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11 Classic Lines From Charles Dickens Novels

Considered one of the best writers of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens was lauded for his insightful, honest, and often humorous stories about the underprivileged members of British society. He is often credited with drawing attention to the plights of the common people with his writing, and for helping to bring about social change.

Though he was a prolific writer, composing short stories, nonfiction, and stage plays, he is best known for his longer stories, including Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, which were originally published in serial installments in weekly and monthly magazines. Only later were the stories reprinted in the bound forms we’re familiar with today, read over and over for their wisdom and wit. Here, we’ve collected 11 classic lines penned by Dickens, as familiar as old friends.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
“A Tale of Two Cities”

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These famous opening words set the stage for a novel full of contradictions, a story that continuously compares the cities of London and Paris during the French Revolution. The phrase still rings true today as we look around and see a world that’s both deeply troubled and astoundingly compassionate. It can be difficult to hold both realities in our minds. Dickens captured it on the page with one line.

I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.
“Great Expectations”

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The character of Estella is introduced to readers at the beginning of the story as cold and insulting. Though our main character, Pip, pines for her, she cares little for him. It is not until the end of the novel, when Estella speaks this line, that we see how her own trials have changed her over the course of the story. Just as Pip has learned to be honest and hardworking, Estella has learned humility through suffering.

Trifles make the sum of life.
“David Copperfield”

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This novel, which is considered to be at least partly autobiographical, weaves the facts of Dickens’ own life with fiction to tell the story of a young man who loves and loses and learns to love again. Through it all we see how the small, day-to-day decisions we make end up defining our lives as a whole. Even the great turning points of life are reached through incremental steps and solidified by minutiae.

Please, sir, I want some more.
“Oliver Twist”

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In this scene, which takes place early in the book, young Oliver is a resident at the parish workhouse for boys. After being served a meager portion of gruel for his supper, then waiting while a long prayer is said over the food, Oliver finishes his dinner in a few bites. Desperate with hunger, he approaches the master of the house and asks for seconds. The next day, a flyer is posted offering five pounds to anyone who will take the greedy child off their hands — and so the adventure of his life begins.

No one is useless in this world... who lightens the burden of it for any one else.
“Our Mutual Friend”

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Our Mutual Friend is considered by some modern critics to be one of Dickens’ greatest works, but when it was published serially over many months in 1864 and 1865, it did not sell well. Dickens himself was quite ill during this time, and the book would end up being his last completed work. This line, which is spoken in the book to comfort a character who is feeling useless, may also be a subtle nod to the people in Dickens’ life during this difficult time.

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.
“A Christmas Carol”

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This reflection comes as grumpy old Scrooge, under the wing of the Ghost of Christmas Present, is given a peek at his nephew’s Christmas celebration. The younger man’s laughter sets the other party guests to chuckling, and Scrooge begins to understand that he too might have enjoyed such happiness, if only he had accepted the invitation from his nephew to join the party.

We need never be ashamed of our tears.
“Great Expectations”

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This line, from chapter 19 of the book, comes as Pip is finally leaving London with the hope of becoming a proper gentleman. When he sees his friends Joe and Biddy and is overcome with nostalgia, he begins to weep. He goes on to say: “I was better after I had cried, than before — more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” It’s a sentiment that rings true even after 160 years.

Family not only need to consist of merely those whom we share blood, but also for those whom we’d give blood.
“Nicholas Nickleby”

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The third novel by Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby tells the story of a young man who takes a job at a boy’s boarding school where the pupils are terribly abused. Disgusted with the treatment of the young men, Nickleby gives the headmaster a beating and frees one of the pupils, Smike. The two travel to London and join a touring stage company. The bond between the two friends becomes as strong as the bond between brothers, illustrating how the closest friends can often feel more like family.

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.
“A Tale of Two Cities”

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This passage is pulled from the final chapter of the book and is said by the character Sydney Carton as he [SPOILER] makes his way to the guillotine in place of his doppelganger. His sacrifice is generally seen as selfless, but some argue that this line indicates a degree of self-aggrandizing, a way for Carton to finally do something noble and exit the world on a high note.

Fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine.
“The Old Curiosity Shop”

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One of Dickens’s lesser-known works, The Old Curiosity Shop was a huge success when it was first serialized. Though this line is often quoted in celebration, it takes on a more sinister tone when considered in context. Spoken by the character of Richard Swiveller, the main character’s scheming, debt-ridden lawyer, it begs the question of who we trust and why.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
“David Copperfield”

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This line, which is the very first of the book, launches us into the story with hardly any context. The speaker could be male or female, young or old, rich or poor, which is precisely why the sentiment is so universal. At times we all feel the hero of our own stories, while at other times we believe ourselves obscured by more dominating characters. It is a rare sentence that so accurately captures what it is to be human.

Photo credit: Rischgitz/ Getty Images

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About the Author
April Dávila
April Dávila is a lover of words. Her debut novel "142 Ostriches" was released in 2020.
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