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Was Charles Dickens a social progressive?
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Dickens defended the colonial privileges of Europeans and displayed racism

Dickens, like many people of his time, endorsed the British Empire and its colonial aims to conquer non-western nations, and dismissed the cultures of indigenous peoples as primitive and inferior to the British way of life in his writings "The Noble Savage" and "The Frozen Deep".


The British Empire: the countries conquered and ruled by Britain, largely in the Victorian era; the controllers of the Empire committed many atrocities against colonised people but were largely supported by British society

The Argument

Although Dickens did not advocate eugenics (a pseudoscience based on breeding a master race) or curtailing the rights of minorities in Britain, he was a supporter of the British Empire and largely dismissed the harm it did, considering non-European cultures to be primitive and uncivilised. In an 1853 essay on Native Americans called "The Noble Savage", Dickens ridicules the stereotype that non-European peoples were happier because they lived in unadvanced societies without modern technology to trouble them. This stereotype is obviously racist and dismissive of generations of indigenous cultures, but Dickens did not counter it out of an attempt to be anti-racist: he instead believed that Native Americans and other non-European people were savage and murderous, and needed to be subjected to European colonialism to improve them. He expressed the same view when writing about the Inuit people of Canada, Alaska and Greenland, again emphasising his belief that only white Europeans should be in control of land and resources. This is obviously a damaging view, and one which has deeply affected British perceptions of different cultures. He also criticised Indian people in British-occupied India, blaming them for damage caused in rebellions against their oppressors and even stating in a letter to Baroness Burdett-Coutts that he wished to exterminate them, which is a shockingly extreme view. Dickens' belief that some people were simply better and more "civilised" than others by virtue of their birth also seems at odds for a writer so concerned with social mobility amongst the poor, but emphasises that like many writers of his generation, he was not immune to racism.

Counter arguments

When assessing the racist and colonial attitudes of people of Dickens' era, we have to recognise that almost every white British Victorian will express racist views to some degree, so when we compare Dickens to others of his era, although his views weren't wholly non-racist, they were much better than many of his contemporaries. His biographers assert that he did not support scientific racism or fewer rights for minority groups in Britain, but that his racism rather stemmed from belief in the superiority of the British Empire, a common teaching at the time. Dickens was strongly against American slavery and disagreed with the harshness of treatment towards African-Americans, and scholar Grace Moore believes that later in his life, he became more and more sympathetic to the plight of those colonised by the British. Additionally, Dickens challenged his own racist attitudes in the novel "Oliver Twist" when critiqued by a Jewish woman, Eliza Davies, and in later reprints of the novels eliminated references to the character Fagin as "the Jew" as well as creating a sympathetic Jewish character in his novel "Our Mutual Friend".



Dickens criticised non-European cultures, including those of Native Americans, Inuit people, and Indian people, for being primitive in many of his writings. His views were at times shockingly extreme. His racist views seem at odds with his more progressive views regarding class, but show that he was a product of his time, and that he did not try to think critically or change his opinions about the British Empire.

Rejecting the premises

Almost all British people of Dickens' era were similarly racist, and many much more so, so we should recognise that he did not advocate diminished civil rights or scientific racism. He spoke out against American slavery of black people. He removed anti-Semitic elements from "Oliver Twist" in its later publications.


This page was last edited on Tuesday, 14 Jul 2020 at 10:45 UTC

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