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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?

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 himself grew up in poverty

Dickens' father was bankrupted when Dickens was a child, leading to an experience of childhood poverty which he later drew on for his novels.
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Debtors' jail: a prison where people who owed debts were incarcerated until they had worked off their debt through labour or were able to pay it back in cash.

The Argument

When Dickens was a child, his father was incarcerated in a debtors’ jail in 1824, meaning the family struggled to support themselves and the young Dickens was forced to work in a factory, an instance he later used for the main character of his novel “David Copperfield”. He then took a job as a clerk for a lawyer, which he found stressful and difficult, before finding success and later fame as a novelist and journalist. This early experience of poverty has been cited by some critics as Dickens’ reason for focusing so significantly on the plight of the poor in his novels, and several plots are informed by his experiences. “Little Dorrit” focused on his father’s experience of debtors’ jail, whilst “The Old Curiosity Shop” discussed his time working for a legal firm, which lends the novels an authenticity which makes their depictions of the poor all the more significant.

Counter arguments

Although Dickens' own experience of poverty does add some authenticity to his writing, his family had previously been wealthy and he experienced what was then known as "genteel poverty" - the plight of previously well-off people who had fallen on hard times - and later in life he was extremely wealthy and successful but still continued to write about the poor, suggesting that his own experiences were not a significant factor in his decisions to write about poverty. Additionally, growing up in poverty does not automatically make him a social progressive because it cannot be seen as the sole cause of his later writings.


1. Dickens lived in poverty as a child, making him sympathetic to the plight of the poor. 2. The details of his childhood appear in many of his novels, giving them an authentic quality and meaning he accurately depicted the lives of the working classes.

Rejecting the premises

1. He had been born middle-class and still benefited from this class distinction even when his father was in debtors' jail. 2. Much of his writing on the poor is not drawn from his own experience and can thus still be considered sensationalised.


    This page was last edited on Wednesday, 8 Jul 2020 at 18:46 UTC

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