Hard Times is the shortest of Dickens’ adult novels and a recommended read. His melodramatic style still resounds today, although there are some quirks in characterization – I was expecting something more politically meaty. Still, as a Dickensian melodrama, you need to approach this with some expectation of what you will read and with a focus on characters.
The most striking character is Tom Gradgrind, corrupted son of an earnest schoolmaster who requires you to grind your way (like in an MMO) to graduation. Tom’s manipulation of others is a naked attack on the dismissal of feeling and sensibility as worthwhile things, of the worst excesses of the European Enlightenment Project.
Yet it did seem (though not to him, for he saw nothing of it) as if fantastic hope could take as strong a hold as Fact.
Our despision for the boy is carefully nurtured and not particularly nuanced, save to undermine Gradgrind’s philosophy of Facts (always a proper noun) over vision.
In contrast, the interplay of Louisa vs Rachel, the love interests, is a more subtle game of sensibility contesting reason, with (of course) sensibility coming out on top. Louisa’s collapse due to the machinations of her brother can be seen as an emotional consequence of not forming her own internal moral system – without the guidance of others she simply cannot cope with modern life. Is this indicative of the role expected by many Victorian women? Ultimately, the love she bears for her brother is the best love she experiences and unfortunately is not reciprocal. Like seen in George Eliot, this is a kind of love that is culturally unusual in 2018, and one I’m coming to realise as tremendously foundational for Victorians.
In contrast, it is interesting to see Sissy and Rachel as both calmed and assured in expression when under moral questioning. Moral righteousness makes these characters both powerful and capable whereas otherwise they are not. That’s a nice idea.
A typical male character in Hard Times is the firebrand union leader. I bet Dickens had some fun writing this. Being a Midlander who lived in the North, I have a difficult relationship with unions. They are essential: in themselves, they risk become adversarial. I have seen dozens of people refer of unions without reasoned negotiation or even hard work. Dickens clearly doesn’t seem to like unions. He also doesn’t believe that simple, pygmalionesque ideas of improvement via teaching foundational knowledge work either. Whether he is right does not matter as much as raising the argument.
The circus master who spoke in a lisp made my heart drop, knowing that I would have to take a painfully long time to navigate his many sections. I am reminded here of how much money Dickens made from his lucrative live readings. The Lancashire vernacular used often for the poorer (read, Northern) characters employs a difficult style that also requires some heavy commitment. I didn’t really get so much from reading these in novel form: that the circus master (whose name itself was a lisp) declares that people just want to be amused speaks loudly for why he was created.
The prime character, introduced in the first line is, of course, Gradgrind himself. Whilst he is a caricature of an evil Pink-Floydlike teacher, he ultimately fosters good intentions, and indeed desires to change his way of being if that is best. It is interesting to note that progressive teaching is in vogue now (albeit challenged), with many teachers synthesizing constructivist pedagogy after students have a foundation of knowledge. In Gradgrind, Dickens made me realise how utilitarianism isn’t just a philosophy for the greatest good, but is also treating people as to their utility to commercialisation. Given the inextricable nature of Western society in keeping up capitalism’s (and now neoliberalism’s) voracious need for expansion, this is a worthy attack. It leads us to question whether reason is only thing upon which to hold our public discourse, or whether reason is actually independent of social context (and social capital). Dickens tries to suggest it is, much to Gradgrind’s dismal ire when trying to rectify his son’s crimes:
No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.” “Is it accessible,” cried Mr. Gradgrind, “to any compassionate influence?” “It is accessible to Reason, sir,” returned the excellent young man. “And to nothing else.”
Ultimately I found this a very interesting novel to read to see some attitudes towards workers as presented at the time; this was not an entirely popular novel upon release I understand. Having recently visited industrialist museums in the West Midlands, callous dismissal of workers was a common secret now written about often. Still, the belief in the heart of the noble poor does not really convince me in 2018, and I doubt it did in 1854 – that it is possible to have estimable worth and be poor in Europe is, I hope, true. It is just not this book that will show us this.