Pattern, repetition, revision, and/or morphing of characters, situations, settings, motifs and/or themes

While each of Dickens’s novels can easily stand alone, when taken together they can be seen, ironically in terms of how they were published, as a serial of 14-1/2 numbers. I share the opinion of many scholars that over the course of his career, Dickens maintained an ongoing dialogue with himself and his audience through his writing to try to come to some sort of understanding of himself and of his times. Necessarily then, Dickens’s self-dialogue would pattern, repeat, revise, and/or morph characters, situations, settings, motifs and themes; it would entail his looking at things from different angles or perspectives in an attempt to get closer to an essence, a solution, a meaning. Studying Dickens’s works chronologically as we are doing allows us to see the progression of these patterns, etc., in his art and to extrapolate the progression of and changes in his notions about the myriad of topics, both apparent and hidden, contained therein. This concept is often difficult to pin down in Dickens scholarship because the vast majority of published material about Dickens seems to end up exploring it is some fashion, as reflected in the frequent use of “Dickens and ________” or “The _______ [of/and/in] Dickens” in book and article titles. Even when a critical study claims to treat only one novel the others somehow find their way into the argument as comparison or contrast. The attempt to corral the “loose, baggy monster” that is “CHARLES DICKENS” (borrowing Henry James’s phrase) is one reason why he and his works endure.

That said, here are some examples of scholarly insights into the notion of patterns, repetition, revision, and/or morphing in Dickens. I realize the most recent source here is dated 2009 – no doubt there have been relevant books and articles published since then. I will endeavor to locate some and pass them on, but I wanted to get this out before our Zoom meeting on Saturday. I haven’t gotten into the meat of these sources because I hesitate to spoil our Club’s discovery of these patterns, etc., as we move forward with our reading believing it will be more fun to explore this topic on our own.

G.K. Chesterton, “Collected Works – Vol XV: Chesterton on Dickens”

(1906) – Re Dickens’s characters: “It is impossible to do justice to these figures because the essential of them is their multiplicity. The whole point of Dickens is that he not only made them, but made them by myriads; that he stamped his foot, and armies came out of the earth.” (185-186)


(1913) – “. . . the only elementary ethical truth that is essential in the study of Dickens . . . is that he had broad or universal sympathies in a sense totally unknown to the social reformers who wallow in such phrases. Dickens (unlike the social reformers) really did sympathise [sic] with every sort of victim of every sort of tyrant. . . . If in your sympathy for Mrs. Quilp, your call Dickens the champion of the downtrodden woman, you will suddenly remember Mrs. Wilfer, and find yourself unable to deny the existence of downtrodden man. If in your sympathy for Mr. Rouncewell your call Dickens the champion of a manly middle-class Liberalism against Chesney Wold, you will suddenly remember Stephen Blackpool – and find yourself unable to deny that Mr. Rouncewell might be a pretty insupportable cock on his own dunghill. If in your sympathy for Stephen Blackpool you call Dickens a Socialist . . . and think of him as merely heralding the great Collectivist revolt against Victorian Individualism and Capitalism . . . you will suddenly remember the agreeable young Banacle at the Circumlocution Office; and you will be unable, for very shame, to assert that Dickens would have trusted the poor to a State Department. Dickens did not merely believe in the brotherhood of men in the weak modern way; he was the brotherhood of men, and knew it was a brotherhood in sin as well as in aspiration.” (473-474)

Edmund Wilson, “Dickens: The Two Scrooges”, in “The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature” (1939)

– “It may be said Dickens never really repeats himself: his thought makes a consistent progress, and his art, through the whole thirty-five years of his career, keeps going on to new materials and effects; so that his work has an interest and a meaning as a whole.” (61)


John Gross, “Dickens: Some Recent Approaches”, in “Dickens and the Twentieth Century” ed. Gross & Pearson (1962)

– “It is no secret that Dickens’s characters repeat themselves, and in general repetition is one of his artistic principles; symbolic or not, his books are full of recurrent imagery.” (xv)

J. Hillis Miller, “Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels” (1965)

– “I have attempted . . . to assess the specific quality of Dickens’ imagination in the totality of his work, to identify what persists throughout all the swarming multiplicity of his novels as a view of the world which is unique and the same, and to trace the development of his vision of things from one novel to another throughout the chronological span of his career.” (viii)


– “From novel to novel throughout his career Dickens sought an ever closer approach to the truth hidden behind the surface appearance of things. But he sought this truth not so much by going behind the surface as by giving an exhaustive inventory of the surface itself. . . . The special quality of Dickens’ imagination is his assumption that he can get behind the surface by describing all of it bit by bit. For each limited event, each person trapped in his distorted view of the city, contains as well as hides the truth. And when enough of the isolated parts are described, and their relations discovered, the truth behind each, it may be, will be liberated – a truth at once particular and universal. Then Dickens’ novels will no longer be merely a collection of ‘odd unlikenesses,’ but a true likeness, an authentic image of the world.” (xvi)

Harry Stone, “The Love Pattern in Dickens’ Novels”, in “Dickens the Craftsman: Strategies of Presentation”, ed Robert B. Partlow, Jr. (1970)

– “Reading through [Dickens’s] entire oeuvre one is often struck by repetitive patterns. These patterns . . . assume their full significance only as they emerge in work after work. Encountered in a single work, such patterns are likely to seem topical or idiosyncratic. Encountered in book after book, however, they suggest a deeper significance: they suggest that they embody the author’s most profound hopes and fears. This is another way of saying that such repeated motifs are coterminous with the author’s chief concerns and with his way of viewing the world; it also follows that such patterns can be used reflexively to provide fresh insight into his writings. With a pattern firmly in mind we can go back, reread a work, and assess it afresh. Sometimes we can do more: we can explain aberrations in constructions or responses or relationships that baffled us before.” (1)

Barry Westburg, “The Confessional Fictions of Charles Dickens” (1977)

– “If we examine [OT, DC & GE in particular] it becomes quite clear what Dickens’s own discovery procedure in writing them was: He developed as a writer most radically each time he posed development itself as his theme. He developed by means of fruitful comparisons, resourceful transformations, and progressively apposite displacements of whatever stood at any moment of composition as the prior text in his own developmental canon. Some buried, personal ‘text’ no doubt stood behind Oliver Twist, which later in turn became the pre-text for David Copperfield, which, in its turn, became the pre-text for Great Expectations. The novels obviously are systematically related, so that it quite impoverishes them simply to study each in isolation . . . For Dickens, meaning is partially a product of the very differences that hold among his novels. The whole process of movement in them from autobiographical imitation to aesthetic revelation is one of progressive displacement. Each work preys upon, in order to deconstruct, its immediate predecessor in the confessional series. And each is like a juncture or crisis in the process of growth itself – a liminal work, a place where boundary-problems get solved by the creation of new perspectives, new orientations.” (xvi-xvii)

Richard Barickman, Susan MacDonald, and Myra Stark, “Corrupt Relations: Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Collins and the Victorian Sexual System” (1982)

– “When we read through Dickens’ novels in any sequence, we soon become aware of recurrent types of characters . . . these are not stock literary types but recurrent figures fashioned to express Dickens’ special insights into his culture. Basic patterns in character and situation persist throughout Dickens’ fiction because his psychological and thematic interests remain remarkably consistent throughout his career, much more consistent than various attempts to demarcate early, middle, and late periods, comic and ‘dark’ novels, may suggest. For all the transformations in style, characterization, theme, and symbolic method that make each novel distinctive [recurrent character types] share fundamental psychological and thematic roles. [ ] In fact, the symbolic roles of characters rather than their manifest social roles give coherence to all Dickens’ novels.” (97-98)

Gwen Watkins, “Dickens in Search of Himself: Recurrent Themes and Characters in the Works of Charles Dickens” (1987)

This is a very intriguing book title, but Watkins’s analysis is so steeped in psychoanalysis that her conclusions are often laughable – it’s all his mother’s fault. Her thesis is of interest here in that she outlines “recurrent themes and characters” and attempts to show “that they hold some special significance for their creator” (4). However, I found myself increasingly frustrated by her psychobabble and stretches of logic. Her begrudging concession in her conclusion that her psychoanalytical study “may . . . make [Dickens’s] writings into casebooks of psychology rather than great creative works” (150) was for me her most accurate conclusion of all.

Peter Ackroyd, “Dickens” (1990)

– Dickens’s characters “spring up all around him and there are times when he seems even effortlessly to anticipate some of his later characters, as if the seed were planted early in a name or a phrase . . . . In addition characters seem to shuffle into one another so that the same spirit is reincarnated, as it were, in a variety of human beings . . . all distinct but all related.” (399-400)

Malcolm Andrews, “Dickens and the Grown-Up Child” (1994)

– “The issue of prioritizing facts or fancy as a preparation for maturity is one to which Dickens returned again and again. . . . In novel after novel Dickens negotiates . . . problems, not to exorcise the ghosts of his own past (though that process is a part of it) but to confront the cultural values forming and solidifying over the period of his own life.” (4)

Michael Slater, “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Dickens” (1999)

– “What this little book seeks to do is to give readers some sense of the leading ideas and beliefs, the artistic ideals and ambitions, that largely inspired this Dickensian project and that may be found diffused throughout it – some sense of what we might call ‘Dickensian values’. . . . what is attempted here can be seen, in part at least, as an attempt to extrapolate the materials for something like a mission statement from the multitudinous and teeming pages of Dickens’s oeuvre and from the extensive records of his life. [And while decidedly NOT to sum up “Dickens’s moral creed and broad purpose . . . to provide a few signposts [of the] overall sense of the main concepts and beliefs in the light of which Dickens wrote all his work”. (7-8)

Michael Slater,  “Charles Dickens” (2009)

– re “two important developments in Dickens’s novelistic art”:  First, “a more detailed and patterned use of emblems . . . [s]ome part of the natural world, or some human institutions important for the plot is depicted as imagining or emblematising [sic] some spiritual, moral or political reality.” (i.e., selfishness in Martin Chuzzlewit or the sea in Dombey & Son); Second, Dombey & Son “inaugurates a ten-year period in his writing career during which all of his novels, with the exception of David Copperfield, have female rather than male protagonists. They also explore . . . a number of more complex female characters. . . . At the same time many of the central concerns of these books relate closely to the difficulties, social restrictions, humiliations and consequent resentment experienced by women from widely different backgrounds in the male-oriented world of Victorian England.” (260) [I would argue that these “central concerns” relating to women can also be found his novels that pre-date “Copperfield”.] (260)


Speaking of the effect of Dickens’s meeting and falling in love with Ellen Ternan: “Hitherto his hopeless-lover figures, from Smike to John Chivery, had always been secondary ones, pathetic or comic, but for the last eleven years of his life they were to be very much centre-stage, and seriously presented.” (442)


  1. Chris, what a multi-faceted, layered discussion on this matter of Dickens’ reveling in repetition and all of its permutations.

    It occurs to me that Dickens, a remarkable spirit in so many ways, is on a vital existential quest to understand the often perplexing and never-dull human condition.

    Do you think that the general trajectory might be a kind of upward spiralling of greater insight and understanding? Or, is that too simplistic?

    Thanks for this marvelous culling of sources on this very intriguing topic.



    Liked by 4 people

    1. Daniel – In terms of both Dickens’s and Dickens scholarship’s insight and understand, upward spiralling, yes. Greater insight and understanding – maybe. For Dickens, I think oftentimes he reached a level of insight or understanding only to have something throw a monkey wrench in his way – best example is his insight or understanding of his relationship with women; I think he reached a point where he felt was coming to terms with his feelings only to have Ellen Ternan appear to throw everything out of wack. Conversely he was on pretty stable ground with his insights/understanding of/for the poor and unfortunate for most of his adult life. For Dickens scholarship – it’s always an ongoing process. Schools of thought come into vogue and then are replaced by others, yet each brings new ways of looking at the same material which more often than not adds to our understanding and appreciation of the work. See my comments on Watkins, e.g.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Chris, you really are, as Rach has observed, a researcher par excellence! And, you are wise, which is much more than merely knowledgeable.

        Thanks for all of the gifts of resources, insights, and wisdom you share.

        I certainly agree about the “money wrenches” that sometimes derailed Dickens’ best efforts at integral growth.

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  2. Chris, this is absolutely MARVELOUS!!!! What a wealth of things this brings up for us to talk about tomorrow during the zoom chat…and I’ll be rereading it before then. The Westburg quote really sums up a lot of what we’re trying to do: not reading Dickens’s works in isolation, but as each relates to the other, progressively. I absolutely loved your opening reflections, too…absolutely fantastic. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!

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  3. I confess to liking the Watkins book. (Sorry! 🙂 ) As I wrote in my Goodreads review, it is pretty Freudian, but sometimes the Freud fits.


  4. I just noticed a sort of Freudian slip: “money wrenches” instead of “monkey wrenches.” Sometimes the Freud fits!!!


  5. Chris: What a wonderful montage of quotations from these different Dickens’ critics. And I especially like that you have organized them historically and progressively, so that we can sense the nuances of Dickens scholarship as it has developed over the years–an idea that you also discuss when regarding the whole of your presentation. So, in short, the discussion and or dialogue about Dickens and his novels continues up to the present day, and will do so as time goes on. The similarities (and differences) between the various novels will be investigated and written about ad infinitum.

    The two discussions that resonate hugely to me are those by Harry Stone and Barry Westburg; Stone in the first quote below gets first at the acknowledgement that there ARE patterns that repeat themselves from novel to novel and that when they are recognized, they can be used to reexplicate the novels that have gone before them or those that follow:

    “….it also follows that such patterns can be used reflexively to provide fresh insight into his writings. With a pattern firmly in mind we can go back, reread a work, and assess it afresh. Sometimes we can do more: we can explain aberrations in constructions or responses or relationships that baffled us before.” (1)”

    What is so neat about Stones’ comment is its parallel to what we in the Dickens Club are doing as WE work our way through the novels we are reading chronologically. We can reapply much of what we have deduced
    about an earlier novel to the current novel we are reading and do exactly the reverse as we reapply new meanings to the novels we have just read.

    The following quote from Westburg is a little more complex than Stone’s and tends to focus more on the writing PROCESS that Dickens uses over the years as he develops his pieces from one composition to the next. But it also gets to the process of reading and meaning making on the reader’s part, and that repeats to some extent Stone’s assertions. But what interests me, here, though, is the idea that ” Each work preys upon…its immediate predecessor” as that gives us the sense that Dickens either deliberately or non deliberately uses ideas, characters, themes, situations, and images that are similar from work to work, and which we–as readers–can discover and use to find meaning in the novels, and to give clarity and clearer understanding of characters that cry out for more particular interpretation. I really like the notion that one work “PREYS” upon another in the writing process. Here’s an excerpt from his quotation:

    “Some buried, personal ‘text’ no doubt stood behind Oliver Twist, which later in turn became the pre-text for David Copperfield, which, in its turn, became the pre-text for Great Expectations. The novels obviously are systematically related, so that it quite impoverishes them simply to study each in isolation . . . For Dickens, meaning is partially a product of the very differences that hold among his novels. The whole process of movement in them from autobiographical imitation to aesthetic revelation is one of progressive displacement. Each work preys upon, in order to deconstruct, its immediate predecessor in the confessional series.”

    And then there is the opening statement, here, which gives a little bit different slant on the idea of “prey”– that one work serves as a “pre-text” for another. That is, ideas, etc. in one novel sort of set the stage and provide MOMENTUM for the plot, themes and characters that Dickens will reinvent in slightly or radically new forms in the next novel. So Westburg is talking about both the methods of Dickens’ composition of and the reader’s understanding of each novel–the apparent differences and the similarities from one to the other are often subtle or not so subtle and are there to be mined by BOTH the author and the reader. I feel like this is, indeed, exciting stuff for us to consider as we continue to explicate these VERY complex and thoughtful novels!


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