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July 20, 2010 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Dickens' novels ranked.

G.K. Chesterton's prefaces to the original Everyman edition of Dickens offer a more expansive (and effusive) survey.
posted by Iridic (49 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
1. Great Expectations

Well darn. That's the one that made me think I'd like Dickens but it appears to be all downhill.
posted by DU at 10:30 AM on July 20, 2010


Bleak House at 11? Nabokov is rolling in his urn.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 10:31 AM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thee seems to be a model to be followed by some writers: get a heavyweight author with a huge output, read him from beginning to end and then write your own piece on how you followed that writer or work for a period of one year...useful too in some idea on how it has made you a better or more perceptive person. Then hope your effort get published.
posted by Postroad at 10:32 AM on July 20, 2010


LEAVE OUR MUTUAL FRIEND ALONE.

Podsnap rules.
posted by jquinby at 10:35 AM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thee seems to be a model to be followed by some writers: get a heavyweight author with a huge output, read him from beginning to end and then write your own piece on how you followed that writer or work for a period of one year...useful too in some idea on how it has made you a better or more perceptive person. Then hope your effort get published.

So, are we saying that this guy is angling for a Hollywood movie entitled Dick and Dickens, one half of which will be about the author and one half about an insufferable blogger twit?

It'd be worth it for the scene where the ghost of Dickens appears and tells the blogger he's an asshole and not to bother, and the blogger is all "but it's what Dickens would have wanted WHEN HE WAS ALIVE" and continues to the bitter, paycheck laden end.
posted by Artw at 10:47 AM on July 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Thee seems to be a model to be followed by some writers: get a heavyweight author with a huge output, read him from beginning to end and then write your own piece on how you followed that writer or work for a period of one year...useful too in some idea on how it has made you a better or more perceptive person. Then hope your effort get published.

Or made into a movie.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:52 AM on July 20, 2010


Dick and Dickens

Some guy in Burbank, CA must already own the copyright to that one.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 10:53 AM on July 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Bleak House is magnificent. As for not finding the humour in Pickwick Papers: I think the challenge for modern readers is the incongruity of the ornate Victorian literary style and a quite modern, surreal, satirical sense of what is funny. The poetess reading her "Ode to a dying frog" is pure Monty Python. You get a more obvious flavour of lunatic comedy in another Victorian novel -- Alice in Wonderland. I confess I couldn't read Dickens until I was about 30, then started Pickwick Papers and it suddenly clicked how hilarious it was and I became hooked. Still, it all comes down to a matter of taste.
posted by binturong at 10:53 AM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The criticism here is pretty solid, except for the fact that as great as Great Expectations is, A Tale of Two Cities is likely the greatest novel in the English language, and nearly perfect from first word to last.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:54 AM on July 20, 2010


Your favorite Dickens sucks.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:54 AM on July 20, 2010


A Tale of Two Cities does not have Alec Guinness.
posted by Artw at 10:58 AM on July 20, 2010


Oh, not this kind of rank. I was hoping to see something more along the lines of...
Pickwick Papers? More like Dick Lick Papers.

I had Great Expectations once. They were thwarted.

Hey, I've got a good ending for Edwin Drood: "This book sucked. Sorry I didn't die sooner. The End."

Little Dorrit? Shit was 900 pages long, asshole.

I read A Tale of Two Cities. It was a far, far shittier book than any I had ever read.

I've got a blurb for Oliver Twist: Please, sir, may I have less?

Martin Chuzzlewit? More like Martin Guzzles Shit.

I just finished David Copperfield. Where the magic tricks at, fuckface?
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:05 AM on July 20, 2010 [22 favorites]


Nabokov is rolling in his urn.
We are now ready to tackle Dickens. We are now ready to embrace Dickens. We are now ready to bask in Dickens. In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room. In the case of Dickens we remain at the table with our tawny port.
posted by Hoenikker at 11:09 AM on July 20, 2010


After reading every single book of science fiction or fantasy in the Colorado Springs library system, I turned in desperation to Dickens, and read Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities in rapid succession.

Victorian London was the strangest, most exotic, and most disturbing alternate world of them all.
posted by jamjam at 11:24 AM on July 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


A buxom wench haunts the sordid streets of East End London in The Sale of Two Titties.

A tubercular old man coughs up large lumps of sputum in the gutters in Great Expectorations.
posted by binturong at 11:41 AM on July 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was frustrated by how much the author referred to the film versions while talking about the books. I can understand finding the films a good doorway into Dickens' writings, but it seems like the reviews of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations were more about the films than the books themselves. If you're writing about Dickens and his written word, why spend so much time describing the various non-written versions of his work?
posted by hippybear at 11:42 AM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm actually doing the same thing, reading Dickens start to end in chronological order.I've read up through David Copperfield in 3 years, about half-way, might take another 3+ years to complete, reading whenever the mood strikes, I'm in no rush to run out of new Dickens to read. Once I'm done I plan on reading Michael Slater's biography which summarizes all the novels and places them into historical context. In that way I've had a steady occasional diet of Dickens for maybe a decade or more, which I think is how it should be, not wolfing it all down at once, Dickens is a huge plate - bad analogy, one is never "done" Dickens, just as Shakespeare can be re-read indefinitely.
posted by stbalbach at 11:44 AM on July 20, 2010


I never could get interested in Dickens. I started reading Great Expectations as a youth and my grade-school mind was focused entirely on the fact that it was about the most depressing thing I had ever read up to that point.

It was interesting enough as far as I read, it was just so completely depressing to me at the time that I put the book aside and read stories about baseball instead. I can only wonder if baseball had the steroid scandals back then if I would have stuck with Dickens.
posted by Saydur at 11:52 AM on July 20, 2010


Boy, Dickens wasn't as good as I thought he was.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:52 AM on July 20, 2010


A buxom wench haunts the sordid streets of East End London in The Sale of Two Titties.

Rather sure that was Edmund Wells.
posted by jquinby at 12:03 PM on July 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


I used to take The City of New Orleans to travel between home in Chicagoland and school in Champaign-Urbana. Back then (can't speak to now), the delays in starting were regularly longer than my portion of the train trip. If it weren't for a 4h+ delay, I don't think I would have ever read enough of Bleak House to get hooked.

I enjoyed the book very much. I would encourage the writer to read Bleak House while stuck in an Amtrak station: impatient and disgusted by the inefficiency of large institutions.
posted by Jorus at 12:07 PM on July 20, 2010


A buxom wench haunts the sordid streets of East End London in The Sale of Two Titties.

Rather sure that was Edmund Wells.


I think that was Assail of Two Titties. He also wrote Grate Expectations.
posted by hippybear at 12:12 PM on July 20, 2010


A buxom wench haunts the sordid streets of East End London in The Sale of Two Titties.

Must have been Trollope.
posted by binturong at 12:22 PM on July 20, 2010


A synopsis of the rankings:

16 - Dombey and Son. I can't remember what it was about! This is undeniably a reflection of the book's low quality.

15 - Martin Chuzzlewit. This book was not the same as Tom Jones.

14 - The Pickwick Papers. I didn't get any of the jokes! This is undeniably a reflection of the book's low quality.

13 - The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It wasn't finished before the author's death, but if it had been, I speculate that it might have sucked!

12 - Our Mutual Friend. Too long! Even though I'm the kind of highly literate, serious intellectual who doesn't mind telling you that I've read both The Brothers Karamzov and Ulysses, this book was for some reason too long for my powerful mind to handle!

11 - Bleak House. Also too long!

10 - The Old Curiosity Shop. I liked the hunchback, but hated the girl. Bo-ring!

9 - Barnaby Rudge. I liked it, although I can't offer a single reason why besides the fact that it was written in the third person! Maybe I like it because there's never been a film version!

8 - Hard Times. Nice and short!

7 - Little Dorritt. Too long, but I loved the movie!

6 - David Copperfield. Would have liked it more, but Holden Caulfield thought it was dumb.

5 - Oliver Twist. Has the most quality film versions. Also, I like the bad guys!

4 - A Christmas Carol. Many of my favorite actors enjoy playing Scrooge!

3 - Nicholas Nickleby. I liked the movie! I think that only British people are capable of making a good movie version of this book!

2 - A Tale of Two Cities. I like it even though usually the only novels from the 19th Century that I like are by Russian authors, on account of my amazing taste and powerful intellect!

1 - Great Expectations. Once I saw the movie I realized how good it was!


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by saladin at 12:25 PM on July 20, 2010 [11 favorites]


Do people still ask questions like this (from his review of Dombey & Sons: "But how much of it is literature?"

I'm guessing only the sort of people who think it's a worthwhile endeavor to spend a year doing XXXXX exhaustively so they can blog about it and pray for a book deal.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:28 PM on July 20, 2010


Very odd. For someone who supposedly read them, he gives very little details about the books themselves. Just a bit of meta-commentary which anyone who read the Wikipedia synopsis could provide.
posted by vacapinta at 12:45 PM on July 20, 2010


(Mandatory disclaimer: I'm a Victorianist who, pace this blogger, teaches Bleak House on a regular basis.)

As a personal reaction to Dickens' novels...sure, why not? As an actual assessment of Dickens' strengths and weaknesses as a novelist, though, this didn't strike me as helpful. If you want to gripe, Dickens provides plenty of material: the grotesques; melodrama; overly angelic young ladies; an incomplete grasp of the social issues he's supposed to be satirizing. Similarly, a Dickens fan can go on all day about his flights into the surreal, or his wordplay, or his manipulations of narrative voice, or his terrific villains, or his engrossingly complex plots (Bleak House taking the cake). But I finished that list rarely knowing why the author thought some novels were good and others weren't. Er, other than that they were "too long," which I'd say is rarely the case with Dickens. I've come across plenty of Victorian novelists who exhausted their plots before they met their contractual requirements for a triple-decker or serial novel--you can see the signs in inflated margins, huge fonts, triple-spacing, and irrelevant chapters. Almost never happens in Dickens.

I'm not sure why a book's suitability for adaptation is necessarily a point in its favor, either. A Christmas Carol's structure lends itself to other media--after all, most of the action consists of Scrooge watching something happen--but Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations all derive much of their effect from the narrators, who you generally lose in an adaptation.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:43 PM on July 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


"who you generally lose" = whom
posted by thomas j wise at 1:48 PM on July 20, 2010


This person is annoyingly fond of the words "annoying" and "irritating," perhaps because he has no other adjectives to describe things that he's annoyed and irritated with.
posted by blucevalo at 1:58 PM on July 20, 2010


Hard Times is only 8th? 8th?! Preposterous!

(Okay, very subjective, no doubt, but I like Hard Times an awful lot, and think a few key Gradgrind passages should be read whenever someone dips into Bentham or James & J.S. Mill. Also Gradgrind's approval of the conflation of taste with fact reminds me of some recent MeFi threads).
posted by .kobayashi. at 2:00 PM on July 20, 2010


And just to make you feel bad about yourself, I remind you that Pickwick - the colossal success that transformed Dickens from a virtual unknown to a literary eminence almost overnight, was written when he was twenty-four.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:15 PM on July 20, 2010


Probably the most widely-repeated criticism of Dickens is Oscar Wilde's remark that 'One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter.'
posted by warbaby at 2:16 PM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am so irked with his listing that I'm not even glad he read the oeuvre of my guy, Dickens. I love Charles Dickens, and often re-read the best of his books. Sometimes I think about what author I'd choose if I could only read one . . . Dickens is always at the top or near the top of my lists.

Dickens created some of the most compelling and unforgettable characters in literature, wrote some of the sharpest social commentary ever, and had an entertainer's sense of plot and timing and pathos. Most of his books bear repeated re-reading.

So, what's with this book a month approach? And could the "analysis" provided to support the rankings be more superficial?

Imho, some of Dickens most wonderful books include David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Story, Dombey and Sons, and Bleak House. I cannot make heads or tales of this bizarre ordering.
posted by bearwife at 2:21 PM on July 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sometimes I think about what author I'd choose if I could only read one . . .

This reminded me of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, in which Tony Last ends up the prisoner of a mad recluse in a hut in the South American jungle and is forced to read aloud the works of Dickens every day with no hope of rescue before one or the other of them dies.
posted by binturong at 3:04 PM on July 20, 2010


I'm pretty sure any author, including Shakespeare or Dickens or Mann, or Waugh for that matter, would pale if one was forced to read their works aloud daily to a mad recluse.
posted by bearwife at 3:21 PM on July 20, 2010


What a fortuitous post I just read "Great Expectation" and loved it and now have set off to read the rest. His attention to detail makes it impossible not to visualize the scenes. I do agree with the blogger that some of dickens plot Devices would come off as hackneyed if it weren't part of a such and otherwise sublime. I noticed that he mentioned he didn't like several main characters as i found myself many times infuriated with pip but still enjoying the book. I crack a tale of Two cities tonight.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 3:22 PM on July 20, 2010


I'm on the verge of finishing all of Dickens' works over the course of 15 years or so. (Dombey and Son is the only holdout, but halfway through The Pickwick Papers.) I can't say this guy's list impresses me much. For someone so bent on loving (or trying to love) Dickens, he sure can't get past idiosyncratic Victorian humour. I drink that kind of stuff up, so I'm finding The Pickwick Papers quite enjoyable. My top three, in retrospect:

1. Nicholas Nickleby
2. Great Expectations
3. Little Dorrit

Honestly, I don't even remember what half of the remainder are about anymore. That's the thing about Dickens: his books kinda blur together.
posted by spamguy at 3:57 PM on July 20, 2010


It actually enraged me to read that superficial pap that passes for a blog entry worthy of being posted on MetaFilter. I've been reading Dickens for 40 years. If I had to estimate how often I've read David Copperfield (my favorite as a young girl) I would guess 10 plus times.

Honestly do you care which one I think is the best? Gaaaah.

Read him or don't read him, but do it because you want to, not out of some sense of obligation. The man was one of the greatest storytellers that ever lived-- a rock star in his day-- and I consider it a privilege and a delight to be able to read his entire oeuvre any time I want to.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:59 PM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


According to this list, every other Dickens book I read will be more disappointing than the last, since the ones I've read already are all at or near the top of the list, with the notable exception of Dombey and Son. I have to confess my opinion of that one is pretty close to the author's (right down to not being able to remember much of anything about it shortly after finishing it). I read it in college and always suspected the professor assigned it only because it was harder to find the Cliff's Notes/movie version as compared with his other works.
posted by The Gooch at 6:05 PM on July 20, 2010


Huh! I just finished rereading Great Expectations yesterday. It doesn't look like I ought to pick my next Dickens from this list, though, if you guys are to be believed. :-)
posted by danb at 6:06 PM on July 20, 2010


I just finished rereading Great Expectations yesterday

A good rule of thumb concerning Dickens is that (disregarding his unfinished Drood) his last 6 novels are considered to be his greatest. Those would be:

Our Mutual Friend
Great Expectations
A Tale of Two Cities
Little Dorrit
Hard Times
Bleak House

While I like Hard Times, I don't consider the characters or plot to be on a par with the others. The outstanding accomplishment of Dickens is to leave us with a panoply of characters second only to Shakespeare; characters of all ages, social standings, morals, and character strengths. In Hard Times he chose to focus on a more narrow range of characters (factory workers) and while the novel is heart-breaking it just doesn't have the richness of the other novels.

A Tale of Two Cities, on the other hand, is a very divisive novel; for some it is his greatest work, for others it is their least favorite. I tend to fall into the latter camp because it is the least Dickensian of all his novels. It doesn't take place in the Victorian era, it doesn't take place in England, and the characters are not close to being caricatures.

That leaves you with Little Dorrit, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend. I could not possibly tell you which one to read because I adore them all too much-- it would be like asking me to choose among my children.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:23 PM on July 20, 2010


Thanks for the tips! I liked Copperfield also, when I read that (almost a decade ago now!). Does that help narrow things down at all?
posted by danb at 9:43 PM on July 20, 2010


I really enjoy Nicholas Nickleby. It's the only of the Dickens novels that I've read repeatedly since high school. It's probably too long and a bit trite for some, but I think it's hilarious and has great memorable characters.

And the RSC stage production of it was outstanding. It's 9 hours long, but it's amazing, probably because of its length, because you get to know the characters across a long time.
posted by hippybear at 10:01 PM on July 20, 2010


He lost me immediately by not liking Dombey and Son, which I love. Guess I'm in the minority there though.
posted by OolooKitty at 11:37 PM on July 20, 2010


Jamjam, I did the same thing when I was about 16: I needed a good substantial amount of prose to chew through, so I started with Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, both of which I'd heard of, and got through Pickwick, Nicholas Nickleby (both wonderful), and lumbered my way through Bleak House before coming a cropper with Hard Times.

After that I discovered Trollope, Thackeray and Wilkie Collins. Collins especially: there is nothing so much fun as Victorian sensation fiction.
posted by jrochest at 11:57 PM on July 20, 2010


I think if I were going to do this I'd choose an author I liked.
posted by Phanx at 1:55 AM on July 21, 2010


I wish there were some sort of ranking on the End Notes Of Dickens...I'm reading the Modern Library's edition of Bleak House now, and even though there are about a thousand notes per page, they're some of the least-helpful notes I've ever read. My least favorite so far, the note for "boned": "Stolen." Well, yes, thanks, I got that from context...but why "boned"? Boned like taking bones out of a fish? Where's the word come from? I don't require that every note contain a little essay about flys and spencers and casino and which court is which, but if you're going to interrupt my reading with superscript numbers every third word, at least make it worth my time to flip to the back of the book!

(I cheated, and saw a miniseries version of this before reading it...Nemo, I've been expecting you to die for A HUNDRED AND FIFTY PAGES NOW, what took you so long?)

(Also, why are these books so much better now, than when I was a kid? Is it just that nobody's forcing me to read them now? I remember my dread of Great Expectations, the two-or-three-page forays into David Copperfield--which I just put down, weepy and wishing I'd had another 800 pages or so.)
posted by mittens at 4:32 AM on July 21, 2010


Thanks for the tips! I liked Copperfield also, when I read that (almost a decade ago now!). Does that help narrow things down at all?

Ok, I'll take a stab at it.

David Copperfield is a straight forward tale of a bland young man's journey from cradle to maturity. He meets a lot of interesting characters, gets in some trouble, and everything works out for the best (except...sob...for darling Steerforth.)

Little Dorrit is a also based around bland leading characters: the self-effacing, almost ghost-like Little Dorrit herself and Arthur, the man who is fascinated with her. Most of the other characters are marvelous creatures, particularly the "Father of the Marshalsea" who you will recognize as Mr. Micawber now jailed in debtor's prison-- both characters were based on Dickens' own father. While the main plot following the Dorrit Family fortunes as shaped by the social injustice of the debtor's prison is compelling, the sub-plots are rather weak.

Our Mutual Friend
, on the other hand has no bland characters; in fact, I believe it to have the greatest number of vivid, unforgettable people: The Podsnaps and their friends, Lizzie, Jenny the dwarf, The Golden Dustman, Bella the willful, and so many more including my favorite of all his creatures--Silas Wegg, the one-legged ballad seller. The main plot is good, but some of the sub-plots are even better. The story of Betty Higgen has always been haunting to me.

Bleak House has no bland characters, either, although Esther can come across as a bit too good-goody. What it has is plot. In spades. Also quite of bit of daunting complications regarding Chancery court, so this is a book focused on wills and bureaucratic red-tape and what it is like to put your life on hold waiting for your inheritance. It also has one of the earliest depictions of a police detective, the Inspector Bucket. Since the book is about inheritance and fortunes there are more upper class characters than in other books, although, as usual, the middle class provide many comical characters such as the Jellyby family and their connections.

If you don't mind improbable plots and want the full blast of Dickensian characters, read Our Mutual Friend.

If you want a straight forward good story, brilliantly told through two different narratives (1st person and 3rd person) read Bleak House.

If you want more David Copperfield, read Little Dorrit.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:03 AM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, why are these books so much better now, than when I was a kid?

Because Dickens really is for grown ups. He deals with child abuse, child abandonment, poverty, the hard choices and moral consequences from choosing between being generous to others or grasping, mental illness, bad marriages, dishonesty, exploitation, the failures of the legal system, and more.

I also think that the exquisite humor of Dickens' characters, so sharply drawn that they feel like people we've met and known well, and so unique that their personal foibles are like amusing accompanying headings, is hard to grasp as a kid.

I finally think that there's a rhythm to Dickens. He was more than a bit of a playwright and thespian, and much of his writing is easier to read if you can hear a virtual voice reading it to you. Then the length of the sentences isn't daunting, but more like taking lovely little boat trips.
posted by bearwife at 9:03 AM on July 21, 2010


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