What is the importance of Charles Dickens in the Victorian Era's literary context?
An immensely popular author during the Victorian era, an era that wrought the Industrial Revolution, Charles Dickens also was a social reformer as well as a critic and satirist in his literary works. In fact, Dickens was himself influential in the modification of the Poor Laws, an underlying subject of his novels Oliver Twist and his novella, A Christmas Carol in which Dickens describes the squalid, dirty conditions of London in vivid detail. In his novel Bleak House, Dickens sharply criticizes utilitarianism, pointing to the difference between the ideal and the reality. He believed that in practical terms, the pursuit of an unimaginative, totally rationalized society led to misery. His character Mr. Gradgind speaks the beginning words of the novel, "Now what I want is facts"; however, his own daughter, Louisa Gradgind, given a practical education without imagination or any artistic endeavors, has a life that parallels the real-life advocate of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mills. For, in only his twenties, Mills, who believed in the ideal of "the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest numbers" suffered a nervous breakdown from such a stringent, analytical education himself.
Further, in his novel Bleak House, Dickens satirizes the injustice of delay in court proceedings. Dickens's attack upon the flaws of the British judiciary system is based partly on his own experiences as a law clerk as a young man, as well in part on his experiences as a Chancery litigant as he sought to enforce his copyright on his earlier books. In Great Expectations he continues his assault upon the corruption of the judicial system that has a justice for the rich and a different one for the poor, by using Magwitch and the "gentleman" Compeyson to portray this corrupt system of justice that gives a poor man a greater sentence for a lesser crime.
An advocate for the lower middle class, often Dickens's moral characters come not from what he considered a frivolous upper class, but from the commoners. In Great Expectations, for example, the poor orphan Biddy and the barely literate Joe Gargery are exemplary characters. And, of course, in A Christmas Carol it is Bob Crachit and his family who are the greatest Christians.
Certainly, the writings of Charles Dickens were influential in effecting awareness of social conditions as well as reform of these often deplorable conditions.