An Analysis of Environmental Issues in 19th Century England Using the Writings of Charles Dickens

By MacKenzie, Ann Halley | The American Biology Teacher, April 2008 | Go to article overview

An Analysis of Environmental Issues in 19th Century England Using the Writings of Charles Dickens


MacKenzie, Ann Halley, The American Biology Teacher


If you were to ask your students what century is best known for its environmental and social problems, what would they say? Most likely, they would say "The 21st century." This is true; however, there is another century worth examining when environmental issues affected societies. Charles Dickens lived during the best and worst of times in 19th century England. His writings were greatly influenced by the ongoing industrial revolution. He described abhorrent environmental conditions, inadequate sanitary practices, child abuse, and other social maladies of the times. But, wait ... why should we bring Dickens into the biology classroom?

"Fiction dealing with our environment can strengthen and broaden the real-life experiences of a child" (Powers, 1974, p. 16). By having Dickens in the biology classroom, our students can discover that pollution, child abuse, infectious diseases, and poor sanitary practices are not just 21st century problems:

   If students are stimulated by interesting past events,
   they could also study scenarios of future social patterns
   and values to initiate student interest in socialization.

Reynolds, 1983, p. 407

Dickens' readings provide students with the opportunity to discuss such issues as: Will people continue to make the same mistakes in the future as they did in the past? How can people avoid the mistakes? What role will humanitarian causes play in making societal decisions? Dickens' writings can initiate discussions, debates, role-plays, and essays dealing with people vs. technology, nature vs. technology, and people vs. nature, among other topics (Fleener & Bucher, 2003).

Dickens & the Environment

When you discuss environmental issues (such as pollution, sanitation, infectious diseases, and housing conditions), provide your students with any of the following excerpts from Dickens' writings. In the following paragraph from Hard Times, Dickens describes the pollution of Coketown:

   It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have
   been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but
   as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and
   black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town
   of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable
   serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and
   ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it,
   and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and
   vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was a
   ratline and trembling all day long.

Dickens, 1959, p. 34

The effects of air pollution in London are described in Our Mutual Friend, by writing "Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing and choking; inanimate London was snooting spectre" (Dickens, 1964, p. 21).

Dickens discussed sanitation issues frequently in his writings. He served as a reporter for the True Sun and then the Morning Chronicle. During this time, he became familiar with the legislation focusing on the poor. Edwin Chadwick was the Secretary to the Poor Law Commission. In 1834, all 15,000 parishes in England were responsible for looking after their own poor. No single system existed. The Poor Law Report of 1834 barely mentioned sanitary conditions and water quality found in the poorest areas of England. Dickens did not support the new Poor Law and became cynical about the politics in his country. In Bleak House, he wrote:

   Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a
   swarm of misery. As on the ruined human wretch, vermin
   parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred
   a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps
   in walls and boards: and coils itself to sleep, in maggot
   numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes,
   fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in
   its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas
   Doodle, and The Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen
   in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five
   hundred year-though born expressly to do it. … 

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