Ranking the Novels of Dickens


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Dickens wrote fourteen completed novels plus a substantial fifteenth, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I will count as a novel in the simple ranking below. Missing from my list is Dombey and Son (1846-1848), which I haven't read.

I didn't care to attempt to rank each novel individually, but I figured I could make two lists, what I regard as greater Dickens (seven) and lesser Dickens (seven), or my favorite seven and my less favorite seven -- something like that. The novels below are listed in chronological order, not personal preference order. The dating is drawn from A. O. J. Cockshut's little book The Imagination of Charles Dickens.

Greater Seven:
Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844)
David Copperfield (1849-1850)
Bleak House (1852-1853)
Little Dorrit (1855-1857)
Great Expectations (1860-1861)
Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865)
Edwin Drood (1870)

Lesser Seven:

Pickwick Papers (1836-1837)
Oliver Twist (1837-1839)
Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839)
The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
Hard Times (1854)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

I hasten to add that I like them all except that I found Pickwick tedious at times and something that it took determination to finish; and I don't remember that I was particularly fond of Hard Times. I have read those once each, also just once for Barnaby Rudge. I expect to try Hard Times someday for a second reading. It's fairly likely I'll read most of Nicholas Nickleby again someday, but I have no plans for now to do so, and I expect I will skip the tales told within the novel, which weren't much good, as I recall. Indeed I'm not certain I read all of them the first time. The other three in the Lesser list are ones I have read at least twice.

I've read all of the completed ones in the Greater list at least twice except for Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit, which I would like to read again within the next few years. I've read Great Expectations, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend three or four times each. My records indicate I've read Drood just once, but I thought it was at least twice. Dickens is a rereading favorite of mine.

How about you, who have read at least two Dickens novels? I'm thinking unabridged editions here, but of course you can count an abridged edition read in school if you like. That was my introduction to Dickens's novels, as I remember, an abridged version of Great Expectations that was included in a ?9th? grade reader, and which we didn't finish, I think. The first unabridged Dickens novel I read was Oliver Twist, over 40 years ago. I remember that I thought I'd mark paragraphs that could be safely skipped should I reread the novel; I had the impression that Dickens was wordy. I think I ended up marking about two paragraphs -- something ridiculous like that!

Hoping for some discussion here.
I have to admit that I hadn't read Dickens until I was 40 and that was 25 years ago.
A good friend, who was appalled when I admitted this, introduced me to David Copperfield.
From there I read Dombey and Son and then Little Dorrit.
I know I should read more because I did love all three of those.

For me those rank.

Little Dorrit
Dombey and Son
David Copperfield
I've read all but Pickwick Papers, Barnaby Rudge, and A Tale of Two Cities. I started all three but didn't care for them so didn't finish them.

I don't think I could rank the others. Whenever I reread any of them I find new things to appreciate, and they rise in my estimation.

But rating them in terms of the enjoyment they have given me, my three favorites are Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations and Little Dorrit. I must also admit to a soft spot for Nicholas Nickleby melodramatic though it is. (Or perhaps because of that. I adore the impassioned diatribes of the young Nicklebys in a fit of indignation. Nobody really talks like that, but how splendid it would be if they did.) I am not sure what you mean by the tales told within the novel.
I am not sure what you mean by the tales told within the novel.

Just now I tried to find an example, glancing at the Project Gutenberg text, but no luck! It was in 2003 that I read Nickleby, so I don't seem to remember details. I have a copy of the book, but not at hand.

But glancing at the Gutenberg text, I was remembering Nickleby and how outrageously funny it can be; "jilted," raging Fanny Squeers penning a letter "I am screaming as I write"!
Have you read Jack Maggs by Peter Carey? About the return to England of Maggwich after many years in Australia.
Time to load Charles onto the Kindle. I remember The Old Curiosity Shop, and bits of Bleak House and Hard Times, but long ago and far away.
Time to load Charles onto the Kindle. I remember The Old Curiosity Shop, and bits of Bleak House and Hard Times, but long ago and far away.

I liked Old Curiosity Shop quite a bit. It has Nell and her grandfather walk out of London. That especially interested me. It wd seem you can hardly walk into our great cities now.

Also I think this novel may have influnced Tolkien's description of Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) in Mordor, as Nell and her grandfather enter the industrial city.

Quilp is an over-the-top villain.

I've read this one a couple or so times and it seems pretty likely that I will again. Though I ranked it with the "lesser" books, I think it's probably underrated.
For me the top is Oliver Twist. It was my grandmother's favourite book.

Born poor in Liverpool in 1907 she had supplementary stories from real life that breathed a life into Oliver Twist that I've never experienced with another book. That book spoke to her and the life she'd had and in a way gave her hope.

I don't think I can rank the rest I love them all. I went to see Miriam Margolyes do Dickens Women so I've reread them all on the back of that.
I am not sure what you mean by the tales told within the novel.

There's a story early in Nickleby called "The Baron of Grogzwig," for one. Dickens included a few tales in Pickwick too, and I didn't find any of those much good, even the "Tale of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," which gets reprinted occasionally, I think.

But these are very minor blemishes, and if anyone's scanning this thread and hasn't read Dickens, I would hope such remarks wouldn't discourage him or her from trying this beloved great author.
Ranking of the ones I've read:

Great Expectations
David Copperfield
A Tale of Two Cities
Our Mutual Friend
Oliver Twist
Pickwick Papers
(didn't finish)

I'd like to tackle Bleak House one of these years, but I've always been intimidated. I'll probably read Little Dorrit first.
MWagner, would you care to elaborate on why (I infer) Little Dorrit seems less intimidating than Bleak House? I'm curious. I used Bleak House once in a course where I figured it would be students' first Dickens novel, but I always thought of Little Dorrit as not the one to offer as someone's first Dickens novel, because (as I recall from reading it over a dozen years ago) it seemed Dickens deliberately damped down the mystery and exuberance characteristic of much that he wrote. -- I've put that awkwardly since you've read several of the novels. But your comment got me thinking about my experience teaching Dickens. Never tried teaching Dorrit. Did include it (but not as our first Dickens) in a little campus-community reading group that met for eleven years. That neat bunch always liked Dickens! They weren't super crazy about Conrad.... but we even ploughed through Nostromo. Whew!
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Little Dorrit wasn't on my radar until I saw it rated highly on the 'best of' lists during Dickens' 200th anniversary a few years ago. I figure I should give it a try, even though I don't really know anything about it.

As for Bleak House, I find its size intimidating, as well as the subject matter. The legal system of late-19th century England isn't a subject I would otherwise find appealing. Also, I found Our Mutual Friend, another of Dickens' 'big subject' novels (money) to be a bit of a slog.

And I won't deny that I'm even influenced by the titles: Little Dorrit or Bleak House. Which sounds heavier?

For an introduction to Dickens, from my limited experience it seems David Copperfield fits the bill. It's straightforward in approach, and includes all of the essential Dickensian elements.

As for Conrad, I didn't find Nostromo all that difficult. There's something clean and forceful about Conrad's prose that makes it quite compelling for me.
Starting rereading Dickens- wordy? No, but many longer sentences, yes. A lot of information, and then, every page or two, a real beauty of a sentence or three, just stuff writers should notice and think, well I could use that one, that metaphor or technique or whatever, because it just reads beautifully. I can see modern readers not having a lot of interest in some of the historic settings, but the actual prose makes up for it, for anyone thinks they might want to write a novel.
... and then, every page or two, a real beauty of a sentence or three, just stuff writers should notice and think, well I could use that one, that metaphor or technique or whatever, because it just reads beautifully.

It has always seemed to me that such extraordinary sentences come more often than that. But of course this opinion is subjective. I've always thought that his descriptions of people, which could go on for a paragraph or so, were especially good.
Just beauties, real gems that make you think: 'I'm stealing/borrowing that.' Not many writers can do that consistently. I can't talk meaningfully about Dickens till rereading, but there he is, on the hated Kindle, so that's Dickens, CAS, HPL, Lieber, and JoZebedee on the bookmachine, so far, and it's great, just great... *
Heh... I started in on Bleak House, and made it to page one before I ran into 'commodious cellarage' and laughed out loud.
I've read a reasonable amount of Dickens:

Great Expectations - 1
David Copperfield -3
Oliver Twist -5
Hard Times - 4
A Christmas Carol -2
Bleak House - 6

And a kids book - The Magic Fishbone which is huge fun
Afraid my ranking will be in terms of which I dislike most. I don't get Dickens. In fairness, most of them I haven't read.

1. The Old Curiosity Shop. Couldn't bear it. Little Nell - yuk.
2. Little Dorrit. Read a good chunk then gave up.
3. A Christmas Carol. At least it's short.
4. A Tale of Two Cities. This has some good bits, I admit. But not a book I expect to reread.

There are some stunning passages, but...but...

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