-57), to be one of his most difficult novels. It presents a view of society as a series of prisons, focusing especially on the oppressive natures of class privilege and religion.

Remarkably, even as Dickens became a master of his craft and enjoyed critical and popular success, he never stopped trying new approaches to telling a story. His second historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), recounts the events of the French Revolution. In it, he experimented with developing the characters through the action of the plot rather than through dialogue and detailed description.

His next book, Great Expectations (1860-61), focuses on the theme of corruption and follows the first-person narrative of Pip, a young man trying to become a gentleman. Unlike David Copperfield, Great Expectations examines the coming-of-age process with irony and social insight. Dickens' last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), deals with the corrupting power of money and the superficiality of society through a third-person narrative. His final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), was left unfinished. Critics continue to debate whether the story was intended to be a study in the psychology of its characters or a murder mystery thriller.

Dickens' novels are his outstanding achievement, but he also wrote nonfiction articles, two travel books, Christmas stories, and a history of England for children. Additionally, as he steadily wrote novels, Dickens continued his journalistic career, working as an editor at the periodicals Bentley's Miscellany and Master Humphrey's Clock.

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