Dickens at 200: Life-Affirming Author Has Staying Power, U.Va. Professor Says

February 06, 2012

Writer Charles Dickens remains popular two centuries after his birth because he had the greatest imagination of any author in any period, of any nationality, said Karen Chase, a University of Virginia English professor.

Tuesday marks the 200th anniversary of the British author's birth.

Students today return to Dickens again and again because he can expand and inspire their own imaginations, said Chase, who teaches Victorian literature in the College of Arts & Sciences. She often teaches Dickens in a graduate seminar, and even that's not enough time to read and learn about his 14 novels – not counting the one left unfinished at his death in 1870 at age 58, she said.

What she has learned from Dickens, and teaches about him, is his affirmation of life in the face of poverty or desperation of all kinds. His characters are often the "have-nots," demonstrating how to live "in the best of times" and "the worst of times," as his oft-quoted opening to "A Tale of Two Cities" says.

"He's not talking about happiness," Chase said, "He's talking about resilience, resourcefulness, laughter. He's talking about tolerance, generosity, the kind of amusement that one finds by living fully in every moment – that is allowing you to detach so that you can find the humor even in a situation that calls for desperation or suffering or pain."

Chase was scheduled to teach her Dickens seminar the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She emailed her graduate students, saying she'd understand if anyone didn't want to come to class, but she would be there to discuss the author.

"Every student turned up on the day after 9/11. They wanted to talk about humor," she said. "They wanted to talk about how it is appropriate to think about humor – not in spite of, but because of, the harshness and the brutality and the intolerance and the provinciality and the narrowness of a world that thinks violence is an answer to anything."

She said they had a great discussion of "The Pickwick Papers," an early novel that is very funny, but not as a way of ignoring or defending against the violence of the day before. "It was a way of trying to imagine what had happened and how we might respond to it," Chase said.

"A Christmas Carol" is perhaps Dickens' best-known work. Ebeneezer Scrooge is a well-known character who may have a lot of money, but his life is poor in terms of relationships and life-affirming emotions. Everybody loves the transformation he goes through, Chase said. The story not only celebrates gift-giving and generosity, but also the ability to relish life.

"There is a tendency to become narrow and to become miserly – if not literally in terms of money, then in terms of the friendships we make or the people we admit to our confidence," she said. "We become narrow sometimes because of the pressures and stresses of our life and what he reminds us ... is to relish life, not because it's all there is, but because it is and we are here to take part in it for as long as we have."

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications