In this article, Jennifer Johnstone continues her look at Charles Dickens and poverty in Victorian Britain. She considers his impact on social change, and then thinks about something that you may not know – his perhaps racist views.
In part one of this two-part look at Charles Dickens and poverty, we considered how Dickens may have viewed social inequality and poverty in modern Britain. We reflected on how he might have viewed the Welfare State, and looked at some of his works, including Oliver Twist. In this concluding part of ‘Dickens and Poverty’ we will explore Dickens further. I want to examine whether or not he was a true social critic of inequality at heart, by reflecting on what Dickens’ impact was on Victorian Britain. Was he the social reformer that we often think of him? Then we will look at a less favorable aspect of Dickens, a Dickens that we don’t often see when he is critiqued. But before that, I begin by looking at his work Little Dorrit.
Little Dorrit is a story about debt and imprisonment; it is also a condemnation towards the government and society. Dickens portrays his characters in Little Dorrit as people being down on their luck, while the characters analyze themselves in relation to poverty. By analyze, I mean that they feel shame or guilt for being in poverty. As such, Dickens touches on a theme that is in Oliver Twist - poverty breeds crime. Little Dorrit is about different social classes, and how these classes are seen within society. Indeed, a major theme of Little Dorit is social stratification, and instead of valuing a person for who they are, and what impact they have on others, Victorian society is portrayed as a shallow society, obsessed with material goods.
Dickens’ highlighting of this shallowness, and the focus on unimportant material objects, is a valuable contribution by the writer because it highlights that people often value material possessions more than they value people. But, what impact did Dickens have in the real world, outside his writings?
Dickens’ limited impact?
Although Dickens was a vocal critic of parts of Victorian society, the influence Dickens had in changing Victorian attitudes towards poverty is debatable. Some argue that Dickens did not reform Victorian Britain very much, that he did not influence social change. Perhaps there is something to be said for this. After all, true social reform and the Welfare State were not introduced in Britain until much later, after Dickens death. If you were poor in Victorian Britain, then the government did not look after you; instead, you had to rely on charities, or you became destitute. It was only in the year of Dickens’ death, 1870, that we were beginning to see the early stages of a welfare state. But, it can be suggested that it is mere coincidence that the reforming Education Act (1870) coincided with Dickens’ death, and had nothing to do with Dickens’ vocal condemnation on deprivation and poverty. Rather than the Education Act being about Dickens, it was more about the politics of the time, military politics to be precise. This argument is given further credence when we consider that little else was reformed socially in Britain until the early 20th century.
There are two important reasons that can be suggested for why Dickens’ work did not have much of an influence in Victorian society. The first is illiteracy levels. With such high levels of poverty, and a lack of education for the poor, Dickens’ audience was not the poor, but the rich. That leads to the second reason why he did not create the social reform he sought; many of the rich did not want to share their wealth with the poor, something that is suggested through laws such as the ‘The Poor Law.’ So, we can perhaps say that part of the reason that social reform arose much later than 1870 was that in later years the poor became better educated, and could read Dickens’ work.
Dickens and Poverty
Charles Dickens had sympathy towards the poor because he was one of them. He was a man who worked in the factories he portrayed in his novels, and who despised those same factories. He was born into poverty, but he was treated unfairly and harshly just for being poor. Therefore, he knew what it was like to be in the position of the poor; whereas most of the unsympathetic and immoral upper classes, had no such reality check. But, the upper class being out of touch with the poor, was as much a problem in Victorian Britain as it is today. And, I think that Dickens would have condemned this today too.
Researching Dickens has led me to conclude that he was ahead of his time. Instead of seeing human beings, the upper class Victorians vilified the poor. Essentially, they made their life a living hell. But this was not only a period of suppressing the poor British people, but a period of colonization, and the suppression of other people, in other nations.
Dickens and Native Americans
Analyzing his views about other cultures, we see a different side, a darker side, to Dickens. For example, Dickens essentially expressed racist views about Native American people. Indeed, in The Noble Savage, he expressed a hatred of their existence. We can even go as far to say that Dickens did not oppose the genocide of Native Americans; for example, he writes that they could be ‘civilized out of existence.’ One could argue, that by Dickens using the word ‘civilized’, he means to humanely remove Native Americans. It is clear that he is explicitly stating that they should be wiped out, however much flowery connotation there is to his language. As you can’t really remove a culture out of existence, without using force, or even brutality. In effect, Dickens seems intolerant of the Native American’s way of life. The Noble Savage projects a dark side of Dickensian ideology, and that is one of contempt for other ways of life, contempt for another race. What it shows is something that is not often discussed when we look at the history of Dickens; his racist attitudes.
It is important to look at how Dickens viewed other races and cultures. This is because, if we can see that Dickens was as opposed to the oppression of other cultures and races as he was to his own, then it would show that he is all an all round good character, condemning suppression, whether in relation to poverty our not. Dickens did a very good job at highlighting the poverty in his own country, but Dickens failed in applying his message universally - that you should stand up for the underdog, and the suppressed, whoever they maybe.
In conclusion, it seems to me that Dickens was a very interesting character, much like the characters he created. Not only that, but an odd man too. Odd in the sense that for someone who chastised the rich of his own country for treating the poor like dirt, he was a supporter of oppressing other groups. So, many of the attitudes that Dickens held in contempt, and was vocally opposed to, were the very attitudes which he expressed to other peoples. In short, Dickens was not a very consistent character; he was as complex as the characters he portrayed.
Dickens, though, stood up for the impoverished in a way that nobody else of his time did. But, there is more that Dickens could have, should have, expressed in his works; the suppression of other people, in other countries.
If any words could be expressed to Dickens about himself, suppression, and poverty, they would be ‘’Please sir, I want some more....’
In the meantime you can read more about crime in 19th century Britain here.
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Little Dorrit: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/dickens/LittleDorrit6x9.pdf
Olive Twist: http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/Oliver-Twist.pdf
A Christmas Carol: http://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Dickens/Carol/Dickens_Carol.pdf
The Noble Savage: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/2529