Utilitarianism was the brainchild of Jeremy Bentham ( 1748-1832), a personally eccentric philosopher and social reformer, who held that virtue was a matter of utility: an action was good if it helped to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Promulgation of that happiness was the function of the State, and education of the populace and extension of political franchise were fundamental tenets of Benthamism. Political Economy, on the other hand, was a socio-economic system deriving from Adam Smith ( 1723-90) and David Ricardo ( 1772- 1823), whose disciples taught that the distribution of wealth was governed by immutable laws of nature. National prosperity depended on the profits of industrialists, and the wages of workers could not rise without jeopardizing economic harmony, to the detriment of workers and industrialists alike. Because the pursuit of individual self-interest was held to promote the general welfare, the duty of the state was to adopt a policy of laissez-faire, in order to allow that inevitable process to operate freely, without interference. ( Dickens, Schilicke, 1989)
Dickens was vociferous against these theories and as he wrote to Charles Knight, he directed his satire " against those who see figures and averages and nothing else----the representatives of the wickedest and the most enormous vice of this time." (30 December 1854, Letters, 7: 492). Dickens was above all a humanist, and he deeply resented the reduction of human beings, their activities and perceptions to bare facts and figures, without emotion, feeling, or imagination. Having already written books like Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, he had realised that his satire and criticism hit home, and thus deliberately set out to write a novel in the background of industrialisation and its resultant severe inequalities of wealth, social class and education.
2.0. Coketown: the emblem of Dickens' message
In the course of the novel, Dickens' fictional Coketown, loosely based on towns like Manchester in Northern England and the Lancashire town of Preston, becomes emblematic of Dickens' perception of the connections between industrialisation, utilitarianism, education and the Victorian society. In Chapter 5 he describes 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 building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
Dickens paints the picture of an unnatural, defaced, polluted town filled with the noise and stench of machines at work, which is "savage". All public inscriptions in the town which are essentially its voice, are written in "black and white", in effect colourless, banal, with no identity of their own. It is the antithesis of individuality and personal freedom of expression, which are so essential to human happiness and virtue.
It pays no tribute to civilisation, culture or refinement, everything in it is "severely workful" and utilitarian. This starves the human craving