‘Hard Times’ was a satirical take on the existing educational system and the impact of growing industrialization. It is an irony, indeed, that our modern world continues to adhere to the notions criticized by Charles Dickens through his book in 1854.
Like in every Dickensian realm, in this book too, the characters are divided into black and white watertight compartments. Mr.Gradgrind and Mr.Bounderby represent the regressive educational system and the exploitative industrialization devoid of human emotions. Juxtaposed are Sissy, Blackpool, and Rachael, the three supremely good-hearted characters overpowered by their emotions.
In between are Mr.Gradgrind’s children – Louisa, Tom, and Jane – the specimens of a strict, unemotional upbringing. Distinctly, Dickens divides the book into three parts – Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering, simply proving ‘what you sow, so shall you reap’.
In the fictional town of Coketown, ‘an ugly fortified town with chimneys’ lives Mr.Gradgrind. He is a rich, influential man of the town with an esteemed position in the working of the town school. Mr. Gradgrind’s beliefs are core to this book; he simply cannot let emotions overpower practicalities of life. And, this he instills in his three children – Louisa, Tom, and Jane. Louisa is supposed to be the prodigy of her father’s practical way of upbringing.
“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.”
When the book begins, Mr.Gradgrind is on an inspection of the school and scolds Cecilia Jupe or Sissy for her inability to define a horse factually. Sissy’s father was a clown at the circus run by Mr.Sleary and had abandoned Sissy for unknown reasons. As Sissy’s answers based on creativity and imagination is viewed as a bad influence on other children at the school, Mr.Gradgrind and other intellects believe her to be taken out.
However, considering Sissy’s background, Mr.Gradgrind takes her in his fold and vows to bring her up imparting core values of practicalities.
Mr.Josiah Bounderby is a friend of Mr.Gradgrind and a mill owner. Bounderby has a dramatic way of referring to his childhood, his convoluted story of a hard childhood, and elevation in society from a poor background. His exaggerations and false depiction of the hardships expose the shallowness of the rich in the Victorian era. As a female counterpart, there is Mrs. Sparsit, the housekeeper, though a woman of high descent at Bounderby household.
The next rich and selfish man to enter the plot is Mr.James Harthouse. This bored gentleman tries to stir melancholic Louisa out of her marriage with Bounderby.
Tom, Louisa’s younger brother turns out to be utterly selfish in return for the love he received from her. He had persuaded Louisa to marry old Bounderby, when their father came up with the proposition, to get financial benefits out of it. Tom exposes the views men held in those times for women, calling Louisa a regular girl and considering it not a heart wrecking decision for his sister to marry an older man.
The goodness in the book comes in the form of Stephen Blackpool who emerges as the most likable character of all. He is one of the ‘hands’ working at Bounderby’s factory. His life is laden with misery and poverty, an inability to get a divorce from an alcoholic wife, and finally as an accused in the bank robbery case.
Rachael is characteristically brave for her time. She loves Stephen Blackpool despite him being embroiled in a crumbling marriage and in the drudgery of poverty. She works as one of the ‘hands’ at the factory with Stephen Blackpool. Her kindness is evident as she takes care of Blackpool’s wife in a state of drunken delirium. Rachael doesn’t embrace marriage, she devotes her life to the man she loves and works for her livelihood. Even in her poverty, she is independent and lives on her own terms.
Innocence and Ignorance of the Circus and Factory workers
The lisping Mr. Sleary heads the traveling circus. These people at the circus are neither neat nor orderly nor skilled in their language yet they have such generous virtues. They had the heart to help anyone in need and full of empathy, the qualities redundant amongst the rich and wealthy in Coketown.
Then there were the factory workers, whom Dickens termed as ‘hands’ in the book. For, they were invisible; their existence was purely – hands to work and stomachs to feed.
The rich believed the workers/ hands to be lazy. Mr.Bounderby’s false rags-to-riches story ascertains people choose poverty over working hard to become prosperous. Hence, the industrialists and factory owners are at loss handling the extortionist demands of the workers.
“There’s not a Hand in this town, sir, man, woman, or child, but has one ultimate object in life. That object is, to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.
Sissy Jupe and her father juxtaposed to Louisa and Mr.Thomas Gradgrind
We know from the beginning that Sissy Jupe is rich in her imagination and emotions. She has the ability to trust and love the people around her. Sissy has an unhindered belief in her father’s love for her and hopes for his return. Sissy and her father’s relationship stands in contrast to Louisa and Mr.Gradgrind.
“I used to read to him to cheer his courage, and he was very fond of that. They were wrong books – I am never to speak of them here – but we didn’t know there was any harm in them.”
Louisa is told never to wonder by her father. She embraces all his decisions without any protest until Mr.Harthouse proposes a plan of elopement. Growing up to be an ‘unhappy’ child and without an ounce of understanding on part of her father, a showdown awaits Mr.Gradgrind. Is Louisa brave enough to question her father on robbing her of her sentiments and emotions?
Relevance of Hard Times
A child’s mind is a fertile land to be cultivated with creativity and imagination but we tend to restrict it within the ambit of systematic learning of facts. From the time ‘Hard Times’ was published, has anything changed at all in the educational scenario?
It is an amazing book to read if you are parent grappling between creativity or marks for your children. Dickens weighs happiness over wealth or prosperity. And, the characteristic writing of the Classics with the focus on honesty and morality presents it as a perfect book for young readers.
Throughout the book, there is so much inclination to turn to fables and fairy tales to keep hope kindled through the hard times of our lives.
‘Hard Times’ is a breeze to read through and the best part is how it ends. Dickens turns to the readers and addresses, “Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not.”