Presenting Charles Dickens : the author and his public image in Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield and Great expectations

Spurgin, Timothy Andrew, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Virginia
Chase Levenson, Karen, Department of English, University of Virginia
Winner, Anthony, Department of English, University of Virginia

Every Dickens novel contains many different images of Dickens himself: Dickens the social critic, the benevolent Christian, the beloved entertainer, and so on. Such images were not only familiar to millions of readers in Dickens's own day; they continue to shape our own critical encounters with Dickens in the present. Modern literary critics have long debated the question of Dickens's "true identity;" and they still disagree about whether he was "really" a radical or a conservative, a visionary or a bourgeois, a romantic or a realist.

My view is that Dickens created the possibilities we now consider, moving among his different personae in order to manage his career and maintain his enormous popularity. Instead of trying to decide which one of these images was the most accurate and authentic, I prefer to ask how they all were constructed, to see them as products of an ongoing dialogue between the author and his contemporary audience. This approach is especially appropriate to the case of an author like Dickens--one who was not only a great writer, but also a public figure, a celebrity, and cultural icon. Almost from the beginning of his literary career, Dickens enjoyed the kind of fame now reserved for movie stars and rock bands: he was recognized everywhere and, at times, actually mobbed by surging crowds. Much of this project could be described as an attempt to understand what this experience of fame meant to Dickens's writing. In every chapter, I have tried to explore what fame did to Dickens and what Dickens did to remain famous.

First, I consider Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), the novel in which Dickens is said to have established himself as something more than an "infant phenomenon." Next, I go on to David Copperfield (1849-1850), showing how this book reflects Dicken’s anxieties about his personal reputation and his status as a conspicuous public figure. Finally, I examine Great Expectations (1860-1861) as a kind of come-back for Dickens, in which he responds to complaints about the dark tone of his recent work.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Dickens, Charles -- 1812-1870 -- Psychology, Dickens, Charles -- 1812-1870 -- Criticism and interpretation, Dickens, Charles -- 1812-1870 -- Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens, Charles -- 1812-1870 -- David Copperfield, Dickens, Charles -- 1812-1870 -- Great expectations
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