What the Dickens?
Master of the cliffhanger, creator of notorious villains, champion of the oppressed, challenger of injustice. A hero who tackles workhouses, educational reform, judicial bureaucracy, poverty, and prison and class injustices. An ordinary man with extraordinary power.
Everyone, meet Batman.
Oh wait, nope. We're talking about Charles Dickens.
This course is filled with readings and activities (with worksheets and handouts, to boot) that will help you examine
- what makes Dickens such an original and successful storyteller.
- the ways in which he became, on many levels, a representative of Victorian England.
- the influence Dickens had on the social institutions that he raked across the coals.
- some of those big life questions like "What is justice?," "Are we born with a predisposition towards good or evil?," and "What responsibilities do we have to ourselves and to society?"
When we're done, you can brag about your ability to sail through paragraph-long sentences and understand them. And you'll get to use the word "tome" in a sentence. What more could you ask for?
Unit 1. Dickens 101
Consider this the first date with Charles Dickens. In this unit, we'll get to know the man and his beloved London, giving us all the tools we need to read his novels smartly and Shmoopily.
Unit 2. Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist explores the London underworld and offers up interesting philosophical questions for us to consider. Childhood never seemed more complicated.
Unit 3. Nicholas Nickleby
Nicholas Nickleby struck a chord with Dickens's readers, and some folks came forward to call him out on how he portrayed the Yorkshire Schools—especially since he's credited with driving some of 'em out of business. Not bad for a book, eh?
Unit 4. A Tale of Two Cities
Not one to shy away from hard work, Dickens did a boatload of research to be sure that he got his facts about the French Revolution straight. The result? A Tale of Two Cities.
Unit 5. Great Expectations
Great Expectations explores the fantasy-turned-reality life of Philip Pirrip, a.k.a. Pip. Now that's a name you won't forget.
Unit 6. David Copperfield
Cast out to live life on his own terms at the tender age of 10, young David Copperfield gets a pretty rough start. Sad? Yes. Fiction? Not by a mile. Dickens drew upon his own past for inspiration, and a simple look around London was enough to furnish him with any other details that his imagination might not have supplied.
Unit 7. A Christmas Carol
In this unit, we'll definitely explore the entertainment side of A Christmas Carol—because, really, who can resist?—but our larger emphasis is going to be on thinking about forces that resulted in this most famous of Christmas stories.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 3: London: Dickens's Muse
Dickens knew London like the back of his hand. Many days, he would log 20 miles of walking. Yeah, you read that right. And there were nights when, to cure his sleeplessness, he would walk from dusk to dawn. Given the nature and sheer amount of his walking, he mock-seriously claimed "that I think I must be the descendent, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp" (Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller).
Lest we lead you astray, however, Dickens's walking is not the principal point here. What matters most are the opportunities for seeing London that arise from all that roamin' around. Combine Dickens's accuracy in registering detail (perhaps born of his days as a parliamentary reporter?) with his sensibility and creativity, and suddenly London lies before you. When Dickens went for a walk, his brain registered everything: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, physical reactions...the whole gamut.
So, when Dickens writes of London scenes, he draws from his own intimate knowledge and experience of those scenes. He's not just pulling it out of a hat. The fog, grime, filth, light, shadows, cattle smells, dust, mud, eeriness, rag shops, shopkeepers, wagoners, street urchins, pickpockets, distracted men reading books—they are all real. And that makes your experience reading them all the more real, too.
People have said of Charles Dickens that every time you turn a corner in London, there he is. Ask him about a specific London street, and he could "tell you 'all that is in it, what each shop was, what the grocer's name was, [and] how many scraps of orange-peel there were on the pavement'" (source).
London, in many ways, was Dickens's muse. Her problems became the problems explored in Dickens's novels. Her streets were the streets in Dickens's novels. It's no wonder, then, that Dickens writes of poverty, charity, prisons, workhouses, philanthropy, slums, bureaucracy, the legal system. These were the facts of everyday life in London.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.3: London as a Character
To give you a sense of how extensively London factored into Dickens's writing, we're going to have you look at two brief articles that talk about the ways in which Dickens writes about London. As you read, notice the numerous references to his novels (and keep up with that dialectical journal, Shmoopers):
- "History of London: Charles Dickens-Victorian Author". Note: read only the section on Charles Dickens (so, yes, you may ignore the arrow keys at the bottom of the screen.
- "Dickensian London: A character in itself" Note: in this case, you will be clicking ahead to the next page.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.3a: Perambulate through Dickens's London
As hopping over the big pond to take a walking tour of Dickens's London is quite unlikely, not to mention inconvenient for our present purposes, we're going to settle for a digital stroll instead. Beginning with Simon Callow's video, we'll watch, point, click, and scroll our way through a series of brief videos and short articles detailing the London that Dickens knew and loved so well.
As we digitally perambulate through Dickens's London, pay particular attention to those passages that were penned by Dickens himself. Notice his attention to detail and the seemingly lifelike images he creates through his choice of words. Why? Well, because after you explore Dickens's London, you're going to explore your own hometown.
Step 1, Visual London: Our first few stops for the activity will be in visual form, either video or photographic. So, once you are ready to notice the details, listen to the commentary, and read the captions, feel free to begin. Navigate your way through the links provided below.
- Follow Simon Callow on a brief video tour of London by clicking here.
- "Victorian London which inspired Dickens—fascinating pictures"
- "Victorian Street Life in London." Though the photographs date from later in Dickens's life, and the London depicted is the London of Dickens's old age, the images still provide a window into the world that Dickens inhabited.
Step 2, Dickens's London: Now that you've seen the scenes, the next step is to try to visualize the scenes as Dickens describes them. The following links will take you to a few articles about (and excerpts of) Dickens's writing. As you read, pay attention to the accumulation of detail, variety of images, and types of sensory cues. Try to figure out how the sounds, tastes, smells, sights, and touches of the scenes are conveyed to you, the reader.
- "Dickens and the city: 'Animate and inanimate London.'" We're not going to lie to you. It's a long chapter. Interesting, yes, but long. So, do yourself a favor and only read the indented passages by Dickens. In most cases, they are excerpts from his novels and, you guessed it, they are descriptive scenes.
- "How Dickens Saw London"
- "Six: Use of Setting." As in "Dickens and the city" (#1 above), only read the indented passages.
Note: If you have an iPad or iPhone handy, go one better and download the app "Dickens: Dark London". This graphic novel combines Dickens's descriptions with illustrations. You can't beat that. Plus the app is free.
Step 3: Select your favorite passage from those that you read in Step 2. Then, annotate it. Not only will your annotations help you in your own writing, they will also come in handy in helping you understand Dickens's prose better. Here are some things to think about:
- Look at Dickens's sentence structure and diction (word choice).
- Consider what mood is evoked.
- How is that mood accomplished?
- What metaphors, similes, or symbols are used?
- If there are people present in the scene, what part do they play?
- Is there any connection between how the scene is described and how the character is described?
- Does the scene seem to have a moral component? If so, what is it.
Pick the passage apart. Dissect it. Really get the feel for what Dickens is saying and how he is saying it. If you notice something else that isn't covered by the questions we've posed, jot it down. Our questions are merely starting points.
To make your annotations, copy and paste the text into a word processor and then use the comment feature. When you're done annotating, insert a page break in preparation for Step 4.
Step 4: Take a walk. Yes, literally. Try to become Dickens. Observe your neighborhood as if you were trying to capture everything about it. Think of your mind as a video camera tasked with the job of recording the scene so that it can be replayed later.
Step 5: Once you've completed your walk, bring that mental recording home and write the scene you experienced. Try to mimic Dickens's style of writing. Think like Dickens, too. If your walk gave you too much to work with, narrow it down to a manageable piece. Then go into detail. Lots and lots of detail. Visual and auditory and tactile and olfactory and gustatory detail. (Yep, those are the fancy words for the five senses.) Your goal is to write an image-laden, compact, Dickensian description approximately 300 words in length. You can include this paragraph in the same document as your annotated passage from Step 3. Then upload the whole shebang below.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.3b: Dickens Goes Digital
The kind folks at BBC Arts have married a love of Dickens, his novels, and his times to our modern-day penchant for gaming. The result: "Survive Dickens' London". Your task . . . need we say it? Go play. Yes, really.
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12, College
- Course Type: Elective
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1