You Gotta Know These Charles Dickens Novels
The dates given below refer to the years in which Dickens’s works were first printed in book form. However, most of Dickens’s novels were initially serialized in magazines. As a result, Dickens created complex plots filled with cliffhangers to entice readers to buy each issue. (In the case of The Old Curiosity Shop, public interest in the character of Little Nell was so great that New Yorkers stormed the ship bringing the final installment to the United States.) Dickens himself edited some of the journals, such as Household Words, that published his novels.
- The Pickwick Papers (1837) The London gentleman Samuel Pickwick, the president of his namesake “club,” sets out with fellow members Nathaniel Winkle, Tracy Tupman, and Augustus Snodgrass on a series of coach journeys to sites in provincial England. While on their travels, the Pickwickians foil the attempt of Alfred Jingle to elope with Rachael Wardle of Dingley Dell. Pickwick also befriends and employs the Cockney valet Sam Weller, who is known for grotesquely humorous sayings such as “out with it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farthing.”
- Oliver Twist (1838) The orphan Oliver is brought up in a workhouse, where he horrifies the beadle Mr. Bumble by asking for more food. Oliver is then apprenticed to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. After fighting with the bully Noah Claypole, Oliver runs away to London. On the road he meets the pickpocket Jack Dawkins, known as the “Artful Dodger,” who leads him to the den of the criminal Fagin. A kindly gentleman named Mr. Brownlow temporarily rescues Oliver, but he is returned to Fagin by the cruel Bill Sikes and the prostitute Nancy. During an attempt to rob a house, Oliver is shot. He is tended by an occupant of the house named Rose Maylie, who eventually learns that Oliver is being plotted against by his villainous half-brother, Monks. The novel ends happily, as Oliver’s chief enemies die or emigrate, and he is left in the care of Mr. Brownlow and Rose, who is revealed to be his aunt.
- Nicholas Nickleby (1839) After his father dies, Nicholas Nickleby is sent to work at Dotheboys Hall by his cruel uncle Ralph. With the help of the disabled Smike, Nicholas beats the foul schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, and escapes to London. Nicholas’s sister Kate works with the milliner Madame Mantalini, but must confront the attentions of the foppish Mr. Mantalini and Sir Mulberry Hawk. Nicholas finds employment in Portsmouth with the theater manager Vincent Crummles, then returns to London and works for the Cheeryble brothers. Smike dies, and Ralph commits suicide after learning that Smike was his son. Nicholas marries a woman named Madeline Bray, and Kate weds the Cheerybles’ nephew, Frank.
- The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) Thirteen-year-old Nell Trent goes to live with her grandfather, a gambling addict who owns a London shop filled with mysterious and horrible objects. His gambling causes him to lose the shop to the evil dwarfish moneylender Daniel Quilp. Nell’s older brother Frederick plots to marry her off to Dick Swiveller to get a share of a supposed treasure trove, but Dick eventually marries a servant girl nicknamed “the Marchioness” instead. A major subplot concerns Quilp’s efforts to frame a boy named Kit Nubbles for theft. At the end of the novel, Quilp drowns, and Nell dies shortly before her grandfather also passes away.
- A Christmas Carol (1843) The cold-hearted miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley. Marley’s ghost, who wears heavy chains made of cash boxes and other symbols of greed, tells Scrooge to expect the arrival of three spirits. During a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge is shown a holiday party given by his former employer Mr. Fezziwig, and is taken back to the moment when his fiancée Belle left him on account of his avarice. The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to the homes of his nephew Fred and his clerk Bob Cratchit, whose son Tiny Tim is near death. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge the grave of an unloved man—Scrooge himself. Scrooge has a change of heart, celebrates Christmas, and becomes a benefactor to the Cratchit family, preventing Tiny Tim from dying.
- David Copperfield (1850) Dickens’s favorite of his own books, and the most autobiographical. After David’s father dies, his mother marries the cruel Mr. Murdstone. David is sent to a school where he is tormented by the headmaster Creakle, but finds comfort in his friendships with Tommy Traddles and James Steerforth. While working in London, David befriends the optimistic but indebted Mr. Micawber. Eventually, David escapes his grim warehouse job by walking to Dover. There, he finds his great-aunt Betsey Trotwood, who arranges for David to be educated by the lawyer Mr. Wickfield. David keeps in touch with his old nurse Clara Peggotty, whose relative “Little Em’ly” is seduced and abandoned by David’s former friend Steerforth. Youthful infatuation causes David to wed the flighty Dora Spenlow, who eventually dies. After helping to extricate Mr. Wickfield from the schemes of the “humble” clerk Uriah Heep, David marries Mr. Wickfield’s daughter Agnes. Throughout the story, David progresses in the literary world, ultimately becoming a successful novelist.
- Bleak House (1853) This novel revolves around the Chancery case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has dragged on for many years as family members fight over an inheritance. The title home (which is actually pleasant, rather than bleak) is owned by John Jarndyce, who cares for his young relatives Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Ada has a companion named Esther Summerson, who narrates much of the novel, and is Dickens’s only female narrator. Esther suffers a severe illness after caring for a sick boy named Jo, and learns that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock. The lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn discovers Lady Dedlock’s secret but is murdered by the maid Hortense, a crime that is investigated by Inspector Bucket. Lady Dedlock dies after fleeing home and the Chancery suit ends, as the disputed inheritance has been totally consumed by court costs. Other memorable characters in the novel include the merchant Krook, who dies of spontaneous human combustion; Mrs. Jellyby, who busies herself with charitable causes but neglects her own family, and Horace Skimpole, whose blithe irresponsibility burdens others.
- Hard Times (1854) Thomas Gradgrind is a fact-obsessed utilitarian from Coketown, in the north of England. He superintends a school whose students include an ambitious boy named Bitzer, and Sissy Jupe, a young member of Mr. Sleary’s traveling circus. Mr. Gradgrind arranges for his daughter Louisa to marry Josiah Bounderby, an unpleasant older banker who employs Mr. Grandgrind’s son, Tom. The politician James Harthouse tries to seduce Louisa, who returns home to her father and causes him to see the error of his ways. Tom Gradgrind steals from Mr. Bounderby, unsuccessfully tries to frame a worker named Stephen Blackpool, and flees to America.
- A Tale of Two Cities (1859) Paris and London are the title cities of this novel, which famously begins “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” At the start of the novel, the French doctor Alexandre Manette is released after 18 years in the Bastille, where he was imprisoned to prevent him from revealing the crimes of the Evrémonde family. Dr. Manette relocates to England with the help of his daughter Lucie and the Tellson’s Bank employee Jarvis Lorry. Lucie marries Charles Darnay, a Frenchman who bears a striking resemblance to the English lawyer Sidney Carton. Darnay is also a member of the Evrémonde family. After returning to Paris during the French Revolution, Darnay is arrested as the result of a vendetta against the Evrémondes waged by the Defarges, a proletarian couple who encode information about their enemies into Madame Defarge’s knitting. Carton expresses his love for Lucie by taking Darnay’s place in jail, and goes to the guillotine thinking “it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” Lucie and Darnay escape with the help of the governess Miss Pross, who shoots Madame Defarge.
- Great Expectations (1861) The narrator Philip Pirrip, who is nicknamed “Pip,” is brought up by his sister and her kind husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. While visiting a churchyard, Pip meets the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, and renders him aid. Later, Pip is hired to “play” with a girl named Estella at Satis House, whose owner Miss Havisham was spurned on her wedding day and has worn a wedding dress ever since. When the lawyer Mr. Jaggers reveals that a mysterious benefactor will fund Pip’s education, Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is making him a “gentleman” so that he can marry Estella. Instead, Estella marries the wealthy Bentley Drummle, who mistreats her. Pip discovers that his benefactor was actually the convict Magwitch, and tries to help Magwitch flee England with the help of Pip’s friends Startop and Herbert Pocket. However, the escape is foiled by Compeyson, the man who jilted Miss Havisham. Pip’s great expectations are dashed, but he becomes a better person, and is finally reunited with the widowed Estella. Dickens modified the novel’s conclusion at the suggestion of the author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who objected to an ending in which Estella weds another man.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Daoud Jackson.