Where to Start with Charles Dickens’ Literary Universe

Regarded by many as the Victorian era’s greatest novelist, Charles Dickens left an indelible mark on the literary world with his prolific and influential writings.

Born in 1812, Dickens brought attention to the social injustices and adversities experienced by the lower classes, championing the causes of compassion and social change. Through his evocative prose, he transported readers to the gritty streets of London, vividly depicting the struggles and triumphs of his memorable characters.

With a remarkable body of work that includes 15 novels, five novellas, and a multitude of stories and essays, approaching the works of Charles Dickens may initially feel daunting. However, fear not, for here are some suggestions to help you embark on your literary journey into his captivating realm.

A Christmas Carol, his most well-known Work

Undoubtedly, A Christmas Carol stands as Charles Dickens’ most renowned work, embraced as a beloved classic that holds strong associations with the holiday season and has garnered numerous adaptations, some of which have become timeless classics themselves.

This Victorian moral tale follows the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge, an embittered and miserly individual consumed by the pursuit of wealth. When visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, as well as the spirits representing Christmas Past, Present, and Future, Scrooge undergoes a profound transformation, shedding his callous nature and embracing kindness and compassion.

Great Expectations, his most studied novel

Considered one of Dicken’s finest works, Great Expectations is also the most analyzed of his books. From his first-person narrative to his diverse cast and social commentary, the book is a great representation of the writer’s style with a mix of comedy and drama.

Orphaned at a young age, Pip lives with his strict sister and kind brother-in-law in Kent until two fateful meetings change the course of his life. The first concerns a convict in a chilling cemetery. The second is with the eccentric and wealthy Miss Havisham and her cold daughter Estella. As he leaves his modest life to find his way in the bustling city of London, can Pip get to fulfill his great expectations?

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

― charles Dickens, great expectations

David Copperfield, Dickens’ own favorite

Today considered a beloved classic, David Copperfield occupies a special place among Dickens’ books as it was his personal favorite and most autobiographical work.

This novel traces the journey of David Copperfield, from a challenging childhood marked by poverty to his adulthood as a prosperous author. Along this transformative path, he encounters a cast of iconic and endearing characters while also being introduced to the compelling antagonist, the villainous Uriah Heep.

A Tale of Two Cities, a popular choice

Sometimes presented as a page-turner, A Tale of Two Cities can actually be challenging to read and for some a core to finish. Let’s simply say that opinion diverges on this historical novel with one of the most famous first opening lines (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”).

Despite this, A Tale of Two Cities is widely considered to be one of his most popular works, making it a possible entry point for new readers. The novel is set during the French Revolution and follows the lives of two major characters: Charles Darnay, a French nobleman who rejects his aristocratic upbringing, and Sydney Carton, a reckless English barrister. The two men become engaged in a love triangle, and the story tackles themes of love, sacrifice, and redemption.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

― charles dickens, a tale of two cities

Oliver Twist, a gripping tale

Chances are, like A Christmas Carol, you’re already familiar with the story of the young orphan boy Oliver Twist, thanks to several popular adaptations. This familiarity can help you dive more into this gripping tale, famous for its sordid portrayal of criminal lives and the treatment received by many orphans in London at the time.

The novel will, naturally, delivers, more details about the life of Oliver Twist from the orphanage to the cotton mill and the streets of London, accompanied by a rich description, symbolism, and a cast of vivid characters, including the Artful Dodger and the gang of pickpockets led by Fagin.

Our Mutual Friend, an underrated book

Often overlooked in favor of more popular books, Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens’s last completed novel – offers a satirical take on the allure and peril of money

When a lifeless body, identified as John Harmon, the rightful heir to a vast fortune, is discovered adrift on the Thames (a character itself in the novel), the story delves into the intricate web of consequences that John Harmon’s misfortune unleashes upon those connected to him. The tensions rise and the stakes become increasingly treacherous…

Continue to explore British literature with our starting guide for Jane Austen, or the best of Agatha Christie.