Dickens’ fiction is regarded as highly moralizing and fraught with social commentary, and he is an innovator of the realist novel and the capacity for fiction to act as a vessel for social critique. As such, he can be called by many names: Dickens the moralist, Dickens the father of the modern English novel, and so on. It is important, however, to not lose sight of one of the most valuable and lasting aspects of his writing: its ability to entertain.
Enter Dickens the entertainer. The most widely-read and critically acclaimed novelist of his day, Dickens could not have achieved his meteoric fame by merit of his social commentary or stylistic innovation alone; his work are also considered incredibly enjoyable to read. From the madcap stunts of Pickwick and crew, to the more subtle humor of his other novels, to the way he makes his characters (and his readers) dance like puppets on the strings of dramatic narrative machinations, Dickens proves that he knows how to work the crowd.
Indeed, Dickens’s work was considered uproariously funny in his day, and though the comic dilemmas faced by Pickwick and crew may only illicit a chuckle from many modern readers, they earned Dickens the widespread appeal that made his humor the 19th century equivalent of the best of the modern comedy film genre. Consider, for instance, the Pickwick Club’s run-in with the military exercises in chapter four. In an absurd turn of events, Pickwick and his companions find themselves sandwiched between two advancing columns of soldiers, having been the only spectators foolish enough not to vacate the area. Comical moments abound in the vignette, but one in particular stands out: having finally realized the inopportunity of his position, Pickwick decides to flee:
“Man is but mortal; and there is a point beyond which human courage cannot extend. Mr. Pickwick gazed through his spectacles for an instant on the advancing mass; and then fairly turned his back and – we will not say fled; first, because it is an ignoble term, and, secondly, because Mr. Pickwick’s figure was by no means adapted for that mode of retreat – he trotted away, at as quick a rate as his legs would convey him” (62).
Here, the undeniable humor and absurdity of the situation come not merely from the circumstances themselves, but rather from Dickens’ particular way of narrating them, a testament to his unique ability to entertain.
With that ability came certain concessions and considerations, however. The very form of his novels, released over time in serialized segments in many instances, was a nod toward the contemporary societal conception of what was entertaining. By dividing up his narrative, Dickens reaped the benefits of serialized publication. For instance, the release of segments of his longer works, including
The Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son, and Bleak House, at regular intervals ensured continued readership by already devoted fans. Also, it made his work more accessible to new readership, in that it was published over the course of time rather than all at once, affording potential readers time to learn of it and become invested in it.
Additionally, he often ended segments in cliffhangers, utilizing the resultant dramatic tension to keep readers salivating for the next installment. This stylistic choice came with its own advantages and drawbacks: the segments, released a week apart, had to stand alone and provide a satisfying reading experience by themselves, despite their being only a small part of a larger work. Thus, Dickens was forced to structure each of them, to some extent, like a short story. Each installment was complete with its own rising action, climax, and denouement, resulting in a cyclical narrative pattern in which the action roughly oscillates in intensity across two-chapter intervals.
Consider, for instance, the ending of chapter four of Great Expectations: Pip, guilt-stricken for his complicity in aiding an escaped convict and for stealing from Mrs. Joe, is a veritable bundle of nerves. His tension and anxiety over his sister’s inevitable discovery of the theft of the pie creates a sense of impending calamity in the reader – a sense that seems to be justified at the conclusion of chapter four: Able to bear the suspense no longer, Pip has just begun to make a dash from the house when he “ran head foremost into a party of soldiers with their muskets: one of whom held out a pair of handcuffs to me, saying, “Here you are, look sharp, come on!” (30). A reader of the novel as a whole has to do little more than read down the page to see that the handcuffs aren’t intended for Pip. A reader in Dickens’ day, however, would likely have been both infuriated and pleased by Dickens’ mastery of suspense, and would surely have purchased the next installment to see what became of poor Pip.
In addition to manipulating the plot, Dickens needed to create highly memorable characters with exaggerated characteristics, be they highly likeable or loathsome, as a mechanism for keeping readers invested in the story from week to week. The extreme causticity of Mrs. Joe’s character, the mysterious past of Ms. Havisham, and the intrigue surrounding the complex Magwitch were all elements that would have kept readers invested in the characters, and more likely to keep reading.
Thus, the medium in which Dickens the entertainer worked seems to have been well-suited to him, as it prompted in him an adaptive response that resulted in the kind of memorable characters he is famous for, and the kind of captivating narratives that kept – and continue to keep his readers coming back for more.