Charles Dickens Essay, Research Paper
The Use of Description in the Novels of Charles Dickens
After reading at least three lengthy works of Charles Dickens, several things become evident about his writing style and his preoccupations with certain aspects of life in Victorian England. One of the most obviously consistent traits is his concern for the poor and the class differences of 19th century England. Beyond that there is the feeling of desperation and the sense that one can never reach beyond the class in which he is born. What comes with this sense of desperation is also a sense of outrage for the conditions of the poor. When not describing what is so pathetic about the existence of the poorer classes, he portrays the greed and the insensitivity of the more privileged people of his times. It is not always so serious and depressing, however, since he also likes to poke fun at others and use humor on occasion.
Humor and comic relief are perhaps more important in his novels since they are read for entertainment. By hooking in his reader with some humor, he could maybe also make his audience more sympathetic to the characters described in his novels. Two key differences exist, however, between the author s novels and his journalism. First, humor, which is an essential element in many of Dicken s novels, is largely absent from his essays. (Dube 1) How does he achieve this way of moving his reader to sympathize with the characters about whom he is reading? It is through a rich portrayal filled with carefully chosen adjectives. More important, however, than the adjectives themselves are
the metaphors and similes he uses to tell us about who the characters are and to move us to understand their lives better. When one understands that Dickens made part of his living by writing for London newspapers and that he had actually spent time in a debtor s prison for not being able to pay his bills, the reader can understand his ability to portray life in England in a journalistic way. We of the 21st century have to remember that they had no television nor radio in the days of Dickens. People learned the news through papers, and the writing style had to be highly descriptive.
In Oliver Twist, the reader comes to understand Oliver s situation more clearly in the second chapter of the novel, in which we learn of his education and early childhood. Since he was a poor orphan, he was farmed out to what could best be described as a work camp. When minor children could not be cared for at home, the parish had the right to apprentice them to any trade. Here industry abused them, sending them off to any part of the country, often to the cotton mills for forced labor. (Adrian 55) As one could expect he is described as a pale thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference. (Dickens 314) So, rather than saying he was just simply tiny , the author prefers to lengthen the description, he uses synonyms like diminutive and small in circumference . Note that he uses circumference to describe the size of his waist. In the same paragraph, the reader is also given a small insight into the child s character. But nature or inheritance had implanted a good sturdy spirit in Oliver s breast. It had had plenty of room to expand, thanks to the spare diet of
the establishment. (Dickens 314) By using the term nature or inheritance , Dickens implies that there is something that came from God or the Divine that makes
Oliver a good child. There is also a sarcastic tone used when he says that the child s spirit will only expand due to the poor diet he is receiving in the workhouse. Later in the same chapter, it is interesting to note how Dickens describes the hunger of the children. Rather than simply saying that they are ravenous, he describes their famine by action. The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again. (Dickens 316)
The character of Mr. Sowberry, an undertaker, who comes to find a boy to help him in his work is described in an equally imaginative manner. Being an undertaker and having to make coffins for the dead is already an unusual occupation. It adds to the dreariness of Oliver s life. There is something false about his way of acting. His features were not naturally intended to wear a smiling aspect, but he was in general rather given to professional jocosity. (Dickens 321) Jocosity means being jovial or happy. Because he was not naturally a happy looking man, he was forced occasionally to smile when dealing with people in his work.
In David Copperfield, there is a very humorous description of the doctor who is described as the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men. He sidled in and out of a room, to up the less space. (Dickens 506) In the 21st century, we have medication for someone who is obviously so painfully shy and who cannot carry on a decent
conversation with a member of the opposite sex. However, again the most telling aspect of Dickens style comes through again. Rather than simply describing the character as shy
and lack any self-esteem, he shows it also by the character s movement and gestures. He walked as softly as the Ghost, in Hamlet, and more slowly. (Dickens 506) It is truly clear by this description that the doctor wants to remain unnoticed by everyone else in the house.
In the same novel, the reader is also provided with an excellent example of description of setting. In the second chapter of the novel where David Copperfield recalls one of his earliest memories, it is about his house with his mother and Peggotty. On the ground-floor is Peggotty s kitchen, opening into a back yard; with a pigeon-house on a pole, in the centre, without any pigeons in it. (Dickens 507) The description of this memory is very long and detailed. Because of the length and the detail he adds to the description, it gives us special insight into the importance of the memory to the character.
Dickens really was influential, but it was people s feelings that he influenced. He contributed to the deep seated reaction in the national psyche. (Cazamian 173) Since it is also written in the first person with I , it gives us a sense that these were real people, real events and real places.
The same sort of dramatic effect is also achieved in Great Expectations. This novel is also told from a first person perspective with the I and the my . Again the descriptions are rich in detail and often give the reader a feeling and a vivid image of what is being described.
The narrator s organization of those opening paragraphs emphasizes Pip s aloneness and alienation, and his child-self s sense of the precariousness of his existence. Life is referred to as that universal struggle which claimed all of Pip s siblings exceeding early ; and to the boy sitting there in the graveyard the identity of things seems to promise little of hospitality for the future(Hornback33).
The description of Pip Gargery s sister is an excellent example. My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin, that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. (Dickens 818) Rather than simply say that her skin was crimson,
scarlet or red, he says that it is red as if she had scratched herself deeply with a kitchen gadget.
Whether using decription to move his reader s feelings to greater heights or to make a social statement to move people to make needed reforms for the poor in the England of the 19th century, Dickens s ability as a describer of the human condition is undisputed. The examples provided here only scratch the surface of a greater talent.
In the end, they provide excellent models for aspiring writers who want to move their audience.