- Novels with a purpose.
- Oliver Twist and the workhouses.
- Little Dorrit and debtors prisons.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the Abolition of Slavery.
- Never Too Late to Mend”, and Prison Reform.
Most novels are written simply to entertain and amuse. But some have a more serious purpose. If that purpose is made too obvious, however, the novel fails both as fiction and as propaganda. The novel reader resents a sermon when he expected an interesting tale. But some novels (like sugarcoated pills) have succeeded in so combining instruction with pleasure as to do much in rousing public opinion against public abuses. Of such some of Dickens’s novels have been the most successful as instruments of reform.
In his “Oliver Twist”, written in 1837, he drew attention to the bad management of the recently started workhouses and the tyrannical administration of the Poor Law. Oliver is a specimen of the poor orphan boy in the power of Mr. Bumble, a personification of dull, pompous and tyrannical officialdom. The horror of Mr. Bumble and the “Board” when hungry Oliver “asked for more” makes a scene unforgettable for humour and pathos. The influence of this novel certainly helped forward the movement for humanizing the Poor Law and the management of the workhouses in England.
Another of Dicken’s novels, “Little Dorrit” (1857), gave such a picture of the debaters’ of those days that people were mad to think seriously of the futility and cruelty of the system of imprisoning people for debt. Eventually the law was altered, and imprisonment for debt abolished in England.
In “Nickleby” (1838) Dickens attacked some of the thoroughly rotten private schools of his time. Dicken’s chief weapon in his fights against public abuses was humour, as far more effective weapon than fiery denunciation. As he had made a laughing-stock of workhouse officialdom in the absurd figure of Mr. Bumble the Beadle, so he held up to ridicule the inefficient schoolmaster in the person of the absurd, ignorant and tyrannical Mr. Squeers, headmaster of “Dotheboys Hall”. No doubt his picture had its effect in bringing in a better system of education.
A novel that had a lot to do in rousing public opinion in America against slavery was Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s well known “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. This came out in 1852, and made a great stir. No doubt it prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in the United States by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Mention may also be made of Charles Reade’s novel, “Never Too Late to Mend” (1856), which exposed the bad state of the prisons in England and Australia.
Other examples could be given; but these are enough to show that fiction has been the means of helping to bring about valuable measures of reform.