It is a truth universally acknowledged that one can be neither a student nor a lover of literature without at least once reading (and completing) a Dickens novel.
This fact becomes clear even before going to college; English teachers everywhere feeding their students on a literary diet that includes A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations (or, in my case, Hard Times). Then, of course, there are thrown in the blink-and-you-miss-it handful of classes on A Tale of Two Cities and you end up on a college literature course wondering just what exactly to do with the veritable brick of a read that is Bleak House.
Nonetheless, however much we suffer for love of the written word, there exists the secondary truth that the worlds which Dickens created stay with us long after his (intricate) tales come to an end. Perhaps it is the difficulty of his prose, requiring closer study, that chisels his stories deep into our memories, or perhaps it is his superb characterization (Mr. Bounderby still fills up a large portion of my head).
Indeed, it might be fair to say Dickens had no equal when it came to the creation of characters. Here are 10 of his most memorable.
1. Miss Havisham (Great Expectations)
An obvious choice, but really – setting aside that this is one of those roles which actresses have coveted since drama school – this is a woman who, with her broken heart (and mind), created a destroyer of men, all while sitting in her decaying mansion, in her equally decaying wedding dress. That’s some powerful (indirect) female vengeance from a male writer.
2. Rosa Dartle (David Copperfield)
Companion to James Steerforth’s mother, bearer of a lip scarred by the youthful temper of that man (whom she loved unrequited) – that scarred lip in fact is an outer sign of Miss Dartle’s own horrible, scarred nature. In no way soft, the bitterness which propels her is truly astonishing. An underrated character by far.
3. Betsey Trotwood (David Copperfield)
Not the biggest fan of the male species, the titular character’s great aunt may have stormed out upon learning that David’s mother gave birth to a son instead of a daughter, but nevertheless she takes him in after he runs away from his abusive stepfather. Furthermore, she sees him well-educated and on his way to a promising career. There be a soft heart within that tough exterior.
4. Madame Defarge (A Tale of Two Cities)
She likes to knit – a lot. But this tricoteuse doesn’t just sit beside the guillotine; she actively pursues innocent victims for its blade. A symbol of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, Defarge is one scary villain.
5. The Dedlocks (Bleak House)
For someone so bored and haughty, Lady Honoria Dedlock manages to be part of everything interesting or exciting in the novel. And though her husband, Sir Leicester, is a conservative grump, Dickens portrays a real love between this married couple (if one sets aside the never-ending spiral of secrets, and the fact that the main storyline of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce court case has very little direct relevance to the Dedlocks).
6. Smike (Nicholas Nickleby)
Nicholas’ friend from childhood, the physically and mentally disabled Smike is such a forlorn character. As you read, you are willing him to get the happiness he deserves. His broken heart and sad death just aren’t fair. And yet, the posthumous revelations of his heritage are vital to the tale.
7. Ralph Nickleby (Nicholas Nickleby)
Another devilishly wicked villain, Nicholas’ uncle is obsessed with money and at odds with his nephew’s idealism, setting out to destroy him. As with all of Dickens’ antagonists, Ralph gets his just desserts – eventually (though it’s unfortunate it had to directly involve Smike).
8. Mrs. Edith Granger Dombey (Dombey and Son)
The self-awareness Dickens gives this character is quite something. A proud woman who becomes Dombey’s second wife for his money (and loathes herself for it); even her love for Dombey’s daughter, Florence (whom he refers to merely as a “bad boy”) can’t save their marriage.
9. The Artful Dodger (Oliver Twist)
AKA Jack Dawkins, a cunning young pickpocket who takes Oliver under his wing but quickly realizes the boy hasn’t got it in him. He dresses and acts like an adult, but the moments when the child shine through lend a pity to his arrest over a trifling snuff box in the end (and his presumable deportation to an Australian penal colony).
10. Old Krook (Bleak House)
Two words: spontaneous combustion (to the outrage of his friend George Lewes, not to mention a few readers…).
Who were the most memorable of Dickens’ characters for you?
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Featured image via Anglotopia
h/t Book Riot