"Accustomed to the luxury of major and minor revision, of multiple drafts, of months or years in which to add or delete a single comma, we can barely comprehend the imagination and the technical skill required to compose an eight-hundred-page masterwork in regular installments of a length determined not by the needs of the artist, but for the convenience of the printer. Though Dickens wrote notes for some of his novels, and sketched out the conclusion of Great Expectations in advance, this working method demanded a prodigious ability to keep a large cast of characters and an elaborate narrative constantly in mind. The wonderment we feel when we contemplate this strenuous mode of composition has, in my opinion, been best expressed in the question posed about Dickens by novelist David Gates: 'Was he a Martian?'"
Francine Prose, Introduction to Great Expectations (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2012).
"As in its author's previous fictions, we are almost oppressed by the fulness of life which pervades the pages of this novel. Mr. Dickens has one of the most mysterious attributes of genius -- the power of creating characters which have, so to speak, an overplus of vitality, passing beyond the limits of the tale, and making itself felt like an actual, external fact. In the stories of inferior writers the characters seem to possess just sufficient personality and presence to carry on the purpose of the narrative; one never thinks of them as enjoying any existence at all outside the little tissue of events that has been woven for them. They are ghosts whom the author has evoked out of night and vacuity to perform certain definite offices within the charmed circle of the fiction to which they are attached; and when we step out of that circle at the conclusion of the ceremonies, they vanish again into nothingness, and we think no more of them. Such is not the case with the conceptions of larger geniuses. These do not seem to belong wholly to the one set of events with which they are associated, any more than the men and women we actually know present themselves to our thoughts as the puppets of a definite train of circumstances. The creations of authors such as Mr. Dickens have a life of their own. We perceive them to be full of potential capacities -- of undeveloped action. They have the substance and the freedom of actual existences; we think of what they would do under our conditions, they are possessed of a principle of growth."
"At its best fiction is not opposed to or inconsistent with real life, but rather its defense and articulation. And whether by calling our attention to the varied sorts of people we already know without noticing, or by sounding out our own inner selves with whom we have neglected to become acquainted, Charles Dickens shows himself to be a high practitioner of this advocacy. And it is in David Copperfield that he reaches the height of his practice."
Many of the book’s admirers detect an artistic falling off as David passes from childhood into manhood. And while I don’t myself see any slackening of brilliance up through the final page, David’s harrowing early years are unforgettably vivid. Everywhere the boy turns, he meets singular souls. Dickens rivals Shakespeare in his fascination with nature’s sheer prodigality in creating so heterogeneous a troupe under the heading Homo sapiens. A passion for human peculiarity fortifies most of Dickens’s fiction, but it shows special potency when filtered through the eyes of the boy David, who is such a scrupulous, fervent interpreter of the world. He has to be. For him, a grasping of diverse personal motivations isn’t merely a satisfying of curiosity. It’s a necessity. David’s future, his deliverance from the forces determined to annihilate him, depends on his ability to construe character.
Not everyone appreciates the magic of Great Expectations, but that's the thing about magic: it doesn't work on everyone. In order for magic to work, first you have to believe. This passage in Great Expectations about Joe's Christ-like love is one I always read aloud when I teach this novel, usually during the last class we will spend on the book. One semester, the class I taught was unusually large. The course had become popular in the department, and I was always willing to sign high-achieving students into the class no matter how overfilled it had become. Because the class was not only large but also populated with an abundance of well-read, confident, and loquacious students (several of whom were on the university's champion debate team), our classes were always lively -- sometimes downright boisterous. One student practically turned Pip-hostility into a sport. Later, after had graduated and become a mission worker in Guatemala, he emailed me to tell me that he had just read Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities -- and loved it. That was a partial victory: at least Dickens, if not Great Expectations, was redeemed.
"Let us also speak of Dickens, who is often undervalued because he hits the eternal verities on the nose. Sure, we cannot help being aware of his in-your-face morality, yet we are moved by it nonetheless, because, tossing sophistication to the wind, we wish to see the just rewarded and the unjust punished. No writer besides Shakespeare has created more memorable characters attached to vices and virtues. In even their least sympathetic characters, one senses a kind of helplessness to passion quivering between the poles of good and evil. Both Miss Havisham and Mrs. Macbeth probably would have preferred to behave themselves."
Roger Rosenblatt, "How to Write Great," Sunday Book Review, New York Times, July 27, 2012 (H/T Enuma Okoro)
I recommend reading the whole article -- it's really good. Also, there's a Tale of Two Cities reference elsewhere in it!
"Charles Dickens was born at midnight on February 7, 1812. . . . It was reported that the newborn baby began to cry as the clock struck 12, and many feel that his voice is as real today as it was 200 years ago." Raymond M. Lane
"The reason I love him so deeply is that, having experienced the lower depths, he never ceased, till the day he died, to commit himself, both in his work and in his life, to trying to right the wrongs inflicted by society, above all, perhaps by giving the dispossessed a voice. From the moment he started to write, he spoke for the people, and the people loved him for it, as do I." Simon Callow
"I hold him in my heart of hearts as a man apart from all other men, as one apart from all other beings." Mary "Mamie" Dickens
I was reading today about Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's upcoming book, Becoming Dickens(to be released next month by Belknap Press). I love this endorsement from John Bowen, of the University of York: "Becoming Dickens never takes Dickens for granted, but helps us to be surprised--shocked even--that he existed, worked and wrote in the way that he did."