The Influence of Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens’ legacy was using his novels and other works to reveal a world of poverty and unimaginable struggles. His vivid descriptions of the life of street children in the city, workhouses and Yorkshire boarding schools lead to many reforms. His works describing the corruption of the politics and justice system put the system under intense scrutiny. His strongly written characters inspired people, whether to found orphanages for children whose mothers could not care for them, to found schools to educate the underprivileged, or to set up hospitals for those who were sick. Dickens himself worked to help many charities, setting up homes for women and lending assistance to organizations that helped educate and provide medical attention to the children living in the slums of London. Ultimately, Charles Dickens was a leader whose writing and deep-seated hatred of oppressors bettered the lives of the poor and would and will, even today, inspire others to do something to help those suffering in oppression and poverty.

The closing of the Yorkshire boarding schools was perhaps the most direct change caused by the writing of Charles Dickens. The conditions in these schools were abysmal. As the children sent to these schools were generally wanted out of the way by their guardian, they were often denied the respite of vacation. Students were given insufficient food, and often the food was unsuitable to be eaten. They were beaten and had to live in very poor conditions, often sharing beds with other boys. Many vermin frequented the schools, and other pests like fleas afflicted the children. Students were also often denied basic medical care, meaning that many died or were permanently disabled due to their maltreatment in these schools. Charles Dickens heard about these schools and went to observe the conditions himself. He was inspired into action, and the book Nicholas Nickleby was born. This novel is the story of a young teacher who receives a job in one of these schools. The fictional teacher was horrified by the mistreatment of students in the school, and so were the readers of Charles Dickens’ new novel. Parents rushed to pull their children out of these schools, and within a year, there were few Yorkshire schools left open. By the time the government began school inspections in 1864, the abuses of the boarding schools were no more.

Workhouses were common at the time to help those who needed money, but the work was so harsh that the poor would often prefer to go to jail than work in one. Even so, young mothers with no where else to go would often go to one and give birth. Then they would have the option of either staying or leaving, and often they chose to leave, many leaving their children behind. Other parents would simply leave their children there because they could not provide for them, and still other children came because there was no one to care for them. These children had to work in harsh conditions with insufficient clothing and little food. Many died long before they reached adulthood. Those who survived were often given dangerous or harsh jobs in order to maintain their keep. This angered Dickens. The plight of poor children had always had a deep impact on him from his own experience with the hopelessness of life among the poor, and the injustice of workhouses struck a chord with him. He wanted others to see the struggles of these children, and so he created a character that everyone would love, that everyone would be impacted by; the famous workhouse orphan, Oliver Twist. The novel Oliver Twist was a huge success with it’s twisting plot and lovable characters. It caused a public outcry about the conditions in workhouses. While this may not have caused any immediate and obvious change to conditions in workhouses, it did something even longer lasting; it opened the eyes of those who were privileged and highborn to the life of the poor, and it made them understand the pain and struggles that people had to go through in order to survive. This was a wake up call to many, showing that the poor were human beings in need of love and care just like anyone else.

A recurring theme in many of Charles Dickens’ novels is the plight of the unwanted and abandoned children who lived in poverty. The children who lived on the street and in the slums struggled everyday to find food, to survive in the dangerous, polluted and squalid London. With no one to teach them what was right and what was wrong, these children often fell to crime in order to survive. If they were caught, they were thrown into prisons with adult criminals. The system was unfair to these children, who needed to survive and who had no other recourse but to steal. Charles Dickens saw this and wrote about it in one of his novels. It is most strongly emphasized in the book Oliver Twist, where young Oliver is starving and is saved by a group that teach young children how to steal. Oliver did not want to steal, but he was left with few other options. Dickens wanted the world to see how they struggled. He believed the only way to stop children from entering an endless loop of poverty and crime was to educate them. He was a strong supporter of “Ragged schools” which were schools that helped educate the poor in the slums, and his writing often inspired people to support these institutions. His assistance with these schools helped a number of poor children go to school, and his loud vocalizations of the problem brought the attention of the upper classes to the education of the poor.

One of Charles Dickens’ greatest influences on society can be seen in the world of medicine. He was an influential supporter of many different health institutions. Due to his emphasis on its importance with the use of magazine articles and a novel, and how he raised money for the institution by using book sales, the first pediatric hospital in England became a success, helping many children survive diseases and conditions that previously had no respite. He also supported groups that tried to bring medical attention to the children and others living in the slums where any form of healing was rare. Of course, his impact was not limited to vocal and financial support. Charles Dickens is also famous in the medical field for his character descriptions.

In his very first published novel, The Pickwick Papers, a character named Joe is described as a fat boy who falls asleep at the strangest of times. This, and many other symptoms mentioned show that the fictional character had a very real sleep disordered that was not recognized until over a hundred years after the time of Charles Dickens. To this day, sleep disorders like the conditions exemplified by Joe are still called the Pickwickian syndrome. Dickens played a pivotal role in sleep medicine by simply creating a character. As a matter of fact, Joe was only one of the many characters Dickens gave medical issues to. Other deformities and conditions are shown in his books, like the malnourished children from Nicholas Nickleby, and, by far the most famous, Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol. In fact, a man named William Treloar listened to Dickens at a public reading, and Tiny Tim inspired him to establish the Lord Mayor Treloar Cripple’s Hospital and College that exists even today. These characters brought readers face to face with another issue in society; the judgement of those with medical conditions. Dickens showed a new view on those who suffered from deformities and other conditions brought on by disease or genetics, and showed that the people with these conditions were to be accepted and helped, not ignored, ridiculed or rejected.

Pollution was a growing problem in London in the early eighteen hundreds. All of the factories and all of the coal-fueled machines filled the air with a thick and unhealthy smog. People threw trash into the streets and dumped raw sewage into the Thames River. The ground was covered in filth and horse manure from the carriages used by the upper classes to navigate the streets. This is not to mention the horrible sanitation of the slums, where people had to live in close quarters, often sharing the same beds. Fleas were everywhere and rats and other vermin crawled in the streets. This was where the poorest of the poor had to live. Disease was rampant, especially as they breathed in the polluted air and drank the water of the Thames, the same water where all of the sewage was dumped. Charles Dickens often in his books noted the horrible conditions in which the urban poor lived. The book that delved into this pollution the most was Bleak House. One of the most memorable characters was Jo, a crossing sweep who earned the little money he received each day by clearing a path in the filthy streets for people walking or climbing down from carriages. The descriptions of the living conditions of the poor and Jo’s death from terrible deprivation shocked the readers. People clamored for action to be taken. The novel inspired the cleaning of one of London’s worst slums, and for the first time people began trying to save London from the seeping filth and disgusting hygiene that permeated it everywhere.

These are only a few of the greatest influences Charles Dickens had on society. He also showed the world the terrible conditions workers suffered in factories in the book Hard Times, and called attention to the unjust justice system that was riddled with corruption and gave little leeway to the poor. Almost every one of his books had a message for the world to see, and to find inspiration in. Charles Dickens showed that he was a leader, as all of his works were a call to action, a declaration of war on the poverty and unjust systems that forced the poor to continually suffer. Any politician could make speeches about the harsh life of the poor and fail to make so much as a dent in the the minds of the people, but the writing of Charles Dickens got through to them and forced them to really see the suffering of the poor, and that is his legacy. He made people realize that they could not simply ignore the problems of the world and hope they would go away. He made them sympathize with those who suffered, and this spurred them to do something to help. Charles Dickens has changed the world by making them see that people struggling to live are people just like them, and that anyone can make a difference by speaking out against injustice.

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