Book #22

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Coketown is dominated by the figure of Mr Thomas Gradgrind, school headmaster and model of Utilitarian success. Feeding both his pupils and family with facts, he bans fancy and wonder from any young minds. As a consequence his obedient daughter Louisa marries the loveless businessman and 'bully of humanity' Mr Bounderby, and his son Tom rebels to become embroiled in gambling and robbery. And, as their fortunes cross with those of free-spirited circus girl Sissy Jupe and victimized weaver Stephen Blackpool, Gradgrind is eventually forced to recognize the value of the human heart in an age of materialism and machinery. 

In Hard Times, Dickens presents us with the idea of fact vs. fancy in order to depict the contrast between the middle and working classes. The first character we meet, Thomas Gradgrind, is a supporter of facts, and believes facts are all you need to live a productive life. He raises his children by this emotionless dogma and even runs a school where children will study facts consistently. As his children grow older, and as we have the privilege of growing along with them, we soon see the error of Gradgrind’s ways in disregarding the learnings which can be taken from emotion and imagination.

Largely, this is a commentary on industrialisation and the people caught up in its grasp. His characters tend to embody either the factual and practical, or the imaginative and loving. Dickens achieves this by depicting the working class as brimming with devotion and imagination, contrasting them against their masters who lean towards the coldness of logic. Clearly, he comments critically on utilitarianism and shows us through his characters the destruction which can be wrought by being unable to feel and imagine.

My favourite thing here is Dickens’ use of names to really cement his ideas in our heads. It’s set in a fictionalised place called Coketown - you don’t even need to have the smoking chimneys of the factories described to you to understand where we are. Some of the characters' names - Gradgrind, Bounderby, and my favourite, the teacher McChoakumchild, portray perfectly who these people are. His conscious choice of words and structure are perfectly cultivated to keep us entirely in the best place to understand his satire.

This is markedly different from other Dickens novels, mainly due to the lack of intricacy in plot, and an incredibly smaller number of characters than he is normally compelled to include. And yet, it still stands as an important and worthwhile commentary today. We still have his comedy, his social satire, and his beautiful crafting of characters - it’s still a true Dickens without the usual depth, yet his radicality remains.