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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 not an active reformer

Although Dickens drew public attention to the plight of the working classes, he was not himself an active reformer.
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The Argument

Dickens used his fiction to draw attention to the issues faced by working-class people in England such as poor housing and sanitation, but he was not himself an active reformer. He did not have clear goals he wished to achieve in helping poor people, so in his writings can often appear benevolent but misguided, and instead allowed other people to focus on material help.

Counter arguments

It seems a little harsh to criticise Dickens for not being an active reformer. He used his writing to draw significant attention to public issues, and encouraged lawmakers in parliament and those who worked for charities - in other words, the people whose full-time jobs were active reform, so would be much better at it than Dickens - to help in more material ways. Not every social progressive is an active reformer, and it is perhaps enough that Dickens focused so much public attention on previously overlooked issues related to poverty.


1. Dickens' primary advocacy for the poor was through writing, not helping to make active changes. 2. His goals in raising public attention through his novels were not always clear.

Rejecting the premises

1. Not everyone could be an active reformer, and Dickens was perhaps right to allow people who knew more about improving the poor's material conditions to do the actual reform work. 2. His writing was still beneficial because it drew public attention to serious issues of poverty and poor living standards.


    This page was last edited on Tuesday, 14 Jul 2020 at 10:58 UTC

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