Ranking the Novels of Dickens

Teresa Edgerton

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And a kids book - The Magic Fishbone which is huge fun
I agree.

If we were going to talk about his short fiction — short stories, novelettes, and novellas* — I think I have read it all and have a number of favorites.

*I was thinking of A Christmas Carol as a novella, otherwise I would have listed it up there with my favorite novels.
 

Extollager

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I don't know Dickens's novellas and short stories well. A Christmas Carol is great, and I recall liking "No. ___ Branch Line" The Signalman" quite a bit, but that's about it for me, so far. I've read a fair bit of his journalism, much of which is really good. But maybe it would be a good idea to launch a thread for those shorter works...
 

Bick

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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... And I won't deny that I'm even influenced by the titles: Little Dorrit or Bleak House. Which sounds heavier?
Bleak House isn't heavy at all, except in ounces. It's a terrific read, and my favourite to date. The legal system plot is not a reading burden at all, but a great device to expound on pointless and fruitless endeavor. I would place my favourite Dickens in the following order:

Bleak House
Great Expectations
David Copperfield
Oliver Twist (but barely remembered to be fair)

Only read a few, but will be setting that straight shortly.
 

Extollager

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In Bleak House you get the delectably weird fate of Krook, the Ghost's Walk, the mad Miss Flite with her dreadfully-named birds, the contagion of the burying grounds and the almost Cthulhuvian spreading madness of Chancery -- yes, it's a tremendous achievement, and maybe I'd have to say it's my favorite if I had to choose. I'm very fond, though, of Our Mutual Friend, too, in which, among other things, Dickens seems deliberately to have "cast against type" -- like casting Jimmy Stewart as a vile criminal; here it's the man from an unpromising background, who has made every sacrifice to earn a place in the world by his own efforts alone, who is one of the novel's chief villains; while a lazy, privileged fellow who toys with seducing a vulnerable factory girl is one of the book's sympathetic characters. I find much to relish in the Wegg and Venus material, including the priceless bit in which the dowdy taxidermist flares up at a little kid when he realizes he's passed him not only his change but, accidentally, a tooth:

Our mutual friend
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Bleak House isn't heavy at all, except in ounces ... The legal system plot is not a reading burden at all, but a great device to expound on pointless and fruitless endeavor.
I agree. It's right up there with the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, except the Court of Chancery was real and if Dickens exaggerates it by much it was still known for it's glacial pace, huge backlogs, and iniquitously high costs.

Our Mutual Friend, too, in which, among other things, Dickens seems deliberately to have "cast against type" -- like casting Jimmy Stewart as a vile criminal; here it's the man from an unpromising background, who has made every sacrifice to earn a place in the world by his own efforts alone, who is one of the novel's chief villains; while a lazy, privileged fellow who toys with seducing a vulnerable factory girl is one of the book's sympathetic characters.
Not to mention the demented mutual obsession between these two characters.
 

J Riff

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I read The Signalman, a ghost story and it was totally engaging, wish it had been a bit longer.
Commodious cellarage is part of the description of someone's face, great word choice there Chas. I laughed and the whole book seemed a bit less bleak off the bat.
 
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Extollager

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I see that the "commodious cellarage" is from a description of Hard Times's Gradgrind. Since I read that 'un just the once, in Dec.-Jan. 1977/8, I don't feel too bad about not catching the allusion. But the thought pf that lapse of time does indeed make me think that I might well give it a revisitation. Thirty-nine years!
 

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And it is astonishingly good, very funny. 'Cellarage' appears again, and I had to stop reading a few times, to laugh. Bounderby.
 

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I have all of the novels, shorter works, most of his travel writing and other journalistic reporting but I have not by any stretch read all of that material yet but my favourite novels to date are Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations.
 

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I'm currently reading Dombey and Son and I'm about 300 pages in, so I have a long way to go yet, but I'm enjoying it very much. Dickens is very good at getting the right number of characters in and introducing new ones once you've got existing ones straight in your head. There must be about 20 key characters who interweave (in a rather coincidental way). Anyone else read Dombey?
 

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Dombey is the one Dickens novel I haven't read, and I am looking forward to changing that this year.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I've read it. It's not one of my favorites, but I'd certainly recommend it. Though not my favorite plot, it does have some very memorable characters, especially among the women.
 

Bick

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I finished Dombey and Son. It took me a long time to read, but that's not much of a reflection on the book*, which I found enjoyable, and very readable, and it had passages of real power. You can tell this marks the start of Dickens more mature phase I suspect, as he really shows his skill at building tension and capturing dramatic dialogue. There are also lots of eccentric characters that I'm sad to be leaving. Cap'n Cuttle and Mr Toots to name but two. Edith is a powerful and appealing female character as well (and she is fully in touch with her own worth, strikingly so for the time I imagine).

* It's probably got something to do with being 880 pages of close type, to be fair.
 

Allegra

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Bleak House isn't heavy at all, except in ounces. It's a terrific read, and my favourite to date. The legal system plot is not a reading burden at all, but a great device to expound on pointless and fruitless endeavor. I would place my favourite Dickens in the following order:

Bleak House
Great Expectations
David Copperfield
Oliver Twist (but barely remembered to be fair)

Only read a few, but will be setting that straight shortly.
I can simply copy your list for myself, Bick, bracket and all. Bleak House was my first and favourite Dickens. I have not read a great deal of the master, since Little Dorrit has been mentioned quite a few times, it should be my next. :)
 

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My memory of Little Dorrit is that it was very good, but atypical, as if Dickens wanted to push himself a bit. It seems to me he set himself to write a less exuberant, more brooding novel. I'd like to read it again and may do so this summer.
 

Bick

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I'm now reading another. After the door-stop that was Dombey and Son, I wanted something a little shorter next up, so I've started Oliver Twist. I have basically no memory of this book in all honesty, so thought I'd go back to the beginning with Dickens and see how this compares with the later Dombey. I may then zoom forward to a genuinely late era Dickens novel. Our Mutual Friend, perhaps, or Tale of Two Cities.

So far, a couple of chapters in, I'm enjoying Oliver Twist, though its a bit heavy handed with the poor law satire early on. I understand this settles down once Charles has made his point...
 

Bick

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I finished Oliver Twist a day or so ago, and thought I'd post a few thoughts here. This thread is all about ranking Dickens major novels, and I'm not sure where I would put Twist. Its both fantastic and relatively poor, in almost equal degree, and given the contrasting merits of that duality, I'd better add a few remarks.

Twist is an early novel (Dickens was about 25 when he wrote it) and this probably underlies the weaknesses. It's perhaps overly melodramatic, and others have commented on this for over a hundred years, but that's not my main problem with the book. In fact, I like my Dickens to be melodramatic. The problems stem principally from the plot of Oliver's parentage and life story. This is weakly done, poorly explained, full of ludicrous coincidence, and centers on a relatively unengaging character (Twist himself). The positives are everything else. Outside of the weak underlying story arc, we have scenes involving the criminals in the book that are entirely fantastic. Bill Sikes is superbly drawn - bad to the core and a ruined man, and the chapters involving him are solid gold. Every time Sikes enters the story the novel crackles with energy. The robbery, murder and rooftop escape scenes are unforgettable. While Sikes is corrupt and violent, Fagin is a portrait of evil and is engagingly drawn. If Dickens had written a novel centering on these characters and less on the perfect lad and his highly unlikely backstory I feel it would be a better book. Chesterton wrote that Oliver Twist "is not of great value, but it is of great importance". Its hard not to agree. However, it is what it is - a relatively weak novel with many wonderful scenes. That said, its mostly quite pacey and not too long, so I would recommend it. I had to remind myself it was written by a young man, 180 years ago. It is quite a literary achievement, even if its not his best.

So how to rank it? Based on memorable scenes, its right at the very top; overall as a cohesive novel, much lower. I think my ranking has to now come out like this:

Bleak House
Great Expectations
Dombey and Son
David Copperfield*
Oliver Twist

(* poorly remembered compared to the others, to be fair; I read it over 30 years ago)

Now what Dickens to read next? A late novel I suspect, but I'm taking a break and reading some SF and detective stuff for a bit. I still hope to knock off 2-3 more Dickens this year though.
 

Extollager

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I'll put in a word for a favorite, Bick, Our Mutual Friend. It makes a nice summing-up for Dickens, as his last novel, in that it shows him returning again to the great comic grotesques (gotta love Silas Wegg and Mr. Venus), eerie mystery, social themes, etc. But there's a special interest in this one in that you see him working against his own usual arrangement; here, a lazy, self-indulgent, spoiled probable seducer is portrayed sympathetically, while a young man from a disadvantaged background, who has sacrificed everything to achieve a decent place in society that benefits other disadvantaged people -- is a villain. Wow. I've read it several times. After you read it, the late 1990s miniseries is worth seeing -- really well done -- but you owe it to yourself to read it first. Just my recommendation tonight, but whatever you choose, I hope you'll tell about it!

Our Mutual Friend (1998 TV serial) - Wikipedia
 
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