Trade Unionism in The Novel Hard Times

Also Read


      The power of the industrial system, through the first half of the nineteenth century had been growing until it started pervading over the society. The factory-owners or industrialists were too glad to use the abstract defenses as devised by the economists for their benefit. These abstractions symbolize their true feelings that anything except the statistics of profit and loss was mere sentimentality. The extent to which Dickens persisted in this hard materialism as the inevitable aspect of the industrial system is hinted in various titles Dickens had given to the story of Hard Times. They are: According to Coker; Prove it; Stubborn Things; Mr. Gradgrind’s Facts; The Grindstone; Hard Times; Two and Two are Four; Something Tangible; Our Hardheaded Friend; Rust and Dust; Simple Arithmetic; A Matter of Calculation; A Mere Question of Figures; The Gradgrind Philosophy.

Dickens’ Visit to Preston

      Dickens had visited Preston at the end of January 1854. In his railway carriage there was sitting a bitingly emphatic gentleman whom Dickens inwardly called Mr. Snapper. He informed Dickens that the men on strike “wanted to be ground” “to bring’em to their senses”. Dickens said if this was all they wanted, they must be very emotional, for certainly they had a little grinding already Mr. Snapper asked if he was a friend to lock out. Dickens replied, he must be a friend to both factory-owners and laborers. He firmly said, there was nothing “in the relations of Capital and Labour but Political Economy” Dickens suggested the need of understanding and speculation. Mr. Snapper laughed and asked Dickens if he thought that laborers had a right to organize? Dickens said, definitely; as perfect a privilege to be united as the Preston masters. When Hard Times started coming out in Household Words the readers felt worried because of the radical note of the story Dickens, then, emphasized that its objective was not to fester disharmony but to create understanding between employers and employees.

The Keynote of Dickens’ Views on Industrial Conflict in Hard Times

      Meantime, Dickens had planned to start publishing a serial novel by Mrs. Gaskell in September when Hard Times should have proceeded. Mrs. Gaskell’s story has also the setting in a mill-town and a subject of industrial conflict. She was worried that there might be too resemblance in their selection of incidents. But Dickens wrote a letter to relax her: “The monstrous claims at domination made by a certain class of manufactures, and the extent to which the way is made easy for working men to slide down into discontent under such hands, are within my scheme;” Mrs. Gaskell was relieved to know that Dickens will not use strike in his story.

Trade Unionism as depicted in Hard Times

      By 1854, the previous antagonism to Trade Unionism had weakened. It is accepted that there was a legitimate scope for the efforts of worker in organized bodies. In Hard Times, there is little more than the reverberation of old hostility against the Unions. Dickens himself took interest in Stephen Blackpool as an individual, and the Union with which he comes into clash and dissent is a cloudy affair, a group of elegant and respectable people. His ‘hands’ as a body are calm, responsible and appropriate to represent England.

      The social opinion which has by 1854 altered its views on hours of labor and the place of Trade Unions has also come to grant that how people exist in everyone’s concern. Reforms follow a conversion in the mind of people. Thinkers have been brought to observe that national prosperity is not sufficient in itself, that ill conditions mean nation’s insecurity The wealthy people have been told that they cannot frame around your fine house any wall of sufficient enough to hight to keep out the germs that takes birth in and expanded from the slum and the novel.

      F.R. Leavis has commented: “And certainly it doesn’t need a working class bias to produce the comment that when Dickens comes 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 individuals 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.” Therefore, the Trade Union scenes in Hard Times are not convincing; though Dickens became successful in probing when in Bounderby’s conversation with Blackpool, he expresses the subconscious sympathy between owners and Trade Unions joined against individualistic workers. The self-dependent worker Stephen is condemned by his fellow workers for not joining the union and dismissed by Bounderby for having the courage to protect their grounds.

      As already said, it was not Dickens’ intention to give a detailed picture of strike or to minutely describe Trade Union activities. Dickens did not have very profound and deep knowledge and understanding of Trade Unionism. Only a visit to Preston would not be enough to give the detailed picture of industrial problems.

Slackbridge: The Representative of Trade Union

      Slackbridge is described by Dickens in the following words; “In many great respects, he was essentially below them (his followers). He was not so honest, he was not so kindly, he was hot so good-humoured; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense; an ill-made, high-shouldered man he contrasted most unfavourably, even in his mongrel dress, with the great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes.”

      Dickens has an objective in introducing Slackbridge and criticizing him in the aforesaid manner. He is a character whom we dislike; I in fact we detest this man. In describing Slackbridge as mentioned above, Dickens has criticized trade unionism. Dickens was, no doubt, full of humanitarian feelings, but he has no pity for agitator like Slackbridge. Thus the picture of Slackbridge is also an indispensable part of the social structure of the novel as a whole. It expresses the intolerance of trade unionism that becomes abnormal in its attitude. Only because a workman refuses to join the worker’s union, he is sent to Coventry, no matter how honest and efficient he was. The two speeches of Slackbridge are not the examples of good oratory but a parody of oratory.

      Edgar Johnson remarks, “The only weaknesses in Dickens’ handling of the industrial scene are his caricature of the union organizer Slackbridge and his portrayal of that noble but dismal representative of the laboring classes, Stephen Blackpool. Slackbridge, with his windy and whinning a figment of imagination .... Such a description is a piece of sheer ignorance, not because union leaders can not be windbags and humbugs as other politicians can, but because labor organizers are not like Slackbridge and do not talk like him, and did not do so in Dickens’ day any more than in ours. Dickens knew human nature too well to know that fundamentally laboring men were like all men, and he knew domestic servants and artisans working for small tradesman but of the class manners and behavior of industrial laborers he had made no more than a superficial observation in some half-dozen trips through the Midlands. He had attended only one union meeting in his life, during the Preston strike in January, 1854.”


      Now a question arises, why, when the entire novel is an indictment of one industrial capitalist of the day, does Dickens portray such an unsympathetic leader in the very field where he might have been expected to be sympathetic? It may be designed with the purpose to relieve the audience who were worried over the radical sound of the book, as Dickens had presumed that Gradgrind and Bounderby will make him infamous among certain sections of his more influential readers. The novel had arisen considerable resent. Macaulay who had often admired Dickens, remarked Hard Times as “sullen socialism”.

University Questions

Discuss Trade Unionism in Hard Times.
F.R. Leavis and few other critics generally acknowledge trade union scene in Hard Times unconvincing. Justify your answer with examples from the novel.
Do you think the scenes related to Trade Unionism are convincing? Give your opinions with references to the novel.

Previous Post Next Post