Rising Expectations and Discussion of Greed in Charles Dickens' Work

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”(A Tale of Two Cities Dickens 7). One of English author Charles Dickens most well known lines summarizes not just his personal struggle, but that of an entire generation of downtrodden, and often abused young men. Following the end of the Napoleonic wars, England was plunged into an arguably more chaotic and destructive struggle; industrial revolution. Charles Dickens was born into this malstrom of change in 1812 (when the Napoleonic wars had reached their height), and growing up poor, bore witness to the destruction it caused. Dickens carried these childhood scars throughout his life, and they are woven throughout his literature in the form of small boys who bear the abuse (and carry the hope) of the industrial era. In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens uses the device of the small boy to illustrate the corruption and destruction of innocence, a concept which had recently emerged in the realm of Victorian parenthood. Great Expectations follows this theme of destroyed innocence, as well as paralleling the life of Dickens. Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol is used to represent the railroading of the poor by the rich, as well as the hope the poor maintained that times would get better.

Throughout his works, especially A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations, Charles Dickens uses the device of the small hapless boy, in order to more humanely depict the destruction and urban wastelands created by the beginnings of the industrial era. Dickens himself, like many of his characters, was born to a poor London family in 1812. Growing up at the beginning of the Industrial era, Dickens witnessed, often firsthand the horrors of fetid slums and dilapidated neighborhoods which provided the labor for a rapidly industrializing England. Dickens no doubt witnessed such atrocities as brutal apprenticeships such as those of “The infamous chimney sweeps, however, had apprenticeships considered especially harmful and exploitative. Boys as young as four would work for a master sweep who would send them up the narrow chimneys of British homes to scrape the soot off the sides”(Tuttle). Poor children, especially males, were considered to be little more than a ready source of cheap labor by early Victorian society. They were often forced to work from a young age, without any form of education or hope of social advancement. This attitude contrast with modern notions of innocent and pure children helps to underscore the vast differences between Victorian and modern society. Dickens, unlike many of his contemporaries, rose above his humble beginnings. After beginning his working career as a bootblacker in the English footwear industry in London, he spent a brief time in school.

Dickens family however, was unable to support him long in this adventure, and he was forced to take a job as a clerk in a law court. Shortly thereafter he was able to secure a position as a newspaper reporter where he published his first, wildly popular short stories. “In 1856 Dickens had brought his life full circle by purchasing Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, the old house his father had once told him could be his own if the boy worked hard and became successful” (Scupham). It was around this period in his life that Dickens wrote some of his more self-reflective novels, such as Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. In these works, Dickens paints some of his greatest sketches of the desperate poverty of the Victorian lower classes. The Victorian world in which Dickens lived was divided into a rigid hierarchy of the rich and the poor, still largely based upon medieval class distinctions. The rich tended to be those whose families had obtained a title of nobility, or who had made a fortune in one form or another during the previous few centuries. These people were the ones with the necessary capital in order to fund and invest in the industrial revolution. This consolidation of wealth provided very few opportunities for upward mobility for those in the lower classes. Because of this, social roles became even more solidified, especially for children. “For the wealthy there was an overwhelming sense of boredom and constant prodding to be proper with very little parent to child communication...The poor children had to work public jobs for their families to survive...On the other hand their family life was tighter knit and more loving” (Paxton). While these roles would continue to develop throughout the 19th century, the idea of poor children being a disposable commodity was firmly rooted in Victorian culture. The young boys and men which Dickens depicts in his novels often exhibit a degree of patheticness which is unusual for the early Victorian time period. Such authors as Lewis Carroll tended to deride the poor (as depicted in the mad hatter scene of Alice in Wonderland), while others preferred to focus on the natural world as a means of escape from the smog clogged streets of London, Birmingham and Portsmouth.

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Dickens contrasts this by painting his characters in a sympathetic light, such as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. This contrast with other authors in attempting to show the humanity of the characters, as Dickens chooses to show his characters as real people as opposed to veneers of perfection. Dickens also explores the theme of innocence, something revolutionary at a time when children were thought of as a cheap labor source. Characters such as little Jerry Cruncher, Pip, and Tiny Tim are characterized as innocents who are being threatened by a rapidly industrializing world. Little Jerry Cruncher is the son of Jerry Cruncher, a laborer working at the beginning of the industrial revolution in the Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. Little Jerry looks up to and respects his father in the idolizing way many young boys do. Because of this awe of his father, Jerry stumbles upon his secret one night while out exploring: his father is a grave rodder, colloquially known as a “resurrection man” in that time period. This discovery leads Jerry to utter the exclamation “Oh, father, I should so like to be a Resurrection-Man when I’m quite grown up!”(Dickens A Tale of Two Cities 163). This represents a corruption of little Jerry’s innocence as he speaks very innocently about a profession which was very dark and often led to murder (such as the case of Burke and Hare). If further evokes the image of a child playing among the corpses of a ruined civilization, not knowing what the true implications of his actions are.

The image of a ruined civilization are further explored on the other side of the English channel. Dickens seems to have felt sympathy for all the downtrodden, not just those of England, while simultaneously evoking an image of what England could become if the power of the aristocracy was left unchecked “Killed! Shrieked the man, in wild desperation, extending both arms … above his head... ‘Dead!” (Dickens 111). The French Nobleman Marquis Evremonde is depicted as a sinister monster who runs over innocent young men and boys, a not so subtle reference to the youth of the country being run over rough shod by those with power and influence. The image of the Marquis throwing a few coins out the window of his carriage as a humiliating token of apology further demonstrates the lack of humanity that Dickens feels that the aristocracy display. “ Dickens stresses the Marquis's lack of humanity and predatory nature by comparing him to a tiger.” (Napierkowski) The tiger is an interesting symbol to use, as at the time, the British were actively attempting to colonize India, and in the process, exploiting the youth of India in a similar if not worse fashion than their own. The predatory nature of the upper class is a common theme throughout Dickens's works, and the way in which the rich and powerful prey upon and exploit the young boys and men of their country is a symptom of the times in which Dickens lived. Dickens is said to have reflected his own life through that of one of his most beloved characters: Pip, of Great Expectations fame. Pip faces many of the same obstacles Dickens did; an absent father, poverty, and an abusive family situation. However, he also shares in some of the things which helped Dickens, such as a large influx of money.

“Great Expectations reshapes Dickens’s own experience in many ways. It is a study in surrogate fatherhood, exploring again the impact of the exasperating, attractive John Dickens on his son Charles’s life.” (Scupham) It seems that in Pip, Dickens attempts to reshape parts of his past, by having Pip learn to be a gentleman, something Dickens could barely be considered owing to his humble birth, and by providing alternate endings to the work, Dickens attempts to recast his life in a slightly more positive light than an impoverished childhood followed by many family deaths and a divorce. In doing this, Dickens seems to wish to draw on the idea of the pathetic, innocent child, which he uses as a new idea to draw sympathy from his readers. Dickens also seems to use this idea of patheticness to demonstrate that he does not feel worthy of the position he has achieved in life, as reflected through Pip. “Heaven knows we need never to be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” (Dickens Great Expectations 185) As Pip leaves for London, and leaves his lower class upbringing behind him, he grows homesick, much the way Dickens must have, having left all that was familiar behind in order to seek his fame and fortune. Despite this, both Pip and dickens trudge forward, seeking a better life. In this passage, Dickens demonstrates the urban decay caused by a broken household, and the psychological harm it can inflict, especially on a young vulnerable boy. Vulnerable youth often come to worship the rich and influential as a sort of stable influence, and as an illusion of security. In the case of both Pip and Dickens, security came in the form of a wealth heiress and, in Pip’s case, her step daughter Estella. “The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible.” (Dickens 258). Estella (literally star) and her mother come to symbolize the wealth elite, while Pip and his family represent the working class of all sorts, from the self made men to the urban poor. Pip finds the Estella impossible to resist because of her beauty, but also the allure of financial and emotional security. Pip sees in Estella a guiding light, even when he ultimately rejects her in one ending of the novel, he does it with a tender care which implies that she is still his guiding light, though no longer a love interest.

The relationship Estella has with Pip, in the form of a guiding light is most apparent in the ending in which Pip and Estella part ways as friends. (Great Expectations has two endings, in the first, Pip and Estella marry, while in the second they remain friends, but are no longer love interests.) As they talk, Estella expresses her hope that the now financially independent Pip will forgive her for her cruelty to him and allow them to part as friends. “I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.” (Dickens 540). This expression of hope on the part of the elite Estella is a metaphor for the hope of reformists in high victorian society that Reform would come to England and allow the lower classes to flourish alongside the upper classes. Pip in turn, expresses that he wishes to remain friends with Estella, but keep her at a distance. This distance is a metaphor for the middle class wishing to be on good terms with the elites but keeping them at an arms distance. In the classic short novel A Christmas Carol the exact reverse is true, the rich strive to keep the poor at arm's length or further if possible. Dickens brings together a simple plot and (for him) relatively simple language to capture the essence of the small boy to demonstrate the wasteland caused by the industrial era. Tiny Tim embodies the struggle of the urban child to survive in a desolate landscape. His parents struggle to make ends meet and recognize that he is special, yet they are poor and are forced to attempt to adhere to the “cooperative family economy”: Childhood did not have the special protective status that it has today, and most accepted the idea of a “cooperative family economy, in which all household members contributed to the material support of the family” (Eichner). Here too, there are echos of Dickens childhood. His father was an accounting clerk for the British Royal Navy, and he himself was forced to black boots at a shoe factory to help pay the bills.

While the Cratchit family never forces Tim to help contribute to the families income on account of his disability, money is a factor which worries the family, and there is talk of putting Tim to work. Despite the financial challenges the Cratchits face “On the other hand their family life was tighter knit and more loving.” (Paxton) The poorer families often tended to stick together, even if it was only for survival purposes, which created a tighter bond between the members which would evolve to form the modern nuclear family. From this bond sprang the first ideas of innocence and modern childhood, which contrasted sharply with the upper class model. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.” (Dickens A Christmas Carol 49) Scrooge is depicted as a caricature of the stingy upper class, who has remain friendless and loveless in order to be able to pursue money more freely. Because of this, he has grown hard, cold and loveless, the resentment from which he directs at his sole employee, Bob Cratchit (Tiny Tim's father). This hardened attitude is exaggerated to the point of absurdity by Dickens in order to ridicule those in the upper class he feels are responsible for the victimization of the poor such as himself and Tiny Tim. Despite his disability, as well as the circumstances of his birth, Tiny Tim is used by Dickens to demonstrate the innocent hope of the poor, especially the children. As the novel progresses, Dickens characterizes Tim as being upbeat, despite his challenges, which h hopes will inspire sympathy from the reader, as opposed to a whining, broken child. Tims most famous line of the novel “God Bless Us, Every One!” (Dickens 166) reflects the sense of hope and goodwill that the poor of Dickens novels so often convey, as opposed to the cynical snobbery of the upper classes.

When Scrooge undergoes his cartoonishly over exaggerated change from penny pincher to philanthropist, it is a reflection more of the power of positivity which Dickens perceives the poor to possess, as opposed to the heartless airs of the upper class. This change reflects the hope that the poor have, that they will rise from their situation in life to become comfortable if not well off, so that there is a lack of the type of suffering so prevalent in Victorian London. Throughout his works A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations Charles Dickens uses the device of the small hapless boy in order to more depict the destruction and urban wastelands created by the beginnings of the industrial era. Dickens, himself a man of humble origins, deftly weaves bits of his own story into those of his characters. It is partially because of this that the small boy is used as one of his archetypes. But more importantly, Dickens uses the small boy to call attention to the desperate plight of the Victorian poor. Despite his best efforts, the same issues which confronted Dickens London still confront many areas of the world today. “History never repeats itself but it rhymes” (Popularly attributed to Mark Twain). This famous quote from a contemporary of Dickens accurately describes the reason that his works have become so well known around the world. The words they speak still ring true for many in desperate times in desperate places, seeking as Dickens did, to better their lot in life, and rise above their circumstances.

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Rising Expectations and Discussion of Greed in Charles Dickens’ Work. (2020, October 20). WritingBros. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/rising-expectations-and-discussion-of-greed-in-charles-dickens-work/
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