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Charles Dickens at 200

How would the social reformer who gave us Oliver Twist and Tiny Tim have viewed the 'Occupy' movement and Arab Spring? A look at Dickens's enduring legacy.

Tourists walk around Dickens World, a theme park based on the author’s works in Chatham, Kent, in southeastern England.

Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images/File

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Charles Dickens appreciated the endless foibles of humanity as perhaps no one since Shakespeare. With great affection, he loved to tweak our pretensions and contradictions.

"Charity begins at home," one of his characters declared in a trademark bit of Dickensian wit, "and justice begins next door."

But despite the humor and all those delicious names – Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Madame Defarge – Dickens had no patience for human failure. He was a fighter for justice, a well-off rebel who distrusted revolutions but still used his words to push for reform.

"He didn't advocate grand schemes to improve the world," says Mike Quinn, a former New York City parole officer who founded The Friends of Dickens New York. "He simply showed how each individual can make a difference by noticing, by caring, by encouraging."

As today marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, the question of society's obligations is on many lips, from those of presidential candidates who want to trim the American safety net to protesters who decry the dominance of the 1 percent.

People on the right and left might feel tempted to tap the Dickens hoopla (including a bounty of events on both sides of the Atlantic) and find support for their points of view in the author's work. "He can be used for different ends, depending on one's political views," says Lillian Nayder, a professor of English at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and author of the new book "The Other Dickens," about his wife, Catherine.


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