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Charles Dickens

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?

Course Breakdown

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

What Dickens didn't tell anyone was that he logged 20 miles of walking a day because he kept getting lost.
(Source)

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, abstracted 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.

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  • Course Length: 18 weeks
  • Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12, College
  • Course Type: Elective
  • Category:
    • English
    • Literature
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Common Core Standards  

The following standards are covered in this course:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1
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CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1
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CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1
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CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1
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CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
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CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
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