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< Back to question Was Charles Dickens a social progressive? Show more Show less

The Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was in many ways an important social reformer. Through his novels, which focused sympathetically on social problems amongst the poor of Victorian England, he provided a powerful catalyst for social change and improvements for living and working conditions amongst poor people. He wrote on prison reform at a time when prisons were just beginning to be used as a means of punishment and often displayed terrible conditions, and believed that nobody should have to work endless hours on starvation wages to support themselves, which was the economic strategy of many Victorian industrialists. However, he also bought into many prejudices typical of his era, including anti-Semitism and racism, which are evident in several of his books. It is also possible to view his writing on the working class as a kind of poverty porn, suitably titillating and shocking to his middle-class readership but enforcing dangerous stereotypes about working-class behaviour through his characters and thus helping to preserve the status quo. So, was Dickens a social progressive in bringing working-class issues to light in his writing, or did he allow his prejudice - typical of his era - to outweigh this?

No, Dickens was not a social progressive Show more Show less

Although Dickens drew attention to working-class issues, his approach was largely melodramatic and was designed to entertain his middle-class readership. Additionally, he displayed anti-Semitism and racism in several instances, including in defending the actions of the British Empire and equating Jews with criminals in "Oliver Twist".
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Dickens was anti-Semitic

In his depiction of Fagin, a criminal and thief, in the novel "Oliver Twist", Dickens invokes many significant anti-Semitic tropes which, though common at the time, had been denounced and could have been challenged by Dickens considering he positioned himself as a champion of the underdog.
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The Argument

Although one of Dickens' most famous novels, "Oliver Twist", is often heralded as a sympathetic portrayal of the working class, the main antagonist, a criminal called Fagin, is presented using noted anti-Semitic stereotypes. The novel overall deals with issues of morality and how people can behave morally regardless of their social situation, but Fagin is presented as predatory and evil throughout, playing on stereotypes of Jews as miserly, selfish, and a threat to English children which dated back to the medieval persecution of Jewish communities. Nadia Valdman notes that "Dickens' Jewish villain stands outside the sociological analysis of crime that the novel otherwise attempts". [1] She suggests that this presentation of Fagin through anti-Semitic stereotypes undermines the novel's overall message and shows that Dickens' writing was subject to many of the prejudices of his era despite his sympathy with the underdog, displayed in Oliver Twist through the characters of Oliver and Nancy. Many argued at the time that Dickens' portrayal was unfair, including his friend Eliza Davis, who argued that Dickens "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew" [2]

Counter arguments

Although Dickens' portrayal of Fagin can be considered anti-Semitic, it is perhaps unfair to suggest that it undermines the otherwise sensitive analysis of crime and class in "Oliver Twist", which firmly emphasises that morality and class are not tied together. Additionally, although these prejudices are inexcusable, they were incredibly common in the Victorian era and it is not true to suggest that Dickens' prejudice was worse than many other people writing at the time. In later editions of the novel, he ensured edits were made to tone down anti-Semitic elements of Fagin's character, and in his later novel "Our Mutual Friend", the Jewish character of Riah was a deeply moral presence in the story, with Dickens even noting anti-Semitism when Riah says, "Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews ... they take the worst of us as samples of the best ...".


1. Dickens used anti-Semitic stereotypes when portraying the villainous character of Fagin in “Oliver Twist”. 2. His racist depiction of Fagin undermines the otherwise sympathetic points about crime and poverty that Dickens makes in the novel. 3. There were arguments at the time that Dickens’ portrayal of Fagin was unfair and prejudiced.

Rejecting the premises

1. Dickens’ portrayal of Fagin does not necessarily undermine the message of “Oliver Twist”. 2. Anti-Semitic prejudices were common in the Victorian era. 3. When criticised by a Jewish woman, Dickens removed anti-Semitic tropes from later versions of the novel and in a later novel, “Our Mutual Friend”, created a sympathetic Jewish character to critique anti-Semitic attitudes.



This page was last edited on Tuesday, 14 Jul 2020 at 11:14 UTC

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