One of the defining aspects of Dickens’ vision, and indeed, one that sets him apart from his predecessors, is the extent to which he intertwines social commentary into his narratives. A pioneer of psychological character depth and of realistic fiction, Dickens is able to spin timeless tales with a moralizing message without seeming heavy-handed or gimmicky in so doing. Instead, he imbues his works with universal, even archetypal human themes and treats them as a natural vehicle for societal critique. And, writing in a time of polarizing change, in which industry was growing unchecked, children worked alongside adults in factories or struggled in the streets or in draconian reform schools, and labor laws were in their infancy, Dickens faced no dearth of issues to critique.
Though hedged-in on all sides by perceived corruption and iniquity, Dickens seems to take greater issue with certain social issues than others, and fittingly ascribes them more textual space. One such paramount issue was 19th century society’s treatment of children: their family life, upbringing, and education (or lack thereof). Though the flavor of his social commentary vacillates over the course of his career, the treatment of the young seems to be a common thread through most, if not all of his novels.
Oliver Twist, his second major novel, and
David Copperfield both center around the difficulties faced by a young boy struggling through economic and social adversity to make his fortune. Through the two novels, Dickens illuminates the dysfunctionality of the institutions and legislation established to provide for such unfortunates; Oliver Twist, a child of 19th century England’s reform schools for boys, little more than workhouses, is a testament to their cruelty and ineffectiveness. Not even the more fortunate children born into upper-class families are immune to society’s pathological mishandling of children: Paul Dombey, prized by his father not out of a natural, paternal love, but for his potential for material gain, is shipped off to school despite his illness, and there he dies, far from home.
Dickens’ attention to the hardship endured by urban child laborers is likely a product of his own experience, as suggested by the familiar story of his time spent pasting labels on pots of boot blacking in a dismal factory basement. Biographical information on Dickens relates that he was stricken by an extreme sense of disgust, hopelessness, and despair at his situation, and that he would have done anything to escape it. The situation may not have been entirely without merit, however, as that desire to elevate himself from it may have contributed to his success as a writer. While his time spent in manual labor was relatively brief thanks to his own intelligence and creativity, it clearly affected him profoundly, and its lasting impact is evident in his work.
Perhaps nowhere in Dickens’ work does he paint so compelling a picture of the plight of the young as in one of his later novels,
Great Expectations. Through its mythic and epic narrative of the coming-of-age of a young boy, the novel echoes themes of his earlier works that address the subject, while imbuing it with a new level of psychological depth. Though Pip isn’t forced to labor in the workhouses or live in a reform school, he is a testament to the second-class, even subhuman classification of children in English society.
The Christmas dinner scene is a telling (and humorous) vignette on the general conception of children as inferior and beholden to their elders by virtue of their very existence – in Pip’s case, of having been “bought up by hand” (7) by his sister, Mrs. Joe. Through the criticisms of Mrs. Joe and the rest of the adult dinner guests, it becomes apparent that they view children as somehow more susceptible to original sin than themselves. Indeed, when posed the rhetorical question, “why is it that the young are never grateful?” Mr. Hubble responds, in his platitudinal wisdom, “Naterally wicious” (206). Pip’s conception of himself caught in this moralizing crossfire as “an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena” (25) seems a fitting one, and symbolic of the unnatural difficulty faced by all children in a society with such unrealistic expectations of them.
Through Pip’s humble upbringings, his resultant awakening to his menial social status, and his hubric rise and fall in society, Dickens exposes, poignantly, the excessive emphasis placed on material wealth and its capacity to pervert those who buy into in the empty promises of climbing the capitalist ladder.