What is a good way to start an essay about the characters, and their roles, in Hard Times?

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In many of Charles Dickens’ novels, the characters he presents to readers often are representative of larger Victorian social trends. Hard Times is no different. Indeed, almost every character in the novel represents some facet of Victorian society. In order for you to progress in writing your paper, you first need to decide which characters you want to focus on and how you want to compare them in a fruitful manner. I argue that it would be helpful for you to group certain characters together and examine what they represent.

For instance, I group the Gradgrind family together as a prime example of the negative effects of Utilitarian philosophy. Thomas Gradgrind, the family patriarch, emphasizes statistical facts and rote memorization over imagination and a sense of humanity:

“A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.... With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to” (6).

His staunch philosophy negatively affects the rest of his family, and this is why examining them together and their roles within the family could prove an interesting approach.

Alternatively, you could compare the plight of the worker Stephen Blackpool with the unsavory character of Josiah Bounderby. These two are perfectly opposite, and you could write a compelling essay examining Bounderby’s role as an entitled, disingenuous “wealth creator” compared with Blackpool’s role as an honest, hard-working, downtrodden member of the working poor. If you decide to go this route, then Marxist criticism will be very useful to your argument.

These are merely two suggestions. There are other ancillary characters that represent other facets of Victorian society, and examining their roles could produce a compelling argument. Every character in Dickens’ novel plays a specific role and represents some component of Victorian culture. 

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