Charles Dickens is the giant of English Literature. And a prolific writer: it is an amazing thought that it would take you almost as long to read all of Charles Dickens’ novels and published works as it took him to write them. He completed and published fourteen substantial first rate novels and was working on another at the time of his death.
Dickens also wrote several novellas, short stories, travel pieces and a great number of journalistic articles. He was somewhat unusual in that, not only was he a bestselling writer, of which there were many in Victorian times, but that those bestsellers have become landmark novels in the English canon, and regarded as being among the best novels ever written.
He was also an actor and a social activist, campaigning for prison reform and founding and managing a home for fallen women.
We present a list of Charles Dickens novels in order of their publication date, and chart his development as a writer.
The Pickwick Papers (1837)
This is the first completed novel by the 25 year-old Charles Dickens. It was Dickens the comic writer, who was to become the author of some of the deepest, most serious novels of the nineteenth century, although, like The Pickwick Papers, they were also filled with humour and comic characters. No matter how serious the issues in the later novels, like child abuse, crime, poverty, were, there was always humour.
In this novel one can see the young writer flexing his muscles, putting into practice what he has learnt from the writers he most wanted to be like. And his choice of influences was impeccable: Spaniard, Miguel Cervantes and Scottish poet and novelist, Tobias Smollett were the main models for his early novels.
Mr Pickwick, A wealthy gentleman, totally impractical and idealistic, embarks on a trip, travelling around the countryside with his servant, a young Cockney, the sharp, practical Sam Weller. Sam Weller is a fixer, who looks after his master and makes sure that he avoids the consequences of his lack of common sense. This is in some ways an English version of Don Quixote.
Smollett’s influence is seen in the picaresque structure of the novel, a structure that Dickens abandoned in his later novels.
The novel was hugely popular and made an instant star of the young writer.
Oliver Twist (1838)
Oliver Twist shocked the readers who couldn’t wait for Dickens’ next novel, expecting a rerun of the Pickwick fun and games, and finding, instead, a heartrending story of an orphan in a desolate landscape of Victorian misery –the inhuman conditions in orphanages and public work houses, crime, prostitution, neglected feral children frequenting the streets of London.
This is very much a portrait of the criminal underbelly of Victorian London. But even here, in this misery, Dickens’ skill as a writer brings into existence the warmth of even the most deprived and oppressed of human beings, and some of the most memorable characters in English fiction – The Artful Dodger, Nancy, Mr Bumble – and even the most villainous of villains, the corruptor and thief of innocence, Fagin, has a side to him that’s funny and almost sympathetic at times. It is here that Dickens begins to experiment with populating his novels with memorable, human, characters, with all of humanity’s good and bad characteristics. That was to become a distinguishing feature of Dickens’ writing.
All Dickens’ novels are famous but Oliver Twist has, perhaps, the most instantly recognisable title and is, for that reason, the most famous.
Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
Not only is Nicholas Nickleby one of Dickens’ best novels, it is arguably the one he was most proud of. As a man deeply affected by the way people were treated in Victorian institutions and wanting to do something about it, this novel, once again a bestselling book, had an influence on bringing change. In this case it was the education system – the self-serving Yorkshire schools that had little to do with educating pupils, and instead exploited them. Ten years after the novel’s publication, by the time the second edition appeared, they had been abolished – due to the discussion raised by Dickens in this novel.
This is very much an adventure story, with the protagonist, Nicholas, enjoying several rousing adventures and meeting a host of wonderful Dickensian characters. By this time Dickens’ facility for creating names for his characters – highly eccentric, and memorable still household names in the twenty-first century. Some in this novel are Wackford Squeers, Smike, Newman Noggs, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Mr Kenwicks etc.
The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)
Dickens’ large Victorian readership fell in love with Little Nell, the protagonist of The Old Curiosity Shop. This is the story of how the adorable Little Nell supported her grandfather as he ran all around England to escape a grasping creditor. The unhappy ending that indicated a life of poverty ahead of Little Nell so shocked Dickens’ readers that a large number of them boycotted him.
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
This is probably the least known of Charles Dickens’ novels. That may be due to its poor reception. In the first place it was disappointing in that, instead of seeing a reflection of their own time, Dickens’ fans were confronted with the author’s first historical novel. Moreover, the central character is somewhat simple-minded and not at all the kind of hero they expected to see in a Dickens novel.
It is set around the Gordon riots of 1770 in London and presents the dramatic events with true Dickensian realism. It is full of wonderfully portrayed villains, like Sir John Chester.
Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)
This was Dickens’ readers’ second disappointment in a row. It did not sell nearly as many copies as the first four record-breakers. For a start it was set mainly in America, and the other disappointment was that after central characters like Little Nell, Oliver and Nicholas, there was no central protagonist to latch on to in this one. The novel concentrates, instead, on the wide range of characters Martin encounters after having fled England in disgrace, he arrives in New York.
The novel fell between two stools in that Americans had their own writers exploring the conditions and problems of the time in their country on the one hand, and on the other, the English readers preferred to read about the dramas that took place in their own country.
The novel is distinguished by its portrayal of a vast range of characters, some of which have achieved a high degree of immortality, like the wonderful Mrs Gump, the biggest hypocrite in all fiction, Mr Pecksniff, and the arch-villain, Martin’s uncle, Jonas.
Dombey and Son (1846)
After two disappointing novels Dickens began to regain his readership with one of the best novellas ever written in English, his wonderful A Christmas Carol, and Dombey and Son completed the circle.
This novel marks an important phase in Dickens’ evolution into a major literary novelist. While making sure that it had everything his readers expected of his novels, at the same time it had a calmer pace with fewer in-your-face dramatic events and more attention to atmosphere and psychology, more subtlety in his treatment of social themes.
Once again, however, we had the Dickens trademark – outstanding characterisation. There is perhaps the best portrayal of a main female character – Dombeys’ seductive and unhappy wife Florence, and a showstopping villain, James Carker. There is a host of minor characters with great Dickensian names – Captain Cuttle, Mrs Blockitt, Dr Parker Pepps, Polly Toodle, Mrs Pipchin etc.
David Copperfield (1850)
This is Dickens at his best. It is another departure, highly autobiographical, especially the first half of the book where he more or less transcribes the actual events of his childhood and early adulthood. Those childhood scenes have been adapted as children’s stories and plays for children. Later, he develops it into more like a fictional text. The result is a classic English novel, one of the most famous.
Some of the best-known Dickensian characters are to be found in this novel – the cold-hearted, cruel, abusive Mr Murdstone and his sister, Miss Murdstone, a woman made of iron; the cheerful, almost criminally optimistic Mr Micawber and the unctuous, creepy Uriah Heep.
Bleak House (1853)
Bleak House firmly states its claim to be one of the greatest of western novels, in the same class as the great novels of such writers as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the American writer, Melville.
Dickens takes on a big theme in this novel. It is a satire on the lengthy cases in the inefficient and antiquated Chancery system. It takes readers through the monstrous bureaucracy of English civil law. He does a similar job to that done by Kafka in The Trial, although in his distinct Dickensian way, with the usual range of brilliant minor characters with highly eccentric names – Sir Leicester Dedlock, Mr Badger, Mr Gridley, William Guppy, Mrs Jellyby, Mrs Pardiggle – the list goes on and on – dire villains, a solid plot and one of the best heroines, Esther Summerson, in English literature.
One of the features is that this novel has one of the first police detectives – the diligent Inspector Bucket – to feature in a novel.
Bleak House was also a blockbuster and broke all sales records.
Hard Times (1854)
This is something of a departure for Dickens. It is much shorter than his other novels – one third the average length of his other novels. Also, he moves away from the south of England into the factory belt around Manchester and Liverpool. There are signs in this novel that Dickens wasn’t comfortable with the setting in that he doesn’t take the time he normally does to develop the characters, which therefore tend to be caricatures rather than fully developed characters.
Nevertheless, his treatment of the exploitation of workers by unscrupulous, greedy factory owners is hard-hitting, and his portrayal of half-starving male and female factory workers is as vivid as readers had come to expect from Dickens.
There is an unusual bitterness of tone in his portrayal of some of the bosses. As he toured around, researching for this novel, he was appalled, and that emotion entered into the characterisation as he wrote.
The caricature-like treatment of characters is most entertaining, for example the school inspector, Mr Gradgrind’s, famous recipe for a good education as being nothing but “facts.” The teacher whose class he visits has the wonderful name of Mr McChoakumchild. Gradgrind’s visit to McChoakumchild’s classroom is one of the best and most amusing scenes, while also being heartrending, in all of Dickens. Other creative names are Mr Bounderby, Mr Sleary, Slackbridge, and Mrs Sparsit.
Little Dorrit (1857)
This is a huge, wide-ranging novel. Its setting is the whole of Europe and its plot twists and turns are dizzying. This is a novelist fully in command of the form – and one of Dickens’ finest novels.
It’s a rags-to-riches story about a young woman, known as “Little” Dorrit because she is frequently mistaken for a 10 year-old. She grows up in the debtor’s prison where her father is incarcerated and after several fascinating life events, ends up marrying well and being able to release her father from prison.
This would not be a Dickens novel without a host of interesting and funny minor characters with Dickens-invented names – Jeremiah Flintwitch, twins Pet Meagles and Tattycoram, Minnie Meagles, Mrs Flinching, Edmund Sparkler etc.
Dickens’ social criticism is widespread and biting in this novel. He takes on state bureaucracy and aristocratic arrogance, privilege and exclusive access to power. Other targets are the rotten-borough system in which parliamentary seats are corruptly allocated, and the world of high finance.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
This is Dickens’ second historical, and best known, novel of the two. It has the famous opening sentence “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and ends with an equally famous closing sentence: “It is a far, far, better thing that I do, than I have ever done..”
Dickens was moved by the despotism of the ancient regime in France and the violence of the Revolution, and this novel was his response. It is a highly political novel, and with the French Revolution still in living memory, still fascinating the English public, the novel was hugely successful. In addition to its political content it is also a great love story, and with its violence and adventure it’s all the things readers loved.
One of the most marked features is the close-up examination of extreme violence – the guillotine, the meat wagons, and the unforgettable and famous images of the women sitting, knitting, in the front row of the executions.
Great Expectations (1861)
This is the favourite of most Dickens’ fans. It could be put like this: ‘It is the most Dickensian of Dickens’ novels.’
It has everything one would expect of Dickens – a great story, a great deal of satire, an engaging protagonist, a vividly-described setting which, as we read it, we get a visual picture of Victorian England, a great deal of humour, and several secondary and minor characters with ‘creative’ names and who are highly memorable. Who could ever forget Miss Havisham who, having been jilted at the altar as a young woman, lives in an upper room in her large house, still wearing her wedding dress and surrounded by the long solidified wedding cake and the rest of the wedding breakfast? And Mr Wemmick, who lives in small castle with his totally deaf and beloved “Aged Parent.”
The novel is largely set in Rochester, Kent, where Dickens grew up, and which has been spruced up, where buildings mentioned by Dickens have been renovated rather than demolished, so that a walk down the high street is like walking through a Victorian town. Tourists drawn to the town can stand at the gate of Miss Havisham’s house and see it as described in Great Expectations.
The story is probably the best known of Dickens’ novel plots, with the possible exception of A Tale of Two Cities. It opens with a spectacular scene: the nine year-old Pip visits the graves of his parents and siblings in a small churchyard and is jumped by an escaped convict who threatens to eat his liver.
Of all Dickens’ novels, this is the one that, once you have read it, stays with you forever.
Our Mutual Friend (1865)
This is the least-known of Dickens’ novels and yet it is a very fine novel with one of Dickens’ best characters – the unforgettable disabled 12 year-old girl, Jenny Wren. Although she only appears halfway through the novel, she is the most memorable. She’s particularly notable for her dedication to caring for her alcohol-prone father and protecting him from his inability to cope with life.
The novel has a great theme – the River Thames. The action is set on and around the river, which symbolises the current of life itself. The characters are almost exclusively of the lower levels of society, reminiscent of Oliver Twist, also set in London, with its criminal community.
An interesting thing about this novel is that one of the secondary characters, a Jewish moneylender, is portrayed so favourably that he lacks some of the realism we associate with Dickens’ characterisation and therefore doesn’t quite ring true. It is thought that this is a response – and overcompensation – by Dickens, to the harsh criticism he suffered after the publication of Oliver Twist where his portrayal of the Jew, Fagin, was considered by many to be anti-Semitic.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)
The writing of this novel was interrupted by the death from a stroke of the author at the tragically early age of 58.
Dickens was responding to the new taste for mystery thrillers that his friend, Wilkie Collins, was catering for. Collins’ The Woman in White was a huge bestseller. Dickens had already created a by-now famous detective, Inspector Bucket, in Bleak House. Now he was showing that he could also cash in on the new literary fad.
The first five installments of the new book had been issued and on the day that Dickens completed the sixth of the prospective twelve he died.
The book was shaping up to be very much like a modern mystery thriller rather than a major literary work but, if he had completed it, it might actually have been his most interesting novel. Not only might he have been known as the father of the mystery thriller but what we have of it is great Dickens – a wide range of sharply-portrayed characters, brilliant dialogues, humour and satire on every page – would have made it a great classic, not only of the mystery thriller genre but also of Dickens’ fiction.
And that’s our take on the 14 published Charles Dickens novels. Have you read any of these novels from one of England’s best writers? Let us know your favourite in the comments section below!