What was Dickens's attitude toward the poor?

In order to answer the question, “What was Dickens’s attitude toward the poor?” we need to refine the question and ask: “What kind of poor?” Writers, politicians, social workers, and philanthropists of Dickens’s time tended to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor—categories that were enshrined in the Poor Law of 1834.

Certainly Dickens was sympathetic to the working poor—what he would have considered to be the good or "deserving" poor. Examples of these are the Plornish family in Little Dorrit, as well as working-class characters down on their luck, like Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times, or middle-class characters struggling to hide their loss of class status as the result of poverty, like Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol. Dickens was almost always sympathetic to poor women, including prostitutes like Nancy in Oliver Twist, and children like Jo the street sweeper in Bleak House.

But Dickens was also, like many of his contemporaries, worried, even afraid of the potential for crime and violence in poverty, particularly in people like Bill Sykes (Oliver Twist), especially when those people congealed into a mob. (The out-of-control masses of the Gordon riots in Barnaby Rudge, or the revolutionaries in Tale of Two Cities are good examples.) Generally speaking, Dickens believed—and strongly insisted in his work—that crime was a result of poverty and its corollary, ignorance; but despite his sympathetic treatments of characters like Magwitch in Great Expectations, there is a barely-controlled anxiety in many of his works about an unredeemable evil in some poor people.

In his own time, Dickens was seen as a champion of “the poor” by some of the poor themselves. (One of the street sellers Henry Mayhew interviewed in 1851 said Dickens was a great favorite of the “patterers” who sold ballads and other materials on the street; Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend is a patterer.) Author and critic G.K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936) characterized Dickens as “the spokesman of the poor”—a label that was almost immediately challenged by George Orwell, among others. But whatever ambivalences Dickens, like his contemporaries, had about poverty and the poor, one of his greatest achievements was to bring the problem of poverty to the attention of his readers through introducing varieties of poor persons into almost all of his novels, and showing the “deserving” majority of the poor, bravely struggling against the forces arrayed against them.

Further reading:

  • Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime (1962).
  • Gertrude Himmelfarb, “The Dickensian Poor” in The Culture of Poverty (1983).
  • Sheila Smith, The Other Nation: The Poor in English Novels of the 1840s and 1850s (1980).