Below are some further resources to explore the life and literary impact of Charles Dickens. They look at Dickens’ personal beliefs and struggles, as well as his place in the world around him. Keep checking back as more articles, links, and his stories are posted.
The Charles Dickens Museum
To learn more about Charles Dickens the man, visit the Dickens Museum website for a virtual tour! The Charles Dickens Museum gives a photographic tour of the author’s former home at 48 Doughty St., London. You can also visit the main page for more information.
A Closer Look at the Poverty that Inspired Dickens
Ignorance and Want
Edited from Ignorance and Want in the New Millennium By Dr. Vicki Medland.
“’They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit…
‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.
‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’”
- Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, 1843
These two allegorical orphans were just one manifestation of Dickens’ observations of the poverty in London two centuries ago. In 1840s London, over half of all deaths occurred in children. Dickens’ London was created by the Industrial Revolution, where conditions created a great increase in wealth and the growth of the middle classes and also drew thousands to work in the new factories. By mid-century 2.3 million people lived in London. It also resulted in the largest, most polluted, overcrowded and economically polarized city in the world.
In 1843 most people would have identified with Tiny Tim’s father Bob Cratchit, rather than his employer, Ebenezer Scrooge. Over 80% of London’s population were working poor, like Cratchit, living hand-to-mouth on just a few shillings a week. … After the creation of the “New Poor Law” in 1834 many indebted families, including children were sent to labor in prison workhouses where children were separated from their parents. The Christmas Carol orphans were meant to illustrate the idea that only education would release the working poor from the vicious circle of poverty and ignorance. It wasn’t until some 40 years later that the first government run public schools were established in London.
Dickens’ Scrooge most certainly represents that disregard of the plight of others when it interferes with the accumulation of wealth. But what is not obvious in Dickens account is that it is not only the wealthiest people who were ignoring the needs of the majority poor, it was the new and burgeoning middle class who ignored and were not compelled to even consider the plight of their poorer neighbors, as long as they were out of sight.
People moved into the western suburbs of London to escape the filth and problems of the city and Urban sprawl began and spread quickly with the increase in railway stations in the city’s outskirts. The nouveau riche of the Industrial Age spent huge amounts of money on ostentatious displays of wealth. Excess in everything from wallpaper design to exterior architecture was a hallmark of the Victorian Age. And the middle classes were not content with their lot. They aspired to live the life-style of the wealthiest classes. Industrialization allowed the styles of the rich to be cheaply copied and mass-produced. Mass consumption among the middle classes has not abated since.
But who do we identify with today? For any of us living in wealthy developed countries it would be Scrooge of course. The tables have turned and 20% or less of our citizens are classified as working poor. Basic education is free in the developed countries. Are the prisons and workhouses still with us? Today, there are more men of African descent in Europe and the United States in prison than are in college. Are there still workhouses? Yes, but they are far out of sight of the middle classes in non-unionized sweatshops and Free Zone factories in the developing world.
Economic development has also left Man’s Children with an unfortunate legacy, probably unforeseen by Dickens. We still have Dickens’ orphans, but now we have their wealthy, educated descendents as well. Want from poverty and Ignorance from lack of education have become Want from desire and Ignorance from resistance to learning. We have become so wealthy we no longer understand the difference between want and need. Our children have left the workhouses for the shopping malls. We have become educated and no longer value literacy, science, or the arts. Our children attend school but basic test scores are declining and what are perceived as non-essential programs like music and science are being dropped from the curricula. And behind them poverty rates are slowly increasing everywhere, including the wealthiest countries in the world.
Subversive Dickens: Social Commentary
Edited from The Friendly Dickens by Norrie Epstein.
As George Orwell noted, Dickens’ sympathies are always with the underdog—even when, as in A Tale of Two Cities, the underdogs are the rich aristocrats he had condemned only a few pages earlier. In almost every novel, Dickens attacked a new social ill. In Oliver Twist it was the Poor Law and the union workhouses; in Nicholas Nickleby it was the notorious Yorkshire schools that were little more than concentration camps for unwanted children. (After the novel came out, one such academy, the model for Dotheboys Hall, was investigated and shut down.) … Dickens was not merely a concerned bystander but an active participant in almost every major issue of the day: education for the poor, penal reform, sanitation reform, child labor, prostitution, copyright laws, capital punishment, bureaucratic red tape, union workhouses. Dickens was always on the side of the downtrodden.
Radicals like George Bernard Shaw have nourished themselves on Dickens’ subversive tendencies, turning a blind eye to his less progressive views. … Despite his elevation of the poor, he believed in the class system and wanted his sons to be gentlemen. Although he advocated workers’ rights, he distrusted unionism. And a few of his opinions are an embarrassment today. He was ambivalent about Jews, he saw blacks as intellectually inferior, and he jokingly dismissed the idea of women’s rights. But what Dickens said is not always what he did: he hired the best women writers of his age, paying them what they were worth; he atoned for his anti-Semitic portrait of Fagin with one of a good Jew in Our Mutual Friend; and after his first trip to America, he denounced the abomination of slavery with the zeal of an abolitionist. Yet as he aged and became more crotchety and conservative, Dickens became more of a racist. … But it is absurd, not to mention ahistorical, to hold Dickens to standards of a very different time. Dickens may not have been the epitome of probity and justice; but through his writings and what he has meant to readers, he has probably influenced more people to do good than any other writer. …
One can’t doubt Dickens’ sincerity when he writes about kindness and charity. When David Copperfield, Dickens’ fictional self, finally finds a loving home, he vows that he will never be homeless again—and that he will never forget the homeless. The two vows are inseparable. Dickens never forgot that wealth, fame, and genius were responsibilities as well as gifts. No matter what his underlying motives may have been, Dickens, like many of the “greats” of his generation, heeded the call to service.
Other Examples of Social Commentary
In theatre, we can look at Oscar Wilde’s plays about the frivolities of the upper classes like The Importance of Being Earnest. George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and 1984 explore the themes of free will and government control. Upton Sinclair’s exposé of American meatpacking, The Jungle, actually led to more stringent food-industry regulations. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies explores the grip that the idea of society has on the human race. Contemporary TV shows – The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report among many others are full of socio-political commentary. Political cartoons and comic books in newspapers and online are also visual forms of social commentary.
Viva La Revolution: Understanding the Industrial Revolution
The following is a brief overview of the Industrial Revolution and its impact on the world of the early 19th Century. Much of the social hardship and unrest explored in Dickens’ works can be linked to the social restructuring and upheaval that occurred in England and around the world during his lifetime. Understanding the structure of the economy and society Dickens’ characters lived in gives us a further look at his inspirations for writing. As you read, think about how the terms and struggles created by the Industrial Revolution have changed in the past centuries. Does any of this sound familiar? Are we living through our own Revolution?
(edited from The Columbia Encyclopedia)
Nature of the Industrial Revolution
“Industrial Revolution” is the term usually applied to the social and economic changes that mark the transition from a stable agricultural and commercial society to a modern industrial society relying on complex machinery rather than tools. It is used historically to refer primarily to the period in British history from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century. There has been much objection to the term because the word revolution suggests sudden, violent, unparalleled change, whereas the transformation was, to a great extent, gradual. Some historians argue that the 13th and 16th centuries were also periods of revolutionary economic change. However, in view of the magnitude of change between 1750 and 1850, the term seems useful.
Dramatic changes in the social and economic structure took place as inventions and technological innovations created the factory system of large-scale machine production and greater economic specialization, and as the laboring population, formerly employed predominantly in agriculture (in which production had also increased as a result of technological improvements), increasingly gathered in great urban factory centers. The same process occurred at later times and in changed tempo in other countries.
The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain
The ground was prepared by the voyages of discovery from Western Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, which led to a vast influx of precious metals from the New World, raising prices, stimulating industry, and fostering a money economy. Expansion of trade and the money economy stimulated the development of new institutions of finance and credit. In the 17th century the Dutch were in the forefront financially, but with the establishment (1694) of the Bank of England, their supremacy was effectively challenged. Capitalism appeared on a large scale, and a new type of commercial entrepreneur developed from the old class of merchant adventurers. Many machines were already known, and there were sizable factories using them, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Wood was the only fuel, water and wind the power of these early factories.
As the 18th century began, an expanding and wealthier population demanded more and better goods. In the productive process, coal came to replace wood. Early-model steam engines were introduced to drain water and raise coal from the mines. The crucial development of the Industrial Revolution was the use of steam for power, and the greatly improved engine (1769) of James Watt marked the high point in this development. Cotton textiles was the key industry early in the Industrial Revolution. John Kay’s fly shuttle (1733), James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny (patented 1770), Richard Arkwright’s water frame (1769), Samuel Crompton’s mule (1779), which combined the features of the jenny and the frame, and Edmund Cartwright’s power loom (patented 1783) facilitated a tremendous increase in output. The presence of large quantities of coal and iron in close proximity in Britain was a decisive factor in its rapid industrial growth.
The use of coal in iron production had far-reaching effects. The coal mines from the early 1700s had become paramount in importance, and the Black Country appeared in England at the same time that Lancashire and Yorkshire were being transformed into the greatest textile centers of the world. Factories and industrial towns sprang up. Canals and roads were built, and the advent of the railroad and the steamship widened the market for manufactured goods. The Bessemer process made a gigantic contribution, for it was largely responsible for the extension of the use of steam and steel that were the two chief features of industry in the middle of the 19th century. Chemical innovations and, most important of all, perhaps, machines for making machines played an important part in the vast changes.
Many individuals spoke out against the resulting economic divide, as the class system shifted and in many ways became more stratified. Among these writers was the philosopher Karl Marx. According to Marx, the industrialization of society formed two different groups: the bourgeoisie (business owners) and the proletariat (working class). Marx asserted that the balance of power between these two groups was extremely skewed in favor of the wealthier bourgeoisie. Under the circumstances of the power structure and restrictions imposed by the wealthy, the lower classes were unable to reap the benefits of their hard work. With the emergence of a capitalist society, he asserted that many benefited at the cost of others. He felt the capitalist economy created by the Industrial Revolution was not beneficial to all of society. Marx and fellow writer Friedrich Engels produced The Communist Manifesto, which set forth the original foundation of our modern ideas of socialism and communism. Among with many other principles, they believed peaceful negotiation of the class problem between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was impractical, and that a massive, well-organized and violent revolution would be the only way to truly and permanently change the present circumstances.
The Industrial Revolution did not in fact end in Britain in the mid-1800s. New periods came in with electricity and the gasoline engine. By 1850, however, the transformation wrought by the revolution was accomplished, in that industry had become a dominant factor in the nation’s life.
The Effects of the Revolution
The Industrial Revolution has changed the face of nations, giving rise to urban centers requiring vast municipal services. It created a specialized and interdependent economic life and made the urban worker more completely dependent on the will of the employer than the rural worker had been. Relations between capital and labor were aggravated, and Marxism was one product of this unrest. Doctrines of laissez-faire, developed in the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, sought to maximize the use of new productive facilities. But the revolution also brought a need for a new type of state intervention to protect the laborer and to provide necessary services. Laissez-faire gradually gave way in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere to welfare capitalism. The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes reflected this change. The Industrial Revolution also provided the economic base for the rise of the professions, population expansion, and improvement in living standards and remains a primary goal of less developed nations.
Bourgeoisie – the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and the employers of wage labor.
Capitalism – the socioeconomic system where social relations are based on commodities for exchange, in particular private ownership of the means of production and on the use of wage labor.
Communism – an ideology that seeks to establish a future classless, stateless social organization, based upon common ownership of the means of production and the absence of private property.
Proletariat — the social class which does not have ownership of the means of production.