Dedicated to social critic Thomas Carlyle, Hard Times represents Charles Dickens’s first work of overt social criticism and reflects his contempt for utilitarian ideals of progress that valued that which produced the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Coketown, the setting for Hard Times, is a mill city that represents the worst aspects of what the Industrial Revolution was doing to British people in the nineteenth century. In Hard Times, it is this revolution that Dickens blames for England’s moral, legal, spiritual, and intellectual decay.
While all of the characters in this novel are flawed or damaged because of the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, Dickens holds Josiah Bounderby in the greatest contempt. In him, Dickens embodies the worst characteristics of the middle class: self-absorption, arrogance, and a lack of compassion for others in need of help. A self-made man, Bounderby demeans his family, claiming to have escaped an abusive childhood through his wits alone. While it makes for a heartrending story, Dickens eventually exposes Bounderby as a fraud. Rather than having been abandoned as a child, Bounderby actually grew up in a loving, comfortable home. The reason he presents his family as villains is that, in Bounderby’s eyes, they are not successful people because they do not prize self-reliance above all else, even love. In fact, Bounderby seems to think that love is just another acquisition, something he can have if he has the money to buy it. This is his attitude as he pursues Louisa Gradgrind to be his wife.
The Gradgrind children—Louisa, her younger brother, Tom, and their siblings—are raised and educated by a father who prizes the utilitarian values of reason at the expense of the imagination, a system that encourages the fostering of intellect but not the nurturing of the human heart. By some standards, it could be argued that Mr. Gradgrind has provided well for his family; however, when it comes to love, compassion, and supportive understanding—those things that Dickens sees as essential—the Gradgrind family appears much less blessed than either the mill workers or the economically disadvantaged—but loving—group of circus people, who provide Sissy Jupe with her extended family.
Throughout Louisa’s troubles with her husband and during her infatuation with James Harthouse, it is Sissy, not her father or brother, who recognizes the depth of Louisa’s unhappiness. Dickens clearly reviles a system such as the one practiced in Mr. Gradgrind’s home and private school, a system that inculcates only hard facts at the expense of compassion and imagination. Despite Louisa’s rearing and education, Dickens makes it clear that Louisa feels things deeply and needs someone to love, not only because she is attracted to the spoiled, idle dilettante James but also because she cannot contain her hungry imagination during her quiet musings before the fire. Sadly, Louisa can no more tell her father, her husband, or Sissy what is troubling her, for Louisa really does not have the language to give a name to her need for tenderness, playfulness, and companionship—none of which is extolled in her father’s school or exemplified in the behavior of her parents to each other or toward their children.
Dickens begins his story of Coketown with a scene depicting the visit of a government inspector to Mr. Gradgrind’s school to make sure that these children are learning “facts” and not being overburdened with useless activities that involve their imaginations. When Sissy Jupe, a child from the local circus, defines a horse in an imaginative way, Mr. Gradgrind rebukes her. In this simple scene, Dickens sets the stage for the key issue he explores in this novel: the price that is paid when reason is sought at the expense of emotion. Even more so than Mr. Gradgrind, Mr. Bounderby is a strong proponent of the importance of reason over emotion, and he offers himself as an example to his apprentice, young Tom Gradgrind. Unfortunately, Tom has neither the necessary imagination nor the integrity derived from seeing one’s connection and obligation to the community at large to withstand the temptation to gain easy wealth by stealing from his employer’s safe.
However, it is not Tom whom Bounderby and others blame for the theft, but Stephen Blackpool, an honest but poor mill hand. This aspect of Hard Times is Dickens’s way of condemning the social inequalities of the capitalist system, such as the ones that Coketown, Bounderby’s bank, Gradgrind’s school, and the mill represent. Dickens makes it clear that he believes that facts alone will not enable Bounderby or the other town officials to get beyond their class prejudices and identify the real thief: Tom.
Hard Times offers ironic commentary at every turn, as, for example, in the deep regard for each other shared by Stephen and another mill hand, Rachel. When Stephen momentarily has a chance to free himself from the burden of his half-mad, estranged, alcoholic wife by overdosing her on some medication, it is Rachel who unselfishly stays his hand, even though doing so prevents the two of them from marrying. In brutal contrast stands the wealthy, selfish James, whose very name is loaded with irony. When he grows attracted to the now married Louisa, James thinks nothing of pursuing her, nor does he mind losing her after his plot is discovered. For him, unlike Stephen and Rachel, “love” is only a game, one of the many in a world that concerns itself only with material possessions and wealth.
The book’s conclusion is bitter. All of the principal characters are broken, isolated within themselves, or dead. Mr. Gradgrind is chastened to realize that he and his theories of family and education have brought about not only his daughter’s breakdown and ruined marriage but also, indirectly, his son’s disgrace, deportation, and later death. In contrast, Mr. Bounderby—the model businessman—has learned nothing, unaffected by his wife’s desertion. Mr. Gradgrind’s knowledge is dearly bought, for, although he has come to see the importance of love, his prior insistence on “fact” cost him his son and the respect of his peers. Worse, however, is that he must live with the knowledge that his wrongheadedness has denied Louisa a loving husband and children.