Three Voices for the Oppressed Working Class
As the British empire prospered and the industrial age took hold of England in the 19th century, class distinctions traditionally in place became even more stringently defined. It was a very different social landscape, and those consigned to labor were essentially an “invisible” population, unknown to and disregarded by the upper classes. Not unexpectedly, this fostered unspeakably inhumane working conditions and, as often occurs in a society, it was the artists who most emphatically began drawing attention to the injustices. Poets James Henry and Thomas Hood elected to tell specific stories through verse, while Charles Dickens employed his medium of the novel to state his case. Through this inherently more expansive platform, Dickens succeeds where Henry and Hood cannot. James Henry and Thomas Hood respectively express proper outrage for the plight of the working class in their poems, but only Charles Dickens, employing the full canvas of a prose novel, truly humanizes the cause by blurring the class distinctions responsible for the injustices.
Rage in Verse
In “The Song of the Shirt”, Thomas Hood takes a course in poetry which, to modern eyes, is somewhat raw and nearly adolescent in its strategy and structure. The poem is something of a slice-of-life, naturalistic piece, in that no actual episode occurs; Hood places his reader beside the seamstress slaving over her garments, he lets the reader into her thoughts, and that is all. She moans – internally, at least – and labors away in misery, with no end in sight except the release and relief of death. Essentially, Hood is relying on the stark horror of the woman's ongoing situation to stun and appall the reader, and generate the sympathy necessary to bring about some kind of reform. He ends the poem, in fact, with the plea that the woman's “song” reach the hearing of the rich.
The blunt and relentless quality of the poem is the inevitable result of the single technique Hood chooses to employ, that of melodrama. This is, in fact, reinforced by the meter and rhythms of the poem, which are structured to echo the repetitive dipping of a needle into fabric. Then, it is interesting that, out of the many types of worker oppression available to document, Hood uses a woman to make his point. It is reasonable to assume, given the intense, melodramatic thrust of the verse, that he desires to present the additional quality of a womanly helplessness.
It is, of course, impossible to assess just how effective “The Song of The Shirt” was in its day, as instrumental in bringing to light the conditions of the working class. It may be that it accomplished its aim merely by virtue of the direct and unapologetic assault on the readers' sympathies. Unfortunately, the message conveyed and the approach taken are both so one-dimensional that the effect seems weak, rather than forceful. Clearly, Hood is aghast at how class distinctions have enabled such nightmares of existence. It is too bad that he relies too heavily on the horrific facts, and not enough on a poet's skill, to engage the heart and mind of the reader, and truly bring to light class oppression.
Similarly, poet James Henry takes an isolated case and sets it defiantly before the reader. For Henry, no anonymous seamstress will do; he seizes upon, in fact, the very real tragedy of several hundred men dying in a collapsed coal mine because, as Henry perceives the situation, adding safety doors to the mines was deemed an unnecessary expense. Evidently, this factual story was his inspiration, and he thrusts it before his audience completely immersed in a bitter, sarcastic tone. This is not satire, in “Two Hundred Men and Eighteen Killed”, but viciously mocking scorn. Regrettably, it fares no better as a truly significant poem than does the extreme melodrama of Hood's “Song of the Shirt”.
What Henry actually elects to do is risky to begin with, in drawing to him the reader's sympathy and understanding, for he repeatedly – and sarcastically – presents himself as narrator as speaking for the reader. In stanza after stanza, the disdain and lack of regard for the dead miners resounds in deliberate hyperbole. While this is certainly more effective than Hood's dirge for the working class, it is still nothing more than a one-note strategy. Most importantly, and not unlike Hood's poem, the poet fails to do what is most essential: there is no, real bringing to life of the oppressed class as suffering human beings. Henry's miners are doubly invisible, in that the occupation itself removes them from the sight, and consequently the sympathies, of other classes, and he does nothing but rely on a reader's appreciation of the horror of their anonymous corpses. In poetry or prose, the author determined to enlighten his society as to class distinctions and deprivations must, first and foremost, give that oppressed class an identifiable shape. Hood fails in this regard by presenting a stereotype, as Henry, while perhaps somewhat more inventive in his approach, also keeps his miners in the dust which buried them.
A Universal Approach: Hard Times
It is no accident, that Charles Dickens enjoys a reputation as a premier storyteller gifted in presenting social issues in narrative fiction. As his novel Hard Times makes abundantly clear, he is able to accomplish this to so astounding a degree because, intent on addressing class injustices, he perpetually sidesteps concerns of class in creating living, fully dimensional characters from all spheres of society. The strategy may not be intentional; it may simply be that Dickens is too talented to not create full human beings. However it occurs, it serves his moral agendas very well.
This power of humanizing his people, and the subsequent rewards he reaps from it, is notable in Hard Times by a very peculiar direction Dickens takes. The character of Stephen Blackpool, doomed to a life of toil in the factories of Coketown, is not emphasized as suffering from the work itself, nor from how his class unjustly confines him to extreme labor. Blackpool is resigned to this, and the impression is actually that he does not particularly object to it. It is his personal life that throws class distinction into bold relief as, burdened by an addict of a wife, he finds that the recourse to freedom available to the upper classes is utterly out of his reach. Then, and with extraordinary subtlety, Dickens contrasts this working man's personal dilemma with that of his employer, Josiah Bounderby, who enjoys wealth and privilege. In revealing Bounderby's blindness in his own romantic pursuits and juxtaposing this with the more sensible and valid aspirations of Blackpool, Dickens essentially strips away class distinctions. These are, ultimately, both men, and the entitlement of one by no means assures a better character or a brighter future than do the circumstances of the other.
This is the genius of Dickens, for he seems to know that a simple stressing of basic injustices cannot serve to bridge the wide gaps between classes. Each must, first and foremost, be able to view the other as living, breathing people. If, in Hard Times, Dickens cannot so enlighten a nature as selfish and blind as that of Bounderby, he can do something much more important. He can make his readers understand that there are hearts, souls, and urgent human needs in the lowest of classes.
It is no easy task, to use literature to convey an urgently needed message, and one that also must meet with enormous resistance from a world unaccustomed to hearing it. Henry and Hood, to their credit, obviously feel the impetus to address the wrongs in class structure they witness, and it is perhaps understandable that they would believe that only a bare presentation of such must outrage others as well. Sadly, more is required to generate real understanding. Full, human development is required, and this we get from the pen of Charles Dickens. James Henry and Thomas Hood certainly express justifiable outrage for the plight of the working class in their poems, but only Charles Dickens, employing all the potentials within a prose novel, truly humanizes the issues by eviscerating the class distinctions responsible for the injustices in the first place.