Dickensian. What does it mean to you?

Some people think it refers to the social conditions or characters referred to in Dickens’ novels. Others would add sentiment. There was a recent Paris Review essay that spoke about the term since it was batted around so much after the release of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — Sherrill describes the various permutations of what he feels Dickensian means, and goes on to argue:

Of course, we confer a special kind of canonical status when we adjectivize an author’s name. It’s an acknowledgment that his or her work has broadened the collective cultural imagination to the point where a new way of seeing or describing the world needs to be monumentalized in language. But in time, these coinages inevitably obscure or diminish a writer’s achievement. Regardless of how sophisticated one’s sense of Dickens’s oeuvre might be, the popular use of Dickensian conjures, whether we like it or not, shivering orphans, cloying sentimentality, fortuitous coincidence, and virtue rewarded.

At the same time, and more interestingly, it delimits and cheapens the work of the alleged Dickensian. Donna Tartt does salt The Goldfinch with references to very specific Dickens novels, at which moments she might as well be proleptically writing the headlines of The Goldfinch’s reviews. But to lean on Dickensian is to deflect attention from, for instance, the horrific realism with which Tartt treats the central violent trauma of The Goldfinch, and the fallout of its psychic afterlife. In this specifically, she departs from Dickensian models, which more often than not promise recoveries and prosperity for his formerly unlucky protagonists. Dickensian denies, then, as it must, a certain amount of Tarttness.

With this, I would disagree. What Sherrill and the criticism circulating in popular culture are overlooking is the Dickensian that I, and I would argue Donna Tartt, value: the gorgeous, long sentences that almost defy grammatical sense (but never do of course). The vocabulary. The heavy description. The extreme  anthropomorphization. The repetition. The perception. The darkly funny.


I daresay that when critics called her novel Dickensian, Donna Tartt did not feel her accomplishment was in any way cheapened, but rather was over the moon with happiness! Who wouldn’t be when compared with a writer they most admire?

I say, let’s not abolish these adjectival name-terms. Let’s get to the heart of them! I hereby challenge everyone to read Our Mutual Friend (or Bleak House, or Hard Times, or even Great Expectations) and then tell me what you think Dickensian means! A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist do not count (although wonderful). David Copperfield is extra credit (and a joy!).  Dickensian. How would you define it?



  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Long. Mixing saccharine with hard-edged stuff. Snowy. Traditional English. Involving. Brilliant. Unlike any other novelist. Mixing social conscience with storytelling. Those are some of the things Dickensian means to me, anyhow!!

    • jackiemania

      I like your definition of Dickensian! I don’t deny that there is the sweet stuff — but like you say, it’s mixed with some very hard realities. People seem to refer to one or the other, but never join them — and they are so joined — just like in our lives. Thanks for your reply 🙂

  2. Heidi'sbooks

    I agree! I think it’s writing style not social condition. I read my first Elizabeth Gaskell this year and her writing style was a cross between Dickens and Austen. I loved it.

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