Monday, June 3, 2013

My 6 Favorite Dickens Characters

Few authors have had such an impact as Charles Dickens. Of his twenty novels, all but a couple of the shorter Christmas works have been made into feature films at least once - A Christmas Carol alone has been produced more than 20 times. What makes his work so endlessly entertaining is the abundance of fantastic, eccentric characters, many of them very funny. Here is a list of my all-time favorites.

6. Herbert Pocket
Great Expectations is crammed with eccentric characters, from Miss Havisham to Magwitch, but my very favorite is Pip's first boxing opponent, tutor in the "gentlemanly arts," and fast friend. I developed a persistent fondness for him when I first read the novel and though he is far from Dickens's most colorful character, he would definitely be enormous fun in English pubs. He was portrayed by Alec Guinness (in his first major film role) in David Lean's 1946 adaptation.

5. Captain Cuttle
My favorite Dickens novel is Dombey and Son, which has a great villain, the many-toothed Mr. Carker, as well as the good-hearted and salty-tongued Captain Cuttle. Cuttle is one of the many Dickens characters determined to avoid matrimony, especially to "widders," though happy to aid others to such a fate. He is found of bungling quotations terminating in this request: "When found, make a note of." His maritime speech and naive positivity are endearing rather than irritating, and he provides the lion's share of humor in the book.

4. Sydney Carton
Though A Tale of Two Cities has a number of entertaining secondary characters, the spiky-haired Jerry Cruncher foremost among them, the hero, Charles Darnay, and his wilting lily beloved, are far too good to be interesting. Thank goodness, Sydney Carton, the dissipated, cynical barrister, is the real hero of the story. Carton is an unusually complex and sophisticated character for Dickens and his final act of heroism is kept from being sentimental by the surprisingly convincing path he took to get there.

3. Fagin
Fagin, from Oliver Twist, is deliciously immoral and oddly sympathetic, convincing as both a money-grubbing exploiter of little boys and a put-upon father-figure to Oliver and the Artful Dodger. While Bill Sykes is pure evil and Nancy is a good woman brought low by life, Fagin occupies some ambiguous place in the middle. Ron Moody, in the 1968 musical Oliver!, is so perfectly cast as Fagin that I can't accept anyone else in the part and his performances of "I'm Reviewing the Situation" and "Be Back Soon" are pure genius.

2. Ebenezer Scrooge
There's a good reason that A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted books of all time and that reason is one miserly old coot named Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge's transformation is one of the few Victorian stories of moral development that continue to fascinate us, despite the oft-aimed accusation of sentimentality. Oddly the most faithful adaptation I've seen is A Muppet Christmas Carol, which preserves more of the original dialogue and narration than any other film version. Michael Caine is wonderful as Scrooge and his performance is none the less moving for playing opposite Gonzo as Charles Dickens.

1. Sam Weller
The Pickwick Papers was Dickens's first novel and a runaway success when it was first published, in great part thanks to the best Dickens character of all time, Sam Weller, Pickwick's manservant and valet whose crafty scheming and loyal partisanship get Pickwick out of many a scrape. He also introduces us to Weller, senior, his father, a man bent on infiltrating temperance societies and leading them back to the bottle. Some of Sam's best quips include: "Business first, pleasure arterwards, as King Richard the Third said wen he stabbed t'other king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies" and "Sorry to do anythin' as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin's, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament."

It's no surprise that all my favorites are men, given that Dickens's female characters tended to be far less inspired. Many of the women are inexpressibly angelic (and boring), many are terrifying battle-axes, and many are good-hearted and simple-minded. There are exceptions to the rule - Louisa in Hard Times or Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son - but by and large, the men are more interesting and more complex than the women.

Readers, favorite Dickens characters?


  1. This entry is very interesting. I am thinking of rereading some of the novels I have already read, and reading the ones I haven't.

  2. I love this list! I need to read more Dickens. I'm surprised that there are "only" 20 novels.