Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times”


Stephen Blackpool, the ‘working hand’, returning to his hovel to discover his dipsomaniac and detestable wife

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out nothing else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them” (9).

 So reads the opening maxim of that prodigiously factual antagonist, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind: “a man of realities. A man of fact and calculations” (10), as ruthlessly strong-headed and bare-minded a man as ever there appeared in a Dickens novel.

 I’ve recently come upon a realization of how important it is to keep Dickens a regular part of one’s life: we all, I think, subscribe to a certain, indomitable romantic optimism, one which necessitates that we never abandon hope or faith in, perhaps, a specific career path, a prospective lover, a passing grade in calculus, etc. Though more often than not we recognize the factual odds placed against us—realistically speaking, a Princeton grad has a likelier chance of being chosen for a prestigious internship than me—a prevailing opposition means that we can never lose faith entirely, whether that faith lie in the good graces of the natural world, or in a general faith in the inherent goodness of fellow people.

 Such is one of the many lessons you will find within a Dickens novel, though “Hard Times,” Dickens’s tenth novel, offers readers a different perspective than they will find in, say, “A Tale of Two Cities,” where this theme resounds with modern politics and shifts focus ultimately on humanity’s noble selflessness, manifest in the character of Sydney Carton.

  “Hard Times” is a socio-economic part-fable and part-parody, concerned with exposing the dangers of the emerging industrial age and separating the picture of labor into three portraits: one of the militant, ruling class; one of the exploited (and very human—contrary to their statistical numbers) laborer; and one of the family fractured by the too-pragmatic creeds of the economic powerhouses.

 The setting is Coketown, a dirty, artificial place with “tall chimneys rising up into the air like competing Towers of Babel” (81)—a simile that performs, brilliantly, the functions of both exposing Coketown’s sinful aspirations to replace the Truth of God with the Triumph of Man as well as implying that, like the fate rendered to the constructors of the Tower of Babel, the residents of Coketown are doomed to a perpetual inability to communicate with one another.

In Coketown our lens focuses, in the first scene, to the school of M’Choakumchild—as garish a name as there ever was. Continuing in the vein of Henry Fielding, who fashioned his names according to character traits, we have Coketown’s resident, Facts-obsessive tyrants: Mr. Gradgrind—whose name suggests the gears of the very machines his laborers operate—and his (even worse) consort, Mr. Bounderby.

 It is these gentlemen who demand prosaicness and rationality: God forbid flights of fancy, which waste time and degrade the mind. Under this thralldom suffer Mr. Gradgrind’s two children, Louisa and Tom, whose bitter upbringing and poor later lives leaves readers in little doubt, later, as to the dangers of stultifying the growth of the imagination.

 We stay exclusively with the Gradgrind children for but a little while before Sissy Jupe enters into the Gradgrind household. The daughter of a local circus clown who’s presumed to have abandoned his family, Sissy comes into the picture when Mr. Gradgrind takes it upon himself to adopt the young girl and save her from the further ‘corruptive’ influences of the circus. Sissy is imaginative and unorthodoxly, incorrigibly rational, which hardly bodes well for her later, strictly factual education; a quizzer at M’Choakumchild, posing to Sissy this scenario: “This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion,” receives the answer: “…I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million” (60).

 And yet, despite his ruthlessly regimented educational idealism, Mr. Gradgrind is but a chip of the iceberg when compared with Mr. Bounderby, an even greater subscriber to the Facts philosophy than Mr. Gradgrind. These two characters, near counterparts, are nevertheless separated by an impossible gulf, which is the recognition and capability of empathizing with one another’s humanity. Mr. Gradgrind, tyrannical, is nevertheless pitiable, a product of an earlier, faultily wired mentality whose obsession with a singular rationality has obfuscated the consideration of the human nature variable; moreover, he has an innate recognition of such a variable, though having filtered life through the focus of sheer rationality, he has lost both the words to express it as well as the skills of deduction to detect it.

 Not so with Mr. Bounderby. He is a shrewder man than Mr. Gradgrind, capable of recognizing humanity though incapable of empathizing with it, for he insists his own truth, fable, rather, in a rags-to-riches story where the success of his present career, poor and alone and desperate, occurs not because of, but despite the interference of mankind. We do not learn the truth of this story until later in the novel, though Dickens hints at the artificiality of Bounderby’s character early on, labeling him a man “with the pervading influence…of being inflated like a balloon,” a “metallic laugh,” and serving as an overall “Bully of humility” (21).

 These players thus introduced, the seeds of the novel’s future are sown. As years pass, mistaken ideologies culminate and spark: Louisa, deprived her imagination and so burdened by the depression of her sad life, dutifully accepts a marriage invitation from Mr. Bounderby, too enfeebled by apathy to give rise to her true feelings, while her father, little realizing the unhappiness of his daughter (it is for his family’s happiness that Mr. Gradgrind, despite his mistaken ideologies, ultimately strives) looks on with pride and a curious feeling of discontent. Tom, also a fractured man with too much pent-up imagination, develops a gambling addiction, a rebellion against his father’s outstanding pragmatism, which will lead to the novel’s climax.

 Meanwhile, the ‘working hand’ characterized in the pathetic yet noble and honest figure of Stephen Blackpool, begins a tragic yet ultimately redeeming side-narrative in which his quest to divorce his drunken and salubrious wife, met with the oppressive and opposing arm of the law, causes his future hardships and sufferings.

 It is important to consider, though these words ultimately paint “Hard Times” as a cheerless and depressing read, that suffering is a necessary part of enjoying and experiencing Dickens and indeed, of experiencing life. Even so, from tragedy and ignorance there always gleams a shimmer of truth and goodness that will eventually prevail; even Mr. Gradgrind recognizes this in the end. It remains with us, however, to decide whether or not we are willing to choose the necessary way.

 “Dear reader!” the narrator exclaims in a rare breaking of the fourth wall, “It rests with you and me, whether…similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fire turn grey and cold” (288).

 Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Ed. Stephen Wall. 1854. England: Penguin Classics, 2003.

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