“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ is one of the author’s most distinctive novels. It takes a cynical look at the utilitarian philosophy that dominated nineteenth century England, reveals the social and economic pressures of the time, and provides an analysis of the make up of industrialised British society. It is both a vital historic document, and an enthralling tragedy set in the Industrial Revolution.
It is far from Dickens’ most popular novel. Works such as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol or David Copperfield have remained hugely popular, over a century after their publication. The stories have been retold in alternative forms, and characters and scenes from the tales have been reused and parodied to the extent that they are instantly recognisable. Hard Times doesn’t have this level of recognition, but the fact it remains on school literature syllabuses gives an insight into the book’s significance. It is one of Dickens’ shortest novels, and unlike his others, had neither a preface nor illustrations. Its distinction from his other works marks it out as a point of interest in the life and identity of the writer.
Two of the novel’s central characters, Josiah Bounderby and Thomas Gradgrind, represent significant trends of Dickens’ time. Bounderby, the supposed ‘self-made’ man, is representative of the urban bourgeoisie, a factory owner living a life of comfort. Gradgrind is a retired merchant, who has become an educator, and by the novel’s end is also a Member of Parliament. His ultra-rational approach to everything is symbolic of the increasing popularity of utilitarianism in England. Utilitarianism was a philosophy first advocated by John Stuart Mill that argued for the subjugation of the needs of the individual, to the rationally calculated needs of society as a whole.
Both characters are portrayed by Dickens as complicit in the mechanisation of human beings. The dehumanising effects of industrialisation are reflected in Bounderby’s factory, where workers are treated as machines. Gradgrind believes that human nature can be measured, quantified and governed through rules and formulae. Both the school and the raising of his own children, work on the basis that people can be turned into ‘little machines’. The outcome of this extreme industrialisation of life is seen in the dull monotony of the factory hand’s lives. It is shown in more detail in the fate of Gradgrind’s children. His daughter, Louisa, ends up in an unhappy marriage, admitting to her father near the novel’s end that there is something missing in her life. His son Thomas Jr. is consumed by rational self-interest to the extent he calculatedly deceives and frames the factory hand Stephen Blackpool, for a bank robbery he committed himself.
The mechanisation of humanity is just one of the many themes covered by Hard Times. The twists and turns of the story depict the complexities and tragedies of life in a northern industrial town in the middle of the nineteenth century. From trade unions to loveless marriages, it covers many of the problems the author perceived in the world around him. It might be one of Dickens’ shortest novels, but it is densely packed with a study of the condition of a country coming to terms with mass industry.
by Charles Dickens