Hard Times is Charles Dickens’s shortest novel. It is much less character-driven than Dickens’s other novels. There are some interesting characters, but we don’t really get to know any of them very well. Louisa Gradgrind is perhaps them most interesting of them, but I think another author — George Eliot, for example — might have handled her better and more in depth. The point of Hard Times seems to have more to do with Dickens’s anti-capitalist sentiments than story or character — it’s more of an anti-capitalist parable.
Thomas Gradgrind is obsessed with Fact. He believes that imagination and fancy have no place in life. He raises his five children (Louisa, Thomas Jr., Adam Smith, Malthus, and Jane) on this principle. They are weaned on Facts and have “-ologies” for their recreation. The young Gradgrinds grow up with all knowledge of the human heart — apart from its function in the circulation of the blood — kept from them. Mr. Gradgrind raises his children on the principle, “Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder.” He even has a school, taught by Mr. M’Choakumchild (isn’t Dickens subtle‽) where his views are further propagated.
His favorite child, Louisa, grows up “doubting, misbelieving, despising, regretting” what she has been prevented from learning. All her affection is centered on her brother Tom. For his sake she marries his employer, Josiah Bounderby, who she comes to despise for his ostentatious, blustering humility. Then the fashionable, indolent, bored Mr. Harthouse comes to Coketown. He sees Louisa’s situation and takes advantage of her ignorance and depression to gain her affection — out of pure idleness. In desperation she flees back to her father, telling him, “I have not disgraced you. But if you ask me whether I have loved him, or do love him, I tell you plainly, father, that it may be so. I don’t know.”
As soon as he leaves his father’s house, Tom Gradgrind becomes profligate, betting away his sister’s money. When she is unable to give him more, he robs Mr. Bounderby’s bank and tries to frame Stephen Blackpool (one of the hands in one of Mr. Bounderby’s factories) for the theft. Mr. Gradgrind sees his theories falling down around him. He is crushed, but does his best to help his children pick up the pieces of their broken lives. He has finally learned “that there is a wisdom of the Head, and … a wisdom of the Heart”.
This wisdom of the heart is apparent in Sissy Jupe, a girl whose father — a circus performer — abandoned her. Mr. Gradgrind took her in and tried to teach her according to his system. Sissy tries hard, but fails. Against all reason, she is convinced that her father left her for her own good and will return to her — among other illogical, un-mathematical things. Mr. Gradgrind tells her, “I can only suppose … that we began too late. Still, … I am disappointed. … I don’t complain of you. You are an affectionate, earnest, good young woman — and — and we must make that do.” It more than does. Sissy’s affection reclaims Louisa and helps heal the broken Gradgrind family.
Dickens argues that you cannot reduce human behaviour to a mathematical equation. He argues against the idea “that the whole social system is a question of self-interest. What you must always appeal to, is a person’s self-interest. It’s your only hold. We are so constituted.” Even the down-trodden working people that Dickens tries to use to disprove this point, however, work in Mr. Bounderby’s factories because they think they are better off there than anywhere else they could get themselves to. They create and join a Union because they think it is in their best interest to do so. Stephen Blackpool doesn’t join the Union because of a promise made to a woman he loves. Because of this choice, he is shunned by all of his work-fellows. You could say that it would have been in his self-interest to join, or at least to give Mr. Bounderby all the information about the Union that he wanted. But out of loyalty to Rachael and his fellow-workers, he doesn’t do either of these things. He is rewarded by Rachael’s affection and good opinion — as well as the good-opinion of others. Of course, just because we generally do what we think will make us happiest, doesn’t mean that we are always right — but we have the right to make that choice ourselves, and not have it forced upon us by anyone else, as long as we are not hurting others by our choices.
As for Mr. Gradgrind’s theory of stifling any imagination or wonder (“In the name of wonder, idleness, and folly!” he exclaims, considering the three things as equal) out of his children, I would point out that without imagination there would have been no factories. Inventors are some of the most imaginative people alive. And how is anything (anything mathematical and scientific included) discovered but by wondering? “I wonder how this would work? I wonder what would happen if I … Perhaps if … How could I get this to …” &c.
Without men and women willing to work in the factories, there would have been no factories. Since no one coerced them into working in factories, we must assume that they considered it in their best interest to do so — they felt that they would be bettered in some way or another by working in these factories. To say that it is bad for them and try to keep them from doing so would be to assume that you know better than they what is best for them — to assume more wisdom and a higher judgment than they posses. In other words, you’re saying (rightly or wrongly) that you are smarter than they are and know their business better than they know it themselves.
Much time is spent describing the colorless, dull, stifling existence in Coketown, and yet, unless the entire town were owned by Gradgrind and Bounderby, places of entertainment could have been established there. Indeed, they would probably have flourished there. Already there were taverns and a library (which contained books of which Mr. Gradgrind did not approve). Furthermore, drinking and getting drunk are not the only pastimes open to the poor (more specifically, to the factory workers), as insinuated. They could read, play games, walk together. If Stephen Blackpool could be happy with Rachael, other factory workers could be happy. Besides which, they could always leave the town if they wanted. No one was keeping them there by force. Obviously they thought they were better off there than elsewhere. We must conclude that their unimaginative, unrelieved existence was a matter of choice and not forced on them by Mr. Bounderby or Mr. Gradgrind — or any other greedy capitalist.
Another point Dickens tries to make early on is that divorce should be available to the lower classes (apparently it was too expensive for them to afford). Stephen Blackpool did his best to reform his drunken wife, but failed. Now he loves another woman and wants to free himself from his wife and marry Rachael. Mr. Bounderby, to whom he goes for advice, points out that when he married, he vowed “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer,” not just for better — which is true. Anyway, Blackpool is forced to be content with this answer as he can’t afford a divorce anyway. Obviously, however, Dickens thinks that he ought to have been able to divorce his wife. When it comes to Louisa’s marriage, however, Dickens does an 180 degree turn. Now, he seems to think that Bounderby should remember “the trust you have accepted” in marrying Louisa and forbear with her wish to return to her father for awhile — even calling it “perhaps a debt incurred towards Louisa”. Of course, we’re supposed to pity Stephen Blackpool, but not Mr. Bounderby.
Blackpool was a rather annoying character. He is oddly dull-witted. He sees things are wrong (or in a “muddle” as he frequently calls it), but says he can’t be expected to know what is wrong or to do anything to fix it — “’Tis not me as should be looken to for that, sir. ‘Tis them as is put ower me, and ower aw the rest of us. What do they tak upon themseln, sir, if not to do’t?” And yet, Stephen is presented as being more intelligent than his fellow-workers. He declares that they are all doing as they think best by joining the Union: “But there’s not a dozen men amoong ’em, ma’am — a dozen? Not six — but what believes as he has doon his duty by the rest and by himseln.” But he, of course, recognizes it as trouble, and declines to join.
I could go on and on about the faults of reasoning in Hard Times, but I won’t. To do Dickens credit, though he spent so much time in his novels arguing for more government intervention in the lives of the poor, for himself he didn’t leave charity and compassion up to the government, but was very generous with his time and money in seeking to help them.
Hard Times has some brilliant scenes, but I was glad that it was so short, as the preposterous economics became irritating. However, it does have some interesting, if underdeveloped, characters. The blustering Mr. Bounderby, with his highly touted and highly exaggerated rags to riches story, is well-drawn. (However, his interest in Louisa who is thirty years his junior is disgusting, to say the least — beginning as it does when she is still a child.) Louisa is an interesting person, with her suppression and love for her brother, but we don’t get to know her very well. Mrs. Sparsit — Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper, a reduced gentlewoman — is a character it is fun to detest. (The description of her soggy, green stockings is exquisite!) So many characters seem only in the story to help the plot along — Stephen Blackpool, his wife, James Harthouse. Tom I feel sorry for, for Louisa’s sake. Sissy was interesting, but, again, her character was largely undeveloped. Mr. Gradgrind was mostly a flat character, but his shock and horror when he sees what his system has led is children to was portrayed well. He is, perhaps, the most inconsistently portrayed character, as just in introducing his character he uses a flight of fancy involving several “supposititious, non-existent persons”. The circus people were somewhat annoying, though are meant to represent what is missing from the lives of everyone in Coketown. This is largely owing to the circus owner’s inability to pronounce his “s’s”. (It is Mr. Sleary’s company that Sissy’s father worked for before he abandoned her.) Still, Dickens’s uses Sleary’s mouth to state the theme of the book: “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. … Do the withe thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht of uth; not the wurtht!”
I read Hard Times May 12 – 30, 2013.
Screencaps from the 1994 adaptation of Hard Times, with Beatie Edney (Louisa Gradgrind), Christien Anholt (Tom Gradgrind, Jr.), Bob Peck (Thomas Gradgrind), Alan Bates (Josiah Bounderby), Richard E. Grant (James Harthouse), Bill Paterson (Stephen Blackpool) & Peter Bayliss (Sleary)