Dickens, Dostoevsky and Utilitarianism: a Comparison Free Essay Example

April 13, 2022 by Essay Writer

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.

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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.

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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 reforms became inherent to the flawed new Utilitarian philosophy (Mitchell, Burr and Goldinger), because these so called reforms gave authorities the advantage to misuse power and caused the “mechanization of human life as well as a contemptuous disregard for the individual”. First and foremost, to portray the ill-effects of industrialization and to protest the social reforms, Dickens sets the main events of exploitation, crime, and poverty in the city of London. Every single sight of the city advertises this botched principle.

Perhaps the most significant are the events that are set in the workhouse; where Oliver and other orphans work and are mistreated. These workhouses which were supposed to be a deterrent for the poor represent a symbol of ill-usage and misery. The names of places are also a direct indication to their nature and the concept of utility. Newgate, the prison, had people like the “shoeless criminal who had been taken up for playing the flute”, and others like the “vagrant of sixty-five who was going to prison for not playing the flute”; …. and “for begging”.

Another place that donates to the failure of the theory is the Three Cripples Pub. The name itself is evidence to the character of the place. It is full of misfortune criminals who were victims of the idea of ‘usefulness’. Dickens; thus, simply lets the consequences of this disastrous theory reveal its true form through the settings of the events. Dostoevsky, who had visited the Industry of All Nations Exhibit at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, saw it as a symbol of bourgeois utilitarianism in the West, where emotions were pacified and man was reduced to a commodity.

In his novel Crime and Punishment, he illustrates how this idea of utility forced the victims of this doctrine into crime and misery. Although he sometimes imitates Dickens’ explicit style, he also transforms his thoughts on utility to represent them differently. He uses his sometimes caricature-like and sometimes psychologically profound characters more elaborately and subtly to represent his opposition to the idea of utility.

For instance, Luzhin, the self-enlightened hypocrite, is a caricature whose every action is motivated by self-regard, love of ease and power. He wishes ardently to marry Dunya because she is the ideal bride for him. She is a “virtuous maiden, poor (she must be poor), very young…one who all her life would think of him as her savior…” Another character is Lebezyatnikov, who beats Mrs. Marmeladov for daring to be “respectful” in spite of being poor. He is also the reason for throwing Sonya out of the flat because he feels it ruins the residents’ reputation.

He believes that “in this age the sentiment of compassion is actually prohibited by science…” Dostoevsky thus, illustrates how the theory of utility gives rise to racism and is devoid of morals and humane emotions (Burr and Goldinger). Perhaps it can be said that the author, in Crime and Punishment, by making the main character the ultimate representation of the failed policy aimed to demonstrate the tragedy it caused to the individual. Dostoevsky differs from Dickens in making Roskolnikov- the protagonist- a paradox to elaborate the contradictions of the utilitarian belief.

The name- which means split- is a connotation of this main character’s disturbed and split psyche. He is a person who believes in Utilitarianism, when it serves to justify his actions, and at the same time disowns it when it does not suit his circumstances. Roskolnikov, although he detests it, acknowledges the fact that the likes of Sonya have to exist to save the likes of his sister Dunya (Johae). Also, he does not wish his sister to marry Luzhin, in spite of it being a marriage of convenience that will benefit his family.

Moreover; at the same time, he is a conscientious objector who is without any religious affiliation and; therefore, relies on his personal sense of justice and feels free to disobey the law. He hence kills the old landlady, because he justifies that her death would benefit the society. This event is a bold reference to the theme of utility and to the drastic measures taken to ensure that actions advantage the overall population. However, the real reason he commits the crime is his need for gratification, power and self-confidence.

As for the place symbol of Utilitarianism, Dostoevsky differs greatly from Dickens. In Crime and Punishment, the author’s beliefs and opinions are not mentioned clearly, but have to be read in between the lines. Dostoevsky changed the idea of making the name of a place represent what it truly is as names of places are in straight contrast with their true characteristic. The “Crystal Palace” for instance, which is in direct reference to the Crystal Palace that was constructed in London 1851 is directly connected to the Industrial Revolution and thus Utilitarianism, is a misleading name (Johae).

Although the name suggests royalty, pleasure and law it is exactly the opposite. It is a pub full of criminals, sinners, prostitutes, etc. It demonstrates the reality of Utilitarianism, and the fact that it is extremely fragile and apt to failure. Nevertheless, like Dickens, Dostoevsky sets the main events is in the city of St. Petersburg, which like Dickens’ London had come to represent social chaos and misery in the aftermath of industrialization. Another representation of Utilitarianism is the horrible living quarters of many of the characters.

The author set the main events in homes of his characters to reveal the distress and tragedy that they lived in and which led them to sin, corruption and ultimately to crime. None is more representative of that than Roskolnikov. It is no coincidence that his plan to commit murder is conceived in his tiny ramshackle apartment that was more like a coffin. Also, the scene of the crime is the flat of the landlady who benefitted from the misfortunes of others. Thus, Dostoevsky aimed to demonstrate the ill-effects of utility on the psyche of people.

He revealed how the new social order drove people to crime and then ultimately in return sentenced them to punishment. Thus, Dickens in Oliver Twist and Dostoevsky through Crime and Punishment, managed to lay bare the dreadful results of Industrialization and Utilitarianism on the individual and consequently on society. They drew symbolic characters and set iconographic events, with such mastery in the two novels, to reveal the flaws of the new theory of the Industrial Revolution Age which was championed mainly by those who benefitted from it financially (Mitchell, Burr and Goldinger).

The novels, sometimes explicitly and at others subtly, represent the opposition of its authors to the adoption of the new way of life which did more harm to the individual in name of the betterment of the society, and ultimately created social chaos and widespread misery and tragedy.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist, Kindle Edition, web 2002.

Mitchell, Sally. Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, 1988.

Print. Burr, John R. and Goldinger, Milton.

Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, Macmillan, 1992.

Print.  Dimwiddy, John. Bentham, Oxford UP, 1989. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor.

Crime and Punishment, trans. Magarshack, David Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1970. Print.

  Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans.

Trask, Willard R. ( Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974) 521.

Print  Peace, Richard.

Dostoevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels, (London: Cambridge UP, 1975) 44.

Print. Johae, Anthony.

Towards An Iconography of Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, Kuwait University, 1994.


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