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Dickens, His Parables, and His Reader

Linda M. Lewis

Publication Year: 2012

Charles Dickens once commented that in each of his Christmas stories there is “an express text preached on . . . always taken from the lips of Christ.” This preaching, Linda M. Lewis contends, does not end with his Christmas stories but extends throughout the body of his work. In Dickens, His Parables, and His Reader, Lewis examines parable and allegory in nine of Dickens’s novels as an entry into understanding the complexities of the relationship between Dickens and his reader.


Through the combination of rhetorical analysis of religious allegory and cohesive study of various New Testament parables upon which Dickens based the themes of his novels, Lewis provides new interpretations of the allegory in his novels while illuminating Dickens’s religious beliefs. Specifically, she alleges that Dickens saw himself as valued friend and moral teacher to lead his “dear reader” to religious truth.


Dickens’s personal gospel was that behavior is far more important than strict allegiance to any set of beliefs, and it is upon this foundation that we see allegory activated in Dickens’s characters. Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop exemplify the Victorian “cult of childhood” and blend two allegorical texts: Jesus’s Good Samaritan parable and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In Dombey and Son,Dickens chooses Jesus’s parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders. In the autobiographical David Copperfield, Dickens engages his reader through an Old Testament myth and a New Testament parable: the expulsion from Eden and the Prodigal Son, respectively.


Led by his belief in and desire to preach his social gospel and broad church Christianity, Dickens had no hesitation in manipulating biblical stories and sermons to suit his purposes. Bleak House is Dickens’s apocalyptic parable about the Day of Judgment, while Little Dorrit   echoes the line “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” from the Lord’s Prayer, illustrating through his characters that only through grace can all debt be erased. The allegory of the martyred savior is considered in Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens’s final completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, blends the parable of the Good and Faithful Servant with several versions of the Heir Claimant parable.


While some recent scholarship debunks the sincerity of Dickens’s religious belief, Lewis clearly demonstrates that Dickens’s novels challenge the reader to investigate and develop an understanding of New Testament doctrine. Dickens saw his relationship with his reader as a crucial part of his storytelling, and through his use and manipulation of allegory and parables, he hoped to influence the faith and morality of that reader.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

Abbreviations for Works by Charles Dickens

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pp. xi-xvi

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pp. 1-21

The statement of Eugene Wrayburn, a facetious character of the 1865 Charles Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend, sounds quite postmodern. But it omits the obvious: “a reader’s Reading of a novel.” Indeed, some reader response theory, notably phenomenology, declares that a reader “performs” a literary text, just as an actress performs a role or as a percussionist performs a musical score....

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1. The Child as Christian Pilgrim in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop

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pp. 22-56

It is no exaggeration to label Victorian sensibilities about infancy and youth a “cult of childhood.” In Victorian literary works, for example, Jane Eyre suffers the terrors of the red-room, Maggie Tulliver attains peace only beneath flood-waters of the Floss, orphaned Heathcliff withstands vicious pummeling from the Earnshaw heir, and Smike is brutalized by Squeers at Dotheboys Hall. In ...

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2. The Mortal and Immortal Houses of Dombey and Son

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pp. 57-87

The moralizing narrator of Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation warns: “Let him remember it in that room, years to come. The rain that falls upon the roof: the wind that mourns outside the door: may have foreknowledge in their melancholy sound, per-chance. Let him remember it in that room, years to come!” (DS 273, repeated ...

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3. Prodigal Children and Tearful Reunions in David Copperfield

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pp. 88-119

Upon David Copperfield’s return from a three-year sojourn in Europe where he has mourned the death of his “child-wife” and taken to task his “undisciplined heart,” he and his elated friend Tommy Traddles repeatedly embrace, rejoicing in laughter and tears. In David Copperfield tears are not unmanly or weak. Excepting the schoolboys who are routinely flogged in Mr. Creak-...

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4. Casting the First Stone: Judgment Day in Bleak House

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pp. 120-152

Dickens’s Bleak House (1852–53) is an apocalyptic text; its central metaphor, the Judgment. It harshly judges contemporary times (neglect of the poor, unmet sanitation needs, the “philanthropy” of single-minded missionaries, and perversions of the legal system, especially judgments—or the lack thereof—in the Court of Chancery). The characters quote Old Testament law that exacts ...

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5. “Forgive our Debts as We Forgive our Debtors” : Indebtedness in Little Dorrit

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pp. 153-183

In Dickens’s 1855–57 novel, Little Dorrit, Mrs. Clennam serves as the ultimate depiction of rigid, unforgiving religion. Not only do the narrator and her sup-posed son, the unheroic hero Arthur Clennam, judge Mrs. Clennam’s Christianity and find it wanting, but to prove her hypocrisy, the text also employs the familiar “Lord’s Prayer” that Jesus taught his disciples. The prayer suggests that, ...

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6. Allegory of the Martyred Savior in Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities

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pp. 184-214

“Don’t fear me. I will be true to the death,” Dickens’s hero Sydney Carton of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) assures the “Sheep of the Prison,” who will enable him to exchange places with the man for whom he has come to die (TTC 436). Seeing these words, Dickens’s Victorian reader probably heard an echo of: “[B]e thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,” the promise of ...

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7. The Good and Faithful Servant of Our Mutual Friend

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pp. 215-246

Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) is a vast and gloomy novel, its city landscape polluted by sooty skies, the muddy river, perpetual fog and mist, mounds of refuse, burning debris, pelting sleet, and dusty wind. Even church towers are cold and grey in the “grey dusty withered evening” (OMF 386). The whole city of London—a “heap of vapour . . . enfolding a gigantic catarrh” (OMF 417)—...

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pp. 247-250

Thirteen months before his death, Dickens was forced to cancel the final twenty-five readings of his farewell tour because of debilitating pain and his medical advisers’ counsel that he should not push on. As result, his public worried for his safety, begging letters poured in requesting financial assistance to individuals who intended to outlive him, and some of the pious intervened ...


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pp. 251-276


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pp. 277-290


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pp. 291-295

Back Cover

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p. BC-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272645
E-ISBN-10: 0826272649
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219473
Print-ISBN-10: 0826219470

Page Count: 311
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1