Last month, as part of our year-long celebration of Charles Dickens, Cambridge University Press invited high school students to participate in an essay contest inspired by the iconic author. Many of us first encounter Dickens in high school, but the world of his novels makes an impression that extends far beyond the classroom.
The winner of our contest is Ruthelen Cox, a sophomore from Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Besides Dickens, her favorite writers include Tolstoy, Plath, and Orwell. She is also interested in fashion design and fashion writing.
Congratulations to Ruthelen, and thanks to all who shared their experiences with the world of Dickens.
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The notoriety of Charles Dickens is not unwarranted. Since his contemporaries lauded his work for innovation and insight, he has been widely accepted as an indispensible great. His over twelve best-selling novels are mainstays to literary scholarship even in modern culture, having shaped the zeitgeist in their own ways from their publishing dates forward. His prose has a way of portraying vivid mental images of even the most meticulous settings, yet still allowing for the world of his characters to be an utterly different place for each reader. While his works are simply reality shown through fiction, Dickens infuses enough emotion to make the audience feel as if they know the characters themselves and are incorporated in the novel. But it is not just his intellectual presentation which makes him respected; his relatability translated into readability. Dickens’s characters are written, nay brought to life, to revive emotions accompanying our most human ideas. Personal experience has shown me this partnership felt with his subjects’ readers; Dickens gives characters their personalities to parallel with human experience, for all of his stories echo of rebellion, redemption, and a new life. These are innate human desires, and Dickens shows his remarkable talent by surpassing other works in his transcendent creations, opening minds for all to what it is to walk in another’s footsteps.
A quintessential theme in Dickens novels is the wish for change. In his time, revolutions and rebellions were occurring throughout Europe; he truly experienced what he wrote in A Tale of Two Cities. He also extensively researched, even studying a literal roomful of books on the French Revolution before composing his story. This novel comes closer to non-fiction than most Dickens novels, acting like a documentary on the change around him. A spirit of revolution could be opened up along with the book because the reader can choose from a range of characters to compare their life to, from the member of the oppressed to the fearful bourgeoisie. In Great Expectations, a lesser form of rebellion is seen, felt by nearly every person at some point: rebellion of personality. Pip has lived in an impoverished world with tight boundaries for his childhood, and when he is given his fortune and new life, he uses them extravagantly, trying to push away his past. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge rebels against his peers by making every effort to be their foil; he is curmudgeonly intentionally, whereas others in his village take care to be warm toward others. Every Dickens story carries some softer character of rebellion, lightening the inherent darkness of the trait, and bringing the reader comfort with the novel’s hardships.
With rebellion in Charles Dickens’s tales always comes redemption. Desire for forgiveness is part of human experience; he skillfully weaves this into his works. Some characters did not blatantly ask for redemption, but manifested this wish by action. Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities lived life in excessive carelessness, later a burden to him, and resorts to the ultimate self-sacrifice, giving his life for the happiness of another to negate his regrets. The realization also comes at the end for one in Great Expectations, Miss Havisham. After shaping Estella into a cold woman out of bitterness, Miss Havisham understands her foolishness when it is clarified by Pip, then asking Pip the simple, revealing question, “Will you forgive me?’. She poses this question not through actions, but an urge for affirmation of forgiveness by another before finding peace with herself. Pip ignores his family when he discovers the world of the “Gentleman”, and through his caring spirit feels sorrow when eventually enlightened by Joe. Each character has a poignant tale, separating them from their peers. Redemption is a grace most people wish for at some point, as most make mistakes. This makes redemption virulent and relatable to readers in Dickens novels.
One theme encompasses all Dickens characters: “New Life”. Each feels pulled towards something greater, knowingly or not. The French in A Tale of Two Cities fight for total change; Pip readily says “I want to be a blacksmith” in Great Expectations, but in an unsure voice; Miss Havisham hopes revenge is renewal; Scrooge fears not changing his life will bring death; Dr. Manette in A Tale of Two Cities must start life anew when unimprisoned. In personal experience analyzing Dickens characters, a pattern of this idea is found. The theme appeals to humanity; it gives the opportunity to become a totally different person, also part of rebellion and redemption.
Charles Dickens could be called a translator of experiences. His novels give voices to what we cannot find words for, clearly painting what we cannot visualize. His skill in criticizing and cradling mankind simultaneously appeals to basest humanity, making his work enduring, evolutionary, eternal. Dickens is inimitable, therefore irreplaceable.