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Dickens
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Life & Career
Introduction Writings Serial Publication Social Critic American Journeys

Social Critic

His exposure of the Yorkshire schools, where unwanted children were confined with the promise to parents that there would be no vacations, is central to NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. Dickens found inadequate education abhorrent, and he returns to the theme frequently, depicting cruel, incompetent, and unimaginative educators in such novels as DAVID COPPERFIELD, HARD TIMES, and OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. (In HARD TIMES, he satirizes utilitarian educators who stifle the life and creativity of their students by giving one of those teachers the appropriate name of Mr. M'Choakumchild.) The Yorkshire schools have disappeared -- but public education continues to fall far short of what it might be.

Dickens delves into the abuses of the Victorian legal and penal systems in many novels, most particularly THE PICKWICK PAPERS, DAVID COPPERFIELD, BLEAK HOUSE, and LITTLE DORRIT. He considers the human cost of imprisonment for debt, depicting the debasement, the shabby conditions, and the diminishment of dignity and self-respect it fosters. No one is imprisoned for debt today -- but our prisons remain crowded breeding grounds for misery and crime.

Dickens' social criticism and engagement with the world extended beyond his fiction.

"Oliver Asking for More"
"Oliver Asking for More" by George Cruikshank, from BENTLEY'S MISCELLANY, Vol. 1 (February 1837).
In his travel book AMERICAN NOTES, Dickens exposes the horrors of slavery, devoting an entire chapter to the topic. Slavery in the United States ended in Dickens' lifetime -- but racism, the legacy of that shameful chapter in history, unfortunately, lives on.

In his historical novels BARNABY RUDGE and A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Dickens criticizes violence in society, examining how poverty, oppression, and prejudice create the conditions that allow a mob to act. These novels, and others like MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT, reveal the conditions that breed violence and the consequences that ensue. Though mob violence is now uncommon, violence in our society remains endemic.

Dickens' social criticism and engagement with the world extended beyond his fiction. He often gave readings for charitable causes and gave dozens of speeches on behalf of a wide variety of organizations. He organized amateur theatricals for charitable purposes and served as an officer or trustee on a variety of charitable boards such as the Guild of Literature and Art and the Royal General Theatrical Fund. He generously contributed his time and money to hospitals, mechanics' institutes, and soup kitchens; he campaigned tirelessly for health and sanitary reform, emigration schemes, prison reform, and a host of other causes. With the help of the wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts, Dickens devoted countless hours to the creation and management of Urania Cottage, an institution for homeless and "fallen" women, offering them a positive alternative to the prostitution and crime that would otherwise be their lot.

Dickens' imaginative world is large, complex, and densely populated -- just as the real world is. He understood the importance of living in the world rather than trying to escape from it. Through his keen observation and criticism of society in his richly imagined novels, Dickens helped to make the world a better place -- and his work continues to challenge us to do the same today.

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Photo Credits:
Robert D. Fellman Collection (left, middle and bottom right), used by permission of George C. Gordon Library, Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Library of Congress (top right).
Dickens' Contemporaries

Thomas Carlyle

The works of this historian and biographer greatly influenced Dickens.
Thomas Carlyle
Dickens Biography
Portrait of Charles Dickens
A profile from the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD BIOGRAPHY.

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Wrapper design for MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK
Wrapper design by George Cattermole for MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK, No. 4, (April 1840).
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