Urban Poverty and Social Inequality in Charles Dickens' Novel 'Bleak House'

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“It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt. In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched in the middle as if poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low... In another corner a ragged old portmanteau on one of the two chairs serves for cabinet or wardrobe; no larger one is needed, for it collapses like the cheeks of a starved man... No curtain veils the darkness of the night, but the discolored shutters are drawn together, and through the two gaunt holes pierced in them, famine might be staring in—the banshee of the man upon the bed” (From ch. 10).

Charles Dickens' ‘Bleak House’ is a complicated novel that deals with many issues, one of the main themes presented in this novel and becomes intertwined with the plot is that of urban poverty. Dickens critiques urban poverty continuously throughout this novel, describing the conditions that the poor people of London live in. In relation to Dickens's critique on urban poverty I intend to discuss; the way in which Dickens presents urban poverty, focusing on the presentation of different characters throughout the novel and the descriptions of architecture. In relation to both the characters and the architecture depicted in this novel, I will then contemplate to what extent urban poverty affects the different characters in the novel and the comparisons between characters of different social hierarchies, following this I will then compare and contrast the way in which the different architecture is conveyed in the novel, explaining how Dickens uses his critique on urban poverty in order to criticize social groups and establishments such as the court of chancery. Urban poverty is depicted throughout the entirety of Dickens ‘Bleak House’, Dickens gives a detailed analysis and assessment of urban poverty which I intend to analyze and discuss.

‘Bleak House’ is a novel with a large and diverse array of characters, these characters range from various different classes and ages. Throughout ‘Bleak House’ Dickens shows a concern for the conditions that the poor characters in the novel live in. Dickens depicts a vast variety of characters in his novel ‘Bleak House’, allowing him to cover many aspects of the social spectrum. Dickens uses his critique on urban poverty in order to criticize society, Dickens presents characters such as both Krook and Jo, who are both being from a low socio-economic group, both these characters act as vessels for Dickens to express his view on poverty in England. Krook in the novel dies of spontaneous human combustion, which was not recognized as a cause of death, Dickens choosing to kill off a character in this manner is a statement against the conditions he was forced to live in. Krook lived a life deprived of fundamental human needs in the slums of London, the way in which the character dies is rather mysterious which is perceived as a signal warning people of the terrible conditions of London slums. The mysterious and tragic way in which this character dies is to be interpreted as a warning to society of the conditions of the slums and how these conditions must change, or it may lead to even more spontaneous deaths and disasters. Jo is another character in this novel that represents the lower-class citizens in England, Jo works as a crossing sweep and similarly to Krook does not live a lavish lifestyle his money is stolen and he eventually dies, Dickens depicts a variety of poor characters ranging from different walks of life, Dickens show us the poor at different stages and ages, Dickens is attempting to convey the ways in which poverty can affect people of all ages in different ways The Neckett children, Jo and the brickmakers and their wives are all examples of dire poverty. Jo being a child should be perceived as pure and innocent Dickens presents the character as being in a state of extreme poverty in order for the reality of his situation to resonate with his audience killing this character acts as a wakeup call to the reader conveying that these are the realities of the lower class citizens in society. Grandfather Smallweed is a leader of money in this novel the character is portrayed as being cruel and greedy, with money being the most important thing to him, he even plummets another character by the name of Mr. George into bankruptcy. Dickens chooses to show the negative effects that money can have on a person depicting Grandfather Smallweed as being as a protagonist in this novel, the characters Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle in the eyes of Dickens neglect their children and are therefore selfish, the Coroner in this novel refuses to accept Jo's statement due to his lack of education “never been to school” (177) despite Mr. Tulkinghorn reassuring the Coroner of Jo's reliability. Dickens presents these characters in a villainous manner in order to emphasize the innocence of the poor, each of these characters is guilty of some small act of immorality. Dickens presents the characters stricken by poverty as generally good people, which is rather unusual for Victorian novels and in contrast Dickens depicts the wealthier characters of Grandfather Smallweed, the Coroner, Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle to be of low morals which reappears throughout the novel with Dickens making comments criticizing the wealthy “The evil of it is, that it is a world wrapped up in too much jeweler's cotton and fine wool, and cannot hear the rushings of the larger worlds” (20), here Dickens is commenting on the wealthy's inability to acknowledge the world outside of their own “there may be a world beyond Chesney Wold that I don't understand” (108). Esther in the novels is an orphan although Esther is raised by Miss Barbary and she is sent to a boarding school to be educated, Jo, however , is not as lucky having no parents and no money Jo is unable to get an education, Esther and Jo are relatively similar Esther could easily have been in the same position as Jo had someone not intervened, Dickens here shows that it is possible to change.

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Dickens shows readers the struggles of the poor characters contrasted with the more privileged lives of the wealthy, with this it calls into perspective the harsh realities of urban poverty and demands a change in the social hierarchy, or as a society, they are doomed to more disasters similar to the ones faced by the poor, with the awful conditions the poor are forced to live in, in ‘Bleak House’ they often fall ill to disease and typically pass away the quotation 'once in Chancery nothing can get out' reiterates this idea.

Although Dickens is concerned about poverty and critiques it throughout this novel instead of attempting to get readers to sympathize with the poor it appears that Dickens ‘Bleak House’ is rather focused on criticizing institutions such as the Chancery Court and the system of aristocracy through the novel's critique of urban poverty, in order to make the reader see that there needs to come to a change for the systems set in place . Dickens uses his analysis of urban poverty to describe the upper social classes and the political stance of London. Dickens describes the lives of those living in the slums of Tom-all-Alones and contrasts it with the more lavish lifestyle of characters such as Sir Leicester and Lady Deadlock. Dickens describes Tom-all-Alone's and the brick makers house as filthy places, Dickens focuses on the dirt and describes the house as being both 'damp' and 'filth'. When describing furniture Dickens compares it to a poverty-stricken man 'for it collapses like the cheeks of a starved man', Dickens is attempting to truly depict the harsh conditions of urban poverty by reiterating it into everyday things such as furniture, by comparing this furniture to the cheeks of a starved man it reminds the reader of the poor, urban poverty is a specter that looms throughout the novel and appears constantly often where one may not expect it. Chesney and Tom-all-Alone's are both depicted by Dickens using similar language. Tom-all-Alone's, Chesney and the Court of Chancery are depicted by the narrator to be polluted and places of disease, these establishments are painted as places that are falling apart, not only is this an observation on urban poverty but it is also a critique on socio-economic groups and judicial system in the city of London. When describing the Court of Chancery the narrator says “never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth' (14), 'This is the court of chancery; which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire'”(15), the way in which the narrator describes the court is as a filthy place, the use of the words mud', 'mire' and “decaying' convey this, these are the type of words one would use in order to describe a slum yet Dickens uses these words throughout the novel in order to describe the court. Dickens states that 'Lady Dedlocks place has been extremely dreary' (20), is a rather wealthy woman, Lady Dedlock is expected to living in a magnificent house, instead it is described similarly to the streets of London as 'dreary', this juxtaposition of the descriptions of institutions is merely Dickens attempting to show that the poor are suffering and to show that the lives of the wealthy are contaminated by dirt.

In conclusion, Charles Dickens ‘Bleak House’ is a novel that is highly concerned with urban poverty. Urban poverty is depicted throughout the entirety of this novel. Urban poverty is critiqued using the vast cast of characters that Dickens introduces, the setting of the novel aids in Dickens portrayal of poverty, Dickens sets this novel around 1850 in London were the poverty crisis was high. Dickens describes working conditions, houses, the weather and the streets of London as these are all elements that affect the lives of the poor by describing the architecture and establishments that fall under the wealthy and the poor categories in similar manners it becomes a criticism of wealth while critiquing the poor. Dickens description of the architecture aids in his critique of urban poverty in the novel, when describing institutions he uses words such as 'mud' and 'mire', Dickens describes Tom-all-Alones and the Court of Chancery using a similar selection of words, it is clear that through this he is attempting to criticize society by comparing a court to a slum he achieves this. Dickens vividly depicts life in England, he focuses on poverty contemplating the controversies that surround it during the Victorian era, Dickens achieves this by contrasting characters of different socio-economic groups, as discussed earlier in the novel, Dickens introduces a vast cast of characters ranging from many different ages, Dickens is attempting to portray the harsh reality of urban poverty and this is achieved by his use characters, Jo in particular who is merely a child forced to work as a crossing-sweep and suffers from many mishaps throw the novel the character being a child is meant to invoke strong emotions within a reader to force them to realize the true horror that is the life of those in poverty, eventually falling to their deaths due to disease and spontaneous combustion both Krook and Jo are prime examples of what can happen to a person when living in the gruesome conditions of the London slums. Dickens presents characters with a wealthier background and these characters are often times devoid of morality, this once again is Dickens criticizing the upper classes in society showing in the cases of Grandfather Smallweed, Mrs. Jellby, and Mrs. Pardiggle that money can lead to greed and selfishness, Dickens villainizes the wealth in order to show that true horror faced by those in urban poverty. Dickens's critique of urban poverty is merely a disguise for his criticism of socio-economic groups and of establishments such as Chancery.


  1. Dickens, Charles, Nicola Bradbury, and Hablot K. Browne. Bleak House. London: Penguin, 1996.
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Urban Poverty and Social Inequality in Charles Dickens’ Novel ‘Bleak House’. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/urban-poverty-and-social-inequality-in-charles-dickens-novel-bleak-house/
“Urban Poverty and Social Inequality in Charles Dickens’ Novel ‘Bleak House’.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/urban-poverty-and-social-inequality-in-charles-dickens-novel-bleak-house/
Urban Poverty and Social Inequality in Charles Dickens’ Novel ‘Bleak House’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/urban-poverty-and-social-inequality-in-charles-dickens-novel-bleak-house/> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Urban Poverty and Social Inequality in Charles Dickens’ Novel ‘Bleak House’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/urban-poverty-and-social-inequality-in-charles-dickens-novel-bleak-house/

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