Deep Dive: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was a prolific writer who transformed his own life experiences into vibrant, imaginative fiction and became one of the most beloved authors in the Western literary canon.

A Few Facts at a Glance

  • Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812. (Are you also an Aquarius?)
  • Dickens’s father would make him perform music and create stories to entertain the other clerks in the office.
  • At the age of twelve, Dickens had to work at a factory to pay off his father’s debts. This had some rather serious repercussions.
  • He used the pen name “Boz” early on in his career.
  • Dickens said that his novel David Copperfield was his favorite work—it also happens to be his most autobiographical.
  • He was way into ghosts.
  • He died on June 8, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

So you’ve read Oliver Twist, know Charles Dickens wrote during the Victorian era, and have looked up the dictionary definition of “Dickensian,” but did you know that Dickens’s work made reading itself more popular among poorer people or that one of his novels inspired the traditions of a major holiday? Despite his continuous popularity, there are plenty of lesser-known facts about the famous writer that may surprise you. Let’s look at five of them. 

1. Charles Dickens made serialized entertainment trendy

The publication of the first two chapters of Dickens’s fictional, satirical Pickwick Papers in March of 1836 started a literary trend: the serialized novel. Instead of buying a complete book, many readers preferred to buy and read installments of his stories in the weekly or monthly issues of a newspaper or magazine. 

Serialized novels became popular during the Victorian era, largely because of the success of The Pickwick Papers. They were a new, exciting way for readers to engage with a story, and installments that ended in cliffhangers kept readers on the edge of their seats—kind of like network TV. 

Avid American readers of Dickens’s work were known to eagerly crowd the New York docks, waiting for incoming ships to drop off the newest installments so they could find out what happened to their favorite characters. 

2. Charles Dickens’s work explored social justice issues

Dickens often explored critical Victorian-era social issues in his work, from working conditions at factories to treatment of the poor to the problems of illiteracy. His interest in the well-being of London’s poorest and most disenfranchised citizens was notable at the time and not especially common among other fiction writers. His writing was widely popular among working-class people, who saw themselves and their concerns reflected in his characters’ situations. (Moreover, the relatively low cost of serialized novels made them accessible to a social class that would not have been able to easily afford buying a full novel at once.)

3. Charles Dickens’s lesser-known works are just as powerful as his greatest

While Dickens is perhaps best known today for novels such as Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations, his lesser-known works are just as wonderfully crafted and deal with many of the same themes and social issues that Dickens was famous for writing about. 

In Bleak House, he turned a critical eye on the urban poverty caused by the Industrial Revolution and the atrocious living conditions of the poorest people in England. Yes, it is by far his longest work but many have claimed that the wordcraft is some of Dickens’s finest.

In Hard Times, he explored the poor working conditions of factories and the unjustness of the wealth gap created by industrialization. He also used the novel to criticize utilitarian philosophy, showing how it contributed to inhumane treatment of factory workers and poor people. While other novels showcase the same themes, Hard Times is his most poignant condemnation of the effects of industrialization on humanity.

Even in his short story “The Signal Man,” Dickens weaves a ghostly tale with as much depth and acuity as any master of the craft, providing readers with a short exploration of the eeriness of not being able to trust one’s reality.

4. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol changed the Christmas holiday

Before A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, Christmas was mostly celebrated as a religious holiday. Celebrations were more somber than they tend to be nowadays and observance focused mostly on attending church and other religious ceremonies. However, a tradition at the time was telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. So, Dickens penned A Christmas Carol, which—though it can be easy to forget this—is a ghost story. (And, you know, a great example of what the biggest curmudgeon in the world looks like.)

The novel became so popular that it revolutionized the holiday, focusing it on spending time with family and doing charity work for people in need. Victorians began celebrating the holiday in accordance with the themes in the novel, and many current Christmas traditions were born—including the American tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Christmas” as many in Great Britain do.

5. Charles Dickens’s final story ended on a cliffhanger

It has been 150 years since Dickens’s death on June 8, 1870, at age 58. His health had been poor for some time, and he died of a stroke. 

At the time of his death, Dickens was writing a novel called The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but died before he was able to finish it. In the years since, readers have spent countless hours speculating over how the book was meant to end, because Dickens seemingly wrote no notes nor told anyone what his envisioned conclusion was. 

A few months before his death, he visited Queen Victoria at her request. (She was a fan of his work.) Rumor has it that he offered to tell her the ending of Edwin Drood, but she refused him. Considering how Dickens grew famous for the cliffhangers in his serialized novels, it’s a strange coincidence that his last work ends on a cliffhanger—however unintentionally. 

Want to read more about Charles Dickens? See what other people have been asking about the man and his most popular works.

Most Popular Questions about Charles Dickens

  1. What makes Charles Dickens important?
  2. What were Charles Dickens’s main achievements?
  3. How was Charles Dickens influential to the public?
  4. Why was Charles Dickens so important during the Victorian age?
  5. What is the importance of Charles Dickens in the Victorian Era’s literary context?
  6. Why does Charles Dickens use more detail than other writers?
  7. What is an analysis of the following quote by Charles Dickens: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it for anyone else”?
  8. How does Charles Dickens use different characters to launch a critique of the social conditions in Great Britain, especially in London?
  9. What should my next Dickens book be? I think I’ve read all the “major” Dickens.

Most Popular Questions about Charles Dickens’s Most Popular Works

  1. In A Christmas Carol, where and how does Dickens portray poverty? 
  2. What is the moral of A Tale of Two Cities, and how are the two cities significant?
  3. What is the main theme of David Copperfield?
  4. What is the significance of the Fog in Bleak House?
  5. What is the major theme of Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist and is it a novel or a novella?

And finally, don’t forget to check out our complete list of Study Guides for Charles Dickens’s works: