Prejudice and Poverty in Dickens

Our Mutual Friend

The industrial revolution, London’s exploding population, and the primitive sanitation systems of Dickens’s time led to horrible pollution, overcrowding, and disease outbreaks in the city.  Dickens attempted, through his depiction of impoverished characters in his fiction, to give a human face and voice to people his middle- and upper-class readers might otherwise overlook and to show the interconnectedness of all of London’s inhabitants.  A children’s hospital reprinted a section of his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), describing the peaceful death of an orphan in a charitable children’s hospital. 


The city’s status as the capital of a worldwide empire, home to many races and ethnicities, exposed the prejudices held by Dickens as well as by most of his contemporaries. In referring to Fagin, the criminal mastermind of Oliver Twist, dicens repeatedly calls him “the Jew,” revealing an unthinking anti-Semitism which he later recanted.  After receiving an impassioned letter on the “great wrong” he had done to Jews in his depiction of Fagin, he removed references to Fagin’s Jewishness in later editions, and created a dignified, positive Jewish character, Riah, in Our Mutual Friend.

However, the stereotype lived on in the many unauthorized adaptations of Dickens’s works, including Oliver and the Jew Fagin (1866), part of a series entitled “Dickens’ Little Folks” which retold Dickens’s stories for children.

Little Dorrit

London was a capital of finance, as well, and anxieties about investment and financial speculation appear throughout Dickens’s works, no doubt inspired by his father’s stint in a debtor’s prison during his childhood. In Little Dorrit (1855-57), a kind of Ponzi scheme leads to the collapse of a bank and the loss of the Dorrit family’s savings. Regulation of the financial industry would continue to develop throughout the century in response to similar real-life disasters.

Charles Dickens: 200 Years of Commerce and Controversy

Rare Book Room Hallway Gallery

Rubenstein Library

Duke University, Durham, NC

On display February 1-April 1, 2012