Charles Dickens lived during the Victorian era of Great Britain, which comprised Queen Victoria’s reign (from 1837 to 1901). While this period saw the birth of a great many innovations in social and economic prosperity for the British, there were also rampant problems for people living during the Victorian era. One of the most prevalent issues was poverty – there was a huge problem with wealth inequality in Victorian-era England. The Victorian era saw a dramatic population increase in England – the number of British citizens nearly doubled from beginning to the end of the era, and industrialization led to a great deal of urbanization. While Charles Dickens did not strictly lead to the end of poverty in the Victorian era, his works allowed these inequalities to be known and well-represented in the culture of the time.
The Industrial Revolution created machines that started to strip away the ability of laborers to find work, as fewer people were needed to keep up with manufacturing goals and demands. This left many British poors out of work or working for dirt-poor wages, as industrialists knew they could pay whatever they pleased given the dearth of work. It was difficult to find housing that was affordable (or even existing), and so overcrowding was another huge problem in Britain. London in particular suffered greatly, creating a slum population that was filled with poor families, orphans, criminals and more due to their rapidly growing population (Burton, 2001).
One of the hallmarks of the Victorian era is its use of child labor in industrial environments like factories and mines. Because families were so poor, even the children had to pitch in to allow the family to survive; this meant working off substantial debts often accrued by the parents in dangerous conditions that led them to sacrifice their safety and education. Chimney sweeps would often employ children, as they could get into the places adults could not reach, and their small size made them perfect for the more hazardous jobs in these industrialized occupations. This left a dramatically dangerous difference in the quality of life between those who were poor and those who were rich – the rich were able to enjoy the fruits of industrialization, while the poor were left to sweat away in debtor’s prisons or on the factory line for very low wages (and high risk of death). The issue was somewhat exacerbated by the 1834 passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, which dramatically reformed the poverty relief system of Great Britain, created workhouses and provided added welfare to those who are poor (Burton, 2001). This brought about substantial changes in the treatment of the poor by British society, as there was a safety net for those unable to take care of themselves.
Also developing during this time was the principle of Utilitarianism, which was a moral framework that more or less allowed this kind of wealth inequality to happen. According to Mill, there are varying degrees of happiness, and different forms of pleasure are more righteous than others. Mill thinks that intellectualism and moralism are admirable, whereas physical pleasure takes a backseat to these nobler pursuits. He also thought that there should be a difference between being contented and being happy - blind happiness is no happiness at all, but mere ignorance; happiness must come from knowledge of one’s world and acceptance of it. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question” (Mill, 1998). According to Mills, academics and intellectualism were what led people to happiness, as he valued the educated more so than the rest. In that principle, the overall goal is to further mankind as much as possible, meaning that some people can get lost in the shuffle.
Charles Dickens was himself a child worker during the Victorian Era; he worked in a blacking factory at 12 years of age, as his family was in debtor’s prison. To that end, his experiences armed him with a certain perspective towards wealth inequality that led him to color his literature substantially with messages about the working poor in Britain. While this did not lead to direct results in combating these wealth inequalities, his works brought them to light and contributed to a national conversation about the treatment of workers in Britain. As he became a prominent writer and novelist, he began to write more and more about this subject, weaving it through his works as a recurring theme. Oliver Twist, for example, showcased the ‘criminal youth’ who stole and begged in the street as sympathetic kids who are being ignored by the rest of Victorian society. Great Expectations demonstrated the differences between how a child is treated when he is cared for by both the poor and the rich, and A Christmas Carol showed the dangers of being a miserly rich man who withheld from those who needed it.
Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times is perhaps his most hard-hitting and fascinating look at the state of England's working poor during his time; the depiction of these social problems, particularly in the first nine chapters of the book, is very telling of his attitudes toward the treatment of the poor in England. In the world of Coketown, a place filled with dark smoke and factories, fact is held up as the best and most prudent thing to have; imagination is downplayed as being useless to a modern society. Here, Dickens lampoons both the silliness of Utilitarianism and the cruel nature of the treatment of the working poor in England, showing Coketown’s destitution and poverty as indicative of the real dangers of Victorian’s treatment of the poor. The poor are called ‘Hands,’ making plain the rich’s perspective that the poor are just more machines to do work for them instead of people.
Hard Times is a great example of social-change fiction, in that it provides the reader with an easily translatable and relatable parable of a society with severe wealth inequalities in Coketown. By focusing on several different characters in different situations, we see how this kind of society affects all walks of life - there is Sissy's entrance in the education system of Coketown, which increasingly stresses conformity and submission of feminine strength (as exemplified through Louisa). Furthermore, the union struggle to gain rights while threatening to take profits away from the wealth occurs with Stephen's storyline; he attempts to navigate the tough world of union negotiations, as he wants to do the right thing to settle disputes between employer and employee, even if the other Hands disagree. Furthermore, the whole of Coketown, and Gradgrind's philosophy, comment on the ways modern society was changing in the wake of the Industrial Revolution - by making production more mechanized, people became more mechanized as well. Dickens' well-drawn characters and deeply felt themes allow the reader to explore those changes, and how others rebelled against them.
While class and wealth inequalities are an ongoing problem even in today’s society, Dickens’ work contributed to a national conversation during the Victorian era that allowed for some positive changes to be made. His Pickwick Papers are noted as being a strong factor in shutting down of the Fleet Prison for debtors, allowing tangible results to come about from his writing. By writing about the working poor in a sensitive and sympathetic way, readers of all classes could start being confronted with the realities of Victorian-era living, and the plight of the impoverished. The situation would never be fully resolved, but substantial changes came in the light of the Elizabethan era, with the rise of the welfare state in the 20th century (Burton, 2001). Nonetheless, despite the lack of significant changes during the Victorian era, Charles Dickens’ trenchant satire of the strict class and caste system in place during this point in British history allowed the national conversation to be turned significantly toward the poor. By addressing these wealth inequalities in significant ways during the time period itself, Dickens raised awareness of the problem to a sufficient degree that people believed something had to be done about it. While poverty is still an issue in this country, Dickens’ work made people aware of the hypocrisy of Victorian-era society in England.
Burton, A (editor). (2001). Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader. Palgrave
Dickens, C. (1854). Hard Times. Norton Critical Edition (3rd ed).
Mill, J. S. (1998). Utilitarianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.