Critical Analysis of The Novel Hard Times

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      In 1854 Hard Times appeared. It was published in weekly installments in a periodical magazine Household Words. Dickens himself was the editor of this magazine. As it first appeared, very soon Dickens’ great contemporary John Ruskin expressed his opinion rather highly praised it that it was Dickens’ greatest work and it should be studied especially with close and passionate care by persons interested in social problems. G.B. Shaw also has highly appreciated this novel. F.R. Leavis, the modern critic also regards Hard Times as a work of genius. Keeping aside all the appraisals, though the novel is great yet not a popular novel. Leavis says, “Hard Times is not a difficult work; its intentions and nature are pretty obvious. If, then, it is the masterpiece I take it for, why has it not had general recognition? To judge by the critical record, it has had none at all. If there exists anywhere an appreciation, or even an acclaiming reference, I have missed it. In the books and essays on Dickens, so far as I know them, it is passed over as a very minor thing; too slight and insignificant to distract us for more than a sentence or two from the works worth critical attention. Yet, if I am right, of all Dickens’ works it is the one that, having the distinctive strength that makes him a major artist, has it in so compact a way, and with a concentrated significance so immediately clear and penetrating, as, one would have thought, to preclude the reader’s failure to recognize that he had before him a completely serious, and, in its originality a triumphantly successful work of art.”

Title of Hard Times

      Hard Times is a novel with a special social purpose. The expression “hard times” commonly means a period of decline and depression when there was the scarcity of food, when wages were low and when unemployment was pervasive. But Dickens has not used this phrase in this particular meaning. Dickens meant by this phrase a general state of affairs in which the lives of people were repressed or restricted and in which people were ceased to give spontaneous and natural outlet to their natural emotions and sentiments. The phrase implies the crisis and scarcity caused by mechanization and industrialism. As F.R. Leavis says that in Hard Times Dickens is “unmistakably possessed by a comprehensive vision, one in which the inhumanities of Victorian civilization are seen as fostered and sanctioned by a hard philosophy—aggressive formulation of an inhumane spirit.”

Themes or Targets to Attack

      Hard Times is a novel in which Dickens violently attacks on some of the evils afflicting the contemporary age. He has made a fierce attack upon the educational theory of “facts” and “statistics”. He has also satirized the motive of self-interest inspired by industrialism and utilitarianism; he has criticized the discord and disharmony between laborers and industrialists; he attacks on the inhumanity of factory owners and aggressiveness, obstinacy and stubbornness of trade unions; he also has satirically presented the worthless and feverish routine of members of Parliament and the fruitlessness of Parliament itself.

      The novel, overall, seems to be an indictment of nineteenth-century industrial society. “Against the monstrous cruelty of mine and mill and pit and factory and counting, house, against the bleak utilitarian philosophy with which they were allied, what power could there be except the flowering of the human imagination and the ennoblement of the heart?” Sleary rightly states: “You must have uth, Thquire. Do the withe (wise) thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht (best) of uth (us); not the wortht (worst)”.

      Dickens’ attack on the utilitarians of his time is the leading theme of the novel. The novel opens with a parody of the utilitarian doctrine: “Now what I want is Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Even Mr. Gradgrind is called a “man of realities. A man of facts and calculations.” When Gradgrind talks to Louisa on the matter of Bounderby’s marriage proposal, he tells her not to take into account the disparity between the age of Bounderby and herself and here he quotes statistics to justify his point.

      Hard Times is also called an analysis and a condemnation of the ethos of industrialism. In this regard, Shaw says, “This is a Karl Marx, Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris, Carpenter, rising up against civilization itself as a disease, and declaring that it is not our criminals but our magnates that are robbing and murdering us; and that is no merely Tom-all-Alone’s that must be demolished and abolished, pulled down, rooted up, and made forever possible so that nothing shall remain of it but History’s record of its infancy, but our entire social system.” Shaw further says, “Here you will find no more villains and heroes, but only oppressors and victims, oppressing and suffering in spite of themselves, driven by a huge machinery which grind to pieces the people it should nourish and ennoble, and having for its directors the basest and foolish of us instead of the noblest and most farsighted.” Dickens “has spread and deepened into a passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modem world.”

      It is not industry per se that Dickens is fighting; rather laissez-faire, which polluted the atmosphere, allowed open mine shafts to fester, employed or starved workers according to the market without any sense of human need or potential. Not industry alone is in question, but the philosophy operating behind it. “Your sister’s training has been pursued according to the system” says the broken Gradgrind, and it is true Hard Times, then is Dickens’s attack upon the system “by which the claims of individual human beings are trampled in a general melee. Society itself cannot survive under such circumstances. The answers of Hard Times may be invalid, but the question it propounds are still with us. It is the most flawed of Dickens’ classics, possibly, but it is still a classic.” (Philip Hobsbaum).

Hard Times: A Battle between Head and Heart

          Hard Times fully manifests the utmost tragic limit to which intellect and emotion may entangle. Throughout long Christian tradition the miserable conflict, between reason and sentiments had existed. The dominance of reason, intellect and wit in the eighteenth century minimized the effective side in this clash and the utilitarianism of the early nineteenth century went back even further into something unreal. The concept of “economic man” is a leading example of this retreat. Utilitarianism is partly a development of eighteenth-century intellectualism and partly a revolt against romanticism that came to prevail upon the first decade of the nineteenth century and which emphasized the importance of instincts, emotions and imagination, of all that was spontaneous and creative in the life of man. James Mill, particularly, had set himself against the feelings, trusting that the reason in man might sort out all human problems; both Mill and Jeremy Bentham engaged themselves to a narrow rude and deterministic principle of the association of ideas as the only explanation of human psychology Dickens, in putting the case for imagination and emotion in man, is also partaking the general romantic opinion.

Plot and Structure

      Hard Times was highly praised by the radical social thinkers like Ruskin and G.B. Shaw for being openly revolutionary in its implications; Few modern critics have admired it for its well-organized structure, there are three separate plot sequences in the novel that help novelists a lot in developing them. The focus of main action is on Thomas Gradgrind, a wholesale hardware merchant, who has established a school of “facts” and who has keen desire to be the M.P. for Coke town. He is the steadfast believer in the utilitarian philosophy Louisa, Tom and Sissy are the main instruments of action. Louisa gets married to an industrialist and a banker Bounderby without any emotion for him rather she contempts him. Her married life is not happy and she seems ready to elope with her lover, Harthouse. This is the first complication in the main action and that gives severe blow to Gradgrind’s belief in his education policy Again Tom who has been employed in the bank of Bounderby; robs the bank and calls destruction upon himself. He contrives a plan to make Stephen the victim of his crime and Stephen falls under suspicion of committing robbery This is the second complication in the main action.

      In the second plot, Bounderby is the central figure. Mrs. Sparsit, his housekeeper; is of aristocratic background and Bounderby feels proud to have such a high lady Mrs. Sparsit, inwardly cherishes the desire to marry Bounderby But ultimately her wickedness and shrewdness is exposed and she is dismissed by Bounderby Bounderby also has a mother whom he had pensioned off under the condition never to claim him as her son. He always boasts of his humble origin and how he has achieved the present prosperous state. But he is exposed in front of crowd, and his mother’s identity and truth of his past life is revealed to everybody The third plot is concerned with the story of Stephen and Rachael. Stephen is an honest and faithful worker in the textile factory of Bounderby His wife is a drunken sinister lady whom he wants to divorce and is inclined to marry his affectionate and intimate friend Rachael. She is an angel and brings all possible comforts to Stephen. Tom robs Bounderby’s bank and very shrewdly makes Stephen to fall under suspicion. Here Stephen becomes a link between first plot and third one. Ultimately Stephen dies in an accident but before that he gives enough hints about who is the culprit. Thus these three plots are Dickens’ general plan for building the whole novel. The theme of the novel is not only the criticism of utilitarian economy but also it is an attack on educational policy class distinction, divorce laws and caste system. Therefore, in Hard Times different strands are interwoven. The book is divided into three books entitled Sowing, Reaping and Garnering. But in spite of everything the only weakness in Dickens’ handling of the industrial scene is his caricature of the union leader Slackbridge and his portraiture of the noble but serious representative of the working class Stephen Blackpool. Stockbridge is “not so honest” or “not so manly he was not so good humored; he substituted cunning for their simplicity and passion for their safe solid sense. An ill-made, high shouldered man, with lowering brows, and his features crushed into an habitually sour expression, he is contrasted most favorably even in his mongrel dress, with the great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes.” This kind of description is the example of Dickens’ sheer ignorance because union leaders are not like Slackbridge and do not speak like him. Another flaw is the unconvincing parallel between Bounderby’s and Stephen’s matrimonial problems. The last chapter is too short but deals with such events that might complete the novel.

Characterization in Hard Times

      Dickens’ prime purpose in Hard Times is to unveil the social abuses of his contemporary time. Thus, he has deliberately invented his characters to demonstrate his theme. In the whole novel, no character seems so richly explained that exists in memory for very long time. All the characters are arranged in similar groups either to represent class of laborers or capitalists or the repressed children of a model school in contrast to hearty and fun-loving circus people.

      Dickens’ fondness for the grotesque is related with his oft-noted tendency for caricature types of people in the novels and Hard Times is its good witness. They are the caricatures of highly individual models or types. They are divided into apparent groups. They are either victims or tyrants, poor or rich, humble or intellectual. The circus group stands a bit aside but finally justifies Dickens’ moral principle by the victory of their selflessness, perceptivity, love and kindness. The characters of Hard Times are less rounded in comparison to other characters of Dickens’ novels. Bounderby is utterly a villain and Stephen is perfectly good, and that is why they do not touch reader’s heart.

      George Gissing objects that Dickens’ novels express poor people who are exploited and are facing the hardships of life, but he does not depict any representative wage-earner who has been struggling for bread and justice. This drawback is caused perhaps on account of Dickens’ lack of the knowledge about the north of England. Stephen Blackpool represents nothing but timidness. Working class is not Dickens’ field even in London. Thus these characters seem unconvincing. Chesterton says that Bounderby’s character is exaggerated because Dickens really contemplated him and Peckniff is exaggerated because Dickens really loved him. Thus for Chesterton's Hard Times is not a greatest book but greatest monument of Dickens.

Circus People in the Novel

      Circus is introduced in the earliest chapter of the novel. SIeary is the owner of this circus troupe. Sissy Jupe comes to rescue the Gradgrind’s family and Tom, the thief and selfish character who is saved by Sissy’s efforts.

      F.R. Leavis says most significantly about the scene where Sleary finally gives the statement full of morality. He says, “Reading it there we have to stand off and reflect at a distance to recognize potentialities that might have been realized elsewhere as Dickensian sentimentality. There is nothing sentimental in the actual fact”.

      The circus people are the embodiments of virtue, sympathy and helpfulness to others for what Mr. Gradgrind’s hard philosophy is useless. When Bounderby rudely says to Sissy that her father has left her, Dickens writes, “They cared so little for plain Fact, these people.” The qualities, given to circus people are as real as in Mr. Gradgrind, they are as likely to be seen in acrobats and clowns as in bankers and industrialists.

      Therefore there are two worlds. The world of generosity and the world of rationalized greed. It is through his callous and inhuman philosophy that Mr. Gradgrind is to be struck down, and through his kindness an love he and his family are finally saved.

Trade Unions

      F.R. Leavis and several other critics are of the opinion that the scenes of trade unions are not convincing. Only at one point Dickens seems to achieve, that is his description of Bounderby’s conversation with Stephen Blackpool, in which he expresses the subconscious sympathy between industrialists and Trade Union organized against individualistic workers.
Hard Times remains a work of remarkable distinction that deals with for the first time the very important fanciful task of joining the factory world into the world of nature and humanity.


      A very significant remark is given by A.O.J. Cockshut: “The leading idea of the book is proclaimed in contract between its subject—industrial society and the titles of its three sections-— Sowing, Reaping and Garnering. The intention, carried out at times with great subtlety and at times with a rather weary obviousness, was to show inherent life and growth conquering theory and calculation. This approach tends to break down the stock distinctions between town and country; between industry and agriculture, between silence and intuition. From the first brilliant description of the factory world, where the elephants’ heads represent the movement of machinery; the factory is treated as a living thing. Thus the industrial smoke is linked with the horrors of hypocrisy and deception. A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way now that way now aspiring the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rise and fall, or charged its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness: Coketown in the distance was suggestive of itself, though not a brick of it could be seen. “The fire of the furnaces, in a remarkable passage, is compared to the fire of human passions. When Louisa is thinking about Bounderby’s marriage proposal, Gradgrind asks her, “Are you consulting the chimneys of the Coketown works?” and she answers “There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out.”

      Coketown people seem to be living mysteries, not facts. The process of inner growth is all the time in Dickens’ mind. It governs even casual phrases: “to pretend....that they went astray wholly without cause, and of their own irrational wills, was to pretend that there could be smoke without the death, without birth, harvest without seed.” The shape of industrial society the chasm, does not prevent to influence events when it is uncontrolled forgotten—a point which Stephen’s own words underline. “When it was in work, it killed wi’out need; when, ’tie alone, it kills wi’out need”.

Dickens’ Satire, Wit and Irony in Hard Times

      Dickens comes out as a great satirist in Hard Times. It is preeminently a satirical novel and it shows Dickens’ adeptness of irony Due to satire, the novel more appears as a moral fable. Dickens has satirized against the various social evils and pseudo values of Victorian society. The issues satirized are—utilitarianism, materialism, laissez-faire, lust for money; class distinction, snobbery; boastfulness, ostentations and trade union. These evils are satirically presented in Gardgrind, Bounderby; Mrs. Sparsit, James Harthouse, Bitzer, Tom, and Slackbridge. Even the Coketown people in general are satirized.

      Gradgrind’s physical appearance is satirically presented. Very ironically Gradgrind’s eyes, forehead, voice, mouth, hair are depicted. Dickens compares the pupils to little vessels arranged in order, ready to receive gallons and gallons of facts till they get full to the brim. Gradgrind as a man of realities, facts and calculations seems like a man going with important tools to measure “any parcel of human nature.”

      Gradgrind’s children are brought up according to the educational system even at home. No child of his has ever seen a face in the moon. They have never learned any silly jingle like: “Twinkle, twinkle little star; how I wonder what you are.” Dickens ridicules Gradgrind’s satirical approach to the marriage between his daughter Louisa and his friend Bounderby Louisa’s ironical replies to father are lost upon the utilitarian Gradgrind. Louisa says that she knows nothing of tastes and fancies or aspirations and love. She says that he has trained her so well that she had never dreamt of a child’s dream and that he has so intellectually and reasonably dealt with her from cradle to present hour that she never had a child’s fear or belief Bounderby’s physical appearance is also satirically described. He is referred as “the bully of humility”. Bounderby’s bald head is very amusingly described. He makes love to Louisa in the form of bracelets. During the period of engagement, his love-making has a manufacturing aspect. Dickens makes fun of his attitude towards workmen—in Bounderby’s opinion worker's genuine demands are like the demand for turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Bounderby says that factory’s smoke is the “meat and drink” and the healthiest thing in the world. Mrs. Sparsit is satirized for her snobbery hypocrisy and deceitfulness. Dickens greatly amuses us by repeated references to her Roman nose and Coriolanion eyebrows. Her weakness for sweet bread and references to her “annual compliment” is really very amusing. Bitzer, the best product of Gradgrind’s model school is ironically described as clear-headed, cautious, prudent young man who is sure to raise high in the world. Harthouse is ironically called one of the fine gentlemen, though he plays a very villainous role in the novel. The trade union leader Slackbridge is also the target of some pungent satire. His inflated rhetoric and exaggerated charges upon Stephen are depicted in a most unfavorable light.

The Element of Humour and Pathos

      Dickens is equally great a master in producing humor and pathos. We find humor almost in every scene where Mrs. Gradgrind appears. Dickens has even made her death-scene amusing. When Louisa asks about her pain, she replies it must be somewhere in the room; Mrs. Gradgrind’s decision of calling Bounderby as ‘J’; her phrase “something logical”, all are very amusing and humorous. Mr. Slegiry’s lisping manner of speech produces enough humor and his constant state of semi-drunkenness is quite interesting. The scene in which Mr. Childers and his assistant Master Kidderminster insult Bounderby and humiliate him is also full of humor. There are some instances of humor of situations in the novel. The way Tom is released from Bitzer’s grip through the help of a trained circus horse and dog; Mrs. Sparsit’s inability to speak, her coughing and spluttering on being unable to say that Louisa has eloped with her lover—everything is full of fun.

      There are abundant pathetic situations in Hard Times. First of all, Sissy is distressed-having being deserted by her father, though she does not believe in the fact and harbors this hope that her father will be back to her one day; she moves us to pity. Louisa’s marriage with Bounderby is also pathetic. The two most pathetic situations in the novel, are Louisa’s flight from her husband’s house to get shelter at Stone Lodge, and the death of Stephen. We are deeply touched when Louisa confesses everything in front of her father and then collapses. Gradgrind also, at this age becomes a tragic figure. His tragedy is further intensified by the sudden and shocking revelation that robbery; at Boundary's bank, was committed by his own son Tom. For Stephen, his plightful circumstances of life arouse our sympathy right from the very beginning when he is introduced. His very affectionate, genuine and intimate relation with Rachael and its end in tragic death of Stephen is very moving and heart-rendering.

Dickens and Carlyle

      Hard Times is dedicated to Carlyle by Dickens. Carlyle has attacked upon Bentham and the idea that self-interest gives an adequate account of man’s motivation attacks the utilitarians by name, contrary to their mechanistic view of life, and showed the thought that the healthy organism whether human or social functions is a totality whereas disease comes out from single- sidedness and self-division.

      Carlyle also saw the grave as psychological and spiritual threat to the intellectual approach to life. Dickens’ dedication of Hard Times to Carlyle may be much more important than has been taken.

Hard Times: A Prognostic Work

      According to G.B. Shaw, the books belonging to the second phase of Dickens’ literary career are from Hard Times to Our Mutual Friend and they are far more important than books written in his first phase of his literary career. The books of second phase can be thought by mature and profound readers as a grim social history. In the Preface to Hard Times, Shaw has stressed the turning point that it marks the Dickens’ development from the satirist and reformer to an alert and resolute fore-teller. In other words, while Dickens was a reformer and satirist during his first period, now he becomes a fore-teller with strong convictions that he emphasized in his novels.

Hard Times: A Moral Fable

      F.R. Leavis has regarded Hard Times as a moral fable. Of course, it is there, when we read a sentence like: “Stephen, whose way had been in a contrary direction, turned about, and betook himself as in duty bound to the red brick castle of the giant Bounderby?” It is conscious but the question is, is it always used justly? Neither Bounderby nor Blackpool really need to be given any aura of fairy tale. Each has his own psychological truth and features that could not come out in any pre-industrial society. However, Edgar Johnson considers that Hard Times is a morality drama, “stark, formalized allegorically, dominated by the mood of piercing through the underlying meaning of the industrial scene rather than describing it in minute detail. Therefore Coketown, which might be Hanley, Preston, Birmingham, or Leeds, or, for that matter, Fall river or Pittsburgh, is drawn once for all in a few powerful strokes.”

      “It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it, but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever and never got uncoiled...The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a shifting smell of oil everywhere. The steam engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many stories oozed and trickled with it. The atmosphere of these fairy palaces was like the breath of the simoom; and their inhabitants, wasting with the heat, toiled languidly in the desert.”

      Every condensed detail of this whole setting is depicted with valuable emotional and intellectual remarks and every character among the tiny unified group, symbolic or stylized that play their role in the smoky industrial world, serves to intensify and deepen the meaning. Bounderby is utterly greedy, callous and inhuman, Gradgrind, a man of facts and calculations is the abode of utilitarian economic theory and its efforts to dry up life into the statistical measurements. Young Tom who is interested entirely in his advantages, is a mean product of the theories of his parents - “that not unprecedented triumph of calculation which is usually at work on number one” Another consummate achievement of Gradgrind’s theory is Bitzer. In contrast Sissy represents everything that is human. She is remarkably; vital, generous and uncalculating good.

Hard Times: Not A Socialistic but Pro-Capitalistic Novel

      George Orwell says that reality is the target of Dickens in. his novels not so much society as “human nature”. It would be hard to mark anywhere in his books a passage symbolizing the economic theory in wrong as a principle or system. Nowhere for example does he make any assault on personal enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, he does not point out that individuals ought not to have reckless power to execute idiotic desires. Indeed we can draw this conclusion from ourselves and one can draw it again from Dickens’ remarks about Bounderby’s desires at the end of Hard Times, Indeed from the complete bulk of Dickens’ works we can extract the abuse of laissez-faire capitalism, but Dickens himself draws no such conclusion. It is told that Macaulay firmly disapproved of what he called the “sullen socialism” of Hard Times, Actually, there is no single line in this novel that can properly be said socialistic. On contrary, the tendency of the novel is, if anything, pro-capitalistic because it's complete moral is that capitalists should be milk-hearted. It is not indicated anywhere that workmen should be rebellious. Bounderby is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind is described as having entirely mistaken ideas about education and how to bring up children. But Dickens seems to suggest that, if people like Bounderby and Gradgrind were better, the system of which they were a part would work good enough. For social criticism, nothing more, than it can be extracted from Hard Times or any other novels. His complete message could be finished in a sentence which suggests no social philosophy at all and that is: If men would behave properly, the world would be a convenient and proper place to live in.

An Enchanting Novel

      Paul Edward Grey has said that Hard Times though has not achieved immense success yet it is ceaselessly a fascinating novel. The scenes of schoolroom, the picture of Coketown, the contemptuous yet funny portrait of Bounderby, and the description of Mrs. Sparsit’s mad chase of Louisa, explain Dickens at his best. In these passages and episodes, the pressure of Dickens’ language creates enduring picture of local characters, events, images that are free from the prosaic demands of life and dependent on nothing but the genius of their creator. According to Cockshut, there are enough reasons against considering Hard Times a masterpiece, it remains a work of great eminence, that performed for the first time the very important fictitious job of uniting the factory world into the world of nature and humanity;

Hard Times: Diction and Style

      According to F.R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis: “But the packed richness of Hard Times is almost incredibly varied, and not all the quoting I have indulged in suggests it adequately. The final stress may fall on Dickens’ command of word, phrase, rhythm and image; in ease and range there is surely no greater master of English except Shakespeare. This comes back to saying that Dickens is a great poet, his endless resource in felicitously varied expression is an extraordinary responsiveness to life. His senses are charged with emotional energy and his intelligence plays and flashes in the quickest and sharpest perception. That is, his mastery of style is of the only kind that matters which is not to say that he hasn’t a conscious interest in what can be done with words, many of his facilities could plainly not have come if there had not been, in the background a, habit of such interest. Take this for instance: “He had reached the neutral ground upon the outskirts of the town, which was neither town nor country, but either spoiled.”

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