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Dedication to a better world
To interest and affect the general mind ¡n behalf of anything that ¡S clearly wrong - to stimulate and rouse the public soul to a compassionate orindignant feeling that it must not be - without obtruding any pet theory of cause and cure, and so throwing off allies as they spring up - I believe to be one of Fiction's highest uses. And this ¡S the use which I try to turn it (Slater 363).
This explanation by Charles Dickens about the use of fiction describes his self-imposed duty towards the British society of Victorian England perfectly. Charles Dickens was not only a novelist. He was, because of his “extraordinary nature, the durability, and the extent of his popularity” during lifetime, obliged to “a unique - public responsibility as a writer”(Slater 49). Since his major breakthrough with The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was seen as one of the most prominent characters of Victorian time. Thereby, not only his readership but more importantly his influence on society grew steadily. Being aware of his potential to influence public opinions on certain topics, Dickens tried to create ethical awareness by treating his fiction as “a springboard for debates about moral and social reforms”(Diniejko).
Of particular importance to Dickens was his urge to give a voice for the mute and neglected, to the dregs of society, who were avoided by good citizens and oblivious to the men of authority. To the poor and especially their children, Dickens felt the strongest sense of responsibility and his aim was to “bring the plight of these children and the social danger that they represented, to the attention of the middle-class public as strikingly as possible”(Slater 53). As Dickens matured ¡n his assignment of decreasing social injustice, his “interests shifted gradually from the examination of individual social ¡แS to the examination of the state of society, particularly its laws, education, industrial relations, the terrible conditions of the poor”(Diniejko). Thus he not merely wanted to evoke a moral conscience within his readership, but also to initiate a profound change ¡n political economy and legislation to the support of people ¡n need.
Determined by the rapid Industrial Revolution, the society degenerated to an application of a distorted utilitarianism. This misinterpreted application of Benthams utility, can be condensed to the idea, that someone acts properly when his action causes the greatest happiness possible ¡n a certain situation. This led to an exploitation of the philosophical conception of utilitarianism for bare individualism and selfishness and clearly was not Benthams instruction for society and even less Dickens idea for a Christian, altruistic British Empire.
Because of the sublime exposure of these ill self-interest ¡n the industrial society and his major influence on society, “of all the nineteenth-century novelists, Dickens ¡S the one we most often think of as a reformer” (Claybaugh 46). In prove of that, this essay examines Dickens critique on the distorted utilitarian politics especially among the aristocracy of Victorian England, which he found responsible for the devastating living conditions and sinister prospects of the poor. The detailed research will be based on the novel Bleak House.
The instructions of utilitarianism on the moral good of an action, were expressed explicitly for the first time by the barrister Jeremy Bentham ¡n the year of the French Revolution. In his ethics, Bentham tried to find a general moral for proper decision-making. His solution claimed that a decision ¡S ethical, if it maximises the utility. Critics described the idea as an attempt of rational calculation on sentiments like pleasure and suffering. Initially humans tend to seek only their own happiness, rather than contributing their power to the common good. To shine a light on the importance of a pleasant social coexistence, utilitarian wanted society to realise that their own fortune will come out most positively if their pursuit of happiness ¡S not self concentrated but ¡n the best interest possible of the common weal (cf. Biller 30f.). John Stuart Mill, an exponent of Benthams philosophy detailed ¡n his book utilitarianism that the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility , or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are rich ¡n proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness ¡S intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure (Mill 12).
Although the utilitarian philosophy became predominant ¡n ¡n Victorian England, the moral virtue gone astray during the rapid change ¡n society, especially ¡n economy. The labour theory of value ¡n the utilitarianism regarded that “labour ¡S ¡n principle a pain, a price paid to gain a larger payback on the pleasure side” (Blake 13). Due to the Industrial Revolution it was now possible for middle-class businessman to become wealthy and influential. Dickens for example depicts Mr. Rouncewell ¡n his novel Bleak House as a social climber through his economic success. But the pursuit of happiness became more and more a pursuit to coin money. Greed and selfishness ruled the economy, and culminated into industrial anarchy. “The upper class had failed ¡n their task of governing” and the aristocracy was “arrogantly indolent and inert”(Cazamian 86) and so a Laissez-faire economics developed. To put it plainly, also when officially not allowed to, industrials were now able to fix wages of their workers and prices for their products without serious government supervision. Workers especially ¡n lower class suffered from these conditions, because they brought along not only increasing rents and prices for food but also lower wages with simultaneous longer working hours. For them the utilitarian principle to gain more pleasure than pain by going to work, was no longer true. Thomas Carlyle described this decline ¡n values to the cost of the poor as brutish godforgetting Profit-and-Loss Philosopy and Life-Theory, which we hear jangled on all hands of US, ¡n senate-houses, spouting-clubs, leading-articles, pulpits and platforms, everywhere as the Ultimate Gospel and candid Plain-English of Man's Life, from throats and pens and thoughts of all - but all men (Ca- zamian 87)!
Dickens followed Carlyle's criticism on the ill condition of Victorian society. And although he was not the first novelist to draw attention “to the deprivation of the lower classes ¡n England, he was much more successful than his predecessors ¡n exposing the ¡แS of the industrial society including class division, poverty, bad sanitation, privilege and meritocracy”. (Diniejko)
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and the consequences for the poor, is one of the most issued topic of Dickens social criticism.
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