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Charles Dickens - Biography

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

The work of Charles Dickens defined the poverty of the Industrial Revolution as no other author ever has. He made it his virtual life's work; although it could be argued he created hilarious scenes and marvelous characterizations in the process, his true goal in life was to awaken the middle and upper classes to the terrible plight of Britain's poor.

And one thing Dickens knew well, from all-too-personal experience, was poverty. He was the second of eight children, and during his childhood, the Dickens family was prosperous enough to lead young Charles to expect he would be able to pursue an education. However, his father fell into severe debt, and at that time debtors who were unable to pay were often thrown into prison, together with their wives and young children. Charles, at twelve, was old enough to get a job and support himself by working in a factory that made blacking (shoe polish). He hated it, mostly because he so desperately wanted to go to school. He also saw first-hand the cruelty with which young workers like himself were treated.
Once his father earned his freedom and began to get his life back in order, Charles was permitted to quit the factory and return to school. He did well and proceeded through a series of jobs befitting an intelligent and decently-educated young man of those days; he worked for a while as an office boy while studying shorthand at night, and then served very successfully as a court reporter before his fiction career took off. But he was never able to fully get over the terrible experiences in the blacking factory; his determination to champion the rights of the poor and oppressed affected his whole life.

Most of his works took aim at the business-mercantile world and its lack of interest in the effect of bottom-line economics on the poor. Dickens created vivid characters who represent the gamut of human experience, but in almost every one of his works, the reader is especially affected by his sympathetic portrayals of those at the bottom of the social structure. In "A Cricket on the Hearth," we are touched by the plight of the poor toymaker Caleb Plummer and his blind daughter, who live "all alone by themselves, in a little cracked nutshell of a wooden house, which was, in truth, no better than a pimple on the prominent red-brick nose of Gruff and Tackleton. The premises of Gruff and Tackleton were the great feature of the street; but you might have knocked down Caleb Plummer's dwelling with a hammer or two, and carried off the pieces in a cart." Similarly, Bob Cratchit scarcely earns enough to support his brood of children; there are no leftovers from his Christmas feast, and after dinner, when the Cratchits ready themselves to toast the founder of the feast Mr. Scrooge, they have at hand "the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle."
But the Cratchit children are fortunate compared to the beings the Spirit of Christmas Present harbors beneath his robe: "They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.... 'This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it,' cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.'"

In both "A Christmas Carol" and "The Cricket on the Hearth," Dickens shows us wealthy people who have possessions but no heart, and poor people who are rich with love. He does not mean to imply, by any means, that we should let the poor alone because they're obviously better off than the rich are. He means to show us that in our pursuit of wealth and status, we have our priorities backwards. At the end of "The Cricket on the Hearth", sour Mr. Tackleton has a change of heart and comes to May's wedding reception; at the end of "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge has a change of heart and becomes "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." In both cases, we are left with the impression that they will become more generous with both their pocketbooks and their hearts. Dickens' real goal in his writing career was to raise the consciousness of his readers to follow suit, and make the world a better place to live for all.

Read Storybites' analysis of...

A Christmas Carol

The Cricket on the Hearth

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