Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father, a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, was sent to prison for debt. Young Charles was only twelve years old when he was sent to work at Warren's Blacking Factory, while the rest of his family joined his father in the Marshalsea Prison. During this time, Charles lived alone in a lodging house, ashamed and frightened. These early experiences became a source of creative energy and a reason for his preoccupation with themes of alienation and betrayal. These early experiences also made him self-reliant, a trait which would later turn him into a hard-working and dedicated writer.
Dickens returned to school after the financial difficulties were over. When he was fifteen, he went to work as a clerk in a law firm. Later he became a free-lance reporter, first reporting on dull law cases and then the more exciting parliamentary debates. These experiences helped shape his social consciousness. In 1830, he fell in love with Maria Beadwell, the daughter of a banker. The relationship was short-lived, since Dickens was not considered a good match for her, by her parents' standards. He then met and married Catherine Hogarth on April 2, 1836.
Dickens' first published story appeared in 1835. He also started writing under the famous pseudonym "Boz", with the first sketches published in 1836. His success as a writer truly began with the Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37), now known as The Pickwick Papers. Its popularity allowed him to embark on a full-time career as a novelist. He wrote Oliver Twist in 1837, followed by Nicholas Nickleby, The Olde Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. Dickens also had a social conscience. He visited Canada and the United States in 1842 and advocated international copyright laws and the abolition of slavery. His American Notes appeared in October of that year and, along with the novel Martin Chuzzlewit, did not portray America flatteringly.
Dickens' enormously successful A Christmas Carol was published in 1844. From 1844 onward, the family spent a lot of time abroad, especially in Italy, Switzerland, and France. The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, and Pictures from Italy belong to this period. He published Domby and Son in 1846, and began the serial David Copperfield in 1849. He published Bleak House in 1852, Hard Times in 1854, Little Dorrit in 1855, and collaborated with W. Collins on a play, The Frozen Deep, in 1856. He also founded and became the editor of the weekly Household Words and opened a theatrical company. In 1859 he began to edit All the Year Round, a weekly magazine. A serialization of A Tale of Two Cities appeared in this weekly in 1859. Great Expectations began to appear in 1860 and ended in 1861.
Dickens, being a much loved author, started the public reading of his works in 1853; this activity continued until 1870, when he gave his final public reading. He suffered a stroke on June 8, 1870, at Gad's Hill, the estate he had bought. He died on June 9, 1870. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his unfinished work, The Mystery of Edward Drood, appeared in September.
Dickens, who addressed social issues and historic events with penetrating insight, is regarded as the greatest British author of all times. The power of his novels, which are rich, diverse, and intense, lies in his ability to report accurately and to transform the ordinary into something magical. His concern for modern society is evident in all his novels. He emerges as a social reformer with a deep compassion for the working class. His works, which are complex, deep, and perceptive, are also marked with melodramatic intensity and humor. Many of his themes and images are recurrent. The image of a corrupt judicial system, especially the condition of prisons, occupies a central spot in both Bleak House and Little Dorrit. At times, Dickens exposes the humorous face of a sadly comic world with which he has gradually become disillusioned. He presents the failures of both business ethics and revolutionary zeal. In A Tale of Two Cities, he depicts both the excitement and the chaos of revolution.
Charles Dickens was a prolific writer of quality works that have remained popular through the years for their intensity and social conscience. In spite of his lack of formal education, he reveals in his novels a mastery of the English language and a sophisticated depth of thought that has endeared him to many generations of students and readers.
Great Expectations was published serially in Dickens' weekly periodical, All the Year Round, from December 1860 until June 1861. This serialization was done in order to restore the dwindling readership of the magazine and was a wonderful success. There have been countless adaptations of the novel for the stage and screen and it is often credited as Dickens' greatest work.
Some critics and historians suggest that Dickens wrote Great Expectations from an autobiographical perspective, drawing on his own experience as a discontent child. As well, two literary terms are commonly used in describing the style and development of Great Expectations. First, the novel is picaresque. This term applies to plots that are episodic in nature. As a serial novel, Great Expectations is necessarily picaresque. Pip's story is told in small portions, each chapter having a self-contained event or situation that combines with the others to form the greater plot. Second, the novel is in the Bildungsroman genre. This means the main character's self-development comes about as a result of trying to find his place in society. Some common elements of the Bildungsroman genre are the following: discontentment with society and one's lot in life, a long and difficult maturation period in which the discontented lashes out against the world, and a resolution in which he is restored to the world and renewed or invigorated with his place in the world.