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An Influence of Charles Dickens on Literature

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Author Analysis: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, the 19th century British writer is remembered as one of the greatest authors of all time. But what makes a writer liable for such a title? For this paper, I combined my knowledge of three Dicken’s books: Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and A Tale of Two Cities with that of three literary criticisms, and finally a personal letter by Dickens. Throughout my research, I was able to identify common themes appearing in most of Dickens’ work (including, but not limited to: the ontological plane, beauty, and theology). Dickens’ thoughts on these major themes are also influenced by various sources, such as his own life experiences, the bible (Gribble), and symbolism–frequently drawing on the image of hands throughout his work (Capuano). One theme that seems to dominate Dickens’ literature, however, is the criticism of the upper class. Throughout his writing, Dickens conveyed his feelings that upper class society corrupted one’s morality, theology, and relationship with God.

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In order to maximize the clarity of this paper, I have organized it into four sections. The first focusing on the aspects of Dickens’ literature which are drawn from his personal life. The second section, containing a subsection, describes how Dickens uses symbolism to express his personal opinions throughout his text. The third section also contains subsections and discusses outside literature that created an influence on his work as well. The final section is a conclusion which ties the three main points of this paper together.

INFLUENCES OF PERSONAL LIFE

Dickens’ thoughts on society are mostly drawn from his personal experiences with the social class system. As a young boy, Charles Dickens was part of the lowest working class, having employment in a blacking factory for the majority of his childhood. However, once he gained popularity as an author, he officially graduated into upper class society. Due to his experiences in both social settings, Dickens’ literature explores both sides of the social spectrum (Trendafilov), from Oliver’s workhouse life in Oliver Twist to Monseigneur and his four hot-chocolate-making servants in A Tale of Two Cities. In a letter to a friend, Dickens expresses his complaints that upper class society places value on superficial commodities. In his writing, he incorporates this superfluity in his characters. For example, this description of the bureaucrat Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist: “He was in the full bloom and pride of beadlehood; hiscocked hat and coat were dazzling in the morning sun; he clutched his cane with the vigorous tenacity of health and power” (Dickens 127). In this description, Dickens creates the image of a man who measures his worth by his material possessions, much like Dickens viewed the majoritarian upper class.

SYMBOLISM

Dickens again embodies the superfluous aristocrat in Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, however in this instance his description goes beyond created a superficial character:

She was dressed in rich materials — satins, and lace, and silks — all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks were scattered about…

It was not in the first moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its luster, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone… (57).

In this description, not only does Dickens create another Mr. Bumble-esque character, but he makes the point of the wear that superfluity brings. By using the symbolisms of white-to-yellow and the shrunken figure of Miss Havisham, Dickens creates a visual representation of the tarnish he felt was created on the soul when a person places their focus away from transcendence or moral correctness and onto material possessions.

Use of Characters. Dickens draws on his characters as a way to symbolize his deeper opinions on life and theology. Dickens often uses “flat” characters to emphasize character traits of his “round” characters. Vladimir Trendafilov makes the analysis that:

Oliver’s… mother… [and] Estella in Great Expectations are vehicles of ontological beauty. Biddy in Great Expectations… [represents] socio-moral compromises with that beauty, utilizations of deep ontology. Those belonging to the first group attract the protagonists peremptorily, unconditionally. The love that the protagonist shows in the second group is rather pragmatic, egoistic, self-centered, utilizing. Failing to distinguish between the two kinds of beauty would entail an inability to grasp Dickens’s aesthetic for what it is — i.e. as basically ontological (164).

In this, Trendafilov exemplifies Dickens’ use of round and flat characters. By creating the comparison between the love the protagonist (Pip) has for Estella and Biddy, Dickens is able to reflect the different types of ontological beauty Trendafilov describes.

Why, though, would Dickens include these two kinds of beauty? Starting with just ontological beauty and analyzing the drive it causes the protagonist to have: Because of Pip’s devotion to Estella, he adapts a mindset of creating himself to be a gentleman worthy of her affection. In his own words: “Whatever [knowledge] I acquired, I tried to impart to Joe. This statement sounds so well, that I can’t in my conscience let it pass unexplained. I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella’s reproach” (112). Throughout the entirety of the novel, Pip is chasing this hope, eventually giving up on Joe almost entirely. He also uses his “utilizing” love for Biddy to gain knowledge to make him worthy of Estella (which of course, never happens). This relates directly back to Dickens’ views on morals and superficiality. While Pip is focused on being gentlemanly (instead of theology or morals), he loses everything he had ever gained. By having this secondary or “utilizing” love towards the lower class Biddy, any knowledge of worth that could have been imparted on Pip is lost.

LITERARY INFLUENCES

Dickens’ work is mainly influenced by two specific literary pieces: The Bible and The Origin of Species. Dickens draws his theological and moral views from the Bible, and he uses the text to make personal opinions throughout his work. The Origin of Species, while mostly influencing Great Expectations, introduces additional qualities of the common day symbolism of the hand (Capuano 187), which is apparent throughout a number of his works.

The Origin of Species. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, the same year that Dickens began work on A Tale of Two Cities. He also began writing Great Expectations at the height of the book’s popularity. Even before The Origin of Species, hands were used to symbolize the separateness of man and animal and consequently, the upper and lower classes (Capuano 187). However, with its publication came the discovery of the similarities between human and primate skeletons. This discovery led to more specific definitions of anatomy to keep animal and man separate (Capuano 190), along with more specific psychological definitions (Capuano 192). Dickens basically takes the ideals and facts presented in The Origin of Species and reitterates them into his own text, using almost every hand symbolism one could pick out. In both novels, Dickens makes a symbol out of the gorilla’s hunting style, that is, “… The gorilla attacked not with its formidable teeth, but rather with its “bare” hands” (Capuano 191). First, in A Tale of Two Cities when the wine spills into the streets, it is easy to recognize the wine as a symbol for blood. However when people begin rushing to drink the wine it stains their hands and the scene begins to take on an animalistic quality, giving the people in the streets the connotations of barbaric. Again in Great Expectations, the character Molly kills a woman by strangulation, using her bare hands. This, along with Dickens’ blatant emphasizing of Molly’s hands throughout, parallels with eerie similarity to that of a gorilla’s hunting technique. Characterising Molly herself as animalistic.

The Bible. Because of Dickens’ Christian theology, influences of the Bible can be found throughout nearly all of his work. However, in Great Expectations, Dickens goes so far as to use a plot similar to that of a biblical quest to highlight his thoughts and opinions. Dickens uses the symbolism of the bible to discuss his own theology in Great Expectations, making points that material possessions will weaken one’s relationship with God (this done when Pip is reading from the bible to Magwitch, the quote: “Everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (verse 18). In any case, self-humbling includes abandoning possessions). This directly relates to Dickens’ displeasure with the upper class, who surround themselves with material items. Through the mood and tone of Great Expectations Dickens makes it easier for his readers to identify transcendence as a major theme, which allows him to insert his own belief that a person should strive to reach transcendence through the biblical plot line.

CONCLUSION

Charles Dickens gathered influence from multiple sources over his life and as an author. Through his life and religion, he was able to draw his own personal opinions on morals and social class, using his literature to argue against upper society. The incorporation of symbolism, details from his personal life, and allusions to other texts such as the Bible was mainly how Dickens formed arguments within his text. While Dickens’ work is mostly described as entertaining, after this research, it seems a likely conclusion to draw that his work was argumentative and theological as well. By leaning heavily on biblical principles to create a sense of right and wrong within many of his plotlines, Dickens successfully created literature that defined a proper way to live — in his own eyes.

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