Tag Archives: charles dickens

Charles Dickens — The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Unfinished at the time of his death, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is nevertheless worthwhile reading, a half of a mystery that hints at the answers, and while you may be fairly sure, even with research into letters Dickens wrote to his friends and biographers, you are never totally sure. It’s a bit like being able to make up your own ending; anyway, it’s just an interesting thing to keep in mind before beginning it.

For the obviously unfinished novel that it is, Dickens does manage to pack a lot of foreshadowing, a dark and menacing atmosphere, and interesting characters. Edwin Drood is an amiable young man long bethrothed to the beautiful Rosa, though after she inherits, they amitably break their engagement. Neville Landless is a hothead in love with Rosa. And though the titular character is the one who eventually disappears into the quicklime, it is John Jasper, a menacing protagonist if ever there was one, a choirmaster who lurks around opium dens, whose story it really seems to be. Is he the murderer? It might seem so. Despite hints, Dickens will keep you guessing. It’s tautly plotted as far as it actually goes though hard to make final judgments on that account.

Finally, a quick note on reading so many Dickens novels in quick succession: while individually they are pretty great, en masse they are exhausting. That is not an experiment that I am likely to repeat.

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Charles Dickens — Great Expectations

I don’t have much to say right now about this book other than that I was totally wrong to dislike it so much in high school. It’s a fine book and I’m particularly impressed by the way that Dickens manages to keep Pip mostly sympathetic even when he’s being a total ass. And I think it’s another point that high school English classes do nothing for great books by forcing them to be discussed and dissected in such a dull and formulaic manner.

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Charles Dickens — A Tale of Two Cities

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.

So reads one of the earliest quotable moments in one of Dickens’ two “historical” novels (i.e. taking place in the 1770s rather than the 1800s), A Tale of Two Cities. I’m not even going to bother repeating the opening and the closing lines, though, because I think they may be amongst the most recognizable quotes in English literature that aren’t Shakespearean in origin. Not that they aren’t awesome, of course, but they’re just very recognizable. And the other writing in A Tale of Two Cities is just as lovely, and under appreciated. For instance:

In the moonlight which is always sad, as the light of the sun itself is—as the light called human life is—at its coming and going.

Anyway, the actual novel. It is, as the title implies, a tale of two cities, set alternately in London and Paris during the time of the French revolution. Lucie Manette, the daughter of a former political prisoner, marries Charles Darnay, an emigre with secrets of his own. Sydney Carton is an alcoholic lawyer in love with Lucie, but resigned to loving her from afar and doing what he can to make her happy. All of this is set against the bloody backdrop of the rapidly escalating revolution.

It also features a truly chilling villain in Madame Defarge and her band of Jacques. Witness that implacable lady, inciting revolution:

“Then tell Wind and Fire to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”

Truly elemental, is she not? Considering what a remorseless villain she is, she still has an equally chilling and sympathetic back story, a reason why she is the way she is. That doesn’t make her any less frightening, though, sewing her reckoning as she waits for blood and revenge.

The writing in A Tale of Two Cities does not have the customary “tone” of a usual Dickens novel which is why I found it at first rather hard to get into. It’s recognizably Dickens, and there are a few comic characters to soften the relentless blood that’s coming later in the novel, but it’s Dickens at his more strident and poetic than even in Bleak House, which featured the sardonic voice of the narrator. Here, Dickens, with his horror of the excesses of the revolutionaries, chooses to remain almost totally serious, sometimes overly so, in order to prove his points and drive them home. It’s a book full of feeling, but not so much for the characters themselves as the whole mess of a situation. It doesn’t quite work for me–even Carton’s sacrifice didn’t move me as much as I thought it would–and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

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Charles Dickens — Hard Times

Considering the mammoth size of some of Dickens’ other novels, it is rather surprising to say that least that Hard Times is so slim. It does pack quite a wallop, though it seems to lack some of the heart that characterizes the writing of, for example, Bleak House. I can’t tell if he’s conforming his style to his subject, but it doesn’t always work for me.

Hard Times is a satire of Utilitarianism, that philosophy that hard facts, statistics, science, and labor trump all else. Thrown into this is Thomas Gradgrind, M.P., a devoted practitioner, his children Louisa and Tom, raised in this environment, Josiah Bounderby, an awful “self-made man,” and Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a circus performer. The book chronicles the ill effects of this lack of fancy and imagination on the Gradgrind family, with the awful Bounderby and his housekeeper, the “lady” Mrs Sparsit lurking on the corners, threatening to ruin everything. Louisa is married off in a “business proposition” to Mr Bounderby and everything goes downhill from there…

Suffice to say there are few happy endings in Hard Times, and it’s a little bit one sided in that you can tell far too obviously the targets of Dickens’ ire. There are some wonderful bits of scathing, ironic writing, but as stated the heart just isn’t there. In Lousia he has managed to create a more complicated female character than he normally does, but of course there are no happy endings for her. Or for anyone, for that matter. Not in this day and age.

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Charles Dickens — Bleak House

Bleak House is probably among my five favorite books, and definitely my favorite book of Dickens’. It was the book that I read that changed my opinion of him… from my dislike of high school to, well, being the author of one of my five favorite books.

This is a novel that is a sharp critique of the Chancery system, but it’s also about family histories and secrets and all sorts of other things. Esther Summerson is a young girl raised by a grim and dour guardian, told only that she was the eternal shame of her mother, who is dead. Richard and Ada are two young cousins, wards of the interminable chancery suit known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The moody John Jarndyce himself becomes the guardian of these three young people. Lady Honoria Dedlock, a bored and fashionable queen of the social heights, wastes away at Chesney Wold, bored by life but guarding a mysterious and potentially deadly secret. And the monstrous Tulkinghorn, a menacing lawyer, is on her trial…

All of these and more are a number of the stories that Dickens manages to weave into Bleak House. There are innumerable minor characters, pleasant and grotesque, the comically self-important Mr. Guppy to the vile Smallweed, the brave but potentially criminal Mr George and the cunning “child” Harold Skimpole, the hyperfocused politico Mrs Jellyby and her long-suffering daughter Caddy, creating a veritable army of worming subplots that all somehow interconnect with each other. It may be a story of the horrors of the Chancery Court, with the suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce destroying lives and youth and fortunes, but in a way it is about the people around it, their lives, their hopes, their downfalls.

The narrative of the story is rather an accomplishment as well; it alternates between Esther Summerson’s voice, self-doubting and loving and probably everything good and innocent, and slightly annoying because of it, and an omnipresent (but not quite omniscent–the narrator can only describe the actions and appearances of the characters, never their thoughts) third person narrator, with the most scathing and sarcastic voice that you could hope for.

Bleak House is a monstrously huge book, both physically and emotionally, and it’s one of my favorites for a reason. The sheer mess of human futures wound up together, the wonderfully evocative and sardonic writing, all of it, makes it a book that I can re-read endlessly and always find something new within its pages. If you have never read Dickens before, or if you think that you don’t like Dickens, this one is the book that might change your mind.

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Charles Dickens — Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens was an author I never thought I’d like, especially after reading him in middle school–I thought him boring, dull, and long-winded. Long-winded he might be, but at the tender age of twelve, I don’t think I had the proper appreciation for the sense of humor and the ridiculous that permeates his writing.

Oliver Twist is not my favorite of his books, though. It is a fairly early work–though still upsetting to think that Dickens was only a few months older than I am when he wrote it–but lacks the depth and maturity that characterizes his other books. The essentials are there: the grim portrayal of London life, the keen interest in social issues, the ridiculous ancillary characters with silly names like Mr. Bumble–but still, lacking something that’s there even in the next few books he published.

The story of the eponymous orphan, Oliver Twist is unabashed melodrama. Oliver is born in a workhouse and his unknown mother dies immediately after kissing him once. His life only goes downhill from there, calamity after calamity. After years of being starved in the workhouses, he’s apprenticed to an undertaker, but after the undertaker’s charity boy insults Oliver’s mother, the young boy ends up on the run again, where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger and led to the old man Fagin, who runs a gang of thieves… setting in motion the occasionally tragic events of the rest of the book.

Oliver is a fairly passive character, he doesn’t do much except tremble, react, and occasionally fall ill. Almost too good to be true, as are the saintly Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie, various ladies and gentlemen who attempt to help the lad out along the way. The real stars of the show, however, are the criminals that populate the pages of this novel, and the harsh, grim vista of Victorian London itself. The Artful Dodger is so cheerful and witty that you can’t help but like him; Bill Sikes is as terrifying a villain as you could hope for; Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Coney so awful that you can only laugh at them, and the way that Dickens describes London makes you feel almost as though you’re walking through its smoke-filled sidestreets.

The one thing I can’t quite get over is Fagin, though. I’m not alone in having this issue, especially among fellow Jewish readers. He’s every awful stereotype you can imagine: the hooked nose, a greasy coat, a thief and a pawnbroker with vaguely pederastic tendencies, a truly odious character in every way. And Dickens barely even refers to him by name: he’s always The Jew, as though his Jewishness is one of the most disgusting things about him. Dickens claimed, of course, that he didn’t have anything against Jews, and that “that type of criminal” was more likely to have been Jewish than not. (Amazing, isn’t it?) I want to believe that this was just a case of ignorance speaking, as when he actually got to know some Jewish people he regretted Fagin’s portrayal, especially after an interesting correspondence with the wife of a good friend of his, who made a passionate argument why Fagin was an insult to her people. But the fact remains, that reading it is occasionally like being slapped in the face.

But still, despite the over-the-top melodrama (Rose becomes deathly ill for no particular reason; Nancy, a young prostitute, comes to an ‘orrible end…) Oliver Twist is a classic for a reason; its characters timeless, even to those who have never read a page of Dickens in their lives.

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