I suspect that Charles Dickens was in a pretty foul mood when he wrote “Hard Times” in 1854.
He draws stark differences between the “good” people and the “bad” people in this story, and assigns bleak fates to nearly all of them.
As usual in Dickens, the “bad” people are those that the society of his day saw as good — the upholders of civilization, the ambitious businessmen who made the British Empire hum, the refined, the educated, the proper, the gentry and the would-be gentry.
The “good” characters for him are those that civilized society looked down on — the workers, the domestics, the vagabonds, the entertainers. The salt of the earth.
In “Hard Times,” the “bad” people are especially ignoble. They are blowhards and snoops. They manipulate others out of boredom. They bully. They lack self-knowledge. They are self-satisfied, unctuous. Supercilious. Insipid.
Throughout the book, they cause constant havoc in the lives of other people, particularly the “good” characters.
Those “good” characters, with the exception of clear-headed Sissy Jupe, are victims. One is victimized by her father and her own stubbornness. The father is victimized by his belief in “Facts!” An honest laborer has four separate persecutors, including his own labor union leader.
A hard world
This world of “Hard Times” truly is hard. I’m not just talking about the setting here although the setting, Coketown, an industrial city where factory stacks belch smoke all day and settle soot in thick layers across the landscape, is terribly dreary.
I’m talking in addition about how it is a hard-edge life that is lived in this novel.
Life is bliss for the better sort — i.e., the “bad” people — until they get their comeuppance. And they do.
For the lower classes, their lot is abuse and suppression and betrayal. And for almost no one is there a happy ending.
By the conclusion of “Hard Times,” most of the characters — whether “good” or “bad” — are dead or damaged. One is killed in an accident. One is exposed as a fraud. Another, as a thief. Another, as a cad. Another, as a conniving busybody.
This is a much darker Dickens novel than, say, “David Copperfield” or “Oliver Twist” or “A Christmas Carol.” No dawn awakening for these humbugs, no chance to turn their lives around.
Throughout the book, I found myself wanting to scream to the characters: “Don’t!” Almost always, when they had a chance to do something that would harm them, either now or later, they did it.
Louisa, for instance, when asked by her father if she would like to marry a bullying braggart as he has arranged, goes along with it. Not because she likes or loves the man. But because, when it comes to her emotions, “What does it matter.”
He is surprised at her flat response, even though he has trained her to measure everything by the facts and leave emotions out of the equation.
Does she have some other boyfriend?
“Why, father, what a strange question to ask me! The baby-preference that even I have heard of as common among children, has never had its innocent resting-place in my breast. You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream. You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this hour, that I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear.”
Tamping down the spirit
The tamping down of Louisa’s spirit is emblematic of the tamping down of the spirits of just about all of the novel’s characters, either by self-deception or by societal oppression.
Wondering about life is bad; following the lines, following the rules, is good. Reason is the guide. Faith, hope and charity are chimeras. No wonder so many people lose their way.
“There was a library in Coketown, to which general access was easy. Mr. Gradgrind [Louisa’s father] greatly tormented his mind about what the people read in this library: a point whereon little rivers of tabular statements periodically flowed into the howling ocean of tabular statements, which no diver ever got to any depth in and came up sane. It was a disheartening circumstance, but a melancholy fact, that even these readers persisted in wondering. They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths of common men and women! They sometimes, after fifteen hours’ work, sat down to read mere fables about men and women, more or less like themselves, and about children, more or less like their own. They took Defoe to their bosoms, instead of Euclid….”
Feeling affection — and anger
We live in a time when many writers, such as Jonathan Franzen, look down on every one of their characters.
That’s why I take Dickens to my bosom. He may, in this novel, see the world as a harsh place. But instead of making him feel superior, it leads Dickens to feel affection for the common folk — and anger at what they are forced to endure.
Early in the novel, Gradgrind watches dismissively as a young Sissy says goodbye to the circus folk who have been her extended family. We see the scene through Gradgrind’s eyes — but we feel the emotions that Dickens feels.
“The basket packed in silence; they brought her bonnet to her, and smoothed her disordered hair, and put it on. Then they pressed about her, and bent over her in very natural attitudes, kissing and embracing her, and brought the children to take leave of her; and were a tender-hearted, simple, foolish set of women altogether.”
He likes the “good” people of this book, even if he is unable to find full happiness for most of them.
He likes them with their tender hearts, their simplicity and their foolish emotions.
And I do, too.
Patrick T. Reardon