Review | Hard Times by Charles Dickens


Title: Hard Times (1854)
Author: Charles Dickens
Read: 29th March- 4th April
Genre: classic
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Published in 1854, Hard Times is one of Charles Dickens’ shortest novels and presents a pretty damning indictment of mid 19th-century industrial society, taking a swipe at the social and political philosophies of Bentham and Mill, but ultimately failing to deliver an engaging or cohesive plot that would match the opening chapter’s brilliance.

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Hard Times tells the story of Coketown, a fictional 19th-century Northern industrial town which plays home to a host of polluting factories and their downtrodden employees, all overseen by factory owner Josiah Bounderby and his friend and Utilitarian Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster who seeks to stamp out any sense of imagination or Fancy from the town’s schoolchildren. On the outskirts of the town cavorts Mr Sleary’s circus, a troupe of performers whose antics could provide a nice sense of distraction for the downtrodden ranks of Coketown’s population.

As far as accessibility goes, in terms of the plot at least Hard Times isn’t a difficult one to follow, though it does deal with some fairly weighty topics of the time – Utilitarianism, whether prosperity guarantees moral character (spoiler alert: it doesn’t), social inequality, and trade unionism. Issues of class and prejudice underpin discussions of the value of children’s education, specifically the value (or otherwise) of pedagogy based entirely around teaching children the cold, hard facts and rules of mathematics and English, without any moral or philosophical education or, worse still, allowing them to think or feel. The name Gradgrind has now become synonymous in the English language with this sort of Utilitarian educational system – and the character is exemplary of Dickens’ style of caricaturing individuals in his works – and that is a testament to how wonderful the opening chapter of this novel is. Thomas Gradgrind then proceeds not only to instil this model of education within the school room but also imparts it in the household, with his own children; unsurprisingly, with their emotional education compromised in such a way, this has knock-on effects on young Tom and Louisa’s upbringing and the values which they carry forward into adulthood.

“There was a piece of ornamental water immediately below the parapet, on the other side,
into which Mr. James Harthouse had a very strong inclination
to pitch Mr Thomas Gradgrind Junior.”

On the other side of town we follow Stephen Blackpool, a worker at the factory whose story of hardship I should have cared deeply about but I could not for the life of me tell you anything about most of it thanks to one very key thing – Dickens attempts to transcribe a generic Northern English accent phonetically, thus making the majority of Stephen’s speech incomprehensible. Now, I say this as someone who actually hails from that large area referred to as simply “the North” – if I can’t manage to understand the accent enough, what hope does someone not familiar with it have? I’d mark it as akin (though not quite as bad) to Jacob’s speech in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – it takes a lot of reading and re-reading to fathom out what the hell he’s going on about which drastically slows down anyone’s reading pace and makes you groan in despair when the character enters a scene again. That, in essence, is Stephen Blackpool – and it’s a shame because I’m sure otherwise I might have enjoyed his storyline a lot. Speaking of Dickens’ attempts to phonetically transcribe speech that isn’t “the norm”, his rendering of Mr Sleary’s lisp sometimes borders on downright offensive with the emphasis he places on its rendition on the page.

“Any capitalist . . . who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it?”

The storyline that we do follow revolves around Mr Bounderby, a business associate of Mr Gradgrind’s, a self-made man (a theme I usually love, see: Mr Thornton in North and South) who boasts about how allegedly lower class he was and how he pulled himself up by his boot strings through his own hard work and determination. Bounderby marries Louisa Gradgrind, Mr Gradgrind’s eldest child, who is about 30 years  his junior, and needless to say the marriage isn’t the most perfect or passionate of unions. Enter James Harthouse, a lazy upper-glass gentleman who obviously is in the story purely to tempt Louisa away from her loveless marriage. As the receiver of a Gradgrind education, Louisa is taught to ignore feeling and sentiment – this element of the story I actually found really touching, especially the scene where she confronts her father about how desperately conflicted she is. Having said that, most of Louisa’s scenes involve Bounderby in some way, which does rather put a damper on things. Caricatured to the extreme, Bounderby’s insistent remarks about how very poor his family was grate after the first 20 pages so you can imagine how much I wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him by the end of the novel. I understand that this is Dickens’ way – you’re meant to find Bounderby ridiculous and funny, in some ways, but mostly he just wound up being grating.

“You have been so careful of me that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well that I never dreamed a child’s dream. You have dealt so wisely with me, Father, from my cradle to this hour, that I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear.”

Now we come to my main gripe with this novel – why are we following the characters of Bounderby and Blackpool when there was a character introduced in the first section of the novel who was so supremely more interesting that it’s a downright shame the rest of Hard Times doesn’t focus on them? Sissy (Cecelia) Jupe, daughter of a circus player who is taken in by Gradgrind and his family when her father abandons her, she is undoubtedly a narrative device intended to be the ‘other side of the coin’ to Louisa’s upbringing. She’s imaginative and emotive, but she represents a character who can be counted on for reason and advice, just the thing Louisa ends up needing when her upbringing has left her deficient in how to deal with her own feelings and emotions. However, why is Sissy, so beautifully drawn as a character in the first few chapters, not developed into anything more? If Hard Times had focused on her as a character, and Sleary’s Circus, I can’t help but feel I would have enjoyed it a hell of a lot more. Now – is it fair to base my overall rating on wanting the story to focus on a different character entirely than the ones it does? I think so, because I think (dare I say it) Dickens missed a trick with this novel.

“[It] was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be. Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter. And if we didn’t get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.”

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