Charles Dickens and 19th century England - Maxicours

Charles Dickens and 19th century England

Objectifs
  • Découvrir un aspect de la thématique d'étude art et contestation
  • Approfondir ses connaissances sur la vie et l'œuvre de Charles Dickens
Points clés
  • Dickens est un auteur emblématique du 19me siècle anglais. Dans ses écrits, il dénonçait les injustices sociales croissantes à l'ère de l'industrialisation :
    • pauvreté,
    • conditions et lieux de vie sordides
    • l'exploitation des orphelins par les adultes censés les protéger (Oliver Twist)
    • privation de nourriture dans les internats (Nicholas Nickleby)
  • Il met en avant la distinction entre les classes sociales basée sur l'argent. Un argent qui sert aux riches à faire prévaloir leur supériorité sur les classes inférieures.
  • Cet attachement à traiter des questions sociales s'explique par son expérience personnelle : son père fut emprisonné et lui-même forcé d'arrêter ses études pour travailler à l'usine, à seulement 12 ans.

When you think of English  literature in the  19th century, you immediately think of Charles Dickens and his name is now associated with that period known as the Victorian era that he did not hesitate to attack in his writings. Indeed, Dickens was a social critic who used his imagination to denounce all kinds of abuses that fell upon his fellow citizens at a time when industrialization started to appear.

1. Moral and Social Abuses

Preoccupied by the welfare of the people, Charles Dickens’ social criticism appeared as early as he wrote his first book, Sketches by Boz (1836). These sketches, or caricatures, of the English society allowed him to depict what surrounded him: squalid slums, poverty, prostitution...
Even though he will attack medicine, politics or law in The Pickwick Papers (1837), it is one of his most famous novels, Oliver Twist, that will give him the opportunity to tackle some institutions like the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which he hated because it criminalised the poor by claiming that the latter were idle and did not want to work, preferring the help of the government: in the workhouse the orphans are exploited by the adults who are supposed to look after them. The novel also depicts the poor living conditions of some of his characters (thieves, murderers, prostitutes...) who have to be very imaginative to make ends meet.
In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens will describe the terrible conditions of boarding schools where schoolmasters abuse the children. There, pupils had to starve and do chores instead of studying!

The workhouses where the children were sent to work were often squalid places which perpetuated misery, poverty, starvation and death.

In Dombey and Son, Dickens is no longer interested in individuals, he feels more concerned with society itself, and more particularly the industrialized society of the 19th century. In the novel, Mr Dombey does not care about humanity, he is proud and selfish because he has succeeded, and of course his pride will lead him to his downfall. We can also notice that one of Dickens’ preoccupations were to emphasize the distinction between social classes, the differences being based on money which the upper class uses to show how superior they are.
Dickens’ other famous novels like Bleak House, Great Expectations or Hard Times all deal with social themes, too. Degraded morality, corruption, lack of justice for the poor can be found in the pages of these novels.
But why was Charles Dickens so captivated by moral and social issues?

2. A Difficult Childhood

When Dickens was a child, his father was arrested and taken to the Marshalsea prison because he could not pay his debts. This terrible episode left an indelible stain in Dickens’ mind who considered his father’s imprisonment as an injustice.
He, whose dream was to become a gentleman, was consequently forced to stop studying and was sent working in a warehouse. He worked long hours attaching labels on pots of blacking for six shillings a week. We can assume that his interest in social matters were born when he was 12 years old and never left him, using his pen to disclose it.

3. Conclusion

Any novel by Charles Dickens deals with social or moral issues. They are worth reading, all the more as only he could find the words to strike a chord with his readers and give an accurate account of the situation in England in the 19th century. Oliver Twist, Pip, David Copperfield, Fagin or Estella will tell you more about that period than any social book.

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