Charles Dickens opens Book I Chapter X of Hard Times with the lines:
I ENTERTAIN a weak idea that the English people are as hard-worked as any people upon whom the sun shines. I acknowledge to this ridiculous idiosyncrasy, as a reason why I would give them a little more play.
What does the narrator argue or assume about the relationship between the self and its material conditions in this passage? Consider the use of this connotation, reference, metaphor and narrative voice in this passage as well as its significance to the novel.
This particular sentence seems oddly disconnected from the ensuing chapter, but nonetheless ties the incidents of the chapter to the wider themes of the book as a whole.
The overall narrative takes as its theme the necessity for joy and play as part of the human condition. There are dual villains to the novel, the schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind and his friend the industrialist Josiah Bounderby. Gradgrind is renowned for an educational philosophy that focuses on just facts and omits play from not only education but the upbringing of children. As we discover as the plot progresses, the lack of play and joy in the lives of Gradgrind's children actually warps their characters and weakens rather than strengthens their moral sense.
Chapter 10, however, does not revolve around the education of children but about the lives of Stephen Blackpool, his wife, and his friend Rachel. Stephen is unhappily married and will ask Bounderby for help in obtaining a divorce but Bounderby refuses. Bounderby's focus on extracting maximum profit from his factories at the expense of his workers' happiness, like the educational philosophy of Gradgrind, destroys both the environment of the town (smog as opposed to visible sunshine) and the moral and physical lives of those surrounding him.
For Dickens, the material deprivation suffered by the workers at the factory is almost overshadowed by the way in which their material circumstances, including working hours, regimentation of work, and the condition of the industrial slums, harm their spirit. Stephen's effort to keep his room clean is seen as almost a small rebellion of the spirit against the ways in which Bounderby degrades his workers life, foreshadowing subsequent plot developments:
It was a room, not unacquainted with the black ladder under various tenants; but as neat, at present, as such a room could be. A few books and writings were on an old bureau in a corner, the furniture was decent and sufficient, and, though the atmosphere was tainted, the room was clean.