Charles Dickens Biography

A biography of author Charles Dickens, who wrote Tale Of Two Cities and Oliver Twist.

Charles Dickens was born in Landport, England in 1812. Charles' father, John Dickens, had difficulty supporting his family on a lower middle-class salary. When Charles was twelve his father was unable to pay his debts. The family sold all of their possessions, but it was not enough and Charles' father was sent to Marshalsea Prison. Charles's mother, Elizabeth, left Charles and joined her husband in prison. Charles was forced to fend for himself while living with relatives. He found a job working at Warren's Blacking Factory wrapping shoe-black bottles. The experience of living with the lower middle class was short lived, maybe six months, as Charles's father, John, was left a comfortable sum of money from a diseased relative. Part of the money was used to send Charles to school. There is some argument as to the amount and the extent of poverty Dickens actually experienced. Except for the six months his father was in prison, Dickens family was basically lower-middle class. Regardless, Dickens's experiences and observations made him a champion of the impoverished and children. Dickens weapon was his pen. He wrote semi-autobiographical novels that exposed the horrors of the poor and lower middle class, and depicted his deep hatred for how he was treated as a child.

An average student, at best, Charles left school and became an office boy at a law firm. He did not like the job and sought work as a reporter. Dickens was not yet writing fiction. He did begin to show an interest in the in-proper treatment of the poor and children. He started writing essays criticizing the social conditions in England. Newspapers in England had to pay a 4d. stamp duty. Most liberal papers did not pay the tax, because it drove the cost of the newspaper to high, which prevented the lower classes ""who the newspapers believed they were writing for""from purchasing the paper. The True Sun, however, did pay the tax and was a success. Dickens still felt the need to do more to reform society. He started writing novels that ridiculed the ruling classes based on his experiences and observations.

Oliver Twist

Many critics of his day, accused Dickens of glorifying the dregs of society in Oliver Twist. They believed by making the common thief, uncommon and empathetic, Dickens was setting them up as role models. Dickens believed by making his characters realistic, it would mean they would be at least likeable to each other. Oliver, of course is likeable, because of his total innocence. The Artful Dodger is likeable because he is pitiful and we see that in many ways he has no choice. The only way for him to survive is to behave in the way he does. He also displays loyalty towards Oliver and bravery.

Dickens wished to expose British society for what it was, a society of classes that ignored the lowest levels of the ladder. He wanted to show the rest of society that the lowest classes were not without a code of ethics, but just in need. He wanted to lay guilt upon the upper classes, in order to instill changes in Victorian society. Dickens contrasts the likeable dregs of society with the harshness of the upper classes. In chapter four, the board at the orphanage contemplates sending Oliver to sea as a mate. They had offered five pounds to anyone who would let the boy as an indentured servant. This was not because they were looking out for Oliver's well being. It illustrates how people with supposed class in Victorian society, were just as dishonorable, if not more, than the lowest thieves, and pickpockets. The board knows full well of the conditions aboard a ship and the treatment Oliver could expect. Dickens writes:

This suggested itself as the very best thing that the skipper would flog him to death in a playful mood some day after dinner or would knock his brains out with an iron bar, both pastimes being, as is pretty generally known, very favourite and common recreations among gentlemen of that class. (Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist. Chapter 4)

The board tries to justify that it would be best to send Oliver to sea, because it was the only way to provide for him. Dickens is criticizing a society that places its youngest members at risk, rather than simply provide them with the minimum of food and shelter. Dickens himself was forced to work, let as a child, and its obvious the experiences he had are being exaggerated here in order to create greater empathy for the plight of orphans and the poor

The more the case presented itself to the board, in this point of view, the more manifold the advantages of the step appeared; so they came to the conclusion that the only way of providing for Oliver effectually was to send him to sea without delay. (Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist. Chapter 4)

There are those in Victorian society that would argue the life of a mate is more honorable than the life of a beggar. They argue for the boy's soul; that a moral death at sea, is better than an immoral life in the streets. Not only that, they would rather have the dregs out of sight suffering at sea, than on the streets of London in the public's eye where they would invoke sympathy. Dickens says of these people:

The cold wet shelterless midnight streets of London; the foul and frowsy dens, where vice is closely packed and lacks the room to turn; the haunts of hunger and disease; the shabby rags that scarcely hold together; where are the attractions of these things? There are people, however, of so refined and delicate a nature, that they cannot bear the contemplation of such horrors. Not that they turn instinctively from crime; but that criminal characters, to suit them, must be, like their meat, in delicate disguise. (Dickens, Charles, Qtd. in Dickens Homepage "Preface" Oliver Twist. Accesed March 22, 1999)

Dickens is saying that the upper classes do not mind reading about criminal characters, but they want them to be totally immoral and without any redeeming qualities. However, Dickens realizes that everything is not black and white. Most criminals live in the gray areas. They make their best of their lives, like the happy Artful Dodger, even if they would prefer a life of higher standards, a life of an upper class person. The dregs of Victorian society are not the dregs, because they wish to be criminals and love a life of crime. They are the dregs, because this is what society has made them. They have no choice, in order to survive they must beg, borrow, and steal. In the same passage Dickens also implies that the upper classes were their roles reversed would act in a similar manner, "they cannot bear the contemplation of such horrors. Not that they turn instinctively from crime" (Dickens, Charles, Qtd. in Dickens Homepage "Preface" Oliver Twist. Accesed March 22, 1999).

The fact Dickens would find this reprehensible is obvious considering his mother and father were placed in debtors prison and he was separated from the family. The Act of 1834 made it basically illegal to be poor. Dickens knew very well that poverty was not a crime, and punishing the impoverished for nothing more than lack of wealth was wrong.

Dickens distaste for the Act of 1834 is apparent in chapter 4 of Oliver Twist,

I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him; whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron, could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. . . . There is only one thing I should like better, and that would be to see the philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish. (Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist, Chapter 4)

Dickens notes that he is not writing for the benefit of the upper classes. Dickens sole purpose for writing is to advance social change and help the dregs rise above the trash of the ghetto. He is not looking to make the people of "so refined and delicate a nature" comfortable. He wishes to arouse their horrors and emotions and knows just how to pull the strings that control their hearts. Dickens says:

I did not, for these readers, abate one hole in the Dodger's coat, or one scrap of curl-paper in Nancy's dishevelled hair. I had no faith in the delicacy which could not bear to look upon them. I had no desire to make proselytes among such people. I had no respect for their opinion, good or bad; did not covet their approval; and did not write for their amusement.

(Dickens, Charles, Qtd. in Dickens Homepage "Preface" Oliver Twist. Accesed March 22, 1999)

Dickens was the first British writer of his time to try and accurately depict real life characters with all of their faults and strong points. He did not wish to sugar coat his characters, but by showing their human sides and their squalor living conditions , he does gain empathy in spite of their hideousness.

The fact Dickens bases his characters on real life experiences can be found in the following passage where Mr. Brownlow asks Oliver if he would like to be a writer

Oliver considered a little while and at last said he should think it would be a much better thing to be a bookseller upon which the old gentleman laughed heartily and declared he had said a very good thing. . . . 'Don't be afraid. We won't make an author of you whilst there's an honest trade to be learnt, or brick-making to turn to. (Chapter 14)

The novel is an excellent example of how Dickens exaggerates his real life experiences to criticize Victorian society, in order try to bring about social reform from outside the system. Dickens exposes the hypocrisy of the upper middle class and wealthy in a way that relates to the everyday lives of working class citizens. The main goal was to repeal the Act of 1934, which Dickens found oppressively immoral. By creating characters, who are likeable, but with fault, Dickens develops a social bind that all of Victorian England can relate to, and use to create better economic conditions for everyone.

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