Analysis of Charles Dickens’s Sketches by “Boz”

Sketches by “Boz” Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People is a collection of Charles Dickens’s first-published works. He had begun his literary publishing career proper on December 1, 1833 (at age 21), when “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” (later titled “Mr. Minns and His Cousin”) appeared in the Monthly Magazine. The pseudonym Boz derived from Dickens’s younger brother’s pronunciation of Dickens’s nickname, Moses. Other tales of “every-day life” appeared in the Morning Chronicle, the Evening Chronicle, and Bell’s Life in London. The publisher John Macrone first approached Dickens regarding a collection in October 1834, offering Dickens £100 for the copyright (later in his career, Dickens bought it back for more than £1,000). Macrone also managed to interest the most successful illustrator of his day, George Cruikshank, who was to contribute 40 illustrations to the edition. The collection was first published in 1836, the day after Dickens’s 24th birthday. This first series of sketches was successful enough for Dickens and Cruikshank to begin work on a second volume almost immediately. The second series coincided with Dickens’s frenetic writing of installments for The Pickwick Papers. As early as this was in his career, Dickens had already begun a feverish and eclectic working routine that almost certainly contributed to his relatively early death.

There are 56 sketches in all; structurally and stylistically they have more in common with the modern short story than they do with the Victorian one. They draw on the novelistic device of depicting the everyday in often obscure, odd, and fantastical ways by defamiliarizing it, but not so much that the sketches lose their focus. The sketches are almost exclusively comical. “Greenwich Fair” has one of the funniest opening paragraphs that Dickens would ever write. “The Tuggs’s at Ramsgate” is a hilarious satire of new money and its associated new pretensions to aristocracy. The tale is an articulate representation of the need to perform one’s identity through external commodities rather than actions; it comically portrays the disjunction between interior life and exterior lie—the new disease of modernity. Such a notion of the necessity of performance, imitation, and impersonation in everyday life is also explored in the sketch “Astley’s,” which recounts a visit to Astley’s Circus undertaken by the narrator, who then reflects nostalgically on the wonder of the circus in days supposedly long gone by. The timbre of Dickens’s narration suggests that nostalgia as a historical epoch never existed at all. Dickens also found plenty of space to include some social criticism, most notably in “Gin-Shops,” “Criminal Courts,” “A Visit to Newgate,” “The Black Veil,” and the moral lessons of “The Drunkard’s Death.” Of all the sketches, these tend to be the weakest, striking a slightly melodramatic, monotonous note. In short, Sketches by Boz foretells many of Dickens’s qualities as a novelist: funny and serious, subtle and melodramatic, tiresome and mesmerizing.

Dickens, Charles. Sketches by “Boz” and Other Early Papers. Edited by Michael Slater. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.
Flint, Kate. Dickens. Brighton, England: Harvester, 1986.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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