Charles Dickens is perhaps the greatest social commentator in the history of literature. His books typically reflected the unreasonably harsh situation of the poor and destitute in Victorian England. Obviously to his readers, and admitted by himself, his books were meant to entertain and make money, but also to act as social hammers, swaying the moral opinion of those who might have swept the poor under their rug of morality. This paper will look at what kinds of moral and social points he tried to get across to his readers and how those points changed over time. Some would argue that his basic messages got obscured by over-complexity and over-ambitiousness in his later works.
George Gissing, a novelist who wrote an introduction to the Rochester Edition of Oliver Twist in 1900, said that the book had 2 purposes: to show the brokenness and immorality of the Poor Law Act and to give an accurate description of the lives of thieves and scoundrels. This is significant because Dickens was of the opinion that “the pauper system was directly responsible for a great deal of crime” (Gissing 143). Not only is he attacking the Poor Law Act system by showing the incompetence of the administrators, beadles, and others who “took care” of the poor and the harsh conditions they lived in such as the malnourishment and long work hours of orphan children, but he is also attacking it by implying that all the immoral plots and low-life scheming of the villainous characters is partly due to this incompetence.
The Act of 1834 got rid of outdoor relief for the poor and forced them into workhouses where the conditions were bad and families were separated (Gissing 143). Gissing goes on to say that Dickens perceived such laws as “the outcome of cold-
blooded theory, evolved by well-to-do persons of privileged caste, who neither perceive nor care about the results of their system in individual suffering.” It is not unlikely that other, earlier readers would have found Dickens to come off in a similar way.
This view is that of Dickens as a bit of a class warrior, crusading for the well-being of those less fortunate. It doesn't take into account his enthusiasm for the middle class. Remember, Oliver is a product of middle class genes who somehow slips into poverty and then is resurrected by the good will and intentions of other middle class people. So the simple answer is that he was both crusading for the rights of the poor while commending the industrious and righteous of the middle class all while blasting the institutions of law and administration who abuse these poor and hinder this benevolence.
In 1857, seven years after the publication of David Copperfield and four years after the publication of Bleak House, a critic named Margaret Oliphant talks of Dickens’s ambitions and all that he was trying to get across to his reader in those later works. She says that his past attempts at humor were strong but his later works were weakened by trying to get to much across to the reader. Oliphant writes, “For as a humorist we prefer Dickens to all living men—as artist, moralist, politician, philosopher, and ultra-philanthropist, we prefer many living men, women, and children to Dickens” (Oliphant 150). Regardless of weather you view Dickens’s earlier works as successes in morality, as Oliphant does not, you can see her point that Dickens’s messages became complex and muddled, as his work and his styles became more complex.
In David Copperfield there is a distinct shift in tone to a much more proactive protagonist. David takes the initiative to run away from the world Mr. Murdstone lays for him when he bravely starts on the road for his aunt's house. Dickens is saying that God helps those who help themselves. This is suspiciously opposite to poor Oliver who was just a helpless piece of wet
timber racing along the rapids of London society. Later on in the novel, David takes a big leap further into proactiveness as he is chopping down his forest of difficulties in route to Dora.
To look at the opposite side of the spectrum, Mr. McCawber is poor because he is foolish and lazy. He talks constantly, sometimes about the dangers of procrastination, and all the while frequently sitting down to procrastinate--and eat. When you compare the do-it-yourself attitudes of Copperfield and even Uriah Heep to the bumbling antics of Mr McCawber, Dickens is saying that those who take an initiative and work hard can possibly go so far as to change their economic position.
There are those who would take a view of social determinism towards either David Copperfield or Oliver Twist by saying that based on who the parents of both main characters are, they are born to middle class blood and will remain middle class or become middle class respectively which validates the social established structure in general and the idea that the upper classes naturally or rightfully inherit their positions. They'd be right. He does advocate social determinism as well as aid and mercy for the poor and the benevolence of the middle class.
So after further analysis it seems as though Dickens is advocating for all three economic classes in some way or another between David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. So what he is he really doing? He's definitely making fun of the whole class structure while at the same time admitting its firm rigidity. He's contradicting some of his own sentiments to show the complexity of the situation and make people think about it from different angles. He's giving the point of view and displaying the best interest of all three classes and how they think of themselves: the poor needing mercy and charity, the optimism of the emerging middle class, and the claim to rights of the upper class. By entertainingly enlightening people of the practical situation he is empowering them with knowledge endorsing social change.
system, showing the sluggishness, wastefulness, and unwieldiness of the courts and their cases. Jarndyce and Jarndyce seems to consume people's money, time, and livelihood and feed it to administrators, officials, and lawyers.
Making fun of government structures and organizations by exaggeration and humor is a common thread in other novels as well. In Oliver Twist Dickens mocks anybody having to do with orphanages and poor houses including church and court administrations. The cops that come to investigate Oliver's robbery situation are incompetent morons. In David Copperfieldhe eases up a bit, however.
Now lets look at the changes in Dickens's attitude as a function of time. Dickens, in Oliver Twist, starts out criticizing poor laws, administrations, and courts while shedding lights on the pitiable situation of the poor and destitute. Then, in David Copperfield, he instills in his characters a more self-dependent attitude and is in some respects not as judgmental about society. Finally, in Bleak House, he returns to make a strong point against the legal system and its inadequacies. In all three he represents the views of each economic class and makes fun of the social structure they involve themselves in. Though Bleak House isn't as satirical as the first two novels, it is highly critical.
Now, think of kids on a playground as a microcosm of society. When one of them acts different or weird the others make fun of that one and use social pressure to conform them back to the group. In society, this can work for a positive effect. The problem with leaders, administrators, and those who make social and government policy is that they are so firmly at the top that they can act on tangential ideas contrary to the benefit of the rest of society. If more writers would take the time to ridicule these policies and leaders then maybe they would feel more pressure to change things.