Favorite Novels (In Chronological Order)
Though I love the humor and cheerfulness of his early pieces, my favorite Dickens works are from his more mature period. Unlike the nebulous and episodic early novels such as The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Nicholas Nickleby, these darker and more complex novels contain tightly structured plots built around cohesive themes and unifying symbols.
Dombey and Son
Mr. Dombey is a cold and proud man who lives entirely for the operation of his mercantile company: Dombey and Son. Obsessed with promoting his business and preserving his family’s proud name, Dombey lavishes all of his attention on his son Paul whom he views as the heir to a great legacy. As such, he completely ignores the needs and wishes of his loving and neglected daughter, Florence. However, when Florence and Paul develop a strong and indissoluble bond, Dombey grows terribly jealous of his son’s love for Florence and begins to detest her. Dombey sows the seeds for his own downfall as he sets his kids on a path toward tragedy and ignores the fact that his pride is his own (and his children’s) worst enemy. Dickens presents a stunning indictment of patriarchy and coldhearted capitalism, while simultaneously conveying the importance of love, fidelity, and redemption.
David Copperfield's idyllic childhood with his single mother and beloved nurse Peggotty is brought to an abrupt end when his mother remarries the monstrous businessman, Edward Murdstone. As Murdstone and his sister Jane make David's life miserable, he suffers countless degradations and tragedies. Eventually, he seeks out help from his eccentric yet loving aunt Betsey Trotwood, and the chance arises for a happier and more satisfying life. As David grows up, he endures many setbacks, achieves great successes, and touches the lives of countless people. Containing numerous elements from Dickens' own life story, David Copperfield holds the distinction of being the author's favorite novel, and rightly deserves this status. Mixing heartbreaking tragedy, delightful comedy, and profound truth, David Copperfield is a masterpiece of storytelling, characterization, and art.
In the center of the impenetrable London fog sits Chancery Court, a loathsome institution which presides over interminable equity lawsuits. The longest and most convoluted of these cases is Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a decades old equity suit that has been dragging on for years. As the parties who stand to inherit money from the suit become obsessed with reaching a settlement, they slowly allow their lives to tick away, wasting time, money, and energy on a lost cause. Enter Esther Summerson, a benevolent young woman who is hired as a maid and companion for one of the wards of Chancery. As Esther brings hope and happiness to all those she meets, she also begins to uncover the mystery of her past, meeting up with a fascinating array of characters along the way including the obsessive philanthropist Mrs. Jellyby, the brilliant detective Inspector Bucket, the impoverished crossing sweeper Jo, the kindhearted and practical humanitarian John Jarndyce, the beautiful and mysterious aristocrat Lady Dedlock, and the inhumane and authoritative lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn. In this tour de force of storytelling, featuring a fascinating double-narrative, Dickens spins a tale of love in the midst of despair, healing in the midst of infection, and redemption in the midst of damnation.
Arthur Clennam is a middle-aged man who has lived a sad and fruitless life. Abused by his puritanical parents as a child, Arthur returns home to London to try and carve out a happier existence for himself. While in London, he becomes curious about a young woman named Amy whom his mother employs as a seamstress. Affectionately known as "Little Dorrit," Amy is an impoverished girl trying to support her father who is an inmate of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison. As Amy slaves away to try and provide for her oftentimes ungrateful family members, Arthur becomes determined to help her. Unfortunately, this involves dealing with the bureaucrats at the government’s Circumlocution Office, a despicable civil service organization that constantly gives him the go around. In what may very well be his darkest and most complex work, Dickens paints a bleak picture of a cold, constricted, and unjust society in which two helpless and goodhearted people must struggle to find their way.
Philip “Pip” Pirrip is a compassionate orphaned child growing up under the care of his abusive elder sister and her kindhearted husband. When Pip is summoned by the eccentric Miss Havisham to serve as a playmate for her ward, Estella, he soon falls in love with the beautiful girl. However, Estella's elevated social status keeps them apart. Then, one day, a mysterious lawyer arrives to tell Pip that he has become heir to a fortune from a secret benefactor. Pip leaves for London to become a gentleman, and grows from adolescent innocence to mature adulthood along the way. Combining the fairy-tale elements of such classics as Cinderella with a very realistic and human story, this novel features some of Dickens’ best characters: the noble yet easily misled Pip, the beautiful and proud Estella, the dejected and cruel Miss Havisham, the powerful and mysterious Mr. Jaggers, the kindhearted blacksmith Joe Gargery, and the delightfully dualistic John Wemmick. Perhaps Dickens' most perfectly structured novel, Great Expectations is regarded by many as his magnum opus.
Other Novels (these are all great too!)
The Pickwick Papers
Samuel Pickwick, the kind and stouthearted founder of the Pickwick Club, is interested in learning more about England and her people. Along with his three close friends, Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracey Tupman, Mr. Pickwick sets off on a grand adventure to tour the country and meet the populace. Unfortunately, the incredibly naïve Mr. Pickwick is easily duped by traveling conmen (such as the hilarious Alfred Jingle) and often finds himself getting into bothersome scrapes caused by harebrained misunderstandings. Thankfully, his faithful servant Sam Weller is always there to get him out of whatever mess he has gotten himself into. Dickens’ first novel put him on the map as one of the great humorists of his time, and this episodic text features some of the author's most hilarious jokes, as well as three of his best beloved characters: plucky Mr. Pickwick, irrepressible Sam Weller, and his cynical and sarcastic father, Tony Weller.
Oliver TwistOliver Twist is a sensitive and frail orphan born and raised in a dismal parish workhouse in industrial England. Under the tyrannical parish beadle Mr. Bumble, Oliver suffers innumerable humiliations and degradations after he dares to ask for more food. The chance for a new life arises when Oliver runs away to London. There, he falls in with a gang of young pickpockets led by the despicable Fagin, the cunning Artful Dodger, and the terrifying Bill Sikes. As Oliver becomes more and more entangled in Fagin and Sikes’ web, he begins to uncover secrets from his own shrouded past that may enable him to escape from the horrors he has known and find love and happiness at long last. Dickens satirizes the Poor Laws while unflinchingly and realistically portraying the horrors of London’s criminal underworld in this engaging mystery.
Nicholas NicklebyWhen Old Mr. Nickleby loses his fortune and suddenly dies of a broken heart, his children, Nicholas and Kate, are left desolate and destitute. Nicholas seeks out their uncle Ralph for help, but Ralph is a cruel, pitiless businessman with no regard for his family. He gets Kate a miserable job as a milliner’s aide and Nicholas an even worse situation as assistant schoolmaster at an institution for handicapped and illegitimate children. There, under the employment of the wretched Mr. Squeers, Nicholas watches with horror as his students are abused, cheated, and exploited by the schoolmaster and his wicked wife. As Nicholas struggles to assist the tragically crippled Smike, he resolves to return to London and right the wrongs that his uncle has inflicted on the family. Best known for its memorable scenes featuring Vincent Crummles' delightful theatre company, Nicholas NIckleby lacks the structure of Dickens' latter works but is still an engaging and popular novel.
The Old Curiosity Shop
In one of the most popular and controversial novels of his early period, Dickens tells the story of Nell Trent, an orphaned child living with her loving yet impractical grandfather. When the old man’s gambling habits bring about his financial ruin, and his shop of old and curious items is forced to close, he finds himself in debt to the vile and sadistic dwarf, Daniel Quilp. As Nelly fears for her grandfather’s mental stability, she encourages him to flee London and leave his troubles behind. Together, they depart for a series of grand adventures on England’s open roads, while the despicable dwarf plots against them. In this poetic and moving allegory, Dickens presents a fascinating portrait of good vs. evil by contrasting the angelic and self-sacrificing Little Nell with the devilish and greedy Quilp, arguably his most wretched and memorable villain.
Barnaby RudgeIn 1775, Edward Chester is frustrated in his attempts to court Emma Haredale because of religious differences. Edward, a Protestant, is kept under the thumb of his vile and self-indulgent father John, a decadent aristocrat. Emma, a Catholic, is also denied access to her lover by her noble-hearted yet overly assertive uncle Geoffrey. As the years pass and the lovers are kept apart, London becomes a hotbed for insurgency when the foolish and easily manipulated Lord George Gordon begins a series of anti-Catholic protests. As the intolerance towards Catholics grows, the Gordon Riots consume London. The first of his two historical novels, Barnaby Rudge prefigures many of the topics and ideas that Dickens would later return to in A Tale of Two Cities, including the dangers of the mob, and the corruption of the aristocracy.
Old Mr. Chuzzlewit is frustrated and paranoid, as his selfish relatives are all trying to worm their way into his will. The old man has even turned on his grandson and namesake, Martin Chuzzlewit, as he does not approve of Martin's desire to marry Mary Graham. Young Martin decides to make his own way in the world, but this leads to nothing but trouble as he enrolls in an architectural school run by the obnoxious Seth Pecksniff, and later, plans an ill-advised trip to the United States in hopes of striking it rich. Meanwhile, the odious Pecksniff uses all of his self-righteous hypocrisy to try and gain the favor of Old Mr. Chuzzlewit. Martin Chuzzlewit is a transitional novel, as it is marked by the episodic characteristics of Dickens' early works, but simultaneously, contains a dark unifying theme as seen in his later novels. Indeed, the highlight of this novel is Dickens' masterful illustration of the theme of selfishness, as he contrasts the selfish and self-centered Chuzzlewits and Pecksniffs with the lovable and altruistic Tom Pinch.
Hard TimesIn the industrialized city of Coketown, leading citizens Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby live by strict codes defined by capitalism, conformity, and facts. As Gradgrind instills these empty values in his son and daughter, he sets them on the path toward emotional blankness. Meanwhile, the hardworking factory laborer Stephen Blackpool finds himself marginalized by both the cruel capitalists running the factory and the overzealous union representatives trying to oppose them. Dickens presents the negative side of the utilitarian philosophy that so many embraced during the Victorian period, contrasting the harsh and sterile world of Mr. Gradgrind with the loving and entertaining world of Sissy Jupe and her friends in Mr. Sleary’s traveling circus. Ultimately, Dickens shows that there is much more to life than self-preservation, statistics, and wealth.
A Tale of Two Cities“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So does Dickens poetically describe the situation in London and Paris toward the end of the eighteenth century. Dr. Alexandre Manette, a French physician, is wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille. His infant daughter Lucy is sent to London and raised unaware of her father’s existence until, at the age of sixteen, she goes to France to see him released from prison. As they return to England to try and carve out a happier life, Lucy is sought after by two suitors: the noble and upright schoolteacher Charles Darnay, and the brooding, dissolute barrister Sydney Carton. As Carton and Darnay vie for Lucy’s love, France suddenly explodes into violent revolution, and a dark shadow from Dr. Manette’s past threatens to consume all those who love him. But as Carton struggles to overcome his degenerate existence, the lawyer begins to realize that only he holds the key to saving the woman he loves.
Our Mutual Friend
When a body is discovered floating in the Thames, it is identified as the corpse of John Harmon, a young man returning home to England to come into his inheritance. With Harmon dead, the enormous estate suddenly and unexpectedly passes into the hands of the kindhearted Noddy Boffin and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Boffin hire the conscientious Mr. Rokesmith as their secretary, and also take in the beautiful but haughty Bella Wilfer as their ward. Simultaneously, Eugene Wrayburn finds himself attracted to the impoverished Lizzie Hexam, but is unsure how to cope with these feelings given their divergent social statuses. All the while, suspicious figures from the upper and lower classes contribute to the mystery of the Harmon murder. An engaging and thoroughly shocking mystery dominates most of this novel, but Dickens simultaneously gives a detailed and entertaining panoramic portrait of Victorian society as he depicts characters from virtually every social strata: from the impoverished and itinerant Mrs. Higden all the way up to the obnoxious yet aristocratic Podsnaps.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
When young Edwin Drood disappears, most of Cloisterham suspects foul play. Many infer that it was Neville Landless, who has previously quarreled with Drood. Neville also seems to have a solid motive: he is in love with Edwin's fiancée, Rosa. However, there is also Edwin's own uncle, John Jasper, who leads a double life as a respectable choirmaster and a dissolute drug addict. Though Jasper pledges to use all of his resources to find his nephew's murderer, there is something sinister lurking beneath the surface that points to Jasper himself. Unfortunately, Dickens died before completing the novel, and thus, the mystery of Edwin Drood remains unsolved. However, this difficulty only makes Dickens' last novel more engaging, as we are left with the wonderfully frustrating task of trying to figure out how exactly the story would have unfolded.