Irony, Satire & Humour: in The Novel Hard Times

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Dickens’ Knack of using Irony

      Dickens is supremely ranked among the great humourists of English literature. In his maximum novels, humor generally emerges out of the flaws and eccentricities of characters and this kind of humor is often light, playful, indulgent not pungent or biting. In Hard Times, Dickens has most emphatically shown his art of using satire. Overall Hard Times is a satirical novel, and it displays very effectively Dickens’ masterly use of irony, his immense capacity for sarcasm and his skill to ridicule. We are justified to go to the extent of stating that the greatest achievement of this novel is its brilliant satire, although few critics are intended to regard the novel more as a moral fable and as a grave book. It should be pointed out that satire commonly has a reformatory effect.

Subjects Satirised

      Dickens has satirically attacked on certain evils, pseudo values and abuses of Victorian society. The prime target of satire is utilitarianism in the fields like education, business, industry, materialism, laissez faire, greed for money, hypocrisy, trade-unionism, and snobbery. All these abuses have been satirized in the characters like Gradgrind, Bounderby, Mrs. Sparsit, James Harthouse, Bitzer, Tom and Slackbridge. Even the Coketown people have been satirized collectively.

Irony and Satire in the Opening Chapter

      The very beginning of the novel is satirical. Gradgrind is introduced who is interpreting his utilitarian theory of education to the new schoolmaster. Gradgrind has over emphasized the importance of facts and facts only. Dickens has ironically presented the physical appearance of Gradgrind. Gradgrind’s eyes, forehead, mouth, voice, hair, etc. all are laying more and more emphasis on his belief regarding facts. There is irony also in the Dickens’ account of Gradgrind’s pupils as little vessels, arranged in order, ready to receive gallons and gallons of facts till their minds are brimmed. There is irony again in the portrayal of Gradgrind as a man of realities, facts and calculations, a man moving with important instruments to examine “any parcel of human nature.” Likewise is ironical Gradgrind’s and that government officer’s question that they themselves answered to illumine the minds of students. There is irony also in the factual definition of horse provided by colorless boy Bitzer. The new schoolmaster is ironically described as one of the big batch of schoolmasters who were present “at the same time, is the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs”, and who has studied multitude of facts related to specially science and arts.

Gradgrind’s Educational Theory at Home

      Gradgrind’s style of bringing up his children is satirically depicted. The children are not leading a happy life at home. No child of Gradgrind has ever seen a face in moon. They are not allowed to learn the silly jingle, “Twinkle twinkle little star; how I wonder what you are.” They have never heard that kind of stories which made an appeal to their childish imagination. Gradgrind’s children are not allowed to wonder at anything or to practice their imagination. Dickens very ironically refers to his daughter “metallurgical Louisa” and “mathematical Tom”. The satire on Gradgrind’s theory of education is further intensified through the author’s portraiture of Mrs. Gradgrind who always says her children never to wonder but to go and be “somethingological”. Therefore, all these satires are very amusing. There is no bitterness or grimness in the satire but we feel amused to see how Dickens is making fun of Gradgrind’s principle of education which includes calling Cecilia Jupe not “Sissy”. He addresses the girl neither from her full name or nickname but as “girl number twenty.”

Irony and Satire in Gradgrind’s Conversation with Louisa on marriage proposal

      The conversation between Gradgrind and his daughter Louisa on the Bounderby’s proposal of marriage has appropriately been regarded as “a triumph of ironic art.” Dickens has ridiculed here Gradgrind’s statistical approach to the matter of carriage between his young daughter Louisa and elderly friend Bounderby. In this perfect scene, Louisa’s ironical answers to Gradgrind’s questions are a severe attack on the steadfast believer of utilitarianism, Gradgrind. For example, he entirely fails to understand irony behind Louisa’s speeches that she knows nothing of tastes and fancies, or aspirations and most tender feeling of affection. Her nature is in accordance with the manner through which she has been brought up. The most practical mother and father have failed to see the irony when Louisa says to them that they have trained her so perfectly that she has never had a child’s dream. Moreover, she further says, that Gradgrind has dealt with her so wisely in the very beginning of her life that she had never experienced what is the child’s fear or belief. Though we feel sympathy for unfortunate Louisa who is going to be a victim of allurement given by her lover yet essentially the scene is a satirical attack on Gradgrind’s attitude to life.

Bounderby, an Objective of Satire and Ridicule

      Bounderby is a target of more aggravated satire. Besides satirical style in which his outward appearance is given in the novel, his boast of “humble origin” is also satirically treated. There is irony in the reference to Bounderby’s baldness: one might have visualized that Bounderby had “talked off his hair”, and remaining hairs are scattered disorderly, being constantly “blown about by his windy boastfulness.” There also lies irony in Dickens’ description of how Bounderby not only sings song of his own praise but inspires other people to sing that. Bounderby is often called at meetings like Royal Arms, the Union Jack, Magna Carta, John Bull, Mabeas Corpus, the Bill of Rights etc. Everything is definitely quite entertaining. Dickens makes fun of this man also for the manner in which he does preparations for his marriage with Louisa; “The business was all facts, from first to last.” Bounderby loves Louisa in the form of bracelets; during the time of betrothal his love-making takes “a manufacturing aspect.” Dickens also ridicules Bounderby’s attitude towards laborers. He says about the demands of workers that they demand turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. He is highly ridiculed when he expresses his opinion that the only improvement left is related to spread Turkey carpets on the floors of the factories. He refers to factory’s smoke “meat and drink” and the healthiest thing in the world. Bounderby is satirically presented and made an object of hatred in his conversation with Stephen when he (Stephen) goes to seek his advice in regard to his matrimonial troubles and when he tells Stephen that he should not grumble because he has married her for better and for worse. Moreover, the legal process to divorce a wife is too expensive to afford. The most severe attack on Bounderby is made when his fancied and self-made stories are discovered as false. We highly enjoy his embarrassment at this time: “He could not have looked a bully more shorn and forlorn if he had his ears cropped.”

Mrs. Sparsit is thoroughly Ridiculed

      The next target of satire is mainly Mrs. Sparsit who is ridiculed for her snobbery her deceitfulness, her boastfulness and hypocrisy etc. Like the cases of Bounderby and Gradgrind, Dickens has satirically presented the physical appearance of Mrs. Sparsit, He entertains us by frequent repetition to her Roman nose and Coriolanian eyebrows. Though she has become dependent due to misfortune yet she has not forgotten her aristocratic background. We are highly amused when the reference is made to her weakness for sweet bread; and her own references to her ‘annual compliment’. She considers herself to be “the bank fairy”, but Coketown people call her “the bank dragon” constantly keeping a watch over the bank’s treasure. It is highly enjoyable when we see her talking to Bounderby with utmost respect, but she shows her fist to his portrait behind him and calls him a “noodle”. Her hypocrisy is completely exposed to the reader at this point. There is also irony in the manner through which Dickens describes how Mrs. Sparsit has formed a staircase in imagination and she sees Louisa descending step by step to its pit at the bottom. She chases Louisa with her best but looses her sight. She foels too disappointed. Like a hawk she keeps constant watch over Louisa in Bounderby’s home.

The Satirical Attack on Bitzer’s Education

      Bitzer is also attacked satirically. He is the perfect product of Gradgrind’s model school. Dickens ironically describes Bitzer as being extremely clear-headed, cautious, wise, young man who is sure to go high in the world. Bitzer’s mind is brimmed with facts and reason and he feels no affection or passion. He is entirely emotionless. When he catches hold of Tom in order to give him in the hands of Bounderby whose bank is robbed, he defends his action through self-interest. He captures Tom to get promotion. When Gradgrind tells him that he had been taught in his school and for that matter he should quit Tom; Bitzer replies that he (Gradgrind) was paid for what he had been taught. This is the most emphatic irony and Dickens here gives an ironic commentary on the philosophy of Gradgrind according to that there is no gratitude, everything can be paid.

James Harthouse: Target of Satire

      James Harthouse is another object of satire. In this case satire is of grim nature. Harthouse has joined the group of “Hard Fact Fellows” through the letter of Gradgrind. Harthouse is satirically called the “fine gentleman”. He has found monotony in every aspect of life and felt bored of everything in life and he now joins the political field for a kind of change. The entire description about his strategy to win Louisa is ironical. Fortunately he is gifted with a (sense of humor and when he has been told by Sissy that she is just a dependent in the Gradgrind’s residence, he says to himself: “The defeat may now be considered perfectly accomplished.” Thus failed seducer of Louisa is made to leave Coketown by the daughter of a circus-clown. The talk between Sissy and Harthouse is also one of the most entertaining scene. The most potential and shrewd seducer finds himself an utter failure and tries to console himself with his motto: “What will be, will be.”

Satirical Treatment of Trade-Unionism

      Slackbridge is the trade union leader and he is callously satirized. His exaggerated rhetoric and ruthless charges against Stephen make him a very detestable fellow; Critics have not appreciated Dickens’ portrayal of Slackbridge, because Slackbridge, in no way represents any union leader of the Victorian age. Dickens’ portrayal of this character is to denounce trade unionism. This portrayal exposes the intolerance of Trade unions that becomes abnormal in its nature. Slackbridge addresses his audience as if he were a noble patriot, and come to save the workers against the terrible danger that might befall on them, specially in the form of Stephen who is in fact most honest, simple, innocent and hard working ‘hand’.

The Episode of Separation between Mrs. Sparsit and Bounderby

      This is the most amusing scene and it takes place towards the end of the novel when Bounderby dismisses Mrs. Sparsit in embarrassment on account of being exposed as a hypocrite. There is a most entertaining exchange of sarcastic remark between Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit. Mrs. Sparsit, at the time of going out of Bounderby’s home finds no bar or hesitation in revealing her actual feelings for Bounderby and she calls him a noodle in front of him and goes away after looking most detestably at him from top to toe.

Comedy Produced by Mr. Sleary & Mrs. Gradgrind

      Mr. Sleary is a comic fellow who besides his kindness and goodness provides much humor with his being neither sober nor drunk. His instant idea of using his trained horse and dog to make Tom’s escape from Bitzer’s grip is very amusing. Mrs. Gradgrind also produces enough humor to the readers. When she is asked by Louisa at the time of her death about the pain, she replies, it must be somewhere in the room. Very amusing is her decision of addressing her son-in-law as ‘J’. Thus both Sleary and Mrs. Gradgrind are used to provide enough humor.


      To sum up, Hard Times is essentially a satire used to attack on Utilitarian philosophy in different fields of life. The characters are portrayed to gratify this intention of Dickens and they show ironically what was Dickens’ attitude towards utilitarianism, laissez-faire and industrialism.

University Questions

Discuss Dickens’ use of irony and satire in Hard Times.
Dickens applies wit, humour and satire with particular biting effect in Hard Times. Elaborate.

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