ENGL 3856 Topics in Genre Studies: Dickens and Victorian Society
ABOUT THE COURSE
After a childhood in which he was forced into factory labor to alleviate his parents’ debts and then dragged with them into debtors’ prison, before striking out alone as a teenager in London, Charles Dickens published fourteen novels over the course of a famous and influential career. Along the way, he wrote, co-wrote, and edited hundreds of essays, short articles, Christmas tales including A Christmas Carol, edited four magazines, gave public readings, toured the US, and even took the stage as an actor.
Demand for Dickens’s works came from their accessibility to audiences with little or no formal education, paired with their ability to entertain and challenge readers who did enjoy financial security, education, and political representation. Fans read his works aloud in pubs and homes, so that his audience were not necessarily all “readers,” and the tales he published in pieces over months (often 20) seized public attention in real-time much the way that popular TV or short-format film series do today. His novels also showed concern for members of Victorian society who struggled to survive in a newly industrializing and urbanizing culture. Historically, these people faced challenges like poverty, epidemic disease, and overcrowding, while suffering from class-based exclusion from educational and social opportunities, various forms of prejudice, and the effects of devastating pollution. When Dickens created sympathetic characters who endured similar difficulties in print, then, many readers saw them as expressions of interest in their own welfare—while those with secure livelihoods had to consider others’ difficult realities.
In this course, we will read five of Dickens’s novels that span the length of his career, all of which engage with a combination of historical problems inherited by Victorian society and distinctly new problems that emerged during the era. We will also study primary historical materials and contemporary criticism, in order to identify how Dickens’s representations of these problems attempt to explain, criticize, or help solve them, and to strengthen our own voices as we interpret his literary depictions.
- Develop expertise in the five novels we read and gain a general familiarity with Dickens’s body of fictional works.
- Understand the specific historical challenges facing Victorian communities related to industrialization and urbanization, in order to grasp the ways in which Dickens specifically intervenes in debates about public policy and social welfare.
- Gain an awareness of contemporary criticism of Dickens’s works.
- Hone analytical reading skills and clearly express literary analyses in various written modes.
In the order we will read them:
– – -. Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Penguin Classics, 2003.
– – -. Barnaby Rudge. Penguin Classics, 2003
– – -. Hard Times. Penguin Classics, 2003.
– – -. A Tale of Two Cities. Penguin Classics, 2003.
– – -. Our Mutual Friend. Penguin Classics, 1998.
Please buy these versions. There are many editions of Dickens’s works, but others are edited differently and therefore feature different pagination and explanatory notes, which will make discussion of the texts far more difficult.