Entertaining but, at heart, a joyless social diatribe,
Jan 15, 2010
"Hard Times" is set in the ugly and imaginary (but all too realistic) mid-Victorian Northern city of Coketown - a near-dystopian blend of the worst of capitalism and the ravages of rampant industrialization. Its blackened factories belch soot, steam and a poisonous haze of sun-blotting pollution. Its citizens are joyless automotons, dancing their repetitive daily work jig to the mind-numbing tick of a drudging, miserable metronome that is wound up every day by Josiah Bounderby, the heartless factory owner, a banker and ostensibly Coketown's leading citizen.
While the workers have begun to sample the delights of the forbidden fruit of trade unions and labour organization, the very idea is still much in its infancy. Indeed, Bounderby is so completely ensconced in the status quo that he cannot even imagine why a worker would want more than he has and why he would feel that there was anything more that he might possibly need. He genuinely believes that what he offers his workers is complete, generous, utterly selfless and more than sufficient unto their needs.
Thomas Gradgrind is a retired hardware merchant. While not quite in the same league as Bounderby with respect to wealth and insufferable pomposity, Gradgrind is now a teacher and, like Bounderby, is so completely comfortable as to be utterly unable to imagine any other way of living. In fact, Dickens portrays Gradgrind as a staunch utilitarian who does his utmost as a parent, a person, and an educator to eradicate any fanciful notions of imagination, joy, dreaming, aesthetics, music, poetry, fiction or, indeed, even amusement, in both his students and his children. His students' curriculum is centered on "facts, facts, facts" and hard skills such as analysis, deduction, mathematics, science and pure observation are glorified.
"Hard Times" is really the story of Gradgrind's children, Louisa and Thomas Jr, brought up in the sullen atmosphere of Coketown under the strict discipline of their father's colourless educational regimen. It is the story of Louisa's arranged marriage to Bounderby, a man thirty years her senior who imagined her as his bride even as he watched her grow from infancy. It is also the story of Thomas Jr's fall from grace as he is unable to avoid the twin siren calls of the vices of gambling and liquor to escape from the drudgery of life as his father's son and as Bounderby's employee.
While I found "Hard Times" to be as entertaining as any other Dickens novel that I've read (and, frankly, I've loved them all), I did find it to be too bleak and unremittingly socialist in nature. Dickens' far left-wing political leanings were crystal clear.
There were "blacks" and there were "whites" but there were no grays anywhere in sight. "Hard Times" was a story of polar opposites, fact vs fancy, joy, happiness and hope vs despair, honesty vs dishonesty, generosity vs greed, and so on. And, although Dickens did allow the story to end portraying Thomas Gradgrind as a parent who was doing his very best to act on his love for his children, even these acts of altruism were aimed at ultimately ensuring that theft against the evil Bounderby went un-punished. In short, Bounderby and the capitalist class could do no right while the working class could, in effect, do no wrong.
Entertaining, to be sure, and not a story that I would want to have missed but "Hard Times" is also a story that is not as timeless as others Dickens has written.