1. Dickens’s novels are so long because he was paid by the word.
This is perhaps the most insidious deprecation of Dickens, implying a greedy author rambling on needlessly. The claim is untrue. Book contracts for “Bleak House” and “Little Dorrit,” for example, pegged Dickens’s earnings to sales, not the number of words.
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.
Let’s stop bewildering our students. Give them “Dombey and Son” instead. Sure, it is long. But it has a page-turning plot and lively characters, and it will show them that it is adults, with their careers and their corporations, who are messed up. That they will understand.
4. “David Copperfield” is autobiographical.
Is D.C. really C.D. — Charles Dickens? The temptation is great to read “David Copperfield” as a mirror for Dickens’s life. After all, the novel is a first-person story of a boy who grows up to be a famous author. Dickens even wove in a short “autobiographical fragment” that he had written before beginning the book. His description of young Copperfield at work at Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse draws directly on his childhood: At age 12 he labored at a shoe-blacking warehouse. “A very complicated interweaving of truth and fiction,” Dickens declared, boasting that “I really think I have done it ingeniously.”
And he has. But readers need to keep in mind that this story is indeed fiction. Unlike Copperfield, for instance, Dickens never dealt with the death of his wife, never idolized a childhood friend who went bad like Steerforth and never walked for six days across England to go live with an aunt.
5. He is a novelist of London.
It seems a truism to say that Dickens’s city was London and that London found itself in Dickens. Leave the provinces to George Eliot and the industrialized north to Elizabeth Gaskell. Dickens belonged to the people of the city. The density, the hurried energy, the dirt and chaos, the clashing of classes: Dickens’s novels spoke to 19th-century life in London.
And yet whenever Dickens is yoked to London and Britain, an aspect of the city and the author gets diminished. Not one of Dickens’s novels unfolds solely in London. Pickwick perpetually leaves to race around the regional stagecoach network from Bury St. Edmunds to Bristol. In “The Old Curiosity Shop,” Little Nell flees by foot on a tragic highway trek through Birmingham.
Setting his stories solely in London would have falsely portrayed the city. And with “Little Dorrit,” Dickens begins to weave the threads of his stories internationally. “A Tale of Two Cities” encompasses London and Paris, with activity in both places appearing to unfold simultaneously. “Great Expectations” ties Pip’s London life to a shepherd in Australia.
Dickens never forgets that London draws its meaning — and much of its traffic — from being a national and global crossing place.
Jonathan H. Grossman, the author of “Charles Dickens’s Networks: Public Transport and the Novel,” is an English professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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Happy birthday, Charles Dickens! Tuesday marks the bicentennial of the writer’s birth, and celebrations around the world are showcasing his life’s work. His fiction is still widely read and has been adapted for the silver screen many times over. “Great Expectations,” for instance, has been filmed more than a dozen times, and new television and movie versions are being released this year. Dickens joked that “various idle speculations and absurdities” were “industriously propagated” about him. Let’s rectify a few half-truths that threaten to distort his accomplishments.