Today marks the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian era — and possibly some other eras as well. Though Dickens was skilled at creating plot and much loved for his winking sense of humor, perhaps his greatest talent was creating characters, many of whom are still household names a century and a half after their creation. His biographer, John Forster, wrote that Dickens made his “characters real existences, not by describing them but by letting them describe themselves.” Indeed, his characters are extremely rich, and even the most cartoonish of them glow with a certain kind of truth, not to mention some incredible names. To honor Dickens on his 200th birthday, we’ve put together a list of what we consider to be the best of the great author’s many fantastic figures — click through to check out our choices, and do let us know if we’ve missed your favorite (because there are so many other favorites to be had) in the comments!
The Artful Dodger, Oliver Twist
The leader of Fagin’s gang of kid criminals, the Artful Dodger is a bombastic, raggedy Peter Pan figure, who is “as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see” but with “all the airs and manners of a man.” All decked out in clothes much too large for him — not to mention that huge fantastic hat — “He was, altogether, as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.” Managing to steal every scene (not to mention quite a few valuables), we totally wish we could run the streets with this one.
Vincent Crummles, Nicholas Nickleby
The bombastic, larger-than-life stage manager is a flawed hero to be sure — always trying to make a buck, he shamelessly puts his daughter on stage as the “Infant Phenomenon,” billing her as ten years old, though she’s probably been ten years old for close to eight years. Described as having “a very full under-lip, a hoarse voice, as though he were in the habit of shouting very much, and very short black hair, shaved off nearly to the crown of his head — to admit of his more easily wearing character wigs of any shape or pattern,” he is certainly a comic figure, but one that exemplifies Dickens’ love of the theatre quite magnificently.
Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
Perhaps surprisingly, seeing as he’s a bad guy and all, Scrooge came in first in a poll on the Penguin website where readers picked their favorite characters. However, according to Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin, “Scrooge’s popularity is surprising, since his modern equivalent might be a banker… But Dickens excelled in creating villains, and always gave them more energy and brio than his good characters, so that we never forget them… Scrooge is a monster, a wicked employer and a heartless miser, but he is allowed to repent and see the error of his ways… So perhaps it’s the contrast between his outrageous meanness and coldness and his cheery generosity and lavishness at the end that readers respond to.” We agree — even at the beginning of the novel, there’s something lovably crotchety about Scrooge, and if your heart isn’t warmed by watching his grow, well, we think you might just have some visitors this Christmas.
Miss Havisham, Great Expectations
The wrathful, ghostlike Miss Havisham has always been one of our favorites. Abandoned twenty minutes before her wedding by a man who was only after her money, Miss Havisham had all the clocks stopped at the moment she learned of her betrayal, and continued living in her wedding dress, with only one shoe on. She adopts Estella and raises her to be cruel and heartless — at first in a genuine effort to save the girl from her own fate, and then as a sort of vicarious revenge. Though she’s not a heroine by any means, we find her decayed state of mind and house delightfully creepy, and her story rather heartbreaking.
Uriah Heep, David Copperfield
This delightfully hideous gentleman is duly blessed with one of the most delightfully hideous names in Dickens’ canon. Upon their first meeting, David Copperfield describes the cloying yes-man as “a red-haired person – a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older – whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony’s head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise. He had a way of writhing when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly.” An obsequious clerk, whose personality is supposedly modeled after Hans Christian Andersen, he is obsessed with the idea of his own humility, and, much like his name, makes our skin crawl. But hey, since that’s what he’s meant to do, we still count him among the best of Dickens’ characters.
Daniel Quilp, The Old Curiosity Shop
An evil hunchback dwarf! Come on, in context, that’s amazing. Quilp is the closest thing to a legit monster that Dickens ever created, eating eggs whole with the shells on, carrying a club and mistreating his sweet wife. He is blessed with a “ghastly smile which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connection with any mirthful or complacent feeling… gave him the aspect of a panting dog.” Even he knows his own horribleness, pronouncing, “I’m a little hunchy villain and a monster,” and warning “I’ll beat you with an iron rod, I’ll scratch you with a rusty nail, I’ll pinch your eyes, if you talk to me – I will.” Consider us shaking in our boots.
Sam Weller, The Pickwick Papers
Sam Weller, by far the best thing about The Pickwick Papers (in our estimation), is the character that made Dickens famous — the serialized sections before Weller emerged had been greeted with indifference, but as soon as he came on stage the readers were clamoring for more. Manservant to the terminally benevolent Mr. Pickwick, Sam is like a Shakespearean fool — innocent and worldly all at once, enlivening the story with his witty banter and cockney wisdom.
Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield
Micawber is a thinly veiled portrait of Dickens’ own father, a feckless but good-hearted scoundrel who gets tossed into debtors’ prison after failing to pay his creditors. His optimistic insistence that “something will turn up” in the nick of time is ever-so charming (though perhaps not a trait to parrot), and who could forget the Micawber Principle: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Indeed.
Mrs. Gamp, Martin Chuzzlewit
Mrs. Gamp is one of the most hilarious figures in all of Dickens’ work. A completely alcoholic nurse and midwife, she is so dizzily dissolute that she creates an imaginary friend, Mrs. Harris, to constantly tell her how wonderful she is. This caricature was so popular among the British public that umbrellas became known colloquially as “gamps,” after Mrs. Gamp’s own, which she carried with “particular ostentation.”
Fagin, Oliver Twist
Though this villain, who is referred to alternately as the “merry old gentleman” and “the Jew,” is the grown-up leader of the Artful Dodger’s band of kid miscreants. An incredibly ugly fellow, whose “repulsive face was obscured by… matted red hair,” Fagin is an enduring, sly old fox, much darker in the novel than in other popular portrayals. Though Dickens was accused of antisemitism because of this extreme negative portrayal of a Jewish character, after hearing the criticism he adapted his own text to excise the offensive language.