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15 Classic Charles Dickens Books

Monday, Mar 11

When it comes to Victorian literature, no one was as prolific or influential as Charles Dickens — to the extent that we still use the word “Dickensian” to describe things reminiscent of his works! If you ever had to read Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities for school, you probably have a pretty good idea of what Dickens entails: vivid characters, intricate plots, shocking twists (often to do with a hidden identity), and a healthy dose of social commentary and satirism. But what you may not know is just how much of this writing he did — indeed, Dickens produced thousands upon thousands of pages in his literary career.

Luckily, we’re going to break down those pages for you right now, so you can decide which title you want to tackle first. Here are 15 Charles Dickens books that defined Victorian literature — ordered by date completed, as many were originally published in serial form. Hopefully you’ll have the best (and not the worst!) of times reading through them.

1. The Pickwick Papers (1837)

Dickens’ first and one of his finest, The Pickwick Papers is admittedly more a loose collection of stories than a traditional novel. However, the stories do center around one Mr. Samuel Pickwick: an exuberant old gentleman who gallivants around England with fellow members of his very own “Pickwick Club.” The Pickwick Club is firmly committed to scientific exploration — i.e. visiting as much of the southern countryside as possible. Along the way they meet many unusual figures, imbibe large quantities of alcohol, and become entangled in a number of sticky situations that nevertheless always seem to work themselves out.

From the wise words of Pickwick’s street-smart valet to the wild tales of a ubiquitous charlatan, the stories within these stories demonstrate Dickens’ ability to juggle countless plots while still holding fast to readers’ attentions. The Pickwick Papers also established many of Dickens’ trademark story elements: the comic and ironic situations, the quintessentially English settings, and the ensemble cast of some rather memorably named characters (including the likes of “Augustus Snodgrass” and “Alfred Jingle”).

2. Oliver Twist (1839)

The inspiration for a hit musical, the basis for an Oscar-winning film, and the originator of the meme-worthy line “Please, sir, may I have some more?” (which is actually a slight misquote), Oliver Twist was Dickens’ first proper “social novel.” He used the tale of Oliver, a helpless orphan taken in by pickpockets, to criticize social conditions in England at the time — namely how poverty forced children, especially parentless children, into horrific circumstances. But despite the bad luck and cruel treatment that befalls him, Oliver manages to mostly resist the temptation of corruption throughout the story, remaining a beacon of hope and purity. (Sure, he does try to beat up another kid at one point in the story, but that’s only because the kid insulted his mother!) Other than that, Oliver is the consummate hero, and his enthralling journey coupled with the sordid details of early Victorian London make for a gloriously rich read.

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3. Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

We’re getting into even more complex Dickens with Nicholas Nickleby, a two-faced novel that’s part Pickwick comedy, part Oliver Twist tragedy. This colossal work follows the adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, whose father’s death leaves him to fend for his mother and sister. He soon manages to wrangle a job at the Dotheboys Hall school on the bleak moors of Yorkshire. However, the boardmaster Wackford Squeers (whose unfortunate name reflects his unfortunate character) is determined to make Nicholas’ life miserable — even after Nicholas finally escapes from under his thumb. Still, through all this melodrama persists an air of humor, especially when Nicholas and his friend Smike run into a theatre manager and become star thespians for no apparent reason. Talk about melodrama… and there’s plenty more where that came from in the third act of Nickleby (which we’ll leave you to discover for yourself).

4. The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

The Old Curiosity Shop is the story of Nell Trent, a sweet young girl who lives with her grandfather and works at the titular shop. But when her grandfather (who’s never named) loses all their money in a desperate gamble, Nell must take the reins to lead them out of London — and, god willing, to a better life. Little does she know that her grandfather’s ruiner is hot on their heels, squeezing information out of Nell’s good-for-nothing older brother, who only wants to find his relatives for a cut of their (nonexistent) wealth.

Though Dickens was pretty well-versed in sentimentality by this point, The Old Curiosity Shop took it to a new level — which was apparently the exact right level for readers. People grew so invested in the innocent, tragic figure of “Little Nell” that readers in New York stormed the wharf where the final installment arrived from overseas! We can only hope you’ll feel some of that same anticipation (only slightly tempered with agony) when you read it today.

5. Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Barnaby Rudge was published alongside The Old Curiosity Shop in Dickens’ own briefly lived periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock. However, as his first bona fide historical novel (though all his works seem “historical” to us now), it’s a distinct departure from TOCS and indeed all Dickens’ previous works. In any case, Barnaby Rudge begins in 1775, with America on the brink of revolution. This incites much discussion of military strategy among the English, which leads into anti-Catholic sentiments, as many people feel that British Catholics would turn against their country on the battlefield. Debate eventually escalates into the Gordon Riots, which various characters take part in, including the simple-minded and easily swayed Barnaby Rudge. Of course, surrounding all this is the usual Dickensian deluge of social intrigue and scandal — but the riots are the focal point of the story, and Dickens’ invocation of them proved that he could effectively handle past politics as well as present.

6. A Christmas Carol (1841)

Besides its evergreen status as one of the best Christmas stories ever, A Christmas Carol is also notable for how it captured the zeitgeist of Victorian England at the time; when Dickens wrote it, many people were reevaluating old Christmas traditions and starting to practice livelier new ones. Of course, not everyone believed Christmas should be a time of joyous celebration — hence the inspiration behind the notorious Ebenezer Scrooge.

You’re probably already familiar with his story, but let’s rehash it just for fun: grouchy old man hates Christmas and refuses to participate in any of its trappings, even to help the less fortunate (including his own underpaid assistant). On the night of Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who warns that he’ll be cursed for all eternity if he continues down the same embittered path. But Marley is only the first ghost to appear before Scrooge that night, and by no means the least ominous… as Scrooge comes to experience all manner of Christmases past, present, and future, he must make a decision not only on his feelings toward the holiday, but about what kind of man he truly is.

7. Martin Chuzzlewit (1841)

This delightfully titled work, dubbed the last of Dickens’ “picaresque” novels (a practice he began with The Pickwick Papers) follows young Martin Chuzzlewit, whose wealthy grandfather disowns him after Martin falls in love with his nursemaid. Now needing to make his own fortune, Martin becomes an apprentice to conniving architect Seth Pecksniff, who steals his students’ work and claims it for his own. But it’s only when Pecksniff gives Martin the boot that his true adventure can begin: a trip to America with his friend Mark, whose optimism turns out to be a great asset under the circumstances they encounter. Meanwhile back in England, a veritable tornado of scandal continues to twist and turn, involving Martin’s nephew, a tumultuous love triangle, an identity change, and — gasp! — murder. Needless to say, if you’re a fan of soap operas but think they’d be even better set in the nineteenth century, Martin Chuzzlewit is for you.

8. Dombey and Son (1848)

Something of an ironic misnomer, Dombey and Son actually focuses on the complex relationship between shipping firm owner Paul Dombey and his daughter, Florence. Already a misogynistic, emotionally abusive father to “Floy,” Dombey becomes even more hostile toward her after the death of his young son. He runs off to marry Edith Granger — but after becoming acquainted with Floy, Edith turns against Dombey as well. Both women then abandon Dombey, who must learn the hard way to take responsibility for his actions and the harm he has caused. Dombey and Son certainly challenges the reader to sympathize with Dombey, an extremely unlikable character for most of the book; but the emotional and ideological journey he undertakes is reason enough to stick with it.

9. David Copperfield (1850)

Though the name “David Copperfield” probably brings to mind the magician who made the Statue of Liberty disappear, its first iteration came about in this novel, which Dickens himself considered to be his magnum opus. Critics have also historically agreed that David Copperfield signifies a shift in Dickens’ overall approach and style, from juvenile to more mature (though if “juvenile” means writing brilliant, thousand-page socio-political commentaries, sign us up!).

This novel is a thorough biography of the eponymous Copperfield, tracking his life from happy childhood to troubled adolescence to his eventual marriage and career. During this time he must contend with his mother’s tragic death, his malicious contemporary Uriah Heep, and his own internal conflict over whether to pursue a lucrative career (law) or one that’s more creatively and personally fulfilling (writing, of course). One of the questions at the heart of this work is whether one can transcend their own roots without becoming corrupted either by the past or by newfound advantages — “the hard path to the right balance.” Also, for those particularly interested in Dickens’ life, this work is considered his most autobiographical, with certain strains of his experience highly evident in the story.

10. Bleak House (1853)

In contrast to the hopeful and ultimately triumphant tone of David Copperfield, Bleak House is — there’s just no other way to put it — pretty bleak. It centers around the drawn-out court case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which began in order to determine the rightful recipient of a large family inheritance. However, the case is so complex that it’s taking decades to settle. As Dickens so wonderfully puts it, “The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when [the case] should be settled has now grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.”

Indeed, there are many times during Bleak House where the reader will likely feel inclined to put it down and simply trot away. Dickens wrote the book to satirize the chancery court system — not the most fascinating topic — and his convoluted structure and often-gratuitous description, which reflect the convoluted and often-gratuitous nature of the court, can be difficult to wade through. But readers who commit to this task will find rewards in the form of sharp observations and, as usual, a heavy dose of drama as the Jarndyces battle it out.

11. Hard Times (1854)

Hard Times is actually a much easier time to get through than Dickens’ other works, at least in terms of length: while his standard page count hovers around 900-1000, Hard Times is a mere 240. It’s also Dickens’ only novel that doesn’t have large swaths set in London — rather, it takes place in the fictional Coketown, a mill-town dependent on its many exploited workers (which of course was the social element Dickens wanted to condemn).

Hard Times weaves the tale of a school superintendent named Thomas Gradgrind and his associates. Gradgrind’s no-nonsense approach to both education and parenting has left his children, especially his daughter Louisa, severely out of touch with their emotions — to the point that when Gradgrind suggests she marry the much-older Bounderby, citing statistics about marital age differences, she simply submits. His son Tom, on the other hand, has his own ideas about getting along in the world — and all his father’s logic can’t keep him from a life of delinquency, including a scheme in which an innocent mill worker becomes implicated.

12. Little Dorrit (1857)

Little Amy Dorrit was born and raised in a debtors’ prison called Marshalsea. Her father has been confined there for the past twenty years, unable to work off his debts (can you guess what paradoxical practice Dickens might be commenting on here?), so Little Dorrit supports them both. However, the Dorrits’ fortune is quite literally about to change, as a large Jarndyce-like inheritance comes into play. The Dorrits soon depart Marshalsea and embark on an opulent tour of Europe… but of course, their troubles are far from over. This novel — inspired by Dickens’ own father’s time at Marshalsea (which was a real place!) — is a scathing critique of both the unjust, ineffectual nature of debtors’ prisons and the fragility of wealth and social circumstance.

13. A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Of all Dickens’ inventions — Oliver Twist’s craving for gruel, Scrooge’s frequent “bah humbug!”s, and David Copperfield’s entire life journey — perhaps none is more famous than the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” From there unfolds the thrilling tale of several key figures in London and Paris, all leading up to the eighteenth-century French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror.

It begins with Manette, a French doctor imprisoned in the Bastille for eighteen years and only just freed — to the immense surprise of his daughter Lucie, who believed him to be dead. After Lucie and Dr. Manette reunite in Paris, they travel back to London to begin a new life. This is where Lucie meets and falls in love with Charles Darnay, a wealthy Frenchman who nevertheless takes a progressive stance against the poor treatment of the lower classes.

But the rest of Darnay’s family is not quite so noble, and indeed may be connected to the events surrounding Manette’s initial arrest… not to mention a number of other foul misdeeds. With the Reign of Terror on the horizon, no one is safe, and fear and suspicion abound. However, Dickens himself is at his best and brightest throughout A Tale of Two Cities; the ending in particular will make your head spin (no pun intended, for those who know what happens).

14. Great Expectations (1861)

We’re now drawing to the end of Dickens’ writing years, but his literary light was stronger than ever — as evidenced by Great Expectations. This one is a proper bildungsroman, following the character of Pip, an orphan who aspires to become a gentleman. In his youth, Pip regularly visits Miss Havisham, a bitter old spinster who was left at the altar. Miss Havisham has an adopted daughter, Estella, whom she teaches to hate men. Naturally, Pip falls head-over-heels in love with her.

Determined to prove himself, Pip begins a career in blacksmithing and lives in London with the financial help of a mysterious benefactor — but is heartbroken when Estella falls in love with (or rather, strategically decides to marry) somebody else. Pip must then come to terms with the fact that his “great expectations” may never be met… but of course, this is hardly the end of the story, which takes a huge twist as the identity of Pip’s benefactor is revealed. Masterfully constructed and beautifully composed, this epic novel of love, loss, and of course social class completely deserves its eternal place on English class reading lists everywhere.

15. Our Mutual Friend (1865)

Our Mutual Friend was Dickens’ last finished novel, but you know he wouldn’t let us off too easy. OMF is widely recognized as one of his most complex and sophisticated works — which, if you’ve read this whole list, you know is really saying something. The whole story ignites with a shocking discovery: the heir to a significant fortune (Dickens sure loved this plot device), John Harmon, is found dead and bloated in the River Thames. This means the money will go to his family’s loyal employees, the Boffins, instead.

The Boffins also take in Bella Wilfer, who was Harmon’s intended, though they had never met. Bella is still dead-set on marrying for money, though she seems to have an unusual connection with the Boffins’ poor secretary, Rokesmith. Parallel to this plotline runs the dilemma of Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of the man who pulled Harmon out of the water, and who must grapple with some not-so-suitable suitors of her own.

Yes, this final masterpiece from Dickens has it all: intense romantic drama, concealed and mistaken identities, and to quote Bella Wilfer herself, much reflection and commentary on “money, money, money, and what money can make of life,” which always preoccupied Dickens. It’s the perfect entry to round off this list — and indeed his remarkable career as a whole.

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If you're looking for more literary classics to satisfy your inner English major, check out this list of 100 books you have to read in a lifetime (with two entries courtesy of Dickens!).

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