" It's easy to see why Barnaby Rudge is one of Dickens's less popular novels. It's overlong and overplotted, and it's awkwardly structured, falling too neatly into two halves. The first half centers on the frustrated love of Joe Willet for Dolly Varden, and the equally but differently frustrated love of Edward Chester and Emma Haredale, and on the murder of Emma's father. The second half focuses on the anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780. The two halves are knit together by the effects of the riots on the Willets, Vardens, Chesters and Haredales, and on the title character, the "idiot" Barnaby. But the characters -- especially Joe, Edward and Emma -- are such feeble stock figures, such conventionally drawn vessels of virtue, that it's hard to get emotionally involved with their fates. Moreover, even the "Dickensian" grotesques, such as Sim Tappertit (a name that elicits snickers from 12-year-old boys of all ages and sexes) and Miggs, are only fitfully amusing, and they quickly wear out their welcome.
The one almost successful character in the novel is Hugh, the mysterious thug who may be the closest thing Dickens ever came to a tragic figure. He enters the novel as an enigmatic and almost attractive figure -- a wild man of sorts -- and descends into villainy during the riots. But at the end, he attains a kind of tragic awareness, which he expresses in his speech before he goes to the gallows.
Dolly Varden, who became the novel's most popular character, even to the extent of causing a fashion craze later in the nineteenth century, is one of Dickens's better ingenues -- which is, to be sure, not saying much, since the Dickensian ingenue is typified by the saintly Agnes of David Copperfield. But by using Dolly's flighty mother and the jealous Miggs as foils, Dickens gives her some substance, allowing her to make foolish mistakes while enhancing her attractiveness.
The treatment of the riots shows Dickens's gift for the sensational, culminating in the orgiastic revel at the vintner's house, when the mob immolates itself in a fiery, drunken stupor, a fatal bacchanal of sorts. But the vividness of the riot scenes contrasts too sharply with the insipidity of the novel's lovers, who settle down at the book's end into a complacent rural fertility, producing hordes of cherubic little Joes and Dollys.
The chief flaw of the novel, however, is Barnaby himself, who resembles no mentally challenged person ever encountered in this world. He is a vehicle for pathos, a holy fool who goes astray, but he grows so annoying in this role that it's hard to care whether he's rescued from the gallows. And if you don't care about that, it's hard to care about anything that Dickens wants you to care about. Still, the novel is distinguished by Dickens's passion for justice and his contempt for hypocrisy. At its best moments, they give it a spine of conviction that keeps it from collapsing into a welter of melodrama.
For American readers, the oddest thing about the novel may be its time frame: The action takes place between 1775 and 1780, when the American War for Independence was taking place. Yet the only reference to this conflict, which surely must have preoccupied Britons even more than the Gordon riots, is in Joe's loss of an arm at the siege of Savannah, which takes place offstage from the novel's main action -- and in the chronicles of the Revolutionary War is for many people almost a footnote. Was Dickens, who was preparing for his trip to America while the novel was appearing, afraid of alienating American readers by bringing that conflict to the fore in his narrative? "
— Charles, 1/15/2014