Charles Dickens may well be asserted as one the most prolific writers as far as the portrayal of Victorian milieu and characterization are concerned. His literary works are set against the backdrop of 19th century England, when industrialization was at its peak and principles of utilitarianism and capitalism governed life in the cities.
Victorian London was perhaps the largest and most spectacular city in all of Europe. It was the perfect juxtaposition of the genteel and the working class. Industrialists, aristocrats, labourers, criminals, prostitutes, beggars and vagabonds were thrown together in the crowded city streets. In addition, thousands of chimney pots belching out smoke and soot, and gutters overflowing with raw sewage from factories characterized the city.
This exact image of London is reflected in Dickens’ description of Coketown, a fictitious industrial town in his novel Hard Times (1854). Coketown is described as “a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled.” Dickens’ depiction of the river “that ran purple with ill-smelling dye” matches the fate of the river Thames in industrial London. Similarly, in his novel Oliver Twist (1838), Dickens brings to the foreground, life in ‘baby farms’ and workhouses which were established as a result of the Poor Law of 1834. More importantly, he touches upon the dark criminal underbelly of London through his vivid accounts of Fagin’s den of thieves, his trial and ultimate death, and also the gory murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes. It can thus be ascertained, that Dickens was more than privy to every possible facet of London. This knowledge of his allowed him to describe the industrial setting well enough for the reader to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the old city.
No human protagonists take form in the novel Hard Times. Rather, Coketown itself is seen as the protagonist, representing both the industrial and working classes. The novel begins with Thomas Gardgrind, a dominant industrialist dictating ‘The One Thing Needful’ i.e. Facts. He says, “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will be of any service to them.” This statement clearly illustrates how the development of the economy is the only concern in Victorian society. Schoolchildren (including Gradgrind’s own Tom and Louisa) are, right from the beginning, taught to swallow facts and not squander their time with fancy or imagination. Fancy will not make them good, obedient and productive workers; facts will. Everything in the town revolves around factory production. Even the social reformers try to eradicate drugs, alcohol and brothels solely for the purpose of having healthy working ‘Hands’. However, due to the abysmal working conditions, it is these temporary releases of alcohol and opium, which enable the ‘Hands’ to continue working like machines day after day. In a society which deadens the soul, these vices are needed for workers to function. Atrocities faced by the labor-class are also highlighted through the character of Stephen Blackpool who is unable to break free from his horrible marriage and find love, purely due to his economic deprivation which disallows him from reaching out to a magistrate. Such is the importance given to facts and rationality in Coketown, that the mere presence of a circus is considered a threat which could lead to imaginative pursuits of the townsfolk. The circus does, however, offer a sliver of hope in the society’s stifling and monotonous existence. When Sleary, the circus proprietor lisps “people mutht be amuthed” he is echoing Dickens’ own sentiment on the common man’s right to simple amusement.
Just as an overview of the manufacturing sector is given to the reader in Hard Times, an alternate dimension of London, namely that of 19th century crime and punishment, is explored in Oliver Twist. Although Oliver is the protagonist of the novel, it is the criminals or villains in the story who carry the show. Mr. and Mrs. Bumble are corrupt public servants in the town of Mudfog. The Bumbles place the working class so low on the social ladder, that they give Oliver their dog’s meal’s leftovers to feed on. Fagin is the most memorable and realized character in the book, with the murderous Bill Sikes not far behind. Oliver’s dire circumstances force him to fall in with Fagin’s gang of thieves because he literally has no place to go. Here, his innocence is exploited, and he is prepared for a life of crime and made to believe that thievery and pick-pocketing is nothing more than a delightful game. Dickens introduces the idea that most often, people are forced to turn to a life of crime due to affliction from social injustices. However, these criminals are not devoid of their moral sensibilities. Nancy, a part of Fagin’s web, goes out of her way to protect Oliver, risking her own life in order to ensure that his innocence is not corrupted. Fagin himself may have been led astray because of the social prejudices against Jews prevalent in the society. But his conscience tortures him in his final days in prison. Dickens does seem to have faith in the goodness of children. A ray of hope and optimism is carried on throughout the novel as Oliver’s innocence is not compromised.
There is hardly any other writer who has been so generous with details of Victorian life. When Oliver Twist makes his famous plea for more food, the gentleman in the white waistcoat remarks, “the boy will be hung.” And when Cecilia Jupe’s associations with the circus seem to pull Tom and Louisa into the world of fancy, Bounderby and Gradgrind feel obliged to intervene. Such simple instances are used by Dickens to demonstrate how even a slight digression from the status quo was considered a threat to the social and economic structure. Dickens is thus a master storyteller whose fictional towns, such as Coketown and Mudfog, make for well rounded texts that are exemplars of realism.