Resolving the Double-Entendres in Hard Times: Utopian Socialism in the Novels of Charles Dickens

Resolving the Double-Entendres in Hard Times:

Utopian Socialism in the Novels of Charles Dickens

Burton Weltman

 1.Introduction: Dickens and Socialism?

“The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood.”

George Orwell. The Tribune, 1943.

Dickens a socialist?  Dickens a utopian?  Most readers of the novels of Charles Dickens would probably regard these questions with incredulity.  To many readers, Dickens’ novels are stories of cheerful folks regaling themselves with sumptuous repasts while reclining at a cozy fireside.  They read his books as fairy tales that do not significantly challenge readers intellectually, emotionally or ethically.  Dickens is said to have written kid stuff that also appeals to adults.  His stories involve easy criticism of unjust Victorian social institutions that are long gone, and invoke easy moral judgments against the neglect of impoverished children.  Rich philanthropists often save the day.  And the stories resolve in happy endings, usually with the marriage of some long suffering couple.  No socialism here, those readers would say.

Other readers see another side to Dickens’ works.  They read his books as dark tales that got darker as Dickens got older.  Murder, starvation, neglect, bankruptcy, cruelty and injustices of all sorts pervade his stories.  Public institutions of every sort are portrayed as corrupt, incompetent and cruel, with no hope for reformation.  Although most of his novels have superficially happy endings, in which a hero or heroine marries a long sought-after mate, disaster or death are the fate of most of Dickens’ characters along the way.  And there is usually a shadow over even the nuptials of the happy couple.  No utopianism here, those readers would say.

But there is a third side to Dickens.  Dickens was neither a Pollyanna nor a cynic and negativist.  In every one of his novels, there are examples of compassionate and cooperative communities of people who work and live together.  Idylls and blessed isles in a generally hard and hard-hearted world, they provide glimmers of hope for humanity, and for Dickens’ readers, in the midst of the bleak times and dark happenings that pervade his books.  Their configurations are various.  They can be families, friendship groups, formal organizations, informal collectives, taverns, commercial businesses, factories, neighborhoods, or towns.  They take different forms, but empathy and a “one for all, all for one” ethos is at the core of each.

These communities include Wemmick’s bower in Great Expectations, a tiny retreat for family and friends from the horrors of daily life.  George’s shooting gallery in Bleak House, a haven for the homeless and helpless.  Small family businesses such as the Bagnet’s music shop in Bleak House and Solomon Gills’ chandler shop in Dombey and Son.  Factories such as Daniel Doyce’s in Little Dorrit, George Rouncewell’s in Bleak House, and the paper mill in which Lizzie Hexam finds refuge in Our Mutual Friend.  Pickwick’s social club in The Pickwick Papers.  The Green Dragon tavern in Martin Chuzzlewit.  Mr. Crummles’ theatre group in Nicholas Nickleby.  Even Fagin’s gang of thieving boys in Oliver Twist.  And Sleary’s circus in Hard Times, an oasis of caring in an emotional desert.  In the midst of the hard realities that dominate the novels, these sites and situations can provide comfort and hope to readers.  And it is these compassionate communities that place Dickens in the company of the utopian socialists.

It is easy to overlook these communities in Dickens’ books and underestimate their influence on readers.  Almost all of them play a secondary role in the plots of the novels.  They are byways that the main characters pass through or sideshows that they encounter.  But that does not detract from their interest, their importance, or their effect on readers.  The main characters in Dickens’ books are often boring, bland, and just plain soppy.  It is his minor characters who are usually more interesting to readers, and seemingly to Dickens as well.  Similarly, these compassionate communities are secondary sites and situations in Dickens’ novels, but they often provide the most interesting scenes in his books, and the most important moral examples.

Dickens’ compassionate communities offer glimpses of collective good will that is distinct from the individual achievements of his main characters.  These communities are often idealized.  They are, nonetheless, often more realistic than the heroic deeds of the main characters, which are largely beyond the ken of ordinary people.  They exemplify collective achievement of the sort that ordinary people might envision accomplishing together.  And the compassionate communities stand in stark contrast to the dysfunctional families, the dystopian cities, and the other grim sites and situations that predominate in Dickens’ stories.

The thesis of this essay is that beneath the grimy surface of his novels, Charles Dickens was a utopian socialist of the heart.  That is, through his portrayal of compassionate communities, Dickens promoted ideas and ideals that reflected the neonate socialist movement of early to mid-nineteenth century England.  Because the movement was supposedly based on sentiment rather than science, and on vague hopes rather than precise predictions, it later came to be characterized and denigrated as “utopian” by ostensibly more realistic radicals.  But the movement provided a social and moral template to the era that influenced a broad swath of the population, especially the working class and intellectuals, including many who were not explicitly socialists.

Adherents of the so-called utopian socialist movement were dismayed by the social, economic, and environmental harm being wrought by industrial capitalism.  They complained that capitalist society was ugly, immoral, and inefficient.  Capitalism was a heartless economic system whose main product was hardhearted people.  Inspired by the ethical principle of “From each according to his/her abilities, to each according to his/her needs,” a formula that was created by the utopian socialist Louis Blanc, utopian socialists hoped to replace the dog-eat-dog competition of capitalism with cooperative communities.  They intended to do this one family, farm, factory, and town at a time.  It was a grass-roots, local-control, small-is-beautiful movement.

Prominent among the leadership of the utopian socialists were the Englishman Robert Owen, and the Frenchmen Charles Fourier and le Comte de Saint-Simon.  The word “socialism” was invented by followers of Saint-Simon during the 1820’s.  The ideas of these three men were widely discussed, and were the inspiration behind many cooperative ventures.  Each of them had detailed plans for how they thought a community should operate, and some of the specific proposals of Fourier and Saint-Simon were bizarre.  But the humanistic sentiment behind their proposals, and the general outline of their proposed communities — which can be characterized as cooperative hierarchies and hierarchical cooperatives — were a big part of the intellectual background of the era that Dickens absorbed and that his works reflect.

While Dickens did not identify himself as a socialist, and did not subscribe to the specific proposals of any of the prominent utopians, his writings bespeak an underlying utopian socialist sentiment and sentimentality that I believe was one of the reasons for his popularity during the nineteenth century, and is one of the reasons for his enduring popularity today.  His portraits of compassionate communities resonate with readers.  The novel Hard Times will be a focus of this essay.  It revolves around the stultifying effect that rote education has on students, and the devastating effect that industrial capitalism had on workers and the environment.  It is not one of Dickens’ most popular books, but it most clearly exemplifies his socialist sympathies.

2. Dickens and Capitalism: Critic or Apologist?

A Christmas Carol cannot be [considered] a story that promotes socialism because it is a story that depends upon capitalism.”

Jacqueline Issacs, Blog, 2012

The question of whether Charles Dickens should be considered a socialist has been a bone of contention from his time to the present.  When the novel Hard Times was published in 1854, times were hard in England, and the book is a scathing indictment of industrial capitalism as it was developing.  But is it socialism?

Some socialists have claimed Dickens as one of their own, others have eschewed him as an apologist for capitalism.  Karl Marx, for example, claimed that in Hard Times Dickens had “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”  Other socialists, such as George Bernard Shaw, cited Dickens’ negative portrait of the labor leader Slackbridge in Hard Times as evidence that he was not a socialist.  Still other socialists claimed that Dickens was not only not a socialist, he was not even a social reformer, and was merely an apologist for the status quo.[1]

More sympathetic critics have countered that Dickens was portraying Slackbridge as merely the counterpart of the capitalist Bounderby, that is, as someone exploiting workers.  They have noted that Dickens publicly supported labor unions and frequently encouraged workers to organize themselves.[2]  In reporting on a labor strike that occurred during the time he was writing Hard Times, Dickens extolled one of the strike leaders for his emphasis on peacefully settling the dispute, and for raising the possibility of workers’ cooperatives.[3]  And in discussing Hard Times at a meeting of the Mechanics Institute in the industrial town of Birmingham, he exhorted the workers there to organize so as to “work for their own good and for the welfare of society.”[4]

Anti-socialists have, in turn, excoriated what they saw as Dickens’ socialist sympathies.  Thomas Macaulay, the preeminent English historian and literary critic of Dickens’ time, and an influential mainstream politician, condemned Hard Times as “sullen socialism.”  He claimed that Dickens was an ignoramus and did not know what he was writing about.  Other more sympathetic anti-socialists have argued that Dickens was not condoning socialism or condemning capitalism in the book, merely criticizing some of the excesses of industrialism in his era.[5]

The question of whether Dickens was a socialist becomes even more complicated when one peruses his other books.  Those who claim Dickens was not a socialist point to the large number of wealthy characters in his novels whose philanthropy and benevolence save the day.  These include Mr. Brownlow in Oliver Twist, John Jarndyce in Bleak House, Mr. Boffin in Our Mutual Friend, and the reformed Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  Without their capitalist wealth, these characters would not have been able to do good.  These commentators point also to Dickens’ fears of the rioting masses in Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, and the absence in his books of any call for central and centralized government intervention in the economy.

Those who claim Dickens was a socialist point to the large number of capitalists whom he portrays as heartless villains and greedy egotists.  These include the Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, Paul Dombey, Sr. in Dombey and Son, Anthony and Jonas Chuzzlewit in Martin Chuzzlewit, and Josiah Bounderby in Hard Times.  They also point to the sympathy Dickens extends to the poor in his books, and the scathing criticism he directs at governmental institutions that uphold the capitalist status quo. These institutions include the Courts of Chancery in Bleak House, the patent system in Little Dorrit, the criminal justice system in Great Expectations, the welfare/workhouse system in Our Mutual Friend, and the orphanages in Oliver Twist.  Each of them is cruel and incompetent.

So, which is it?  Was or was not Dickens a socialist?  His books seem to provide evidence on both sides of the question.  Are his social views coherent or a hodge-podge?  Can one resolve what seem to be contradictions, ambivalences, and double-entendres in his social ideas?

3.Dickens and Definitions of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

“For many a decade past, the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against the property relations [of capitalism]…The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.”

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

The debate about Dickens’ political views has often been unnecessarily muddled because debaters were using different definitions of socialism.  The word socialism can mean many different things, and many a heated political argument has floundered on the fact that the combatants were assuming different definitions of the term.  In particular, the definitions of socialism that most people use today are quite different than the definition assumed by most people in Dickens’ time.  If one uses definitions of socialism that have been generally accepted since the late nineteenth century, Dickens was no socialist.  But if one uses the definition that was most prominent in his time, he seemingly was.  Using that definition also has the effect of clearing up what seem to be conflicts between his socialist sentiments and his portrayals of benevolent rich people and rioting masses.

Definitions of socialism since the late nineteenth century have usually focused on the role of the central government in a country’s economy.  This was not the case during the early nineteenth century when socialism usually meant decentralization.  The emphasis of more recent socialists on the central government and on centralized control of the economy seemed to follow logically from the huge concentrations of land, industry and wealth that developed during the mid to late nineteenth century, and that continue to the present.  In this context, socialism has generally been described as an economic system that is founded on the presumptions that businesses will be publicly owned, and that the central government will control the economy.  These are presumptions that for many socialists can be overcome if it can be shown that private ownership and/or free markets in particular businesses would be more efficient and fairer to the public.

Discussions of socialism since the late nineteenth century have usually been based on scientific analyses of hard facts and material factors, unlike the supposedly soft and sentimental, ethical and aesthetic approaches of the early nineteenth century utopians.  Following the lead of self-styled scientific socialists, such as Karl Marx, most socialists came to consider socialism to be a historically logical stage of social development.  They also claim it is development that must be embraced if liberty and democracy are to thrive, and even survive.  Most anti-socialists have rejected socialism on the supposedly scientific grounds that centralized control of a large-scale economy would not work, and that socialism would undermine economic progress.  They also contend that a socialist economy would present a fatal danger to democracy and freedom.

Discussions of socialism have been further complicated by the fact that socialists since the late nineteenth century have often differed as to how much control the central government should exercise, and how a socialist society can and should be achieved.  Socialists take a range of positions on the role of the public and private sectors in the economy.  Some insist on the goal of a highly centralized command economy.  They say that only if the government runs the economy according to a central plan can the system be considered socialist, and can it work.  Other socialists promote a less centralized and more market-based socialism.  Most of these would allow small private businesses, which could even constitute a majority of the economy, so long as they do not exploit their workers or do public harm.  Many would also allow some economic activities to be coordinated through a marketplace, so long as it operates in the public interest.

As to establishing socialism, some insist that it can be achieved only through revolution, and an immediate and complete takeover of the government and the economy.  They consider any attempt at social reform or a gradual move toward socialism to be a betrayal of the movement and a sell-out to capitalism.  Others claim, however, that socialism can best be achieved through social reforms, and a gradual socialization of the economy through political compromises and incremental changes.  These two groups have often fought each other as much as they have fought their pro-capitalist opponents.[6]

Using present-day definitions of socialism, Dickens was not a socialist.  He did not call for government control over the economy, whether centralized or decentralized, and whether by revolution or reform.   But neither does Dickens seem to have been a devotee of capitalism.  The point is that to most self-styled socialists in early to mid-nineteenth century England, socialism did not mean establishing government control over the economy.  And it did not primarily involve either political revolution or political reform.  It meant establishing cooperative farms, factories, communes and communities that operated on the principle of “From each according to his/her abilities; to each according to his/her needs.”  These radicals hoped to evolve a socialist society one cooperative communal group at a time.  And it is in this context that Dickens should be considered a socialist.

4.Utopian Socialism: Resolving the Double-Entendre of Radical Social Change.

“They [the utopian socialists] reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social gospel.”

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

Utopian socialists did not promote either revolution or reform.  They believed that both were fraught with internal contradictions, and doomed to failure.  Utopians were also upset with the way conflicts between revolutionaries and reformers had seemingly divided and foiled movements for significant social change.  They hoped to overcome these contradictions and conflicts with their third way of achieving radical social change.

Utopians rejected revolution because revolutions seemed invariably to succumb to the logic of the ends justifying the means, and thereby enmeshed revolutionaries in evil actions that undermined their virtuous goals.  Revolutions also seemed to fail by either overdoing or under-doing social change.  Sometimes they completely demolished the old order, leaving intact none of the institutions that were needed as a foundation upon which to build a stable new regime.  The result was chaos and then dictatorship.  The French Revolution of 1789 was an example.

Other times revolutionaries left intact too much of the old order, and were undermined by institutional inertia and by people in power from the old regime who were committed to the old ways.  The result was generally regression back to the old order.  The French Revolution of 1830 was ostensibly an example of this.  The utopians believed that their cooperative communities could avoid these vicious cycles of revolutionary success and failure.

Utopians also rejected, for the most part, piecemeal reform movements because they seemed invariably to lead to the means overriding the ends, with reformers compromising their ideals, and making deals that sacrificed long-term goals for short-term gains.  British politics in the nineteenth century were notoriously stodgy and corrupt, so that social reform would invariably enmesh reformers in deals with the devil that would undermine their credibility as reformers.  Social reform would also involve reformers in so many small changes and small deals that their movement could be sidetracked, and they would lose sight of their radical goals.

Finally, the process of social reform would likely result in satisfying the needs of only some members of the movement for social change, or would pit the short-term gains of some against the short-term gains of others.  As a result, many of them might abandon the “all for one and one for all” ethic and the long-term goals of the movement.  The movement could, thereby, become divided against itself, and wither away.  The backroom deals that led to the electoral Reform Bill of 1832 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1844 exemplified these problems with reform.[7]

Utopian socialists hoped to avoid the contradictions and pitfalls of both reform and revolution through their community-building methods.  They were intent on establishing cooperative communities that would initiate a virtuous cycle and spiral toward a socialist society.   Theirs would be a bottom-up, grass roots movement, organizing people to build local institutions of civil society that could exemplify and sustain radical social change.

Utopians also hoped, thereby, to end the debate among social reformers since the Ancient Greeks about what came first, the Good Man or the Good Society.  Does one first have to make people good in order to have them make a good society?  Or does one first have to make society good which will then make people good?   Do people make society or does society make people?  Since the best answer to these questions is “Both,” it was a fruitless debate.  The utopians claimed their way would cut the Gordian knot that had for eons hogtied social reformers.

Cooperative communities would, on the one hand, provide their participants with a socialist experience and the immediacy of a socialist revolution, without the violence and turmoil of an actual revolution that can ruin the whole undertaking.  Cooperative communities would also, on the other hand, provide the world with working examples of socialism, and models for others to emulate.  The communities would provide a bit of the good society and good life here and now for their participants, and would also function as an advertisement for socialism to the world.  This would be a double-entendre that enlightened rather than baffled its auditors.

Cooperative communities would drive what could be called a Lamarckian form of social evolution, a form of survival of the fittest among social institutions.  Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon, each in his own way, proposed establishing experimental communities that they predicted would become successful mutations within the existing capitalist society, and would gradually take over the whole society.  Their communities could be incorporated just like any business corporation, but they would function as cooperative enterprises on behalf of their participants.  Utopian communities would, thereby, constitute a peaceful movement of gradual social change, an evolution to socialism one community at a time.

Although in branding the proposals of Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon as utopian, Marx and others of his time meant to disparage those proposals as impossible and even foolish, the ideas of the utopians did not seem utopian in early nineteenth century England or America.  And the fact that they did not succeed does not mean they were foolish.  In the era during which Dickens came of age and in which he set most of novels, businesses in England and America operated on a smaller scale than they did later in the century, a fact that made the utopians’ proposals feasible.

In the smaller businesses that predominated during this time, collaboration between owner and workers was usually possible, with the owner often personally involved in doing the day-to-day work alongside his employees.  This is the sort of thing Dickens portrayed in his descriptions of the factories of Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit and George Rouncewell in Bleak House, and in the paper mill in which Lizzie Hexam finds refuge in Our Mutual Friend.  Given the collaborative nature of small businesses, small-scale and collaborative solutions to economic problems seemed practical to people then.  In turn, it seemed feasible to many that small-scale cooperative communities might establish socialist beachheads in the capitalist world.

The pattern of European immigration to America, a major phenomena during this period, also fitted with the utopians’ communitarian notions.  Most European immigrants to America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not come as individuals.  Most came as part of a group of people who had lived in the same locality in their old country, and then settled together in their new country.  They came as a community with the intention of remaining a community.  This was also the way in which most European-Americans moved westward across the continent.  They moved in communities, in part because it took a lot of cooperation to establish a society in newly settled lands, but also because they were communal people.  In sum, the communal pattern of immigration to the United States and migration within the country contributed to the plausibility of developing cooperative socialist communities here.[8]

Dickens recognized in his novels the possibilities for developing compassionate communities, but he was not a starry-eyed fool about these possibilities.  He clearly realized that utopian dreams can often provide the opportunity for conmen to take advantage of naive people, or for muddle-headed do-gooders to stumble into disaster.  In Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, he bitterly describes an emigrant settlement in the United States which is based on his visit to the country in 1842.  The fictional community, which is called Eden, has been promoted by its developers as heaven on earth but it is, in reality, a hellish swamp and a deadly swindle.  In Bleak House, Dickens ridicules the impossible plans of do-gooders such as Mrs. Jellyby, who proposes to develop an idyllic commune of emigrants in Africa.  She neglects her own family in favor of this foolish, and essentially egoistic, piece of pseudo-philanthropy.

Dickens was also aware that cooperative communities can be used for ill purposes, as with Fagin’s gang of young thieves in Oliver Twist.  And he was aware of the tenuousness of compassionate communities, which is exemplified by the collection of people who lived with Mr.Peggotty in his beached houseboat in David Copperfield, before the commune was shattered by evil intruding from the outside world.

Dickens was aware of the potential pitfalls and pratfalls of utopian promises, but he seemed to be impressed even more with what he portrayed as the inveterate impulse of people to create compassionate communities.  Even Todgers boarding house for clerks and salesmen in Martin Chuzzlewit, which Dickens describes in the most ridiculous and pathetic terms, exemplifies this theme.  Dickens makes great fun of the pretensions of the inhabitants, each of whom styles himself as a connoisseur of something.  There is the sporting gentleman, the literary gentleman, the fashionable gentleman, and so forth.  None of them has any real claim to expertise in anything, and they are continually teasing each other and competing for status.  But they also implicitly conspire to uphold each other’s pretensions, and each has a place in the house’s pecking order, which is a touching and telling testament to their comradeship.       

Dickens’ books are full of small-scale compassionate communities in which people take care of each other in the face of adversity and in the midst of hostile environs.  From the Pickwick Club to Fagin’s gang of boys, from the workers in Doyce’s factory to the performers in Sleary’s circus, these groups operate with the “One for all, and all for one” mentality of the utopian socialists.  The hope that compassionate and cooperative communities can survive, thrive and replicate themselves seems quietly to underlie Dickens’ works.

5.Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon: Capitalism, Utopian Socialism, and Elitism.

“Train any population rationally, and they will be rational. Furnish honest and useful employments to those so trained, and such employments they will greatly prefer to dishonest or injurious occupations.”

Robert Owen.  A New View of Society.

Robert Owen was a late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century British factory owner who was almost ubiquitous among British social activists during most of Dickens’ life.  He is considered the father in England of the cooperative movement, the socialist movement, the labor union movement, and the public education movement, all of which blossomed in the later nineteenth century.  Dickens’ critique of capitalist commercial and industrial practices, and the treatment of workers, women, and children in his society, was essentially similar to that of Owen.  His ideas of social change, especially regarding cooperation and education, also reflected Owens’.

Owen was an international celebrity, and highly regarded within both the working classes and the ruling classes.  He spoke several times to the English Parliament, and frequently met with high government officials, promoting his labor and cooperative schemes.  He spoke twice to Congress about the benefits of a cooperative economy during a visit to the United States during 1824-1825.  In the course of that visit, he established a cooperative socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana.  He was also well-received during this visit by then President John Quincy Adams and by past Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Owen was disgusted by what he saw as the evils, ugliness, and inefficiency of industrial capitalism as it was developing in England.  Workers were underpaid.  Children and women were overworked, and children were without educational opportunities.  Workers’ families lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.  Industrial accidents were commonplace.  Demoralization was rampant.  Owen decided that this was not good for the factory owners and society as a whole, let alone the workers.  He was the un-Bounderby.

Owen concluded that paying his workers well and treating them as colleagues benefited both business and society.   He also claimed that laws to require higher wages and shorter working hours for workers, especially children and women, would be good for capital as well as labor.  And he argued that the establishment of free schools for children would develop better educated workers who could work more productively, and participate more responsibly in society.  He supported labor unions for workers but, significantly, opposed strikes of workers against their employers.  Finally, he organized and financed cooperative industrial and agricultural communities in England and America that he claimed could operate more efficiently and more fairly than capitalist enterprises.

Owen’s own factory at New Lanark in Scotland, where he put into effect many of his cooperative principles, was a magnet for social reformers.  Middle and upper class visitors were almost invariably enthralled by the humane way in which the workers and their families were treated, and impressed with the efficiency and profitability of the operation.  It was the antithesis of Coketown in Hard Times.  Owen’s books on moral improvement and human cooperation were best sellers and widely cited.  In addition to labor unions and cooperative communities, he founded several early childhood schools that were widely acclaimed as models of humane and effective education, the antithesis of Gradgrind’s school in Hard Times .

Owen promoted class cooperation rather than class conflict, and opposed labor strikes as a means of economic coercion against employers.  His proposals and projects were invariably coupled with paternalism and elitism.  He hoped for a more educated working class, but considered the workers of his day incapable of ruling society.  This was a common position among British liberals and radicals during the nineteenth century, among them the noted radical and eventual socialist John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens.[9]  That is, Owen combined socialism with elitism, interpreting the mantra of “From each according to his/her abilities” as a principle that required those with expertise and executive abilities to lead an enterprise or community, while those with abilities to do other tasks would work under the direction of their leaders.

The communitarian proposals of Fourier and Saint-Simon were also based on the principle of “From each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her needs,” and they were also hierarchical.  Different abilities meant different positions in the power structure.  They likewise interpreted the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you if you were in their position.”– with an assumption that the working classes would naturally defer to the leadership of the educated and expert classes.  Hierarchy was consistent with the Golden Rule so long as workers were given due respect and their needs were duly met.

Fourierists and Saint-Simonians, as well as Owenites, were prominent in early to mid-nineteenth century England, France and America.  In the midst of the French Revolution of 1848, Louis Blanc, who was influenced by Owen and Saint-Simon, led a movement that got the French Assembly to establish a system of workers’ cooperatives that he hoped would be the beginnings of socialism in France.  Although the coops initially worked well, they were not sufficiently funded by the Assembly and eventually collapsed.

In the United States, Horace Greeley, the editor and publisher of the New-York Daily Tribune, which was the leading and largest American newspaper during the middle of the nineteenth century, was a follower of Fourier.  For many years, Greeley published a front-page column in his newspaper devoted to promoting Fourierism, and he helped establish several Fourierist communities.  Saint-Simon also inspired several communities in Europe and America.  Owenite, Fourierist and Saint-Simonian communities, and many others based on the ideas of other utopians, had mixed success.  Most lasted only a few years, but some lasted many decades.  The utopian socialist community at Amana, Iowa was so successful economically that it morphed into an appliance corporation that is still operating today.

Most important for Dickens’ social views, his mentor Thomas Carlyle, who provided most of the factual basis for A Tale of Two Cities and much of the critique of capitalism and utilitarian education for Hard Times, was a devotee of Saint-Simon.

6. Dickens and Carlyle: A Tale of Two Sentimentalities.

“No great man lives in vain.

The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle was an influential intellectual in mid-nineteenth century England.  A philosopher, essayist, and scholar with a first class university education, he was intellectually everything Dickens was not, and Dickens adulated Carlyle for his academic knowledge and analytical skills.  Although Dickens was considered a literary giant at the time, and Carlyle was merely one among many noteworthy intellectuals, Dickens publicly and repeatedly paid homage to Carlyle.  Carlyle was noted for his scathing criticism of utilitarian philosophy and industrial capitalism.  He promoted, instead, German idealist philosophy and a stringent morality.  His mantra that “Egoism is the source and summary of all faults and miseries” is a sentiment that rang true for Dickens, and is a theme that runs through all of Dickens’ work.

Carlyle also promoted the ideas of the French utopian Saint-Simon, and especially Saint-Simon’s criticism of idle aristocrats and plutocrats.  They were freeloaders who got rich off the sweat of peasants’ and workers’ brows, and from the expertise of inventors and entrepreneurs, but who did nothing in return.  This is a view that can be called “a producers’ ethic.”  Like Saint-Simon, Carlyle believed that the interests of entrepreneurs and workers were the same.  They were the producers in society.  Their common enemies were the parasitic aristocrats who extracted unearned rents from peasants who worked their land, and the moneyed capitalists who extracted unearned profits from workers who operated their factories.  Carlyle included hypocritically wealthy clergy and demagogic labor leaders in his list of parasites.  This producers’ ethic that Carlyle derived from Saint-Simon is reflected in Dickens’ works.

But Dickens and Carlyle differed over their views of ordinary people, and these differences magnified over time.  Carlyle became increasingly anti-democratic over the course of his life, and increasingly idealized great men in society and history.  Abhorring the crassness, commercialism and confusion of English society, and fearing the masses as an inherently ignorant and destructive mob, Carlyle called for “captains of industry” to take control of society and bring order to the world.  Dickens did not follow Carlyle in taking refuge in great men, or in disdaining ordinary people.  While Dickens publicly acknowledged adopting from Carlyle the criticisms of utilitarianism and industrialism that are contained in Hard Times, and he dedicated the book to his mentor, Carlyle was not enthusiastic about the endorsement.  There are characters in the book, including the capitalist Bounderby and the circus operator Sleary, that clash with Carlyle’s worship of great men and scorn for ordinary people.

Dickens always considered himself a political radical.  The term radical did not have the same programmatic implications then that it has now — times and social problems change and what is considered a radical program changes with them — but it had the same social and emotional implications.  Even as he was gaining a vaunted place within the Establishment through the popularity of his writings, Dickens maintained an intellectual position outside the Establishment and a political position against much of it.

Although Dickens used Carlyle’s scholarly reputation to support his own ideas, the scorn between the two men became mutual.[10]  Carlyle thought that Dickens was too soft.  Dickens thought that Carlyle idol-worshipped the powerful.  It could be said that Dickens related to Carlyle in the same way he used the happy marriages at the end of his novels.  Dickens believed in happy endings and in the value of Carlyle’s scholarship, but his thoughts and feelings went beyond them both.

7. Double-Entendres in the Political Ideas and Ideals of Charles Dickens.

“Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town;

fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial.

Charles Dickens.  Hard Times.

Dickens is famous for having written long novels full of short-hand verbal caricatures of his characters.  Many of these caricatures carry moral and political messages.  His description of Coketown in Hard Times as consisting only of dead and deadening facts is an example.  The political cartoon strip Doonesbury, by Gary Trudeau, has, similarly, been peopled by short-hand visual parodies of the strip’s characters.  President George W. Bush was, for example, represented by a Roman military helmet that covered an asterisk.  The asterisk referred to the questionable way in which he ascended to the Presidency in 2000, and the helmet referred to his pretensions of military glory in the invasion of Iraq.  President Bill Clinton was represented by a waffle, referring to his waffling on issues.  Doonesbury’s pictures spoke for themselves and in place of a thousand words.

Dickens did similar things with his characters, albeit using word pictures.  His method met with a mixed response.  Henry James, a hostile critic, faulted Dickens for creating what James thought were shallow characters who could be summarized in a simple caricature.  In contrast, G.K. Chesterton, an admirer, marveled at the moral and intellectual acuity of Dickens’ capsule characterizations.  E.M. Forster, another admirer, said that “Nearly every one [of Dickens’ characters] can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth.”  Since most of Dickens’ novels go on at great length with a multitude of characters, he may have needed a shorthand way of referring to some of them.  He did this in several ways.

Sometimes Dickens pinpointed a person’s character through an image that stuck with the character throughout a book.   The moralizing hypocrite Pecksniff, a leading character in Martin Chuzzlewit, is described as like “a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.”  Pecksniff becomes, thereafter,  a synonym for double-dealing in the book.  The gluttonous hypocritical Reverend Chadband, a minor character in Bleak House, is described as “a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system.”  He sweats oil when he eats, and is thereafter denoted by his oleaginous appearance and oily speeches.

Other times Dickens denoted a character through some physical feature.  Carker, a villain in Dombey and Son, is described as having “two unbroken rows of glistening teeth, whose regularity and whiteness were quite distressing.  It was impossible to escape the observation of them, for he showed them whenever he spoke; and bore so wide a smile upon his countenance (a smile, however, very rarely, indeed, extending beyond his mouth), that there was something in it like the snarl of a cat.”  Thereafter, Dickens often referred to Carker through describing merely his teeth, and Carker’s teeth became almost a character in the book.

Rigaud, a villain in Little Dorrit, is similarly characterized by the fact that when he smiled “his mustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his mustache, in a very sinister and cruel manner.”  Thereafter, Dickens often describes merely the movements of a mustache upward and a nose downward in order to indicate to the reader that Rigaud is in the scene.  Pancks, a sympathetic character in Little Dorrit, is described as short and stout, and as making puffing and snorting sounds like a steam engine when he walked and talked.  Dickens frequently indicated Pancks’ presence in a scene through merely describing puffing and snorting sounds.

Finally, Dickens often pegged a character with a characteristic saying that thereafter stood in for the person.  Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is well-known for his exclamation “Bah, humbug.”  Micawber, an inveterate spendthrift and bankrupt in David Copperfield, is known for his epigram “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditures nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditures twenty pounds naught and six, result misery.”  Uriah Heep, an underhanded villain in the same book, is known by his hypocritical mantra that “I’m ‘umble.”

In contrast to Heep, Mark Tapley, a genuinely self-deprecating hero in Martin Chuzzlewit, is characterized by the refrain “There ain’t much credit in that,” when he succeeds at something in less than trying circumstances.  He is always looking to “come out very jolly” when suffering under the most egregious circumstances.   Pleasant Riderhood, a minor character in Our Mutual Friend, is pegged with the saying “I do not wish to regard myself, nor yet to be regarded in that bony light,” when she repeatedly rejects offers of marriage from Mr. Venus, a taxidermist.

In Hard Times, Dickens provided most of the main characters, the ones whom he portrayed in a negative light, with characteristic sayings that are double-entendres, and that point up the hypocrisy and/or the contradictions of the character’s actions.  These hypocrisies and contradictions move the plot along to its unhappy conclusion, but it is a conclusion that contains the seeds of better things that might come.

8. Double-dealing with Double-Entendres in Hard Times.

Mr. McChoakumchild: “Now, this school room is a Nation.  And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money.  Isn’t this a prosperous nation?”

Sissy Jupe: “I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether it was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money.”

Charles Dickens.  Hard Times.

Unlike Dickens’ other novels, Hard Times is a short book with a condensed plot that is bluntly carried forward by a duel of double-entendres.  The title itself is a double-entendre.  The adjective “Hard” in the title implies that the times are difficult.  It also implies that the times are materialistic, something you could bang your head against and get nothing but a headache.  At the same time, “Times” is a word for multiplication, and implies that what is difficult about the present era will multiply if things are left to go on as they are.  This is on its face a bleak message.  But there is another meaning to the words in the title.  The word “Times” also implies that what is difficult about the present era could pass, that it is only these times that are hard, and that better times may come.  The book’s title thereby encapsulates the meaning and moral of the story.  Things are bad, they might get worse, but they could get better.   And we will see how.

“Now what I want is Facts” are the well-known opening words of Hard Times.  They are spoken by Thomas Gradgrind, a retired businessman turned philanthropic schoolmaster.  Gradgrind is the central character in the novel, and the only major character who changes his ways and views in the course of the book.  He seemingly represents the audience of upper and middle class people whom Dickens hoped to address with his book, and whom he hoped would be changed in their views and ways.  In the course of the book, Gradgrind is tripped up by the double meaning of his mantra that “In this life, we want nothing but Facts,” but ends up falling morally forward.

The ostensible meaning of Gradgrind’s mantra is that the world is best understood, and actions are best undertaken, through science and through the factual evidence with which scientific truths are established.  He eschews fanciful stories and sentimental dreams of any sort as unprovable and unworkable.   He believes that hard facts are the basis of peace, prosperity and progress.  This is, on its face, a seemingly hopeful and humane message.  He is, after all, a philanthropist and he is contributing his time and money in an effort to improve the world.

But there is a less sanguine underside to Gradgrind’s mantra.  The underlying meaning is a materialistic ethic in which only things like money and material success are important.  This is a hardhearted ethic, and Gradgrind learns through hard times of his own the lesson that he needs more than just facts in his life.  By the end of the book, “Faith, hope and charity” have become his new mantra, and he is no longer idolizing Bounderby the wealthy capitalist or idealizing competitive capitalism.  He comes, instead, to appreciate the sentimentality and creativity of the compassionate community that is the circus.  This is Dickens’ message in the book.

Hard Times is generally considered a simple, and by some a simplistic, book.[11]  The names that Dickens gave his main characters bluntly broadcast his meanings.  Gradgrind is a person who sees life as a grind, and who grinds others down.  Bounderby is a bounder and a fraud.  Mr. M’Choakumchild is a teacher who stifles children with rote drills.  Stephen Blackpool is an ignorant worker for whom life is a dark mystery.  But the book is, in fact, more complex than appears at first sight.  Gradgrind is not the only one who is caught in the toils of a double-entendre, and the book is full of double meanings that come unraveled as the story unwinds.

Hard Times is peopled with characters who represent a range of the social types one would find in a mid-nineteenth century English industrial town.  Most of the major characters have a characteristic saying that is attributed to them, and which contains a double meaning.  Some of the sayings illustrate the hypocrisy of a character.  Others represent the ambivalence, internal contradictions, or confusions of a character.  The sayings reflect different attitudes toward self and society, but all focus the characters in on themselves, rendering them self-centered and isolated.  They are all caught in the vicious cycles of their double-entendres, unable to free themselves from prisons that are their selves, and unable to form common bonds of caring with others.  The book is an exploration of the moral and behavioral consequences of their sayings.

“I don’t forget that I am J.B. of Coketown” is the repeated refrain of Josiah Bounderby.  He is the resident Coketown capitalist, and the owner of the factory, the bank, and almost everything else in town.  Bounderby claims to be a self-made man who has worked his way up after having been abandoned as a child in the gutter.  He continually cites his supposedly lowly origins in what he claims is a show of humility.  Bounderby seems to exemplify the individual self-reliance coupled with humility that Mr. Gradgrind is trying to teach the students in his school.  Self-reliance coupled with humility were seen as highly positive virtues in nineteenth century England.

But Bounderby’s is a false humility because the underlying meaning of his refrain that “I don’t forget that I am J.B. of Coketown” is a boast that he is Coketown and that Coketown is his, as when the French King Louis XIV said “L’Etat est moi.”  Bounderby is also a fraud in that he has, in fact, been raised in a middle-class family, attended a first class school, and got a boost in life from a loving mother.  His greed and pride, on the one hand, but also his insecurity and desire to be accepted as a peer of the realm, on the other hand, are prime movers of the book’s plot.  In the end, Bounderby is exposed as a fraud and his social-climbing schemes are quashed.

“What does it matter?” is the mantra of Louisa Gradgrind, Mr. Gradgrind’s daughter and the prize graduate of his school.  On its face, her saying is an extension of her father’s focus on facts.  She is saying that matter is the measure of all things.  Tell her the material makeup of a thing, and she will tell you its value.  This is a principle that her father would praise and promote.  But the underside of this saying is nihilism, and a total indifference to anyone and anything.  In a materialistic world, she is saying, there is no value.  Nothing and no one matters.  Consistent with both meanings of her mantra, and much to Gradgrind’s satisfaction, Louisa marries Bounderby because he is wealthy, even though she despises him.  Later, she leaves Bounderby, and seemingly has an affair with a hard-up aristocrat who has been hired by Bounderby to help him get into high society and Parliament.  That her behavior is scandalous does not matter to her.

“What will be, will be” is the refrain of James Harthouse, the hard-up aristocrat.  The refrain reflects the cynicism of a person who has given up trying, probably before he even started.  Harthouse has sold himself to Bounderby, whom he considers beneath him, and he feels demeaned.  Fatalism is his excuse for his denigration.  I am what I am and I do what I do because of circumstances beyond my control, he seems to be saying.  And the saying is his excuse for irresponsible and reprehensible actions.  But there is also another side to this saying.  It implies that what you will, will be. That is, we are creatures with an ability to will, and we cannot, therefore, dodge responsibility for what it is that we will.  Harthouse has some heart, and seems by the end of the book to understand he has responsibility for what he does, but his response is merely to clear out.

“Everything is a muddle” is the constant complaint of Stephen Blackpool, a warm-hearted but heartily ignorant worker in Bounderby’s factory.  Blackpool is unable to choose with whom to make common cause.  He is torn between his awful wife and his wonderful girlfriend.  He is shunned by his fellow workers because he will not support their strike against Bounderby, but then fired by Bounderby because he will not denounce his fellow workers.  Unable to choose between his wife and his girl friend, hounded by both sides in the strike, and accused of a robbery he did not commit, Blackpool flees from Coketown, only to fall into an abandoned mine shaft (a black pool).  He is rescued from the pit, but dies from his injuries.

Most important, however, to the underlying message of the book, Blackpool’s rescue is successfully undertaken by a group of Coketowners and others who organize themselves into an efficient rescue operation.  The organizing is done spontaneously, but with due deference paid to those with relevant expertise and to those with relevant status in the community.  This seems to  exemplify the sort of community that the utopian socialists were promoting.  It combines compassion, cooperation and hierarchy in ways that resolve what seem to be contradictions and ambivalences in Dickens attitude toward ordinary folks and well-to-do people.

Dickens abhors rich people and aristocrats who exploit others and oppress the poor.  He also fears unruly mobs of poor people who may have good cause for their grievances, but whose ill-conceived and rash actions can cause more harm than good.  But Dickens subscribes to the utopian socialist ideal of a cooperative hierarchy and a hierarchical cooperative, with cooperation among the higher and lower social classes.[12]

He admires successful people like the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby and John Jaryndice in Bleak House because they treat their employees as colleagues, not as servants, and they use their wealth to help others make their own way.  But he esteems even more ordinary people who can organize themselves to do good, such as the rescue party in Hard Times, Mr. Pancks and his cohorts who rescue William Dorrit from debtors prison in Little Dorrit, and the patrons of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters tavern who rescue and revive Rogue Riderhood in Our Mutual Friend.  In Little Dorrit, Dickens compares England to a sinking ship whose Captain goes ashore to pursue his own self-interest and leaves the crew to save the ship, which they do.

Two key characters in Hard Times articulate the compassionate philosophy of the utopians, and speak without getting caught up in double-entendres. And unlike the other main characters, they are neither isolated nor self-centered.  The first is Sissy Jupe, whose English is often garbled but whose moral sense is impeccable.  She is the moral center of the book, and often functions in the novel like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story who proclaims that the emperor has no clothes.  She repeatedly speaks truth to power.

The other character is Mr. Sleary, the owner and operator of a circus, who talks with a lisp and whose sentences are largely gibberish, but whose humane actions speak more clearly than any words.  His circus is an exemplar of the credos “From each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her needs,” and “One for all and all for one.”  The circus is a cooperative venture in which everyone has a place, albeit with a hierarchy and Sleary at its head.  It is also a compassionate community which takes care of every member.[13]

Sissy’s father, Mr Jupe, was a performer in Sleary’s circus.  She was raised in the circus community, from which she seemingly learned her high moral values.  When Mr. Jupe began to lose his performance skills, he mistakenly thought that he would be fired, and that Sissy would end up homeless and penniless.  Mr. Jupe thought that Sissy would be better off being raised in a school such as Gradgrind’s.  So, he ran off and left Sissy behind to hopefully find a place with the Gradgrinds.  He seems to have missed the fact that the circus people have “an untiring readiness to help and pity one another,” and that when people at the circus can no longer perform, Sleary found them other work to do so that they could stay part of the circus family.

Sissy does find a place as a servant in the Gradgrind household, and as a student at the school.  She is soon indispensible in the home, but performs very poorly in the school.  She cannot fathom facts without some human and humane connection.  She begins, however, to perform moral magic on the Gradgrind family.  “There is a wisdom of the head, and …there is a wisdom of the heart,” Dickens writes.  Sissy may not have what we would call a high Intelligence Quotient, but she has a high Emotional Quotient.  By the end of the book, she has essentially become a teacher of applied ethics to the Gradgrind family, and Gradgrind learns his lesson about the importance of “Faith, hope, and charity.”

As the book ends, it is not clear, but it is possible that Gradgrind might open a new school dedicated to the sort of moral lessons that Sissy learned at the circus and that he learned from Sissy.  If so, it would be an instance of one compassionate community, the circus, spawning another compassionate community, Gradgrind’s new school, and it would exemplify the evolutionary process of social change envisioned by the utopian socialists.

9. Dickens’ Enduring Popularity: Conventional and Unconventional Views.

“We need to read Dickens’ novels because they tell us,

in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”

A high school student of Jon Michael Varese, 2009.

One of the most perplexing of cultural questions is why some writers are popular in their own time but not with posterity, while the popularity of other writers endures.  Charles Dickens was the most popular English language novelist of the nineteenth century and, despite writing thick books that seem as though they will never end, his works remain popular today.  Why?

The conventional view is that Dickens remains popular because his stories can be read as fairy tales that do not significantly challenge readers intellectually, emotionally or ethically.  He is said to have written kid stuff that also appeals to adults.  The stories feature highly imaginative and colorful characters, and a charmingly anthropomorphic portrait of natural phenomena and inanimate objects.  Everything is alive and playful.  His stories involve easy criticism of unjust Victorian social institutions that are long gone, and invoke easy moral judgments against the neglect of impoverished children.  They generally revolve around the enlightenment of some individual, a naif who matures or a hard heart that is softened.  And they resolve in happy endings, usually with some long suffering couple getting married.  The conventional view is that he was and is popular because he was and is conventional.  I don’t agree.

The thesis of this essay is that Dickens’ views of social change were quite unconventional, and that critics who claim he wrote Pollyannish books are wrong.  Despite the inevitable marriage at the end, Dickens’ books are dark, and they are full of unhappy endings for most of the characters that overshadow the happy nuptials for the few.   In turn, Dickens’ views of social change were much more complex and subtle than merely the hope that each of us might go through a Scrooge-like conversion experience.  With characters such as Little Nell and Little Dorrit, Dickens was obviously trying to play on the heart strings and evoke the better angels of his readers.  But Dickens was also trying to appeal in more subtle ways to his readers’ longings for compassionate communities.

Dickens struggled with the means and methods of making social change.  He opposed revolution because of its violence, destructiveness and unpredictability.  He supported reform but had difficulty with the question of how to make a new society out of people molded by the old one.[14]  In not one of his books does he describe the successful reform of any major institution.  Chancery in Bleak House, the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, the criminal justice system in Great Expectations, the parish workhouse system in Our Mutual Friend, the orphanage system in Oliver Twist, the school system in Nicholas Nickleby, and many other unjust and dysfunctional institutions that are featured in Dickens’ books are left standing in the end despite the best efforts of his protagonists.[15]  Compassionate communities seemed to be his only hope.

That Dickens included examples of compassionate communities in his novels is, I think, a major reason for his enduring popularity.  William Thackeray, a contemporary of Dickens, wrote what is considered one of the greatest novels in English literature, Vanity Fair.  Like Dickens’ books, it is long and convoluted, and full of the most interesting characters and situations.  But it is thoroughly cynical and contains not one redeeming character or social configuration.  Thackeray justified the dourness of his book with his belief that most people were “abominably foolish and selfish,” and he had no real hope for humanity.  And his book is not often read any more.

As with Thackeray, one of the main themes in Dickens’ novels was the perfidious effects of selfishness and self-centeredness.  From the pretentiousness of Winkle the self-styled sportsman and Snodgrass the wannabe poet in The Pickwick Papers, to the self-centeredness of Young and Old Martin in Martin Chuzzlewit, to the self-delusions and pompousness of Pip in Great Expectations, the warping effects of self were a central concern of Dickens.  He repeatedly portrays the self as a prison or a form of bondage from which people often are unable to escape, although they may long to do so.  And while most of the characters in his books are unwilling or unable to break the chains of self, some do, and not only as heroic individuals, but as members of cooperative communities.  It is this hopefulness in the midst of hopelessness, the possibility of existing within an ugly and unjust society but not succumbing to be part of the ugliness and injustice, that makes Dickens’ novels so appealing.  And this was also the appeal of the utopian socialists — building a compassionate community within a heartless capitalism.

The idea of building cooperative communities that are in but not of the existing society, with the hope that they might become models for society, has a long history among the English and among Americans.  The Puritans, for example, came to America from England during the seventeenth century to build “a city on a hill,” which they hoped would be a model commuity that would be emulated by their comrades in England.  From that time to the present, America and England have been fertile grounds for utopian communities and other experimental cooperatives.  There were dozens at any given time in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  During the twentieth century and twenty-first centuries, there have been hundreds of experimental communities and cooperatives in the United States at any time.  The hippie communes of the 1960’s were only the most highly publicized example of recent decades.  Communalism has deep roots in the American psyche.

It has been suggested that despite the ideological commitment of most Americans to self-centered individualism and competitive capitalism, most Americans are really socialists at heart.  Public opinion surveys over the last one hundred years have consistently shown that when Americans are asked ideologically tinged questions, such as do you support welfare payments or higher taxes, large majorities answer “No.”  Competitive capitalism and self-centered individualism get a vote of confidence.  But when people are asked empathetic questions, such as should the government feed hungry children, and would you be willing to pay higher taxes to fund public works, safeguard the environment, and guarantee a decent life to everyone, large majorities answer “Yes.”   They vote for a compassionate community.

I have some personal experience with this conflict between ideology and empathy.  I was a teacher of history and education for some twenty-five years.  I taught at some time or other each of the grade levels from middle school through graduate school, and students from all sorts of backgrounds.  In almost all of my classes, I began the school year by dividing students into groups of five each, and having them play a game in which they envisioned a utopian society.  The goal of the exercise was to reveal some of the values the students were bringing into the course, which would help in our discussions of history and teaching methods.  I oversaw this game hundreds of times.  Not one of the times did students suggest competitive capitalism as their ideal society.  In every case, students suggested some sort of cooperative society as their utopia.  Many of these same students identified themselves as conservatives, and espoused a free enterprise capitalist ideology.

It seems that most Americans have gone to Gradgrind’s elementary school, and have been drilled by Mr. McChoakumchild in the ideology and ethos of selfish individualism.  But it seems also that most have retained a capacity for empathy with others, and an underlying desire for cooperation and community.  One of the reasons that Dickens’ books remain popular is because they touch in a subtle way on the underlying aspirations of most people to escape the prison of their self and their selfish society, and be part of a compassionate cooperative community.  The books appeal to utopian socialists of the heart looking for a way to realize their hopes.  For those of us who wish for a more compassionate and cooperative society, the continued popularity of Dickens’ books is a hopeful sign.


[1] Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. pp.94-95.

[2] Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. New York: Viking Press, 1977. p.413.

[3] Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2009. pp.370-371.  Teachout, Jeffrey. The Importance of Charles Dickens in Victorian Social Reform. Wichita State University, 2006. p.38

[4] Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper & Collins, 1990. p.684.

[5] Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. pp.157, 249.

[6] Lichtheim, George. The Origins of Socialism. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.

[7] Gay, Peter. The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

[8] Bestor, Arthur, Jr. Backwoods Utopias. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.

[9] Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. p.684.

[10] Teachout, Jeffrey. The Importance of Charles Dickens in Victorian Social Reform. Wichita State University, 2006.  pp.56, 64.

[11] Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. p.249.

[12] Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2009. p.367.

[13] Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1958. p.220. Young, Lillian. “The Circus in Hard Times.” Trinity College Digital Repository. 4/1/2013. pp.10-11.

[14] Robert Douglass-Fairhurst. Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. p.78.

[15] Hibbert, Christopher. Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant. New York: Macmillan Press,2009. p.301.