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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 711-727
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Bentham, Dickens, and the Uses of the Workhouse
Peter M. Stokes
The Victorian workhouse has come to symbolize on one hand systematic, institutional cruelty informed by abstract economic principles, and on the other hand the moral heroism of social critics who saw through and indignantly protested this inhumane dogma. This is another way of saying that the workhouse is strongly associated with Jeremy Bentham and Charles Dickens. 1 To maintain this polarity between villainous theorist and heroic novelist, however, is to be ungenerous to both parties. Both authors make available criticisms of the position of outraged self-righteousness. Each may serve to question the distinction between the humane and the institutional, and even between free and incarcerated individual subjects. 2
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the first Act preceded by the large-scale investigations of a Royal Commission, established a central authority supervising the poor laws. By attempting to make relief dependent on residence in the workhouse, the Act also aimed to reinforce the distinction between the deserving poor who were willing to work and the undeserving,work-shy poor. The Act was and is seen as more or less Benthamite. 3 Bentham had published his own outline of a plan for workhouses entitled Pauper Management Improved in 1798; it was reprinted in 1802 and 1812, and there were plans to republish it in the years preceding the New Poor Laws, but Bentham died in 1832. 4 By way of protest against the Act, Dickens published Oliver Twist (1837-39); he continued his critique in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). That the New Poor Laws materially changed anything very [End Page 711] much is itself debatable, 5 but they certainly served as a center of debate around which questions of how to know and manage the poor could be raised. Since Dickens is often seen as a pioneer of social fiction, and Bentham as a doctrinaire social engineer, we might not expect them to be critical of their own methods. But to read them otherwise, as self-critical and skeptical, is to see originating, at the same time as the invention of large-scale state-sponsored social investigation and representation, an awareness of the theoretical limitations of contemporary attempts to understand and engage with the social.
In his ambitious plan, Bentham stipulated that all the poor would come under one central authority and that relief would only be granted on admittance to a workhouse--hence the need for its vast scale (the system would eventually, he suggests, contain one million people). Gertrude Himmelfarb describes the plan as "bizarre," 6 as a particularly egregious example of a freakishly controlling, anti-individualist attempt to "de-moralize" the poor--to judge them as a group, rather than on an individual basis within a moral framework. She contrasts Bentham's inhumanity to the sensitivity of Dickens and other dissenting moral writers she sees as defending the uniqueness and choice of the individual. 7 In this view Dickens rejects altogether any institutional management of the poor, in favor of a more natural, personal, and humane relationship between the classes: all are to be judged and treated according to their individual merit. Bentham, though, refuses to acknowledge that any case is different from any other, and ignores the relative merits of different individuals, treating everyone in the same economic circumstances as an indistinct part of a group. In insisting on the necessity for rigorous categorization, Bentham emphasizes the irrelevance of personal relations and individual endeavors.
But Bentham himself offers a criticism in his plan of the distinction between his rigorously systematic and institutional approach and some more humane, natural, and individual way of studying, and dealing with, the poor. He rejects the giving of private charity as ineffectual, or even harmful to "habits of industry," insofar as it is not part of some sweeping, institutional change. 8 He sees his system as "true charity," the creation of an environment that enables and in fact compels the poor to...