Dickens, Dostoevsky and Utilitarianism: a Comparison

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  • Topic: Utilitarianism, Workhouse, Charles Dickens
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Dickens, Dostoevsky and Utilitarianism:|
A Comparison|
Sarah Deyyain|

Dickens, Dostoevsky and Utilitarianism: A Comparison
Utilitarianism is the principle that every action of man must be motivated for the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It is based on the idea that whatever is useful is good and the useful is what brings pleasure to man and avoids pain (Dimwiddy). However, the novelists Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky firmly opposed this doctrine that arose with the spread of the Industrial Revolution. Both authors believed that the new thought placed no regard on sentiments and morals. More importantly, it ignored the wellbeing of the individual in order to promote the welfare of the society; thus, creating inequality and social class disparities and consequently tragedy. Dickens and Dostoevsky, through their portrayal of characters and settings of events in their novels, Oliver Twist and Crime and Punishment respectively, illustrated that the Utilitarian principle was futile and a failure, because not only did it do more harm than good but it eventually created social chaos and human tragedy. Dickens, in his novel of social protest- Oliver Twist, discusses the problem of Utilitarianism quite explicitly, by making the idea of utility the revolving point. Dickens witnessed firsthand the negative impacts of the so-called social reforms that came into legislation in England during the aftermath of industrialization and the utility principle, such as the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 that created the workhouses (Dimwiddy). These legislations in turn gave rise to child labour, exploitation of charity, horrible living conditions and other social problems of the century (Mitchell, Burr and Goldinger). He expresses his grim views and opposition to the theory through his sketch of superficial caricatures that are emblems of evil, and the symbolic setting of the events in the novel. For example, Mr. Bumble, whose name suggests his bumbling arrogance, is the ultimate Utilitarianist who boasts of its success. Being the shallow person he is he believes that whatever the ‘’board‘’ does is right and beneficial. He believes that the ‘’humane regulations’’ made by the board, concerning the workhouse, is for the good of the people, because if the poor acknowledge what the workhouse really is they are sure to stay out of it. Another character that abides by the utilitarian theory is Fagin. It is through him that Dickens proves how people of authority used the theory for their personal gains and thus did more harm in the name of doing good. Fagin preaches that “a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so, unless we would all go to pieces in company.” Poor orphans are coerced, by him, into the criminal world for his personal benefits; after all in every Utilitarianist the elements of self-regard dominate everything. He has no difficulty in sacrificing innocent orphans for selfish achievements. He not only uses them but he also thinks that to sacrifice one person is for the good of others when he states “What a fine thing capital punishment is! Dead men never repent; dead men never bring awkward stories to light.” Dickens; thus, through the portrayal of his caricatures successfully shows how coldly rational Utilitarianism is, which gives no importance to morals or the individual’s suffering or emotions. The settings of the events in Oliver Twist themselves represent the idea of Utilitarianism in England. The Industrial Revolution had caused rural workers to flock to the cities which consequently increased in its poor population (Burr and Goldinger). As the cities grew, so did the need for cheap labour to sustain the masses, which in-turn gave rise to unemployment, poverty and inevitably crime. Therefore, the adoption of the Utilitarian line of thought and the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment seemed logical to legislators. However, it had adverse effects as social...
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