Dickens and Society


Throughout his career, Dickens protested the abuse of children and the corruption of individual feelings. His portrayal of the destructiveness of society's institutions and values becomes more insistent and savage in his later novels. In his early, hopeful novels, the problems of his protagonists, who are often orphaned or abandoned as children, are solved by the benevolence of good men; the charitable nature of the Cheeryble Brothers in Nicholas Nickleby is indicated by their name, and David Copperfield is rescued from the Murdstones' clutches by Aunt Betsey. But Dickens lost faith in the ability of individuals to remedy the unjust treatment of individuals; he perceived that injustice, indifference, and cruelty were pervasive and incorporated into society's institutions.

Because of Dickens's moral outrage and his attacks on society's institutions and values, later critics, who were often Marxists, hailed him variously as subversive, rebellious, and even revolutionary. They did not necessarily claim that Dickens was aware of the subversion or revolutionary thrust of his novels. George Bernard Shaw compared Marx and Dickens thus: "The difference between Marx and Dickens was that Marx knew he was a revolutionist whilst Dickens had not the faintest suspicion of that part of his calling." There was good reason for contrasting the two men; Marx fled to London in 1849, died there in 1883, and was also a writer. Thus, the two men were observing the same society and class structure; both were subject to similar social conditions and pressures. Furthermore, Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities both are set in revolutionary times, identify some of the abuses that sparked the outbreaks, and describe the violent, chaotic behavior of the mobs.

George Orwell, in 1946, viewed Dickens's "rebelliousness" from a different perspective: In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have welcomed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.

It is true that Dickens's readership remained loyal to him, despite his savage attacks on society and his forcing his wife of twenty-some years to leave their marriage and their home (remember that Dickens was perceived as the upholder of the sacred domestic hearth and the family). One reason that he retained his popularity may be that Dickens had no agenda or systematic program, as Marx did, to tear down society and replace it with a new structure. Some critics have wondered whether Dickens was really attacking human nature and not society. Granted, Dickens did repeatedly reject the assumptions that class was more important than common humanity or that rank was superior to virtue: I believe that virtue shows quite as well in rags and palaces as she does in purple and fine linen.... I believe that she goes barefoot as well as shod. I believe that she dwells rather oftener in alleys and by-ways than she does in courts and palaces... Nonetheless, Dickens still accepted the existing class structure and distinctions: "Differences of wealth, of rank, of intellect, we know there must be, and we respect them."

His attacks on society were based on traditional moral beliefs and humanism rather than on social or political theories and programs. He urged a secular ideal of human brotherhood. Fraser's Magazine, in its obituary of Dickens, noted this aspect of Dickens's beliefs: "He spent no thought on religious doctrines or religious reforms, but regarded the Sermon on the Mount as good teaching, had a regard for the village church and churchyard, and quarrelled with nothing but intolerance." Writing of Dickens's belief in domestic life as the source of happiness and the alternative to social evil, Angus Wilson added, "Even more vital to Dickens was the idea of pure love as the means of redemption of flawed, weak, or sinful men. Neither of these beliefs can properly take the weight that he imposed on them..." Moreover, his contemporaries saw him as a member of and the spokesman for a particular class; a reviewer for Blackwood's in 1855 noted: We cannot but express our conviction that it is to the fact that he represents a class that he owes his speedy elevation to the top of the wave of popular favour. He is a man of very liberal sentiments–an assailer of constituted wrongs and authorities–one of the advocates in the plea of Poor versus Rich, to the progress of which he has lent no small aid in his day. But he is, notwithstanding, perhaps more distinctly than any other author of his time, a class writer, the historian and representative of one circle in the many ranks in our social scale. Despite their descents into the lowest class, and their occasional flights into the less familiar ground of fashion, it is the air and breath of middle-class respectability which fills the books of Mr. Dickens.

Unlike Thackeray, Dickens was not seen as quite or fully a gentleman. Thackeray's province was, as W.C. Roscoe described it, "the debatableble land between the aristocracy and the middle classes"; Dickens showed the efforts of the lower strata of the middle class to rise from being tradesmen and upper servants into the respectable middle classes. Thackeray wrote that "an English gentleman knows as much about the people of Lapland or California as he does of the aborigines of the Seven Dials or the natives of Wapping." Dickens, of course, knew, and wrote with sympathy and understanding, about the classes who lived in such neighborhoods as Seven Dials and Wapping. Furthermore, Dickens was accused of being unable to describe a gentleman. G. K. Chesterton explained that this accusation really meant: that Dickens could not describe a gentleman as gentlemen feel a gentleman. They mean that he could not take that atmosphere easily, accept it as the normal atmosphere, or describe that world from the inside... Dickens did not describe gentleman in the way that gentlemen describe gentlemen... He described them... from the outside, as he described any other oddity or special trade.


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