Charles Dickens is generally considered one of the most important English writers. He lived during the Victorian Age which, as we know, it was a very long period which goes from 1837 to 1901. From a literary point of view Dickens belongs to the first Victorian : he wrote a great number of novels such as : “Hard times” “David Copperfield” “Oliver Twist”etc.. Dickens’ novels were all strongly influenced by his own experiences, experiences which can be regarded/considered as typical of his time. At the age of 12 he had to work 12 hours a day in a factory and, consequentely, had little education (istruzione). His family was so poor that they were all sent to debtors’ prison. As a consequence Dickens learnt at an early age how hard/difficult it was to survive in Victorian England without money. These experiences led him to simpathise with the poor and lower classes and encouraged him to write about them in his works.
He exposed the social injustices and the inhumanities of his day, focusing especially on the exploitation of children. This made his work a potentially powerful instrument for social and political propaganda. However, although he highlighted the injusticies of his society, he didn’t suggest a desire for revolutionary changes but rather advocated solutions through social reforms. In other words Dickens was, just for this, considered an optimistic writer who believed in progress.
His famous novel “Oliver Twist” was, like many of Dickens works, published in instalments and set out to expose the terrible situation of the workhouses and the exploitaton of the children who were sent there. In the specific passage “Oliver wants more”, the orphan Oliver speaks for all the other hungry children in the workhouse asking for more food at the end of his meal, something which had been never done before. Those in authority at the workhouse saw this as a scandal and outrage and as a result Oliver was sold for 5 pounds. In this short scene Dickens wants to underline both the tragic situation of the children and the brutality and indifference of those in authority. Moreover the fact that Oliver was sold emphasizes the Victorian concept of business and profit in which a child was seen as little more than an object to exploit.
This extract reveals Dickens’ awareness of the social problems of his time such as the eploitation of children in the workhouses run by parish and built to give relief to the poor. As Dickens point out, instead of alleviating the sufferings of the poor the officials who ran workhouses caused more misery eploiting the children.
Dickens doesn’t make a political statement in his works and even the tragic situation of the scene reported is off-set (controbilanciata) by its humorous content. Those in charge of the workhouse are comical stereotypes and their over-reaction/exageration to Oliver’s request makes them appear much more child-like than the boy himself. But this is one element of Dickens’ genius: always presenting some irony or humour in what would otherwise be a tragic event .
Two opposing worlds are put into comparison by Dickens denouncing the gap (divario) between them : the world of the poor and the world of the rich are presented through a series of antithetical images : the first thin and submitted, the second fat and insensible to the feelings of the poor.
Hard times: the definition of a horse
In this extract Dickens wants to illustrate the dangers of the teaching method called “objective method” used by Mr Gradgrind, a typical Victorian teacher, strict and cruel, who believes in facts and statistics as the only measure of reality thus repressing imagination and feelings and turning human beings into machines. ( The novel is a clear criticism to materialism and narrow-mindness of Utilitarianism, which was the basic Victorian attitude to economics: a materialistic philosophy that encouraged reform and struggled to extend education to all, BUT at the same time seemed to exclude aspects of education such as imagination and the full development of the individual). The scene is set in a classroom where Mr Gradgring is giving a lesson to his students divided in boys and girls considered numbers rather than real people or even “pitchers to be filled” : it’s clear the teacher’s strict harsh discipline which aimed to uniformity/conformity attacked by Dickens not only in education but also in the architecture of the new industrial towns.
The characters of this extract are Mr Gradgrind, the girl and the boy. When the teacher asked the girl to give the definition of a horse she was unable to give it after he had shown all his contempt (disprezzo) for the girl and her father. It was the boy, named Blitzer who gave the appropriate defination according the strict method used by the teacher : “ ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous …Forty teeth…….see lines 63-66.
It's interesting to know that Dickens was a pioneer in introducing the theme of education intoprose fiction. He believed in the extension of education to all citizenzs; yet he did not offer specific strategies for achieving this aim. He only exposed what he considered abuses and deficiencies. Nevertheless In the year of his death, Parliament passed the Elementary Education Act, which inaugurated compulsory schooling.