The 15 novels of Charles Dickens: synopses and comments

(actualisé le ) by Ray

1. The Pickwick Papers (1837)

2. Oliver Twist (1838)

3. Nicolas Nickleby (1839)

4. The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

5. Barnaby Rudge (1841)

6. Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

7. Dombey and Son (1846)

8. David Copperfield (1850)

9. Bleak House (1853)

10. Hard Times (1854)

11. Little Dorrit (1857)

12. A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

13. Great Expectations (1861)

14. Our Mutual Friend (1865)

15. The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)


1. The Pickwick Papers (1837)

Dickens’s first and funniest novel, published when he was only 25, was a huge worldwide hit which had people lining up on the wharfs in Sydney and New York when the boats came in with the latest instalment, and which went through 100 English and American editions before the end of the century. An English version of the Don Quixote/Sancho Panza theme, with an utterly likeable but impractical nouveau riche would-be gentleman from London (Mr. Pickwick) travelling around the country-side with a street-wise and resourceful young Cockney lad, the equally likeable and way more practical young Sam Weller, as servant-guide and fixer-upper of awkward incidents, this is a hugely enjoyable book just packed with the vignettes of life that are Dickens’s trademark.

Note that it would be a mistake to read this book in an edition without the facetious illustrations by Phiz (George Cruickshank) that were so carefully elaborated in collaboration with Dickens that they are really an integral part of the text - in a quite literal sense too, as Dickens was originally hired to write around the illustration, by another artist, of the first instalment that had already been established and which was at the core of the publisher’s project. After which the first illustrator promptly died and Dickens hired Phiz and took over complete editorial direction of the project.

- no. of pages: 953 in the Penguin Classics edition.


2. Oliver Twist (1838)

This book (558 pages) was a shock to Dickens’s vast public, who were looking for further Cockney comedy in the Pickwick vein, and got a hard-hitting description of some of the most shocking aspects of the social tragedies of the world’s most advanced country at the time: criminal child neglect in orphanages, inhuman conditions in public work houses, crime and prostitution ...

This is sock-it-to-’em fiction at its very best, with scenes of low life in London that just cannot be forgotten. And with a number of his most outstanding «supporting role» characters: the resourceful and worldly-wise young pickpocket The Artful Dodger, the moll Nancy, the clever, scheming gang leader Fagin, and the brutal arch-criminal Sikes.

The one major reserve modern readers can have about this famous book is about the anti-Semitic portrait of the arch-villain Fagin, the central figure in the last two-thirds of the book, in which the young (26 year-old) Dickens reflected the current prevailing attitudes towards those strange folk, and for which Dickens, influenced by the comments of close Jewish friends, later tried to made amends by portraying another central Jewish character, the dustman Old Riah in Our Mutual Friend, his last completed work, in an almost exaggeratedly positive light.

Here again, the original illustrations by Phiz are an admirable and important supplement to the text.

- no. of pages: 558 in the Penguin Classics edition.


3. Nicolas Nickleby (1839)

This is one of Dickens’s best books, apart from the last 150 pages, which are disappointingly conformist as Nicolas finally settles down and starts leading a normal middle-class life and we start losing interest.

The first 150 pages are spectacularly good, taking Nicolas up to the wilds of Yorkshire where he struggles with a shyster schoolmaster who is exploiting his pupils like you wouldn’t believe, before fleeing down south after a dramatic show-down to join a roving band of actors and to get involved in many more pages of rousing adventures peopled by many wonderful Dickensian personages.

Coming on the heels of the hard-hitting Oliver Twist (or rather: written and published in monthly instalments at the same time as the last part of OT itself was being written and published) at the height of Dickens’s celebrity, this book had one of the greatest sociological impacts on its times of any novel ever published, as the scandalously self-serving «Yorkshire schools» which it so effectively denounced had been abolished by the time the second edition of the book was published only 10 years later, as Dickens himself proudly announced in his preface to that edition.

- no. of pages: 845 in the Penguin Classics edition.


4. The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

Dickens’s fourth novel, another huge best-seller, a «road novel» about the adorable Little Nell and her grandfather on the run from a grasping creditor all around England. The young heroine shines like a beacon through the gloomy moral and physical aspect of England of the times that Dickens was so good at portraying. The ending, which can’t bear talking about, shocked his readers so much that his next books were more or less boycotted by a sizeable portion of his then-vast reading public.

As always, the full set of original illustrations (by Phiz) are indispensable complements to the text.

- no. of pages: 579 in the Oxford World Classics edition.


5. Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Dickens’s first historical novel, set in the period of the ultra-violent anti-catholic Gordon Riots in the London of 1780. The historical novel genre, the untopical subject matter and the unusual simple-minded central figure of the title perhaps explain, at least partially, the public’s rejection of the book, which has remained one of his least-known and apparently least-considered books. However, the villains, and there are several main ones, are really strikingly portrayed, the story is dramatic in the extreme (although the first 200 pages are calm, albeit as charming as anything Dickens wrote), the historical events are astounding - England came close to having its own Bastille Day nine years before the French had theirs - and, unusually for Dickens, the pace and intensity carry on full-blast right up to the end. I really enjoyed this book, and urge everyone to read it.

- no. of pages: 764 in the Penguin Classics edition.


6. Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

The most interesting aspect of this middle-period Dickens novel is that most of it takes places in the United States, whereto Martin flees to escape from disgrace in London and to make his fortune. However, everyone in New York is a hustler scrambling after the almighty dollar, and things get (much) worse when he goes pioneering down south along the Mississippi river to take possession of a farm he has been sold by a glib Noo-Yawka property shyster.

Although the book abounds in stunning portraits of off-beat characters like the adorable Mrs Gump and the biggest hypocrite in all literature (with Molière’s Tartuffe), Mr. Pecksniff, and features yet another clever and truer-than-life arch-villain, Martin’s own uncle Jonas, this book was not well received at the time, particularly in America where his public then much preferred (and perhaps still does) reading about the down side of England rather than about that side of the U. S. of A. But it was also poorly received in England, where the mass public that had devoured his previous four best-sellers (Pickwick, Oliver Twist, Nicolas Nickleby and Little Dorrit) was unprepared for the absence of a societal theme and of a central character easy to relate to — and it cannot be denied that Martin C. is harder to feel strongly about than Mr. Pickwick or Oliver Twist or the adorable Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop.

The pace falls off at the end too, as usual with most of Dickens’s longer books, and the hero is hardly that, also as usual, but you will want to read or reread this highly-enjoyable book nevertheless.

- no. of pages: 735 in the Oxford World Classics edition.


7. Dombey and Son (1846)

After the huge popular successes of his first four novels and the lukewarm reception by the mass public of the next two, but encouraged by the huge success of his Christmas Carol stories published in 1843, Dickens raised his sights and clearly aimed at impressing the arbiters of literary good taste, to show them just what he could do.

Dombey and Son thus flows at a calmer, more sedate pace than any of his previous works, with more attention to atmosphere and psychology and with somewhat fewer dramatic goings-on. But there is a big social theme (commerce and big business), there is perhaps Dickens’s most complete and convincing portrayal of a major female personage (Dombey’s seductive and dissatisfied wife Florence), there is a yet another terrific villain who steals the show from the good guys, and there are as always the most marvellous secondary characters (notably the loveable Captain Cuttle and his dreaded landlady).

So this big novel has something for everybody in it, and well rewards the effort required to penetrate its somewhat staid outer surface.

- no. of pages: 996 in the Penguin Classics edition.


8. David Copperfield (1850)

This is the mature Dickens writing at his best, and the first and largely autobiographical first half of the book is very close to perfection. Although it peters out somewhat in the latter part where the adult David comes across as so much less interesting and promising than the youthful one (but perhaps that is Dickens’s underlying message about life in general and himself in particular?), the wonderful Dickensian secondary characters — led by two of the best-known of them all, the creepy Uriah Heep and the eternally optimistic and forbearing Mr. Micawber — are there aplenty, the portrait of a sensitive young boy’s struggles with his school mentors and with his schoolmates is as powerful and humanistic as anything Dickens or anyone else ever wrote, and the hard-hearted but oh-so-smooth uncle Mr. Murdstone is as worthy a villain — always a Dickens strong point — as any in his oeuvre.

A classic, of course, probably Dickens’s best-known and best-loved work after Great Expectations.

- no. of pages: 855 in the Penguin Classics edition.


9. Bleak House (1853)

A blockbuster of a book, with what was for Dickens a big theme — the incredibly antiquated and abstruse, bureaucratic procedures involved in property legislation via the time-hallowed Chancery Law courts. However at the time of its publication, the scandal of the incredibly lethargic Chancery system had lost its sting as it had by then been basically abolished, so the novel both then and now has to be judged purely on its literary merits and not on the effectiveness of its social comment as had been the case with many of Dickens’s previous novels.

Today, the very lengthy satire about the inefficiencies of that antiquated system has lost much of its sting and one can easily find the subject overworked, although it cannot be denied that as a symbol for monstrous bureaucracies — that have not by any means all disappeared even in our enlightened age — it is by no means irrelevant.

The heroine is, like most of Dickens’s leading female characters with the possible exception of the loveable Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop and the wonderfully plucky Jenny Wren in A Mutual Friend (but then they are both young girls rather than grown-up women...) too nice and virginal and near-perfect to sustain interest for 900+ pages. But this is mature Dickens writing as best as he can, which is very good indeed, so his trademark vignettes of life and sparkling minor characters are all there, the plot is solid, the anti-heroes are as brilliantly portrayed as ever and as an added point of interest the novel features a remarkably efficient Inspector Bucket, one of the first police detectives to ever feature prominently in a novel, as far as we know.

- no. of pages: 989 in the Penguin Classics edition.


10. Hard Times (1854)

The only book in which Dickens ventures into the industrial heartland of the England of his time, the sprawling factory belt in the north around Manchester and Liverpool. Also the shortest by far of any of his novels, one-third the average length of his other books.

So he is in unfamiliar territory (as was the case for the Yorkshire schools theme in Nicolas Nickleby, for which Dickens also made a documentary trip north to do research — but the Yorkshire schools episode there lasted less than 150 pages) both geographically and socially speaking, and he didn’t have the space he was used to having to develop his story and especially his characters, big and small. The result is an interesting critique of the materialism of his age (and others...) that however totters constantly on the caricature and which is not one of his most notable efforts.

That being said, the hard-hitting portrayal of the exploitation of workers by unscrupulous factory owners and the poignant description of the near-starvation-level living standards of male and female workers in the burgeoning factory towns of the industrial north are of great interest, particularly as no other major British novelist of the time seriously looked into the social impact of the Industrial Revolution, as far as we know. It is true that de Tocqueville’s description of the social conditions in the Liverpool complex (and in neighbouring Ireland) after his tour there in the early 1830s is more credible and complete as far as sociological comment is concerned — but of course de Tocqueville was a sociologist and political thinker and not a novelist.

The anger Dickens felt at what he saw on his own background-gathering tour gives the text a distinctly bitterer, less overall genial tone than that of any other of his novels — a tone that, combined with the exceptional brevity of the novel and its industrial theme, make this a distinctly atypical work in his œuvre.

- no. of pages: 288 in the Penguin Classics edition.


11. Little Dorrit (1857)

In this very big and wide-ranging novel Dickens follows his eponymous heroine from the Marshalsea Prison for Debtors in south London, where she had lived for the first twenty-plus years of her life and the first half of the book, across France and Switzerland with her newly-rich family on a Grand Tour to Italy, where she spends a couple of years rubbing shoulders with the hordes of semi-expatriate upper-class English that congregated there at the time — the novel is set in the mid-1820s — and then back to London, where the Marshalsea Prison again features prominently, to deal with the dramatic events and revelations and turns of plot with which the last part of the novel is filled and which you will enjoy discovering for yourself when you read or reread this masterful novel, one of Dickens’s finest.

This is a riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags story featuring anew a wispy, pure, almost impossibly perfect young heroine, here nicknamed Little because she is, at 22, mistaken for a 10-year-old by all and sundry, including the male lead, who only wakes up to the fact that she is marriageable during the last few pages. Her dreamy father had sort of wandered into the Marshalsea prison after squandering his family’s means, without in the least understanding how or why, and had promptly established himself there as a kind of gentleman-guru to be honoured and admired and above all nourished because of the lustre his presence brought to the institution and its inmates, precisely because of his otherworldly, absent-minded way of being somehow superior in a nice, gentlemanly and admirable manner. He is yet another example of Dickens’s genius for creating the most amazingly offbeat but credible and enjoyable-to-read-about secondary characters that is his unmistakable trademark, although Mr. Dorrit is probably the secondary character with the biggest role in any of his novels: nincompoop and irritating and phoney as he may well be, with his endearing absent-minded ways and his gentleman-mania he is nevertheless the one who steals the show here from his eponymous but rather too anonymous daughter.

As is usually the case with Dickens’s novels, which generally feature bland but boring heroes or heroines who are overshadowed by stunningly vivid minor characters, the main interest is provided once again by the multitude of secondary characters who populate its pages, and by its villain, another Dickens strong point. Although here the portrait of the nasty Monsieur Rigaud turns somewhat to caricature in the rush of events at the end, the irresistible magnetic force exuded by this hard, glib and intelligent evil-doer, probably modelled on the celebrated assassin Lacernaire, provides a note of harshness and menace from the very first page onwards that keeps the whole story well centred on the worldly realities that are so foreign to the Dorrit family’s mindset. Although when one thinks of Dickens one thinks mostly of the horde of full-of-life minor characters that are constantly bursting out of his pages, all in all his striking villains contribute at least as much to Dickens’s final stature.

Little Dorrit was the third (and last) of a series of novels sharply critical of various aspects of the England of his time, after the massive Bleak House and Hard Times. Dickens’s social critique here is of a much broader scope than ever before: in sweeping, virulently sarcastic, often bitter tones he takes on a wide range of targets: the bureaucracy of the state in general and the Patent Office procedures for inventors in particular, the arrogance of the aristocracy and their monopoly of the state apparatus, the corrupt and antiquated rotten-borough system of allocating parliamentary seats, the general passion for lucre, the servility and indeed gullibility of one and all towards wealth and social status, and, notably, the unscrupulousness and hollowness of the world of high finance.

- no. of pages: 954 in the Penguin Classics edition.

click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.


12. A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Dickens’s second and best-known (and last) historical novel, the one that starts off with the famous "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …". This is also one of his shortest novels and also his most overtly political one, centred as it is on the violent injustices of the French revolution and on the despotism of the ancien régime which Dickens sees as having inevitably led to that momentous upheaval. Not that Britain escapes unscathed from his acerbic political pen, as the book opens with description of an Old Bailey treason trial that decrees on the flimsiest of grounds the most horrifying and inhumane punishment imaginable for treason, based moreover on a well-known real-life trial.

Because of its relatively short length and dramatic story line this is a good introduction to Dickens for young people, although there are fewer typically Dickensian offbeat characters than usual and the villains are more caricatural and less well-rounded than in his other novels. Perhaps the foreign setting, with which he was necessarily less familiar than with his beloved London scene, explains the relative lack of depth of this novel. And although he did careful research for this novel, his analysis of social realities in France (the medieval droit de cuissage in the 1780s???) is too black-and-white to be really convincing. it cannot be denied, however, that the terrifying terrorism of mob rule and the bloodthirsty brutality of revolutionary justice in the dark Terror period of the French Revolution are most starkly and impressively portrayed.

- no. of pages: 430 in the Penguin Classics edition.

click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.


13. Great Expectations (1861)

This is Dickens at his very best. A mature work, his penultimate novel, it gets off to a rousing start (the famous encounter of the young Pip with an escaped convict takes place on page 2!), the writing is absolutely sparkling, the characters are finely chiselled and marvellously full of life, and the theme is a large one - this is a Bildungsroman, a tale of youth growing up and learning about life’s ups and downs. So, yes, this is a masterpiece.

Although it is one of his relatively shorter novels, about half the length of most of his other novels as it was written for publication in weekly instalments briefer than the standard (for Dickens) long monthly ones, it makes up for the lack of the more leisurely, sprawling, panoramic atmosphere of his longer works with its pace and its sparkle, and although there are fewer of those wonderful Victorian-Dickensian secondary characters extraneous to the central story line that he had such a special genius for imagining and portraying, they are present here too of course, notably in the persons of the hopelessly honest Mr. Pocket with his turbulent household and the amazingly human — in his private life — notary’s clerk Mr. Wemmick. The prose and dialogues are superb, with many remarkable passages, with a constant touch of gravity beneath the surface as well as a steady tinge of humour of the most charming kind.

Although the romantic ending (which in fact was changed after the manuscript had been completed on the probably misguided urging of his close friend, the renowned author Arthur Lytton-Bulwell) is a bit too convenient to be fully satisfying, the novel as a whole certainly is that and more — an almost perfect example of the art of this great writer at the peak of his powers.

- no. of pages: 484 in the Penguin Classics edition.

click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.


14. Our Mutual Friend (1865)

Although this novel was written by Dickens at the height of his powers, this last complete novel of his is one of his least-known works, strangely enough.

But:

- the theme is a very strong one, one of his best and most timeless: the Thames river which dominates the lives of those who work on and beside and near it and which symbolizes the force and power and also violence of the current of life itself, a theme which is powerfully developed from the dramatic opening scene right through the book;

- the writing is first-rate, with at least as many if not more remarkable passages as in any other of his novels;

- the characters are on the whole more firmly rooted in the lower (and more interesting to the modern reader) levels of society than elsewhere in his œuvre, with the possible exception of Oliver Twist;

- the novel has the full 800+ page-length that Dickens seems to have felt best at ease with and within which framework he had the scope to develop his genius for the studies of the multiple secondary characters which are his special trademark;

- and, especially, the book has the most remarkable, credible and admirable secondary character of all his œuvre, the quite unforgettable crippled 12-year-old girl-woman Miss Jenny Wren, only introduced halfway through the novel, who so effectively and energetically takes charge of her totally inadequate alcohol-prone father.

A particularity of Our Mutual Friend is that another of its main secondary characters is a Jewish moneylender with a kind heart and the very best of intentions who is in fact portrayed so favourably that he loses a certain amount of credibility even to our modern eyes, a deliberate effort by Dickens to make up for the nasty and caricatural — but better-rounded and more memorable — image of a bad Jewish exploiter that he had created in the person of Fagin in his early success Oliver Twist.

All in all, with Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, certainly one the best Dickens books.

- no. of pages: 845 in the Penguin Classics edition.

click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.


15. The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Dickens’s last work, tragically interrupted by his sudden death from a stroke at the age of 58. It was a mystery novel, written to rise to the challenge of showing that he too could write in that new genre after the considerable success of his good friend Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), generally recognized as being the first mystery thriller in literature — although Dickens himself had innovated in the genre with his creation of the remarkably resourceful and penetrating Inspector Bucket, in 1853 with Bleak House.

The first five of a projected total of twelve monthly instalments of Edwin Drood were published during Dickens’s lifetime, and he finished the (magnificent) last page of the sixth instalment, which ended the first half of the novel, on the very day he died. So this work is not as incomplete as could be surmised: it is in fact the finished version of the complete first half of the novel.

Full of the atmosphere of a rather sleepy provincial cathedral town, this is excellent Dickens, although without the sociological depth of his major works, with a number of sharply-portrayed characters, excellent dialogues (a Dickens strongpoint) and a fairly steady stream of Dickensian humour and satire. A treat for any Dickens fan, or anyone else for that matter.

- no. of pages: 402 in the Penguin Classics edition.

click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.