Structure & Plot Construction of The Novel Hard Times

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A Brilliantly Plotted Novel

      Several modern critics have appreciated Hard Times for its well-organized plot construction. Of course, it is a brilliantly plotted novel. “The action proceeds with a sense of single-minded and well-composed energy which is too marvelous in Dickens. The novel is praiseworthy for its wonderful compactness. It is free from digressions, unnecessary details and exaggeration. The most striking feature is its brevity that permits nothing irrelevant to enter the novel.”

The Critical Theme

      The reason behind the tragedy of Gradgrind is the theory of facts introduced in the very first chapter. His educational policy of fact is dominating him. In the very beginning the conflict between fancy and fact is exposed to the readers. The ultimate doom is the result of this conflict between two opposite attitudes. The psychological development of Louisa and Tom who are the most pathetic victims of the consequences of Gradgrind’s theory of education, is absolutely sound in the commencement and all satisfying in narration. Louisa’s emotional life has no way out, except her love and affection for her brother Tom; the only way she understands to turn her unhappy married life to any benefit is to imply it to gratify her brother’s needs and demands. This is the cause why she had agreed to marry Bounderby whom she contempted. Thus, there was emotional void between her and Bounderby and that is why she has felt drawn towards Harthouse who strategically deals with her. Tom has fully grasped the lesson that the ruling principle of life is self-interest, and so he is called a “triumph of calculation.” He is under heavy debt, and then gets involved in an act of more disgrace-robbing the bank of his brother-in-law where he is employed.

Blending of Different Strands

      Hard Times narrates the story of what will happen when a conceptual theory is mistaken for reality and put into practice and when avarice for possessing more and more becomes more important. The off-springs of Mr. Gradgrind suffer because they were brought up in accordance with the utilitarian principles. Bounderby’s skin is like that of rhinocerous’ to suffer the consequences of bullying and boasting but pain and misery grip everyone. Child Tom is reared up according to the policy of his father and Bounderby’s ruthless materialism and utter selfishness and as such he must be a tool for causing ruin to innocent Stephen. The miserable severe blows are given to Louisa both by Tom’s sinful acts and by the fraud James Harthouse, who is more callous than destructive. Sufferings make Louisa and Gradgrind pure and they realize the healing power of Sissy a circus-clown’s child.

      The interweaving of three groups-mill-owners, laborers and circus troupe is serially presented, proceeding from one crisis into another; but knitted by the surpassing crowd of Coketown.

      The clear-cut division into three books—Sowing, Reaping and Garnering make the reward and punishment explicit.

      Every character in the book somehow suffers from the hardness of times. Everybody except thick-skinned Bounderby - are suffered more than what ill have they done. Fancy intuition and freedom of the imaginative spirit presented through circus troupe more remarkably through Sissy regain whoever is not out of the limits of redemption with the beautiful colors of life.

      Thus all the strands are perfectly interwoven. In this novel, Dickens is inclined to show the value of imagination and emotion and make the readers conscious of not to be governed by abstract theory (facts).

Various Themes in the Novel

      Dickens’ purpose in the novel is not only to attack on utilitarian economy but to criticize the educational policy class distinction and divorce laws. The educational system is reproached through Gradgrind’s stress on facts and through the character-sketch of the new schoolmaster. The caste system is satirically treated by the story of Mrs. Sparsit whose ambition and rank in the society are quite different, James Harthouse shows the downfall which is the consequence of rank without character. The satirical attack on divorce laws can be seen in Stephen’s distress on his inability to be legally separated from his drunken wife.

Three Ironic Titles

      The three apparent divisions of the novel have been given three ironic titles by the novelist. Solving for Book I, Reaping for Book II and Garnering for Book III. Its first impression may seem to be merely representing the conventional wit in which the pleasant image of seeding and harvesting with all the happiness and joyful associations of hope and fulfillment are distinguished from the callous reality of the fortune of Gradgrind. But that is not all, there is something more. The very selection of natural image, the prototype of growth and fruition is contrasted with the harsh wasteland which Gradgrind makes of his domestic life and which his philosophy makes of Coketown. Besides, the industrial period of Hard Times is set within the broad context of man’s history which has largely been, agricultural. The self-centered view of Gradgrind is used against the comic outlook of a man. The irony is thus not visible on the surface level. It is dissolved into the theme. The titles like The One thing Needful or Another Thing Needful are ironical.

Structural Irony

      It is very common to meet the use of frequent structural irony in Dickens’ novels. One suggestive and complex example can be found in the passage that deals with Gradgrind’s return to home and seeing his “metallurgical Louisa” and his “mathematical Tom” peeping through the hole of canvas wall of circus. Gradgrind is of the opinion that circus people are very trivial and debased. This rejection of the imaginative and colorful aspect of human nature make the machinery of natural law mobile. The catastrophy is in Aristotelean sense. The tragic doom consists in Gradgrind’s notice of his two children, Louisa and Tom taking interest in the circus. The doom contains both a discovery and a peripety and also the elements of surprise and probability Surprise is not used through something that Gradgrind could hardly have believed, but the special description of “metallurgical Louisa” and “mathematical Tom” exposes all the irony in contrast of Gradgrind’s expectation as a father and educationist yet the probability of the incident has been attentively created: in the earlier chapter the education of the students of Gradgrind has been explained. “Everything that heart could desire. Everything? Well, I suppose so.” The passage, however is more suggestive than this. The novel starts from the spiritual negligence of Gradgrind, suggested by the eye-glass that Gradgrind takes out of his pocket in order to see any child he recognizes by name, so that he may rebuke him and order him to go away from the circus. This incident is organically concerned with the rest of the novel both in form and theme. It darkens the major double tragedy in which Louisa and Tom show so consciously the unexpected and unavoidable effects of Gradgrind’s education system on their matured lives. The incident is the grand tragedy of the novel in little canvas. It is a kind of warning to Gradgrind. Thus it is a little model of the ironic structure of the novel. It is vision as well as structure - a foreshadowing picture of the way in which a furious natural law calls nemesis in the fullness of time.

Few Others Aspects of the Structure

      The plot sequences in Hard Times are neither very complicated nor fully developed. However, there is a logical amount of stimulus in Louisa’s fascination for Harthouse and there is well-planned preparation for Tom committing robbery Gradgrind is depicted as a man with a heart under his education policy for he gives Sissy shelter in his own house, and he realizes the blunders of his philosophy after his offsprings meet ruin because of his utilitarian education system. There is enough suspense in the circumstances of Tom’s act of robbery and thrill in Stephen’s death caused by his fall into the chasm.


First Action

Gradgrind: The Central Figure

      Hard Times is given three separate plot sequences, each of them offers Dickens with opportunities for development and contrast. The major action moves around Thomas Gradgrind, a retired wholesale merchant who has the ambition to be M.P. and later he becomes M.P. Gradgrind is a “man of realities, a man of facts and calculations, a man who proceeds upon the principle, that “two and two are four and nothing else.” Gradgrind speaks mathematically; making no allowances for the tender or delicate emotions. He handles all the business of life in a “practical” manner because this is the way through which one accumulates money and becomes economically and socially successful according to the standards of Victorian age. Gradgrind is the worshipper of God of money and thus he brings up his children in accordance with that.

The First Crisis

      Louisa, Tom and Sissy all are involved in the main action. Louisa has to marry a capitalist Bounderby whom she contempts. She does it for her brother Tom and father. But she feels tempted to escape from her unhappy life with her lover Harthouse who frequently gives her compliments and some excitement. This temptation is the first complication in the main plot. Dickens presents it through Louisa who was about to surrender herself to temptation but very successfully she has restored herself at the last moment. Her father’s education philosophy no way helps her out.

The Second Crisis

      Tom is portrayed as self-centered, sensual, ill-natured, and mad after getting more and more money to gamble. He is working as a clerk in the bank of his brother-in-law, Bounderby. He, one day, robs money from the bank in order to pay his debts. He shrewdly makes Stephen to fall under suspicion, a worker in Bounderby’s factory. But ultimately Stephen is proved innocent and Tom a guilty.

Sissy’s Inability to follow Utilitarian Ideas

      Sissy is the child of a circus-clown who leaves her and runs away somewhere feeling no more good to make audience laugh. Gradgrind gives Sissy his protection. Like morality play, Sissy represents ideas which are in contrast with utilitarian philosophy of Gradgrind. She is failed to follow this philosophy. She plays an important role in Louisa’s life by taking initiative in going to Harthouse and persuade him to quit Coketown. Sissy also assists Tom to escape and not being arrested and face the consequences of robbery at bank.

Second Action

Bounderby: The Central Figure

      The story of second action revolves around Bounderby, a thick skinned, ill-banker and manufacturer. He feels proud of having a housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit of aristocratic background. Mrs. Sparsit harbors a secret longing that one day Bounderby will marry her and when this hope is made a failure by Bounderby’s marriage with Louisa she feels jealous of Louisa. She regards her as an intruder. Bounderby has also a mother but he always boasts about his humble origin and presents a wrong picture of his mother. There is a short episode in which his mother comes to Coketown in order to just have a look of her son. Ultimately he is exposed and his fabricated story is proved false.

Third Action

      Stephen and Rachael: Pivotal Figures
The third action concentrates on Rachael and Stephen Blackpool, a worker in Bounderby’s factory of textiles. Stephen’s married life has been proved utterly intolerable to him. Now, he is in love with another woman Rachael and wants to divorce his wife. But he finds it impossible because Bounderby tells her it is too expensive for him to afford legal separation from his wife. Another reason, he should not forget the vows he had taken at the time of his marriage. Thus Stephen lives in a state of excessive distress and frustration. Rachael does her best to provide him calm and peace. Tom uses him as an instrument in his design to rob the bank. He makes him to fall under suspicion of committing robbery. On the other hand, Stephen does not join the union because he has promised Rachael not to entangle his life in union affairs. Bounderby dismisses him because Stephen has refused to play the role of an informer telling him about the internal activities of union workers. Finally Stephen is caught by a chasm in the way of returning to Coketown in order to clear himself from the charges. He is seriously injured and dies but before death he proves himself innocent and gives hints about the culprit to Mr. Gradgrind.

Flaws in the Plot Construction

      If we examine the industrial aspect of Hard Times, several serious flaws come under consideration. Dickens had very little and imperfect knowledge about factory life in Northern England. He had once visited the town of Preston to see the worker’s strike but extracted very little out of it and thus did not include single strike in his novel. As Shaw observes, the scene of trade union meeting addressed by Slackbridge, he calls it a picture of middle class ignorance. Dickens simply is intended to attack the trade union and therefore portrays a trade union agitator Slackbriclge who is very wicked and inhuman. Perhaps there were such leaders in early trade union movement, but even so Slackbridge should have not got important place in Hard Times. Slackbridge is the target of Dickens’ satire on trade unionism. Dickens has regarded Union as an evil and thus he presents Slackbridge in dark light as a shrewd and scoundrel. He also is intended to show the workers as foolish who have joined the union that is led by such a crooked fellow. “He was not so honest,” Dickens says, “he was not so manly, he was not so good humored; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense. An ill-made, high-shouldered man, with lowering brows and his features crushed into an habitually sour expression, he is contrasted most unfavorably even in his mongrel dress, with the great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes”. Such an interpretation is the example of ignorance because labor organizers are not like Slackbridge, they do not talk like him.

      Another flaw is the parallel between conjugal troubles in Bounderby’s and Stephen’s case. Hope, psychology etc. are sacrificed at the parallelism. The last chapter sums up in a few hundred words, it should be explained in a much wider canvas because the matter is enough to fill a whole novel.

Conclusion: Merits and Comments

      Several critics have regarded Hard Times as a masterpiece. Dickens’ insight is keen, his grasp is strong, his human sympathies are warm and employed firmly to the service of practical Christianity The narrow compass of the novel and Dickens’ effort to keep a tight schedule in writing is somehow to produce artistic beauty in the novel. The economy of expression is essential in the novel and the result is immediate and dexterous in all the aspects, either Coketown machinery Bounderby’s mansion or Stephen’s room.

      The directness of the narrative is amazing and yet the characters are as live and vital as treated in Dicken’s novel more elaborately

      Hard Times does not deal with any digression or unnecessary events. It is free from many sub-plots, much melodrama and frequently shifting focus which perplexes. The theme is quite apparent and message is direct and full of moral especially that heart is more important than mind In spite of all the flaws Hard Times truthfully draws the Victorian age as well as it appeals the readers in modem days also. Thus the novel has human-plea combined with the artistic integrity it is ranked among the best novels of Victorian era.

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