“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” not only in London and Paris during the French Revolution, but also in high school English classrooms across the country where Charles Dickens’ famous novel A Tale of Two Cities is assigned.
It was the worst of times because Dickens could be long-winded and murky, with ornate sentences, twisting plotlines and a lengthy list of complex characters. It was the best of times because when read carefully, and often, Dickens emerges as one of the funniest, most passionate, moral and important writers ever. A satirist and caricaturist as well as social reformer, Dickens wrote novels that brilliantly exposed the many injustices of the 19th Century, especially the brutal treatment and neglect of society’s under class.
Dickens came by his viewpoint honestly, and many of his books mirror his life. At the age of 12 he had to quit school and work in a shoe-polish factory, and his father eventually went to debtor’s prison. After teaching himself to write, and discovering that he had a talent for describing everyday life, Dickens began submitting his observations on city life to magazines under the pen name Boz. When a collection of those observations, Sketches by Boz, proved popular, Dickens was asked by a publishing company to write a story in monthly installments, a story that became The Pickwick Papers. The book, which made the comic Samuel Pickwick into a national icon, also made Dickens an overnight success.
Financially solvent, Dickens turned to darker themes, including the attempts of society’s poor to survive in the face of an unfeeling government, a hostile legal system, and the ravages of the fledgling industrial age, which produced a new upper class that was both malicious and corrupt. Yet running through the somber plots of his novels are a fascinating cast of secondary characters with a litany of idiosyncratic, often hilarious mannerisms. Dickens could be wickedly funny, while wickedly angry, brilliantly contrasting “the best and worst” of the human spirit, as books such as Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and his most famous work, A Christmas Carol, still prove.
In his later years Dickens also wrote plays and musical dramas, and he traveled extensively, doing readings of his stories both in England and America. He died this week (June 9) in 1870.
Among English writers, only Shakespeare has been more analyzed, quoted and dissected, but the best description of Dickens’ work I ever heard came from a high school student who was asked to describe the main message Dickens was trying to convey.
“That the world would be a better place,” this student replied, “if we were all just a little nicer to each other.”