Study Guide

Hard Times

by Charles Dickens

Hard Times Essay - Dickens, Charles Hard Times for These Times

Dickens, Charles Hard Times for These Times

Introduction

Charles Dickens Hard Times for These Times

The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel Hard Times (1854). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Christmas Carol Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Little Dorrit Criticism, and Our Mutual Friend Criticism.

Perhaps the least-known of all Dickens's novels, Hard Times is a social-protest novel which attempts to lay bare the malignant impact of nineteenth-century industrial society upon the people living in English factory towns. It was poorly received upon its publication in hard cover and has been often overlooked in critical surveys of Dickens's works; still, Hard Times has acquired a growing critical following in the mid to late twentieth century, largely because of critical remarks by three key commentators.

Biographical Information

In early 1854, Dickens sought for ideas for a long story to be run in the magazine he edited, Household Words, which faced a shrinking circulation and falling profits. After some thought, he settled upon his theme: the condition of English factory life and its effects upon the laborers who were the victims of its unfairness, squalor, danger, and exhausting boredom. The idea for his yet-unwritten novel "laid hold of me by the throat in a very violent manner," Dickens wrote, and he vowed, in writing Hard Times, "to strike the heaviest blow in my power" for the English industrial worker. Having traveled to Preston in late January to experience life in an industrial city then in the midst of a twenty-three-week textile strike and having read of labor conditions in Manchester (upon which he modelled his Coketown), Dickens began writing his novel. Hard Times appeared in weekly installments in Household Words between April and August, a labor which left Dickens "three parts mad, and the fourth delirious, with perpetual rushing" but which also doubled (by one estimation, quadrupled) the circulation of Household Words. Exhausted upon finishing the novel in mid July, Dickens spent several days drinking heavily, later writing, "I have been in a blaze of dissipation altogether, and have succeeded (I think) in knocking the remembrance of my work out." Shortly afterward, Hard Times appeared in hardcover, published by the house of Bradbury and Evans and dedicated to another critic of British culture, Thomas Carlyle.

Plot and Major Characters

A schoolmaster at a utilitarian private school in industrial Coketown, Thomas Gradgrind insists that his students learn empirical facts alone; humor, music, and imagination are banished from his classroom and from the lives of his children. The five Gradgrind children embody their father's philosophy, which was widely discussed and praised in early- to mid-nineteenth-century Britain. One day after school, Gradgrind is disturbed to discover his two eldest children, Tom and Louisa, attempting to peek through the walls of a circus tent; his displeasure increases when the two are unapologetic about this offense against the principles by which they have been raised. Puzzled by their behavior and determined to correct it, Gradgrind consults with a friend, Josiah Bounderby, a manufacturer and banker, who advises him that the children have been corrupted by a schoolmate, Cecilia ("Sissy") Jupe, the daughter of a circus rider. Before he can remove Sissy from his school and from his life, Gradgrind discovers that the girl's father has deserted her; moved by compassion and against the warnings of Bounderby and his own philosophy, he decides to raise Sissy in his own home and to allow her to continue attending his school. Years pass, the children grow up, and Bounderby sets his cap for Louisa, who agrees to marry this wealthy financier, thirty years her senior, to please her brother Tom, who has grown into a dissolute young man and now works at Bounderby's bank. The marriage rankles Bounderby's elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, who mistrusts and begins spying on Louisa.

Meanwhile, Gradgrind, now in London as a member of Parliament, sends a young associate, James Harthouse, to Coketown to gather data on British economic and social life. Harthouse is directed to Bounderby's household, and while he finds Bounderby himself a self-aggrandizing blowhard, full of expansive talk about being a self-made man, he is smitten by pretty Louisa and sets about wooing her away from her husband and loveless marriage. He is successful, and soon he and Louisa are making plans to run away together—unaware that watchful Mrs. Sparsit is aware of their intent. Meanwhile, to the amazement of all, Bounderby's bank is robbed, and the authorities name one of Bounderby's employees, Stephen Blackpool, as their prime suspect. Blackpool, who had been mistreated by Bounderby, had been seen loitering in front of the bank shortly before it was robbed, in the company of an old woman known as Mrs. Pegler. The climax of the novel is reached when Louisa, having agreed to elope with Harthouse, chooses instead to return to her father's household; Mrs. Sparsit informs on Louisa and Harthouse, causing Bounderby to demand that Louisa return to him, which she does; Blackpool is cleared of all wrongdoing, Tom is found to be the real bankrobber; and Mrs. Sparsit, seeking to further ingratiate herself with Bounderby, tracks down Mrs. Pegler, who is revealed as Bounderby's own mother—who proceeds to publicly deflate Bounderby's claims of a Horatio-Algeresque career. Harthouse disappears. With the help of Sissy, Tom escapes Bounderby's vengeance, and Mrs. Sparsit is released by Bounderby for her meddle-someness. Bounderby dies a few years later, and the Gradgrinds, bereft of all that makes life meaningful and pleasant, face long lives of boredom and misery.

Major Themes

Like the novels that preceded it—notably Dombey and Son and Bleak HouseHard Times is concerned with industrial society, but, as Edgar Johnson has written, "it is not so much a picture of its ramifications as a presentation of its underlying principles. It is an analysis and a condemnation of the ethos of industrialism." Rife with symbolism, the novel focuses upon characters not as human types but as products of the industrial age. Throughout the novel there is a tight, airless atmosphere informed by the utilitarian ethic; English life is no longer organic and whole but lived according to a poisonous theory which allows the rich and powerful to exert their will upon their employees and upon nature itself. The industrial city of Coketown is itself begrimed into colorlessness, shrouded in fumes and the unending plumes of reek arising from its many chimneys. The characters, with the exception of Sissy Jupe and members of the circus troupe, act less like human beings than like automata, programmed to respond to life and to each other by standards of measurable expediency alone. Freedom, humor, and art are symbolized by the circus performers; in glimpses of them (and thus, into the lives of characteristically humorous Dickensian characters), Dickens contrasts the life of imagination with the life of utility.

Critical Reception

Reviews of Hard Times marked it as a rare failure by Dickens. Critics found it variously misguided in its politics (Lord Macaulay found little but "sullen socialism" in the novel), largely humorless, hamhanded in plotting, marred by overdone caricatures, satirically off-target, divided in interest, and philosophically muddled. By the middle of 1855, less than a year after its appearance between hard covers, Hard Times lagged in sales far behind the three Dickens novels that immediately preceded it, trailing as well the author's minor Child's History of England (1852-54). The work's single critical accolade, met with widespread derision for a half century, appeared in 1860 in an article by John Ruskin, who wrote that he considered Hard Times, of all Dickens's works, "the greatest he has written." Numerous scholars, beginning with David Masson in his British Novelist and Their Styles (1859) and extending through Eleanor Graham's Story of Charles Dickens (1952) simply ignored Hard Times altogether in their discussions of Dickens, with others mentioning the novel in brief, sometimes chronologically inaccurate, asides. In the midst of its perpetual critical drubbing, Ruskin's remark was recurrently held up for curious examination, receiving no support until Bernard Shaw, in his preface to a 1913 edition, used Ruskin's comment as a springboard from which to find in Hard Times an "enormous" increase in Dickens's strength and intensity as a writer, adding that "the power that indicts a nation so terribly is much more impressive than that which ridicules individuals." Aside from this assessment, many critics during the first half of the twentieth century viewed Hard Times in a manner summarized by Stephen Leacock: that it "has no other interest in the history of letters than that of its failure." But a watershed in the critical history of Hard Times was reached in 1947 with F. R. Leavis's seminal essay "The Novel as Poem (I): Hard Times" in his periodical Scrutiny; this essay was reprinted with slight revisions as "Hard Times: An Analytic Note" the following year in Leavis's The Great Tradition, gaining wide attention. In this lengthy essay, Leavis sided with Ruskin and Shaw in writing that he considered the novel a "masterpiece" which, "of all Dickens's works . . . is the one that has all the strength of his genius, together with a strength no other of them can show—that of a completely serious work of art." By virtue of his critical stature as both a literary scholar in general and a Dickens scholar in particular, Leavis produced an essay that could not be ignored by subsequent commentators upon Hard Times. During the decades following the appearance of Leavis's "Analytic Note," scholars have scrutinized Hard Times through less jaundiced eyes, with several critics finding merit in the work (though not finding it Dickens's masterpiece, as had Leavis), while others—notably John Holloway and David H. Hirsch—attacking Leavis's position with thoroughgoing incisiveness, with Hirsch asking in conclusion, "For what, after all, can be more harmful to a genuinely great author's reputation than to insist that one of his dullest and least successful works is one of his greatest?" Critical essays of the 1970s through the 1990s have often moved beyond Leavis's essay and its critics to focus upon issues of gender, labor-capital relations, and politics in Hard Times.

Criticism

John Ruskin (letter date 1870)

SOURCE: A letter to Charles Eliot Norton on June 19, 1870, in Letters of John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton, Vol. II, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904, pp. 4-6.

[Ruskin was an English critic, essayist, historian, poet, novella writer, autobiographer, and diarist. Endowed with a passion for reforming what he considered his "blind and wandering fellow-men" and convinced that he had "perfect judgment" in aesthetic matters, he was the author of over forty books and several hundred essays and lectures that expounded his theories of aesthetics, morality, history, economics, and social reform. In the following excerpt from a letter written shortly after Dickens's death, he summarizes the...

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Edwin P. Whipple (essay date 1877)

SOURCE: "Dickens's Hard Times," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XXXIX, No. CCXXXIII, March, 1877, pp. 353-58.

[Below, Whipple suggests that some representative assessments of Hard Times fail to consider "the distinction between Dickens as a creator of character and Dickens as a humorous satirist of what he considers flagrant abuses." Whipple maintains that both Dickens's satirical and dramatic genius are evident in his portrayal of the characters and incidents of the novel.]

Dickens established a weekly periodical, called Household Words, on the 30th of March, 1850. On the 1st of April, 1854, he began in it the publication of the tale of Hard...

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George Gissing (essay date 1898)

SOURCE: "The Radical," in Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1912, pp. 255-82.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1898, Gissing writes of Hard Times as a failed labor novel..]

We do not nowadays look for a fervent Christianity in leaders of the people. In that, as in several other matters, Dickens was by choice retrospective. Still writing at a time when "infidelity"—the word then used—was becoming rife among the populace of great towns, he never makes any reference to it, and probably did not take it into account; it had no place in his English ideal. I doubt, indeed, whether he was...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

G. K. Chesterton (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: "Hard Times, " in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Chesterton on Dickens, Vol. XV, Ignatius Press, 1989, pp. 357-63.

[Regarded as one of England's premier men of letters during the first half of the twentieth century, Chesterton is best known today as a colorful bon vivant, a witty essayist, Catholic apologist, and as the creator of the Father Brown mysteries. His essays are characterized by their humor, frequent use of paradox, and chatty, rambling style. He was a lifelong Dickens enthusiast and wrote many essays on Dickens's works, including the introductions to each of the novels published in J. M. Dent's Everyman's Edition of Dickens's works. In the following...

(The entire section is 2713 words.)

Bernard Shaw (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: "Introduction to Hard Times," in Shaw on Dickens, edited by Dan H. Lawrence and Martin Quinn, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985, pp. 27-35.

[Shaw is generally considered the greatest and best-known dramatist to write in the English language since Shakespeare. During the late nineteenth century, he was also a prominent literary, art, music, and drama critic, and his reviews were known for their biting wit and brilliance. Like his friendly rival, Chesterton, Shaw was a longtime enthusiast of Dickens's work, primarily because of its value in the literature of class struggle, an emphasis which appealed strongly to the Fabian Shaw. In the following introduction to the Waverley...

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Stephen Leacock (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "Bleak House and Social Reform," in Charles Dickens: His Life and Work, 1934. Reprint by The Sun Dial Press, Inc., 1938, pp. 152-72.

[A respected Canadian professor of economics, Leacock is best known as one of the leading humorists of the first half of the twentieth century. He is also the author of biographies of Twain and Dickens. In the excerpt from the latter which appears below, Leacock sketches the plot and details the "failure" of Hard Times.]

The story Hard Times has no other interest in the history of letters than that of its failure. At the time, even enthusiastic lovers of Dickens found it hard to read. At present they do not...

(The entire section is 995 words.)

Lewis Harrison (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "Dickens's Shadow Show," in The Dickensian, Vol. XXXIX, No. 268, Autumn, 1943, pp. 187-91.

[In the essay below, Harrison profiles the characters in Hard Times, each of whom is "the ghost of some greater creation," appearing in a "great book" which is "no less a piece of artistry than Copperfield."]

I

In the good old days of my Victorian childhood there were two forms of entertainment, forerunners of the cinema, which have dwelt in my memory.

The first was the "Penny Reading," when the Vicar read to a (more or less) enthralled audience some work of (also more or less) merit and interest. How this species of...

(The entire section is 2844 words.)

F. R. Leavis (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Hard Times: An Analytic Note," in The Great Tradition, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1954, pp. 273-99.

[Leavis was an influential twentieth-century English critic. His methodology combines close textual criticism with predominantly moral and social concerns; however, Leavis is not interested in the individual writer per se, but rather with the usefulness of his or her art in the scheme of civilization. The essay reprinted below, which appeared in its present form in 1948, is widely considered the seminal (and most controversial) essay on Hard Times published in the twentieth century. Here, elaborating on claims made in decades past by Ruskin and Shaw, Leavis presents...

(The entire section is 9568 words.)

Edgar Johnson (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Critique of Materialism-Criticism: Hard Times," in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, Volume Two, Simon and Schuster, 1952, pp. 801-19.

[Johnson is one of the most prominent Dickens scholars of the mid to late twentieth century, and his two-volume Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952) is considered an essential text on Dickens and his work. In the excerpt below, he provides a detailed examination of Dickens's anti-Utilitarian stance in Hard Times, noting that the novel's final scenes "hold . . . the essence of his defense of art. "]

Hard Times brings to a culmination an orderly development of social analysis...

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Monroe Engel (essay date 19S9)

SOURCE: "Addenda: The Sports of Plenty," in The Maturity of Dickens, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959, 169-89.

[In the following excerpt, Engel favorably appraises Hard Times, focusing upon its economy of presentation and emphasis upon the need for imaginationnot utility aloneto make life bearable and full.]

The recent marked increase in the reputation of Hard Times has come at the expense of Dickens' general reputation. Satisfaction with this one sport of his genius has been used as a basis on which to denigrate that genius in its more characteristic manifestations. Hard Times satisfies the modern...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)

A. O. J. Cockshut (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Hard Times-Dickens's Masterpiece?" in The Imagination of Charles Dickens, Collins, 1961, p. 137-42.

[In the essay below, Cockshut seeks to demonstrate—contra F. R. Leavisthat Hard Times is not Dickens's masterpiece. He does, however, consider it a novel of high accomplishment. ]

Dr. Leavis has performed a valuable service by focusing attention on Hard Times, an important and neglected work. Those of us who do not quite agree with him about its quality are nevertheless grateful.

The leading idea of the book is proclaimed in the contrast between its subject, industrial society, and the titles of...

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John Holloway (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Hard Times: A History and a Criticism," in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, edited by John Gross and Gabriel Pearson, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, pp. 159-74.

[The essay below, along with David H. Hirsch 's "Hard Times and F. R. Leavis" (1964), represents the most trenchant critical response to Leavis's famous 1948 essay championing Hard Times as Dickens's most accomplished novel.]

I

'With his unbending, utilitarian, matter-of-fact face', Dickens writes of Mr. Gradgrind. That Hard Times is a novel which embodies a moral problem, an issue between ways of living, is by now familiar knowledge; and...

(The entire section is 6151 words.)

David H. Hirsch (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Hard Times and F. R. Leavis," in Criticism, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter, 1964, pp. 1-16.

[The essay below represents one of the two most notable critical responses to F. R. Leavis's seminal 1948 essay on Hard Times, the other being John Holloway's "Hard Times: A History and a Criticism" (1962). Hirsch finds Hard Times "One of the dullest and least successful" of Dickens's works, despite the author's "most commendable" purpose.]

The inability of Dickens scholars to agree in their evaluations of particular novels has become one of the commonplaces of Dickens criticism. Hard Times, especially, has had a checkered career. On the...

(The entire section is 6145 words.)

Daniel P. Deneau (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Brother-Sister Relationship in Hard Times," in The Dickensian, Vol. LX, No. 342, January, 1964, pp. 173-77.

[In the essay below, Deneau details incestuous overtones in relations between Tom and Louisa Gradgrind in Hard Times.]

One of Dickens's major concerns in Hard Times is to display the disastrous results of an educational system which is exclusively factual, rational, utilitarian. As all readers of the novel immediately recall, Bitzer, a product of Mr. Gradgrind's school, dramatically reveals how well he has learned the utilitarian principle of self-interest and how little he knows of gratitude and human sympathy. More to the...

(The entire section is 2187 words.)

David Lodge (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Hard Times," in Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966, pp. 144-63.

[Lodge is an English novelist and dramatist who is also highly regarded for his work as a literary critic and as the editor of several works on nineteenth- and twentieth-century British authors. In the following essay, he evaluates Dickens's rhetorical strategies, which he believes form the polemical basis of Hard Times.]

'It is the least read of all the novels and probably also the least enjoyed by those who read it,' said Humphrey House of Hard Times in The Dickens World...

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David Sonstroem (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Fettered Fancy in Hard Times," in PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 3, May, 1969, pp. 520-29.

[In the following essay, Sonstroem identifies conflict between Factdry statistics and empirical definitionsand Fancyvariously identified with imagination, romance, wonder, and nonsense—as central to the structure of Hard Times.]

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N. K. Banerjee (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Hard Times: A Note on the Descriptive Titles of Its Books," in The Indian Journal of English Studies, Vol. XIII, 1972, pp. 22-28.

[In the following excerpt, Banerjee explores the relation between the tripartite structure of Hard Times—"Sowing," "Reaping," and "Garnering"and Dickens's development of the novel's themes.]

'Sowing', 'Reaping', and 'Garnering' are three descriptive words which appear at the head of each of the three books of Hard Times. These words are connected with an activity which is universal and eternal. They are all the more curious in the context they are used. Being a novel set in an industrial area,...

(The entire section is 2269 words.)

Robert Barnard (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Hard Times, " in Imagery and Theme in the Novels of Dickens, Humanities Press, 1974, pp. 77-90.

[In the following excerpt, Barnard discusses Dickens's treatment of industrial unrest and his characterizations of Gradgrind and Bounderby in Hard Times.]

"I am afraid I shall not be able to get much here."

Dickens's disappointment in the Preston power-loom strike was obvious: the town was quiet, the people mostly sat at home, and there were no hints whatsoever from which he could work up one of his big set-pieces. He would have been much happier, artistically, with something of a more...

(The entire section is 5605 words.)

David Craig (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Hard Times and the Condition of England," in The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change, Oxford University Press, Inc. 1974, pp. 109-31.

[In the following essay, Craig details Dickens's use of cultural and popular elements in Hard Times.]

Dickens's flair for expressing matters of common concern in their own style shows in the very title of the novel in which, for once, he dealt with the average life of his time. Most of the twenty-five possible titles for Hard Times and the fourteen he short-listed suggest, usually by a cliché or a pun, the theme of human life ground down by calculation and routine: for example, 'According...

(The entire section is 8649 words.)

Joseph Butwin (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Hard Times: The News and the Novel," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 1, June, 1977, pp. 166-87.

[In the following essay, Butwin examines Hard Times as a novel of social reform and compares it with social-reform journalism of the period.]

Modern criticism tends to judge the novel that aims at social reform by standards that are appropriate to another kind of novel. This tendency is typified by Virginia Woolf s rejection of the novels of Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy according to standards that she derives from the novels of Laurence Sterne and Jane Austen:

What odd books they are!...

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Barbara Hardy (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Late Novels," in Charles Dickens: The Later Novels, edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert, Longman Group Limited, 1977, pp. 13-34.

[In the excerpt below, Hardy examines Hard Times as one among several novels in which Dickens chose not to affirm a sure solution to the social problems he addressed.]

Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations limit their concluding demands on the reader and do not expect us to settle down and see everything and everyone as now prospering after all that pain. The sense of reality begins in Hard Times (1854), with a toughening of moral humours in the two chief women...

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Harland S. Nelson (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Meaning of Dickens," in Charles Dickens, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 190-209.

[In the following excerpt, Nelson cites Hard Times and incidents in its plot in the course of illustrating the importance of life's mystery and diversity as presented in Dicken's works.]

Though there is little of nature in Dickens, . . . mere is a significant touch in that description of Bleak House: the "still older cottage-rooms in unexpected places, with lattice windows and green growth pressing through them" imply an original and intimate connection with nature, and the irregularity of the house makes it seem a living organism which has developed a form answering to...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)

Roger Fowler (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Polyphony and Problematic in Hard Times, " in The Changing World of Charles Dickens, edited by Robert Giddings, Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1983, pp. 91-108.

[Here, Fowler discusses Dickens's use of language and dialect in Hard Times as a tool for characterization and "unresolved ideological complexity. "]

The polarization of critical response to Hard Times is familiar enough to make detailed reporting unnecessary, but since this polarization is a fact relevant to my argument, I will recapitulate it briefly.

Popular reception of the novel has been largely antagonistic or uninterested. The character of the...

(The entire section is 6064 words.)

Juliet McMaster (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Hard Times: 'Black and White'," in Dickens the Designer, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1987, pp. 177-92.

[In the following essay, McMaster examines how Dickens uses color imagery in Hard Times to reinforce its characterizations and themes.]

In Hard Times Dickens made colour a major feature of design. One of the titles he considered for it was 'Black and white.' The novel is patterned on a progression between the two most powerful scenes: the first in the 'intensely whitewashed' schoolroom at the beginning, with its albino star pupil, Bitzer, so pale that he looks as though he would 'bleed white,' and the second set in Sleary's darkened...

(The entire section is 6436 words.)

Jean Ferguson Carr (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Writing as a Woman: Dickens, Hard Times, and Feminine Discourses," in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 18, 1989, pp. 161-78.

[In the essay below, Carr assesses Dickens's "sympathetic identification with feminine discourses in the 1850s" as exemplified in Hard Times.]

In his 1872 retrospective essay on Dickens, George Henry Lewes presents Dickens as an exemplary figure whose career has upset the balance between popular taste and critical judgment. The essay depends on what seems initially an aesthetic opposition between show and Art, between "fanciful flight" and Literature, but these critical terms also demark class and gender boundaries that preserve the...

(The entire section is 6068 words.)