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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' novels can be considered "poverty porn"

In presenting the dire conditions poor people in Victorian England lived in, it is possible that Dickens was exploiting their hardships to entertain his reader and increase his circulation as a writer. Are his depictions of the poor gratuitous?
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Proponents


Context

Poverty porn: any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor's condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers, increasing charitable donations, or support for a given cause [1]

The Argument

Although the term "poverty porn" was only coined in the 1980s, it can certainly be retrospectively applied to some of Dickens' novels. Dickens was arguably focused on championing the working classes of Victorian England by attempting to present their situation as realistically as possible, but his readership was largely middle-class and for them, his sometimes gratuitous depictions of the filth and squalor poor people lived in served to titillate them and excite their sympathy by allowing them to feel benevolent in caring about them. Oliver Twist, for example, exploits the existence of children as criminals, whilst David Copperfield emphasises the notion of "genteel poverty" (that there is a difference between poor people who were once wealthy and people who have always been poor), suggesting that some people are naturally suited to belonging to a higher class. Norris Pope, author of "Dickens and Charity", suggests that even if Dickens meant well in portraying the poor, his ethical concerns had to "be subordinated to the demands of serial publishing" [2], leading to his use of sentiment and gratuitous depiction of slum life.

Counter arguments

Whilst some of Dickens' work can be considered "poverty porn" in that it dramatises the situations of the poor to increase readership, it must be remembered that Dickens was also an enthusiastic advocate of charity and sanitary reform in London slums. By using his platform as a popular and widely-read writer to draw attention to the plight of the working classes in industrialised England, he was able to help make changes to their living situations and remind richer people of their sense of duty - an important part of Victorian Christian morals - to those less fortunate than them. Although his novels can be considered exploitative, he also presents the poor as fully realised characters rather than the stereotypes many other writers of his time relied upon, and it must be considered that he largely did more good than harm regarding popular attitudes to the working class.

Premises

1. Dickens’ depictions of poor people were melodramatic to excite sympathy and concern in his readership, which can be considered exploitative. 2. He reinforced ideas about class distinctions by presenting the lives of the working classes so dramatically. 3. His concerns were for himself as a writer and not necessarily for those he wrote about.

Rejecting the premises

1. His depictions were also often realistic, and presenting the lives of people housed in slums without glamourising them, he helped draw public attention to improving their conditions. 2. As an advocate for sanitary reform and good housing, he was clearly concerned at least to some extent about the kinds of people he wrote about.

Further Reading

https://veritusgroup.com/the-issue-of-poverty-porn/

References

  1. https://www.oaktree.org/poverty_porn_101
  2. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HleuCwAAQBAJ&q=subordinated#v=snippet&q=subordinated&f=false

This page was last edited on Wednesday, 8 Jul 2020 at 13:52 UTC

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