Victorian Society in The Novel Hard Times

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An Emphatic Expression of few Aspects of Victorian Life

      On the whole Victorian life was fed by Benthamite utilitarianism. England was being swiftly industrialized, and machinery was coming on first place in the national life of England. The advancement of industry was causing discord, conflict, dissatisfaction and problems between capitalist and laborers, that is, between the employers and employees; and the trade union movement was in impetus. This was also a time when snobbery and hypocrisy were prevailing upon the minds of the upper class people. There, are few other features of Victorian life, that get forceful expression through the pen of Dickens in Hard Times. Though for apparent reasons Dickens highly inflates what seems to him the vice and abuse of Victorian mechanical and utilitarian life.

Educational System in Victorian Age

      Hard Times makes us familiar with the educational theory of the Victorian age. This educational theory is chiefly based on facts, figures, calculations and statistics. In Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind represents this particular educational theory. He is helped by the government inspector and the new schoolmaster who appears in chapter 2, Book 1. Gradgrind has established a model school to make all the boys and girls learn facts and facts only According to him, facts alone are the need of life, the brains of reasoning animals should be filled with facts and facts only Gradgrind is portrayed as “eminently practical” and a man of realities, facts and calculations. His mind is so arithmetical that he believes, two and two will make four and nothing else. He calls one of the students of his school not by her full name or nick name but as “girl number twenty” (Actually the girl’s name is Cecilia Jupe or Sissy). He does not need to listen the first-hand knowledge of horses through Sissy but admits the Bitzer’s account of horse—“A Graminivorus. Quadruped with forty teeth and hard hoofs to be shed with iron.” Both the government official and Gradgrind are utterly against the even negligible exercise of fancy They are even against using wall-papers with the representations of horses on it; and carpets having the representation of flowers because these are opposed to their theory of facts. The new schoolmaster has studied all the important facts of etymology syntax, prosody; astronomy geography vocal music, algebra etc. and they are on his tips of fingers. Dickens satirizes him by saying that if this man would have learned a bit less he can teach the students better.

The Educational System influenced by Utilitarianism

      Gradgrind brings up his children strictly according to the particular educational theory. No child of Gradgrind has ever seen a single face in the moon; even they are not permitted to learn any silly jingle like, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star; How I wonder what you are!” They have their own cabinets in different departments of science. No one is allowed to wonder at anything, because there are facts which should gratify them. Gradgrind feels hopeless when two of his issues are gripped by him violating his theory of education. They were peeping through the hole of canvas wall due to their curiosity of know what is circus. His “metallurgical Louisa” and “mathematical Tom” are the guilty of feeling inquisitive. Mrs. Gradgrind is also the staunch believer in the theory of facts. She urges her children never to wonder but to go and be “somethingological”. In brief, the system of the education of Victorian age stresses the facts completely divorced off all the sentiments, affection, imagination and feeling. The education was one of the aspects that Utilitarianism has influenced.

Bounderby’s Character: A Utilitarian

      Another branch of Utilitarianism is extended to the character of Bounderby, an industrialist and a banker. He is a very intimate friend of Gradgrind and he is also equally practical minded. But Bounderby is more utilitarian and selfish than Gradgrind. He remains untouched by humanity throughout the novel. Sometimes we do notice kindness in Gradgrind’s behavior but Bounderby is utterly callous. He is opposed to Gradgrind in providing protection to Sissy whose father has abandoned her. Gradgrind offers to give her protection in his house, but Bounderby seems to be heartless and opposed this decision of Gradgrind. Bounderby does not feel least sympathy for her. He is excessively ruthless to his factory workers also. He regards even the essential necessities of workers as demand for turtle soup and venison with gold spoon. When Stephen Blackpool refuses to act as an informer, giving to Bounderby the informations about the activities of union workers, he is callously dismissed by Bounderby without thinking that he is putting him to starze. Thereafter, he suspects the innocent Stephen as a guilty of committing robbery at his bank. He does not believe in the account of Rachael that Louisa has visited Stephen’s lodging with Tom. He seems a monster figure of utilitarian doctrine.

Marriage and Utilitarianism

      Bounderby’s marriage with Louisa is another evidence of Bounderby’s heartlessness. Both Mr. Gradgrind and Louisa’s husband come out as utilitarians. Gradgrind has quoted statistics to persuade Louisa to marry elderly Bounderby. The scene in which he succeeds in getting Louisa’s approval on the marriage proposal of Bounderby is a victory of the “fact” over feeling emotion and imagination. Although the element of exaggeration is certainly used here, the projection of Victorian society is, no doubt, true to its essentials.

Industrial Ugliness and Capitalistic Selfishness

      The novel also consists in detailed pictures of the worse consequences of industrialism which was very swiftly raising its head in Victorian age. Coketown is presented as a town of machinery and chimneys filled with smokes rising upwards all the time. The town streets whether large or small are just like one another; the people look same; they all work in the same manner, with the same sound upon the same pavements to do the same work. Their life is full of monotony, boredom and it is without colour, zeal or enthusiasm. Their employers never realize that worker’s condition of life is miserable, people’s demand for any relaxation or physical relief is no business of the employers. In fact, these workmen are not living human beings but only “hands”, “so many hundred horse steam power”. They are not thought to possess any soul; they are just hands who have to exert upon “the crushing, smashing, tearing mechanisms, day in and day out.” Time proceeds in this industrial town like its own machinery: so much material used, so much fuel consumed, so much money earned. The man who earns money through the labor of these workers regards the smoke of the chimneys as meat and drink and the healthiest thing in the whole world. During his conversation with Harthouse, Bounderby calls this smoke as “the healthiest thing in the world in all respects, and particularly for the lungs.” These capitalists feel least sympathy for the “hands” as “humbugging sentiment”. Bounderby is not at all ready to fulfill their essential demands. He regards them as demand for turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. It is interesting to notice here that while dealing with the industrial ugliness, Dickens shows his consciousness to the romantic side of machinery. He calls the lighted mill in night as a “fairy palace” which suggests that factory has something more than filth squalid, monotony and exploitation.

Mrs. Sparsit: The Symbol of Victorian Upper Middle Class

      Hard Times reveals that money was inevitably the most important thing in life in Victorian age, and Bounderby is an embodiment of the lust for money. It also presents the snobbery or the importance of the class discrimination that are next to money Bounderby feels proud of it that his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit is a lady from aristocratic background and she has high connections in society. Mrs. Sparsit also never lets any opportunity go without mentioning that her husband was a Powler. Bounderby always tries to elevate the family-background of Mrs. Sparsit as he keeps on bragging of his own humble origin and how he has become a self-made prosperous man. Bounderby notices it that when there happens any get-together in Coketown, speakers never fail to sing a song in his appreciation. He frequently refers to himself as “Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.” His boast as a self-made man and as a capitalist is paralleled to Mrs. Sparsit’s braggart of being the Powler’s widow and being concerned with Lady Scadgers. Her boast of aristocratic connections is worthy to notice. She takes Bounderby humbly humorously and with high-esteem, in other words she flatters him by all means whenever she finds him present in front of her but inwardly she contempts him. Her detest for her master is further aggravated when he gets married with Louisa because she was secretly harboring the notion of marrying Bounderby While standing in front of his portrait in privacy she shakes her fist with his portrait and calls him a “noodle.” The snobbery of Mrs. Sparsit is perceived in not permitting her salary to be called wages but she calls it “annual compliment.” She has appointed Bitzer, the porter of Bank, as spy to whom she gives a Christmas gift every year for the services he renders to her. Bitzer gives her informations about what is going on in the factory of Boundary and among the liands’. She also keeps a constant watch over the house of Bounderby and like a hawk observes all the movements of Louisa and Harthouse; she acts as a professional spy persuing Louisa thinking that Louisa is going to elope with Harthouse. Later in the story it is Mrs. Sparsit who drags Mrs. Pegler to Bounderby Mrs. Pegler was suspected by the police to assist the culprit in robbing Bounderby’s bank. Mrs. Sparsit unknowingly makes her master naked because the truth of Bounderby’s boastful story of his humble origin is revealed to everybody Whatever; whether she is exaggerated or not, as few critics observe, she represents the real nature of the English upper middle class of the Victorian society.

Trade Union

      The trade union activities of the Victorian mills are represented in Hard Times through Slackbridge, an insolent agitator who not only unites the hands against the factory owners but also dominates the union to excommunicate Stephen for having refused to join the union. We do not see this leader as a positive figure. He talks with his followers in an egoistic manner, exaggerating and distorting the complete situation in so far as it is concerned with Stephen, and making them confused with his exaggerated rhetoric.

The Inflexibility of Divorce Laws

      Dickens has also described here the hardness of the divorce laws of the Victorian time. Stephen finds it not possible to get rid of his sinister drunken wife and to begin a fresh chapter of life with Rachael. Bounderby says that it is impossible for Stephen to divorce his wife because he would have to go to the Doctors’ commons with a suit to the House of Lords; he would have to go for the Act of Parliament to marry again; and this all would cost a lot, around fifteen hundred pounds or more than that and it is too expensive for Stephen to afford. Stephen has rightly said that it is ‘‘all a muddle”, “a muddle altogether.” The vanity of both Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit is expressed in their advice to Stephen not to divorce his wife because he has married her for good and for worse. She first pretends that she is shocked to hear the problem of Stephen. Mrs. Sparsit calls it the wickedness of the common people symbolized by Stephen who wants to get rid of his wife after being satisfied.

The Miserable Consequences of Utilitarianism

      The worse consequences of Utilitarianism are to be observed in the case of Louisa’s unfortunate married life and wreck of Tom’s career It is also represented through the helpless condition of Gradgrind on seeing Bitzer as a perfect model of his utilitarian educational theory Harthouse is another personification of utilitarianism. He is someone different from Bounderby because he manages to achieve a place in Louisa’s heart by his clever devices and shrewd activities. It is another matter; that at the eleventh hour she succeeds in restoring herself from going to elope with Bounderby Her final failure of married life and her return to ‘Stone Lodge’ are the evidences of the bad features of Gradgrind’s utilitarian philosophy Tom also opts for evil ways and goes to the extent of committing robbery at Bounderby’s bank and he has to leave his mother-land forced by the adverse circumstances. Bitzer says to Gradgrind that he is not feeling obliged for getting education in his model school because he has already paid in the form of foe for what he learned.


      The condition of the life of Victorian people in several aspects is revealed to the reader precisely and true to the fact in the novel Hard Times. Thus, we see that utilitarianism seems to influence all the fields of the life of Victorian people.

University Questions

Hard Times is a passionate attack on the contemporary Victorian society. Justify this statement with reference to the novel.
Discuss Hard Times as a social novel. Or
“Dickens is immortal because he is essentially of his time.” Elaborate it with social, political and industrial background of Hard Times.

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