Industrialism in The Novel Hard Times

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“Hard Times”: An Industrial Criticism

      It is a characteristic conclusion, in a vitally important tradition which based its values on such grounds. It is the major criticism of Industrialism as a whole way of life, and its grounds in experience have been firm. What is essential is to recognize that Dickens saw no social expression of it, or at least nothing that could be ‘given a name to’. The experience is that of individual persons. Almost the whole organization of society, as Dickens judges, is against it. The circus can express it because it is not part of the industrial organization. The circus is an end in itself, a pleasurable end, which is instinctive and (in certain respects) anarchic. It is significant that Dickens has thus to go outside the industrial situation to find any expression of his values. This going outside is similar to the Canada in which Mary Barton ends, or the legacy of Margaret Hale. But it is also more than these, in so far as it is not only an escape but a positive assertion of certain kind of experience, the denial of which was the real basis (as Dickens saw it) of the Hard Times.

      It was inevitable, given the kind of criticism that Dickens was making that his treatment of the industrial working people should have been so unsatisfactory. He recognizes them as objects of pity, and he recognizes the personal devotion in suffering of which they are capable. But the only conclusion he can expect them to draw is Stephen Blackpool’s ‘Aw a muddle !”

Industrialism is analyzed in “Hard Times”

      Ordinarily, Dickens’s criticisms of the world he lives in are casual and incidental—a matter of including among the ingredients of a book some indignant treatment of a particular abuse. But in Hard Times he is for once possessed by a comprehensive vision, one in which the inhumanities of Victorian civilization are seen as fostered and sanctioned by hard philosophy, the aggressive formulation of a inhumane spirit.

      This comment by F.R. Leavis on Hard Times serves to distinguish Dickens intention from that of Mrs. Gaskell in MQjy Barton. Hard Tunes is less imaginative observation than an imaginative judgment. It is a judgment of social attitudes, but again it is something more than North and South. It is a thorough-going and creative examination of the dominant philosophy of industrialism—of the hardness that Mrs. Gaskell saw as little more than a misunderstanding, which might be patiently broken down. That Dickens could achieve this more comprehensive understanding is greatly to the advantage of the novel. But against this we must set the fact that in terms of human understanding of the industrial working people Dickens is obviously less successful than Mrs. Gaskell: his Stephen Blackpool, in relation to the people of Mary Barton, is little more than a diagrammatic figure. Ilie gain in comprehension, that is to say, has been Achieved by the rigors of generalization and abstraction; Hard Times is an analysis of industrialism rather than experience of it.

Stephen as an Industrial Labour

      This atmosphere is concentrated in Stephen Blackpool. In him Dickens tried to rescue the idea of personality in a individual industrial worker. Stephen’s successive defeats by the Law, by the Trade Union, and by his employer might have become the material of genuine tragedy, if Dickens had been prepared to accept his death from the beginning as inevitable and unanswerable; but he was hankering all the time after a way to avoid the proper tragic solution, and the result is nothing but a slow record of inglorious misery and defeat. Dickens did not want to admit that Stephen’s bargaining power—whether against Bounderby, his marriage or life itself—was negligible but wrote as if there might be an unexpected solution at every turn. There is no difficulty about Stephen’s relation to the law or about his relation to Bounderby, the true crux is in the part of the plot that deals with the Trade Union and in making it so Dickens was apparently trying to work out in the actual writing of the book, the implications of his old ideal of man to man benevolence in the relations between employers and labors in large scale industry. These points were emphasized in the treatment of the Union— tephen’s inexplicable obstinacy in refusing to join it; Dickens’s hatred of Slackbridge; and the difference of mood and attitude of the other workers towards Stephen as men and as Union Members under Slackbridge’s influences.

“Hard Times” and Industry

      The leading idea of the book Hard Times is proclaimed in the contrast 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 arid agriculture, between science 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 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 to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed 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.” And in a notable passage the fire of the furnaces is compared to the fire of human passion. When she is considering Bounderby’s proposal, Louisa is asked by the Coketown works? and she replies, “There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes Fire bursts out.”

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