Set amid smokestacks and factories, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times is a blistering portrait of Victorian England as it struggles with the massive economic turmoil brought on by the Industrial Revolution.
Championing the mind-numbing materialism of the period is Thomas Gradgrind, one of Dickens’s most vivid characters. He opens the novel by arguing that boys and girls should be taught “nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Forbidding the development of imagination, Gradgrind is ultimately forced to confront the results of his philosophyhis own daughter’s terrible unhappiness.
Full of suspense, humor, and tenderness, Hard Times is a brilliant defense of art in an age of mechanism.
Karen Odden received her Ph.D. from New York University, where she did her dissertation on Victorian literature. Most recently a lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she is now a freelance writer and lives in Arizona.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is probably the greatest novelist England has ever produced, the author of such well-known classics as A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. His innate comic genius and shrewd depictions of Victorian life — along with his indelible characters — have made his books beloved by readers the world over.
Date of Birth:February 7, 1812
Place of Birth:Portsmouth, England
Education:Home-schooling; attended Dame School at Chatham briefly and Wellington
Hard Times departs from the patterns in these novels in two important respects. First, whereas Gaskell and Disraeli focus on the rifts between poor and wealthy and worker and master, in Hard Times these rifts are mirrored by a series of other rifts-between Fancy and Fact, parents and children, husbands and wives, men and women, healthy and disabled, religion and science, literate and nonliterate. Partly because of these multiple binary oppositions, Hard Times, I believe, is less about offering a solution to a particular conflict and more about dramatizing the need for a new mode of thinking altogether.
A second important difference between Hard Times and other industrial novels is that the romance plot is notably absent from Dickens's novel. Hard Times draws on a range of genres-melodrama, pantomime, eighteenth-century novels of instruction, the industrial novel, Renaissance poetry, and the bildungsroman; but it forestalls every possible romance. The two heroines Sissy and Rachael never marry within the main action of the novel; Tom and James never marry; Stephen marries a woman who is mad or an alcoholic or both; the Gradgrind marriage is based on fear and contempt; Louisa's marriage to Bounderby is loveless and expedient. In a different novel, Louisa's love might transform Bounderby, or Tom might marry Sissy and be reformed. (Significantly, the 1854 stage adaptation of Hard Times butchered the ending: Rachael marries Stephen, and Louisa and Bounderby are reconciled.) This very absence of a successful, heartwarming romance suggests that Dickens is trying to get beyond the symbolically satisfying but ultimately false way in which literature settles differences.
Instead of a romance, Dickens offers a highly moralized theory that is articulated by three men, who, among them, represent at least two classes and four professions. Sleary is a master of ceremonies for a circus; Gradgrind is a utilitarian educator and Member of Parliament; the factory worker Stephen Blackpool is a Christ figure, who rises up from Old Hell Shaft after several days. These men all explain that rifts are bridged through the values of compassion, humor, sympathetic understanding, tenderness, and a desire to compromise and forge alliances rather than engage in power struggles that only ratchet up the sense of difference. These three offer versions of themes that Dickens had set forth previously in other works. During his brief stint as editor of the Daily News in 1845, he wrote in his Address to the Public that "it will be no part of our function to widen any breach that may unhappily subsist, or may arise, between Employer and Employed; but it will rather be our effort to show their true relations, their mutual dependence, and their mutual power of adding to the sum of general happiness and prosperity" (quoted in Ackroyd, p. 487). Nine years later, in an essay on the Preston strike for the February 11, 1854, issue of Household Words, his concerns and terms are remarkably similar: "Into the relations between employers and employed, as into all the relations of this life, there must enter something of feeling and sentiment; something of mutual explanation, forbearance, and consideration. . . . Otherwise those relations are wrong and rotten to the core and will never bear sound fruit" ("On Strike," p. 286).
Sleary, who is the representative of Fancy but who works very hard in the circus, insists on a balance among learning, working, and amusement. He delivers his advice to Gradgrind near the very end of the novel: "People mutht be amuthed. They can't be alwayth a learning, nor yet they can't be alwayth a working, they an't made for it. You mutht have uth, Thquire. Do the withe thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht of uth; not the wurtht!" This is a point that Dickens made in an early pamphlet, Sunday Under Three Heads, which defended the rights of the lower and middle classes to pleasurable activities on their day off. (He also made this point in the Address to the Reader for Household Words in 1852.) With Sleary's mention of "betht" (best) and "wurtht" (worst), we see the language of binary oppositions that has governed this novel and that anticipates the opening of A Tale of Two Cities.
The second moralizer is Gradgrind, who has had his eyes opened by Louisa's plight, and who pleads with Bounderby in terms of two men "meet[ing]" and of "better" rather than "best": "I would suggest to you, that—that if you would kindly meet me in a timely endeavour to leave her to her better nature for a while—and to encourage it to develop itself by tenderness and consideration—it—it would be the better for the happiness of all of us" (my emphases). The third spokesman is Stephen Blackpool, who at first contends, rather defensively, that he "canna think the fawt is aw wi' us." Later, Rachael speaks up for Stephen and expresses how impossible it is to be a man who refuses to participate in the binary structure.