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Was Charles Dickens a social progressive?
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Dickens himself grew up in poverty

Dickens' father was bankrupted when Dickens was a child, leading to an experience of childhood poverty which he later drew on for his novels.


Debtors' jail: a prison where people who owed debts were incarcerated until they had worked off their debt through labour or were able to pay it back in cash.

The Argument

When Dickens was a child, his father was incarcerated in a debtors’ jail in 1824, meaning the family struggled to support themselves and the young Dickens was forced to work in a factory, an instance he later used for the main character of his novel “David Copperfield”. He then took a job as a clerk for a lawyer, which he found stressful and difficult, before finding success and later fame as a novelist and journalist. This early experience of poverty has been cited by some critics as Dickens’ reason for focusing so significantly on the plight of the poor in his novels, and several plots are informed by his experiences. “Little Dorrit” focused on his father’s experience of debtors’ jail, whilst “The Old Curiosity Shop” discussed his time working for a legal firm, which lends the novels an authenticity which makes their depictions of the poor all the more significant.

Counter arguments

Although Dickens' own experience of poverty does add some authenticity to his writing, his family had previously been wealthy and he experienced what was then known as "genteel poverty" - the plight of previously well-off people who had fallen on hard times - and later in life he was extremely wealthy and successful but still continued to write about the poor, suggesting that his own experiences were not a significant factor in his decisions to write about poverty. Additionally, growing up in poverty does not automatically make him a social progressive because it cannot be seen as the sole cause of his later writings.



Dickens lived in poverty as a child, making him sympathetic to the plight of the poor. The details of his childhood appear in many of his novels, giving them an authentic quality and meaning he accurately depicted the lives of the working classes.

Rejecting the premises

He had been born middle-class and still benefited from this class distinction even when his father was in debtors' jail. Much of his writing on the poor is not drawn from his own experience and can thus still be considered sensationalised.


This page was last edited on Wednesday, 8 Jul 2020 at 18:46 UTC

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