Sunday 30 December 2012

Essay: Twenty of Dickens's Most Memorable Characters

Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller over a crowd of Dickens Characters - 19th. cent wood engraving (unknown artist)

As I pointed out somewhere, in one of my blog posts, Dickens’s books are primarily built on character and setting, rather than incident and plot. It’s fair to say that Dickens attracted his audience early on by the exuberance and humour of his characters – often over-drawn and exaggerated for comic effect, but still recognisable types that the reader could connect to.
E. M. Forster, in his small but influential book about novel writing called Aspects of the Novel (1927), divided literary characters into two groups: flat characters and rounded characters. He argued that the majority of the characters Dickens created were flat characters that didn't develop much – meaning that they often embodied a single trait or attitude, which could be summed up in a single phrase or descriptive detail.  And these characters often said the same thing every time they appeared. “I am a lone lorn creetur,” says Mrs. Gummidge – for example – in David Copperfield, “and everythink goes contrairy with me.”
There are lots and lots of characters in Dickens’s novels. At the front of each novel, in the Everyman Library editions that I read for this project, the critical apparatus includes a cast of characters – a list of all the characters named and identified in that book. I totalled up the number of characters in all 15 novels. It’s about 650 characters. The book with the most is Pickwick Papers. And The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Hard Times have the least.
From that list of 650 characters, I have selected twenty of the most memorable. Some of these characters are completely individual – one of a kind – like Bill Sykes or Ebenezer Scrooge. Others are the ultimate representative of a type that appears throughout his writing career: think Little Nell and The Artful Dodger. These stand out for me as twenty of Dickens’s best.

by John Kenney, 1965

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')

Mr. Pickwick from The Pickwick Papers (1836). Samuel Pickwick is the central character of Charles Dickens’s first novel. He is a retired businessman, with plenty of money to fund his adventures and to support the activities and travels of his club – a ‘club’ which is really just three others who stick with him loyally and venture out into the English countryside. Pickwick is merely humorous in the early sections of the novel; but, as the book progresses, it takes on a more serious tone, and by the end, Pickwick morphs from a rather silly buffoon into an embodiment of benevolence. He is an eminent example of Dickens’s warm-hearted humanity.

Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers (1836). It was with the introduction of Pickwick’s cockney servant (or valet) Sam Weller – in the book’s fourth instalment (Chapter 10) – that The Pickwick Papers really began to seize the imagination of the reading public. Literacy was expanding rapidly, especially amongst the middle-class, and the audience for these novels – always released in monthly instalments – was growing steadily. Working-class people, who were fascinated by an author who understood their lives and their concerns – and who loved characters like Sam Weller – could combine resources and share a monthly issue. Dickens was a champion of the poor and the working class throughout his working life. He advanced their cause in his writing and supported charitable institutions that relieved their sufferings. Sam Weller is the practical, wise-cracking, worldly sidekick who accompanies his employer on his club’s road travels – much like Sancho Panza serves Don Quixote in Cervantes’s picaresque novel. He is quick to quote some wise words, or to offer some appropriate bon mots to fit any particular occasion.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')
The Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist (1837). John Dawkins (aka ‘the Artful Dodger’) is the leading figure in Fagin’s gang of young pickpockets. It is he who finds Oliver on the streets of London and brings the desperate boy within Fagin’s malign control. The Dodger is the ultimate example of a type that reappears in many of Dickens’s novels – the fast-talking, wise-beyond-his-years, young whippersnapper who is always looking for the main chance. They are entrepreneurial types who will always fall on their feet. We meet his type again in the likes of Bailey Junior, Jo ‘Toughey’, Rob the Grinder, and Trabb’s boy.

by George Cruikshank

Fagin from Oliver Twist (1837). One of Dickens’s most corrupt and ugly creations, Fagin takes in and trains a gang of young boys to work as pickpockets and thieves. He is also a miser and hordes the best of his stolen items. Fagin’s physical repulsiveness mirrors his moral degeneracy. Throughout the first half of the novel, Dickens’s refers to Fagin constantly as “the Jew”. Mrs. Eliza Davis wrote to Dickens to complain about the anti-semitic tone to the portrait of Fagin; she argued that it “encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew”, and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. Dickens reacted defensively; his response to Mrs. Davis was that he bore no prejudice against Jews, and that he intended no malice. But he dropped the constant reference to “the Jew” in the second half of the book. Much later in his career, Dickens made recompense to Mrs. Davis by creating the noble and gentle Jewish character of Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend.

by George Cruikshank

Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist (1837). One of Dickens’s most evil and unredeemable characters. Sykes specialises in break-and-enters, and he takes Oliver with him out into the suburbs on a failed attempt to rob the silver plate from a middle-class home. He has a long-suffering companion – his dog Bullseye. In a dramatic and memorable scene towards the end of the book, Sykes clambers across the roofs of some high, terraced houses, attempting to escape an angry mob. He falls and accidentally hangs himself with the rope he has been carrying.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')
Nancy from Oliver Twist (1837). Nancy is the prototypical harlot with the heart of gold. She has a brave, independent spirit that stands up to, and challenges, the bullying of Bill Sykes and the scheming of Fagin. She feels a mothering-concern for Oliver, and resents the way that Fagin and Sykes exploit the youngster’s innocence. She takes the fatal step of meeting clandestinely with Mr. Brownlow, in order to save Oliver from Fagin’s menacing grasp. Bill Sykes, her lover, kills her brutally. Dickens used the gruesome description of this murder as the sensational subject of his public-readings - during the last couple of series. He was physically and emotionally exhausted at the conclusion of each of these performances.

by James Lobley

Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop (1840). The fate of Little Nell was a literary sensation. As the fate of Little Nell hung in the balance during the final few issues of the novel (printed in weekly-parts), American crowds at the harbour-front in New York City were reported to have yelled at the sailors on board of boats coming in from Britain: “Is Little Nell dead?” Her death is considered the ultimate example of Dickens’s penchant for sentiment and pathos. This young girl accompanies her grandfather around the country, as they attempt to evade Quilp – to whom her grandfather owes a large gambling debt. Little Nell is the ultimate example of what would become a familiar Dickens figure – the innocent young woman who sacrifices her own interests for an often ungrateful or oblivious father or grandfather.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')

Daniel Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop (1840). Quilp is a nasty but entertaining villain who enlivens a novel that is often tiresome and repetitive. Quilp is an ugly dwarf. He comes at a time during Dickens’s career when he seemed to delight in creating grotesque and physically damaged characters. Sometimes these physical weaknesses increased the reader’s pity for certain sympathetic characters; but in other cases the physical repulsiveness of a character – as with Daniel Quilp – helped   to emphasise his moral degeneracy. Quilp is delightfully bad, and he energises a novel that often goes soft in its reliance on pathos.

by Sol Eytinge, Jr.

Seth Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). Pecksniff is the dominant character in a novel that satirises greed and selfishness. Some of the book’s characters know what they are up to – and we follow their machinations, as they plot to advance their own self-interest. What makes Pecksniff so entertaining is his lack of self-awareness. He is the epitome of hypocrisy, justifying his selfishness at all times by considering himself always as a disinterested and upright pillar of his family and community. We watch with glee as the elderly Chuzzlewit exposes his smarmy duplicity.

by John Leech

Ebenezer Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol” (1843). Scrooge does not appear in any of Dickens’s fifteen multi-part novels; he is the main protagonist in an extended short story – a novella – that Dickens wrote for Christmas 1843. It was the first of five so-called Christmas Books he wrote especially for the Christmas season. The first effort – A Christmas Carol – was the best, a beautiful tale of redemption that only the hardest of hearts could possibly resist. In a sense, the book is also a ghost story, and its moody atmosphere and other-worldly motif adds helps give the book its gripping intensity. The change in attitude of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most convincing portraits of human redemption ever written. One of Dickens's greatest creations.

Dickens receiving his characters by William Holbrook Beard
by M.F. or E.M. Taylor

Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol” (1843). Tiny Tim appears in just a few scenes of Dickens’s first Christmas book, and he only has a little bit to say – but he looms over the story as a towering presence. Bob Cratchit’s accounts of Tim’s significance catch at the heart-strings, and Scrooge’s response to his plight make his redemption not just the result of re-visiting his own past, but also the desire to reach out and help the family of his loyal clerk. Tiny Tim is another quintessential figure of Dickensian pathos, but he is – even in our non-sentimental and rather cynical age – still almost impossible to resist.

by Frank Reynolds

Peggoty from David Copperfield (1849). Dickens often had trouble writing convincing female characters. He had particular trouble with sweet and innocent girls, and the love-interests of his aspiring young gentlemen. But he was much better creating scheming and nasty women. And occasionally he would come up with a female character who served as a wonderful example of the nurturing, ‘earth-mother’ type. Clara Peggotty is such a woman. She is the loyal servant of David Copperfield’s doomed mother, and David’s nurse and friend – a key ally when David is under the malign control of his step-father Mr. Murdstone. Peggotty takes David to Yarmouth and introduces him to the rest of her simple-hearted family.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')
Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield (1849). Wilkins Micawber is one of two characters that Dickens created who are obvious portraits of his profligate father, John Dickens. [The other is William Dorrit, “father of the Marshalsea” in Little Dorrit.] Mr. Micawber is the sympathetic portrait – he may be hopeless at handling money, and constantly falling into debt, like John Dickens – but he always remains magnanimous in the face of adversity: “Something will turn up!” Despite his financial incompetence, Micawber is a clever and resourceful man. The account of his friendship with the young Copperfield is one of the highlights of Dickens’s first coming-of-age novel.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')
Uriah Heep from David Copperfield (1849). Uriah Heep is one of Dickens’s creepiest villains. He constantly describes himself as “very ‘umble”, but he is scheming all the while to advance his own interest and to take advantage of all those around him who he perceives as enemies. He tries to ingratiate himself with others by portraying himself as an obedient boy to his mother – who is also, as he keeps telling us, “very ‘umble”. It is a nice touch that this despicable and repulsive villain is found out and thwarted by Mr. Micawber, who – despite his financial incompetence – is able to arrange and manipulate things at the Wickfield office, so as to bring the ‘umble scoundrel down.

Betsy Trotwood with Mr. Dick by Sol Eytinge

Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield (1849). Betsy Trotwood is David Copperfield’s aunt. She is another of Dickens’s compelling female characters. She enters the story as a rather dotty and self-centred woman, but she turns out to be a figure of steadfast strength and moral uprightness. She is the only person who stands up to Edward and Jane Murdstone, and easily thwarts their plans. The way in which she cares for and champions the simple-minded Mr. Dick is also a testament to her no-nonsense humanity. Betsy Trotwood represents the grumpy and hard-edged character who hides a heart of gold.

by Ralph Bruce

Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Dickens wrote two historical novels during his career. The first, Barnaby Rudge – a story set during the anti-Catholic riots in London of 1780 – has for its protagonist a simple-minded young man who is almost executed for his unwitting support for the anti-Catholic rioters. If one were to look for a ‘hero’, it might be the unlikely Gabriel Verden, a stout and simple locksmith, who stands up to an unruly mob and refuses to open the lock on the main door of the Newgate Prison. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’s second historical novel, set during the French Revolution, there is a genuine hero – Sydney Carton, who sacrifices his life to save the life of the husband of the woman he loves. Many of Dickens’s novels have a young gentleman as the main protagonist, and the plot of these novels serves to work out an acceptable future for that young man. Sydney Carton is not a character of that sort. His expectations have been long denied. He is weary of life, and his one attempt at a redeeming love remains unrequited. But he achieves a sublime redemption of a wasted life, through an heroic act of self-sacrifice. A traditional hero in – at least for Dickens – an uncharacteristic book.

by Fred Barnard
Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Madame Defarge is a tremendous female villain who plays a key role in this tale of the French Revolution. Dickens does a good job laying out the history of this woman and her husband. He shows effectively how she develops into a cruel and vindictive revolutionary. Madame Defarge is a childless woman who devotes her life to the revolution. The image of her and her female cronies sitting at the foot of the guillotine, and knitting as the gigantic blade lops off the heads of the hated aristocrats, epitomise a cruel and single-minded need for revenge.

by F. A. Fraser

 Pip from Great Expectations (1860). Pip is the protagonist of Dickens’s second, and more profound, coming-of-age novel. Unlike David Copperfield, who seems to stop growing as a person in the second half of the book, Pip’s fate unfolds to the very end of the book, and there is a unity of purpose in the book between the plot and the development of its protagonist’s self-understanding. Pip is a deeply flawed character, set upon the wrong road of life through the demented pair of Mrs. Havisham and Estella. His snobbery and self-regard takes him on a long and self-defeating journey; his redemption is painfully earned.

by Harry Furniss
Miss Havisham from Great Expectations (1860). Miss Havisham is a brilliant conception – one of those great Dickens characters, who perfectly marry specific detail with abstract symbol. Miss Havisham is a woman whose mind and character has been severely damaged by a monstrous betrayal. Her heart has shrivelled up inside, and she has turned her adopted daughter into an ice-princess trained to entice, to torment, and to reject any man who dares to admire her. What makes her so much more compelling is that she realises, eventually, what her hatred has done – not only to Pip, who always respected her, despite her malignant personality, but also to Estella, the daughter whose mind she has warped forever. The final immolation, when her ancient wedding dress goes up in flames, is a moment of incredible drama and perfect symbolic truth.

by H. M. Brock
Estella from Great Expectations (1860). As a female love-interest, Estella is unique in Dickens’s novels. She seems perfect and ideal in her beauty and in her feminine poise, but she is a callous and shallow woman, who has been twisted by the tormented and vengeful mother who has adopted her. It is her contempt for Pip’s coarse and simple manners which creates the yearning he has to be a gentleman, and sets him on a path to self-centred snobbery. Estella instigates Pip’s folly, but she, too, is a victim. Her life is blighted by the frigid heart she has inherited from Miss Havisham. Is she redeemed at the end of the book? She has certainly suffered. And she has a full knowledge of who she is and what she’s done. But can she ever make real contact with another human being and learn to love?

"Dickens' Dream" by R. W. Buss - Dickens in his study at Gad's Hill Place dreaming his characters


  1. Thank you for preparing this list. I agree, except I have not read MC or OCS yet.

  2. I would say Little Nell is memorable for the wrong reasons. OCS is an odd novel in that it has two of Dickens's best characters, Quilp and Dick Swiveller, as well as something of a Mary Sue in Nellie.