Of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, George Bernard Shaw, said that it was a “passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world“, and much has been said about the novel’s railing of utilitarianism. The work, though, is far more complex than that. It is a class-conscious novel that bears feminist elements, questioning the nature of marriage, and the authority of patriarchal figures. the novel also draws on ecocritical issues as well as issues related to complacent consumption, and Dickens links the exploitation of the working class and the environments with colonial/imperialist mentalities. And the Marxist leanings of the work are most articulate when they draw on the hypocrisies of the ruling classes and the captains of industry. In order to include the social commentary, which is problematic in parts, Dickens seems to have sacrificed characters development and plotting. The novel, which bears similarities in terms of themes with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, lacks the soul and compassion of Gaskell’s novel (which was published a year after Hard Times). Where Gaskell managed to create a hybrid text that married Pride and Prejudice with The Communist Manifesto, Dickens only manages to write a novelization of the ruling class’s flawed understanding of the work of Marx and Engels. The work, though not without its merits, seems to lack the engaging and endearing characters presents in A tale of Two Cities.
The crux of Dickens’ attack on utilitarianism is rooted in his criticism against logic. Mr. Gradgrind, the novel’s patriarchal figure, tells his children that they “are to be in all things regulated and governed” (6) by ‘facts’, or rather reason, but the novel’s omniscient narrator describes this process of raising children as the “manufacture of the human fabric” (87), framing this form of childrearing as a cold and rigid process and equating the children with material. Gradgrind, then, is akin to the wire monkey in Harry Harlow’s rhesus monkey experiment: he provides sustenance, but no comfort. The omniscient narrator is openly critical of this utilitarian approach, claiming that had Gradgrind “only learnt a little less”, he could been “infinitely better” and “might have taught much more” (7). Instead of seeing children before him in class, he ‘vessels’ (7), drawing on the famous Plutarch quote that “The mind is a fire to be kindled not a vessel to be filled.” Rather than creating unique individual, Gradgrind seeks to manufacture automatons and suggests that an ideal world will come where “a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact… will force the people to be people of fact, and of nothing but fact” (6). The problem, of course, is that ‘facts’ are rarely objective, and that Gradgrind believed in “Whatever [books] could prove (which was usually anything you like)” (90). In other words, ‘facts’ can be manipulated, much as they were by Robert A. Kehoe, who manipulated scientific facts to argue that the lead used in the process of refining oil was harmless, only to be proved wrong by Clair Patterson.
Gradgrind’s rigid adherence to ‘facts’ shows up in his approach to language as well as he demonstrates his adoptions of the ‘prescriptive’ approach to language, as opposed to the ‘descriptive’ approach. Upon meeting a student who introduced herself as Sissy, Gradgrind asks what her full name is. She says ‘Cecilia’, at which points Gradgrind instructs her: “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia” (3). She replies that her father calls her ‘Sissy’, to which Gradgrind replies: “he has no business to do it” (3). This mirrors the kind of authority the Residential Schools of Canada tries to assert over the Native peoples of Canada. The Residential Schools would forbid the children tospeak their Native tongue and prescribed their own language onto them. In a similar way, Gradgrind undermines the relationship between a working-class girl, Sissy, and her father, though not to the same extreme as the Residential Schools. Later, when Sissy goes off to collect her father to speak to Gradgrind, she says that she will be ‘back in a second’. Gradgrind replies: “What does she mean… Back in a minute? It’s more than a mile off” (27). Here Gradgrind demonstrates his inability to understand figurative language, suggesting that his literal and factual approach to life can actually be a handicap in some instances as he seems unable to understand common expressions. By adopting this prescriptive approach, Gradgrind inherently creates a condescending tone when speaking to others who do not adopt his prescriptions, whilst simultaneously creating barriers between himself and other people that prevents them from communicating efficiently.
This reliance on facts is throw in Gradgrind’s face when it is discovered that his son Tom is a thief. His son argues that his father ought not to be shocked because “So many people are employed in situations of trust; [and] so many people, out of so many, will be dishonest”, and then asks his father how he could help such laws. He then tells his father to take comfort in such facts, just as Gradgrind had told others to do in the past (269). Gradgrind receives another reminder or his previously held maxims when a former student, Mr. Bitzer, refuses to have empathy for Tom and attempts to turn him into the authorities, telling his former teacher that he has no gratitude for his lessons because, according to Gradgrind’s teaching, everything was an exchange and “Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be” (273). In the face of his own daughter’s misery, and his son’s faults, Gradgrind finally recognizes the limits of logic and adopts a Socratic approach, stating that he has “come to the conclusion that [he] cannot but mistrust” himself (211), mirroring the humility of Socrates who famously said “I know that I know nothing, therefore I am a truly wise man.” Tragically, though, this utilitarian approach was not quelled by novels likes Hard Times and North and South and would go onto generate massive death tolls in WWI and WWII.
Gradgrind’s focus on facts and logic leads to the ‘manufacturing’ of persons, an approach that creates a deterministic scenario in which Gradgrind’s daughter, Louisa, has her autonomy usurped from her. Relativley early in the novel, Gradgrind presents his daughter with a proposal from Josiah Bounderby, and upon relying the proposal, he tells her that the “rest… is for [her] to decide” (93). The issue at hand, however, is her lack of choice. Her father has prevented her from meeting any other suitors, so Bounderby, who is no less than 30 years her senior, is her only choice. Of the age difference, Gradgrind rationalizes it, failing to take into consideration any kind of emotive consideration, leading the omniscient narrator to note that “he must have overleaped at a bound the artificial barrier he had for many years been erecting, between himself and all those subtle essences of humanity which will elude the utmost cunning of algebra” (93). Louisa notes that she is “satisfied to accept his proposal” (94), but her tone alludes to something else. When her father asks if she has had any other proposals, she responds: “Father… what other proposals can have been made to me? Whom have I seen? Where have I been? What are my heart’s experiences?” She then concludes: “What do I know father… of tastes and fancies; of aspirations and affections” (95)? The marriage, then, amounts to a kind of patriarchal determinism, but Louisa’s words alludes to a desire to a kind of feminist existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that one needed to have choice in order to assert one’s autonomy and find ones’ authentic self, a core tenant of existentialist theory, whilst John Milton observed that reason was dependent on choice, and that without it, one ceases to be a reasonable creature, for “reason is but choosing”. Louisa, though, does not have a choice. She has no romantic experiences on which to draw, she has been taught to think pragmatically about marriage, and she has never had any other suitors. Her father, then, groomed her exclusively for this express purpose. In the subtext of her language, though, she is curtly and brazenly telling her father, who appears willfully blind, that she has never been given a choice and is not in a position to make a decisions about Bounderby’s proposal.
Tom frames the marriage in a manner that equates marriage to a business transactions and aligns it with something akin to institutionalized prostitution. When speaking to Louisa’s confidant, Mr. Harthouse, Tom suggests that she married Bounderby because her father expected her to, and that by marrying him, she assured Tom’s “liberty and comfort, and perhaps [his] getting on, depended on it” as Tom was an employee under Bounderby. Tom rationalizes the sacrifice, saying Louisa “had no other lover, and staying at home was like staying in jail—especially when [Tom] was gone”, and goes onto say “It wasn’t as if she gave up another lover”. He concludes that she essentially married Bounderby at Tom’s request, causing Harthouse to note how dutiful Louisa was (129). This scenario frames Tom, and to a lesser degree his father, as nothing short of a pandering pimp: Louisa has to sleep with a man she does not love in order to secure financial security for her brother/pimp. This exchange of intimacy for financial security is structurally no different than prostitution, and so marriage is then framed as a form of patriarchal/economic exploitation of women, a kind of patriarchal and capitalist determinism.
Louisa, though, does not allow this patriarchal determinism rule her. Early in the novel when Louisa and Tom go to the circus, their father chastises them for their curiosity and blames Tom for the journey. Louisa asserts her autonomy, correcting her father: “I brought him, father” (12). It is therefore Tom following Louisa, and not the other way around. Louisa shortly thereafter tells her brother that he could cut a piece of her skin off with his penknife, assuring him that she wouldn’t cry (19), asserting her fortitude, a trait considered to be ‘masculine’ in patriarchal society. Later in the novel, though married to Bounderby, Louisa falls in love with another man and wishes to consummate their love, but rather than give into her carnal desires, she opts to return to her father’s home and discuss her feelings with her father. She then explain how her father’s teachings have led her to an unhappy life. The scene is potent as Louisa at once refuses to be a slave to his physical and emotive desires, but also refuses to supplicate herself to wedding vows and patriarchal authority. She challenges her father, who accepts that he was wrong, and decides to find herself, rejecting both her husband and her prospective lover and proving that she does not need a man to define herself.
Aside from progressive views on feminist issues, Dickens also offers some prophetic views on the environment. Early in the novel, Dickens calls upon Edenic rhetoric to align pollution to ‘the fall’, as he describes the town which serves as the setting as one comprised “of machinery and tall chimneys, out ever of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed” (20). The serpents could be read as akin to the serpent that tempted Eve, and thereby can be linked with the fall of humankind, only in this more current reimagining the fall is caused by the destruction of our environment. Later, the town is described as laying “shrouded in a haze of its own” so thick that the town could not be seen, but noting “there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur of sot and smoke” (105). This inductive reasoning allows that omniscient narrator to note that such smog is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. This discord with nature is furthered to an antagonistic relationship when the omniscient narrator observes the smog created by the town did not let the sun shine down on the town and only on a particularly bright day, was the sun able to shine “through the heavy vapour drooping over” the town (106). The life-giving energy of the sun, then, is blocked out by the smog and so the town becomes an unnatural setting. These dark hues amongst the town gathers in the bricks and is described as being “like the painted face of a savage” (20), a simile that links the exploitation of the environment with the colonial/imperial mentalities that exploited the indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia.
This exploitation of the environment is linked with the concept of complacent consumption, which in turn links the exploitation of the working class with the exploitation of the environment. At one point, Bounderby, who is a template of Victorian douche-bags (no offence intened to actual douche-bags), boasts that the pollution is healthy, suggesting that the town’s smoke is “the healthiest thing in the world in all respects, and particularly for the lungs” (120). It is no surprise that Bounderby is one of the captains of industry who profits from the pollution of the town. This willful blindness is tantamount to complacent consumption, which is the process by which one indulges in a form of consumption that facilities social ills, such as slave labour, child labour, or pollution, without considering the broader implications of such consumption. Bounderby refuses to recognize the damage of the pollution and instead suggests that it is healthy, much like the antagonists in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. It is as though Bounderby were listening to the doctors hired by tobacco companies in the 50’s, or Robert A. Kehoe. This kind of complacent consumption boarders on complicit consumption and is mirrored when Gradgrind and Bounderby have a conversation about the apprenticeships of youths in England. When it is suggested that Bounderby had never been apprenticed, he interrupts: “I never apprenticed? I was apprenticed when I was seven years old”. Gradgrind replies: “Oh! Indeed… I was not aware of its being the custom to apprentice young persons” (31). Though Bounderby is actually lying about having been apprenticed at the age of seven, it was not uncommon from youths to be apprenticed at that age (as detailed in William Blake‘s ‘The Chimney Sweeper‘), and the fact that Gradgrind is unaware of this demonstrates the kind of willful blindness that is inherent in complacent consumption. Kind of like how we pretend that Disney doens’t outsource work to produce its toys to third-world countries that use child labour to produce them. Gradgrind has just discovered that he may have been facilitating the exploitation of children, and rather than ask the details of such exploitation, he simply moves onto another subject, wishing to remain blissfully ignorant to problem of child labour that he might continue to participate in his complacent consumption with a clean conscience, though once aware of the exploitation, Gradgrind’s complacency is upgraded to complicity.
The exploitation of working-class children obviously extends to working-class adults as well, and Dickens seems to frame such exploitation as being on a par with colonial/imperial mentalities. Mrs. Sparsit, a member of the aristocracy, views the working class as an ‘other’ no different than the indigenous people of colonized region as she makes an antagonistic profession: “I only know that these people must be conquered” (109). This idea of conquering the working class sounds like an imperialist talking about the indigenous peoples of Africa or the Americas, not an English person speaking of a fellow English person. The language she employs is overtly antagonistic. Slackbridge, a union organizers (who Shaw suggested was presented in a problematic manner), recognizes this and compares the treatment of the working class to the manner in which the ruling classes throughout history treated their soldiers: “Had not the Roman Brutus, oh my British countrymen, condemned his son to death; and had not the Spartan mothers, oh my soon to be victorious friends, driven their flying children on the points of their enemies’ swords?” (137) Whilst the ruling class projected themselves as parental figures that took care of the working classes, Slackbrdige is careful to note that this ‘caretaking’ is not an altruistic service, but a self-serving one in which the working classes are exploited and sacrificed that the ruling classes might leave a life of ease. This is akin to Srđan Spasojević‘s film A Serbian Film, which portrays the Serbian government as parental figures who have abandoned their children, and exploited them. The ruling class of England is presented in much the same way by Dickens.
The ruling class rationalizes their exploitation of the working class in two ways: blaming them for their own exploitation, and dehumanizing them. The omniscient narrator, for instance, notes that “Any capitalist… who had made sixty thousand pounds out of six-pence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing this little feat” (112). This mentality blames the working class for their lot in life, which is actually the result of systematic oppression. People born to money have more money to invest. A small set back, like the several bankruptcies incurred the likes of Donald Trump, makes little difference when one’s father can refinance your next business venture, like the fathers of Republicans George W. Bush and Mitt Romney could do. The working class does not have access to such funds. Though there is room for some upward mobility, the attitude described by the omniscient narrator fails to consider that though anybody can make a fortune, not everybody can, which is to say that any individual person can potentially make a fortune, but not everybody will be able to do this. Aside from blaming the working class for this status, there is also a tendency to dehumanize them. Even Louisa, who is relatively sympathetic to the working class, frames them as something other them human: “She knew them in crowds passing to and from their nests, like ants or beetles. But she knew from her reading infinitely more of the ways of toiling insects than of these toiling men and women” (150). This language overtly compares the masses of working-class men and women with insects, but is also demonstrates the systematic nature of complacent consumption that Bounderby and Gradgrind both demonstrated. The omniscient narrator notes that Louisa learned more about insects than she did the working class, illustrating how the ruling class aims to keep the younger generations ignorant of the exploitation until they are too invested in the system to take issue with it.
This exploitation is facilitated by a unique relationship that compounds that nature of oppression: the union of business and state. Whilst many have recognized the importance of the separation of church and state (ISIS, Cromwell, and Henry VIII obviously not being a members of that party), few seem to adopt this approach when it comes to business and state. In order for business to exploit the working class and the environment, they need the support of the state and the legislation that empowers business. This is why lobbying is a multi-billion dollar industry. Bounderby, the businessman, and Gradgrind, the local MP, represent this union as through their friendship, but the link is reinforced and linked with the church when Louisa, Gradgrind’s daughter, marries Bounderby (101). It is also noted that masters of the country are united against the working class (109), noting that “united masters” combat the unionization of the working class. This was a sincere issue in the 19th century and continues today. At the time, employers would organize to fix prices and blacklist certain workers, and though they had no issue with their own ‘unions’, they pushed legislation that made unions amongst the working class illegal. Such manipulation continues today as big business pays for lobbyists and makes campaign contributions to help the politicians they want in office, through whom they manipulate legislation. Until there is a separation of business and state, there will forever be a conflict of interest.
The most effective attack that Dickens makes against the capitalist class system is the manner in which he notes the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. Of unions, the omniscient narrator notes that “It is much regretted… that the united masters allow of any such class-combinations” (109). As mentioned, the fact that the ruling classes unite against unions demonstrates the overt hypocrisy: it is alright for the ruling class to form their own unions among each other, but not for the working classes. This jointure of the ruling class predates the working class unions as it is noted that when Bounderby fires Blackpool, Blackpool will be unable to land a job because the employers all talk with each other and blacklist workers jointly. When Blackpool had earlier asked Bounderby for advice on his own failed marriage, which he wished to terminate, Bounderby told Blackpool that he must live with the consequences as marriage was a sacred institution, but when Gradgrind shares this same advice with Bounderby about Bunerby’s marriage, Bounderby is “annoyed by the repetition of his own words to Stephen Blackpool… [and] cut the quotation short with an angry start” (231). Likewise, Bounderby creates a false mythology about his past, claiming that he had been born in a ditch and was abandoned, but it turns out that his mother had never abandoned him. When this is revealed, Bounderby says that he is “not bound to deliver a lecture on [his] family affairs” and that he has “not undertaken to do it, and [is] not a going to do it” (249). The irony is that he has based his reputation on his mythological family and has at every opportunity offered unsolicited lectures on it to anybody who allowed propriety to force them to listen with an attentive ear to Bounderby. Bounderby also interrupts Gradgrind, and asks him a question, but when Gradgrind responds, Bounderby interrupts him, ordering him to “refrain from cutting in till [his] turn comes around” (230), despite the fact that he was actually asking Gradgrind a question which called for a response. Bounderby believes he should be allowed to interrupt, but refuses the privilege to any other persons. The hypocrisy of the ruling class is overt throughout, demonstrating that the values they project are not ones they believe in, but rather ones that benefit them so long as the working class maintains them.
Dickens doesn’t only offer criticism of the ruling class, but also offers a compassionate portrait of the working class as well. He speaks to the tragic nature of the repetition of their lives: “everyday was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next” (20). This aligns the working class with mythological figures like Sisyphus, who like the working class was trapped in a life of repetition where he had to engage in a labour he had no love for every day for eternity. Through Blackpool, Dickens also describes how the working class endured a lack of access to civil issues. Divorce, for instance, could be purchased for some thousands of dollars, a sum affordable to the aristocracy, but one that is strictly fantasy for the working class, trapping them in unhealthy relationships, much as they were trapped in unhealthy jobs. Dickens also documents, again through Blackpool, how the government serves to legislate matters to punish the working class, but offers none to assist them. Blackpool notes four laws that will punish him should he undermine his marriage in anyway, but then cries: “Now, a’ God’s name…. show me the law to help me!” (70) The purpose of government is to serve the people, but instead, it only serves to limit them. Despite all of these trials, Blackpool describes the loyalty, empathy and compassion amongst the working class (141), as they will all lean into each other to provide help to those in need. This is the antithesis of the ruling class, who are at each other’s throats when there is a conflict: Bounderby attacking Gradgrind, Mrs. Sparist attacking Louisa, Tom attacking Bounderby, Harthouse chasing after Bounderby’s wife, and Bitzer chasing after Tom. There is an utter lack of loyalty among the ruling classes, and therefore a lack of the virtues present in Dickens’ portrayal of the working class.
George Benard Shaw’s primary issue with the novel is the presentation of union organizer Slackbridge. Wikipedia reports that Shaw saw Slackbrdige as “the poisonous orator, ‘a mere figment of middle-class imagination’”. I agree with the spirit of this. Union organizers, at the time, were in dire need of support, and any negative portrayal of them could poison the socialist movement, but the portrayal is accurate. Unions are as much a business as any corporation, and there are concerned with profits. During the civil rights movement, many unions fought for equal pay for workers of colour and encouraged such workers to join the union. However, this was not always because they sincerely believed in equal pay. They knew that the only reason companies hired workers of colour was because they could pay them less, so some unions sold this approach to their white members as a means to ensure the jobs when to other white people. When women began to enter the workforce, the same approach was taken. Women were hired because they could be paid less, so when the unions raised their wages, some assured their male members that this would mean the jobs went to men. More recently, unions have boycotted products from Toyota and Honda, despite the fact that they actually provide more jobs in some instances than domestic vehicles, and later try to represent workers whose products they had previously boycotted. All this happens whilst industries that are in dire need or representation, such as the fishing and meat packing industries that hire immigrant workers, receive no attention from the unions because they don’t stand to turn a profit by representing people whose wages are so little. By and large unions have done important work, and they have made things safer for the working class, and ensured the working class has received better compensation. I am pro union myself, but Dickens portrayal of the union organizer, though not helpful to the social movement, is not necessarily an inaccurate one or an example of ‘middle-class imagination’.
Shitting on Dickens is kind of like shitting on Shakespeare: you simply are not supposed to do it. That said, I cannot help but feel that this novel was a missed opportunity. The only endearing working-class figure, Blackpool, kowtowed to the ruling class and seemed grateful for his oppression (I think he had Stockholm Syndrome), whilst the plot was unengaging. The only interesting characters, Sissy and Harthouse, appear only briefly in the novel. Sissy’s narrative and romantic life is of no interest to the author, and Harthouse appears late in the novel and disappears early, without as much as a mention in the epilogue. The abandonment of Sissy by her father is likewise never explored. We never hear his rationale or understand the emotive strain it had on him, and exploring this might have been useful to humanizing the working class to middle and ruling class readers. The remaining characters are simply not compelling, and though it was nice to see Gradgrind realize the error of his ways and Louisa opt to take time to find herself rather than jump into a relationship, the turnabouts are ultimately akin to chess pieces being moved on a board and do not read like the culmination of an intrapersonal struggle within these characters. The novel is not without its merits, and it is easy to project any number of readings onto it: Marxist, feminist, ecocritical, but while Dickens carefully constructed the plot to lend itself to social issues, he didn’t give the characters themselves the complexity the needed to be truly compelling. Instead, the read as if they were straw men in an essay meant to allow him to prove a point. A year after Dickens published this, Elizabeth Gaskell published what may be her most famous novel: North and South. If one wants to read a Victorian novel about class and the environment and women’s rights, it is Gaskell’s novel that you should pick up, though reading Hard Times isn’t going to hurt you.
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Quotes I liked:
“I am the servant of circumstances” (115).
“I come to the conclusion that I cannot but mistrust myself.” (211)
Words I thought I’d look up:
Postillion: Also known as a ‘post boy’, they were the riders of horses tasked with riding/steering a lead horse on a coach.
By George: I never knew the origin of this phrase, so I thought I’d look it up. Apparently saying “By God” was the equivalent of “Shut the fuck up” (or some other random obscene phrase), so in order to not be charged with blasphemy, a person would say “By George” instead of “By God”, much as somebody might say “Shut the front door” instead of “Shut the fuck up”.
Obduracy: Inflexible and stubborn.
Ambuscade: An ambush.
Incredulity: Disbelief or doubt.
Portentously: Fatefully, or importantly.
Dormouse: Pretty much the cutest mouse on the fucking planet. If you saw one, you’d say “Aww…” right before you realized what it was and starting screaming before figuring out a way to kill it and all of the future generations it might spawn.
Superciliously: People call me supercilious. It means I talk down to people.
Coriolanian: Of or relating to Gaius Marcius (Caius Martius) Coriolanus, some Roman dude and the basis for the play Coriolanus, by Bill Shakespeare. From the Latin ‘Coriol’ the deflection of an object, and ‘anus’, for anus.
Tumbling-girl: A female gymnast who tumbles. You’ve seen it at the Olympics and shit.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Premium Classics; New York. 1992.