In This Article Charles Dickens

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Essay Collections and Journals
  • Reception
  • Publishing and Print Culture
  • Illustrations
  • Journalism
  • Historical Approaches
  • Social Reform and Politics
  • Religion
  • Empire, Race, and Globalism
  • Transatlantic Approaches
  • Genre and Realism
  • Collaboration
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Domesticity and the Family
  • Studies of Childhood
  • Psychological and Psychoanalytic Approaches
  • Foucauldian Approaches and New Historicism
  • Post-Structuralist Approaches
  • Studies of Narrative
  • Style, Creativity, and Craft
  • Theater and Performance
  • Film and Adaptation
  • Afterlives and Legacies

British and Irish Literature Charles Dickens
by
Melisa Klimaszewski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0106

Introduction

Charles Dickens (b. 1812–d. 1870) lived for fifty-eight years, and his writings have impacted readers for nearly two centuries. Dickens’s novels have helped to shape the way many readers imagine Christmas, London, childhood, English society, the family, and the modern industrial city. Dickens did not just write (and read) novels; he also wrote journalism, edited journals, staged amateur theatricals, wrote letters, collaborated with others, gave speeches and public readings, and traveled fairly extensively. With a work ethic that most would find extraordinary, and seemingly inexhaustible stores of energy, the sheer amount of Dickens’s textual output is stunning. The long walks he took, in addition to the time he spent writing, not only indicate that he was vitally strong but also keep our sense of Dickens connected to a physical world. The spaces of his life—the streets of London and Paris, the countryside of Kent, the fells of the Lake District—are as much a part of his writing as his caricatures of quirky personalities. Fascination with Dickens as a figure, as a man, and as a symbol fuels scholarship as much as consideration of his characters and distinctive writing style. Over two hundred years have passed since Dickens’s birth, yet widespread popular and academic interest in his writing persists. First editions of Dickens’s novels occupy shelf space in libraries from South Africa to Montreal. Fiction writers feel, and resist, the influence of Dickens’s fiction from the Caribbean to Australia. One of the most useful websites dedicated to Dickens is based in Japan, and several American hip-hop artists refer to Dickens in their music. Welcome or not, Dickens symbolizes various things, ideas, and sentiments around the globe, and the flexibility of his canon to continue to resonate in such a multitude of contexts is part of what motivates continued inquiry. To begin to study Dickens can feel paralyzing, especially for a beginning scholar. Dickens’s writings, however, remain welcoming to new and returning readers, and they continue to act as the best starting point. Companions and collections of essays are a good next step because they often spark ideas or include assessments that clarify a particular area of concentration. One hopes that, from there, the organic development of an idea will lead to the approaches and sections in this article most fruitful for future exploration.

General Overviews

Given the expansiveness of Dickens studies and the multiplicity of theoretical approaches, there are many ways to seek a general overview of the field. The following selections provide discussion of a large number of Dickens’s works or introduce readers to important central discussions. A foundational work, Butt and Tillotson 1957 examines Dickens’s novels in the context of his writing for periodicals, illustrating that his journalistic connection to the events of his time persisted in the novels and establishing Dickens’s stature as a literary craftsman for future scholars. A classic book, Miller 1958 shaped Dickens criticism for decades as direct influence or as a work against which new studies positioned themselves. Miller’s work was a critical departure from the other approaches, including House 1941 (cited under Historical Approaches). Rather than seeing Dickens’s (or any) literature as the symptom of an already formed psychology, Miller focuses on the novels in an attempt to locate a core that yokes together Dickens’s imaginative world and argues that the novels enable self-creation. Passionately opposed to biographical readings (such as Wilson 1941, cited under Psychological and Psychoanalytic Approaches), Leavis and Leavis 1970 makes a spirited case for reading Dickens as an artist and for valuing his novels as worthy representatives of the best of English literature. Alienating any critic with whom the authors disagree, the study pays attention to historical context while contending that Dickens’s genius is not attributable to any theories about the psychological effects of events in Dickens’s life. Bowen 2000 focuses on the critically neglected early novels, asserting that their nuances merit appreciation as experimentation and eschewing a single theoretical approach that would oversimplify their complexities. Dividing Dickens’s professional life into five overlapping periods, Pykett 2002 traces his influence on the English novel as well as the trends in academic criticism of Dickens. The excellent collection Furneaux and Ledger 2011 introduces readers to Dickens’s life and works in the context of the 19th century, providing a solid base for further study of various aspects of his oeuvre. Consideration of Dickens’s legacy and post-19th-century contexts completes the collection’s thorough overview. For a survey of the history of literary criticism pertaining to Dickens, Mazzeno 2008 is indispensable. Presenting a thorough yet concise explanation of the development of various critical and theoretical responses to Dickens and his writings, Mazzeno positions key works (primarily book-length studies) in relation to each other and to the shifting trends in the field.

  • Bowen, John. Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Examines the six novels and some shorter writings published between 1836 and 1844, asserting that Dickens’s experimentation reveals these texts to be no less worthy of critical valuation than his later works. Accessible yet sophisticated; essential reading for any serious student or scholar.

  • Butt, John Everett, and Kathleen Tillotson. Dickens at Work. London: Methuen, 1957.

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    Influential study of Dickens’s development as a novelist that explores his craft in the context of periodical publishing. Shows Dickens’s writing process at various moments in his career and attentively examines his work methods in the monthly as well as the highly taxing weekly serial formats.

  • Furneaux, Holly, and Sally Ledger, eds. Charles Dickens in Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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    This comprehensive collection of brief, sharply focused essays offers important grounding for study of the range of Dickens’s work and the central issues of his lifetime. Additionally, the volume helpfully discusses Dickens’s legacy and afterlives.

  • Leavis, F. R., and Q. D. Leavis. Dickens the Novelist. London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.

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    Studying six novels in depth (with Dombey identified as the first “great” one), argues for a view of Dickens as an intentional genius who controlled his highly effective craft. Ungenerous in its disagreements with other critics and scholars, marks a noteworthy moment in the history of literary criticism as well as in Dickens studies.

  • Mazzeno, Laurence W. The Dickens Industry: Critical Perspectives, 1836–2005. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008.

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    Indispensable overview of critical responses to Dickens spanning 170 years. Thorough yet manageable in length, gives new scholars a solid sense of the history of the field while also serving as a reference for advanced scholars wishing to review the critical context for key works.

  • Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

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    A classic study that reconceptualizes Dickens’s novels, not as reflections of a material Victorian reality but as depictions of a world whose details reveal the development of Dickens’s own imaginative vision. Includes substantial attention to the city as one of the central working sites of Dickens’s imagination.

  • Pykett, Lyn. Charles Dickens. Critical Issues. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002.

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    Contextualizes Dickens and his works in the 19th century and considers how later critics of the novel form contend with Dickens’s legacy. Opens with a reflection on “the Dickens industry” (p. 1) and various critical investments in the idea of Dickens.

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