Is Charles Dickens Relevant Today?


Today, amidst the best of times and worst of times, marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812-June 9, 1870), one of the greatest novelists in English literature. He is considered by many literary scholars and critics as a literary genius. Dickens was a prolific and successful writer — his 20 novels and novellas contributed to his financial success. It is estimated that at the time of his death (he was 58) he was worth more than $13 million in today’s dollars. Dickens’ relevance can certainly be measured in dollars. 150 years later Dickens continues to be a financial powerhouse. The BBC estimated that Dickens’ characters bring more than £280 million per year, on top of that Dickens sells more than £3 million worth of books and £34 million in theatrical adaptations annually.

But Dickens’ relevance is not only measured in money — it can be measured by his message as a social critic and his tremendous literary legacy. Biographer Claire Tomalin, who has written award-winning biographies of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Samuel Pepys, believes that Dickens is as relevant today as he was when he was writing in the mid 19th century. In an interview with the Radio Times, Tomalin emphasized Dickens’s important role as social critic (beyond his significant contribution to the celebration of the holidays by way of A Christmas Carol, of course): “Dickens is very relevant at the moment in England because we are producing Dickensian conditions again. The need for food banks, the ending of children’s support from the state, the attack on the health services and the BBC, the universities being commercialized — so many of the things that Dickens fought for and stood for are being attacked. I think he was never so relevant.”

Because some of his novels focus on children, some readers dismiss Dickens as a children’s writer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because of the many traumatic experiences he endured as a child — and thus forged his conscience — Dickens never forgot the plight of the children. Consequently, his work, while certainly appealing to children, was aimed at the adults who created the deplorable social, economic, legal, and moral conditions of Victorian society. Tomalin discusses Dickens’s sensitivity to children, “Dickens has this extraordinary immediacy that children love. [For example, the novel] David Copperfield takes children seriously – their mentality, their imagination and their feelings.” And it is these two aspect of his novels — detailed depiction of children and unflinching social criticism — that makes them so compelling and timeless.

Tomalin also credits Dickens with the introduction of serialized novels that directly influenced the way stories are told for more than two centuries, most notably in mini-series and soap operas. Tomalin elaborates: “It’s not surprising that modern soaps use methods employed by Dickens — the intense interest in colorful characters and the violent or exciting interchange between them. If Dickens were around today he’d be interested in soaps as a platform for reaching as many people as possible.” Moreover, Dickens mastered the cliffhanger, leaving readers with bated breath; Tomalin adds: “He wanted people to come back and buy the next issue — and they did. That’s why driving the plot is very important with Dickens.”

Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”

Words invented by Dickens

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For further reading: Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren (2011)