The Real Secret of Greatness and Popularity of Charles Dickens as a Novelist

Charles Dickens is a good story-teller. His stories are gripping in their interest. Critics after critics have recognized the genius of Dickens; they have also emphasized his many glaring social criticism.  However, critics have mentioned time and again several weaknesses in Dickens’ plot-construction such as superfluity, verbosity, incoherence, lack of unity, improbability, abuse of coincidence, over-crowding of events, lack of logical relationship between the plot and character, subordination of plot and character, over-moralizing, etc.

In spite of his shortcomings, Dickens is able to give us a very good kind of entertainment: he fills the gaps by good scenery and immortal characters. For him characters are more important than their manners or situations. For example, his David Copperfield is without many of these shortcomings. It is one of the best few plots he has constructed. Its plot has been praised by critics such as Ward and Baker.

First his range of characterization is extremely limited. Most of his characters belong to lower middle class or lower classes of London. Characters belonging to the aristocracy or intellectual and complex characters are beyond his range. He cannot draw a gentleman. But his worst fault is that he does not recognize his range, and often goes beyond it, and thus creates theatrical, lifeless abstractions. Moreover, he is taken up with the externals of his characters and does not probe the inner depths. The result is that his characters remain: 
(1) Flat and one-sided like the dummies of a melodrama. 
(2) They are distinguishable into monsters of vices and virtues rather than remain human beings compounded of human traits.
 (3) They have some particular traits exaggerated proportion. 
(4) They have some tag, label or catch phrase attached to like the characters of inferior drama. 
(5) They often act out often, and 
(6) suffer from continual repetition and exaggeration for an emphasis.

As Legouis and Cazamian point out, his imagination is essentially aesthetic and so he often distorts or falsifies reality to create picturesque emotional effects. Particular traits of his characters are thus exaggerated, much so that they look like caricature; it is also in this way that his plot is often over-done and becomes mawkish and sentimental. It is for this reason; too, though his novels have many realistic touches, they sometimes give the impression of reality. His fantastic imagination thus hires both a weakness as well as a source of strength. It enables him searching beauty in ugliness, but it also leads to gross exaggeration.

Dickens’ plots are, generally speaking, weak and incoherent. The plot has no sense of form. His plots are like shapeless bags in which novelist pours all sort of characters and events. There is much that is superfluous, much that is unnatural and impossible. There is often natural floatation often there is abuse of coincidence, too many ends are left loose and hanging till the very last chapter; sometimes, they are tied together in haste, and at other time quite a few of them are not tied at all.

As George Sampson points out, “the pamphleteer and moralist in Dickens often pushes out, the artist.” He was a novelist with a purpose; his was a fight against oppression and injustice andhis reforming zeal often comes in the way of an artist. Many of Dickens’ exaggerations are prompted by his reforming enthusiasm. Besides this, he often introduces into his stories an element of superfluity with his sentimental comment and views. The story waits as Dickens moralizes, and the readers get bored and annoyed. Moreover, in the end, the vice must be punished and the virtue rewarded. The conclusions of his novels, for this reason, are often artificial, unnatural and fantastic.

Dickens has been criticized on other counts as well. There is no sex in his novels. Sex is an important part of life, but it is completely missing from the novels of Dickens. There is no psychological analysis of sexual problems and there are no sexual deviations or sexual abnormalities. His novels are, “clean”, not likely to bring a blush to the most innocent cheeks. But to that extent they suffer as works of art. The picture of life they present is partial and one sided. Dickens refuses to face fact, and avoids everything which his age regarded as coarse and vulgar.

Moreover, it has been said, there is no philosophy, no serious body of thought in his novels. The absence of point of view, of a considered philosophy of life, accounts to a very great extent for the modern reaction against Dickens. His style is mannered, often coarse and vulgar, at his best lacking in refinement and polish. Often there are glaring faults of grammar. It is the style of a journalist rather than of a man of letters.
Such are the faults of Dickens. But as Long points out, his novels place to which his wife has fled. This end could have been achieved by more natural means, but Dickens’ fondness for melodramatic self betrays him into wild excesses.

Dickens' lack of invention mars even some of his best novels. Thus in David Copperfield the story of Emily is unhappily conceived. The mysteries surrounding Wickfield, the knaveries of Uriah Heep, have no claim upon our belief; intrigues are half-heartedly introduced merely because intrigue seems necessary. The situation in which Mr. Micawber brings Uriah Heap to book is theatrical and unconvincing. For example, the scene between Emily and Rosa Dartle is entirely theatrical and fails to carry conviction. David’s fight from London and the direction it takes are insufficiently accounted for. There is much in his novels that is merely conventional in the tradition of Fielding—long lost heirs, mistaken identity, disguised lovers, artificial intrigues, etc. However, David Copperfield is remarkably free from such conventional elements. Indeed, as Ward points out, the double love-story of the hero—David’s love and marriage with Dora and then with Agnes—has been managed with great skill. Similarly there is a double story pattern in Great Expectations.

Charles Dickens
His closing scenes are often contrived in the tradition of the theatre and are brought to a happy end, however forced and unnatural that happy end may appear. This sin is to be seen at its worst in Martin Chuzzlewit, where a family of emigrants from America turns up at the right moment to fill the cup of benevolent rejoicing. In Great Expectations, Pip is not left a lonely man in the interest of happy ending. There is always poetic justice at the end; the wicked are punished and the virtuous are suitably rewarded. For example, in David Copperfield Uriah Heep is punished Mr. Micawber prospers in Australia, and David is happily married to Agnes. Thus his moral purpose makes his closing scene often unnatural and improbable.

“The sin most palpable, most gross, which Dickens everywhere commits, is the abuse of coincidence.” In David Copperfield, Steerforth returns to England from his travels with Emily, his ship is wrecked at Yarmouth, and his dead body is washed up at the feet of David who happened to have made a little journey to see his Yarmouth friends on that very day. It is again a coincidence that Miss Murdstone happens to be the companion of Dora. The plot of Bleak House: is held together by the abuse of coincidence in its most flagrant form. In Dickens’ novels, things happen when and where the novelist wants them to happen. All this misuse of coincidence makes his plots artificial and unnatural.

Dickens’s narration frequently suffers from much tedious superfluity. Frequently, he opens a chapter with a long passage of old moralizing which has nothing to do with the story. In Martin lewit, there is a long chapter directed against the advantage of high which is entirely superfluous, and the story would gain much by its missing. There is much tedious superfluity of this kind in our Mutual as well. In David Copperfield, the story is told in the first person, David relates in detail conversations which took place before his birth, a plot which, therefore, could not have been heard by him. Thus similitude is violated. The natural question which the readers ask is why David came to know all that happened before his birth? However, verisimilitude has been preserved with remarkable care in Great Expectations which, too, is narrated in the first person.

However, the various faults we have noted above may be accounted in a number of ways. Much that is conventional in his plots results from fondness for the theatre and the picaresque tradition. He often wrote first time, and the rapidity of production forced upon him by the serial method of production tended to looseness of construction. Marks of haste lack of revision are writ large on his novels. There was, further, his intellectual inability to see his work as a whole. The serial method of publication had this further disadvantage that he could not see mentally the whole of the work on which he was engaged, and could not make alterations in the earlier chapters even when he considered such alterations necessary. Resides this he cared more for character than for plot or incidents; he strained his plots to the utmost to accommodate his characters.

We may conclude this account of Dickens plots with the words of David Cecil: “Dickens may not construct the story well, but he tells it admirably. With the first sentence he grips the attention of the readers, and does not let it go till the very end.” His scenery is always charming, dialogue admirable, and incidents thrilling and exciting. There is often overabundance of wit and humour to delight and entertain. Besides, as both Ward and Baker agree David Copperfield is remarkably free from the usual faults of Dickens. (a) It is not a mere string of adventures and experiences but has a well-marked theme and the story moves forward more rapidly and smoothly than is the case with the novels of Dickens. (b) There is much less of melodrama, and (c) there is less or direct moralizing.

Points to Remember

To sum up, Dickens’ plots suffer from:
(a) Incoherence and superfluity.
(b) Improbability; abuse of coincidence.
(c) Melodrama; much in them is merely thrilling and sensational.
(d) Over-crowding; the canvas of Great Expectations also is overcrowded.
(e) The closing chapters are often artificial; there are too many trivials crowded.
(e) The closing chapters are often artificial; there are loose ends.
(f) There is always poetic justice at the end. This introduces element of artificiality. But there is no poetic justice in the case of Havisham in Great Expectations.
(g) Plot is sub-ordinated to character.
(h) Narration suffers from too much of moralizing.
(i) Often there is lack of verisimilitude and poverty of invention.
(j) However, Dickens is good story-teller. His stories are gripping in their interest.


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