This legend comes from the fact that Dickens committed to his novels’ length in advance, often promising a story in 20 parts, of 32 pages each. But he was not compensated by the length.
Dickens’s stories popularized serial publication; it became the way to publish a novel in the 19th century. Like today’s TV viewers watching weekly 50-minute dramas, readers would join in or drop off as the stories unfolded. Only those writers whose stories hooked readers survived.
Dickens writes long sentences? Yes, but every circumlocution has a literary purpose. Tongue in cheek, he imitates long-winded bureaucratic, professional or ceremonious jargon to satirize the institutions that use such language. Dickens writes long books? Yes, because the serial form allowed him the space to develop seemingly disparate characters from society’s highest and lowest rungs — and then slowly reveal their many connections.
2. His stories are moralistic.
George Orwell, otherwise an admirer of Dickens’s work, once declared that Dickens’s “whole ‘message’ is one . . . enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.”
Some people rephrase Orwell’s critique as if it were praise. They find in Dickens a banal lesson: Be bighearted. Come gather in front of a warm fire and comfort the Tiny Tims of the world.
But readers shouldn’t spend too much time looking for a moral in Dickens’s novels. “A Christmas Carol” aside, he is not writing fables or tracts. Don’t be fooled into underestimating or trying to draw lessons from the characters’ comic names or the fixed phrases they sometimes compulsively repeat. Dickens’s characters are never simple or simpletons — not even Maggy in “Little Dorrit,” who has brain damage. As in Shakespeare’s plays, Dickens’s characters are complex — and so, too, are their struggles to behave decently.
3. “Great Expectations” is a good book to teach high school students.
Let’s review the plot of “Great Expectations”: A boy comes to believe that a wealthy woman has provided money for him and wants him to marry her adopted daughter. The money transforms this young person into an unbearable snob. He then discovers that he has been mistaken about his entire life. A convict he met briefly as a child has been supplying the money from Australia. He has no chance at getting the girl. He fails to help this convict elude the police and goes to Cairo to work as a low-level clerk. In retrospect, he sees that no one can know what the future will bring — or fully understand the present.
For this reason, it has always seemed odd to me that teachers think “Great Expectations” is a good novel for young adults. Just when they are embarking on their adult lives, we give them this story that says: You will never fully comprehend the most important events in your life while they are happening. Any plans you make will not work out — and you may grow up to be a jerk. If you are lucky, however, a series of traumatic events will wake you up and show you how insufferable you have become.