Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.
Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days have you lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.
-Hard Times Come Again No More by Stephen Foster (1854)
Imagine a world completely ruled by facts, where lives are governed by cold, stark practicality. Dreams, fancy, and any other contradiction of fact are rooted out and squelched. In this place the fundamental principle taught is that everything must be paid for. “Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be.” Such is Coketown, the fictitious English mill town created by Charles Dickens in in his book Hard Times.
In my last review I said that although Dickens writes on depressing themes, his books are still punctuated with humor. This is not true for Hard Times. First written in 1854 as a serial story to help increase his paper’s sales, the book is much shorter than Dickens’ other works and seems devoid of his usual humor and character development.
The story follows 3 different classes of people. First, Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy, retired merchant who has completely adopted a philosophy of rationalism and Facts. Gradgrind drills his two oldest children, Louisa and Tom, in every rule of Fact: geography, economics, algebra, geometry, without ever allowing the barest hint of imagination or fancy. Stripped of childish dreams, Louisa and Tom are reduced to little better than automatons.
“When she was half a dozen years younger, Louisa had been overheard to begin a conversation with her brother one day, by saying ‘Tom, I wonder’—upon which Mr. Gradgrind, who was the person overhearing, stepped forth into the light and said, ‘Louisa, never wonder!’
Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder. Bring to me…yonder baby just able to walk, and I will engage that it shall never wonder.”
The second group are the poor mill workers, who people like Josiah Bounderby, the Coketown factory owner, treat as little more than flesh and muscle. Subsisting in the hardship, for it can not truly be said that they are living, the mill workers grind on day after day in the monotony and oppression of their existence.
“Surely, none of us in our sober senses and acquainted with figures, are to be told at this time of day, that one of the foremost elements in the existence of the Coketown working-people had been for scores of years, deliberately set at nought? That there was any Fancy in them demanding to be brought into healthy existence instead of struggling on in convulsions? That exactly in the ratio as they worked long and monotonously, the craving grew within them for some physical relief—some relaxation, encouraging good humour and good spirits, and giving them a vent—some recognized holiday, though it were but for an honest dance to a stirring band of music—some occasional light pie in which even M’Choakumchild had no finger—which craving must and would be satisfied aright, or must and would inevitably go wrong, until the laws of the Creation were repealed?”
Lastly are people like Sissy Jupe, a girl who once belonged to the circus and is taken in by Mr. Gradgrind. Sissy is compassionate and still possesses her imaginative skills, but is also somewhat ignorant.
My favorite character was Louisa, probably because she was the most developed character. I was able to sympathize with her, but I was often repulsed by the robot her father had turned her into. I think that her unfeeling obedience was a little overdone, and realistically she would have eventually broken free and acted for herself.
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand the story piqued my interest and I was eager to continue reading. On the other, I felt that after I finished reading I was still grasping for something more. Some characters once introduced seemed tossed to the side as if Dickens became bored with them. When I started the book I thought it was going to follow Cecelia “Sissy” Jupe, but after the first few chapters we barely hear from her until the end of the book. Although Sissy enacts dramatic change we here nothing of it until after the fact. As one blogger noted:
“As a writer Dickens needs space. He needs a lot of pages. We can’t put a tree in the living room and hope that it will grow well. It doesn’t. It needs fertile land. If not forest land, at least the land in one’s garden. The suppressed size of this book definitely seems to have inhibited Dickens.” –Vishy’s Blog
I tend to agree with this statement, and believe if the story hadn’t been hashed out quickly as a serialized story it would have contained more of the depth and richness characteristic of Dickens. The book does convey the meaninglessness, drudgery, and emptiness of a life barren of dreams, but if it does so while itself being barren and empty what good is it?
Book: Hard Times, For These Times
Author: Charles Dickens
Publish Date: 1854
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Finish date: December 2013
Book list number: 6 of 205
” ‘Bitzer,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, ‘have you a heart?’
‘The circulation, sir,’ returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, ‘couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.’ “
“When the Devil goeth about like a roaring lion, he goeth about in a shape by which few but savages and hunters are attracted. But, when he is trimmed, smoothed, and varnished, according to the mode: when he is aweary of vice, and aweary of virtue, used up as to brimstone, and used up as to bliss; then, whether he take to the serving out of red tape, or to the kindling of red fire, he is the very Devil.”
“Besides which, ma’am,” returned Bitzer, while he was polishing table, “it looks to me as if he gamed.”
“It’s immoral to game,” said Mrs. Sparsit.
“It’s ridiculous, ma’am,” said Bitzer, “because the chances are always against the players.”
-The Farming Daughter