Contemporary Aspects of the Novel ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

 

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Hard Times is unusual in several respects. It is by far the shortest of Dickens’ novels, barely a quarter of the length of those written immediately before and after it.[1] Also, unlike all but one of his other novels, Hard Times has neither a preface nor illustrations. Moreover, it is his only novel not to have scenes set in London.[2] Instead, the story is set in the fictitious Victorian industrial Coketown, a generic Northern English mill town, in some ways similar to Manchester, though smaller. Coketown may be partially based on 19th-century Preston.

While the novel is neither gripping nor memorable it is interesting to examine it from a 21st-century standpoint.  And as we try to fathom the political manoeuvrings of  Mr Trump (a very Dickensian character!) and Lady May (another one!) we begin to realise that the more things change the more they stay the same!  The family theme is a perennial one as is education.  Everyone has problems with them and there are always controversial views about them which lead to much debate. The Environment and the workplace are central to modern life.  We are all too aware that some of our world leaders today are in denial about such issues as global warming and climate change – and you know what they say: ‘De Nile is not just a river in Egypt’!  Industrialisation and its effects were seen as major problems in Dickens’ time, as they still are today.  Trade Unions are still an important force in our modern workplaces. Teenagers are big business today and a central core of modern society.   In Louisa and Sissy Jupe we can recognise the first faint traces of the modern teenager, with minds of their own, rebellious attitudes and a power of expression.  Marriage breakdown is certainly one of the major social problems in our modern world.  Louisa’s tragic and arranged marriage foundered on the rock of incompatibility, which is the most frequently cited reason for the breakdown of marriage in the modern divorce court.

The Gradgrind family, around whom the story evolves, are no more curious than any comparable family in the present era.  While the imagination and the spiritual side is stifled they are well-fed, as well-educated as the narrow curriculum and method permitted and live in a comfortable house.  The father, Mr Gradgrind, is an authoritarian figure to his teenage son and daughter.  Yet halfway through the story, he is there when his daughter needs him.  He is willing to support and harbour her in her hour of need.  He also learns from his mistakes and is ready to admit them.  I think he is a very good father.  He is basically a very good human being.  Professionally he is stifled by the constraints of a utilitarian system of education.  Is he any different from today’s teacher who cajoles, pushes, and encourages students towards those elusive points for College entrance?   Is he any different from today’s ambitious parents who make great sacrifices to give their offspring a good start in life?  He is, in a sense, a ‘single’ parent due to his wife’s inability to function as a normal mother.  She is a pitiful hypochondriac who seems to derive no pleasure whatsoever from life.  Mr Gradgrind is a gentleman and a patient one.  He seems to have the patience of Job.  He gets on with his job and provides for his family.  He rarely raises his voice to his offspring and certainly never his hand, which we must admit is a curious and admirable situation, certainly in a Victorian household.  One of the most contemporary aspects of Mr Gradgrind is his very generous fostering of Sissy.  He has a sense of responsibility towards young people.  He is prepared to take Sissy into his home and provide her with education and sustenance and a family life.

In the opening chapters of Hard Times, the education system is hammered home.  Facts alone count.  The imagination cannot be given free rein.  It must be stifled.  The education system is not child-centred, but facts-centred.  Before we proclaim our horror let us scrutinise the modern day pressures of imparting knowledge.  Are students today still considered to be ‘vessels’ into which teachers pour the main points of novels, poems, and drama?  Now and again teachers dream of being inspirational but then the grim shadow of the curriculum hovers (and visions of A’s, B’s and C’s) and their dreams of emancipating the shackled student fade into oblivion.  If we sat for awhile and compared and contrasted the square classroom where facts predominated with its modern counterpart we might end up concluding that very little indeed had changed.

One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Louisa, a teenager in the beginning of the novel who bears a remarkable resemblance to her modern counterpart.  Louisa emerges as a real live girl of the 19th. Century.  She is a bright girl who has an imaginative and spiritual side despite attempts to suppress it both at home and at school.  The friendship that develops between her and Sissy is solid.  They have little in common financially, socially or intellectually, but both have kind hearts.

There is a nice balance of giving and receiving in the friendship.  It is mutually advantageous.  In the earlier section of the novel, Louisa listens to, encourages and comforts Sissy when she confides in her over her learning difficulties at school.  The two teenagers closeted together in the study is a nice touch.  As talent and ability continue to vary in every age surely similar scenes are replicated today in many a home and classroom.  Later in the novel, Sissy Jupe will amply repay her loyal friend.  As young women now, Sissy will become a tower of strength to Louisa in her emotional turmoil.  The teenage friendship has matured.  It will last a lifetime.  Many a modern woman must find solace in the comfort and chat of a woman friend, when life strikes at them, when they are experiencing difficulties with the opposite sex, be it husband, fiancé, partner or friend.  The urge to confide is intrinsic to the human psyche.  It is an enduring trait.

Recent times have seen marriage under attack on all sides.  Louisa’s leaving her husband is a prelude to the modern dilemma of marriage breakdown.  There are thousands of solutions put forward.  Marriage guidance counselling is available and yet we are no nearer to resolving the situation than Louisa was on that terrible night of her life, when confused and desperate, she returns to her father’s house.

Work is a major part of life throughout the ages.  There have always been problems associated with work and labour.  The gruelling conditions of the workers in the factories are in sharp contrast to working conditions today.  Yet there are some echoes from the Dickensian age in our world today.  Air pollution is still a problem in many industrial areas today.   All around, even in some rural areas, there are chilling reminders that the problems of environmental pollution are far from solved.  When we see the murky waters of our major cities and the inevitable accompanying stench we can wonder if we are any different from the grim industrial smoke-filled Coketown.  The workers had practically no rights in the Victorian age.  The small beginnings of a Trade Union, whose principles were orchestrated by Slackbridge, have gathered such momentum over the intervening years that the clout and power of the Trade Union movement is a dominant feature of modern society.  Yet we only have to look at some recent disputes such as between Ryanair and its ‘baggage-handlers’ to realise that there are still employers who would refuse their workers what modern society considers a basic right – the right to be represented by a Trade Union.

To conclude, maybe we begin to realise, having read the Hard Times, that the more things change the more they stay the same!  Our world still revolves around the home, the school and the workplace.  Environmental influences are as important and far-reaching then as now and the stifling of the imagination and the emotions can often set in train a chain of tragic circumstances from which there is no escape.

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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.

 

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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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