Dickens and Social Reform


After reading through Dickens greatest novel, I have to say I am thoroughly impressed at the amazing vision and wisdom Dickens possessed. Sure the novel was a cash grab. But If that was the entire purpose of his writing, he would not have raised controversial questions and deep, moralistic concerns about Victorian England in Bleak House. But he does.

I feel like it is very very relevant to the modern world. How? Well you could read through my final paper and tell me what you think!

What are the most effective steps towards social reform?

This is a question greatly relevant to the 21st century as it was in 19th century Victorian England; the ills of which Charles Dickens illustrates in his most successful novel Bleak House. Dickens was a life long reformer with a deep concern for the welfare of his society and it is no surprise that he used the novel as a medium to comment on the social issues of the Victorian era. Bleak House in particular however, is especially through and scathing in it’s depiction of the degrading society Dickens inhabited with it’s unjust legal institutions – especially the Chancery, describing as a “coherent scheme” – and rampant economic injustices on the orphans and the poor. But nowhere in the novel does Dickens lay out a clear recipe for reform. Bleak House possess a wealth of characters from lords, lawyers, doctors, money lenders, house wives, maids and other folk. Yet none of the protagonists in the novel are actively engaged in lobbying, politics, petitioning or other activities associated with reform movements and the most positive of them are those that seem to distance themselves from the institutions presented in the novel. This is because Dickens had no “right” answer for this age old question and he, like us today, had a difficult time understanding how best to approach reform. Dickens however, did have a special conviction – that appears frequently in Bleak House through characters of Ester, Jarndyce, Woodcourt and George- which he believed to be the first step to combating any social ill. He believed strongly that the first step to reforming society was for individuals to have empathy for their fellow man and that this was the spark for change.

Why does empathy play such a crucial role in social reform? Can we not just throw money at the worlds problems to hire lobbyists to push for laws or enacting massive welfare programs? To answers these questions, we need to look at some of the caricatured characters in Bleak House. As mentioned before, no protagonists in the novel are actively campaigning for social reform in England. The ones that are campaigning however, are quite terrible at it and are made the target of Dickens scathing tirades. They are as Mr. Jarndyce decribes “[T]he people who did a little and made a great deal of noise”. Two examples are Mrs. Jellyby, the irresponsible mother of Caddy and Mrs. Pardiggle; the hypocritical and insincere philanthropist. These two women are mocked by Dickens and portrayed in a very negative light even though they are engaged in seemingly humanitarian and reformist occupations. Mrs. Jellyby loses sleep over a tribe in Africa while Mrs. Pardiggle relentlessly (seemingly) champions the plight of the poor. Though they are engaged in positive, reformist activities aimed at better the lives of other people, they lack the key ingredient of empathy in what they do. Mrs. Jellyby is insensitive towards her family and neglects her responsibility as a mother and is completely devoid of empathy or care towards her daughter Caddy. She is not empathetic towards those in front of her – her own flesh and blood – but worries about a distant Booria-booli-Gah; the people of whom she had never met. Mrs. Pardiggle does what she does not because she has a legitimate concern for the poor of England, but for the fame and the headlines of the newspaper. This type of insincerity is – as Dickens points out – a social ill as well and actually halts the process of reform.

Whereas Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle are an illustration of how legitimate, socially positive programs can end up halting the process of reform, Mr. Tulkinghorn and Mr. Vholes are a representation of the status quo that work against it. They are lawyers with the sacred duty of upholding justice, so why are they engaged in the social ill of injustice? Mr. Tulkinghorn’s facial expression is flat and repressive as the “Old school” he represents. He and Mr. Vholes are both cold and distant and inexorable in keeping the cogs of Chancery turning. Throughout the novel, both Tulkinghorn and Vholes play an integral part in ruining the lives of others (Lady Deadlock and Richard) and thereby neglecting their duty as upholders of justice. Again, Dickens makes it clear that the fundamental problem in these two men is their lack of empathy for the people they serve. In the case of Tulkinghorn, he is not empathetic towards Lady Deadlock and chooses his ego over common sense when he decides to reveal her secret. Mr. Vholes on the other hand extends no empathy towards Richard – his client – even though understanding full well that he is headed for ruin. Thus, Dickens uses Tulkinghorn and Vholes to illustrate how a lack of empathy towards others persists social ills. Dickens, throughout Bleak House is strongly suggesting that in order to do the right thing and engage in social reform, empathy is a per-requisite. Without it everything becomes a cost-benefit analysis an individual. This is why Tulkinghorn gathers secretes – to have power over others. This is why Vholes stays in the profession- for the monetary benefit. Mr. Smallweed – the grumpy, disabled and ugly money lender – however, take this cost-benefit way of dealing with people to heart. Not only does he lack empathy towards any living soul, but his entire family tree is such and Dickens paints him as a clear retardant of society’s progress; to make this point, he eagerly describes Mr. Smallweed’s many vices and his oppression towards Mr. George. It is clear thus that a lack of empathy is an innate quality of the villains of Bleak House and it is this quality that causes them to be so heinous and oppressive to society, thus slowing reform.

What about the positive characters of Bleak House such as Ester Summerson, Mr. Jarndyce, Allan Woodcourt and Mr. George? Throughout the novel, they are the ones that captures the readers sympathies and respect but what is it about them that makes this so? It is undoubtedly their over flowing empathy for other human beings. None of these characters, as mentioned before, are actively engaged in social reform such as taking on the Chancery, petitioning for child labor laws etc. Ester takes care of Caddy because she is empathetic towards her; Mr. Jarndyce donates generously because he is empathetic towards the poor; Woodcourt helps others because he is empathetic towards their suffering; George shelters Joe and Gridly because he is empathetic towards their condition. They are ordinary folk who have the capacity to show compassion towards others and make no excuses when presented with an opportunity to do good. But does their empathy actively make the society a better place? Are there tangible results that we can see? Yes. For example, Ester is the antithesis of Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle. The latter two women are engaged in vigorous missions which show very little result but in the case of Esther, her simple acts of sincere kindness have an instrumental effect on several people and to society at large. The same goes with Mr. Jarndyce. He can be categorized as those types of people “…who did a great deal and made no noise at all”. Jarndyce is selfless in his ability to give and is absolutely resolute in helping those who cannot help themselves. He takes in Esther, funds philanthropic missions and helps the Neckett children and makes very little “noise” about it. But it is his genuine empathy towards the poor that – unsurprisingly – produces results (in the form of Esther and Charley).

Ester’s relationship with Caddy is perhaps the greatest example of the reformation of an individual that starts with a single act of kindness. At their initial meeting, Ester is the first to comfort Caddy and listen to her woes about how her mother treats her. Ester then shares a legitimate and empathetic concern for Caddy’s well being and throughout the course of the novel, acts as her confidant, motivator, protector, caretaker and friend as Caddy transforms from a bitter and overworked child into a blossoming women. Dickens is using the transformation of Caddy to illustrate the power of empathy and how it can be instrumental in changing not just an individual, but society at large. We need only to look at the civil rights movement to understand the power of empathy. The march to Birmingham was significant in the movement because the US population at large witnessed, for the first time, the brutality of police and the injustices committed towards African Americans. The march evoked a strong pathos – an empathetic response from the public – and it is this momentum that served as the spark of reform.

What if being empathetic towards others causes no change at all? Trooper George and Dr. Allan Woodcourt is an illustration of this scenario. George is broke and in a very hard place yet he extends his simple shelter to Joe and Mr. Gridly; both of who end up dying under his roof. Woodcourt is also involved as he is the one who shows great empathy towards Joe and works tirelessly to cure him (bringing him to George). It seems thus, as if Mr. George’s actions amounted to nothing; but when looked at with a different perspective, it is clear that the refuge George provides to Joe allows for Ester and company to be present at his death. And this traumatically saddening death makes everyone in the room aware of the plight of the orphaned and neglected poor – especially Mr. Snagsby who seems especially moved. Dickens wants the reader to feel the same way, as evident by the passage “Dead your Majesty….. thus dying around us every day.” The same is during Gridly’s death when an adamant Mr. Bucket is even moved to pity poor Gridly. Sometimes, it this awareness and pathos that can act as a spark for reform.

The fact still remains – George’s empathy towards Joe and Gridly produces no tangible result as in the case of Ester and Caddy; We can deduct through this, that Dickens wants us to understand reform is a sluggish and arduous process. It is the culmination of varied, small acts of various individuals. The proof of this is the ending of Bleak House. The many social ills Dickens so vehemently exposes in the novel are never resolved. The protagonists find happiness more or less but the general society continues as it was before – particularly the Chancery. It is Dickens belief – as evident in how he ends Bleak House – that reform does not come about suddenly or even with one individual. It is a steady and tedious process through which one must patiently persevere and never loose heart in doing good whenever given the chance. Bleak House by it’s very nature is not a manifesto. It is merely a portrait evoking strong pathos in the hope that one might be more empathetic towards their fellow men. Though the process of reform is twisting and confusing and no right answer seems to exist on how best to approach it, Dickens maintains that empathy – no matter how big or how small the problem might be – is the first step. It is Dickens core belief that we cannot hope to rectify society unless and until we have a legitimate concern for the people in it. This is why Dickens paints portraits of the suffering and delivers criticisms of social ills in his novels and why they are much more than mass entertainment of the 19th century.


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