Charles Dickens and Social Morality
My Key to Dickens: Social Morality
Victorian writer Charles Dickens drew on his formative experiences to write some of the most powerful and well-loved novels in the English language. These novels, containing Dickens’ urgent morality, influenced the course of social reform in Victorian England, in part because they were so popular with readers of every class. Both long-known and recent biographical evidence shows some of the formative experiences Dickens used to power his novels. In this post, I’ll analyze three of his novels that exhibit his strong social voice: Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and A Tale of Two Cities.
The predation on the poor and on children by criminals, politicians and industrial leaders feature prominently in many Dickens’ novels, including Oliver Twist. Biographers have long been aware that, as a child, Charles was sensitive and intelligent, with an adequate education and family life, until his father’s improvidence landed the family in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. The financial trials of that time led to his parent’s decision to take the twelve-year old Dickens out of school and send him to work in a boot blacking factory. While working in the factory, he lived in rented lodgings and tried to survive on six pence a week, while helping his family. He was often hungry and he experienced first-hand the rough, crime-ridden streets of London. His father finally inherited enough money to discharge himself from debtor’s prison and put Charles back in school, but not before the sensitive Dickens had been profoundly impacted in ways that would leave indelible impressions in his novels.
In his novel Oliver Twist, Dickens is responding to the Poor Law of 1834.
“In 1833 Earl Grey, the Prime Minister, set up a Poor Law Commission to examine the working of the Poor Law System in Britain. In their report published in 1834, the Commission made several recommendations to Parliament. The first recommendation was that no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse.” (Simkin 1)
Biographer Ruth Richardson recently filled a gap in the biographical history of Dickens that explains the intimate knowledge of public workhouses he reveals in Oliver Twist, his novel complaining about the horrendous Poor Law. When Richardson learned that the Cleveland Street Workhouse in London, more recently the Outpatient Department of the Middlesex Hospital, was slated to be demolished in 2010, she undertook a research project attempting to prove the historical significance of the building and made a remarkable discovery. Dickens had twice lived in an apartment above a store nine doors down from the Cleveland Street Workhouse. The family kept this part of their history private, as Dickens’ father wanted to be known as a gentlemen, and this was not a desirable neighborhood. Richardson wrote a book, Dickens and the Workhouse, published in 2012, about the discoveries she made, including the discovery that a business owner named Bill Sykes (the name of one of the criminals in Oliver Twist) lived across the street from the Dickens’ residence.
The Poor Law Act of 1834 specifically states that “conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help” (Simkin 1). The law was based on prevailing philosophies by Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham. Philosopher and economist Malthus argued that population growth, unless checked, would increase faster than the ability of a country to feed its population. He argued that, if you remove the pressure from poor people by supporting them, they will simply contribute to an unsustainable increase in population. Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism also supported the idea that the public workhouse should be unpleasant. He argued that the workhouse must be seen as a deterrent, so that fewer people claimed relief, instead entering the hallowed free labor market. Dickens, who while living in Cleveland Street worked as a parliamentary reporter, would have been perfectly situated to see the impact of these ideas on the lawmakers creating the laws and on the real people that lived in the Cleveland Street Workhouse.
Oliver Twist was published in serial form between February 1837 and April 1839. Oliver was born in a workhouse and the mother who gave birth to him, whose identity was unknown, died, leaving Oliver at the mercy of the parish wardens:
“But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once – a parish child – the orphan of a workhouse – the humble, half-starved drudge – to be cuffed and buffeted through the world – despised by all, pitied by none. (Dickens, Oliver Twist 25-26)
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 established a parish-based bureaucracy that tended to treat the persons in its care as “badged and ticketed” commodities. Oliver is starved in a parish workhouse, where the overseers are concerned with profiting on each person by spending as little as possible. In the workhouse where Oliver is housed, the parish overseers undertake some economies in the provision of gruel:
It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers, and the board were in ecstasies.” (Dickens, Oliver Twist 35).
In this satiric prose, Dickens is calling out the lack of humanity of the Parish Board, more concerned with money than with the people entrusted to their care. Oliver was farmed out, or offered as an apprentice, when he became old enough to work. Mr. Bumble, the parish Beadle, tries to make him feel guilty: “the expense to the parish is three pound ten! – three pound ten, Oliver! – seventy shillins – one hundred and forty sixpences! – and all for a naughty orphan which nobody can’t love.” (Dickens, Oliver Twist 42-43). He was eventually farmed out to a coffin maker, where he was beaten and abused. When he stands up for himself and then runs away from the coffin maker, Mr. Bumble tells the coffin maker’s wife that his spirit was the result of overfeeding: “ If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma’am this would never have happened. (Dickens, Oliver Twist 76) As he runs from the coffin maker, Oliver crosses paths with the criminal Fagin, who runs a ring of thievery and teaches him to pick pockets. While associated with Fagin, he meets other criminals, including Bill Sykes, a murderer, and his prostitute girlfriend Nancy. As the story progresses, Oliver encounters benevolent individuals who take pity on him and, after a number of circuitous plot twists, Oliver ends up with a loving family.
Oliver Twist was not well received at the time it was written because its characterization of the criminal under life in London was sympathetic, particularly to Nancy, the prostitute, who takes pity on Oliver and helps him at the cost of her own life. Writer and historian Joseph Gold surmised:
It was no surprise to Dickens, and it should be no surprise to us, that the appearance of Oliver was greeted with various kinds of anger and dismay. What Dickens actually did in Oliver Twist was to humanize the criminal. This was not readily forgiven, for to humanize the criminal is to show his relationship to the reader, who would prefer to regard him as another species. (Gold 28).
Even though there were initial objections, Oliver Twist has over time become one of the most beloved novels in the English language, and makes a definitive statement about Dickens’ view of the Poor Law of 1834 and of the treatment of the impoverished.
In 1854, Dickens continued his attack on treatment of the poor, while adding an attack on the educational system, in light of the utilitarian attitudes that pervaded and perverted it. The vehicle of this attack was the book Hard Times. Dickens had befriended philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle by the time he wrote Hard Times, and Carlyle’s pamphlets and essays on the evils of industrialism and the utilitarian philosophy were echoed in this book. Joseph Gold argues that Hard Times is more than a critique on utilitarianism: “Whether it is scientism, Catholicism, Puritanism, fascism or Communism, the horrors of absolutism generally were clear to Dickens and he knew that any system that reduces humanity to convenient terms and seeks to make man fit the abstract pattern is disastrous” (Gold 198). Thomas Gradgrind, a Utilitarian philosopher and headmaster of the Manchester School, shuts down the imagination of his students and his children, stuffing them full of facts, statistics and reason. Gradgrind is not a bad man, since it is his belief, though mistaken, that he is giving children the best start possible in life by squashing their imaginative lives, but he does possess the extreme absolutism described by Gold. His belief that “Facts alone are wanted in life” (Dickens, Hard Times 3) is ruthlessly applied to any and all people he encounters. Sissy Jupe, the imaginative daughter of a circus ringmaster, is addressed as “Girl number 20” (Dickens, Hard Times 5) at the school. Gradgrind later adopts her and attempts to squash her imaginative spirit the way he has with his own children. When Sissy expresses her love of flowers, Gradgrind addresses her: “You are to be in all things regulated and governed….by fact….you must disregard the notion of Fancy altogether….” ( Dickens, Hard Times 8). When his daughter Louisa’s arranged, rational marriage to the industrialist Joseph Bounderby becomes disastrous and she is on the brink of throwing herself away on an adulterous affair, she comes to him, and he tells her “I had proved my system to myself, and I have rigidly administered it; and I must bear the responsibility of its failures. I only entreat you to believe, my favourite child, that I have meant to do right.” (Dickens, Hard Times 213). His son Tom also suffers psychologically because of his upbringing and ultimately becomes a thief. The destructive impact of Gradgrind’s philosophy on his children and the other characters in the novel leads to his later renunciation of that philosophy and to his redemption.
The other focus of Hard Times is industrialism and the lack of moral conscience exhibited by industrial leaders with regards to their factory hands. According to biographer Wolf Mankowitz, Dickens travelled to Preston, where there was a long cotton worker strike, “to observe for himself the reality of an industrial life ruled by materialistic laws of supply and demand, the system of high profits, cheap labour and cheaper lives that practiced what the utilitarianisms preached as politico-economic orthodoxy” (Mankowitz 178). The hero of Hard Times is a virtuous character named Stephen Blackpool, who works in a factory owned by self-centered industrialist and banker Josiah Bounderby. Blackpool refuses to join a labor union, believing it not the best mechanism for owner-worker relations, at great personal cost. Both his fellow workers and Bounderby persecute him, he is unwittingly implicated in a robbery that was actually committed by the young Tom Gradgrind, and he becomes a martyr figure in the story. Thomas Carlyle’s call in Past and Present is to captains of industry: “They will not march farther for you, on the sixpence a day and supply-and-demand principle; they will not, nor ought they, nor can they” (Carlyle 1920). Carlyle calls for the leaders of industry to become noble; to consider the humanity of the worker and work not only for profit, but more importantly for social justice and the dignity of the worker. Both Dickens and Carlyle believed that an enlightened moral outlook is necessary to heal social conflicts such as the conflict between labor and industry. Joseph Gold believes “it is this liberal and humane impulse to cry out against absolutism, against systems for the reduction of man in any form, that underlies Hard Times” (Gold 198). Any societal system that ignores the humanity and dignity of the people is immoral and leads to disaster.
By the time Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, set in London and England and concerning the French Revolution, his friendship with Carlyle was longstanding and Carlyle’s influence was profoundly evident. Carlyle furnished Dickens with his three volume The French Revolution: A History that he published in 1937. In Michael Goldberg’s book Carlyle and Dickens, Goldberg shows passages in The French Revolution and in A Tale of Two Cities that are nearly identical in basic narrative content. Carlyle also reviewed drafts of A Tale of Two Cities and provided feedback before the book was published in 1859.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens portrays revolutionary France after the uprising as mob-ruled and without a fair justice system. Innocents are imprisoned for reasons that are often ludicrous, kept imprisoned for months and years, and daily led to the guillotine. Dickens obviously didn’t seem to be in favor of mob-rule, but in A Tale of Two Cities, it also seems evident that he understands that evil aristocratic repression of the poor in France could have no other outcome:
Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercord, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. (Dickens, Tale of Two Cities 504)
Joseph Goldberg believes that A Tale of Two Cities contains the same implicit social judgment which found its way into his other Carlylean novels” (Goldberg 103). In both A Tale of Two Cities and in The French Revolution, revolutionary France is presented as a warning to England that, if England’s ruling classes do not take care of its poor and treat the working class with dignity, revolution and anarchy will result.
A Tale of Two Cities ends with Sydney Carton on the platform of the guillotine, getting ready to be executed in an act of noble self-sacrifice (he was standing in for aristocrat Charles Darnay): “They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic” (Dickens Tale of Two Cities 510). As Carton prophesies a rebirth of the city and its people, he says these final words: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” (Dickens, Tale of Two Cities 511). Dickens ends the book with an illustration of the triumph of the human spirit, an act of self-sacrifice and morality from a man who has previously been always dissolute and immoral.
There is a hopeful note in Dickens’ works, despite the ferocity of Victorian society that he depicts. Dickens asks us to embrace morality over all else. In the redemption of Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities and Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times, and in the kind acts of the prostitute Nancy in Oliver Twist, he shows that humans can change even when many would give them up as lost forever. In all three tales, there were virtuous and kind characters that prevailed against the ugly social conditions, soul-less bureaucrats, and criminals that preyed upon humanity. The social voice of Dickens, displayed in his novels, urges each of us to lead moral lives and reject absolutism of any kind.
Carlyle, Thomas. “Past and Present.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1912 – 1920.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. New York: Signet Classic, 1980.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003.
Goldberg, Michael. Carlyle and Dickens. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972.
Gold, Joseph. Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1972.
Mankowitz, Wolf. Dickens of London. New York: MacMillian Publishing Company, 1976.
Richardson, Ruth. Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Simkin, John. “1834 Poor Law.” Spartacus Educational. Web. 28 April 2013.