It was one character, Sam Weller, who made Charles Dickens famous. Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was written in serial form and, by all accounts, the early installments weren’t doing so well.
Weller arrives on the scene in chapter 10 and transforms the story. The relationship between the idealistic and unworldly Pickwick and the astute, street smart Weller has been likened to that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
The Pickwick Papers went on to become the first modern publishing phenomenon, spawning bootleg copies, theatrical performances, Sam Weller joke books, and other merchandize that today would be regarded as classic branding.
This extraordinary ability to characterize was Dickens’ real genius.
Sharp depiction of the eccentricities and personality traits of characters was distilled into caricature and then given names so perfectly apposite they became defining personality terms.
We all know what a Scrooge is, for example.
Dickens is reckoned to have created and named 989 such characters during his career. In honor of his two-hundredth birthday today here’s a few personal favorites.
Gradgrind (Hard Times)
Thomas Gradgrind is the notorious headmaster who is dedicated to the pursuit of profitable enterprise. His name is now used to refer to someone who is hard and only concerned with cold facts and numbers.
Bounderby (Hard Times)
Josiah Bounderby is a business associate of Gradgrind. Given to boasting about being a self-made man, he is loud, obnoxious, completely self-centered, and the novel’s most snobby and status-obsessed character. He marries Mr. Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa, some 30 years his junior, in what turns out to be a loveless marriage. They have no children. Bounderby is callous, self-centred and ultimately revealed to be a liar and fraud. An utter bounder.
Dick Swiveller (The Old Curiosity Shop)
Though the name sounds a little sinister, Dick Swiveller is not a villain. Swiveller wants to marry the lovely Nell Trent but ends up with the Marchioness instead. He and the Marchioness expose the evil Brasses, Swiveller inherits money from his aunt, and the couple live happily ever after.
Harold Skimpole (Bleak House)
The obnoxious and manipulative Skimpole presents himself as a naïve man of childlike innocence. He claims he knows nothing about money management and uses it as an excuse to never pay for anything. Some claim Dickens modeled him after Leigh Hunt, another writer of the time, which, not surprisingly, caused a bit of animosity.
Sloppy (Our Mutual Friend)
One of Dickens’s many orphan characters, Sloppy lives with Betty Higden and is taken in by the Boffin family. The noble Sloppy later has a hand in exposing nasty Silas Wegg.
Wopsle (Great Expectations)
Wopsle is a parish clerk when we meet him in this classic story, but he doesn’t stay one for long. Choosing to become an actor, he changes his name to Waldengarver.
Polly Toodle (Dombey and Son)
Polly Toodle is Little Paul Dombey’s nurse who gets fired after taking him to visit her dingy apartment in London’s poorest area. Polly is a ray of hope in the face of poverty and hardship.
The Squeers (Nicholas Nickleby)
Wackford Squeers is the patriarch of this conniving, weasel-like pack. The Squeers run Dotheboys Hall, an orphanage for unwanted boys whom they mistreat horribly. Daughter Fanny, son Wackford, Jr., and the missus are each more cruel than the last.
Luke Honeythunder (The Mystery of Edwin Drood)
Here’s a name to conjure with. Luke Honeythunder is the boisterous and overbearing philanthropist and the guardian of Neville and Helena Landless.
Tulkinghorn (Bleak House)
This unscrupulous lawyer to the Dedlock family learns of Lady Dedlock’s secret past and tries to take advantage of it. It doesn’t end well for him — he is eventually murdered by her maid.
Bumble (Oliver Twist)
A petty parish beadle in the workhouse where Oliver spends much of his time, Bumble symbolizes Dickens’s contempt for the workhouse system.
Paul Sweedlepipe (Martin Chuzzlewit)
An eccentric barber, landlord, and bird lover, this character later inspired A Christmas Carol. Themes of greed and false honor run through Martin Chuzzlewit and also appear in the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, published the following year.
Smike (Nicholas Nickleby)
Smike is rescued by Nicholas Nickleby from the evil Squeers. Smike turns out to be Nickleby’s cousin, unfortunately a discovery made after Smike dies from the Squeers’ cruelty.
Mr. Sowerberry (Oliver Twist)
As his name sounds, Sowerberry is a bitter and cruel undertaker who mistreats young Oliver before he escapes and runs away to London.
Uriah Heep (David Copperfield)
Uriah Heep, the ‘humble’ antagonist of this novel, is one of literature’s most celebrated villains. Scheming and hypocritical, he plans to ruin Copperfield’s friend Agnes Wickfield but is ultimately undone by Mr. Micawber.
Pumblechook (Great Expectations)
The great expectations of Pip, the main character and another Dickensian orphan, come from this rotund, loud-breathing guardian who takes Pip to wealthy and eccentric spinster Miss Havisham.
John Podsnap (Our Mutual Friend)
Dickens coined the term “podsnappery” to describe middle-class pomp and complacency. John Podsnap embodied this undesirable trait. Apparently, he was modeled after Dickens’s first biographer, John Forster.
A list of Dickensian characters is provided in the indispensable Wikipedia.