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I have listed a few general characteristics of Dickens's novels:

  • The title of a novel was extremely important to Dickens. He could not get to work on a novel until he had found the right title.

  • In constructing his novels, Dickens used suspense and mystery, like the source of Pip's great expectations. His plots effectively hold the reader's interest, for something is always happening, even if the something is not connected with the main plot. He gives little space to exposition (exposition:  background information about the characters, history, earlier events). His stories tell themselves, and what background the reader needs to know is generally revealed as the novel unfolds. Similarly, his characters typically reveal their natures through action and conversation, rather than long passages of exposition and interpretation.

  • The effect and meaning of his later novels rely heavily upon his use of symbolism. Douglas Bush called him "a highly sophisticated molder of symbolic patterns." Consider, for example, how he uses fire, hands, the mist, the river, the signpost, and the casts in Jaggers's office in Great Expectations.

  • Dickens uses comedy as relief from the serious and unhappy sections of his novel; the contrast between the serious and the comic also intensifies the serious sections. Similarly, one character's cruelty toward another contrasts with Dickens's sentimentality and provides balance, like Estella's abuse of Pip.

  • Dickens is one of the first novelists to write from the point of view of the lowest classes living in a large city. His descriptions of London are accurate, even when heightened for emotional effect. Little Britain is an actual street and still exists. (Dickens knew London neighborhoods from the long walks–sometimes over twenty miles–which he regularly took as a relief while writing and as a way to work off pressure and energy.)

  • Dickens habitually gives life to inanimate objects and attributes human qualities to animals. Jaggers's casts express the brutality and callousness of the legal system; Pip's fear and guilt are projected onto the banks, gates, dikes, and cattle as he sneaks food to the convict. This technique contributes to the nightmarish quality of many passages and also is one way he convincingly creates the point of view of a child, like Pip when sneaking food.

  • Dickens is a master of his prose, skillfully varying it to fit the occasion. At times, when his feelings carry him away, particularly when writing of a child's death, his prose becomes overly emotional and repetitious; it may even fall into an iambic rhythm. To get the full sense of his prose, try reading him aloud, as the Victorians did.

  • Dickens's fondness for coincidence is not a result of faulty plotting or lack of imagination; it reflects his view of the world. John Forster, Dickens's close friend and biographer, wrote:
              On the coincidences, resemblances, and surprises of life, Dickens liked especially to dwell, and few things moved his fancy so pleasantly. The world, he would say, was so much smaller than we thought; we were all so connected by fate without knowing it; people supposed to be far apart were so constantly elbowing each other; and to-morrow bore so close a resemblance to nothing half so much as yesterday.
  • Apart from the protagonists, his characters have distinct speech patterns, so that it is easy to tell who is speaking, even if the character is not identified. Dickens thought that characteristic speech was necessary in a novel: "I have been trying other books; but so infernally conversational, that I forget who the people are before they have done talking, and don't in the least remember what they talked about before when they begin talking again." However, Dickens's heroes and heroines, who are usually ladies and gentlemen, have a less distinct style of speech, as befits their gentility.

  • His comic characters have one outstanding trait, which may be a physical attribute, an attitude, or a behavior. Dickens told a friend that an expression or a part of a face "would acquire a sudden ludicrous life of its own" and overshadow the whole person. Mrs. Joe's apron with the pins sticking out characterizes her, just as Wemmick's mechanical post office mouth characterizes his Little Britain self.

  • Edmund Wilson's comment that Dickens was usually unable "to get the good and bad together in one character" has become almost a cliche in Dickens criticism. Dickens gives some of his villains dimension or complexity by presenting them humorously, that is, by making them funny as well as evil, but not by giving them any virtues. The existence of a shadow or dark side in his heros is sometimes suggested by the use of a double; the most obvious–and literal–example is Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.

  • Of the many unlikable widows, wives, and spinsters in Dickens's novels, Gissing felt "they must be held among his finest work." There are also many abused husbands.

  • Dickens's novels are marked by a large number of deaths and violence, as perceptive contemporary readers observed. Also noteworthy is the concern with food and drink which runs through his novels and the various ways they are used. Great Expectations opens with a convict demanding food and then moves on to a Christmas feast and Miss Havisham's wedding cake.



    Day 1 Pages 1-124
        Overview of Dickens
        Some General Comments
        Dickens and Society
        The Opening of Great Expectations
        Pip's Sense of Guilt
    Day 2 Pages 125-253
        Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham
    Day 3 Pages 254-366
        Pip's Expectations
    Day 4 Pages 367-490
        Redemption and Love
        The ending

    March 23, 2011