mid-read thoughts on Dickens

I have very little experience with Charles Dickens. I’ve read Oliver Twist, Bleak House and A Christmas Carol and that’s it. I’d love to read him from start to finish one day – but that’s a project for another year.

At the moment I am finishing up A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps this is because I am not overly familiar with Dickens’ style, but I’ve been continually surprised at the cinematic quality of his description. A few posts back I mentioned the scene with the tipped wine cask from early in the novel and his description of everyone on the streets grubbing around to get a drink of the spilled wine. But since then, I’ve come across multiple scenes with a similar quality. I’m thinking about the longish description of Dr. Manette’s house in Soho, the hilarious and snide sketch of the chocolate bearers for the French king or the scene when Young Jerry spies on his graverobbing father and then runs home, imagining the coffin chasing him.

It isn’t just that these descriptions are vivid and detailed, but that they seem to rely more on visual detail than any of the other senses. I’m not sure why this struck me as a little unusual, perhaps it is not. Perhaps Dickens just had a visual brain or a sharp photographic memory and so his writing reflects that skill. Either way, it makes for a story which presents itself as a progressive layering of wonderfully rich images.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

11 thoughts on “mid-read thoughts on Dickens”

  1. How interesting–I hadn’t noticed the emphasis on visual detail. He is very funny, and his social observations are marvellous. You can tell, though, that his books were serialized first and he got paid by the word! Long winded. I’ve read few from start to finish. I read Oliver Twist when I was 11 and liked it a lot then and that is appropriate I think because it was such an early one and obviously so. Even later his characters are caricatures and stereotypes. Women? I won’t even go there. And plot, well, heavy on coincidence. But his social commentary is knife sharp.

  2. Colleen – Just spent a lovely afternoon finishing A Tale of Two Cities, it is quite good!

    Lilian – Such a good point, he can be long-winded. I found Bleak House, which I really liked, very much so. A Tale of Two Cities much less, which made it a ripping good read. And your comment about coincidence is really true – I wonder how his contemporary readers felt about that.

  3. I feel like, as a reader, I’m just plain obligated to read some Dickens. Thanks for reminding me. I read a bit in high school, but the density of it made me discard it immediately… I do want to give good old Great Expectations a second chance, and I’ve heard wonderful things about Tale of Two Cities… I suppose I’ll have to add it to my list of books to read, with tail between my legs. Good luck!

  4. Ha! Dickens is my literary kryptonite, as I’ve never been able to read a single one of his novels (maybe I made it through David Copperfield at some point?), so it amuses me when you say you haven’t had much experience with him – it’s 3 times the experience I’ve had!
    I feel like he’s an author that I should/would like if I gave him a fair shake, but whenever I pick up Great Expectations I just feel so anxious! One of these days I’ll read it!

  5. Strongly, strongly disagree with that “paid by the word” business. Dickens was in control of the form he was using. Identify the rhetorical or artistic effect he is trying to achieve, and those “extra” words will generally be seen to serve a purpose.

  6. I too disagree with the ‘paid by the word’ comment, but I do think that serialization played some part in the vividness of his descriptions; he had to be able to paint an entire picture for the reader in just the words that he used in that episode if he wanted to bring in new readers mid book. I think that did influence him. Having said that, I love Dickens. I can think of nothing better than curling up over a long winter weekend with an adequate supply of tea and scones, a blazing fire and any one of half a dozen of his novels. I’d better look in the diary and see when I can put a weekend aside for just such treat.

  7. Itssaars – Thanks for the comment. I’d also like to read Great Expectations one day, but it won’t be this year I suspect. But I really loved A Tale of Two Cities and it was a relatively fast read.

    Steph – I think there is often a lot of unnecessary hyperbole about Dickens. He has some wonderful work, he has some less-exciting work. Without a doubt, he was a master prose craftsman. But maybe you’d like some of his short stories?

    Amateur Reader – I’m sure you are correct. I do find him long-winded at times and I need to be in the mood to enjoy his prose when that happens, but I can’t imagine someone who wrote as much as he did, and as successfully as he did, was not in control of his writing at all times.

    Ann – You make a great point. He must have been an incredibly discliplined writer to put out so much writing on a regular basis. And I read that he did not write his manuscripts beforehand, but wrote each week or month for the serializations. That is extremely impressive. And most definitely would have shaped HOW he wrote.

    Litlove – I love your honesty. Everyone has authors like this. I’m finding myself enjoying Dickens and that’s enough. If I become a devotee, even better!

  8. I have Great Expectations. No, I mean the book. When the old teachers were departing at the beginning of August, I picked up a copy for free. I wanted his soccer ball, too, but someone else grabbed that up. Now, I have to sit down and read it. I hope it is as good as Christmas Carol and Nicholas Nickleby.

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