Charles Dickens' Birthday: An Annual Opportunity to Examine our Social Condition

A study of Dickens demonstrates that we need to put a great deal more effort into improving our treatment of one another.

By Shekar Chandrashekar
Published February 11, 2014

JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling are celebrated writers dominating the British literary scene. They paint fantastical and mystical worlds that are loved by readers everywhere. Contrast that with the gritty realism of Charles Dickens. A copious writer in the Victorian period, his works stand among the classics.

It was 202 years ago, on February 7, 1812, that this writer and thinker was born. We should celebrate his legacy endlessly as his social commentary continues to apply today.

During the Victorian period, the power of the aristocracy was deeply entrenched and social class meant everything. Because of Dickens' proletarian family background and upbringing, he was faced with numerous challenges in his attempts to break into a literary circle that was controlled by the aristocracy. In the end, his creativity and polemic writing were not to be denied.

He was a philanthropist, a journalist, and a prolific writer and lecturer exposing poverty, genocide, and abuses by charitable organizations. He was a moralist when British labeled foreigners with derogatory epithets and when the Law of 1834 displayed the political dynamics of double standards by preventing the lower class from rising above their desperate state.

Dickens made London his home. His London was full of industrial, overpopulated, dirty slums. He visited these slums most evenings to gain an understanding of poverty and to procure material for the creation of the characters in his novels.

The characters of Dickens novels are still very evident in our current day. For example, Toronto's Mayor Ford could have come straight out of a Dickens novel. Dickens would have enjoyed incorporating a high profile politician who has become an international comedic character due to a crack video scandal, admitted use of illegal drugs and even urinating in a public place.

The fact that police have taken no action against Ford harkens back to the elite status of the bourgeois in Dickens' day.

Dickens would have been outraged by current events in Ontario politics. When he realized that his cancellation of gas plants had created an explosive situation, former Premier Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature. McGuinty told the investigating subcommittee and the public that the cancellation cost taxpayers $230 million.

Furthermore, current Premier Kathleen Wynne denied the existence of emails concerning the cancellation and supported the cost estimate of $230 million. It was not until a repeated barrage of questions by the opposition and subcommittee that the emails surfaced and the cost estimate was revised to $1.3 billion.

This misuse of political power, the double standard of politics, and the offloading of the financial burden onto the taxpaying public is well described in Dickens' writings such as in "Our Mutual Friend".

The world population has expanded exponentially since the Victorian period, as has world poverty. In a 2013 Hamilton Spectator article on poverty, Dr. John Peters from Laurentian University writes, "Over the past 30-plus years, the wealthiest one-tenth of 1 per cent has seen their average incomes rise by more than 300 per cent to roughly $1.4 million. By contrast, middle-class incomes have stagnated."

He notes that the situation for the working poor is much worse and he concludes that inequality damages our economy and as well as democracy. According to Bloomberg, the 300 wealthiest individuals in the world control the world's economy.

Has anything changed since Victorian period? A New York Times article recounts growing hunger among the British working poor.

The working poor, long a part of the social landscape in the United States, are becoming more common on this side of the Atlantic. As their numbers grow, so too does hunger — a feeling Ms. Burton describes as a nagging sensation, not pain as such, more an obsession that consumes all your thoughts and energy. It is no longer confined to the homeless or those struggling to make ends meet on state benefits in the world’s sixth-richest economy, say charities, economists and even some members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party.

On reading this article, one cannot help but be overcome by emotion. Is this really happening in modern London? Hamilton has many people living below the poverty level. One wonders how they even survive. This is Councillor Sam Merulla's concern: curb wastage, help the poor. Bravo, Sam!

Dickens placed a spotlight on poverty in many of his novels, most notably "Oliver Twist", which are set in the decrepit slums of London.

In 1857, there was a rebellion in India protesting genocide committed by the British. Dickens, in his capacity as a journalist and lecturer, expressed outrage at the genocide. Has anything changed in the current century? The answer is no. One can see from the odious atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia and, currently, in Syria.

Dickens was a generous charitable person but he was outraged by abuses by the middlemen of his day, who were in charge of directing or distributing charitable funds. The middle person skimmed 40 percent off the top and only 60 percent got to where need required.

Today, the same abuses are described by the founder of War Child North America, Samantha Nutt, in her book Damned Nations. She reveals how middle management in certain current charities swindles such charities with only a quarter of the funds reaching the needy.

In addition, she provides statistics that show that worldwide military spending exceeds $1.5 trillion annually: that translates to $225 per year for every living person.

Dickens was a patient man with a keen attention to the common place and the common folk. A minority of critics suggests that Dickens' works be studied at the post graduate level but the majority advocates that Dickens study be confined to high schools.

It is true that exposure to Dickens' skilled depiction of characters and his examination of the social condition is valuable to our youth, but as it is evident that there has been little improvement in our society since the Victorian period, we should all continue our study of Dickens: a study of Dickens demonstrates that we need to put a great deal more effort into improving our treatment of one another.

Just as we commemorate Robbie Burns day, Dickens, we remember and celebrate you.

Shekar Chandrashekar is a Canadian of Indian decent and has lived in Hamilton for over 50 years. For over 34 years he worked in local Government. He has been married to his Canadian wife for over 43 years. They have two daughters. Shekar continues to be very interested in local, national and international politics, literature and art.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted February 12, 2014 at 17:38:52

Very interesting analogy Shekar. However, in the real world, we live among too many who think that by simply asking, you know the connotation of honey catches more flies then vinegar, which simply is not true, as one fellow activist proved that actually manure or dung if you like catches more flies then honey.

So in true form, little Oliver Twist asks, Please sir I can have some more? Acutally gets you less.

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