Charles Dickens: Raising Of Social Issues In Novels
Charles Dickens led an extraordinary life. What some might call a dream. However, his life was not so full of richness and joy, rather it began with poverty and hard work, and later blossomed into the so called dream of fame and fortune. Dickens youth influenced many of his works, if not all of them. When simply peering into his many novels it is evident that all are very consistent in their topics and themes. After his tragic youth, Charles Dickens wrote many novels reflecting his personal experiences and views on poverty, child labor, and social issues and injustices.
Charles Dickens was born into a middle to lower class family and did not begin his major life experiences until he was around the age of twelve. At this age, financial hardships struck his family. While still at a young age, his father and mother sent him to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory for the extra money (Warren 24). Even with Dickens extra income, his family’s situation managed to worsen. In Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London, Andrea Warren states, “A few days after he became a bootblack boy, his father was arrested for unpaid debt and sent to debtor’s prison, where he would have to stay until his debts were somehow paid-even though he couldn’t work while he was in prison” (26). His father was essentially stuck in prison with no method of escaping through legitimate means. They began to sell all of their valuables and even the furniture in their home. According to Andrea Warren, Dickens earnings were only a small proportion needed to remain financially stable and his mother had to begin to sell family belongings. Charles Dickens was then separated from his family and had to work in a warehouse all week. Often going hungry and cold he could not imagine a way out (Warren 6-7). Along with these struggles Dickens recalls, “‘[He received] no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support, from anyone that I can call to mind’” (Warren 28). He was just a young boy at the time and was already facing immense challenges with no assistance from anyone but himself.
Charles Dickens not only survived poverty, but he managed to survive the dangerous working and living conditions at the time as well. The blacking factory is described as, “located in a rundown warehouse that was directly on the banks of the Thames River, allowing waste matter to be dumped straight into the water” (Warren 26). Dickens described the factory as having rotted floors and being infested with rats (Warren 26). Charles Dickens was clearly working in an unsafe and hazardous environment. He spent most of his time working ten hours a day, six days a week. His family soon lost their house and had the option of living in a workhouse, or sharing their father, John Dickens, eight-by-twelve-foot prison cell. Dickens chose to rent out a room from an elderly lady with two other boys (Warren 27-28). Dickens early life experiences changed his outlook on the world and had an immense effect on the outcome of his novels and his future.
After struggling through childhood, Dickens began making a name for himself as an adult. He wrote many novels such as Great Expectations, Hard Times, and Oliver Twist. Dickens rose through the social ranks and became an established author who was renowned for his writings. Many readers noticed a pattern in the themes and topics of his writings. These topics included orphans, the working poor, an ineffective government, and the social injustice between the wealthy and the poor. Warren states, “It would be many years before the world learned the story of Dickens’ own boyhood, and before even his wife and children realized that these boys in his books seemed so real because they were parts of Dickens himself. Moreover, many of the hardships they suffered were based on Dickens’ own experiences growing up” (17). It was not until later that readers learned that many of the novels seemed so realistic and well written because Dickens experienced the same things his characters did when he was a child. A portion of his talent was derived from being able to recall his own experiences when he was a boy and use those memories to better shape his writings and stories.
Great Expectations follows an orphan named Pip. His parents have long passed and he is under the care of his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery. From the beginning of the novel, readers quickly learn that Pip is frequently physically abused by his sister, Mrs. Joe. In the novel, Pip states, “My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had brought me up ‘by hand’. Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand” (Dickens Great). Pip has already lost his parents and has no one left to care for him. His sister, Mrs. Joe, acts like he is a burden to her and should be appreciative of her raising him ‘by hand’. More evidence of his sister being abusive arises when Pip says, “At this dismal intelligence, I twisted the only button on my waistcoat round and round, and looked in great depression at the fire. Tickler was a wax-ended piece of cane, worn smooth by collision with my tickled frame” (Dickens Great). It is clear that Pip has been beaten many times before and has grown familiar with the feeling of pain. Pips emotions and ideas of himself are extremely complicated. He has no parents and has no means of escaping his abusive sister. He blames himself in most cases for being troublesome. Pip knows he is in the wrong sometimes and believes he deserves the consequences. He states, “In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong. I had no intercousre with the world at that time, and I imitated none of its many inhabitants who act in this manner” (Dickens Great). Pip feels he is the root of all problems and deserves the pain and suffering he acquires while under the care of his sister. His mind is distorted to believe that this is just how life is and that his situation is normal when it’s clearly not. In Charles Dickens a Life, Jane Smiley writes, “Of all the heroes of Dickens’s fiction, Pip is the only one too flawed, by self-hatred and shame, to find no reward other than mere survival” (169). Pip blames himself for his situation and follows society’s belief that those born in a certain social class will remain there until they die. He thinks that surviving life’s hardships is a reward and finds no value in the other things life has to offer. Smiley also states, “Pip’s world offers no alternative to harsh discipline and ridicule. The loving companionship of Joe is less than effective in easing Pips condition, since any hint of collaboration between the two is met by the sister with even more resentment” (Smiley 167). Pip has no way out of his situation and finds no happiness throughout the novel. The main focus of the novel was to showcase life’s difficult aspects and to show that sometimes there is no reward waiting at the end of the tunnel.
Hard Times depicts an era of hard work, financial instability, and the destruction of one’s imagination. The novel describes the setting as, “Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays. You only knew the town was there, because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way, now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness:—Coketown in the distance was suggestive of itself, though not a brick of it could be seen” (Dickens Hard). Dickens uses very vivid imagery to bring to life the industrial town and accurately describe the pollution surrounding the city. The novel begins with a quote stating, “‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them’” (Dickens Hard). The speaker is Thomas Gradgrind, he is the superintendent of a school in the novel. Gradgrind is destroying the children’s imagination and hope by enforcing the idea that only an education and “Facts” will get them through life. His children, Louisa and Tom, are in a much worse situation. In Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Helen Sutherland notes, “while Louisa and Tom are not fatherless in fact, it could be argued that they are emotionally fatherless, for Gradgrind denies emotional need in favor of reason, with disastrous consequences for them both.” Louisa and Tom are raised to believe an imagination is useless and the only thing that matters in life is facts. They are told to learn and educate themselves even though they are still children with rampant imaginations and thoughts. Gradgrinds servant, Sissy Jupe, has the most unfortunate of luck because, “although Sissy Jupe’s father leaves her in the belief it will be for her good, she has nevertheless been abandoned” (Sutherland). She is still just a child, yet her father believes she will be better off without him. Gradgrinds friend, Mr. Bounderby, is a wealthy factory owner. One of his employees is Stephen Blackpool, a man taken advantage of by the industrial system and society (Sutherland). Sutherland explains that, “Stephen’s action in asking Bounderby for advice on how to obtain a divorce suggests that the employer’s relationship to his employee is similar to that of father to son, but like Gradgrind, Bounderby refuses to acknowledge emotional need, and finally disinherits his ‘son’ by dismissing him from service without cause, just as he had already disowned his own mother”. Gradgrind and Bounderby both deny emotional support when others are clearly in need and put themselves above others because of their wealth. This accurately describes the novel’s point on the importance of exposing orphans to society, and the division between the wealthy and the poor.
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist tells the story of a young boy born in a workhouse whose mother died during birth. As soon as he is born, Dickens describes Oliver writing, “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, and pitied by none” (Oliver). Oliver assumes his place in society immediately, and no act or attempt at finding his father is committed. He has automatically assumed his position as an orphan, a member of the poor, and a workhouse boy. Dickens adds to Olivers situation saying, “For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities” (Oliver). Oliver is alone in a workhouse with no one to care for him. The “systematic course of treachery and deception” is describing The Poor Laws of 1834. Dickens is making a passive, but aggressive, statement criticizing the laws for not actually carrying out change to help the poor. In Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Gurdip Panesar writes, “The early chapters of the novel fully expose the cruelties inherent in the government welfare system and the failings of its enforcers”. Oliver is suffering at the hands of an unjust government and its enforcers. There is no one to care for him because the government is not offering enough assistance.
Great Expectations, Hard Times, and Oliver Twist, all have similar themes and express Dickens opinions of his society at the time. Great Expectations theme is outlined in Expectations Well Lost: Dickens’ Fable for His Time by Robert Stange. Stange notes, “Dickens would distinguish between the native, inherent sinfulness from which men can be redeemed, and that evil which destroys life: the sin of the hypocrite or oppressor, the smothering wickedness of corrupt institutions”. Charles Dickens made it obvious when painting characters as genuine or corrupt. He wanted others to easily distinguish between what was right and wrong and this was how he expressed his opinions to his readers. According to Stange, “Great Expectations belongs to that class of education or development-novels which describe the young man of talents who progresses from the country to the city, ascends in the social hierarchy, and moves from innocence to experience”. Charles Dickens is “the young man of talents” because Great Expectations reflected his views and Dickens may have been trying to show that someone can overcome their challenges and advance through the “social hierarchy”. Dickens views on how the poor are treated are outlined in, “There is a natural bond, Dickens suggests, between the child and the criminal; they are alike in their helplessness; both are repressed and tortured by established society, and both rebel against its incomprehensible authority” (Stange). Dickens represents his views in Great Expectations by showing that both Pip and the convict are cast out from a corrupt society. Through this, Dickens is expressing the opinion that the government does not do enough for the poor and is unjust. He is also expressing the opinion that society is morally flawed. Stange continues, “The “criminality” of Pip and the convict is contrasted with the socially approved cruelty and injustice of Mrs. Joe and her respectable friends”. Dickens is questioning why society disapproves of Pip’s relationship with a criminal, but approves of Mrs. Joe raising him “by hand”. Hard Times theme is described as, “the death of romance and imagination, which cannot flourish in the industrial town dedicated to making money” (Sutherland). Dickens is reflecting the opinion that children are not old enough to work in the dangerous conditions of a workplace. Sutherland describes another theme noting, “Historical conditions, in other words, created a society in which there was an unbridgeable chasm between employers and the employed, this in turn led to the class antagonism which is a major theme of this work”. Dickens disapproves of societies social class system and expresses this opinion throughout the novel. Oliver Twists main theme was “concerned not just with painting a vivid picture of urban deprivation but also with attacking government policies of the time, specifically the Poor Laws of 1834, which stipulated that public assistance would be given to the poor only if they lived and worked in established workhouses” (Panesar). Charles Dickens was a major critic of The New Poor Laws of 1834 and therefore the government at the time. He had experienced what it was like to be poor as a child and therefore he knew the system was unjust. However, he wanted to enact change so he reflected his opinions in Oliver Twist hoping to spread his ideas to his readers.
Charles Dickens used social commentary to express his views throughout his novels. Smiley writes, “He was always in favor of imagination and ‘fancy’, always opposed to dullness and the ponderousness that was a mask for social cruelty. His success in depicting the variety of lower-close English life was no accident-he was both interested in the lower orders and eager to show them to themselves and to the middle and upper classes” (12). Dickens attempted to expose societies cruelty to orphans and the poor. Dickens also “held back from a simple equation between poverty and virtue, for Stephen’s drunken wife, like Stephen and Rachel, was a factory worker, but unlike them turned from virtue to vice” (Sutherland). Dickens is stating that not all the poor are moral and that some actually become immoral. The workplace situation of the time is described as, “The situation was made worse for the workers by the dominant laissez-faire political thought which insisted that there should be no governmental interference, such as legislation setting an acceptable level of pay, or stipulating the maximum number of hours which could be worked in a week: even factory legislation limiting the hours which could be worked by children was bitterly opposed” (Sutherland). Dickens was a major critic of the laws of the time and often criticized the government for its lack of regulating the unjust workplace.
Charles Dickens was an advocate for a better society because he had first hand experience with the poor, unjust society, and a lack of government assistance during his childhood. Charles Dickens was a major social critic of his time. In all three books, Great Expectations, Hard Times, and Oliver Twist, Dickens is making a clear statement by expressing his opinions of the government, the corruption of the wealthy, and the social injustices.