Dickens as a liberal reformer, not a revolutionary, decided to take as his subject “The dregs of life”, the underworld of London, which he said in his preface had been glamorised by other authors for their own reasons. (“The Beggar’s Opera” etc.) He wanted to look at the reality of these people, “in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid misery of their lives”. With a moralistic intention Dickens wrote that it “would be to attempt something that is needed, and which would be a service to society”.
Dickens is interested in causality, so the story doesn’t begin in the criminal world, but in an institution which the government has created for the relief and the help of the poor, it is a part of a programme of reform, established and approved by parliament, and here Dickens’ attack on society and the institutions of society begins. His criticism is of contemporary evils, not the past, it is topical.
He begins writing three years after a new system of administering relief to the poor was set up by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, and it is based on fact. In “Oliver Twist” Dickens’ criticism are shown through the fate of VICTIMS of the social system seen in relationship to the individuals and the institutions around them. Oliver is the completely innocent victim. The Artful Dodger is the victim corrupted by the system. Nancy is the victim who begins to realise the need to help other people because she sees that it is possible to save Oliver from the system.
In “Oliver Twist” Dickens attacks:
1. The value the Victorians give to respectability. Oliver’s mother runs away from home because she feels she cannot stay at home and produce an illegitimate baby.
2. The double values of Victorian life, one for men and one for women. Dickens shows some scenes with prostitutes. Prostitution was on the increase in Victorian life while people gave more and more emphasis to appearance as opposed to reality.
3. The old and the new Poor Laws are criticised, the irresponsible and corrupt institutions they create and the public which closes its eyes to the evils which arise out of them.
4. A society which does nothing to protect children being exploited by criminality and being exploited for their working potential, (chimney-sweeps) and which allows inhumane and sadistic treatment of children in its institutions.
5. A society which regards poverty as a crime.
Charles Dickens - Social Criticism in “Hard Times”
Dickens criticises the capitalist owner of industry through Josiah Bounderby, Victorian individualism in caricature, in its grossest form, with self assurance, power, material success, and no interest in ideas and ideals. He typifies the industrialists’ “lassaire-faire” attitude; that private enterprise has created industrial wealth and the government has no business to interfere with reform. They follow Adam Smith’s calculation that higher wages and better conditions would raise the price of the product, create a competitive market where there would always be workmen prepared to do the same work for less money, so it was best to keep wages and conditions at subsistence level.
Dickens is also critical of the radical reformers: Bentham, James Mill and of Utilitarianism. Coketown is seen as a product of industrialism, but also of reform. The poverty, criminality and vice are not seen in the streets, as in “Oliver Twist”. Instead there is a monotonous uniformity which is what Utilitarianism creates through the cold calculus of what man can produce, when his conditions of life are improved, and his imaginative life is forgotten. The circus people, in contrast to the town and the school, have life, creativity, art, warmth and humanity.
Utilitarian based education is criticised in Thomas Gradgrind’s school and home. Sissy, with her darkness, romance and bewilderment of the system, is put into contrast with the cold, pale Bitzer, who is the perfect product of Utilitarian teaching.
At school, imagination is methodically wiped out and facts insisted upon. Only Sissy shows warmth for flowers on the carpet and horses on the wall paper. Her real knowledge of horses in the circus is rejected. “We don’t want to know about that here ... You are never to fancy!”
However Gradgrind develops as a character and admits his mistakes. He begins to realise that the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people only works if the happiness comes from desires and actions which promote the happiness of others, not of the self.