Dickens grew to be...
Author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was born in Landport, England and was raised with very little formal education but loved to read adventure novels as a young man. Despite his upbringing, he became Britain’s greatest novelist due to his sharp wit, ambition, and innate sense of responsibility.
Dickens grew to be a social protest novelist largely because of his difficult background. His father was imprisoned under English law for failure to pay debts. As a result, Charles and his entire family also ended up in debtors’ prison. By the time he was twelve, he was already working hard in a shoe polish factory and grew to hate poverty. He developed sympathy for underprivileged citizens in England and his professional career focused on the plight of the needy and mistreated in society.
Hard Times was an early Dickens novel portraying the evils of the Industrial Revolution and the exploitation of factory workers. Although the author stood against violence and unnecessary labor strikes, he became a fervent supporter of unions created to monitor the well-being of factory workers rather than monetary profits. Based on his personal experiences as a child laborer, Dickens penned Hard Times in hopes of sparking social reforms. He used the theme of mistreatment of children as a method of eliciting emotion from his readers.
Dickens’s novel thematically reflects his personal life as a young laborer. He abhorred the concept of turning human beings into machines for profit. The novel opens with Mr. Gradgrind as a speaker in a dingy “monotonous vault of a school-room” addressing a schoolmaster and another adult about the teaching method that should be used to educate the students:
Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!
This opening scene in the novel is akin to a page right out of Dickens’ childhood and mirrors the book's main theme. Children and other factory workers were being cruelly used as machines while the mechanization process of the Industrial Revolution was creating social and economic upheavals in English society resulting in abject poverty.
The author’s personal philosophy is diametrically opposed to that of Mr. Gradgind and the industrialists of the era. As an omniscient narrator, Dickens infuses his own beliefs into the story as a moral guide for the readers in his quest to impact society strongly enough to affect change. One of the best examples of this is found in the words of Stephen Blackpool:
Sir, I were never good at showin o’t, though I ha had’n my share in feeling o’t. ’Deed we are in a muddle, sir. Look round town—so rich as ’tis—and see the numbers o’ people as has been broughten into bein heer, fur to weave, an’ to card, an’ to piece out a livin’, aw the same one way, somehows, ’twixt their cradles and their graves. Look how we live, an’ wheer we live, an’ in what numbers, an’ by what chances, and wi’ what sameness; and look how the mills is awlus a goin, and how they never works us no nigher to ony dis’ant object—ceptin awlus, Death. Look how you considers of us, and writes of us, and talks of us, and goes up wi’ yor deputations to Secretaries o’ State ’bout us, and how yo are awlus right, and how we are awlus wrong, and never had’n no reason in us sin ever we were born. Look how this ha growen an’ growen, sir, bigger an’ bigger, broader an’ broader, harder an’ harder, fro year to year, fro generation unto generation. Who can look on ’t, sir, and fairly tell a man ’tis not a muddle?
When Stephen Blackpool is confronted about joining a union, he expresses his belief that it would be of no benefit to the workers, nor would joining improve factory conditions. Reflecting the author’s own beliefs, he is convinced that in the present social atmosphere, there is no hope of ever improving conditions. There is also no chance for factory workers to advance economically. To feed their families, they must simply do what they are told to do until death.
Dickens demonstrated to the world that English society was a “muddle” of greed. Hard Times expresses his position quite well.