literary criticism research paper

Charles Dickens, prodigious as a creator, has undoubtedly painted the richest picture of the English social world in the whole range of literature. His perception of things and characters, not at all limited in scope, is remarkable for its direct keenness and fresh vigor. The writer’s personality adds hue to it by which an incomparable liveliness is achieved. The double distinction of being the best story-teller of his time and the most versatile and amusing creator of characters belong to this personality. Moreover, here we have to agree with Leavis who opines that Dickens’s criticisms of the world he lives in are casual and incidental which adds to the beauty, quality and popularity of his works. (Leavis, 228)

Dickens’s attitude towards crime was highly complex. He was drawn to it by mere fascination of the ugly and perverse, by the opportunities it gives to a writer for exploiting the sensations of mystery, suspense and terror, and for throwing the cheerful elements into high relief. Moreover, he liked showing the tragic retribution that follows on crime and was impressed by the thought of the criminal as haunted by evil. In his A Tale of Two Cities, an entire system of legalized oppression that lies behind the picturesque horrors of the French revolution is well explicated.

Dickens’s most obvious social intention was the satirical exposure of particular institutions that were held to blame for much of the misery and vice of his time. In Oliver Twist, it is the inhumanity of the Poor Law; in Little Dorrit, the red tape of Civil Service (‘Circumlocution Office”); in Nicholas Nickleby, that of schools in which poor children were abandoned to the greed of ignorant exploiters; and in Bleak House, the withering effect on character of the law’s delays. Here Orwell’s remark about Dickens holds true: “In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more he has become a national institution himself. In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling. Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody. Naturally this makes one wonder whether after all there was something unreal in his attack upon society.” (Orwell,

The art of Dickens has a deep human quality of which the chief instruments are tears and laughter, and above all, the poignancy and flavor of their fusion. His humor is rich with intense elements, as his sensibility is keenly alive to the moving significance and the odd nature of things. Along with it, a principle of self-control, the faculty to dominate and to mix, was added and this mixture gave his works its quality. As a humorist, he is amenable to discipline, to a psychological duality, one side of his mind watching the other.

Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield and Great Expectations are haloed to be the truest versions available of life in general in his society. His concern never rests on a character; instead a group of characters for his aim was portraying the infinite diversity of mankind, not an analysis of an individual. His Pickwick Papers displays the fertility of his character creation. In it, there are nearly a hundred names in the list of characters prefixed to most editions of the novel and it has been calculated that about three hundred and fifty persons come to the forefront in some role or another.

According to Steven Connor, “the first thing to strike us (in Dickens’s works) ought to be the very high degree of metaphoric substitution in dickens’s own language. Much of this is evidently ironical…” (Ed. Williams, 265). The opening paragraphs of his Hard Times prove this:

“The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s                   forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall.” (Hard Times, I: I, 1)

If Dickens is claimed as one of the best humorists in English literature, he is also one of the masters of the sentiment of pity. An abundance of scenes that are capable enough to move the reader to deep pity, and those that draw tears from his eyes is seen throughout his novels. The scene of little Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop and the scene of the death of little Paul in Dombey and Son drives home this point.

Dickens was from first to last a novelist with a purpose. In almost all his works, we see him as set to attack some specific abuse or abuses in the existing system of things, and throughout he adopted the role of a champion of the weak, the oppressed and the outcast. Humanitarianism is indeed the keynote of his works and thus he was proclaimed to be one of the greatest social reformers of the age.

One kind of character that he developed was that of the victim of society which was usually a child. Oliver Twist (Oliver Twist), little Nell (The Old Curiosity Shop), Florence Dombey (Dombey and Son), David Copperfield (David Copperfield), etc., abounds in divine innocence and goodness, in contrast to the evil creatures whose persecution that caused great suffering to them for a time. Moreover, his aim was to arouse the social conscience of the public against, organized charity (Poor Law Reform Act in Oliver Twist), private schools (Nicholas Nickleby), law’s delays and legal costs (Bleak House), industrial evils (Hard Times), Civil Service (Little Dorrit) and the like.

 Like many authors, Charles Dickens drew from his own life experiences as a means by which to tell his tales. Indeed, his works represent a collection of personal episodes, encounters and introspection as encountered by one of the literary world’s most respected authors. No doubt, we tend to agree with Humphrey House when he opines in his The Dickens World that the temperament, upbringing, social and intellectual environment had affected Dickens’s angle of vision or his treatment of a problem. (House, 232).


Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Harper & Brothers, Published 1854

House, Humphrey. The Dickens World, London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press. 1941. Pp. 232.

Leavis, F. R., The Great Tradition, “Hard Times: An Analytic Note”, London 1960, pp 227-48.

Orwell, George.

Williams, Mukesh. (Ed.) ‘Deconstructing Dickens: Hard Times’ by Steven Connor. Charles Dickens Hard Times. Worldview publications, 1999, pp- 265.


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