I recently swapped an old college copy of this novel for one the Missus had. It’s the Norton Critical Edition, and contains researched notes on Dickens’ developmental plans for the book, and not a few subsequent reactions to it over the years by literary critics. I was intrigued by the possibility of exhaustive criticism of this, Dickens’ last major work, but first I had to re-read it for perspective.
Dickens clearly had in mind the Industrial Revolution as it affected England in his day as he sat to write this serialized-form novel. But he took no superficial tack on it; instead he chose a storyline and characters that highlighted industrialization in Britain, including its philosophical spokespersons, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith.
The story takes place in a fictional factory town in England, Coketown. Thomas Gradgrind, a retired merchant, becomes the zeitgeist of both the village and Great Britain—an espouser of rational thought, and utilitarianism, which holds that the interest of the most people should hold sway, but which quickly decays into self-interest.
Every social theory must have its practical application, and in Coketown this application came about through factory life. Here, as we often hear today, the thought is that workers who live on bare subsistence wages should be thankful for just that—the opportunity to toil their lives away for the sake of enough to keep them alive. And the person who personifies this rhetoric in Dickens’ story is Josiah Bounderby, a supposedly self-made man who seems to actualize Gradgrind’s zeitgeist.
The workers in Coketown want more than survival, of course, and they begin to mutter about a union and strikes against the factory owners. Meanwhile, we begin to see life through the eyes of Coketown’s women, principally Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa, and a waif, Sissy Jupe, whose lives are as submerged in this culture as those of the factory workers.
Louisa is forced into a loveless marriage to Bounderby, who is old enough to be her father, and Sissy becomes all but indentured to Gradgrind in order to attend school. With the women, particularly, passion and emotion submerged by Age of Reason’s version of rationality erupts through a series of family and romantic dramas.
I won’t outline the plot further; this teaser will leave you with a strong idea of the social conflicts Dickens set up in Hard Times. What interests me here is imagining what did not happen with Hard Times—Dickens’ story unfolding in serialized magazine or journal form to a crowd of readers anxiously awaiting the next episode. As alluded to earlier, he did write it in a serialized form, but it was never published that way. I think it may have appealed to the ongoing reading public more in serialized form and may have short-circuited some of the negative criticism the novel has drawn.
But I do have a couple of criticisms of Hard Times. Principally, after introducing his primary characters, he allows a long, rather philosophic section regarding the owner/worker conflicts that would bore today’s readers to tears. But perhaps it was the equivalent in Dickens’ day of writing about 9/11 or AIG and would have served as a hot-button polemic as well as an overarching social statement. But Dickens is, in my view, a master of character depiction, if not development. His characters, by their very natures, speak volumes about England’s social structure and strictures. For this reason, philosophical asides are hardly needed to press Dickens’ points.
Much has been written about the superficiality of Dickens’ characters, and I think that’s primarily because of the wonderfully humorous names he gives them. I suspect some critics have a hard time seeing beyond these names and consequently blast them as paper-thin. To me, these charming characters function, not as modern novels’ characters do, as complex psychological beings, but as personifications of the social issues Dickens tried to expose. In this sense, his characters are masterfully thought out and set a-functioning.
Dickens’ voice here is equally masterful. He displays an intelligent and witty mind in his narrative, constantly slipping in offhand bon mots that showcase the author’s more private thoughts, and his emotional makeup, without disrupting the story. Also, his descriptive narrative is incomparable for novels of this time.
Next week, an example.