what is the best book by charles dickens
What was the best book of Charles Dickens? It depends on who you ask. G.K. Chesterton claimed that Bleak House reflected Dickens’ mature peaks of talent as a writer, even though he said, “We can tell more or less when a man is completely mental, even if we have been going so far as to wish he had never been here.” The Guardian drew this fascinating chart of 12th rank of Dickens this in February 2012, on the occasion of his 200th anniversary. First came Bleak House, last Great Hopes, but the two titles hold two of the top places with Time publishing its own Dickens Top 10 Bicentennial Dickens Chart.
1- Bleak House
Kelly Hager, Simmons College Associate Professor of English, Women’s and Gender Studies
Mr. Snagsby is not going to say that Dickens’ best novel is Bleak House. It may not be everyone’s favorite (that honor may go to Dickens’ own ‘favorite boy,’ David Copperfield, or the Victorian Bernie Madoff, Little Dorrit, or the 10th grade English classic, Great Expectations). Still, Bleak House is his best: in terms of plot, character, speed, social significance, readability, and its adaptation potential, jus.
BBC’s 2005 edition brought to the fore the pathos of the plight of heroin Esther Summerson and the hypocrisy of the environment that created that plight. Brought up by a guardian (actually her aunt) who led her sister to assume that her (illegitimate) child was born dead, Esther does not discover who her mother is, or even that she is alive until she has been so disfigured by smallpox that she no longer poses the danger of incriminating her (now married and ennobled) mother by their likeness. The scene of their first (and only) encounter is heart-rending but not maudlin, showing how far Dickens has gone beyond the nostalgic depiction of Little Nell’s deathbed (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and his precious description of the orphan Oliver Twist. The emotions that the scene calls up are truthful, well deserved, poignant.
Similarly, John Jarndyce’s anger at the Chancery case in the novel is not the self-righteous rage of those who expose the educational abuses of Dotheboys Hall (in Nicholas Nickleby) or rail against the inequities of the law of divorce (in Rough Times). Still, the heartfelt frustration of a man who saw friends and relatives devastated by the red tape and bureaucracy of the Court of C. Dickens is carrying out a comparable attack on the appropriately called Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, where the main thing is to learn “how not to do it,” but the picture is comic. In the Bleak House, he does the toughest and the most subtle thing, focusing not on comedy, only sadly, to reveal the system’s ills. He’s writing with empathy; he’s not making fun easy. In the Bleak House, written between the two national cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854, Dickens also draws attention to the need for sanitary reform (specifically for controlled, safe water supply to the public); in reality, Bleak House is one of the first fictional commitments in the field of public health.
Dedicated to social problems, moving and full of characters that we love (the unflappable army wife, Mrs. Bagnet; Jo, the crossbowman; Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock’s faithful husband) and feel that we love to hate (the greedy parents Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop; Vholes, the vampiric lawyer), Bleak House is Dickens at his best.
The author of The Starry Sky Inside Astronomy and the Reach of Mind in Victory Literature, Anna Hennman, assistant professor of English at Boston University. Bleak House starts in sooty darkness: swirls of smoke, snowflakes of black with blue, indistinguishable masses. Movement is circular’ slipping and sliding’—without progress. The rules of this world are quickly established: there is a strict divide between groups. Characters are moving pieces of a mechanism that absorbs them. Separate worlds coexist with no interaction. But then the novel explodes when Mr. Guppy, on the left, presumes to call the cold Lady Dedlock. She agrees to see him, and even more oddly, in his presence betrays a frantic weakness, a longing to know that echoes our perplexity as readers of this book. After Mr. Guppy’s visit, a new series of events unfold, and Lady Dedlock’s life is rearranged before our eyes. Later, on the open grass, another remarkable encounter takes us ever closer to her consciousness.
Like us, Mr. Guppy played the detective, set up the novel parts, and he does it better than we are at this point.
Bleak House is a novel full of detectives with whom we sit in uneasy familiarity, and their curious state of mind represents our own. Their “call is the acquisition of secrets.” Two distinct narrators lead us through this increasingly intelligible world. An omniscient narrator can enter anywhere from foggy London to Lincolnshire. He floats through the walls, going from the airless chambers of one townhouse to the greasy interior of another that smells of burnt flesh.
On the other hand, Esther is a quiet outsider, for whom all is new and unusual. Some of the novel’s most significant results are when Esther takes us through spaces that we’ve seen many times and thought we understood. Right after Esther talks to Lady Dedlock, she walks through the fragrant gardens of Chesney Wold. “Grotesque monsters brittle” as she talks of the lives they lead inside, and for the first Time, we feel close to the stately house.
The great joy of this novel is the enjoyment of plot — of putting events in order retroactively. Like detectives, novelists are building patterns out of random pieces. More than any other novel by Dickens, this novel feels both orderly and complex. Characters that flash past us — a man from Shropshire, a crossbar — resolve in-depth, acquire names, and fill in Time and space. As the boundaries between the network of characters thicken, the universe becomes smaller, more familiar, but more threatening for those we love the most.
Maia McAleavey, Assistant Professor of English at Boston College
“Of course I’ve been in love with little Em’ly,” David Copperfield tells the reader of his childhood love. The kind of judicious weighing that superlatives require is very different from the simple way the reader falls in love with David Copperfield.
In my opinion, David is much more lovable than Pip (Great Hopes’ fictional autobiographer) and better realized than Esther (Bleak House’s partial narrator). And it helps to provide a first-person guide on Dickens’ exuberant journeys. Like Dickens, David is a novelist, and he guides the reader through the novel as a bizarre mix of character, narrator, and author. It’s not always a soothing influence. “If I’m the hero in my own life, or if someone else occupies that station, the pages must be exposed,” David said at He is a young man who has subdued himself at once after a busy night and an orchestrated narrative voice. I felt it in the window curtains; we went downstairs, one behind the other. Somebody dropped at the bottom, rolled down. Someone else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at the false article, until, finding myself in the back of the passage, I began to think there may be some justification for it.
Is the novel sentimental, sexist, and long-lasting? Yeah, yes, yes, yes, yes. But Dickens also frames each of these attributes as a concern in his pages. He meditates on the creation, replication, and preservation of memories; he surrounds his usually ideal female protagonists, the child-bride Dora and the Angel-in-the-House Agnes, the indomitable matriarch Betsey Trotwood, and the sexless maternal nurse Peggotty; and he lamps the melodramatically long-winded Micawber while devising thousands of ways to hold the reader hooked. If you haven’t found your first love for Dickens, David is your guy.
Leah Price, Harvard University Professor of English “Of all my novels,” Dickens admitted in the preface, “I like the best of them. It is easy to believe that I am a dear parent to every child in my imagination and that no one will ever love that family as sweet as I am to them. But, like many dear parents, I have a favorite child in my heart. And its name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.
David Copperfield fits the bill for the “best of” contest because it’s all about who’s first, who’s favorite, who’s first. Dickens’ few novels are to be told entirely in the first person, the only one whose initial narrators are reversed by Charles Dickens and who tells friends about his own family and career in parallel with Dickens’s story. (But Dickens takes the right of the author to boost the truth, especially by killing David’s father before the novel starts, to keep him from racking up as many debts as Dickens senior did in the course of his inconveniently long life.)
It’s also one of Dickens’s few novels dominated by the story of a character and the voice of an individual (as opposed to the Bleak House, say, which Two rotating narrators shuttles back and forth from one person and one person and the other person, the other person, and the third person). Consequently, David Copperfield is less structurally complex, but often more focused, with a strength of concentration that can often feel claustrophobic or monomaniac, but never lose its grasp on the brain and heart of the reader. Its peculiarity makes it more readable than a novel such as Pickwick Papers in which the title is nothing but a man’s clothesline with a welter like that vibrant minor characters is hung. But at the same Time, it’s a novel about how hard it is to be the first: can you first come into your mother’s heart after she’s married to a wicked stepfather? And will your second wife be the first to come to you after her predecessor died?
On the birthday of David, he says to us: “I got into the public house’s bar and said to the landlord, ‘What’s your best – your best – glass? “Two pence-halfpenny,” says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning Malt.” David Copperfield is genuinely spectacular: there’s nothing like that, either in Dickens’s work or out.
Deb Gettelman, Assistant Professor of English at the Holy Cross College.
For every reason, there’s a different best novel by Dickens. Although Dickens’ odd characters with their tic phrases often seem interchangeable, his books as a whole are remarkably different from each other in their emphasis on interest, narrative structure, and, in some cases, length. The best Dickens novel to be read? Bleak Home, guy. To teach, huh? It’s Oliver Twist. To boast that I’ve been reading? Martin Chuzzlewit (I only have one). To understand Dickens’ consciousness as a writer? Tiny Dorrit, guy.
I want to think that the best novel of a writer is the one that would have made the most significant change in how much we think we appreciate the work of that writer as a whole if it had never been published. For me, later, darkened, more reflective books are often more appropriate for this purpose: persuasion, Villette, The Dove Wings. There are typical plot complications — and what Dickens called the novel’s “various threads” always seem to hang together — but at its core is the stasis of the debtor’s jail, where Amy, or Little Dorrit, grew up tending to her indulgent father. Many of the novel’s mentally incarcerated characters are mostly around the brood of their warped lives, particularly the hero, Arthur Clennam. The ironic images of bureaucrats and aristocrats, the self-sacrificial young woman, including the murdering French man – elements familiar to this novel from Dickens’ other novels seem more troubling. Since so much melancholy, they’re the root. At one point, Dickens describes the thoughts of Clennam in a way that seems emblematic of the novel: “Little Dorrit, Little Dorrit. Again, for a couple of hours. Tiny Dorrit, still Shortly after writing it, Dickens made a show of splitting up his family, and the characters in the novel torment, contort, twist, and stifle each other’s feelings in spectacularly horrible ways. In a word association game, ‘Dickens’ would quickly remember terms like ‘comedy,’ ‘caricature,’ and ‘satire.’ ‘Little Dorrit’ would produce ‘interiority,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘angst,’ and all the creative techniques that Dickens uses to achieve these qualities. It helps us to see the fullest possible psychological and innovative range of his work.
6- Our Mutual Friend
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Linfield College’s assistant professor of English. In a scored tracking fire on an asteroid, the opening sequence will play. The body fished out of the Thames becomes a gossip at a new rich banquet, from which two lawyers sneak out to a dockside police station, where they encounter a mysterious man who runs off to take lodgings with a clerk, whose daughter becomes a dustman’s ward, who hires a peg-legged ballader to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I didn’t even mention the taxidermist.
It’s a Facebook fantasy: everybody is connected — though, in the darkly ironic world of late Dickens, this is less of an achievement than an indictment. The surprise comes from how much fun it is to access its corrupted social network. Our Mutual Pal, his last completed book, brings you both a complex web of plots and a cast of deliciously scurrilous plotters. Its unique tickle stems from the acknowledgment that everyone is an impostor and a gleeful one. People who ignore Dickensian eccentrics as fanciful caricatures miss how often the imaginations of characters are insistent projections of their own. As the narrator says of the self-important ballader: “His gravity was rare, prodigious, and immeasurable, not because he acknowledged any doubts about himself, but because he found it appropriate to prevent any doubts about himself in others.” The self we perform is the self we become.
And they’re all performing in Our Mutual Friend. A lawyer pretends to be a lime merchant for an undercover job in a bar, and after the sleuthing comes to an end, he’s so enamored with the role that he’s giving the potboy a job in his fictitious “lime-kiln.” When the orphan Sloppy reads the newspaper, “he’s doing the police in different voices”—a line that T.S. does. Eliot pinched the title of his work for The Waste Land.
Dickens also shows us that the observations we call post-modern (personality as performance, fiction as a gimmick) have Victorian origins. The makers of The Wire proclaimed their debt to the master of serial storytelling in the 19th century, and it is no wonder that the Lost season finale revolved around a replica of Our Mutual Friend. This is the book you’re searching for on a desert island.