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Charles Dickens

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English Literature

Charles Dickens was a British author who is well known for writing classics such as A Christmas Carol (1843), Bleak House (1852), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860). Dickens is most famous as the author of 15 novels and many short stories, critical articles, and novellas.

Charles Dickens line art drawing of author StudySmarterCharles Dickens, pixabay.com

Charles Dickens' Biography

Born 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth as Charles John Huffam Dickens, Dickens was the second of eight children. His father, John Dickens, was a naval clerk and was temporarily stationed in Portsmouth when Dickens was born, and his mother was Elizabeth Dickens. Charles Dickens spent his formative years in Chatham, Kent, and he was an avid reader in his youth. He later used his childhood experiences in his writing.

At the age of 11, Dickens stayed in Kent to finish his schooling while the rest of his family moved to Camden Town, London, due to mounting debt caused by his father living beyond his means. John Dickens was sent to Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Southwark, London in 1824, and his wife and children (except Charles Dickens) went with him, as was customary.

This prison was later a setting Dickens used in Little Dorrit (1857). He later boarded with a family friend in Camden Town at the age of 12 whilst the rest of the family was in debtor’s prison. He also had to pause his schooling at this time to work in a shoe polish warehouse, Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, to help his family.

John Dickens and his family were released from debtor’s prison after he arranged payment with funds from his late mother’s inheritance. This was a happy period in Dickens’ childhood, and his later novel David Copperfield (1849) features autobiographical elements taken from it. The working and living conditions of the working-class is a theme that features heavily in Dickens’ novels.

At the age of 15, Charles Dickens went to work as a law clerk with the intent to become a lawyer, but he subsequently discovered his love of writing. In 1832 Dickens began a career as a political journalist, with articles on elections around Britain and parliamentary occurrences.

In 1833, his first story 'A Dinner at Poplar Walk’ was featured in a London Monthly Magazine. Dickens’ first published book was The Pickwick Papers (1836), released in monthly instalments. The novel explored the adventures of London gentlemen. His next publication was Oliver Twist (1838) which became known as a classic and put him in the spotlight.

Just prior to his publication of Oliver Twist (1838), Dickens married Catherine Thomas Hogarth, the daughter of Evening Chronicle editor George Hogarth.

Dickens died from a suspected stroke on 9 June 1870.

Facts about Charles Dickens

  • Dickens worked ten-hour days at a shoe polishing warehouse, Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, to help his family, who were in the debtor’s prison.

  • At 15, Dickens worked as a junior clerk at the law office Ellis and Blackmore to eventually become a lawyer.

  • Dickens worked as a reporter in the 1830s, writing articles about Parliament and British elections.

  • His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), remains unfinished, as he died of a stroke in 1870 before a completed version could be published.

  • Dickens wrote and published under the pseudonym ‘Boz’ between 1833 and 1834.

  • Dickens’ earliest inspiration was Little Red Riding Hood.

  • His best-selling novel is A Christmas Carol (1843).

Charles Dickens’ Books

This section outlines Dickens’ best-selling and most popular novels. We'll get some background on the texts and have a closer look at Dickens' themes.

A Christmas Carol (1843)

A Christmas Carol is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser, during the Christmas season. He is visited by the ghost of his previous business partner, Jacob Marley, as well as the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. The novel follows Scrooge and the ghosts as they explore his behaviours in life. They show him what his future could hold if he does not change his ways and become kinder and gentler to others.

Themes in A Christmas Carol

  • Past, present, and future: Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. These three ghosts take him through their respective time frames to show him how he has been living his life. They also show him what his fate could be if he continues living life with an unpleasant and mean outlook.
  • Greed, generosity and forgiveness: Scrooge is driven by greed and is not generous or giving with his money. While he has enough money to live a good life, his attitude means that he is considered the most impoverished character in the novel. He does not embrace the values that are most evident at Christmas - love, kindness, and generosity. The transformation that Scrooge embarks on with the ghosts leads to him to forgiveness from the other characters in the novel.
  • Social dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws: In the novel, we are presented with instances of extreme poverty in Victorian England, specifically in London, where the novel is set. Dickens had experience with poverty and the lengths people had to go to in order to survive. Scrooge's attitude is that the poor deserve to live in poor houses, which had horrible, unliveable conditions.

Victorian England's Poor Laws: The Poor Law of 1834 was made to keep poor citizens in workhouses where they would have to work many hours in exchange for clothes, food, and a place to live. When children were in workhouses, they were sometimes educated.

Charles Dickens carolling kids StudySmarterCaroling kids, freepik.com

Oliver Twist (1838)

This novel centres around the titular orphan Oliver Twist, who is born in a workhouse and later sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker. Oliver escapes this apprenticeship, meeting the Artful Dodger and a gang of young pickpockets led by the seasoned criminal, Fagin. This novel explores the true lives of criminals and the treatment of orphans in London in the mid-19th Century.

Themes in Oliver Twist

  • Poverty, institutions, class: Poverty, class, and the institutions that upheld these structures were often explored by Dickens in his novels. These themes interacted with each other to keep the poor, poor and to make those in power more powerful. The Poor Law of 1834, which put the poor in workhouses, is featured in Oliver Twist. Dickens used this opportunity in Oliver Twist to expose readers to the conditions of the workhouses and what life was like for the poor. He presented the poor as human, though their experiences dehumanised them and were ignored by the middle class.
  • Fate, social Forces, free will: The stigma around being a poor orphan at that time was that you were destined to remain poor and in a low social class for the rest of your life. Later revealed as the illegitimate son of a gentleman of higher social class, Oliver is given more options as to what his fate will be. Ideas of free will are explored as, for example, Oliver's half-brother Monk becomes a criminal despite his inheritance from his father, who is a gentleman. The money disappears quickly and Monk returns to his life of crime. There is an element of free will in Oliver and Monk's individually-chosen fates. Dickens explores these parallels throughout the novel.
  • Crime: Oliver Twist follows Oliver's time in London, during which he falls into the circle of Fagin, a criminal who leads a group of young thieves. The assumption in Victorian England was that those who were poor were naturally inclined to become criminals due to 'natural predisposition', not because their circumstances pushed them to this learned behaviour. In Victorian England, crime and morality were frequently discussed. Criminals like Fagin were 'natural criminals' because they were inherently evil and committed crimes as a consequence. Criminals like Nancy were forced to commit crimes by people like Fagin, whose control they were under from a young age.

David Copperfield (1849)

This novel explores the life of the protagonist, David Copperfield, from childhood to maturity, starting in Suffolk, England. It is often described as an autobiographical novel, as it has elements taken from Dickens’ own life. The genre of ‘personal histories’ in 18th- and 19th-century literature was very popular, and David Copperfield roughly follows this structure.

Themes in David Copperfield

  • Social mobility and morality: David Copperfield is born to poor parents. The theme of social mobility is explored through his ambition of rising through the classes. Copperfield goes from secretary to parliamentary reporter to writer. In Victorian England, people believed that if you worked hard enough, you could go from poverty to wealth and status. The Industrial Revolution did not benefit everyone, as the poor became even poorer, having to live in workhouses with terrible conditions. The wealth gap worsened, yet some still managed to escape poverty, but they were in the minority. Morality was important when aiming for social mobility. It was commonly believed that pursuing upward social mobility in a dishonest way would not help you achieve this goal.
  • Personal development: As a Bildungsroman, David Copperfield explores the development of the main character David Copperfield. His development is documented throughout the novel as he changes his approach to interactions with others. For example, David remains passive in his interactions with Mr. Edward Murdstone, his mother's second husband. Mr. Murdstone was cruel whilst present during David's upbringing. David allows his life to be dictated by others, and the ways in which his character changes as he rises above these situations are documented.
  • Memory and nostalgia: David Copperfield is an autobiographical novel. This means that it is written by David and he reminisces on his life so far. The documentation of his life story is not only factual but also included his feelings about his experiences. David has the opportunity to show reflection and growth when looking back at the experiences he has been through.

Charles Dickens Industrial Revolution StudySmarterIndustrial Revolution Steam Engine, pixabay.com

Bildungsroman: means a novel that explores a character's personal development or their formative years. Bildungsroman is a German word that literally translates to 'education novel' or 'novel of education'. These novels detail a character's educational and moral growth as they transition to adulthood.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

A Tale of Two Cities takes place in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It features French Doctor Manette’s imprisonment in Bastille in Paris, and his later release to join his daughter in London, who he meets for the first time on this journey. The main themes of this novel are revolution and resurrection and explored the political and economic unrest which led to the American and French Revolutions.

Themes in A Tale of Two Cities

  • Revolution: A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of the tyranny that led to the uprising against the French aristocracy. Commoners were suffering due to high taxes and unfair laws which affected them and their living circumstances negatively. These same laws, however, benefitted aristocrats. While Dickens understands the reasons for their actions, his takeaway is that those in power - be they commoners or aristocrats - will find a way to use that power to the fullest extent. Sound moral attitudes towards justice and mercy are necessary during a revolution, according to Dickens. Otherwise, the revolution that was to stamp out tyranny will lead to its own type of tyranny.
  • Sacrifice: Dr. Manette is imprisoned because of his knowledge about crimes committed by the Evremonde brothers. His imprisonment on false charges shows the power that the Marquis St. Evremonde and his brother, Charles Evremonde, had. Manette sacrifices his freedom and is later rewarded as he returns to his daughter and position of power during the French Revolution.
  • Imprisonment: The imprisonment of Dr. Manette is an example of the amount of power the Evremonde brothers have and their abuse of that power. The Bastille prison was used to represent such abuses of power, rife among aristocrats. Charles Evremonde was also imprisoned by revolutionaries in La Force prison. This links back to Dickens' attitude about how the replacement of aristocratic tyranny for revolutionaries in power could lead to a different type of tyranny. In his mind, however, tyranny is all the same.

Charles Dickens the French Revolution StudySmarterFrench Revolution, pixabay.com

Great Expectations (1860)

Great Expectations is Dickens’ penultimate completed novel. It centres on the protagonist, Pip, who is an orphan. It is a coming-of-age story and explores themes of wealth and poverty, love and rejection, and good and evil.

Themes in Great Expectations

  • Social Class: As a poor orphan, Pip is not expected to have much upward social mobility, as there are so many odds stacked against him. Set during the Industrial Revolution, this was a time when the gap between rich and poor was very wide and the poor were living in terrible conditions in workhouses. However, the Industrial Revolution allowed some opportunities for upward social mobility for those in lower classes. Pip navigates his experiences to move up the social ladder during this pivotal time in history.
  • Personal Development: Great Expectations is also a bildungsroman. It documents Pip's personal experiences and his development as he aims for upward social mobility. Pip is initially an endearing character, but as he works towards his goal and as he tries to win Estella's love by improving his status, his character changes. He becomes unkind to those who have helped him in the past and his finances suffer too. Pip manages to redeem himself after these events and becomes a man worthy of the great things he wishes for.

Famous Charles Dickens characters

Famous characters in some of Dickens’ books include:

Scrooge is a famous character created by Dickens to be such a miserable, wicked man that to see his redemption arc come to completion is fulfilling for readers. As a tale set during Christmas, audiences have often considered film adaptations essential Christmas viewing. The story touches on Christian themes that are emphasised during Christmas - generosity, kindness, and forgiveness.

Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, StudySmarterEbenezer Scrooge, pixabay.com

Miss Havisham: Great Expectations

Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day. As a result, she became bitter and loathed men. Miss Havisham adopts Estella and teaches her to be cold and ruthless towards men, just like she is. Her backstory is that her stepbrother, who loathed her, conspired with a conman to con Miss Havisham into giving away her fortune. Readers eventually sympathise with her story and the unfortunate events she has lived through.

Sydney Carton is a barrister and a drunkard. He is a famous character in the novel because of his redemption arc. He saves Charles St. Evremonde from execution by giving his own life in exchange for Charles' life. Carton commits this selfless sacrifice in the name of love, as St. Evremonde is Lucie Manette's husband. Manette was Sydney's unrequited love for whose happiness he sacrificed himself. These actions are endearing to readers , making him a notable character.

The Artful Dodger: Oliver Twist

The Artful Dodger, known for his smarts and pickpocketing skills, is a well-known character in Oliver Twist. One of the most memorable and famous portrayals of the Artful Dodger was done by Jack Wild in the film Oliver! (1968). Wild received several nominations for his portrayal of the Artful Dodger, and many fans of the novel are appreciative of his portrayal of this unique character.

Famous Charles Dickens Quotes

A Tale of Two Cities

  • ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times [...]’

  • ‘A day wasted on others is not wasted on one’s self.’

A Christmas Carol

  • ‘There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.’

Oliver Twist

  • ‘Please sir, I want some more.’

Great Expectations

  • ‘Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape…’

Charles Dickens - Key takeaways

    • Charles Dickens is a famous Victorian author who penned 15 novels and many short stories, critical articles, and novellas.

    • Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 to navy clerk John Dickins and Elizabeth Dickens.

    • Dickens worked ten-hour days at a shoe polishing warehouse, Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, to help his family, who were in the debtor’s prison.

    • A Christmas Carol (1843) is Dickens’ best-selling novel.

    • Dickens died from a suspected stroke on 9 June 1870.

    • Key themes in A Christmas Carol (1843) are past, present, and future; greed, generosity, and forgiveness; and social dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws.

    • Key themes in Oliver Twist (1838) are poverty, institutions, and class; fate, social forces, and free will; and crime.

    • Key themes in David Copperfield (1849) are social mobility and morality; personal development; and memory and nostalgia.

    • Key themes in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) are revolution, sacrifice, and imprisonment.

    • Key themes in Great Expectations (1860) are social class and personal development.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born 7th February 1912. 

Charles Dickens died on 9 June 1870.

Charles Dickens is famous for being the author of 15 novels and many short stories, critical articles, and novellas. 

Charles Dickens wrote 15 books, with one of them (The Mystery of Edwin Drood - published posthumously in 1870) being incomplete. 

Arguably, the greatest novel Dickens ever wrote is Bleak House in terms of his use of characters, plot, the pacing of the story, its social commentary, and navigation of social justice and court case scenes. 

Final Charles Dickens Quiz

Question

Who wrote A Christmas Carol?

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Answer

Charles Dickens.

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When was A Christmas Carol published?

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1843.

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True or false: Edgar Scrooge is the main character of A Christmas Carol?


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False. His first name is Ebenezer rather than Edgar. The main character is called Ebenezer Scrooge.

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Is Ebenezer Scrooge kind and generous at the start of the novella?


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No. He is cruel, greedy, and rich. 

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What is the name of Scrooge’s clerk?


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Bob Cratchit.

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Which of the following is a main theme in A Christmas Carol?

  1. Revenge

  2. Reputation

  3. Redemption

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Answer

C, Redemption.

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How many ghosts visited Scrooge in total?

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Four. Jacob Marley, The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

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What did Scrooge buy and send to the Cratchits at the end of the novella?


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A Christmas turkey.

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Which spirit visits in Stave Four?


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The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

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How does Scrooge react to the charity collectors in Stave One?


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He turns them away.

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What are the four main themes in A Christmas Carol?


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Christmas and Tradition, Redemption, Social Injustice, and Family.

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What is the smaller theme within redemption called?


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Greed, Generosity, and Forgiveness.

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Who is the unnamed man who died in stave four?


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Ebenezer Scrooge.

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How does Scrooge change by the end of the novella?


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At the start, he only cared about money, was greedy, and was cruel to others. In the end, he became kind, compassionate, and generous.

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Which spirit visits in stave three?


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The Ghost of Christmas Present.

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When was A Christmas Carol written?

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1843.

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True or False: Dickens tries to teach people to be kind to one another through his novella, A Christmas Carol.

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True.

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What did Dickens’ father work as?


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A clerk.

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What era was A Christmas Carol written during?


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The Victorian era.

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True or False: The upper-class were treated harshly during the Victorian era.


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False, the working-class were treated harshly by the upper class.

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Which of the following is a theme in A Christmas Carol?

  1. Comedy

  2. Forgiveness

  3. Artistry

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B, Forgiveness.

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What were "ragged schools"?

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Schools that provided free education to poor children.

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Which family of characters showed the struggles of the poor in A Christmas Carol?


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The Cratchits.

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Fill in the blanks: “Differences between the middle/upper-class character ______ and working-class characters such as __________.”


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1. Scrooge 2. Bob Cratchit

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How long did it take to write A Christmas Carol?


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Six weeks.

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True or False: Victorian England was a fair society where the poor were treated equally.


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False.

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Did Charles Dickens believe that people should help others if they were able to do so?


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Yes.

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Which of the following did Charles Dickens not do to help the poor?

  1. Donate to charities.

  2. Raise awareness.

  3. Teach English

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 C, he didn’t teach English to help the poor.

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Which theme is explored through Scrooge’s character and also links to the Christian beliefs that Dickens shows in the novella?


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Redemption

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What years did Charles Dickens live and die in?


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1812-1870

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 What is Charles Dickens most famous for?

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Charles Dickens is most famous for being the author of 15 novels and many short stories, critical articles, and novellas. 

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How many books did Charles Dickens write?

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15 novels with one of them being incomplete.

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What was Dickens’ first published novel?

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Dickens’ first published novel was The Pickwick Papers (1836).

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Where did Dickens first work as a child?

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Dickens first worked in a shoe polish warehouse called Warren’s Blacking Warehouse.

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What is Dickens’ best-selling novel?


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 His best-selling novel is A Christmas Carol (1843).

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What are the themes explored in Great Expectations (1860)?


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Great Expectations (1860) explores themes of wealth and poverty, love and rejection, and good and evil. 

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What was Dickens’ pseudonym between 1833 and 1834?


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Dickens wrote and published under the pseudonym ‘Boz’ between 1833 and 1834. 

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When and how did Dickens die?

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Dickens died of a supposed stroke on 9 June 1870.

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Did Charles Dickens live in Bleak House?

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Charles Dickens stayed at Fort House in Broadstairs, which has since been called Bleak House.

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What is Bleak House by Charles Dickens about?

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Bleak House is about inheritance and social problems.

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Where is Charles Dickens' Bleak House set?

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Dickens set Bleak House in Hertfordshire.

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How was the novel Bleak House different from Charles Dickens earlier writings?

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Bleak House was Dickens’ first detective mystery novel.

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Complete: Themes of Bleak House include the inefficient .. system, poor … and …

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Themes of Bleak House include the inefficient legal system, poor government, and poverty.

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Dickens saw the diseased … of his times as a … waiting to …

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Dickens saw the diseased society of his times as a volcano waiting to erupt.

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True or False? Tulkinghorme employs Inspector Bucket to follow Esther Summerson and discover her secret.

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False: Tulkinghorme employs Inspector Bucket to follow Lady Dedlock and discover her secret.

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Mr Krook dies from

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poison.

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Complete: Jo the road sweeper represents both the ... of street children and a part of Dickens’ .... 


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Jo the road sweeper represents both the poverty of street children and a part of Dickens’ childhood. 

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Choose: Lady Dedlock is Esther Summerson's


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aunt.


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True or False? Dickens wrote Bleak House as a protest against Chancery and its inefficiency.

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True.

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True or false? Bleak House was published in 1863.

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False: Bleak House was published in 1853.

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