Justify, Hard Times: A marvelous Evidence of Dickens Genius

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Controversy Among the Critics

      There is disagreement between the lot of critics who have criticized Hard Times. When the novel finally came out, Macaulay satirized it and remarked it as “sullen socialism,” Ruskin has highly praised the novel on being a social novel. In the twentieth century, G.B. Shaw appreciated it for its being a witness of Dickens’ development into the conscious prophet; but various other critics have found blemishes into the novel. Paul Gray remarked this novel as a “limited success”. Simultaneously he calls it as an endlessly emphatic and impressive novel. A.O.J. Cockshut considers that there are strong reasons against regarding Hard Times a masterpiece, but he regards it as a work of great distinction. According to Chesterton, Hard Times is not one of the greatest novels of Dickens but it is probably in a sense one of his greatest monuments. F.R. Leavis regards it as possessing distinctive power that makes Dickens a major novelist and thinks that, in its originality, Hard Times is a triumphantly successful work of art.

Substance in most of the Criticism against this Novel

      Hard Times is, of course, a work of genius. This does not mean that the book is perfect. Critics have discovered several drawbacks and in some of them there is important points. For example, Dingle Foot says that this novel has no living characters but they appear as puppets. Chesterton considers that characters are not only exaggerated but bitterly and deliberately exaggerated. The trade union scenes and particularly the portrayal of the union leader Slackbridge have been considered most unconvincing by nearly all the critics. The novel sometimes deals with choppy episodes, unfinished contrasts, unfinished matters. Briefly, Hard Times has narrative insufficiency. Of course, Dickens is further criticized for not revealing enough psychology or not dealing with the inner happenings of characters.

A Well-Organised and Compact Structure

      If we examine the novel impartially we find various remarkable outstanding qualities in it. It is amazingly a compact book, devoid of digression, miscellaneous matters, superfluous details, irrelevant comic scenes, everything that spoil the structure of most of the novels of Dickens even Great Expectations. There are three plots in the novel. The first and principal plot revolves around the leading character Thomas Gradgrind and his family including Sissy. The second plot deals with the life of Josiah Bounderby and third plot is related with Stephen Blackpool and Rachael. These three plot sequences are skillfully knitted and we do not feel that anything has been imposed upon the plot. Both James Harthouse and Mrs. Spar sit are necessary to the plot, as is Bitzer, and the people of the circus, especially the owner of circus. No character has been portrayed just out of some idiosyncrasy or eccentricity. There are neither any superficial sub-plots used to enhance the complexities of the story. Indeed, the structure of Hard Times and its plot construction, despite few drawbacks are the evidences of Dickens’ genius.

Various Themes and their Accurate Presentation

      Hard Times is mainly a social novel and its themes are well-elaborated. It is the mirror of Victorian society in general and some of its vices in particular. The fundamental targets of satiric attack in the novel are—the utilitarian principle of education which was resting upon facts, figures and calculations and which was divorced off the instincts and affections of the students; utilitarianism in industry and trade; laissez-faire, industrial deformity; labourers-capitalist’s struggle; trade-unionism, the stiffness of divorce laws. The satire on several social abuses takes a definite shape. For example, the utilitarian theory of education is satirized through two scenes of class room in which few questions are asked and replies given to them convey the futility and triviality of the system being followed. The destructive consequences of such a theory of education are seen in a definite form, in the utter failure of Louisa’s married life and in Tom’s enjoyment in gambling and his consequent act of robbing the bank. Similarly, the inflexibility of divorce law is presented to us through the plight that Stephen has to bear in his married life, and that he can not separate himself from his wife. The vices of industries are conveyed to us through a few dispersed but graphic details of Coketown. Slackbridge’s success in casting out Stephen through the exaggerated rhetoric is implied to convey the extreme of trade-unionism, though Dickens’ treatment of this issue is most unjust and improperly exaggerated. All the themes dealing with the Hard Times, are fully united with its structure.

Successful Character-Portraiture; Few Immortal Characters

      The characters have successfully been depicted, whatever few critics have to state against their portraiture. It is unquestionable that various characters are personifications of certain principles and concepts, and most of them have a symbolic role. But they are not like Jonsonian characters, the embodiments of certain humors; each is treated as an individual and distinguished from the other, and each fascinates us as a real human being. Gradgrind, undoubtedly represents the utilitarian system of education; but this eminently practical man has some kindness, compassion and human values. Besides his cynical stress on facts, and his disregard for the exercise of the fancy, imagination and affections, this man offers protection to the Sissy whose father has deserted her. Though he suggested Louisa to think over her marriage with elderly Bounderby statistically yet finally he realizes, to the utmost degree, the immensity of his blunder in disregarding the importance of the “heart” as different from the ‘‘liead”. Josiah Bounderby, the industrialist, banker, is also an embodiment of utilitarianism in his business and in his attitude towards his workmen. Even the minimum needs of the workmen are considered by this man as a claim for turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Ruskin remarked that Bounderby has been exaggerated and that he was a dramatic devil. But we feel inclined to consent with the critic who regards Bounderby as a satisfying character by indicating that England is replete with Bounderby. This man has his individual characteristics also; he is the bully of humility, bragging frequently of his humble origin, and elevating simultaneously the high connections of his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit. Mrs. Sparsit, is a success of characterization with her Roman nose and Coriolanion eyebrows as she is also utterly sinister lady. She represents the hypocrisy and hollowness of aristocratic class, but in privacy she harbors the aspiration of marrying Bounderby. Her contempt for Louisa, her secret watching over Harthouse’s amorous advances to Louisa, her immense capacity for sarcasm and her reservation on all occasions—are her individual features. As far as Louisa is concerned, she is not a symbol; she is entirely an individual character. She is too reserved that seems unusual and Dickens informs nothing about what is going on in her inner world (mind). Sissy also is an individual and should not be regarded as only the embodiment of goodness and human values. Rachael is also ranked among their category to be an individual. Though there are certain drawbacks in the portraiture of these characters yet they are not failures. Infact, the characters like Gradgrind, Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit seem immortal. We must not ignore Mr. Sleary, who not only provides immense comedy through his lisping manner of speaking but also moral of the whole story. According to Mr. Sleary, there is love in the world and it has its own style of calculating. Mr. Sleary says that circus people are important because men can not read or work all the time, they want to be amused and it is conveyed to them through circus people.

Witty Satires in Hard Times

      One of the most remarkable, outstanding features of the novel is its witty satire. All the characters except Stephen, Rachael and Sissy are satirically depicted. For example, Dickens says that Gradgrind walks with a pair of scales, rules and multiplication table in his pocket, ready to examine any parcel of human nature. Bounderby has made a story about his past that he was left in his infancy by his mother and his careless drunken grandmother had brought him up. Mrs. Spar sit’s behavior to Bounderby is always full of respect, affection but only in front of him; she shakes her fist while standing in front of his portrait and calls him a noodle. (When Bounderby dismisses her, later in the novel, she calls him a noodle in front of him). Likewise, Harthouse’s assumed honesty in dishonesty, his eccentricity and boredom, the emotionless manner in which he designs his plan to seduce Louisa are all ironically ridiculed by Dickens. Slackbridge, with his inflated oratory, his shrewdness, and his illogical antagonism towards Stephen is perhaps objective of the ruthless satire, though on the grounds of realism, it may be objected.

Most Famous Scenes of Hard Times

      Hard Times is certainly not a book of popular amusement. It is full of wit, intellect, wisdom and can be enjoyed only by the brilliant readers who does not mind to exhaust themselves in studying it. Hard Times does not have very wide plot with abundant melodramatic and sensational events, that are quite common in Dickens’ novels. But it has its magnetic scenes, dramatic scenes, touching scenes and enticing comedy. The first scene of class-room, the conversation between Gradgrind and his daughter Louisa on the marriage proposal of Bounderby, Louisa chased by Mrs. Sparsit secretly and her (Mrs. Spar sit’s) embarrassment and disappointment at the end, the arrival of Louisa at ‘Stone Lodge’ (her father’s residence) in a plightful condition, Sissy’s conversation with Harthouse, and the exchange of satiric remarks between Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit are the main scenes of the book and they could have only emerged out of the pen of a genius novelist.

Leavis’ Appreciation of Hard Times

      F.R. Leavis has remarked, “Hard Times is not a difficult work; its intention 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 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.”

      As far as the style and diction in Hard Times of Dickens is concerned, F.R. Leavis says that “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 in 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 felicities could plainly not have come if there had not been, in the background, a habit of such interest.”

University Questions

Would you justify to regard Hard Times the marvelous evidence of Dickens’ genius? Express your opinion with references to the novel.
“Of all Dickens’ works, Hard Times is the one that has all the strength of his genius. Discuss this dictum with instances from the novel.

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