Publisher: Penguin Classics
Author: Charles Dickens
Release Date: February 27th 2003 (first published 1854)
Genre(s): Fiction, Classic
Reviewed by: anumit
The novel begins with Mr. Thomas Gradgrind sternly lecturing a room full of school children on the importance of facts. He believes that facts, and not imagination or emotion, are the key to a good education, and he educates all the children of the school and his own children, Louisa and Tom, according to this philosophy. When one of his worse students, Sissy Jupe, is abandoned by her father (a circus performer), Mr. Gradgrind takes in Sissy to educate her along with his children according to his sacred system of facts.
Since their hearts and imaginations have been utterly neglected, Louisa and Tom grow into deformed human beings—inwardly, not outwardly. They know neither how to love nor how to be happy, and sense that there is something very wrong with the way they are living their lives. At Mr. Gradgrind’s request, Louisa dutifully marries his older friend, Mr. Josiah Bounderby, who is a blustering manufacturer in Coketown. She agrees to marry Bounderby not because she loves him, but because she thinks it will help her brother Tom, who is apprenticed to Mr. Bounderby. Tom is the only person she cares for and, knowing this, Tom wheedles her into the marriage. Now both Louisa and Tom live with Mr. Bounderby, and Sissy stays back with Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind and Jane, the youngest Gradgrind.
Mr. Bounderby’s factory workers, also called “Hands,” do not live happy lives under his rule. One factory worker by the name of Stephen Blackpool is daily worn out by his work at the factory, but what plagues him more is his unhappy marriage, for his wife has become a hideous drunk. He wishes to free himself from her and marry Rachael, a sweet, gentle woman in the village, but he couldn’t because of the ties of marriage. After he asks Bounderby for help on the matter, Mr. Bounderby informs him that he might be able to get out of the marriage if he had enough money to pay for a lawyer, but as he doesn’t the cause is hopeless. As he resignedly leaves Mr. Bounderby’s home, he runs into an old woman, who for some reason is very interested to hear any news about Mr. Bounderby and his successes.
Tom is now a dissolute, lazy young man, very much in debt and inclined to a sulky attitude in front of everyone. His, Louisa’s, and Mr. Bounderby’s lives are somewhat enlivened by the arrival of a Mr. James Harthouse from London. Mr. Harthouse is a wealthy, pleasing young gentleman who is bored out of his mind and has come to work for Mr. Bounderby in hope of finding something entertaining. He quickly becomes very interested in Louisa, for he sees that a strong fire burns under the cold, impassive mask of a face she wears. Noticing that she softens and shows emotion only towards Tom, Harthouse sets about seducing her by pretending to be Tom’s good friend. Mrs. Sparsit, an old widow who used to live with Mr. Bounderby, before he married Louisa and was then unceremoniously kicked out, watches the progression of his seduction of Louisa with glee.
Dickens depicts a terrifying system of education where facts, facts, and nothing but facts are pounded into the schoolchildren all day, and where memorization of information is valued over art, imagination, or anything creative. This results in some very warped human beings. Mr. Thomas Gradgrind completely believes in this system, and as a superintendent of schools and a father, he makes sure that all the children at the schools he is responsible for, and especially his own children, are brought up knowing nothing but data and “-ologies“.
Hand in hand, with the glorification of data and numbers and facts in the schoolhouse, is the treatment of the workers in the factories of Coketown as nothing more than machines, which produce so much per day and are not thought of as having feelings or families or dreams. Dickens depicts this situation as a result of the industrialization of England; now that towns like Coketown are focused on producing a lot of dirty factories, more smoke pollutes the air and water, and the factory owners only see their workers as part of the machines that bring them profit.
There are many unhappy marriages in Hard Times and none of them are resolved happily by the end. Mr. Gradgrind’s marriage to his feeble, and complaining wife is not exactly a source of misery for either of them, but neither are they or their children happy. The Gradgrind family is not a loving or affectionate one. The main unhappy marriage showcased by the novel is between Louisa Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby
The best, most good characters of Hard Times are women. Stephen Blackpool is a good man, but his love, Rachael , is an “Angel“. Sissy Jupe can overcome even the worst intentions of Jem Harthouse with her firm and powerfully pure gaze. Louisa, as disadvantageous as she is by her terrible upbringing, manages to get out of her crisis at the last minute by fleeing home to her father for shelter, in contrast to her brother, Tom, who chooses to commit a life-changing crime in his moment of crisis. Through these examples, the novel suggests that the kindness and compassion of the female heart can improve what an education of “facts” and the industrialization has done to children and to the working middle class.
A time when women were not even allowed to vote, Dickens presents a masterpiece which brings out the best in the female gender. Dickens brilliant foresightedness which is a witness to this work truly does justice to the fact that maybe one day “machines will be more valuable than the humans operating them”.
Read it for its beautiful word play and imagery. Though, the name Dickens itself holds a reputation for reeling in readers, but this one, it’s certainly a doozy!