Charles Dickens has been one of the most popular novelists in the English language for 175 years. From 1836 when his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was serialized, to 2011 when the two current selections in Oprah’s Book Club are A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, readers have loved Dickens’ work. That adoration is due in large part to his characters – memorably named and richly drawn, they pull us in until we’re immersed in the stories and settings.
In honor of Charles Dickens’ 199th birthday on February 7, 2011, we present a few favorite Dickens characters. But before we begin, we must announce a spoiler alert! We do reveal a few key plot points, so if Dickens is on your reading list, you may want to avert your eyes.
1. Oliver Twist, one of the world’s most famous orphans, was the first child protagonist in an English novel. His bold request for an extra helping of gruel, “Please, sir, I want some more,” gave readers sympathy for his plight and love for his pluck. As Oliver is cast unwillingly into a life of crime in the novel that bears his name, we wait and hope for a happy ending… which, of course, we get. Dickens wasn’t the type to make us love a down-on-his-luck protagonist only to have us mourn his tragic end. Not all his characters come to positive ends, but the good guys tend to come out on top.
"Please, sir, I want some more." Illustration from Oliver Twist by George Cruikshank.
2. Madame Defarge was quite the opposite of Oliver Twist – she was one of Dickens’ delightfully nasty villains. A bloodthirsty knitter immortalized in A Tale of Two Cities, she loved to watch the guillotines of the French Revolution drop, and in her knitting she encrypted the names of the people she helped send to their death through the lies she spread. Dickens’ fans, lovers of happy endings, would never want to see a baddie like Madame Defarge win – so, of course, she is killed in the end by her own pistol.
3. Estella, object of Pip’s fascination in Great Expectations, is neither protagonist nor villain, neither truly evil nor particularly likeable. Her cold beauty is endlessly seductive – and endlessly frustrating – to Pip. She openly flirts with and marries someone else (despite his poor treatment of her), shows no remorse, and never comes around to loving Pip or anyone else. But we learn that her coldness isn’t her fault: she was raised to toy with men and make them love her without being requited. These lessons spiraled out of control until she wasn’t able to love anyone, even the mother figure who taught them to her… who happens to be another favorite Dickens character.
4. Miss Havisham is that mother figure, or more accurately, benefactress to Estella. Though she raised Estella, she was far from motherly, being too caught up in her own strange and sad life story. Jilted at the altar, she spent the rest of her life in her wedding dress while her mansion decayed around her. Miss Havisham both fascinates and terrifies us – who can help wondering if a severe emotional blow would send them down the same path to unhinged reclusiveness? Despite her over-the-top oddness and tendency toward cruelty, Miss Havisham repents in the end and begs for forgiveness. Dickens couldn’t let her off the hook so easily, though – Havisham’s iconic wedding gown catches fire with her in it, leading to her death.
Estella, Miss Havisham and Pip. Illustration from Great Expectations by H. M. Brock.
5. David Copperfield is considered the most autobiographical of Dickens’ characters. Copperfield’s employment in the bottling factory in his eponymous novel mirrors Dickens’ own time working in a bootblack factory as a child. That rather negative experience had a strong influence on Dickens, likely contributing to his passion for social reform. Dickens was angered by the deplorable state of prisons, the plight of women reduced to working as prostitutes, the working and living conditions of the poor. With characters like David Copperfield, he thrust these issues under the noses of his readers, bringing awareness to previously under-recognized problems – and in many cases, spurring needed reforms. For Copperfield, of course, there’s a change of fortune leading to a happy ending – like his creator, he becomes a writer and lives comfortably off his work.
6. Sam Weller was the character who made Charles Dickens famous. Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was written in serial form, and the early installments weren’t getting too much attention. He needed to punch it up and give his readers a character to talk about – so he created Sam Weller, personal servant to the protagonist Pickwick, and a cockney who loved to make astute and comic commentary on the action. Once Weller hit the scene in chapter 10, sales rose and Dickens was the next great literary phenomenon.
Sam Weller. Illustration from The Pickwick Papers by Joseph Clayton Clarke, a.k.a. Kyd.
7. Esther Summerson was Charles Dickens’ only female narrator. Heroine of Bleak House, she is an orphan, and much of the book’s drama centers on the question and discovery of her true identity and lineage. Bleak House is widely held to be one of Dickens’ finest novels – many critics consider it to be his best. It’s certainly ambitious, with the narration switching between Esther Summerson’s first-person storytelling and an omniscient third-person narrator, an unusually complex structure for the time. And Summerson as narrator has a lot to teach us about what Dickens and his fellow Victorians thought about women: she was a classic example of the “Angel in the House,” the coveted Victorian ideal of the perfect woman, modest and self-effacing, full of sweetness and light.
8. Ebenezer Scrooge may be Dickens’ most famous character, so much so that his last name has become a common term for any stingy or miserly person. His story is one of the great reversals of English literature, making him a character we love to hate to love. He goes from ridiculously over-the-top humbugging (another word we strongly associate with Scrooge, although it didn’t originate with him) to just as pronounced do-goodery. His extreme change of heart at the end of A Christmas Carol might be a little hard to believe, but it still gives us hope. If that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” can become generous and loving, maybe anyone can… even the scrooges in our own lives.
Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost. Illustration from A Christmas Carol by John Leech.