Monthly Archives: September 2014

Malthusian Malpractice of the Socioeconomic Status of Poor People

Jerry Bowyer wrote the article “Malthus and Scrooge: How Charles Dickens Put A Holly Branch Through The Heart Of The Worst Economics Ever” which examined Malthusian economic theory of Victorian England as seen through the lens of A Christmas Carol. While everything Bowyer mentions is true, we feel it is also important to recognize the religious aspects of Malthus’ theory and how these coincide with his views on population control.

Malthus theorizes that God created poverty so that people will not succumb to greed and help each other out. He thought that starvation was God’s test to see if you were a good moral person: if you are strong enough you will survive, and if not, society should not interfere with God’s will. On the flip side of the coin, it was thought that the upper class’s personal wealth and luxuries reflected their strong religious and moral standing.

An obvious connection of Malthus’ theory is to Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest.” Darwin’s Origin of Species was heavily influenced by Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population. The irony of this lies in the Church’s later denunciation of Darwin’s work, despite the fact that its inspiration was drawn from the writings of a reverend.

Looking at his theory objectively, we feel that Malthus’ ideology was derived from the need of a religious explanation for the poor economic conditions of the time. This method not only provided an explanation for the aforementioned social issues, but also absolved the upper class of any responsibility for maintaining the health and safety of the lower classes. For this reason, the upper class was Malthus’ primary source of support. However it is worth noting that Malthus was heavily critical of the Poor Laws, claiming that they limited mobility of labor and provided lower classes with too much comfort. According to Malthus, workhouses were not harsh enough to galvanize the poor to rise above their situation.

Despite Malthus’ generally assoholic nature, he was willing to financially support children of the lower class by means of small allowances. In addition, he also showed great interest in what we now call the Industrial Revolution, however he feared that any technological advancements could not keep up with the increasing population.

Discussion Question: Malthusian economic theory is mentioned and criticized by Dickens in A Christmas Carol through Scrooge’s initial disregard for the fate of the “surplus population.” How does the religious aspect of Malthus’ views (that God created tough situations to test one’s morality) relate to and contrast with Dickens’ views on religion and its role during the Christmas season?

Discussion Question: In A Christmas Carol, Dickens creates a narrator who has a certain stance towards or outlook on the world, whose narration projects certain values and a certain disposition towards humanity. The narrator’s purpose in telling the story, one might say, is to promote that stance or outlook, those values, that disposition — and to discredit the very different outlook, values, disposition embodied in Scrooge. What words best characterize these opposing outlooks, values, and dispositions? How are the narrator’s outlook-values-disposition embodied in his narration? How are Scrooge’s embodied in his words and actions?

The Influence of A Christmas Carol on how Christmas Has Come to be Understood

Christmas is a holiday that people all around the world are familiar with, and take joy in celebrating each year. However, the Christmas that we know and love today was not always centered on the same ideas and principles that we are so well accustomed to. With the publication of Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, came the introduction of new customs and traditions. Dickens shifted the focus from one of community-based activities to being much more family-centered, and more specifically, child-friendly. As noted from our reading of Oliver Twist, as well as A Christmas Carol, it is evident that the welfare of children was an issue near and dear to Dickens’ heart. Along the same lines of child welfare, the welfare of the poor was also an equally important issue to Dickens. His concern with these issues can be seen most prominently in A Christmas Carol, in which he popularized the idea of the “spirit of Christmas” and the need for generosity throughout the year, rather than exclusively reserved for just one day of the holiday season; the association between Christmas and the spirit of giving is most obvious played out in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, whose transition from mean-spirited to generous is charted by the appearances of each of the ghosts.

With the arrival of A Christmas Carol in the literary world came a new definition and meaning to what Christmas should be. Dickens was a strong advocate for the poor and disadvantaged. Through his writings he let out his frustrations over the manner in which the impoverished were treated, and the conditions in which they worked and lived. The scenes in which he depicted this level of suffering inspired him to reconstruct the holiday of Christmas to focus primarily on those who dearly needed the generosity that came with the holiday season; the need to appreciate family, friends, and life, no matter how much, or how little people had. This reinterpretation of the true meaning of Christmas is evident in the scene that depicts the Cratchit’s Christmas as seen by Scrooge when he visits with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Dickens writes, “They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time…” (Dickens 108). Here, Dickens brings forth the idea that Christmas is a time to simply enjoy the presence of loved ones and forget one’s troubles – at least for that day. It is obvious to the readers that the Cratchits have very little, but by simply observing their actions one would not know this. Instead, they embody the spirit of Christmas that Dickens was such a proponent of. That is, one of joyfulness, good cheer and appreciation for those you love most.

However, Dickens is not referred to as “the father of Christmas” simply because of the ideas and concepts he revitalized with the holiday. Rather, it also has to do with the cultural aspects that he brought back into play, such as sending Christmas cards and caroling at people’s doors. Dickens also created the “scene” that one may call to mind when picturing the ideal Christmas. This scene may include, but is not limited to, large spreads of indulgent foods (replacing the often bony Christmas goose with a plump turkey), Christmas trees and the giving of gifts, normally only to children.

It is interesting to investigate just how much the publication of A Christmas Carol impacted Christmases to come all over the world. One must wonder just how many of these traditions and ideas would still be practiced had it not been for Dickens making his way onto the scene, both with his writing and his activism for the poor and disadvantaged. Perhaps naming him “Father Christmas” is more accurate than we think.

Blog post by: Alyssa Knott

Group Members: Maxwell Garnatt, McKenna Miller, Nivedita Rajan, Hannah Sugarman

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles, and Michael Patrick. Hearn. The Annotated Christmas Carol: A Christmas Carol. New York: C.N. Potter, 1976. Print.

“Dickens “the Man Who Invented Christmas.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. Ed. Phillip V. Allingham. N.p., 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Hudson, Alex. “Charles Dickens: Six Things He Gave the Modern World.” BBC News. BBC News Magazine, 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Perdue, David. “Dickens & Christmas.” David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Pold, Tom. “Fathering Christmas: Charles Dickens and the (Re)Birth of Christmas.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. N.p., 14 Dec. 2009 Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Discussion Question

What role do the children in the story, and the vision of childhood that the story incorporates, play in shaping the vision of Christmas that Dickens intends for us to have?






Questions to ask about Oliver Twist

In ENGL 458 this coming week, we’ll be working together on generating a good thesis for a first paper.

We’ll begin on Monday by looking at some draft thesis statements you’ll have produced and shared with your classmates in Google Drive.

As you draft a thesis statement, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Your statement should have a “They say/I say” structure.
  • “They say” should come before “I say.”
  • You should be able to identify whether the form of your thesis is “Disagree, with reasons,” “Agree, but with a difference,” or “Agree and disagree” (aka, “Okay, but…”).
  • You should be able to explain why a reader should care about your thesis.
  • You shouldn’t try to draft your thesis statement without consulting the templates in Graff and Birkenstein.
  • Your “they say” can be a position taken in a source we’ve discussed in class, a position taken by an individual or group in the class, a hypothetical position, or a position you yourself took before changing your mind.
  • If your “they say” is a hypothetical position, it should also be a plausible one, not a “straw man” (i.e., a position that no one would likely hold in reality).

In addition, here are some questions you might ask yourself about Oliver Twist. They’re intended merely to get you thinking. Don’t approach them as questions with right or wrong answers, and whatever you do, don’t frame your thesis as an answer to one of them! Instead, frame your thesis as an “I say” to a real or possible “They say.”

  • How would you characterize the moral “stance” or “outlook” of the implied author? What adjectives best describe the moral qualities he wants you to believe are his?
  • How would you characterize the implied reader of the novel? What adjectives best describe the kind of person that the narrator seems to want you to believe you are?
  • How does the narrator attempt to appeal to/persuade that reader? Is there more than one way? If so, how do they differ?
  • What role do the implied author and reader play in the novel’s strategy or strategies of persuasion?
  • What is the implied author’s view of particular questions that bear on moral judgment, such as the relationship between individual character and circumstance?
  • Is it possible to think of the implied author himself as “entering a conversation” that his readers will recognize as important? If so, what has the implied author said (directly or by implication) about why his readers should care about Oliver’s story? What is the “They say” to which the narrative of Oliver is an “I say”?
  • Are there any conflicts or inconsistencies in the implied author’s moral stance or his “I say”?
  • How would you characterize the implied genre of the work? (Examples might be comic novel, social satire, realistic novel, allegory.) Are there any conflicts or inconsistencies in the book’s self-presentation? If so, do these affect the consistency or inconsistency of the implied author’s moral stance or outlook? Do they affect how we understand and respond to Oliver’s story?

Finally, remember that Robert L. Patten’s discussion of Oliver Twist‘s historical context (especially its publication history) is full of interesting and important information that can jump start your thinking.

Dickens’ Contemporary Critics and the Social Discussion of the New Poor Law and Workhouses

The overwhelming popularity which greeted Dickens’ Oliver Twist in 1838 may elicit the belief that all readers reacted with similar admiration and enthusiasm; however, in light of the ongoing debate surrounding the New Poor Law, nothing could be farther from the truth. Dickens’ shocking representation of the unbearable conditions in the workhouses became both a means to advocate social reform, and a subject of derision to those who opposed the ascent of the lower class, making Oliver Twist an axis for controversy.

Those reviews which applaud Oliver Twist commend Dickens for his realism and honesty in the novel’s reflection of Victorian society, as well as for his incomparable ability to create consistently lifelike characters. John Forster insists, “…the absolute truth and precision of its delineation are not to be disputed. And truly, where the object of a writer is exact description, the characteristics of humanity…Indeed we wish that all history were written in the spirit of Oliver Twist’s history.” (Norton 399) Forster very decidedly uses the term history in discussing Oliver’s tale, even going so far as to claim, “In his writing we find reality,” to emphasize his belief in the absolute truth of Oliver’s experience. (Norton 400)

The Literary Gazette showers Dickens with praise for his morally motivated exposure of the workhouse conditions, “[Dickens] has dug deep into the human mind; and he has nobly directed his energies to the exposure of evils—the workhouse, the starving school, the factory system, and many other things, at which blessed nature shudder and recoiled.” Astonished and gratified by Dickens’ moral contributions, the Gazette goes on to declare, “As a moralist and reformer of cruel abuses…long may he live to increase our debt of gratitude!”(Norton, 402) Many readers, especially those most familiar with the workhouses and the lives of the poor, shared in this fervent sentiment.

But some are not so easily convinced of Dickens’ honesty, or choose not to be. Richard Ford, perhaps one of Dickens’ most vehement critics, adopts the staunch position that Dickens’ representation of the New Poor Law is grossly exaggerated and even dishonestly concocted in order to stir political action. Ford alleges, “The abuses which he ridicules are not only exaggerated, but in nineteen cases out of twenty do not at all exist.” (Norton 407) He asserts that the workhouses and their proprietors are being attacked by Dickens, “and in our opinion with much unfairness.” Ford uses the phrase “our opinion” because he identifies with the upper class, which is arguably responsible for the abuse of the poor, and therefore more than willing to sweep the issue under the rug entirely. Ford’s rebuttal should be interpreted with the knowledge that his position in society was one of considerable status, being the son of a parliament member and son-in-law to the Earl of Essex; his social position would have made it all too tempting to turn a blind eye towards that least appealing section of the social strata.

Dickens was not deterred in the slightest by adverse response; in fact, he chose to turn these reactions to his advantage, using them to validate the importance of the tale. In the preface of the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist, Dickens responds to his critics, “I am glad to have it doubted, for in that circumstance I find sufficient assurance that it needed to be told.” (Norton 7) Nearly a decade later, Dickens claimed another opportunity to address his opposition directly. In the preface of the 1850 publication, or “cheap edition” of Oliver Twist, he writes, “Eleven or twelve years have elapsed, since the description was first published. I was as convinced then, as I am now, that nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome.” (Preface) This edition was released at a lower cost than previous editions in order to reach a wider audience. Dickens clearly wanted Oliver Twist to be read as a testimony of fact, with the intention of encouraging improvements to the living situation of the poor. These responses show that Dickens had a continuing conversation with his audience, whether they be supporters or critics, and viewed any opportunity to address them as invaluable.

Original manuscript of 1850 edition of Oliver Twist showing Dickens’ handwritten preface

The conversation surrounding the rights of the poor expanded during and following the publishing of Oliver Twist as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany. The mass of loyal readers following Dickens’ writing from the mid 1830’s onward not only created financial security for the author; but also ensured that Dickens’ moral beliefs on the subject of poverty were well known and respected by many for an extended period of time. These same readers in the next few years made up the population which was driving a Victorian political action known as the Chartist Movement. Although it would be nearly impossible to prove a causal link between the publishing of Oliver Twist between 1837 and 1839 and the birth of Chartism in 1838, it is very reasonable to argue that the two are intertwined.

Dickens’ moral beliefs are reflected in the mantra of the Chartists, who in a national protest, fought for suffrage for the common man, as well as equal representation in the House of Commons. The movement began with the publication of “The People’s Charter” in 1838, and continued for roughly twenty years. The charter’s heading included six simple demands for the House of Commons: universal suffrage (for men of course), that no property qualifications would be required to vote, annually elected parliaments, equal representation according to population in each district, payment of the members of parliament (that working men may hold an office), and voting to be conducted by secret ballot in order to eliminate the coercion of voters. (People’s Charter) These goals were intended to give the working and lower classes a voice in the society which seemed so bent on their suppression, an ambition which Dickens no doubt supported.

Despite Dickens’ surging popularity, his commentary and criticism of the New Poor Law drew both praise and derision from his contemporaries, as seen in a number of prominent literary publications such as The Examiner and The Quarterly Review. While Oliver Twist may not have had a tangible, immediate effect on working class living conditions, it provided the impetus for discussion among prominent public figures. Dickens instigated a discussion which would continue for several decades, and eventually lead, however indirectly, to meaningful changes in the everyday lives of the English poor.

Blog Post By: Hannah Glaser

Group Members: Colin Peartree, Michael Stoianoff, Kevin O’Connor, Michael Adams

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles, Fred Kaplan, John Forster, and Richard Ford. Oliver Twist: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Early Reviews, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Print.

Dickens, Charles. “Preface to the ‘Cheap Edition’ of Oliver Twist.” Preface to the ‘Cheap Edition’ of Oliver Twist. British Library Board, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.

“The People’s Charter.” The People’s Charter. British Library Board, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.

Discussion Question

What can we say about the moral stance in Oliver Twist based on how the moral situations, decisions, and statements that we see among the characters are presented to the reader?

Social class and the impact of the poor law

The novel Oliver Twist is a vivid illustration of the literary connections that can be drawn between Dickens’ writings and the surrounding sociopolitical issues of his time; more importantly what some might speculate to be the driving force behind the very works themselves. One law specifically, the New Poor Law of 1834, irrevocably marred the already grim atmosphere that engulfed a poverty-stricken England in the 19th century. The middle and upper classes denounced the system of relief that was in place for the poor at the time, as, they believed, they were merely creating or perpetuating the cycle of further stagnancy amongst the lower classes, encouraging them to continue to avoid work rather than seek it. Despite the fact that these were mere speculations from the upper class, once the New Poor Law was established due to the complaints in 1834, over 500 workhouses were built throughout the course of the next 50 years, wherein the conditions were so deliberately horrendous that only those desperate enough to leave their homes and voluntarily enter the workhouses to receive help would—but they were far and few between. Therefore, many of those that genuinely required assistance, opted out of the only option available to them via the workhouses, because they refused to subject themselves to an even harsher setting then the ones they were already well accustomed to. Dickens’, like many others at the time, was repulsed by the enactment of the New Poor Law and first published his monthly installments of Oliver Twist in an attempt to portray the new relief system’s treatment of a child innocent of fault born and raised in the workhouse system. Dickens’ essentially paints Oliver as a “child of the workhouse” with no consolation or nourishment available to him—much like the empty system in place that set out to operate efficiently and charitably, of which it did neither. In Chapter I, titled “Treats of the Place Where Oliver Twist Was Born; And of the Circumstances Attending His Birth”, he immediately adopts a both a satirical tone and stance towards the workhouse when he refers to being born in one as, “in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being,” (Norton, 17). Given the description of the circumstances surrounding Oliver’s birth, it seems anything but fortuitous or what anyone would consider worth “envying”. The doctor who helped Oliver’s (nameless) mother through labor just before she passes away “talk[s] of hope and comfort,” the narrator recounts, who, “had been strangers [for] too long,” (Norton, 18). In this opening scene, both Oliver and his mother are emblematic figures of those affected by the poor laws of 19th century England, as, they are strangers to a world where any hope or comfort resides, further underscoring Dickens’ emphasis toward the newly implemented law’s lack of efficiency and charity. Furthermore, with his mother now gone and no “female in the ‘house’ who was in a situation to impart to Oliver twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need” (Norton, 19), not only is hope and consolation inaccessible to him, but what was to be his sole source of nourishment, too. As a pale and thin child of the workhouse, “diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference” (Norton, 19), such a description illustrates the fact that this ‘system’ does not provide the appropriate climate through which anyone brought up in it can thrive and flourish—Oliver being a chief example of this, as both a literally and figuratively undernourished child of the English workhouse.

Online Post by: Audrey Buechel

Researchers: Lizzie Messana, Jenna Cecchini, Alexis Donahue, Amanda Trantel

Discussion Question:

How does Dickens say what he wants to say about the new poor law in such a way as to make it appeal to a wide audience (across social classes)?