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NA311012 - DICKENS, C.: Hard Times (Abridged)

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Hard Times


Charles Dickens began to plan the story which was to become Hard Times in the winter of 1853-4, and it is clear from the trouble he took over the choice of a title, as well as the correspondence he entered into concerning themes and their treatment, that he wanted to be sure that his novel would hit its satirical targets without causing too much offence — a difficult

balancing act to achieve.


On January 20th he asked John Forster to look at fourteen possible titles (which included ‘Prove It’, ‘Simple Arithmetic’ and the eventual choice, Hard Times). In April he wrote to Mrs. Gaskell, the novelist of northern industrial England, asking her to ‘look at the story’ and ‘judge where and how near I seem to be approaching what you have in your mind.’ Dickens was clearly uncertain about some aspects of his tone and subject matter — he is careful to state that he will be avoiding the controversial issue of workers’ strikes, and perhaps he was also (understandably) unsure about straying outside his normal London-based settings and having to reproduce a Lancashire dialect.

What are Dickens’ ‘satirical targets’? First, as he says in a letter to another friend, Charles Knight, he wishes to attack ‘those who see figures and averages, and nothing else’ — in other words, the ‘Gradgrind Philosophy’, in which mechanical reason is seen as the only possible guide to human behavior and endeavor, and which is represented in the novel not only by Gradgrind himself but also by the industrial machines and the profits they yield. Dickens also mocks (for example) the callousness and ignorance of Parliament (peopled by the ‘dustmen’, the MP’s), and the cynical behavior of ‘gentlemen’ like James Harthouse who have ‘no opinions’ — in other words, no beliefs and no principles.


What makes the novel powerful and affecting, however, is the way in which we see these attitudes corroding human relationships: Gradgrind attempting to destroy his children’s imaginations with a relentless diet of ‘ologies’, Harthouse setting about the seduction of Louisa with heartless calculation, Bounderby denying the affectionate care he received from his mother so that he may aggrandize the myth of his wretched childhood, vital to his image as the self-made man. There are weaknesses, to be sure — some of the pathos may seem a little heavy-handed to a modern listener, and it is difficult to see Stephen Blackpool as more than a mouthpiece for certain ideas — but the ultimate picture of a society in which decent human beings are sacrificed to the gods of profit remains powerful and relevant today. Although Hard Times is less humorous, more economical and more explicitly ‘political’ than his other novels, its central message is movingly and characteristically Dickensian: if there is no place for imagination, beauty and pleasure in our world, then ‘the...heart will wither up’ and ‘the sturdiest physical manhood will be morally stark death.’ Or, as Mr. Sleary inimitably puts it, ‘People mutht be amuthed. They can’t be alwayth a-learning, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a-working, they an’t made for it...’


Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. His father was

imprisoned for debt and the twelve-year old Charles was sent to work in a blacking-factory: these experiences influenced (for instance) Little Dorrit and David Copperfield. Having learnt shorthand, he became a parliamentary reporter and began to submit magazine pieces. In 1837 The Pickwick  Papers brought Dickens fame, and the rest of his literary career was almost uninterruptedly successful. His personal life was less happy: eventually he separated from his wife Catherine, partly as a result of his growing

intimacy with Ellen Ternan, the actress, and he died relatively young

in 1870, his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.


Notes by Perry Keenlyside

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