Charles Dickens: Hard Times (review)

Today we celebrate Dickens’ birthday. 200 years ago, Charles Dickens was born and lived to become one of the greatest novelists. Today, I heard him described as the New Testament in British writing to Shakespeare’s Old Testament. And no doubt about it – Dickens was a wonderful writer who still has a lot to say to a modern audience. I’m looking forward to reading more by him and starting my celebration with this review of Hard Times – as well as today’s Google logo shown above.

One of the things I like most about Charles Dickens, is his social indignation and how he’s able to use this indignation to create wonderful works of literary fiction. He used his childhood to create David Copperfield and he used some of the same thoughts to create Hard Times. Thoughts about how children should grow up, what kind of things they should learn in school, how workers should be treated and more.

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I  bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!” (p. 7)

This is the first few sentences in the book. And from here, well, it kind of goes downhill from most of this book’s characters. It starts out rather well, though. A couple of men having a conversation about the importance of education. Only problem is, their idea of education is rather … off, would be a very mild way to put it. What they want, is for children to be taught facts – like a horse is a Quadruped. Graminivoruous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth. (p. 10)

As you might imagine, this is not the best way to teach children. However, Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind are both convinced that this is the only way, and since it’s Mr. Gradgrind’s school and Mr. Bounderby is his best friend, their word is law. Mr. Gradgrind is lucky enough to have several children – besides the children in the school – that he can test his ideas on and he does so. His two eldest children, Louisa and Tom, are both heavily influenced by their father’s idea. Of course they are – how can you be anything else when you are constantly being told that all that matter is facts, that emotions have no place and that you are not even allowed to say ‘I wonder …’. Both children have had their imagination starved for their entire childhood and are growing up to be perfect examples of Mr. Gradgrind’s teachings. To their detriment, unfortunately.

Louisa and Tom … Louisa and Tom are raised in the same way but turn out very differently. Louisa closes herself off from the world while Tom instead starts gaming. Louisa protects Tom through everything and he doesn’t exactly return her kindness. His actions are ultimately what unravels everything Mr. Gradgrind ever believed in when he sees what has become of his children.

I’m fascinated by what Dickens implies about education and the upbringing of children in general. Tom and Louisa have had the same upbringing and are taught in the same way. But they become two very different adults which in my opinion is because of how nature plays a role that nurture can’t quite overcome. People react different to the same thing. Because of this, teaching and education should be more focused on the individual and definitely not viewing children as vessels to be filled – or blank slates to write on.

Mr. Bounderby has been watching them from the sideline for their entire childhood – especially Louisa. So when she comes of age, he naturally asks her to marry him, and Louisa, having been taught not to value her emotions, agrees. She does so to take care of her brother who is in Mr. Bounderby’s employment at his bank. Needless to say, their marriage isn’t exactly happy.

In this connection, I just want to mention how brilliant a writer Dickens is. Louisa and her father have two conversations in his office – one when he informs her about Mr. Bounderby’s marriage proposal and one towards the end of the book. These two conversations frame the most important parts of the book where Mr. Gradgrind’s teachings is really put to the test and are so poignant when they show Louisa, Mr. Gradgrind’s favorite child, and how little her father understands her.

I haven’t even mentioned Sissy Jupe. Sissy is a young girl from the circus – she is abandoned by her father and chooses to stay in Mr. Gradgrind’s school in the hope that her father will come back for her. Sissy is everything, Mr. Gradgrind doesn’t want in a girl – emotional, imaginative and hugely empathic. She stays in the school, lives with the Gradgrind family and grows to become very important for the entire family in ways, none of them could have predicted.

And Mr. Bounderby – don’t even get me started on Mr. Bounderby. This annoying man who’s constantly bragging about himself and how he has come from such a terrible start and had to make it on his own, almost since infancy but now he’s Mr. Bounderby of Coketown, a self-made big shot. How I loathed him, that big fake!

As a sidestory, we follow some of the ‘Hands’, the people working in the mills in town. One of these is the weaver Stephen Blackpool who shows how factory work influence the individual worker. Stephen’s is a tragic story in a lot of ways – mostly because he married the wrong woman. He tries to get help to get a divorce but a divorce is not a possibility when you are just a worker. So he has to live on with his alcoholic wife showing up from time to time in a drunken stupor while being in love with another woman, Rachael.

Stephen and Rachael’s story is touching and heart-breaking. This is not a time where you can just go ahead and get a divorce or just be with another person when you’re still married so since Stephen can’t get a divorce, they can’t be together and can hardly even talk to one another. Rachael helps Stephen when his wife shows up and is the rock he needs. When Stephen is ostracized by his co-workers, he leaves town – and is then accused of a crime and ultimately, he suffers a tragic end.

Charles Dickens’ opinions is clear throughout the book. The second chapter in this book, the one really showcasing Mr. Gradgrind’s and Mr. Bounderby’s thoughts on teaching and how children should be brought up, is called ‘Murdering the Innocents’ and shows them as small vessels waiting to be filled with facts. The book clearly shows that this is not a good way to raise children through the fates of Tom and Louisa.

Mr. Gradgrind is the quintessential father in a lot of ways. Even though he’s very dogmatic, he does everything because he thinks it’s the right thing. He fully believes in teaching facts and in keeping his children away from imagination, dreaming and fantasy. When he finally realize his mistakes and see, how his way of thinking has hurt his children in ways that’s probably beyond repair, he’s heartbroken and grows old overnight. He is a loving and caring father and suffers like any good father would if put in this situation.

I haven’t written much about the circus yet although it’s very important. Sissy Jupe came from a circus and this circus stands for everything, Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby does not approve of. Fun, entertainment, relaxation, imagination … When the Gradgrind family needs help in the end, Sissy steps up and saves the day by way of the circus, her family. There’s a scene in the beginning of the book where Mr. Gradgrind catches Tom and Louisa in peeking in on the circus and is shocked and orders them home – the same way, he orders them away from anything resembling imagination and fun. The book comes full circle with Sissy’s invocation of her circus family and their ability to repay the service, the Gradgrind’s did them when they took Sissy in after her father abandoned her. The circus owner Sleary gets the last word: People mutt be amuthed. They can’t be alwayth a learning, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a working, they an’t made for it. (p. 269) I think this is one of the main lessons Dickens wanted us to draw from this novel.

  • Title: Hard Times
  • Author: Charles Dickens
  • Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics – Oxford University Press
  • Year: 2008 (original 1854)
  • Pages: 299 pages
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

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