Hard Times is a favorite Charles Dickens book. It's also one of his shortest and least acclaimed. Those with an unfavorable opinion often say that Dickens's concern with making a statement about society overtook his concern with creating a compelling story.
Yet to understand the conclusion, we must try and get at Dickens's intent with the novel. What was Dickens trying to tell us about society and its preoccupation with empirical knowledge, or as Thomas Gradgrind says,
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.
By the end of the novel, Gradgrind has reversed course. He believes in "Faith, Hope, and Charity." As for deceitful Josiah Bounderby, he dies. Does Louisa have children of her own? "Such a thing was never to be," Dickens tells us. However, she is loved by Sissy's kids.
Yet what strikes us most in the conclusion is the last paragraph. Dickens writes, "Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not."
The call to us, the reader, is jolting. It reminds us of calls-to-action we often see on social media. What are we supposed to do?
Maybe we should think about the times we've suppressed our inconvenient emotions in favor of more convenient, acceptable facts. Perhaps we should think about our own beliefs and if they are really helping us or actually hindering us. Remember how strongly Gradgrind championed facts? Maybe not all strong beliefs are as beneficial to us as we think they are.