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Was Charles Dickens a social progressive?

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

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.

Dickens was staunchly anti-slavery

When Dickens visited America in 1842, he was horrified by what he saw and heard of slavery in the southern states, and strongly argued for its end. Although this is not now considered a progressive opinion, many Brits at the time still supported or were indifferent to slavery, very unlike Dickens. Explore

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. Explore

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. Explore

Dickens was focused on prison reform

In the Victorian era, prisons were seen as a humane way to sentence offenders in contrast to the capital and corporal punishments often used at the time. However, Dickens observed how it was still largely unjust and could harm offenders further, thus becoming one of the first advocates for prison reform. Explore

No, Dickens was not a social progressive

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".

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? Explore

Dickens defended the colonial privileges of Europeans and displayed racism

Dickens, like many people of his time, endorsed the British Empire and its colonial aims to conquer non-western nations, and dismissed the cultures of indigenous peoples as primitive and inferior to the British way of life in his writings "The Noble Savage" and "The Frozen Deep". Explore

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. Explore

Dickens was anti-Semitic

In his depiction of Fagin, a criminal and thief, in the novel "Oliver Twist", Dickens invokes many significant anti-Semitic tropes which, though common at the time, had been denounced and could have been challenged by Dickens considering he positioned himself as a champion of the underdog. Explore
This page was last edited on Friday, 14 Aug 2020 at 14:35 UTC