Critical Comments of F.R. Leavis on Hard Times

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Leavis’ Appreciation of Hard Times on Artistic Levels

      F.R. Leavis’ comments on Hard Times has become famous because it has reformed the general critical attitude towards this novel. Hard Times has never been regarded as a very popular and famous work of Dickens except by the critics like Ruskin and Shaw who praised it on philosophical grounds. Leavis, however, appreciated mainly on artistic grounds, though he completely understands the social value of the book with its presentation of the blemishes of the utilitarian attitude to life that is among the chief characteristics of Victorian age.

A Compact Work

      Leavis regards Hard Times as a masterpiece, a novel that has the distinguished strength which make Dickens a major artist. According to Leavis, it is a compact novel with concentrated relevance which is penetrating. It is a complete solemn artistic work of art. The book is triumphantly successful and original. Leavis also regards this book as a moral fable.

The Callousness of Victorian Civilization; Utilitarianism

      F.R. Leavis believes that Dickens as, shown in Hard Times, seems to be caught by a comprehensive vision of the inhumanities of Victorian civilization nourished by hard philosophy. “The philosophy is represented by Thomas Gradgrind.” M.P for Coketown who “has brought up his children on the lines of the experiment recorded by John Stuart Mill as carried out on himself.” Gradgrind’s utilitarianism is a principle seriously held by him, there is intellectual indifference in its implementation. “But Gradgrind marries his eldest daughter to Josiah Bounderby, ‘banker, merchant, manufacturer’, about whom there is no disinterestedness whatever and nothing to be respected.” Bounderby is concerned with only self assertion, power and material success, he does not take interest in ideals or ideas except the notion of being the entirely self-made man. “Dickens here makes a just observation about the affinities and practical tendency of Utilitarianism, as in his presentment of the Gradgrind home and the Gradgrind elementary school, he does about the Utilitarian spirit in Victorian education.”

The Opening Scene: Disparity between Sissy and Bitzer

      The novel starts with the scene of Gradgrind’s school where pupils are made to cram facts. Girl number twenty (Sissy) has been reared up among people whose livelihood rests on understanding horses, but Gradgrind does not admit this kind of knowledge, because he thinks that such account of horse is not real. Bitzer is his favorite who on being asked to explain a horse, immediately gives the following account: “Quadruped, graminivorous, forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive? Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard, but require to be shed with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” The definition is completely acceptable to Gradgrind and he says to Sissy: “Now, girl number twenty you know what a horse is.” Thus Sissy’s inability to answer according to the facts and formulas and her failure in grasping its theory is the result of her humanity—“It is the virtue that makes it possible for her to understand, or acquiesce in, an ethos for which she is ‘girl number twenty’ or to think of any other human being as a unit for arithmetic”.

Sissy: The Symbol of Good

      F R. Leavis states that Sissy symbolizes the vitality and goodness as well. She is affectionate and generous. She symbolizes the impulsive life finding self-fulfillment in self-forgetfulness—the antithesis of calculating self-interest. For Sissy life is full of instincts, emotions, care, love and such tender feeling. She is not like Bitzei; the quasi-mechanical product of Gradgrind’s model school. Sissy represents the human kindness and vitality;

Circus People: Their Symbolic Significance

      From the model school Gradgrind returns to his Stone Lodge (name of the residence) which for the little Gradgrind is like prison. He passes through the book of a circus booth and sees his own ‘metallurgical Louisa’ and ‘mathematical Thomas’ peeping through the canvas wall to know what is a circus. Gradgrind feels shocked to see his own son and daughter violating his principles of ‘Facts’.

      The circus people are not only tender; kind and affectionate but skillful, proficient, confident and full of pride. But they are worthless for utilitarian concept. They show vital human instinct and serve vital human requirements. Bounderby and Gradgrind both are malignant towards horse-riding but it brings to the common people of Coketown not only entertainment but art and the display of Victorious activity In fact, by investing a traveling circus with the kind of symbolic significance, Dickens expresses a profound reaction to industrialism. Dickens’ satire on utilitarianism and industrialism become much striking and vivid because of the portrayal of circus people in contrast.

Sleary’s Human Values

      Dickens had noticed the common display of human kindness and such virtues amidst the ugliness, squalid and squalor of urban areas and his response is in the model of Mr. Sleary Sleary’s character is specially made in contrast to utilitarian philosophy We should not regard it as sentimentality of Dickens but his genius.

Sissy’s Moral Instinct

      Sissy Jupe is the most convincing character in role that Dickens assigns to her. Her influence in the Utilitarian home is given in a very subtle and masterly style and we do really feel her as a growing vigorous figure. Dickens has made her victorious in the conversation with James Harthouse during which she tells him that he must quit Coketown if he wants to do no more harm to Louisa. She is very much unflinching and fearless. The victory of Sissy’s endeavors is convincing enough as we go through this scene.

Bounderby: Like Jonsonian Character

      At the start of the novel Sissy establishes the remarkable disparity between Gradgrind and Bounderby. Gradgrind, by offering his protection to Sissy, shows himself a human with tender heart. But Bounderby remains to be a Jonsonian character in the sense that he is not changed. “He remains the blustering egotist and braggart.” Till his death, he remains a Jonsonian character.

The Terrific Scene between Father and Daughter; a Victory of Ironic Art

      Dickens has very subtly presented the confutation of the utilitarian theory by the reality of life. Gradgrind’s latent kindness towards Sissy shows that the conditions for this confutation already live in this man. Gradgrind, though thick-skinned is by no way as rude and callous as Bounderby. The inadequacy of the calculation is starkly exposed when he brings it to bear on the problem of marriage in the terrific scene with his daughter, Louisa. The perfect rationality with which she receives his proposal is indeed embarrassing to her. The complete scene is the example of ironic art. No logical analysis could have disposed of the philosophy of fact and calculation with such neat finality as has been done through this dialogue between father and daughter. The issues are reduced to algebraic formulations. Gradgrind, with his rationality in which there is no room for instinct, is unable to understand that his daughter is a living human being.

The Development of Louisa and Tom, Psychologically Satisfying

      The psychology of Louisa’s development and of her brother is very convincing. She finds no outlet for her emotion except loving Tom. She is excessively affectionate to Tom and gets ready to marry Bounderby for Tom’s sake. Thus, as a consequence of the restrictions of the Gradgrind system, natural affection and need for disinterested devotion are turned to evil purposes. For Tom, the utilitarian system has. made him a monotonous and surly whelp; he has become a victory of calculation; this is what Utilitarian theory has done for him. His gambling and act of bank-robbery is natural. And it is also natural that Louisa, having devoted herself for this ungrateful object of affection, should be found somewhat responsive to the daring steps of Harthouse who has understood the situation and who seeks to use the opportunity with a calculating fact for his selfish motive. Harthouse’s defense of his courteous cynicism is a shrewd attack on the philosophy of Gradgrind. He says: “The only difference between us and the professors of virtue or benevolence or philanthropy—never mind the name—is that we know it is all meaningless and say so; while they know equally, and will never say so.”

Gradgrind’s Doctrine Confuted

      When Louisa returns to her father’s house ‘Stone Lodge’ in order to confide everything in Gradgrind, she says in plight, “All I know is, your philosophy and your teaching will not save me.” She then collapses and dashes to the ground. Gradgrind sees “the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system lying, an insensible heap, at his feet.” Here Gradgrind realizes this, his love for child is more important than his system and principle and thus his system is confuted. Nothing is sentimental here. The demonstration is effective because we are convinced to the Gradgrind’s love and because Gradgrind has been made to be a man who has ‘meant to do right.’

      Another severe blow given to Gradgrind’s system is yet to come and it appears in the form of Tom. Mr. Gradgrind has to recognize his son in a comic negro servant of a third-rate traveling circus. He has to recognize that his son owes his escape from justice to a peculiarly disinterested gratitude. This opportunity has been granted by the anti-utilitarian Mr. Sleary, who is obliged to Gradgrind for Sissy’s sake.

Dickens: A Poetic Dramatist

      The scene how Tom is presented in front of Gradgrind in the traveling circus and how he is made to escape through Sleary’s cleverness from Bitzer’s grip justifies Hard Times as a poetic work. Here Dickens comes out as a poetic dramatist. No simple formula can take account of the various elements presented through this scene, a sardonic-tragic scene in which satire blends with pathos. For the concentration and flexibility in the description of life Dickens resembles the Shakespeare. The note of sardonic satiric discomfiture of the utilitarian theorists by the rebound of his theories upon himself is further developed in the scene with Bitzer, the real mode of the utilitarian philosophy.

Trade Union Scene

      In depicting the trade union scenes, Dickens has gone beyond limits. Indeed, there were professional agitators; and the trade union solidarity was asserted at the cost of the privileges of the individual but Slackbridge’s representative role in the novel, as agitator and his forming trade unionism against the injustice done to the honest workers is full of flaw.

Dicken’s Views on Parliament

      Dickens lacks the political understanding. For him politics is just the ‘national dust-yard’ where the ‘national dust-men’ entertain each other with ‘many noisy little dreary facts and futile statistics.’

A Trio of Suggestion for Snobbery

      Yet Dickens’ understanding of Victorian civilization is relevant for his purpose, and the justice and penetration of his criticism of this civilization is doubtless. James Harthouse is inevitable for the development of plot but he is a represtative also. He arrives at Coketown as a future parliamentary candidate, because Gradgrind’s party wanted assistance in cutting the throats of the Graces and they “liked fine gentlemen; they pretended that they did not but they did.” And thus the harmony between the industrialists and “hard fact men” figures duly in the fable. There is Mrs. Sparsit, for example, who also seems to exist merely for the plot. But her husband was a Powler, a fact that she uses as frequently as Bounderby refers to his “humble origin”. All the three—Mrs. Sparsit, Bounderby and Harthouse exist for a trio that suggests the entire system of British snobbery.

Dickens’ Style in Hard Times

      The economy in expression is almost incredibly varied. The final emphasis is laid on Dickens’ command of word, phrase, rhythm and image. Thus Dickens is also a great poet. He has imparted emotional energy, some scene and his intelligence plays and flashes in the quickest spectacle.

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