Charles Dickens was the most popular writer of his generation and his many novels and short stories are still widely read and enjoyed around the world. To modern readers he occupies an exalted position as perhaps the leading commentator writing in English upon the times in which he lived.
Although Dickens did sometimes set his tales in earlier centuries, most of his books were set in contemporary Britain and many of them depict life as experienced by the poorer sections of society. The realism of his depictions of poverty-stricken industrial and urban life were much informed by his own childhood experiences of deprivation long before he established a highly successful literary career as a prolific novelist, magazine editor and performer of his own writings. The plight of his protagonists, not always happily resolved and to modern eyes occasionally melodramatic and sentimental, evoked a deeply emotive response in readers at all levels of society and sometimes served as a key influence in changing social policy. Because many of his novels were written in parts for publication in relatively cheap monthly magazines they became available to a much wider readership that would not normally be able to afford the complete stories in book form.
Dickens’s great literary reputation is based on many factors but perhaps the most important of these is his unmatched skill at characterization. The hundreds of characters he created include some of the best known in world fiction, and many of them have become icons personifying aspects of flawed humanity. The fact that their stories are typically told with great humour and sympathy and in language that is at once poetic and authentic makes them much more than mere ciphers for social criticism, however. Many decades after the author’s death, the term ‘Dickensian’ still denotes a style that combines biting social observation with strong characterization and convincing descriptive power.