An Animated Introduction to Charles Dickens’ Life & Literary Works

The social role of the writer changes from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, but at no time in the his­to­ry of lit­er­ary cul­ture have nov­el­ists and poets faced more com­pe­ti­tion for the atten­tion of their read­ers than they do today. Before visu­al media took over as the pri­ma­ry means of sto­ry­telling, how­ev­er, many writ­ers enjoyed the mea­sure of fame now giv­en to film and pop music stars. Or at least they did in the age of Charles Dick­ens, whose tire­less self-pro­mo­tion and pop­ulist sen­ti­ments endeared him to the pub­lic and made him one of the most famous men of his day.

Dick­ens was “a great show­man” says Alain de Bot­ton above in his School of Life intro­duc­tion to the author of Great Expec­ta­tions, Oliv­er Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and too many more great books to name. (Find them in our col­lec­tions of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books.) He was a nat­ur­al celebri­ty before radio and tele­vi­sion and, to the dis­may of his more high-mind­ed col­leagues, “enter­tain­ment was at the heart of what Dick­ens was up to.”

But Dick­ens used his pub­lic plat­form not only to advance his career, but also to “get us inter­est­ed in some pret­ty seri­ous things: the evils of an indus­tri­al­iz­ing soci­ety, the work­ing con­di­tions in fac­to­ries, child labor, vicious social snob­bery, the mad­den­ing inef­fi­cien­cies of gov­ern­ment bureau­cra­cy.” Then and now, these are hard­ly sub­jects read­ers want to be remind­ed of. And yet, then as now, great sto­ry­tellers can make us care despite our apa­thy and desire for escapist plea­sure. And few writ­ers have made read­ers care more than Dick­ens.

His “genius was to dis­cov­er that the big ambi­tions to edu­cate a soci­ety about its fail­ings didn’t have to be opposed to what his crit­ics called ‘fun’—racy plots, a chat­ty style, clown­ish char­ac­ters, weepy moments, and hap­py end­ings.” Yet Dick­ens didn’t only seek to edu­cate, de Bot­ton argues; he “believed that writ­ing could play a big role in fix­ing the prob­lems of the world.” In this he was not entire­ly wrong, despite the anti-polit­i­cal sen­ti­ments of so many aes­thetes who have argued oth­er­wise, from Oscar Wilde to W.H. Auden.

Though he opposed many work­ing class move­ments and had no “coher­ent doc­trine” of social change, says Hugh Cun­ning­ham, pro­fes­sor of social his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kent, Dick­ens “helped cre­ate a cli­mate of opin­ion” by emo­tion­al­ly mov­ing peo­ple to sym­pa­thize with the poor and to take action in con­tro­ver­sies already rag­ing in the zeit­geist. In this role, Dick­ens pre­ced­ed dozens of writ­ers who—like himself—began their careers in jour­nal­ism and sought through fic­tion to moti­vate com­pla­cent read­ers: nat­u­ral­ist nov­el­ists like Emile Zola, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreis­er, and muck­rak­ing real­ists like Upton Sin­clair all owe some­thing to Dick­ens’ mode of social protest through nov­el-writ­ing.

De Bot­ton goes on in his intro­duc­tion to explain some of the bio­graph­i­cal ori­gins of Dick­ens’ sym­pa­thy for the afflict­ed, includ­ing his own time spent as a child labor­er and his father’s con­fine­ment in debtor’s prison. The con­di­tions Dick­ens and his char­ac­ters endured are unimag­in­able to most priv­i­leged read­ers, but not to mil­lions of peo­ple in pover­ty around the world who still live under the kind of squalid oppres­sion the Vic­to­ri­an poor suf­fered. Whether any author in the 21st cen­tu­ry can bring the same kind of sym­pa­thet­ic atten­tion to their lives that Dick­ens did in his time is debat­able, but De Bot­ton uses Dick­ens’ exam­ple to argue that art and enter­tain­ment can “seduce” us into com­pas­sion and tak­ing action for oth­ers.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Cel­e­brate the 200th Birth­day of Charles Dick­ens with Free Movies, eBooks and Audio Books

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Jane Austen

Fyo­dor Dostoyevsky’s Life & Lit­er­a­ture Intro­duced in a Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tion

What Are Lit­er­a­ture, Phi­los­o­phy & His­to­ry For? Alain de Bot­ton Explains with Mon­ty Python-Style Videos

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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