What are Some Major Problems Described in Hard Times?

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A Great Artistic Work

      To remark Hard Times a conspicuous failure seems not justifiable because though the novel definitely has few drawbacks and imperfections yet calling it a conspicuous failure can not be justified. It is an extreme step to remark novel as entirely failure because the novel has some outstanding merits also that can not be ignored Thus it would be unsound to amplify the shortcomings of the novel at the cost of ignoring its legitimate place as an artistic work of literature.

The Alleged Shortcomings in Hard Times

      Critics have not been unenthusiastic or reluctant in indicating the faults of the novel Hard Times. The critic Earle Davis considers that Hard Times is something less than a great novel for various reasons. It was not meticulously designed; it was written very swiftly to fill a space in the weekly magazine, in that it appeared serially Dickens had insufficient space for developing the contradictory plot-sequences; he also had problem in focusing all his narrative teclinical devices on his subject, it is for these reasons Hard Times fails to make use of the Dickens’ best resources. Consequently in Hard Times few episodes of the novel seem unfinished, they have broken contrasts and few matters are left incomplete.

The Views of Few More Critics

      Hard Times has also been depreciated as written against scientific and pragmatic education. As a socio-economic pamphlet and regarding its place with the propagandist literature of Carlyle and Ruskin, Hard Times is not appreciated. A.O.J. Cockshut is of the view that the portraiture of Gradgrind does not co-ordinate with the manner in which the characters of Bounderby and James Harthouse have been described. A.O.J. Cockeshut feels restless whenever Gradgrind, in the story, has any conversations with Bounderby and Harthouse. Cockshut also finds the resemblance between Bounderby’s and Stephen Blackpool’s troubles of marriage, unsatisfying; in this case probability, psychology and everything else seem to have been the victim of parallelism. Cockshut says that the last chapter encapsulate a few hundred words events that might fill a complete novel. Here Dickens’ view of superiority of life to “fact”, which is the polar star of the novel upto this point, seems ironically to have left him. The whole chapter almost have been devoted to Gradgrind. Cockshut also finds drawback in the manner in which Mr. Sleary is tried to be presented as a moral positive in the novel. The critic says it would not be good to regard Mr. Sleary as a genius and to rank him in the same group as the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear. But after all these criticism, Cockshut feels no reluctance in regarding Hard Times a work of great excellence, though not a masterpiece.

Unrealistic Characters; Group of Puppets

      Perhaps the most thorny criticism of Hard Times emerges from Dingle Foot who finds almost all the characters unconvincing. Dingle Foot says that Dickens was working in an accustomed environment; and that is the reason why Dickens who is the greatest genius of English character since Shakespeare, has portrayed in this book a set of puppets. Almost every character in the novel show an anemic quality; except only Bounderby, they are a group of strangely bloodless persons. For Dingle Foot, it is hard to believe even in Sissy or in any person of the Gradgrind family. Gradgrind, Tom and Louisa—all are unrealistic, just as unbelievable as Sissy’s conversation with Harthouse at his hotel when she succeeds in persuading him to leave Coketown. According to Dingle Foot, the novel is rescued by only two characters, specially Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit.

The Unconvincing Portrayal of Stephen Blackpool

      Dingle Foot feels dissatisfied with the portraiture of Stephen Blackpool whom he ranks among the less successful characters in Dickens. There are several cases in which a man is sent to Coventry by his fellow workers because of some real or fancied crime committed by him or going against their code of moral or discipline. Probably every industrial communist has some spirit of his own who for whatever cause denies to conform. The flaw in this novel is that no hint is given in the book as to why Stephen Blackpool refused to join the trade union. Stephen is depreciated by Slackbridge as one who has not followed the worker’s cause, as “a traitor and a craven and a recreant”. It seems the workers are divided and few members persist that Stephen should be given a chance to justify himself. The chairman shares this opinion and here the reader comes to know that this adamant, inflexible non-conformist is nobody else but the pathetic Stephen. Stephen announces that he is the only worker in Bounderby’s factory who cannot conform to the suggested regulations of the worker’s union. Dickens has not exerted to inform us what those regulations are. Stephen continues to say that he has his grounds, though he provides no causes. Later, when asked by Bounderby, Stephen says that he has promised someone not to join the trade union. We are left to consider as to what the promise can probably have been. Dingle Foot says again, the portrayal is not realistic. It seems improbable that a man of Stephen’s character would himself have been domineering member of the worker’s union. In real life he would perhaps have been dismissed by his boss for his trade union activities. Such a thing does not take place in the novel because of Dickens’ contempt for trade union organizers. In Hard Times it is presumed that only such extremist agitators can be accepted.

The Character of Slackbridge

      Slackbridge is portrayed by Dickens as an evil person who was, a little above his workers, but in several great respects he stood below them. Slackbridge is described as “not so honest, not so manly, no so good humored.” He is most cunning and shrewd. Dickens has made the character of Slackbridge a thorough contemptuous man. He has done it not only through description but also the way he addresses his audience regarding Stephen. Many critics remark that such kind of leader is unrealistic and unconvincing. It is entirely contrary to the facts. Dickens has made it very clear that for Slackbridge or for any other trade union leader Stephen was useless.

Dicken’s Unconvincing Approach to ‘Hands’ Problems

      It is very clear that Dickens has satirized trade unions but now the question arises what is the alternative suggested by him in the place of trade unions. How can the problems of workers to be remedied? Dickens’ answer is, the employers must learn to handle their workers with kindness and patience and they must always remember that workers also have their tender feelings, emotions and sentiments. It is really troublesome to know how Dickens could arrive at such opinion. How is it possible that the intellectual author like Dickens can not see that only by organization could the workers of Coketown ever hope to confront employers like Bounderby or ameliorate their conditions of life. Dickens is satisfied with only preaching Christian charity to the class of factory owner who, according to author himself, were only concerned to give the least possible salary and had not the least interest in the improvement of worker’s life.

Sentimentality and Melodrama

      David Craig has also depreciated Hard Times in some aspects. The character of Stephen Blackpool seems to David Craig a blend of sentimentally and melodrama. According to this critic Stephen is not an acceptable representative of the mill workers. Both Stephen and Rachael are too good to be real; the plight of these two characters have been used by Dickens for maudlin. To relate Stephen with a sinister drunken wife is following the Victorian manner of portraying the hero or heroine as a martyr. But the extraordinary point in this novel is to isolate Stephen entirely from other workers, a vindication so infirmly inspired as to be completely unsatisfying. David Craig also approves the view that the portraiture of Slackbridge is most unconvincing. He says that all the parts of the novel consisting in and dealing with these three characters is peculiarly unreal and flimsy. The main purpose of this part of Hard Times is to imply that working class militancy and working class elegance can not move side by side.

Leavis’ Remark on Dickens’ Limitations

      “Criticism, of course, has its points to make against Hard Times. It can be said of Stephen Blackpool, not only that he is too good and qualifies too consistently for the martyr’s halo, but he invites an adaptation of the objection thought, from the negro point of view, against Uncle Tom, which was to the effect that he was a white man’s good nigger. And certainly it doesn’t need a working class bias to produce the comment that when Dickens conies to the Trade Unions his understanding of the world he offers to deal with betrays a marked limitation. There were undoubtedly professional agitators, and Trade Union solidarity was undoubtedly often asserted at the expense of the individual’s rights, but it is a score against a work so insistently typical in intention that it should give the representative role to the agitator, Slackbridge, and make Trade Unionism nothing better than the pardonable error of the misguided and oppressed and as such, an agent in the martyrdom of the good working man.”

Characters are not Fully Developed

      Dingle Foot has well commented on Hard Times in the regard of characters also. The characters in Dickens’ novels never develop (except autobiographical novel David Copperfield and Great Expectations). The characters of Dickens’ novels are frilly formed from the beginning. The comic characters in Dickens’ novels always remain funny except at occasional moments they are permitted to degenerate into pathos. All this is clearly visible in Hard Times, except that with the only exception of Mr. Sleary, there are no true comic characters. Bounderby marries the unwilling Louisa, and neither of them converts in the minute degree. Bounderby does not slightly melt; his habits do not alter least, even under the impact of his wife. As for the wife, Louisa remains indifferent and proud, and never says a single word of dissent to her husband Bounderby. She remains throughout as she was, a disdainful being that she was from the very start of the novel’s story.

The Drawback in the Portraiture of Mrs. Spar sit

      Dingle Foot has objected against the portrayal of Mrs. Sparsit also. She is portrayed as an entirely sinister character in the novel. But it never seems to Dickens that she could be a tragic figure. She could be called a representative of all widowed gentle women in worse circumstances whose time is parted between sorrow for the dead past and a spiteful observation of the present. Dingle Foot further says that working on inflexible characters Dickens is very, little interested in human psychology.

Bounderby, Unbelievable Character

      The character of Bounderby has also been criticized by few critics. Even Ruskin who has appreciated this novel, says that Bounderby was a dramatic devil and too unrealistic.

Conclusion: The Outstanding Features of Hard Times

      Thus critics have criticized Hard Times for its apparent drawbacks. But also few critics have recognized the outstanding merits of the novel. For example, Dingle Foot appreciates Dickens’ views on industrial Coketown that is full of ugliness and monotony of life. He says: “So in Hard Times the interest lies not in the plot but in the picture of Coketown.” But it is F.R. Leavis who has pointed out good examples of Dickens genius in Hard Times: “Hard Times is not a difficult work; its intentions and nature are pretty obvious ....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 failing to recognize that he had before him a completely serious, and, in its originality a triumphantly successful, work of art.” “But the packed richness of Hard Times is almost incredibly varied...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 perfection. That is, his mastery of ‘style’ is of the only kind that matters—which is not to say that he hasn’t a conscious 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. 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.”

University Questions

Elaborate this following critical remark, “Hard Times is Dickens’ most conspicuous failure.”
What are the blemishes of Hard Times?
Is Hard Times a flawed classic? Give your opinions viewing various aspects of the novel.

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