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Young girl from DICKENS
Poor Londoner from DICKENS

Social Critic

Dickens the Social Critic
by Joel J. Brattin

In a letter to his friend Wilkie Collins dated September 6, 1858, Dickens writes powerfully of the importance of social engagement and the ultimate impossibility of fleeing from the responsibilities of this social world into some kind of private refuge. (Perhaps Dickens was looking at the evidence presented in his own early novels, in which his good characters often retreat from the world, as if defeated by it.) He tells Collins that everything that happens "shews beyond mistake that you can't shut out the world -- that you are in it to be of it -- that you get yourself into a false position the moment you try to sever yourself from it -- and that you must mingle with it, and make the best of it, and make the best of yourself into the bargain."

His writings are charged with indignation at the social conditions surrounding him.

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Anton Lesser as Dickens
Learn about the rations the poor consigned to workhouses had to subsist on in the 1830s.

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Dickens was always a social critic, because he was always aware that we live in a society and must treat one another accordingly. He was eager to reveal the often shameful ways in which we behave, and to make careful judgments about how we might act with greater decency, generosity, and fairness to one another.

Ever a keen observer of reality, Dickens depicted what he saw with precision in his novels and journalism. Since what he saw in the world fell far short of the ideal to which he aspired, his writings are charged with indignation at the social conditions surrounding him. He considers the plight of abandoned, neglected, and abused children in virtually all of his novels, but perhaps most powerfully in such books as OLIVER TWIST, THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP, and DOMBEY AND SON. Dickens reveals the human cost of drug and alcohol abuse in many works, notably SKETCHES BY BOZ, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. In LITTLE DORRIT, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, he examines issues of social class, snobbery, and prejudice, foundations on which a great deal of social injustice and cruelty rest. And in THE PICKWICK PAPERS and MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT, Dickens exposes hypocrisy and selfishness, which lie at the root of various kinds of social evil.

Other specific ills that drew Dickens' attention have since been ameliorated, in part, perhaps, due to his influence. But the evils he considers often remain problematic in other forms.

Dickens' condemnation of the New Poor Law and the workhouse, of the hard-hearted "philosophers" who create and administer such poverty programs, and of the cruelty and abuse such systems entail, is an essential part of OLIVER TWIST and OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. There are no workhouses now -- but he would be appalled by the institutions and attitudes that allow poverty to continue today.

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