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Was Charles Dickens a social progressive? Show more Show less
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The Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was in many ways an important social reformer. However, he also bought into many prejudices typical of his era, including anti-Semitism and racism, which are evident in several of his books. 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?

Yes, Dickens was a social progressive Show more Show less

Dickens' focus in his novels and journalism was often on issues affecting the growing Victorian working classes, such as poor working conditions and an unjust legal system. Through this campaigning, he was able to attract significant public attention and helped improve living conditions for Londoners living in slums.
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Dickens championed the working classes

Dickens' primary concern in writing his novels, which were large-scale commentaries on Victorian society, was to draw attention to the plight of poor people. He advocated many important social reforms to improve their lives.

Context

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

The Argument

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.

Counter arguments

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.

Proponents

Premises

1. Dickens used his popular novels to comment on the situation of the poor and bring their plight to public attention. 2. He campaigned for specific reforms such as sanitary improvements, directing public attention to a clear goal. 3. His novels presented the working classes sympathetically, challenging Victorian stereotypes about the poor being lazy or criminal.

Rejecting the premises

1. His novels can be seen as exploiting the situation of the poor to gain more readers and excite the public. 2. 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.

References

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    This page was last edited on Wednesday, 8 Jul 2020 at 18:27 UTC

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