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Charles Dickens

Literary Devices

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       Charles Dickens wrote many novels, short stories and newspaper serials over his long literary career. Common to all of his work are three important literary elements: symbolism, character foils and metaphors. Dickens uses each of these devices to advance his social moral themes. The uses of these three literary devices are pervasive and can be seen in Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. Clearly, the use of symbolism, character foils and metaphors are common to the writings of Dickens.


       Symbolism: Symbolism is defined as using a person, place, or thing to represent an abstract idea. Dickens’ typically uses one or two objects in each novel repeatedly to represent abstract ideas like danger, freedom or death. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens uses Ebenezer Scrooge, the mean, workaholic boss, to represent a lack of love and compassion. The symbol of Scrooge is so strong, the English language has transformed the character’s name into an adjective describing an unbending, uncaring leader or boss. Then, in Great Expectations, the mist marshes, where as a child Pip was kidnapped and almost murdered represent danger and uncertainty. In most of Dickens’ work setting is a symbol. Finally, in David Copperfield, the setting of the ocean represents death and an unknown powerful force, since many die due to the sea.


       Character Foils: Characterization is one of the strongest elements of literatures and one of the easiest ways to convey a complex theme. Dickens uses character foils, where a people who either are the opposite of what they seem or characters who highlight a common expectation. For example, Bentley Drummble in Great Expectations is considered part of the upper class of society, but is a cruel, nasty man. The foil is created because Pip believes that upper class society is proper, polite and respectful, therefore Drummble serves a foil to Pip’s expectations. Then, in A Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge, the main female character, is portrayed publicly as a calm woman who knits, therefore seems like a docile and harmless grandma. However, in her kitting the seemingly harmless Madame Defarge is creating her death list. The character foil of Madame Defarge also alludes to the French peasants whom seem content and resigned, but actually are plotting the Revolution. Last, in Oliver Twist, the foil created is with the word ‘twist’, which was bestowed upon the young boy by accident. However, the word ‘twist’ alludes to the great reversals of money and luck that Oliver experiences later.


       Metaphor: A metaphor is defined as the direct comparison of two seemingly unalike objects. Dickens uses metaphors to create parallels in his texts to his social change themes. In A Tale of Two Cities, the wine casket, which is introduced in the first several pages, represents two types of hunger. Through the wine casket Dickens is comparing the people’s physical and emotion hunger. The citizens of France needed both food and freedom, which is represented by the wine and the word ‘blood’ on the wall. Then, in Oliver Twist, the London Bridge represents the sharp divide between Nancy’s perfect world of Brownlow and Rose compared to Oliver’s slum. The metaphor of the bridge as a division between classes, serves to emphasize the large social divisions at the time Dickens was writing.



Works Cited: SparkNotes & Wikipedia