Hard times by Charles Dickens, essentially is a work of indentured infidelity creeping into relationships reduced to nothing but mechanical give and take, an array of erroneous judgement and false conception under the backdrop of a sky full of the dust and smoke of the stifling culture of workaholism and human life succumbing slowly into the helms of ideas of utilitarianism – thereby measuring the worth of each and every individual into numerical terms and completely driving out the romantic ideas of thinking out of the box. Charles Dickens attempts to cut across classes in the Victorian Era and make them run parallel to each other & intersect at an abrupt edge with incomplete connotations and unanswered radical questions that the book offers to the reader.
In context of the above, the theme of my article is to investigate the loopholes in the Dickensian critic of industrial capitalism offered in Hard Times and his subsequent attempt to contain the more destabilising effects of his own social criticism. In the light of the above said, I would rest the crux of my paper upon analysis of major characters and events that shape Hard Times. To start off with Dickens points out the baffling effects of the increasing materialistic views the Victorian age possessed. Industries were set up and the working classes found their way to employment, but as the saying goes ‘the excess of anything is harmful’ , even the philosophy of utilitarianism came with it’s backlogs.
This 19th Century idea which had to be the cornerstone in the march towards progress was strongly caricatured by Dickens as it was opposed to critical subtility. The growth of utility directly challenged the Church in the process of creating ‘Hands’ or dehumanised machines out of people. In Hard Times human relationships are contaminated by economics. The principles of the ‘dismal science’ led to the formation of a selfish and atomistic society. The social commentary of Hard Times is quite clear. Dickens is concerned with the conditions of the urban labourers and the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. He exposes the exploitation of the working class by unfeeling industrialists and the damaging consequences of propagating factual knowledge (statistics) at the expense of feeling and imagination. However, although Dickens is critical about Utilitarianism, he cannot find a better way of safeguarding social justice than through ethical means.
“In place of Utilitarianism, Dickens can offer only good-heartedness, individual charity, and Sleary’s horse-riding; like other writers on the Condition of England Question, he was better equipped to examine the symptoms of the disease than to suggest a possible cure” (Wheeler, 81).
Also, the portrayal of Coketown, with all its brick buildings and its conformity and sterility and the Educational System, is conspicuous as part of the setting. Dickens uses many symbols to convey the horror of the setting: Coketown is the brick jungle; the factories are the mad elephants; the death-bringing smoke is the serpent; the machinery is the monster. The sameness, the conformity, creates an atmosphere of horror. An ironic note in the setting is the paradoxical reference to the blazing furnaces as Fairy Palaces. This place was an open gate into the ill effects of the utilitarian culture. As the novel progresses, we see an uprising under the leadership of Slackbridge. He is the union representative sent out to organize the workers at Bounderby’s factory. His main way of whipping up support is to blow everything he says completely out of proportion and to use many words quickly to lull his audience.
In one speech, he demonizes Stephen, calling him out on the fact that he won’t join up with the other workers. This is a pretty good trick, since by all banning against Stephen, the workers end up on the same team together, and are thus much more likely to unionize. Like the novel’s other liars (Tom and Bounderby spring to mind) Slackbridge doesn’t have too many redeeming qualities. And yet, the reader is definitely meant to feel sympathy for the workers. The conditions of the factory are clearly horrible. So, why create this kind of contradiction here?
How would the strike plot be different if Slackbridge were a positive figure? If the unionization was being organized by one of the workers rather than an outsider to the town? Dickens triggers peace, diffuses the idea of rebellion by sentimentalising the working classes and celebrating how non-confrontational they are of their condition so that his hegemony as a middle class writer isn’t threatened.
“On every page Hard Times manifests its identity as a polemical work, a critique of mid-Victorian industrial society dominated by materialism, acquisitiveness, and ruthlessly competitive capitalist economics. To Dickens, at the time of writing Hard Times, these things were represented most articulately, persuasively, (and therefore dangerously) by the Utilitarians. ” (Lodge, 86)
According to David Lodge, the novel is more symbolic than real and a lot of characters are moral probes. The novel lacks a protagonist. Dickens displaces characters to give an omniscient place to his social vision which controls the novel throughout. Most of the characters work in moral didacticism rather than realism. The portrayal of Sissy as a free spirit, a torchbearer of creative, fancy thinking and it’s positive implications weaves around an imaginative fabric around the working classes. She’s also morally upright as she rebukes Harthouse for sexually pursuing Louisa. Sissy’s resistant individuality which refused to be turned into a faceless automation showed the rise of the working class against the stifled disintegrated education system, but her story did not make it to the centre stage and there was an absence of resolution. To the extent of being an angelic figure, Sissy becomes an embodiment of the duality inherent in Dicken’s articulation of class but at the same time to recontain this critique within a basically middle class horizon of expectations he shows the benevolence of Gradgrind towards Sissy.
The character of Stephen Blackpool represents an idealised working class man whose propensity to suffer won him the sympathy of the middle class reader. A similar connection can be noticed between the nature of Stephen & Sissy’s dad who are both epitomes of Christian virtues like empathy and sympathy which middle class men lacked. We notice that Dicken’s gaze at class conflict is necessarily bourgeois and does not propose for rock solid solutions. The only clear way as per his vision was not through radical restructuring of the society but a gradual, long wait for reform from the middle class side which is very much visible in the way Stephen is positioned in the novel. Nowhere in the novel has the idea of an uproar gathered spark – Slackbridge feared revolution and only comes across as a figure screaming for attention. Stephen is also made to embody Dicken’s broken marriage and his subsequent take on divorce, which he believed should be free of lengthy and tumultuous customs. The big flaw is this embodiment lies in the fact that Stephen was a working class character with a drunk wife who found solace in Rachel while Dickens was middle class and to treat both the classes on an equal pedestal blurs the reality of miserable marriages pertaining to the gap between status (considering the working class could
not apply for divorce in Victorian England). Working class subjectivity becomes so easily appropriated by Charles Dicken’s middle class subjectivity that he symbolically neutralised the threat of the working classes thus undermining their individuality. What Hard Times brings to the Dias is the story of the oppressed class through a middle class writer’s sieve which understandably defeats the whole idea of serving cold reality to the reader. Coming to the last straw in a series of unrelated characters who struggle to cope with mechanised life comes Louisa. Although Louisa is the novel’s principal female character, she is distinctive from the novel’s other women, particularly her foils, Sissy and Rachael. While these other two embody the Victorian ideal of femininity—sensitivity, compassion, and gentleness—Louisa’s education has prevented her from developing such traits.
Instead, Louisa is silent, cold, and seemingly unfeeling. However, Dickens may not be implying that Louisa is really unfeeling, but rather that she simply does not know how to recognize and express her emotions. Unable to convey the tumultuous feelings that lie beneath her own languid and monotonous exterior, Louisa can only state a fact about her surroundings. Yet this fact, by analogy, also describes the emotions repressed within her. Her relationship with Bounderby never really reached out to compassion and love, and to come to think of it, the only person Louisa truly loved was her brother Tom, who in the end, betrays her and leaves, thankless. Through Louisa, Dickens brings forth the concept of extramarital affairs but that too becomes a shut-and-run case as the relationship had no future.
To sum up, Hard Times proves that fancy is essential for human happiness, and in this aspect it is one of the best morally uplifting novels. Dickens avoided propagating employer paternalism in the manner of Disraeli, Charlotte Brontë and Gaskell, and strongly opposed commodification of labour in Victorian England.
“The target of Dickens’s criticism, however, was not Bentham’s Utilitarianism, nor Malthusian theories of population, nor Smith’s free-market economics, but the crude utilitarianism derived from such ideas by Benthamite Philosophical Radicals, which tended to dominate social, political, and economic thinking and policy at the time the novel was written. The Gradgrind/Bounderby philosophy is that the Coketown “ Hands” are commodities, “ something” to be worked so much and paid so much, to be “infallibly settled” by “laws of supply and demand,” something that increased in number by a certain “ rate of percentage” with accompanying percentages of crime and pauperism; in fact, “something wholesale, of which vast fortunes were made&rdquo.” ” (John R. Harrison, 116)
Hard Times was in fact an attack on the Manchester School of economics, which supported laissez-faire and promoted a distorted view of Bentham’s ethics. The novel has been criticised for not offering specific remedies for the Condition-of-England problems it addresses.
It is debatable whether solutions to social problems are to be sought in fiction, but nevertheless, Dickens’s novel anticipated the future debates concerning anti-pollution legislation, intelligent town-planning, health and safety measures in factories and a humane education system.
Lodge, David. “The Rhetoric of Hard Times”, in Edward Gray, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hard Times. A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Harrison, John R. “Dickens’s Literary Architecture: Patterns of Ideas and Imagery” in Hard Times. Papers on Language & Literature, Southern Illinois University; Vol. 36, 2000.
Wheeler, Michael. English Fiction of the Victorian Period 1830-1890. New York: Longman, 1994.