Charles Dickens was an English writer during the Victorian era. He published nearly 20 novels and wrote dozens of short stories and plays. Many of of his works, including A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations attempted to expose the plight of the poor and the injustice they experienced at the hands of the wealthy.
Charles Dickens is perhaps the most famous Victorian writer in the English-speaking world. Between 1836 and his death in 1870, he published nearly 20 novels and wrote dozens of short stories and plays. Many of of his works, including A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities, enjoy wide recognition across the globe to this day.
Dickens was born into a middle class family in 1812. Although his early childhood was happy, he suffered much in his teenage years when he father was sent to debtor’s prison and twelve-year-old Dickens was sent off to work in a shoe blacking factory. The miserable conditions there shaped Dickens’s social consciousness and influenced several of his novels. Dickens started his literary career as a young journalist. Then, in 1836, he contracted to publish the Pickwick Papers. Pickwick was an immediate success and catapulted Dickens into the public eye. Between 1837 and 1839, Dickens published Oliver Twist serially, a publication method he repeated with many subsequent works. Although Dickens was not paid by the word, as many people believe, he was paid by installment, and would agree at the outset of the project to publish it in monthly or weekly installments, often drawing out stories over a span several years. This provided guaranteed work and assured Dickens of continued recognition as long as the public remained invested in his stories.
The serial nature of Dickens’s novels allowed for a myriad of diverse characters and long, complex parallel plots, which Dickens would weave together near the end of the novel. Through these many plotlines and characters, Dickens produced a depth of emotion, moving from comedy to tragedy and even to romance. Though more modern readers may criticize the Victorian sentimentality of his novels, their pathos was compelling to Dickens’s contemporary audience. Like Shakespeare, Dickens had a broad appeal. There was something in his work for the poor working class reader and something for the aristocratic matron; even the queen read his works.
From early adulthood, Dickens supported the platforms of reform politics. Ever mindful of his principles, he used his literature as a platform for social criticism. His writings stress the importance of compassion and the virtue of human decency. Novels like Hard Times and Bleak House decry the cruelty of the workhouse and the hypocrisy of many established institutions. Several of his stories (Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield) rely on the trope of an innocent, oppressed child through whom the evils of “respectable society” and the reality of child abuse are revealed. Dickens seconded his literary call to compassion with political writings, lectures, and involvement with a number of charitable organizations.
In the decades since his death, Dickens’s work has remained at the forefront of Western literature. His work has proved so adaptable, that many know his stories through plays, films, or children’s books, without ever setting eyes on his actual prose. The unique and riveting characters, social consciousness, and emotional power of his works continues to resonate with today’s readers and viewers.
“Throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people we most despise.”
“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.”
“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
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