Charles Dickens Books in Order (with Summaries for Each Novel)

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Get to know one of the greatest authors of all time with this list of Charles Dickens books in order! Dickens’s novels average about 700 pages in length, but you can familiarize yourself with his work with this list of Charles Dickens novels in publication order, along with a short summary premise for each.

Black and white covers of Charles Dickens books, depicting famous characters from his novels

Here’s a hot take: Dickens is a lot like Shakespeare. Both authors had tremendous cultural impact reverberating across generations. They’ve become household names, and their extensive casts of iconic characters are constantly alluded to in literature, film, and popular culture. And here’s another thing: while both Shakespeare and Dickens are canonical, required reading in schools, we tend to only be familiar with a handful of their works!

Well, I suppose that’s fine; a handful is a great place to start. But Shakespeare wrote so much more than Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. And Dickens wrote so much more than Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

Some other time I will deal with the Bard, but today I want to dive into Dickens’s oeuvre. In addition to numerous short stories, essays, and plays, Charles Dickens wrote fifteen novels (one of them unfinished) and five novellas. He was one of the most popular celebrities of the Victorian era, has remained a bestseller ever since, and is one of the authors with the most ever book-to-film adaptations.

Born in Porstmouth in 1812, Charles Dickens moved several times during his early years, due to his father’s job as a clerk in the Royal Navy Pay Office. When he was twelve, Dickens left school to work in a factory in order to help support his family after his father was incarcerated in debtor’s prison. Eventually, Dickens was able to return to school. As a young man, he worked as a clerk in a law office and then as a freelance journalist, reporting on legal proceedings. He continued to work in journalism and was eventually commissioned to write the stories that would become The Pickwick Papers. From there, he published a book every couple of years (often in serial form in magazines) until his death in 1870 at the age of 58.

For my part, Charles Dickens was a formative author in my early reading life, and will always be one of my special authors. If I lived in Victorian times, I’d be one of those eager readers waiting on the wharf for the next novel installment, or lining up outside the publisher’s door! His books are worlds that I relish stepping in to every couple of years. And I won’t be sad when I’ve read them all, because they’ll be waiting to welcome me back again!

Classics Reading Challenge

If you’re following along with our 2023 Classics Reading Challenge, the theme for September is to read a Charles Dickens novel. Any of the following books could count for the challenge, and it’s never too late to join! If you need help picking one, you can also take this quiz to give you a suggestion!

Charles Dickens Novels in Order

The publication dates noted are when the novels were published in book form, which was usually at the end of their serial run. Serialized novels were the television of their day, as readers eagerly awaited each new “episode.” And Dickens and his contemporaries were not paid by the word, as you might’ve heard from some cynical classmate in high school. They were paid per installment, which seems perfectly fair to me!

The Pickwick Papers (1837)

The Pickwick Papers is the novel that started it all for Dickens, inciting a cultural phenomenon and skyrocketing Dickens to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic. Dickens had previously published Sketches by Boz, a book-form collection of his sketches of everyday London life that he had written for various periodicals. Because the sketches were well received, a publisher contracted with him to create humorous explanations for a series of hunting and fishing illustrations, that could be loosely connected into a “picture novel.”

However, the text quickly became the main focus of the installments, with Dickens writing the stories first and then sending them on to the illustrator. The chapters follow the escapades of Samuel Pickwick and his associates, who journey separately into the countryside and then report on their adventures to the other members of the Pickwick Club. The Pickwickians repeatedly find themselves in ridiculous scrapes, and Dickens often ends the chapters on cliffhangers, leaving his readers wanting more.

By the time Pickwick installments wrapped up in 1837, readers wanted much more of Dickens, too, and he had already begun publishing installments of Oliver Twist.

Although when we think of Dickens, we typically picture him as bearded, in his fifties, with a receding hairline, it’s rather astounding to realize that he was only 24 when he wrote Pickwick!

Oliver Twist (1838)

The first child protagonist in an English novel, Oliver is an impoverished but pure-hearted orphan who escapes from a horrible workhouse and journeys to London. There he falls in with gang of orphans who make their living by pickpocketing, under the direction of an elderly criminal named Fagin.

Although Oliver Twist is not without humour, Dickens’s second novel was an unexpected departure from the levity of The Pickwick Papers. But readers still loved it. While Pickwick established Dickens’s reputation for eccentric and memorable characters, Oliver Twist solidified his position as a social reformer. The novel was a harsh wakeup call to the conditions of the poor and the debilitating injustices suffered by the lower classes.

Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

Nicholas Nickleby is a young man and the son of a gentleman, but his family’s fortunes take a nosedive when the father makes a poor business decision, dies, and leaves his family destitute. Nicholas, his mother, and his sister Kate must fall on the charity of their uncle, who unfortunately is a villain and will act like one.

In an effort to provide for his family, Nicholas tries various jobs–first as an assistant to an abusive headmaster in a Yorkshire boarding school, and then in an acting troupe. Nicholas is a thoroughly different hero than Oliver. While he’s still good-hearted, Nicholas has a hot temper, and this gets him into plenty of trouble!

Meanwhile back in London, Kate has trials of her own. Her uncle seems to have a soft spot for her, but that won’t stop him from using her for his own dubious schemes.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

The Old Curiosity Shop follows the story of Nell Trent, a sweet and saintly young teenager, and her beloved grandfather. The two live a secluded life in a London shop filled with curios and odd items. Unfortunately for them, Nell doesn’t have many friends, and her uncle has a few enemies–including the evil Mr. Quilp, who takes pleasure in wielding power over others and watching them squirm.

When things take a turn for the worse, Nell attempts to find a better life for herself and her grandfather, but Quilp doesn’t intend to let them off easily.

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Barnaby Rudge was the first of Dickens’s two historical novels (the other being A Tale of Two Cities). The setting is before and during the Gordon Riots of 1780, a series of violent mob uprisings in London motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment. Barnaby is a simple-minded young man who gets caught in the thick of the riots. Barnaby’s good nature is a foil to all the tumult around him–the viciousness of the uprisings as well as the subplots of murder, abduction, ghost sightings, and the twisting schemes of those more “cunning” than Barnaby.

Another character in Barnaby Rudge that bears special mention is Barnaby’s voluble pet raven Grip, based on a real pet of the Dickens family. Apparently, Edgar Allan Poe was quite struck by Grip, and two years later went on to write his own famous literary contribution with a talking raven!

Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

Martin Chuzzlewit is a family story, revolving around not one but two titular characters–a grandfather and grandson–as well as the extended relatives in their orbit. Dickens stated that the central theme of Martin Chuzzlewit is selfishness, and this certainly plays out among the Martins themselves, as well as the relatives, most of whom want a piece of the old man’s money.

A beacon of heroism among greedy relations and conniving cohorts is Tom Pinch, a friend of Martin the younger, whose story weaves in and out with the Chuzzlewits’.

Dickens wrote to a friend that Martin Chuzzlewit was “a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories.” Unfortunately, many of his readers and critics did not agree. Serial installments of the book sold poorly compared to Dickens’s previous offerings, and the novel remains under-read to this day. It didn’t help matters that American readers were incensed by Dickens’s portrayal of their homeland. Young Martin has a stint in America, and the country receives a very satirical treatment from the author’s pen! But anyone willing to give Martin Chuzzlewit a chance will find all of the expected ingredients of a Dickens novel: plot twists, deplorable villains, humorous descriptions, and romance.

Dombey and Son (1848)

More than anything, Paul Dombey wants a son to carry on the family name and join him in his flourishing shipping business. He neglects his daughter Florence, and pins all his hopes on the sickly boy who is at last born to him just before his wife dies.

If greed was the Deadly Sin of Martin Chuzzlewit, in Dombey and Son the defining vice is pride, embodied in Dombey senior and in all his interactions with the people in his orbit. But Dombey meets a formidable opponent in his second wife, Edith, who carries her own fair share of pride and is another memorably-strong female character among Dickens’s ensemble.

For anyone interested in nautical fiction, Dombey and Son is a good pick; about a quarter of the novel takes place by the seaside, at sea, and in a kindly seafarer’s shop where Florence finds a safe haven.

David Copperfield (1850)

Near the end of his life, Dickens would reflect back on his work and state that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” among all his novels. His fondness for David Copperfield is partially due to the fact that the novel contains numerous autobiographical elements and is, as he put it, “a very complicated weaving of truth and invention.”

David Copperfield is the narrator of his own story, describing his birth, childhood, and adolescence as he attends boarding school and works at a factory. David eventually reaches maturity when he embarks on a career as a novelist and becomes the “hero of his own life.” David’s coming-of-age story is peopled with characters who display the best and worst of humanity, who inadvertently instruct him as he grows to manhood.

Bleak House (1853)

The plot of Bleak House centers around an infinitely drawn-out legal case that holds ransom the fortunes of multiple people. But if a book about the problems of the Victorian judiciary system sounds dry to you, never fear: Bleak House is a spectacular novel, and a “can’t miss” for anyone who wants the best of what Dickens has to offer.

Bleak House is a dual narrative, part told in the present tense by an omniscient narrator, and part related by Esther Summerson, the only female narrator in all of Dickens’s oeuvre. Esther is an orphan who lives with the kindly Mr. Jarndyce, along with two other wards who await the decision of the courts.

In contrast to the congenial Jarndyce home is the Dedlock estate. Lady Dedlock is another beneficiary in the court case, but she couldn’t care less about the money–she’s already extremely wealthy. Despite money and a devoted husband, Lady Dedlock is chillingly apathetic towards life…until one day she recognizes the handwriting on an affidavit and has a surprising reaction. Her emotional response is not lost on Mr. Tulkinghorn, the Dedlock’s controlling lawyer, who suspects a dark secret and wants to hold the key.

Hard Times (1854)

Hard Times is Dickens’s shortest novel and the only one set entirely away from London. It tells the story of a group of people living in Coketown, a fictional industrial town in the north of England. There’s Mr. Gradgrind, a school superintendent who drills cold facts into his students and abhors imagination; Mr. Bounderby, an affluent and self-absorbed mill owner; and Stephen Blackpool, a downtrodden but industrious worker at Bounderby’s mill.

In contrast to these and other adult characters is the younger generation, who begin the novel as children but grow up during the story. These include Gradgrind’s son and daughter; Sissy Jupe, who works for the circus and attends Gradgrind’s school; and Bitzer, a model student of Gradgrind’s philosophy of education.

The novel is divided into three parts: Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering, creating a moral fable in which contrasting ideologies are tested and virtue and vice are rewarded or punished accordingly.

Little Dorrit (1857)

After falling on hard times, William Dorrit has lived in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison for twenty years. His youngest daughter, Amy, was born and raised within its walls, and although she is free to come and go, the prison is the only “home” she knows.

Amy works as a seamstress for the acerbic Mrs. Clennam, whose son Arthur marvels that his mother shows uncharacteristic kindness to little Amy Dorrit. Arthur wonders if Amy could inadvertently be the key to dark family secrets that his father took to his grave.

As Arthur’s life becomes entwined with the Dorrit family a web of connections is forged–or revealed–among the extensive cast of supporting characters. The story plays out in Dickens’s typical London settings of parlours, offices, mouldering houses, and bustling streets, but also scene-shifts to the Swiss Alps, Venice, and Rome, giving Little Dorrit a particularly cinematic feel among his novels.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Dickens’s second historical novel is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. A French doctor, Alexandre Manette, has been held prisoner in the Bastille for eighteen years. Upon release, he reunites with his daughter Lucie, who believed him to be dead. The Manettes settle in England, where their paths cross with two men who vie for Lucie’s affections–one a brilliant but dissolute lawyer (and a great example of an antihero), the other a French émigré determined to keep his family background a secret.

As France devolves into the Reign of Terror, the Manettes and their friends are inevitably drawn back to Paris, where intrigues and violence await–but also heroism. Quick-paced and action-oriented, A Tale of Two Cities is more of an adventure novel than any of Dickens’s other works.

Great Expectations (1861)

Besides David Copperfield, Great Expectations is the only other Dickens novel narrated fully in the first person. Pip is a poor orphan living in a blacksmith’s forge in the marshlands of Kent, but his fortunes seem to change when he’s invited to pay visits to the wealthy and reclusive Miss Havisham. Pip is immediately attracted to Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter Estella, despite the fact that Estella repeatedly snubs him.

As Pip grows up, he gains confidence that he’s entitled to a better life–believing he can become a gentleman, experience wealth, and have a future with Estella. But there are other forces at play in his story, and formidable barriers he must overcome, not the least of which are his own moral shortcomings.

Our Mutual Friend (1865)

Loyal servants Mr. and Mrs. Boffin suddenly find themselves fabulously rich when their employer dies, leaving them all his hoarded wealth. The inheritance was meant to go to the employer’s estranged son John Harmon–on the condition that he marry a woman he’s never met–but then Harmon’s dead body is fished out of the Thames. The kind-hearted Boffins decide that the most fair thing to do is to share their wealth with Harmon’s arranged fiancé Bella, who is herself from a poor background.

The Boffins’ and Bella’s upward mobility typifies two of the major themes of the novel: money and social class. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens weaves a particularly complex labyrinth of plots and characters who move up or down socially–some preying on others to better themselves, while others manage to avoid the pitfalls of status and money.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Dickens’s final, unfinished novel centers around a love quadrangle and a murder. Caught in the web of romance is Rosa Bud, her arranged fiancée Edwin Drood, her music teacher (who is also Drood’s uncle), and hot-headed Neville Landless, who grew up in Ceylon. But it could be that one of these men isn’t playing fair–someone goes missing, presumably murdered, and the curtain falls just as the clues and confusion are piling up.

Dickens died with Edwin Drood half finished, only a basic outline of where the plot would go…and no complete solution to the central mystery! Not surprisingly, many fans have supplied their own endings, including one by an author who claimed to be channeling the spirit of Charles Dickens himself.

Charles Dickens Christmas Novellas in Order

In addition to his fifteen novels, Charles Dickens wrote five novellas in the 1840s, each published in book form around Christmastime (although some are more holiday-focused than others). These five books were a commercial success for Dickens and were made into frequent stage adaptations, although today only A Christmas Carol is widely known.

A Christmas Carol (1843)

On the night of Christmas Eve, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by a series of four ghosts who transport him into his past, present, and future in an effort to help him recognize the harm he’s caused and amend his life.

The Chimes (1844)

Trotty Veck, an elderly man who makes his living delivering messages and packages, is deeply disillusioned by humanity as he reads in the newspapers of crimes and atrocities committed by the working class. On the eve of the New Year, Trotty climbs to the bell tower of a church, where he encounters the spirits of the bells and their goblin attendants. The bell spirits lead Trotty through a series of dark visions to teach him that mankind is meant for more–but is destined to fail if they are continually beat down and repressed.

The Cricket on the Hearth (1845)

A sweet, domestic tale, The Cricket on the Hearth, is set in the home of John and Dot Peerybingle. The house is full of personality–not just from the human residents but from household objects like the kettle and the clock–as well as from a friendly cricket who sits over the hearth and acts as a guardian angel to the Peerybingles. Unlike Dickens’s earlier Christmas stories, this one has little social commentary and instead focuses on love and marriage within the little family sphere that the cricket observes.

The Battle of Life (1846)

The Battle of Life is the only Christmas novella which does not include supernatural elements (and it doesn’t have much to do with Christmas!) Set in a small village that sits on the site of an historic battle, the plot centers around two sisters and their respective love interests. Like The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life focuses on familial relationships and individual (rather than societal) struggles. The story turns into a sort of comedy of errors, full of misunderstandings and twists before all resolves happily.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848)

Mr. Redlaw is a chemistry teacher who is haunted by sorrows and wrongs in his past–and then literally haunted by a ghost of himself, who appears at his fireside one night. The ghost offers him a gift: he can forget all the miseries of the past, and in turn, bestow this gift of forgetfulness on whomever he wishes. Redlaw accepts, not foreseeing the price he may pay for this blissful oblivion.

Red bust of Charles Dickens against a brown wall

What are your top favourite books by Charles Dickens? Which ones do you hope to read next?

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Elsie! I read my first full length Dickens (David Copperfield) in 2019, and I loved it! Since then, I’ve read nine more of his novels and enjoyed them all immensely. I think my favorite is Dombey and Son. I absolutely love the side characters and the relationship between little Paul and Florence brought me to tears. I’m looking forward to reading Little Dorrit in December. Your description makes me want to read it now, but I have a tradition of reading a Dickens in December for the last couple years and I’ll try to stick to it!

    1. Woah, you are on a roll!! I love that! Little Dorrit is really good. There is so much going on there, and it is amazing to trace all the connecting lines between characters. Amy Dorrit is a bit like Austen’s Fanny Price or Anne Eliot, but she gets tested more and pushed to her limit, with more struggles. You’ll be rooting for her all the way! And I love your Dickens in December tradition! Good pairing.

  2. I didn’t realize how many I had read until I added them up! Exciting! I love what you’re saying about Little Dorrit. Makes me even more excited to read it!

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