Tuesday, June 24, 2008


“… Messrs. Blathers and Duff came back again, as wise as they went.” From Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

It has been almost a month since I added something fresh to my blog. For me, the long pause has been justified. I don't want to post unless I've got something good enough to write about. Why waste your time and mine?

During this hiatus, I finally finished a novel by Charles Dickens. True, A Tale of Two Cities was required reading in my senior year of high school, but I didn’t read the whole thing, so it doesn’t really count. (As a footnote, my senior class celebrated their twenty-year reunion last summer, which I didn’t attend. I have never been emotionally attached to my alma mater) Since then, I have felt a pull to read Charles Dickens; however, I always went to some other writer as the size of a Dickens novel scared the … well, scared the Dickens out of me.

When I read, it is my goal to take away something of value. The thing I noticed early on about Charles Dickens was his clever use of sarcasm. The quote above comes from a chapter about halfway through the novel, where two bungling detectives investigate the attempted robery of a house. At first, Mr. Dickens played around with the dialogue between the detectives and the people in the house, a scene which reminded me of Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. After that dialogue, then, Dickens followed the two detectives around before he closed off the scene with the indictment above. I only hope I can achieve his dry sense of sarcasm in my own writing.

Other gems I learned from Dickens came toward the end of the novel. As a story teller, he gripped me with violence that I had never expected from a literary classic. With his strong use of language, Dickens ripped my heart out as the evil Sikes slipped from a rooftop. The image of Sikes, the rope and the chimney have been burned in my imagination. Then, he took my breath away as Mr. Brownlow coldly dealt with Mr. Monks. While reading, I thought about my own stories, trying to capture such a hardness in my own characters. Finally, as I watched Fagin (what a name, by the way) writhe in his cell, going crazy, I was amazed by the effect that Dickens’s writing had on me. It reminded me of some advice I found in one of the Write Great Fiction series: if you want to milk the tension, slow the scene down. That chapter in Oliver Twist felt like it went on forever, and it made me squirm, agonizing just as much as the wretched old Fagin.

Yes, I know I’ve made an assumption that you have read Oliver Twist. If you haven’t, then I strongly recommend you add this book to your reading pile. As a writer, pay attention to how Dickens handled his scenes, how he used images--natural and otherwise--to set the tone, and how he worked his magic to have a lasting impact on his readers. There is certainly a lot to learn from someone as masterful as Dickens.


  1. Oliver Twist... one of my all time faves. As a kid, my friend and I would would pretend to ne the characters, she Ollie and I the Artful Dodger. Yeah... so what that we're both girls? What great characters to be... Peace, Linda

  2. It's interesting that you chose to be the Artful Dodger. I must admit that I wouldn't want to be Oliver, either. He's too good. I'm not sure what that says about me, though.

  3. Another one to add to my list, Stephen.

    On another note, I had a similar experience to yours--surprise over an old master's use of violence--when I first encountered Shakespeare's King Lear. The scene where the girls literally rip out Gloucester's eyes with their fingers? (Shiver) Makes Stephen King look like a pansy.

    Anyway, glad to see you back blogging again. I've missed your insights.

  4. I, too, have missed you. As usual, however, your post was worth the wait.

    My husband, a true lover of Dickens, will enjoy reading this as well...

  5. Thanks for the honor, ladies.

    Greta: In the same senior high English class, we had to watch a BBC production of King Lear, with Sir Lawrence Olivier cast as the king. It was a fantastic piece. Last year, I purchased a book with four of Shakespeare's tragedies, of which King Lear is included. Reading a play in the original text, though, can take just as long as novel. I read Hamlet, but haven't read the others. I'll have to read King Lear soon. Thanks for the tip.

    Tammy: It'll be a while down the road, but the book I have with Charles Dickens's stories also includes A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. Let me know if your husband has a recommendation.