I had an interesting idea about a year ago. I would finish reading Charles Dickens. I had been reading Great Expectations for the first time since my Freshman year of high school and I figured that aside from stopping there, it might not be a bad idea to continue with the other Dickens novels. All of them. While over the years I had read several of his novels, I was still slightly less than halfway done and I was missing several of his “major” novels. I decided the best way was to approach them chronologically, to get a sense of how he developed over the years, whether the “minor” novels that came early on really deserved such status. After the first few novels, I had timed it out as such so that if I read one novel a month, I would be done by the end of the year, so since March, I have been going through one Dickens novel a month and yesterday, I finally finished with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the final, 16th, unfinished novel that he was working on when he died in 1870. So here are my thoughts on his novels after spending the last year reading through them all. Some are magnificent, among the best novels ever written while others I would not recommend unless you’re planning to do what I have just done. I read them through in chronological order, but I’m presenting them in a ranking order, based on my own personal preference. If I ever get around to sorting out a list of the 100 Best Novels (regardless of when it was written or in what language), then I’ll probably include the top 2. Maybe #3. We’ll have to see how that eventually plays out. But in the meantime, here’s a slight break from my usual film postings.
16. Dombey and Son
Is Dickens a great author or has his popularity simply prevailed? He certainly was astoundingly popular at his peak and ruled the book-stalls of the times in a way that Dan Brown can only dream of. But how much of it is literature? There is a lot of “minor” Dickens and there is a reason that a lot of it is minor. His penchant for coincidence and sentimentality can mar even the best of his works. But for a minor title like Dombey, there is no saving it. Dombey is so unmemorable that even though I just read it in April, I can’t for the life of me remember anything about it. All I remember is thinking at the time, well, this is the weakest thing Dickens ever wrote.
This is Dickens’ American novel and the last of his picaresque works. It follows in the tradition of Tom Jones, but it lacks any of the wit or style that Fielding brought to his rogue. While Dickens may have thought this the best of all his novels, there is a reason that it is so rarely read today. There are certainly people who champion it, who talk about the satire with which he depicts America, a satire that certainly bears some resonance today. But I found the attempts at satire and wit to fall flat and was completely uninterested in Martin as a character. As I write this, I want to move Martin to the last spot on the list, but I read this right before I read Dombey and I remember thinking at the time that Dombey was definitely the weakest, so I’ll follow along with my original instincts. Certainly unless you’re a Dickens completist (or have OCD like me), I can’t really recommend either of these lowest two.
Pickwick was the novel that began it all. It first began to be serialized in 1836, following on the immense success of Sketches by Boz and was issued as a complete novel in 1837. It took me three tries to finally complete back in January. I’ve owned a copy for years (ever since college in fact) and it was one of the novels that first lead me to believe how little regard I have for Victorian Literature. While more exposure in the years since to the Brontes and Thomas Hardy has lead me to a greater appreciation, this is still a novel that stumps me. It is one of the few works of literature that I will admit that I just might not get. True, it is hard for modern readers because of its random style (extremely episodic, both as a result of being a first novel and because of the style of publication), but there is so much talk of the humor of the book and certainly none of that ever settled in with me. So, while widely regarded as a classic, let’s just settle it that it doesn’t find much favor with me and settles down towards the bottom of the Dickens list.
Would this have ranked higher if it had been completed? I’m not entirely certain of that. I just sense that somewhere beyond what was completed would have been a descent into coincidence and sentimentality that would have belied any of the darker mystery and the final fate of Edwin Drood. For some reason lately this novel has managed to pick up some steam, with various modern writers taking their own stab at what might have happened later in the story. By the time I finally got to Drood, the Dickens was starting to wear on me. I had been through several of his very long major works that I found to be over-rated and I kept thinking this was in the same vein. It took so long to finally get going that even though Dickens had finished half the planned chapters and only taken 250 pages, I couldn’t help but think that the remaining chapters would somehow have pushed the book closer to the 800 page mark once again.
I have no objections to long novels. I read Lord of the Rings every year and I wouldn’t take out a single word of The Brothers Karamazov or Ulysses. But I find that many shorter novels end up being much stronger, not because they are shorter, but because they find ways to be more succinct. I look at Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House and I understand what people talk about in terms of being one of the “major” novels and about the themes and the psychological explorations that Dickens undertakes long before the advent of Sigmund Freud, but then I look at the length and I try to slog through all the pages and I throw up my arms and go, “enough already.” Look at the top two works on this list, also written during the major period, but much shorter novels. That doesn’t make them better in and of themselves, but they also never drag, not for a single page, whereas Our Mutual Friend takes so long to get anywhere and so much longer to keep going that there is only so much I can do with a theme and psychological insight.
11. Bleak House
Bleak House, to me, suffers from some of the same problems as Our Mutual Friend. Yes, you can do a longer novel, such as David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby, provided you can keep the story interesting enough to justify the length. But Dickens does not possess the psychological depth of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or the modernist style of Joyce to maintain such a length without the story to provide it. So Bleak House becomes another of his major novels that falls short for me. Is it worth reading? Yes, certainly everything from Our Mutual Friend up to the top of the list is worth reading in one manner or another. Would I ever assign it to students? No. Would I ever read it again? Highly unlikely. I wanted to get through all of Dickens at least once, but I can’t imagine reading anything again that fell below the top 7.
“Is Little Nell alive?” the crowds would yell at the ships as they came in to the docks in New York. Published in installments during 1840 and 1841, this was the novel that truly cemented Dickens’ popularity. People could not get enough of the story and the death scene had been dragged out and they were desperate to know what happened. Of course, years later this would provoke Oscar Wilde’s famous statement: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” There was certainly more baggage attached to this book than any of the other Dickens’ novels which I hadn’t read when I started this project (I don’t know what this might say about either Dickens or myself that all of the novels I had read before I began the project, and thus, was re-reading ended up higher than all the novels that I hadn’t read). When I finally had made it through the novel to the famous death scene, I was surprised. First, it didn’t seem to last nearly as long as I had heard. Second, I felt neither the overwhelming loss that washed over many of the contemporary readers, nor the revulsion for the sentimentality of the scene that Wilde expressed. In fact, given Dickens’ penchant for sentimentality, I was rather surprised that the scene was as understated as it was.
The fascinating thing about the novel was that I just wasn’t that interested in the fate of Nell or her grandfather. In fact, by the time I got to Nell’s death scene I had lost quite a bit of interest in the novel as a whole. Everything about the power of the novel hinges on the character of Daniel Quilp, the evil hunchbacked dwarf who might just be Dickens’ best villian (yes, even better than Madame DeFarge). Every time he appears on the scene, he is so full of malice, but is clever about it, that his menace just overwhelms everything else. It’s the classic problem from Romeo and Juliet, where Mercutio ends up as so much more an interesting character than Romeo that it undercuts the power of the romance. Quilp is such a brilliant villain, that whenever he isn’t there the novel loses its power and when he dies (of course he dies – this is Dickens after all), there just isn’t enough left of the novel to hold interest.
I was taken completely by surprise reading this. Between the disappointing ending of Curiosity (everything post Quilp just dragged) and the trudging through the drudge of Chuzzlewit and Dombey, this was a welcome breath of fresh air. Who would have thought that one of Dickens’ least regarded novels, one that almost never makes an appearance on film (the BBC seems to have tackled almost everything else), the “other historical novel” aside from Cities, would be so enjoyable? This is one of those books like Great Expectations where the final revelation of the Dickensian coincidence would actually be welcomed instead of a point of ridicule. It almost seems a predecessor to Cities, as it takes place during the Gordon Riots of 1780, not long before the main action in Cities. And at its heart is Barnaby Rudge, who, unlike David Copperfield, does not force us to endure his life story. Perhaps what makes this so effective is the third person narration, as we don’t have to listen to Barnaby try to tell us his story, instead we get a look at his history against the backdrop of English history.
8. Hard Times
The shortest of the major novels, it is perhaps also the most contentious. Written between Bleak House and Little Dorrit against the backdrop of financial problems, both the novel’s length and its subject seem to be a reflection of Dickens’ life in the mid 1850’s. But I, like many critics, find that to be a strength. Without the length of Our Mutual Friend bogging it down, it still manages to find the same kind of tone in its look at society. It is one of the rarest to find in a filmed version, but it is available in a Norton Critical Edition, reflecting the amount of work that critics have pored into it over the years.
One of the marks of many Dickens novels is the young child pressured by the world, forced to endure and somehow even come through. There is no question that this is the story of Dickens life itself and it was never much of a secret, but as I am not a fan of biographical criticism, I try to steer away from that. I look to see if a novel can stand on its own outside of whatever outside influence of the author’s life may have had in its story. At times, Little Dorrit is dragged down by its length, trapped in Dickens’ determination to make us understand how oppressive the Victorian era was to those who did not have the financial means to achieve independence. In some ways, this is a longer continuation of Hard Times, but with more of a story and a central character who returned to the kind of characters that Dickens had made popular in Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop and David Copperfield. In 1988, it was filmed in a magnificent adapation with Alec Guinness which earned him his final Oscar nomination (quite deservedly).
Is it heresy to maintain David Copperfield at such a low position among Dickens’ novels? While Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House are considered major novels, there are many who consider this the epitome of Dickens work, the orphaned urchin who must make his way through society and learn to grow and thrive while pitted against one of the best remembered villains in all of literature: Uriah Heep. Of course, there are characters aplenty in the novel, the most memorable being Micawber, who is remembered by many as much for the portrayal by W.C. Fields in the 1935 film version as he is from the novel itself. There is no question that Dickens himself left a special place in his heart for this novel and for the character of David in particular, though this is as likely because of the autobiographical nature of the story as it is the writing. After all, Dickens thought that Martin Chuzzelwit was the best of his novels. And there are many great aspects of this novel. So why rank it sixth? It is David himself, whom I never particularly warm to as a narrator. Unlike Pip, who Dickens does a better job with of not seeming so irritating, there is just something about the way that David tells the story that puts me off. I am always reminded of Holden Caulfield explaining that his novel won’t have “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
5. Oliver Twist
The most suited to film versions, partially because of its length, partially due to the darkness of the story itself, Oliver Twist has continued to endure. There is the David Lean version with Alec Guinness brilliant Fagin, Robert Newton’s brutal Sykes and Kay Walsh’s tragic Nancy. There is the silent version with a masterful Lon Chaney as Fagin. There is the 1968 Best Picture winner, Oliver!, with great performances and songs that annoy. There is the 2005 version with a tragic take by Ben Kingsley. There is the truly awful 1933 version that is a reminder of how annoying Oliver himself can be.
But what about the novel itself? Well, there are two problems with the novel. The first is Oliver himself, who can be quite clearly annoying, which is not exactly what you want from your title character. But Oliver seems to be less the hero than simply the focal point. There is the other problem of the coincidence that marks Oliver’s familial history, probably the most absurd plot point that Dickens ever came up with. But in the end, they don’t actually matter that much because there are the characters, and they are brilliant from the beginning and stay that way until the end. There isn’t just Fagin, a nasty depiction of a Jewish stereotype, yet a fascinating character nonetheless. There is the Beedle, there is the deadly Bill Sykes and his faithful dog. There is the tragic Nancy, who finally makes a decision to justify her life only to have it cost her that very life. And there is, of course, the Artful Dodger. While Dickens’ books are full of colorful characters, ones whose legacy will last for centuries, Oliver Twist is interesting in that it is all the morally devious characters that are the most worth reading about. Nobility holds no sway in this novel.
How can a tale so short, so full of blatant sentimentality, with such a sappy character as Tiny Tim, with such a cheesy ending still stand the test of time? Because there is no question but that it does stand the test of time. It is probably the most read novel that Dickens ever wrote and every holiday season it takes its place on the radio and television and in bookstores and people devour it over and over again. Is the moral redemption of Scrooge that bring people back? Is it the nobility of the holiday season, a reach for something in which the holiday season prevails over those who would strive against it? What is it about Scrooge that makes actors, especially fine British actors like Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Michael Caine and Patrick Stewart keep coming to him? Sure, you get to play the mean-hearted, despicable miser, but you will also have to play the happy-go-lucky Scrooge at the end. Perhaps the secret is the same secret that lies in Citizen Kane, that something in your past, when you are innocent and carefree, is really what makes you who you are; that reaching back to find what you have lost can conquer what you have become and in the end that is what you hold on to. Because it is a great book, with magnificent descriptions, a brilliant look at what makes a man into who he is and what can make him reach for redemption. If you want a film version, the best is the 1951 version with Alistair Sim.
Back in 2002 I saw the film version of this before I read the novel. I was delightfully surprised at how enjoyable it was, how it seemed to have the comic vision that so many people talk about Pickwick having, how it had the kind of delightful villains that makes Oliver Twist so memorable, yet wasn’t loaded down with a central character that aggravates the nerves like Oliver or David Copperfield. It is a complete novel, the best of Dickens’ longer novels, certainly the best of the early novels and the film version did it justice, with memorable supporting performances from Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent and Nathan Lane. It is a reminder that the kind of character acting that is so amazing to watch in, it seems, every British actor, is perfectly suited for Dickens novels because the characters are so varied and enjoyable. The only two Dickens novels that seem like they would really work with a Hollywood studio are A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, because they are the only two in which everything seems to revolve around a strong, interesting central character. For the rest, it is up to the Brits to show us what characters can really be like when fully brought to life.
For a long time I not only ranked this as the best of the Dickens novels, but as one of the few 19th century novels not written in Russian that I really and truly loved (The Red and the Black and The Three Musketeers were my other two examples). As I have re-read it again twice in the last couple of years, it has lost none of its power. It is one of the few novels in history to have a truly amazing and memorable first and last line (Lolita, The Catcher in the Rye and The Princess Bride are the other three that really make that list), it has one of the great heroes in literature, the brilliant Sydney Carton, who almost qualifies as the first anti-hero as he drunkenly makes his way through the novel, only to come through in the end. It has all the horrors of the French Revolution, but doesn’t lose sight of the human story at the center of the novel. It’s amazing that only one great film version has been made (the 1935 version with Ronald Colman) because this is crying out to be filmed again and again. It has everything a great film needs: a dark story, great supporting characters, a beautiful heroine, a tragic hero who sacrifices himself, blood, revolution, romance.
This comes back again to Carol Mooney. As I said, for a long time I held Tale as the best of Dickens’ work. My estimation of the greatness of Tale hasn’t changed. What has changed is my estimation of how great a novel Great Expectations is. I first read it in 9th grade with Carol as my English teacher and for a long time, I was suffering. The opening was nice and snappy, but then it got bogged down for a long time, until the final 100 pages, which I remember just zipping through. But that was it. I read it for class and then put it away. For almost 20 years.
But then I came back to it. In fact, it was reading again late last year just before watching the David Lean film again to finish off my Director Project after 5 years that inspired me to finally go back and read all of Dickens. Because there is so much to this novel, and Lean’s film is the perfect guide to where to find it. There is the brilliant opening of the book, out in the graveyard, made so darkly real in the film version. But then there is Miss Havisham, made more alive by her appearances in the Thursday Next books, and brought to life so disturbingly dark in the film. But then we move onto London. We have Frances L. Sullivan, who would later be so perfect as the Beedle in Lean’s Oliver Twist, and he is so brilliant, so witty, so caustic, as Mr. Jaggers that he carries the film so perfectly here. Yes, John Mills was too old to play Pip, but he feels right in spite of his age and the introduction of Alec Guinness into the world of film as Herbert Pocket can never be topped. Then, of course, we move on through the darker part of the film and move towards the brutal conclusion. We see how much Pip has turned away from those who love him, we see the violence, we get the brilliant underlying story of what truly makes him a man. He never does fulfill those great expectations, but we him make steps to become a better person and that is where he grows. Yes, there is sentimentality and of course there is the amazing Dickensian coincidence, but they work so well to further the story rather than just come in and rescue it. This is the fully formed genesis of the perfect Victorian novel, with the young boy brought to become a man in the dangerous world of London. I still hold A Tale of Two Cities up as a fantastic book. But if you have to read only one Dickens novel, these days I will recommend Great Expectations.