Notes on ‘Hard Times’ – by Charles Dickens

Hard-Times-by-Charles-Dickens

 THE THEME OF HARD TIMES IN THE NOVEL

  • The theme of ‘hard times’ applies to all characters in the novel – those exploited and those who exploit.
  • Coketown is depicted as a cage that imprisons all – it is a microcosm that comprises of good and evil.
  • Hard times evolve from the greed for wealth and power. The Government Inspector is ready to fight all England instead of trying to help all England.
  • The educational system is geared only to service industry and to maintain the status quo (Nothing to do with the rock group!). Children are deprived of their childhood fantasies – in school, they become ‘little pitchers’, ‘vessels’ into which facts are poured.
  • Workers and children are both depersonalised by the system- all are mere cogs in the system. They are referred to only as ‘Hands’.
  • Kindness and charity are frowned upon. Betrayal of workmates is encouraged – they are asked to spy on one another, Tom sets up Stephen as a fall guy.  Slackbridge ensures that workers boycott Stephen – ‘Private feelings must yield to common cause’.
  • Stephen’s life is plagued by his drunken and immoral wife, he is too poor to pay for a divorce.
  • Gradgrind is a prisoner of his own system and is unable to visualise the humiliation that lays in store for Louisa. His ‘hard times’ come at the end of Book II when he realises what he has done to her and Tom: ‘And he laid her down there, and saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet’.
  • Sissy has her ‘hard times’ at school and when she suffers the loss of her father.
  • Coketown is ugly, a mirror of the hard times associated with those who live there. The river is black – the town a blur of soot and smoke. It is a triumph of FACT.  Monotony is the keynote – the streets are all alike.
  • There is, however, an underlying craving for music and dancing and amusement – the circus will shortly come to fulfil this desire. ‘There is some love in the world and it is not all self-interest.’  With these words, Mr Sleary sets the standard of the circus world of which he is the Clown King.  His philosophy of ‘people must be amused’ (without the lisp!) is in sharp contrast to the Hard Fact men who only succeed in bringing ‘hard times’ for all.

 

IMAGERY AND SYMBOLISM IN ‘HARD TIMES’

 Nature Imagery

  • Sowing, Reaping, Garnering.
  • In the opening Chapter: ‘plant nothing but else but facts – root out everything else.’
  • Gradgrind’s hair is described as a ‘plantation of firs’
  • The ray of light irradiating Sissy and Bitzer.
  • Light/Darkness: the inner radiance of Rachael lifts the gloom from Stephen: ‘the light of her face shone upon the midnight of his mind.’ Rachael’s candle.  In Book III Chapter I  Sissy is described as ‘a beautiful light’.
  • In Book I, Chapter 10 nature has been replaced by wheels and the machines are described as ‘mad elephants’.
  • In Book ii, Chapter 7 Bounderby grows cabbages in his flower garden! This is typically Utilitarian – you can eat cabbages.

 

Mathematical Imagery

  • This is first used to symbolise the educational system: ‘Girl number 20’
  • Gradgrind is described in mathematical terms – ‘square finger’, a man of calculations, ‘rule and scale and multiplication tables in his pocket ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature – a mere question of figures, of simple arithmetic.’
  • Stone Lodge is seen as ‘a calculated, cast up, balanced and proved house – all ruled straight like a botanical account book.’
  • ‘metallurgical Louisa’ and ‘mathematical Thomas’ (Indeed we can go further and say that Tom is only interested in Number One!)
  • Gradgrind proves by statistics that the disparity in ages between Louisa and Bounderby is no bar to a successful marriage.
  • The Government Inspector sets out the requirements for wallpaper and carpets – these are combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures ‘which are susceptible to proof and demonstration.’ There is no beauty outside of mathematical exactitude.
  • The ‘monotonous vault of a schoolroom’ kills Fancy.
  • Of Gradgrind it is said, ‘his head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts within.’ The children are described as ‘vessels’.

Animal Imagery

  • Bitzer’s eyes are described as ‘the antennae of busy insects.’
  • Sparsit – a hawk concealed beneath the mildness of a dove;
  • she is seen as a ‘dragon’ – she watches Louisa and Harthouse with ‘hawk’s eyes’. She is associated with nasty, creepy things – worms, snails, adders as she goes through the woods to spy on them.
  •  In the novel, the machinery in Coketown is compared to ‘mad elephants.’
  • There is much Fairytale imagery in the novel – the teacher is seen as ‘a dry ogre’, ‘a monster in a lecturing castle.’ Louisa is the Snow Queen with a frozen heart.  Coketown is seen as a ‘monstrous serpent’ by day.  The Blue Books are reminiscent of Bluebeard.  Sparsit considered herself to be the ‘Bank Fairy’. The people of Coketown referred to her as the ‘Bank Dragon’.

Symbolism

  • In the novel, there is a war being waged between the Heart and the Head, between Fairytales and Mathematical imagery, between Fact and Fancy.
  • The mill is symbolised by the ‘mad elephants’ – the factory is a living thing.
  • The characters are symbolic: Sissy represents simplicity; Gradgrind symbolises materialism; Harthouse represents cynicism/lack of principle; Stephen Blackpool stands for all victims of social oppression; Sleary stands for imagination and true love; Rachael represents virtue, goodness, compassion; she is ‘sweet-tempered and serene’.
  • Dickens overdoes the symbolism with many of his characters and there is little doubt in anyone’s mind who Choakumchild, Bitzer, Slackbridge or Bounderby represent.
  • Sparsit’s Staircase (Chapter 27) is hugely symbolic: it charts Louisa’s approach to moral ruin as she descends Lower and Lower (Chapter 28) until she is Down (Chapter 29) ‘lying insensible at his (Gradgrind’s) feet.
  • The smoke and soot from the serpentine chimneys symbolise the uncertainty of the workers.
  • The sun symbolises the freedom of the next world which can only be attained by suffering.

 

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Two Sample Answers on ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

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It has been suggested that Dickens, the social crusader, outdoes Dickens the novelist.  Discuss with apt reference from the text of Hard Times. Discuss.

 Sample Answer:

Dickens is rightly regarded as a crusader against injustice; all his novels are concerned with one or more of the defects of society as a whole or of the individual human being.  ‘Hard Times’ is a case in point.  There is a formidable list of points raised in this novel to suggest that Dickens is attacking various aspects of society or the attitudes of individual human beings to particular groups of their fellow men.

In his opening chapters, there is a clear criticism of the educational system that encourages or permits little children to be treated as receptacles for Facts poured into their heads and forbids or discourages the exercise of their imagination.  He refers to the children as ‘little vessels’ ready to have gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.  With this, he associates the process of depersonalisation that is carried into the factory.  At school Sissy Jupe ceases to be a person; she becomes ‘Girl Number Twenty’.  In the factory, Stephen Blackpool, like his co-workers, is merely one of the depersonalised ‘Hands’.  In the confrontation between him and Bounderby in the chapter ‘Men and Masters’, Dickens puts words into Stephen’s mouth that show that the greatest grievance of the working class is that the employers look on them as so much power and treat them as figures in a sum, without feelings or souls.  Dickens makes the point himself when he shows that even Louisa when she visits Stephen to offer him help, realises that she has never thought of the working class as individuals, but by hundreds and by thousands – as ants and beetles.

Dickens, however, may not be attacking merely the upper middle class but also the attitude of people to their fellow men.  M’Choakumchild and Bounderby may not be upholding a system, but may be merely indifferent to the children and the workers – or perhaps being merely selfish: ignorant workers are less likely to be troublesome than educated ones.  To support the argument that Dickens is attacking the attitude of individuals to their fellow men, Dickens has created Slackbridge, the Trade Unionist who is painted as a rather dangerous demagogue who attacks the oppressors of the working class while himself hounding one of his fellow workers.  Dickens’s intentions are clear: he condemns Slackbridge by his description of him; he is less honest, less manly, less good-humoured than the workers he addresses.  He is cunning rather than simple, and his words are ‘froth and fume’.  In his condemnation of Stephen as a thief, he places himself alongside Bounderby who, like him, finds Stephen guilty without evidence or without trial.

Dickens also attacks theoretical political economy, (or the economic system based on self-interest).  He ironically points out the inhuman aspect of the theory of political economy through Sissy who considers the first principle of this science to be ‘to do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’, and who cannot say whether a nation is prosperous or not until she knows who gets the money.  Statistics, to her, are ‘stutterings’ and percentages cannot be applied to people.  (There are often echoes of this in our day: the ideal family is said to consist of 2.4 children!)  To support her, Dickens shows the Circus people as a closely-knit, interdependent people who, besides relying on one another in the Ring, have an untiring readiness to help and pity one another.  They are outside the Utilitarian system and are a living criticism of it.

It is clear therefore that Dickens carries the crusader’s banner.  However, this is not to say that this aspect of his work outdoes his importance as a novelist.  (You are free to argue otherwise if you wish.)  He was not just a reformer or a sentimentalist.  His genius lay in his ability to create a world.  He tells a story peopled by characters – good and bad.  The good ones, like Sissy and Rachael, may not be totally acceptable to modern readers because the cynical twentieth-century cannot accept a human being who never has an impulse to be ungenerous; the bad ones are nasty and always acceptable.  Dickens, with his brilliant use of imagery, makes them real: Bounderby, the Bully of Humility, the bag of wind who is deflated (temporarily) by the revelation of his real origins; Harthouse, with his vicious assumption of honesty in dishonesty who is finally overcome by one whose only weapons are virtue and a complete lack of sophistication.

In between these are the more credible characters.  Louisa and Tom are victims of a stifling and cruel educational system.  Our reactions are perhaps of pity rather than rage at the system.  Bitzer, too, evolves from it; he is a victim rather than a villain.  He rejects Gradgrind’s bribe to free Tom, not because he is heartless or cruel, but that he is the perfect product of his education.  The test of the success of a novel is the reader’s response to the characters depicted.  So, if one rages at Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit and gloats over their exposure; if one is pleased that the Circus Folk, who are natural enemies of the utilitarian system, overcome Bitzer; if one suffers with Louisa and hopes that Gradgrind will mellow, then the novel is, for that reader, a novel, not an attack on a political system.

Even though he laughs ‘with a touch of anger in his laughter’ Dickens makes us laugh at the boy who would not paper a room with representations because he would not paper a room at all, he would paint it.  We laugh at the Circus Folk and the idiocy of Mrs Gradgrind.  Such things are above and beyond a social documentary.  Perhaps if he seems to over-emphasise certain points by repetition e.g. ‘No little Gradgrind…’ it is primarily to elicit sympathy for his good characters or to make us condemn his villains.

He may be over-anxious to point to the flaws in society as he is when he interpolates his own views directly, but he reflects his own age, his own life and his own thinking.

 

12in12 Bounderby Hard Times

Josiah Bounderby of Coketown

Whereas Bounderby is incapable of change and ends as he began, a monster of Utilitarianism, Gradgrind learns from experience, and when he changes it is for the better.   Discuss.

 Sample Answer:

This statement is true for a number of reasons.  Bounderby is incapable of change, largely because he is a caricature.  Gradgrind is forced to change and ends the novel a sadder and wiser man.

 Bounderby is the quintessential ‘self-made man’.  He is inflated like a balloon – full of wind.  He is the villain of the novel.  Dickens ensures that we abhor this ‘Bully of Humility’.  He is physically repellent and he has an obnoxious manner.  His ‘humility’ is false.  He is a liar.  He exploits his employees.  To him they are mere ‘Hands’.  His attitude to Stephen is disgraceful when he asks for advice on getting a divorce and later he tries to exploit him further.  When Stephen refuses to co-operate he is sacked and when money is stolen from his bank he accuses Stephen and puts a price on his head.

 Bounderby, the industrialist, is indeed a monster.  He is aided and abetted in his efforts by his friend Thomas Gradgrind MP  Dickens savagely attacks this attitude which puts profit before all other considerations.  Indeed it can be said that both these men have much in common.  They are intimate friends and desire to be closer through the marriage of Louisa to Bounderby.  They are both pompous, self-opinionated and insensitive to the feelings of others.  Gradgrind worries about Bounderby’s disapproval, ‘What would Mr. Bounderby say?’  However, there are also serious differences between these two men.  Foremost among these is the fact that Gradgrind is not a hypocrite.  He does act in good faith.  He thinks that Thomas and Louisa are getting the best education.  By the end of this novel he acknowledges the failure of his system and takes responsibility for it, ‘I only entreat you to believe, my favourite child, that I have meant to do right.’

Dickens ensures that Bounderby is caricatured as a comical ‘Mr. Pickwick’ figure and he is cruelly exposed at the end of the novel.  He behaves very badly in Book III when Gradgrind is confronted.  He is seen to be crude and intolerant.  He acts the Bully to the end whereas Gradgrind is patient, submissive and humble.  Bounderby’s end is ignominious – he makes a vainglorious will, he dies in a fit, and his estate is whittled away by the courts.  He has no redeeming qualities.

It must be emphasised that Gradgrind, too, is a monster of utilitarianism and he indeed is the chief apostle and promoter of this rather inhuman political philosophy.  He, too, is the focus of attack by Dickens.  He puts his faith in statistics and in the ‘enlightened self-interest’ proposed by the evangelists of Utilitarianism – Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus.  (Two of his sons are called Adam and Thomas!)  He is shown to be a man of ‘realities’, of ‘fact and calculations’.  We first see him in the Model School.  His aim is to prepare his pupils for a mechanical world – his graduates are robotic creatures devoid of sympathy, love or imagination.  He raises his five children (two daughters and three sons) by these rigid principles.  They grow up on a diet of ‘-ologies’.  He becomes a leading MP in the ‘party of weights and measures’ – one of the Hard Fact men.  He is an ’eminently practical man’.

However, he is not all bad – he has virtues such as courage, honesty and charity.  He takes in Sissy despite Bounderby’s protestations.  He is forced to admit the failure of his system with Louisa and Tom.  By the end of the novel, his world, so carefully built, is collapsing around him.  He is pained by Louisa especially since he agreed to the marriage and he proved by statistics how successful it should be.  Ironically, he is the one who introduces Harthouse to Louisa and Bounderby, thereby destroying the marriage he had done so much to promote.

Gradgrind, therefore, unlike Bounderby is capable of change and development.  He is forced to face unwelcome facts (!).   He is no longer certain.  He is a humbled man: ‘The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet.  The only support on which I leaned …. has given way in an instant.’  The Gradgrind we see in Book III is hardly recognisable.  He has abandoned his philosophy of facts and becomes a caring father to his children.  This change comes and he is saved when Stephen dies and he realises that Tom is the bank robber.  He seeks help from Sleary.  He pleads emotionally with Bitzer to have ‘mercy and pity’.  He acts to clear Stephen’s name.  He realises that Sissy – the great ‘failure’ of his system – is now indispensable to his household.  His younger children will be spared the worst effects of his system. (Isn’t this always the case?!!).  Dickens is at pains to show how disastrous this system is but he is also at pains to point out that Gradgrind and the other promoters of the system were not evil – they were often caring and well-intentioned, even.  At the end – in the future – we see him ‘converted’ as he makes his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity.

Gradgrind, now, unlike Bounderby, is a much sadder, wiser man.  He now knows the meaning of love.  He realises that there is a ‘Wisdom of the Heart’ as well as a ‘Wisdom of the Head’.  He benefits in the end from a form of ‘poetic irony’ in that his early isolated act of kindness to Sissy proves to be the means of his redemption.  He has changed for the better while poor Bounderby, our other monster, is cruelly depicted as a ‘Noodle’!

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