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[Detail] Preface from Punchinello 1, no.1 (1870).

Literature: The Serialized Novel

Charles Dickens was one of Britain's most highly regarded authors of the nineteenth century. His work focused on the terrible living conditions of the poor, particularly poor children, and attacked the class system in Great Britain. Many of his most famous works were first published in serial format—that is, they were published in magazines in installments over weeks or months. Dickens even published two weeklies himself, and a number of his novels appeared in these publications.

Serializing novels helped both magazines and novel-reading gain popularity. More magazines sold because people wanted to find out what happened in the story they had started reading the previous week or month. In addition, because magazines were more affordable than hardbound books, they brought reading to the middle and working classes.

Charles Dickens's novel Little Dorrit was serialized in both England and the United States. In the United States, it began a nineteen-month run in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in January 1856.

  • Based on the title Little Dorrit, the illustration at the beginning of Chapter 1, and your knowledge of Charles Dickens's usual subject matter, what would you guess that Little Dorrit is about?
  • Read the first installment of Little Dorrit. What techniques did Dickens use to build interest in the story? Which characters do you think will be central to the story? Explain your answer.
  • Why might serializing novels encourage authors to create long books? Think about the author's motivation, as well as that of the magazine publisher. How long is Little Dorrit? (Hint: Conduct a keyword search using the term Little Dorrit.)
  • Scan several installments of Little Dorrit. How effective are the illustrations? Why might illustrations have been important in serialized novels in the nineteenth century?
  • Find other works by and about Charles Dickens in the collection. What can you infer about Americans' views of Dickens and his work?

Look for serialized works by other nineteenth-century authors. One possibility is Bret Harte, whose Gabriel Conroy ran as a serial in Scribner's Monthly; the first of ten installments appeared in the November 1875 issue. Among the other authors whose works are serialized in journals in the collection are Frances Hodgson Burnett and George Eliot. Try to find an installment that used the "cliffhanger" device, a suspense-laden ending designed to bring readers back for the next installment. Where do you see the cliffhanger device used in contemporary literature or entertainment? How effective is this device?