How does Charles Dickens Create His Characters? Essay

Charles Dickens creates striking and memorable personalities by using story setting and vivid descriptions of the characters through their speech, appearance, manner and their actions.

All these are used effectively by Dickens as he presents the characters of Gradgrind in the novel ‘Hard Times and Magwitch in ‘Great Expectations.

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The tale of “Hard Times” is set in an Industrial Town named “Coketown” during the 1850’s. Mr Gradgrind is the story’s main character. He is a self-made businessman and an apparent philanthropist, as he is the sole benefactor of a local school, in which he wants teaching to be based of facts and not sentiment. Although his reputation presents him as a kind man, Dickens description of Gradgrind’s persona is influential in making the reader feel negatively towards this character.

The story of “Great Expectations” focuses on an orphan named Pip who goes to live with his sister and brother in law in Marsh Country. In the opening sections of Great Expectations, the character Magwitch is an escaped convict, Pip encounters him when visiting his mother’s grave.

In Magwitch’s case Dickens effectively manipulates the reader to feel positive towards this character.

Dickens’ physical descriptions of the two characters undoubtedly influence our response to them as description is a very important factor when forming an idea about a character.

In the opening scene of the novel Hard Times we meet Mr. Gradgrind who is speaking to a group of young pupils. Ironically is seems fitting that Gradgrind physically embodies the dry, hard facts that he crams into his students’ heads.

When we read Dickens’ description of Gradgrind we instantly meet with an unyielding, monotonous and zealous being. Dickens’ use of the word “Square” creates an image of an angular and unvarying man of unrelenting rigidity. It is noticeable that Dickens repeats “square” seven times which adds to Gradgrind’s monotonous, dull and repetitive personality.

It is clear that Dickens wants to dissociate himself from Gradgrind as he constantly refers to him as “the speaker” instead of naming him. This term depersonalises the character and suggests that Gradgrind is a loner with no real friends.

Dickens, once again displays his blatant dislike for Gradgrind by the use of derogatory terms such as “dry” and “dictatorial”, making this character appear unemotional and controlling. Dickens uses the metaphor “wall” to describe Gradgrind forehead emphasising his unyielding and uncompromising nature. He describes Gradgrind’s eyes as “dark caves”. This is noteworthy as it is said that ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’ implying that Gradgrind’s darks eyes signify a dark soul.

The term “plantation of firs” used to describe his lack of hair and accentuate his baldness is used to ridicule Gradgrind. It is a deliberate ploy by the author to encourage the reader to laugh and mock Gradgrind.

Even the name Gradgrind reminds us of mechanical, repetitive drudgery. Gradgrind crushes all imagination out of his children and they leave his school empty. Furthermore Dickens’ use of symbolism in the name “Stonelodge” reflects Gradgrind’s personality as unyielding, strong, factual and definitely not “fancy”! Gradgrind worships facts. For him, we must have facts alone.

In contrast to the ‘charitable’ Gradgrind, the character of Magwitch is described as having “no hat” and “broken shoes”. This presents him as an unusual man, clearly no gentleman and we quickly learn from the description of Magwitch “with a great iron on his leg” that he is an escaped convict.

Dickens use of a long continuous sentence gives a sense of urgency to the passage and hastily leads the reader to their first meeting with Magwitch.

Dickens sudden use of speech without any mention of a speaker creates a shock effect. This is used to reflect the panic that pip feels.

However, the use of passive verbs like “soaked” “smothered and lamed” hints that Magwitch is also a victim who is in pain. Also the use of listing adds emphasis to horror he has been through. This makes this character seem pitiful and the fact that Dickens’ does not use humour makes the reader feel sorry for this character.

The way Pip speaks in short sentences and his readiness to answer Magwitch questions quickly leads the reader to believe that Pip is afraid of the convict. However we sense from the final two paragraphs of the encounter, that Pip is also curious and sympathetic towards the Magwitch. The description of the convict as a “shuddering body” and “clasping himself” evokes a feeling of pity towards this character as he pathetically picks his way among the graves.

Dickens’ description of Magwitch, readying himself to spend the night in the cemetery and the fact that Pip’s fear is overpowered by a sense of pity which makes him peer back sympathetically at Magwitch stirs up a feeling of compassion in the reader towards the convict.

Typical of Dickens the persona of his characters is revealed through their speech. Gradgrind’s use of imperatives makes him overbearing and forceful as a character. His rude, blunt way of addressing pupils suggests that Mr. Gradgind is uncompromising and rigid.

His jarringly short sentences illustrate his own mechanical, unemotional character.

Likewise Magwitch’s character is revealed through his speech. Magwitch is made to seem intimidating and aggressive and this is highlighted by his use of insults, like “I’ll cut your throat” “you little devil” or “you young dog”. The character is made to appear more violent by his use of the imperatives, “hold”, “tell” and “show” all serve to make Magwitch appear powerful as he orders Pip to obey him.

His exclamatory style and the fact that he uses coarse and vulgar expressions are suggestive that Magwitch is of a working class background. This contrasts starkly with Pips gentle and polite middle-class manner. Also, Dickens’ deliberate use of working class mispronunciations and ungrammatical sentences tells us that this man has a low station in life. The word “wittles” is in fact a mispronunciation of the word vitals. The ‘v’ to ‘w’ pronunciation was common to the lower class Londoner’s accent.

Characteristic to Dickens is his use of the story setting to mirror the main character.

In Hard Times the tale starts in Mr. Thomas Gradgrind’s model school, a school based on facts and facts alone and his children are brought up according to this rule. The classroom is bare and plain like and likened to a ‘monotonous vault’, these words suggest that the children are thought of as positions by Gradgrind. Everything in the classroom is colourless and lifeless, this reflects the dry and unemotional personality of Gradgrind.

In Great Expectations the setting from the start of the book is very important to the introduction of the character Magwitch. The graveyard scene at the start of Great Expectations is eerie and unsettling and prepares us for the terror of Magwitch’s entrance. The convict appears on a dark, stormy night reflecting the hostile and dangerous nature of the character. Pip’s isolation makes him even more venerable and Magwitch more threatening and powerful.

Dickens had experienced many of the settings and situations he wrote about and the fact that he molded the characters to settings he knew helps us to understand why the characters are as they are.

The characters treatment of children shows us that Dickens had a natural sympathy for venerable children and his characters are often measured by the way they behave towards minors. Also Dickens is well known for championing the underdog.

For Gradgrind, “Facts alone are wanted in life”. These words are spoken to the pupils and they sum up his philosophy on life. This philosophy has brought Mr. Gradgrind financial and social success and he embodies the spirit of the Industrial Revolution insofar as he treats children like machines that can be reduced to a number of scientific principles.

He refers to the pupils in his school as “reasoning animals” and compares their minds to fertile soil in which facts can be sowed. This is rather hypocritical as his use of a metaphor contradicts his philosophy, in our eyes; this immediately undermines his point of view and makes us skeptical of him. In addition, he thinks of the pupils as nothing more than “little vessels” to be filled to the brim with “facts” and even refers to Sissy as “Girl number twenty”. He has great pride in his ‘model pupil’ Bitzer, he believes that only those able to regurgitate fact upon fact will be able to survive in life. This is ironic because at the end of the story Mr Gradgrind is brayed by Bitzer, as he has not educated him on sentiment and loyalty.

Magwitch’s threats and aggression toward Pip leaves us in no doubt that he is a violent man, one who is to be feared. He is physically intimidating and plays on Pip’s innocent fears.

Yet Dickens’ provides us with an opportunity to glimpse an other side to Magwitch’s character when Magwitch makes the outrageous claim that he would cut out Pip’s heart and liver and then roast and eat them. We sense that Magwitch wouldn’t really hurt Pip and that he is only exploiting Pip’s childish fears.

Dickens uses wit, irony and spoof combined with powerful images to make these characters come to life. Both characters are frightening in their own way and are both stereotypical of their time. However, I feel that in the long term it would be Gradgrind that ultimately did more harm, causing lasting damage to the children in his school as he took away their childhood. Dickens finds this more alarming and displays this to the reader through his blunt dislike show towards Gradgrind. Perhaps Dickens is more alarmed by Gradgrind “Slaughtering the Innocent” as he himself was forced into a workhouse at a young age in order to support his family.

Personally, I found Magwitch a more likeable character because it is clear that Dickens is fonder of Magwitch than Gradgrind so he has used there description, way of speaking and behaviour towards children to influence our views. It is a perfect example of Dickens’ skill as a writer, how he has clearly drawn us towards a violent convict over an apparent philanthropist and an esteemed “Gentleman”.


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