Workhouse: a Victorian public institution in which the destitute of a parish received board and lodging in return for work; the conditions there were often harsh and humiliating, and for many, it was difficult to leave the workhouse
One of the most important aspects of Charles Dickens’ work, and a reason why it is still so widely read today, is that it provides an intelligent and heartfelt social commentary on the situations of working-class people living in industrialised Victorian Britain. Dickens used his popular fiction as a way to critique the exploitation of poor people’s labour, their squalid living conditions in cities, and the refusal of many rich people to help them, drawing on the Victorian social conscience in a very public way. Many Victorians were increasingly concerned with charity and good works, and Dickens effectively tapped into this worry to encourage people to make changes for the better to the lives of the working classes. He was a strong advocate for sanitary improvements, which were later implemented by the government, and was also concerned about investigating the conditions which led people to commit crime rather than intending to punish them. In his novel “Oliver Twist”, one of his most famous and beloved works, he presents a sharp commentary on how desperation and poverty, not natural badness, forced many people in Victorian London to commit crime in order to survive, whilst in the same novel critiquing the brutality and cruelty of workhouses, where poor people were forced to labour in order to gain food and lodging. In “Great Expectations” he presents a very sympathetic portrait of a poor rural family, challenging the Victorian stereotype that poor people living in the countryside were foolish and lazy, as well as returning to the question of crime in a heartfelt manner. Dickens’ novels aimed to present clear social commentary and bring popular attention to the plight of the working classes, meaning he could easily be called a social progressive.
Although Dickens undoubtedly helped the Victorian public better understand the conditions the poor lived in and work to improve them, he can be accused of sensationalising their experience and using it to sell novels rather than because he was genuinely worried about helping them. His gratuitous depictions of child poverty in "Oliver Twist" in particular can be unpleasant reading, as can his use of racial stereotypes which arguably undermine the good work he aimed to do in presenting the plight of the poor to his readers. Dickens' novels have also been criticised as too simplistic in their depiction of social issues, and their use of sentimental stock characters can undermine the complexity of Victorian social problems.
Dickens used his popular novels to comment on the situation of the poor and bring their plight to public attention. He campaigned for specific reforms such as sanitary improvements, directing public attention to a clear goal. His novels presented the working classes sympathetically, challenging Victorian stereotypes about the poor being lazy or criminal.
Rejecting the premises
His novels can be seen as exploiting the situation of the poor to gain more readers and excite the public. Many politicians and reformers besides Dickens were working towards social reform; it is possible that as an individual he did not make a significant difference.