Dickens’ Hard Times in Our Hard Times

By Mukesh Williams

Even after two hundred years, Charles Dickens is relevant in our world where capitalism is in crisis and democracy hard to sustain. As we face the toughest economic challenges of our times in 2012, Charles Dickens rapier-sharp criticism of industrial England seems thought-provoking and relevant to our times. Though Dickens’ sullen socialistic ideas may not seem practical, he opened up the debate regarding the ill-effects of a much publicized new ideology-industrial capitalism. Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854) is a great moral fable that not only provides a damning critique of industrial England of the nineteenth century but also an indictment of global laissez faire capitalism of twenty-first century. At a time when a general sense of dissatisfaction with European capitalism is sweeping across the world from New York to Tokyo, Dickens’ denunciation of the capitalist system that breeds economic imbalance and weakens the social fabric seems more than justified.

Over the years as theorizing about literature has undergone a sea change, the evaluation of Dickens’ novels has also changed. In the late 1940s some of Dickens’ novels such as Hard Times were not seen serious fiction and were not part of the English literary canon. Though F. R. Leavis saw Dickens as a great entertainer, he did not see him fit to be included in TheGreat Tradition of the English novel as Dickens lacked seriousness something that Henry James and Joseph Conrad possessed (Leavis, 1948 29). However Leavis made an exception with Dickens’ novel Hard Times. He felt that the novel had complete seriousness that could excite the adult mind. He praised the novel’s tight story, clear symbolism, moral values, sharp dialogue, natural style and convincing denouement. Hard Times was seen as a great moral fable that captured the writer’s moral vision.

Parental Responsibility and Financial Security

Undoubtedly Hard Times possesses a moral vision but the vision is dark and dismal. Dickens questions the rather materialistic desires of Victorian society. This brings into focus the concepts of education, happiness, progress, industrialization, and economic advantage. Hard Times develops the conventional theme of nineteenth century fiction that it was the responsibility of parents to get their sons into a financially rewarding profession and their daughters into a financially secure marriage. Till they got comfortably married, education for women was seen as developing skills to protect themselves against the greedy instincts of men. Gradgrind is no different from a typical Victorian father who has the welfare of his daughter at heart. Though it hurts Dickens’ sensibility, just as it does ours, Gradgrind finds no trouble with the idea of marriage as a financial transaction. He understands that her middle-class daughter needs money to set up an establishment. It is, therefore, commonsense to look for a man of means like Bounderby. Tom Gradgrind, more than his father, sees Louisa’s marriage to Bounderby as strengthening of “power relationships” between the two families apart from providing a good financial deal to his sister. Tom employs a mercenary approach. He views matrimonial alliance as economic advantage or exploitation. And he is not wrong in doing so.

Edward W. Said in his book Culture and Imperialism argued that the English novel in the nineteenth century continued the narrative of a stable British empire and its imperial policy. The novelist, insofar as he believed in the general idea of free trade, saw outlying colonies available for convenient use in developing themes of “immigration, fortune, or exile” (Said, 1993 88). It was only later that the Empire became the main subject in writers such as Kipling, Haggard, Doyle and Conrad. Fictional discourse about the Empire was also accompanied by discourses in ethnography, administration, economics and historiography. Furthermore, belief in liberal individualism and free trade were hard to reconcile with the maintenance of a vast colonial empire overseas. InHard Times Dickens was alive to the debate of unionism, utilitarian education and worker’s predicament. Apparently the novel revealed the inherent tensions, ideological conflict and the muddled intellectual position of the author.

The conflict between facts and imagination is also played out along ideological lines. The opposing values of utilitarianism in schools and traditional humanism of the circus are played between the followers of utilitarianism and emotivism. Gradgrind employs metaphorical language to control others which liberal-minded readers find repulsive. Gradgrid believes in equivalencies while the circus folks see language as dialogue to empower others. A tension exists between metaphorical language of domination and the broken language of dialogue.

But Hard Times is a versatile novel subject to many interpretations depending on method and ideology a critic uses. New Historicists, such as Catherine Gallagher, situate the text in the English industrial society and analyze Dickens’ attempt to suggest social cohesion through an intricate process of linking cooperative family life to competitive public life. Dickens attacks the unhealthy link between money and morality. And yet his novels reveal the unwillingness of the family to participate in larger social issues of the day. Dickens’ withdrawal into middle-class family values of self-discipline, responsibility, domesticity, self-sacrifice and dedication seems at times to work against the idea of individual freedom. Critics have pointed out this lapse in Dickens’ writing, and, more seriously, have condemned him for his lack of enthusiasm at resolving his own ambiguous position vis-à-vis these issues.

The single hard fact about Hard Times is that it is a male-dominated and patriarchal novel. Obviously, this gives rise to the issue of gender and opens up related issues of the way Victorian society was constituted, the way people saw themselves and constructed the other, and the way sexual politics controlled women in private and public life. Dickens explores feminine discourses such as female affection and sympathy much to the chagrin of his male-dominated critics such as George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s companion). Dickens reveals a linguistic structure that attempts to control literature and more especially the entry of women in public life. Dickens also challenges the power structure of male-dominated Victorian society by presenting the world through female terms and conditions. Though speaking as a male and from the outside, Dickens speaks against the controllers of power thereby enhancing his position as a novelist.

Life of Facts versus Creative Thinking

The heartless scientific education of his times did not fit Dickens’ moral vision of an ideal society. Instead of developing the mind of the students and teaching them to think, English education was making them memorize useless facts. “I want facts sir! What I want is facts, sir!” the teacher’s voice booms in chapter one. It is a classroom scene where only the voice of the teacher echoes. The one word that comes out of the lesson is ‘facts’ and next ‘reason.’ The voice of the teacher is imperial and authoritative. Dickens is ironic here. He presents the school as a model school in which Bitzer is the best student defining a horse clinically and dispassionately. There is no heart or creativity in education, just dry scientific facts.

Dickens wanted to restructure education and do away with unqualified teachers in schools. He strongly felt the need to provide training to teachers. As such, he introduced Mr. M’Choakumchild, fresh from a training college, accompanied by his wife, about to deliver his first classroom lecture. Though the satire, both in the choice of the name and presentation of character, seems inescapable, M’Choakumchild is after all a representative of a new school ideology. His Scottish-sounding name obviously refers to the importation of trained Scottish teachers in English schools. M’Choakumchild knows too much in a somewhat conceited way. He bores and confuses his simple-minded students (HT 12). The “ten chilled fingers” of M’Choakumchild and his “stony way” point to the fact that though he may be extremely knowledgeable he has lost the ability to enjoy or make his innocent wards enjoy life. His hard facts stifle the imaginative “fancy” that is “lurking within” each child. Dickens concludes his sketch of M’Choakumchild by saying that, “If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

Through M’Choakumchild, Dickens expressed some of the popular criticism against training schools of the time. Dickens wanted training schools to instruct teachers in teaching methodology and develop their intellect, not just impart pseudo-scholarship. Educators felt that Dickens’ account of M’Choakumchild and the object lesson at Gradgrind School were only partially correct. Such presentation could be just Dickens’ own middle class emotional reaction to an educational system that he disliked. Monroe Engel believed that Dickens was not attacking but dissociating himself “fully and publicly from the Benthamites” (Engel, 1959 160-62).

The Industrial Revolution and Coketown

Coketown in Hard Times symbolizes the negative effects of industrialization on English towns. Dickens was born in 1812 and was a product of the Industrial Revolution, a revolution that saw the rise of factories in England During this time the growth of iron founding, textile manufacture and steam power increased production by leaps and bounds, bringing with it pollution, social imbalance and individual confusion. Dickens was rather poor, had no proper education. At the age of 12 he worked in Warren’s Blacking Factory attaching labels to bottles which had a traumatic effect on his imagination. As Walter Allen explained Dickens developed a strong sympathy for orphaned and abandoned children and often portrayed them in his novels. He labored hard to educate himself and wrote novels to make a decent living. He, like the denizens of Coketown, had no time for idle fancy.

The people of Coketown have no exuberance, as people of Great Expectationsdo. Dickens knew London better than Coketown but he could still bring out the listlessness of the townsfolk in Coketown. He shows the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization in urban Victorian society but does not show details of the environment. English factories were destroying the bucolic landscape and the economic power that was arising from them was changing the social order making some wealthy while leaving others poor. The soot-coated, black and savage Coketown gives the feeling of repetitiveness, monotony and drudgery. Both its streets and inhabitants have lost their uniqueness and they look alike. The repeated use of the word “same” and the phrase “like one another” reveal both the monotony of Coketown and the drudgery of its inhabitants. Everything in the redbrick Coketown is “severely workful” and the idea of sameness extends to the eighteen churches of different “religious persuasions,” the jail, infirmary, town hall, school and cemetery. The blasting furnaces of Coketown make the place hot as hell; the gas-filled air makes people feel asphyxiated.

Social criticism saw the novel as “passionate revolt” where there were no villains or heroes, but only oppressors and victims. And the culprit, if there was one, was industry. Socialists saw the machine as a symbol of oppression when controlled by money-making capitalists. Dickens has lost his good humor. His tone becomes quite serious. Cecilia Jupe and Louisa are serious and suffering characters. Though humble and natural, Sissy is predictably bookish. Louisa is tragic. The novel ends in a thematic balance. The novel begins with the childhood of the mind and ends with the childhood of the body. Dickens begins the story with reason and hard facts and ends it with fancy and imagination. He believes that both machine and social graces should make life beautiful and worth living. The loss of balance in society is undoubtedly lamentable. Dickens brings out the unreality of Coketown and its ominous power. It stands at the edge of doom stifling the lives of its inhabitants, definitely an ideal setting for the manifestation of a utilitarian philosophy.

Victorian Utilitarianism

Dickens brought out the negative effects of Victorian utilitarianism through the characters of Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby. The practical utilitarianism of Gradgrind and the egotism of Bounderby destroyed the creative spirit and fellow feeling of the small community. Utilitarianism is a philosophy based on a minimalist view of man that understood human nature in terms of economic relations alone. Though riddled with self-contradictions it was responsible in some measure for reforms in administration, sanitation and education. Utilitarianism, though inspired by the theory of laissez faire came to represent a streamlined civil service and centralized governance. It was difficult to reconcile the Benthamite idea of general happiness of a political and legal kind with Adam Smith’s self-harmonizing economic principle of laissez-faire (minimum intervention from the law). Dickens seemed to be both a victim and chronicler of such a contradictory response to utilitarianism. In Hard Times he treats the theme of education and trade unionism from the opposing perspectives.

Utilitarianism promoted a theory of laissez faire and came to represent a streamlined civil service and centralized administration. G. D. Klingopulos highlights the contradiction in utilitarian thought by saying that though “in some matters, such as the agitation for cheap bread, the utilitarians were friends of the working man, in others, such as the regulation of conditions in factories, they were his enemies” (Klingopulos, 1970 30-31). It was difficult to reconcile the Bentham’s idea of general happiness, based on enlightened political and legal principles, and Adam Smith’s self-harmonizing economic principle of laissez-faire (minimum intervention from the law). Dickens seemed to be both a victim and a chronicler of a contradictory response to utilitarianism in Hard Times. This contradiction is evident both in his treatment of education and trade unionism

Turning Men into Machines

There is no domestic sweetness in the novel, no lover for Sissy, no wedding bells. Louise escapes her foolish husband Bounderby only by becoming a widow. Though she dreams about future happiness we know it is just wishful thinking. The novel is a dark novel made darker by the bleak landscape of Coketown. Even the familiar landscape of London is missing. Hard Times is a harsh indictment of the relentless industrial ization of the nineteenth century made in the name of progress that was making men into machines. In the name of economic growth people were becoming greedier and heartless. Their misguided sense of social welfare and profit was destroying the healthy and natural tenor of English social life. Hard Times is a novel of social transition when values and social life were in ferment

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm has point ed o ut industrialization was not just a function of western capitalism but also of British control of world trade through naval supremacy and a concerted foreign policy to make profit overseas. However, the keen desire to realize economic and social progress through industrialization forced people to lose their natural rhythms and become a victim of mechanical rhythms. Trying to become a part of industrial progress most people lost their emotions, humanity and imagination. Both Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby are products of th e industrial ethos. Gradgrind tries to bring up his children and pupils through the study of hard facts, while his friend Bounderby exploits the factory workers for his own profit. Both, the children and factory ‘Hands’ of Coketown, lead a life of drudgery. Mrs. Gradgrind becomes feeble and sick with the weight of facts and “somethingological.” And perhaps too much of utilitarianism was a source of her sickness—“whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her” (p. 15).

Gradgrind’s “matter-of-fact” home in Coketown is aptly called Stone Lodge and represents both Gradgrind’s practical personality and the values of utilitarianism enshrined in it. The house was “square” with a “heavy portico” which darkened “the principal windows, as its master’s heavy brows [overshadowing] his eyes.” The house is quite geometrical and made of “iron, clamps and girders” with a lawn out of a “botanical account-book.” The house even had “mechanical lifts for the housemaids” and all kinds of cabinets—metallurgical cabinets, conchological cabinets for the children. Stone Lode is “haunted by the ghost of damp mortar” in which Mrs. Gradgrind became sick. Grandgrind was not a cruel man but on the contrary an affectionate father who thought of himself as practical and methodical. Both his children Louisa and Tom who were sixteen and fifteen had a “starved imagination” and an “air of jaded sullenness” about them. They seem forever “tired” and want to escape the strict regimentation of the model utilitarian class.

Josiah Bounderby is described as a machine of the nineteenth century. He was a rich man, a “banker, merchant, manufacturer” who was busy, ugly and about to start at anytime. He was the “bosom friend” of Mr. Gradgrind and could have a “spiritual relationship” with another person “perfectly devoid of sentiment.” He had a “metallic laugh” like a machine and was made of some “course material,” with “swelled veins,” “puffed head,” and “strained skin.” By his own statement he was “born in a ditch” and arose to great heights by dint of merit and hard work—“a self-made man.” He was a “bully of humility” and “inflated like a balloon.” He was forty eight years old and had “not much hair” on his head and as such “looked older.” There was a “windy boastfulness” in his character and a sense of pride of having arrived in the world. He gets into a marriage of convenience with Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa who was 20 but their marriage end in failure. There is a sense of regret and loss of a beautiful world of fancy that facts have destroyed. And at the center of it all is Mr. Bounderby.

Dickens felt that there was more to life than just economic success. It was not just to brand the discontented and disenchanted as dregs of society and send them to prison but to see their humanity and help them regain it. D ickens’ polemical response to industrial growth, Scottish utilitarianism, trade utilitarian capitalism, education, economic self-interest and trade unionism is undoubtedly reflected in the novel in his representation of Coketown, Gradgrind, Bounderby, Mr. M’Choakumchild, Harthouse and Slackbridge. Dickens welcomed the general progress brought about by industrialization but condemned the ill-effects on society.

Works Cited

DICKENS, CHARLES. (1992). Charles Dickens, Hard Times. London: Everyman’s Library. All future references are from this text and are incorporated in the main body of the essay and marked HT in parenthesis.

ENGEL, MONROE. (1990). Charles Dickens, Hard Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

KLINGOPULOS, G. D. (1970). “Notes on the Victorian Scene,” in Boris Ford (ed). The Pelican Guide to English Literature Volume 6. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

LEAVIS, F. R. (1966) The Great Tradition. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

SAID, EDWARD W. (1993). Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus.


Mukesh Williams has been published in The Copperfield Review and other literary magazines. His works have been quoted in reputed journals from The Journal of Commonwealth Literature to The Other Voices International Project. He is listed in Marquis Who’s Who in the World 2010UK Who’s Who 2010 andThe Encyclopedia of Indian Creative Writers in English 2010. Williams has also published two books of poems, Nakasendo and Other Poems (2006) and Moving Spaces, Changing Places (2007). His co-authored book Representing India from Oxford University Press (2008) has been favorably reviewed in the media and academic journals. He teaches at Soka University and Keio University-SFC Japan. He can be contacted through his blog site.


About Copperfield

Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
This entry was posted in A Dickens of a Year, Nonfiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.