How successful a novel is ‘Hard Times’?

Hard Times is a novel which from the moment of its publication aroused very different sentiments in the reading public. It succeeded in increasing the circulation of ‘Household Words’, doubling the number of copies bought during the time it was being published, and yet it was still condemned by contemporary critics has having a plot which is “…flat, stale, unprofitable; a mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound”.1 It is almost impossible to say whether or not ‘Hard Times’ is a successful novel, deserving of the glowing praise heaped upon it which has snowballed since Dr. Leavis’ infamous analysis of the ‘masterpiece’, or if it is merely an embarrassment on Dickens’ creative résumé, known chiefly as being “the least read of all the novels and probably also the least enjoyed by those who read it”.2 As enjoyment is a matter of personal taste, in this essay I hope to prove that ‘Hard Times’ is at the very least, entirely unsuccessful as a helpful social tract.

The first striking feature of the novel, which F.R. Leavis was so quick to seize upon, is that it immediately sets itself up as a moral fable ‘for these times’ in its three book titles, Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering. Clearly Dickens meant to call to mind Galatians 6:7, and it the course of the novel it is to be made abundantly clear “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”. In this vein, he see Gradgrinds’ utilitarian sensibilities crumpling around his ears and lying before him in the figure of his daughter Louisa; while the political economy of Bounderby, the self-made man, is critiqued by the revelation that the self-made man is actually the creation of a loving and self sacrificing mother. To be fair, all this is done with a starkness of purpose that perhaps deserves Leavis’s claim of a “concentrated significance…immediately clear and penetrating”.3 Dickens curbs his normal meandering exploration of practically everything in sight, and a good deal out of it, in this novel, in order, essentially to convey the futility of the system he wants to cast off. As a result of this, the minuscule opening chapter introduces the Messiah of Utilitarianism in a hail of “Facts!” as if to suggest that this is “the kind of parched and grudging stuff”4 that utilitarians would produce. In much the same way the novel as a whole is rigidly structured so as to allow him to produce a logically ordered attack on what he sees as an illogical system. Unfortunately the aforementioned parched and grudging stuff does its job too well – we feel the same distaste for the novel as we would do for one of Gradgrind’s beloved blue books.

Dickens rather crudely lops the novel into a binary opposition between Fact and Fancy, between utility and humanity. There could be no better exposé of the innate lack of logic in utilitarianism than by adopting it as a pose and then showing how itself is riddled in ‘Fancy’. Prosaic descriptions of Coketown invariably draw upon that hive of Fancy, the circus, in order to call to mind the town, most dramatically the condition of the “state of melancholy madness” that the elephant/machines labour under; while the rhetoric of utilitarianism, supposedly devoid of all but Fact, relies entirely upon imagined situations to teach its doctrine. The fact that Sissy Jupe, an unremitting failure in the eyes of Gradgrindery sees the hypothetical nature of the questions posed by M’Choakumchild, is that most damning condemnation that the system could have heaped upon it. Part of the testing of the utilitarian sensibilities of his students has M’Choakumchild asking his pupils to imagine (fact forbid) that their “schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million inhabitants, and only five and twenty are starved in the streets…”[Iix]. The fact that Sissy copes with these hypothetical corpses by saying that she would feel just as sorry to see any number of lives end shows the innate humanity within her unbowed by Gradgrindery, but more significant in this is the passage where she differentiates between the pictures of flowers and the flowers themselves5 – Sissy is far more in tune with the left-hand side of her brain than Gradgrind is. Similarly, that crusher of “imaginative sentimental humbug” and allegedly profound devotee of Fact and solid reality Bounderby, not only shows a chilling disregard for truth, but also a positively pornographic adoration for self-promoting falsehood. As a result, the most resounding success of ‘Hard Times’ is not so much in showing “inherent life and growth conquering theory and calculation”6 as in showing the lunacy that one side of his fact/fancy dichotomy deserves supremacy.

On the level of showing Utilitarianism in a bad light then, Hard Times is a resounding success. Not only does it reduce Gradgrindery to a heap of theoretical foolishness, but it also swipes at the snobbishness of the premises it is built on. Dickens seems to wish to show that only those outside of a situation looking in at it could suggest such coldly calculating solutions to a problem; indeed, his stated intention in writing Hard Times was to lampoon the armchair utilitarians “who would comfort the labouring in travelling twelve miles a day to and from his work that the average distance of one inhabited place from another in the whole area of England is not more than four miles.”7 . This is borne out splendidly in the pompous windbag Bounderby’s horror at the ‘fact’ that the workers’ sole aim and focus in life was to force him to satisfy their insatiable appetite for “turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon”. Just as the industrialists’ outsiders perspective allows them to think of the workers as disembodied ‘hands’ and presume to know and control not just what they want but what they can hope to get, so too in Gradgrindery guilty of presuming itself omnipotent. As Klingopules points out, reduces the children of Coketown to “little vessels…ready to have imperial gallons of facts pored into them until they were full to the brim,” there is a suggestion that not only is passive responsiveness expected from the children but also that there was a presumption of just what the contents of the little vessels should be.8 What these vessels should be is a safe haven for Fact in a garden weeded of Fancy, and as we are shown in the icy Louisa and the troll-like Bitzer, playing God with human nature is a very bad plan. Denying Louisa her faculties of fancy kills off her entire personality, while the facts planted in Tom and Bitzer blossom only into self-centred individualism. Deprivation of Fancy is deprivation of personality, and only Sissy, the little vessels who kept her lid on, retains her personality in much the same way as she retains her nine oils.

The fact that Sissy does not change throughout the novel is significant as an emblem of Dickens’ broader antipathy to change. Despite his clear abhorrence for the coldness and injustice of industrial society, he is absolutely baffled as to what to do about it. None of his characters do anything to change the system that they are in, and the only personality changes in the novel are the result of a character having their spirit broken – we are encouraged to watch the life drain out of Louisa, to watch her fathers’ world collapse along with her, to see the symbolic wind taken out of Bounderby’s sails and so on. These changes effect the plot only, and leave unscathed the system they are meant to vilify – we pity Louisa, but how can we not pity the workers more, and we know perfectly while that industry toils on without Bounderby, and that Gradgrind had done too good a job spreading his philosophy for it to die with him. Even the embarrassingly stereotypical Stephen doesn’t change, but merely resignedly plods his way through the narrative until he “tis a muddle!”’s himself down a mineshaft, and his death has no impact on exploitative labour practices.

Rather than allowing an educational revolution or a worker uprising, Dickens is content to instead offer a mere “disembodied and vaguely defined benevolence as a cure for the ills of Coketown”.9 Why this is regrettable as a social stance towards the workers is still chillingly evident in many places of the world today, but to solely concentrate on the novel, the horror of his refusal to change Coketown’s education is clear. Louisa’s visit to Stephen shows she has been conditioned to think of labourers as ants, or beetles, not as people, and how “she had scarcely thought more of separating them into units than of separating the sea itself into its component drops” [II, vi]. By not changing Gradgrindery Dickens makes his beloved Stephen an ant in a successful, if unpleasant colony, that no amount of the prescribed benevolence will make any more appealing. Naturally Dickens undertook to write this book so as change would occur, and the fact that he doesn’t show it happening could perhaps be attributed to contemporary realism rather than his antipathy to it. Yet while the novels plot does not show change occurring, the tone of the novel suggests that it never will. There is a distressingly loud countdown in the background of Hard Times, and we are continually called upon to listen to it. However, it is an inverted countdown, and the clock is an inversion of all other time keepi9ng devices – rather than building towards something, this “deadly statistical clock” kills time and all its potential as it counts it, measuring “every second with a beat like a rap of nails upon a coffin lid” [I, xv]. The impression created is that every second that passes in the stagnant wastes of Coketown is another nail in the coffin of the possibility of change that is sliding ever further into the past.

Dickens’ reluctance to grant any sort of political solutions to the problem of industry is, in the main, a result of his ignorance of the machinations of industrial life. His one fleeting first-hand vision of industrial relations in Preston shocked him deeply, but he could not become the “great sombre poet of industrialism” simply because he did not know enough to be. Lacking as he was in any deep insight into the lives of those he saw in Preston, he can only show us the hard times in his times by merely leading us “through the industrial landscapes like tourists”.10 Quite simply, Dickens should not have undertaken the discussion of serious industrial wrongs if he was merely going to act as a glorified tour-guide, and to quote David Lodge, it is an exercise in futility to try iron out exploitative capitalist tendencies by offering “the oppressed workers of Coketown bread and circuses”.11 Not only does Dickens show the whiter-than-white Stephen reject the union under very hazy premises, but he also paints the union leader Slackbridge as a monster of hypocrisy which carries more weight than his renouncing of Bounderby. As usual, the characters name is significant, but if trade unions are a slack bridge over the worker/industrialist divide, they are still a lot more solid than the friendly camaraderie that appears to be all Dickens has up his sleeve in terms of labour relations. He has a problem with the reduction of the workers to mere “hands”, but seems to have no problem with the whole person toiling away in “fairy palaces” once they are recognised as a whole person. As usual, Dickens is more effective while being caustic, and as the Lodge study points out, all that he succeeds in doing in the course of the novel is repudiating not only the narrowest kind of utilitarian rationalism which Gradgrind satirises, but also the rational thought resulting from this ethos which was the process by which “most of the great Victorian reforms were carried out…” and simultaneously ensuring the dominance of exploitative capitalism by repudiating “the workers’ claim to secure justice by collective bargaining”.12 Dickens’ good intentions towards the suffering with no plan to change the underlying social order that is causing the suffering is a perfect illustration that “such charity degrades and demoralises”.13 In fact, one could go so far as to say that Dickens undermines all the solutions while ignoring the problem, and in so doing adopts the principles of laissez-faire which he claimed to abhor.

In the main, however, the best writing in Hard Times is a result of this tour-guide mentality, as his wonder, horror and awe lead to vivid evocations of the landscape. Many critics have made the link between Coketown and a kind of Dantesque Inferno, and his vision of industrial society is “full of horror, but possessing also a weird beauty”14. The key to the weird beauty latent in the horror are the ‘melancholy mad elephants’ of machinery – Dickens was as fascinated by industry as he was repulsed by it. The industrial artefacts of Coketown are endowed with all the life drained from its inhabitants, the dehumanised ‘hands’. Like Marx, Dickens could see an “inverted world characterised by the personification of things” and as a result the inanimate objects of Coketown abound with vitality, while the people within it are cogs in a machine, “people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom everyday was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next” [I,v]. Treating the factory as a living thing leads to mental links being forged between the ever coiling “interminable serpents of smoke” and the smokescreens that people use to hide themselves from the world, or indeed the world from them, most notably Gradgrinds inability to see past his system, and Bounderby’s deliberate hiding of his past. There are also links made between the fire in the “fairy palaces” and the fire of human passion15, and aptly it is the mechanical Louisa who notices this, most likely fascinated at how a non-living thing has more life than she does – “There seems to be nothing but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out, father!” [I, xv]. Not only is this reversal of death and life hellish, but these descriptions of zombie workers in a living factory are written in a prophetic style which almost invites one to place an ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here!’ sign on the factory gates. All of the images of smoke, ashes, and fire “suggest that death is ever-present in the hell of Coketown”16, as does the reference to the black ladder so often in use in the working class quarters [I, x]. Michael Wheeler points to the significance of Biblical imagery in the text, stating that the New Testament is the “yardstick by its modern usurpers are measured and found wanting”17, and that this is the ultimate condemnation that Dickens can heap upon it. However, I can not help but feel that passages proclaiming that “all those subtle essences of humanity which will elude the utmost cunning of algebra until the last trumpet ever to be sounded will blow even algebra to wreck” [Ix], while suggesting that Gradgrindery and the interlocking forces of industry are to be judged and condemned, they also make it clear that they will be left well enough alone until the Judgement Day. Coketown is painted as a hell on earth, consuming the lifeblood of its inhabitants, and the fact that it itself will be destroyed in the end is of monumental insignificance for the countless generations who will have to toil there until then.

If we are appalled, looking back from a time proud of its trade unions, that Dickens refuses to side with them against Bounderby in the novel, we are equally appalled by Dickens’ portraying an idealised, somewhat patronisingly colloquial workman rather than a true human worker, and I for one was delighted when Stephen Blackpool was dropped down a mineshaft where we don’t have to listen to him. The painfully idealised honest working man with a positive fetish for turning the other cheek almost defies lampooning as he is so stretched as a character – “Hoomble an appy lass…I be grateful an thankful…I do only look on my being pitched down that theer shaft, an aving all my bones broke as a mercy an a providence, and God bless ev’rybody!”18 is so like something Stephen would actually say that it almost ceases to be funny. The stereotypical Stephen and his agonisingly cliched Angel of Mercy Rachael are probably the best advertisement for suppressing the working class that Dickens could have come up with. Stephen thinks, and most importantly deeply believes, that society is a muddle that will never be sorted out, if his litany if what will “ne’er do it!” in [II, v] is any indication of his mindset. He is the perfect illustration that “as for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy and sold their birthright for very bad pottage. They must also be extraordinarily stupid”.19 At least Bounderby, a Bully of Humility though he may be, has the good sense to build upon his birthright; and Gradgrind, while championing a very bad system, can at least see more to life than a muddle and believes himself to be doing something positive – hating his system cannot stop us admiring his devotion to a cause. Stephan is supposedly the spokesperson for a system that Dickens wished to help, and yet the “circle of stage fire”20 he speaks in leads us to prefer both Bounderby and Gradgrind over that person, and once again Dickens is spectacularly unsuccessful at championing a cause.

If the workers are an amorphous mass of hands, soulless and mindless units engaged in a mechanical economic progress, the Gradgrind family are the “little vessels” of a mass of “Ologies”. Thomas Gradgrind, the large, square “kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts” is a thorough devotee of the utilitarian system, and to this end his own children are models of the system. Although we are introduced to Gradgrind in the most unfavourable terms, we are never taught to hate the “monster in a lecturing castle…taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair” [I, iii], mainly because this is a far lesser crime than being a monster of hypocrisy, as Bounderby is. As already mentioned, he is exempt from the disgust we feel at his system because we can always see he means well. Devoted as he is to Facts, he spends much of his time poring over statistics and ends up ignoring not only the broader social reality that they stand for but also the people closest to him – “Time…worked away…and presently turned out young Thomas a foot or so taller than when his father had last taken particular notice of him” [I, xiv]. The most positive redeeming feature of Gradgrind is that he is open to change – when the “illusory oneness”21 that Dr. Leavis points out between his love for his system and his love for his children disintegrates, he chooses humanity over utilitarianism. Yet Gradgrind himself, although not a bad man, is responsible for the “little models” that his disciples in Gradgrindery have grown into. Louisa, so consistently associated with dying sparks, is so dehumanised by her experience that she becomes a statistic herself – she has “never known a child’s wonder or a child’s fear”, she has little impact or personality, but she is still there, a unit in the family. The Whelp is, like Bitzer, a model pupil “in terms of calculations relative to number one”. They both turn Gradgrind’s system upon him by the end of the novel, and there is a sense that the “monster in a lecturing castle” is made to wonder ‘what is this monster I’ve created?’. This is wonderful in terms of character development and wrapping up the plot, but has no impact whatsoever on the system that is supposed to be under attack.

The novel then, is spectacularly unsuccessful in its intention the “shake some people in the terrible mistake of these days” and instead of succeeding in his attempt to churn out a short, sharp, refutation of utilitarianism we are left instead feeling that “probability, psychology, and everything else had been sacrificed to symmetry.”22 Perhaps these sacrifices could have been forgivable if they were achieving profound social insight, but they are used to suggest that a terrible system is here to stay. No doubt I am projecting my own feelings too much here, but to return to the question of personal taste in determining the success of a novel, for me Hard Times can only be successful in the way that Bitzer’s “Quadruped. Gramnivorous” etc is a horse. I feel both miss something essential, and also intangible – most likely the “amuthment” that the text so strongly recommends yet fails to provide.

1 Review in the ‘Rambler’, Oct 1854; in Collins, pg303

2 H. House in The Dickens World, quoted in Lodge, pg144

3 Leavis, pg 187

4 Connor, pg 162

5 Connor, pg157

6 Cockshut, pg 137

7 Letter to Charles Knight, quoted in Hard Times, intro, pg ix


8 G.D. Klingopolous, ‘Notes on the Victorian Scene’; in Ford, pg 35

9 Lodge, pg146

10 Cazamian, pg165

11 Lodge, pg159

12 Lodge, pg146

13 Oscar Wilde “The Soul of a Man under Socialism”

14 Cockshut, pg59

15 Cockshut, pg138

16 Wheeler, pg62

17 Wheeler, pg66

18 Collins, pg310

19 Oscar Wilde ‘The Soul of the Man under Socialism’

20 Rushkin review (lecture handout)

21 Leavis, pg200

22 Cockshut, pg141

© Cathy Geagan and ‘A Slice of Hope’ Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blogs author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathy Geagan and ‘A Slice of Hope’ with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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