The Double Life and Death of Dickens

Samuel Hollyer / Library of Congress
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The beloved author of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and many other classic works of English literature died 146 years ago today. James T. Fields, The Atlantic’s second editor-in-chief, was a good friend of Dickens, and he published a tribute to the great novelist in our August 1870 issue:

In his presence there was perpetual sunshine, and gloom was banished as having no sort of relationship with him. No man suffered more keenly or sympathized more fully than he did with want and misery; but his motto was, “Don’t stand and cry; press forward and help remove the difficulty.” … He found all the fair humanities blooming in the lowliest hovel. He never put on the good Samaritan: that character was native to him. …

His life will no doubt be written out in full by some competent hand in England; but however numerous the volumes of his biography, the half can hardly be told of the good deeds he has accomplished for his fellow-men.

But in a review of one of those biographical volumes for our May 2010 issue, Christopher Hitchens revealed a darker side of Dickens:

This is the man who had a poor woman arrested for using filthy language in the street; who essentially recast his friend Thomas Carlyle’s pessimistic version of the French Revolution in fictional form in A Tale of Two Cities ... who dreaded the mob more than he disliked the Gradgrinds. … His exiguous chapter on slavery in American Notes was lazily annexed word-for-word from a famous abolitionist pamphlet of the day, and employed chiefly to discredit the whole American idea. But when it came to a fight on the question, he was on balance sympathetic to the Confederate states, which he had never visited, and made remarks about Negroes that might have shocked even the pathologically racist Carlyle. …

What is necessary, therefore, is a portrait that supplies for us what Dickens so generously served up to his hungry readers: some real villainy and cruelty to set against the angelic and the innocent.

How can two such disparate accounts of a man be reconciled? Reading them, I was reminded of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, in which a flawed man redeems himself by dying disguised as a good man.

Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton—the novel’s hero and antihero, respectively—are lookalikes in love with the same woman, Lucie—Darnay’s wife. When Darnay, a French nobleman who gave up his title out of sympathy to the poor, is captured and sentenced to death, the alcoholic ne’er-do-well Carton assumes his identity, dying in his place so that Lucie and her family can escape. On the scaffold of the guillotine, Carton imagines the Darnays will name a child after him and love his memory as much as they do each other. He imagines the child growing up “winning his way up in that path of life … so well, that my name is made illustrious by the light of his … the blots I threw upon it faded away.”

It’s a romantic form of transference, but a strange one: Rather than redeem himself with a heroic act under his own name, Carton all but erases his own history at the moment of his death. In the eyes of the world, in the narrative Carton creates, it’s Darnay who dies, and Darnay who lives; Sydney Carton, dying under Darnay’s name, claims his innocent past and his noble future.

Meanwhile, Dickens, as Hitchens noted, lifted his condemnation of the French revolution from another famous writer, Carlyle. Yet in fictionalizing his story, Dickens placed himself into his characters—his initials, his demons, his childhood sweetheart in Lucie—just as Carton steps into Darnay’s body. Carton’s famous last words could have been spoken by Dickens himself: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”


Always saying that he sought rest, and always exhausting himself, [Dickens] may have been half in love with easeful death. The next biography should take this stark chiaroscuro as its starting point.