Charles Dickens Hard Times for These Times
The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel Hard Times (1854). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Christmas Carol Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Little Dorrit Criticism, and Our Mutual Friend Criticism.
Perhaps the least-known of all Dickens's novels, Hard Times is a social-protest novel which attempts to lay bare the malignant impact of nineteenth-century industrial society upon the people living in English factory towns. It was poorly received upon its publication in hard cover and has been often overlooked in critical surveys of Dickens's works; still, Hard Times has acquired a growing critical following in the mid to late twentieth century, largely because of critical remarks by three key commentators.
In early 1854, Dickens sought for ideas for a long story to be run in the magazine he edited, Household Words, which faced a shrinking circulation and falling profits. After some thought, he settled upon his theme: the condition of English factory life and its effects upon the laborers who were the victims of its unfairness, squalor, danger, and exhausting boredom. The idea for his yet-unwritten novel "laid hold of me by the throat in a very violent manner," Dickens wrote, and he vowed, in writing Hard Times, "to strike the heaviest blow in my power" for the English industrial worker. Having traveled to Preston in late January to experience life in an industrial city then in the midst of a twenty-three-week textile strike and having read of labor conditions in Manchester (upon which he modelled his Coketown), Dickens began writing his novel. Hard Times appeared in weekly installments in Household Words between April and August, a labor which left Dickens "three parts mad, and the fourth delirious, with perpetual rushing" but which also doubled (by one estimation, quadrupled) the circulation of Household Words. Exhausted upon finishing the novel in mid July, Dickens spent several days drinking heavily, later writing, "I have been in a blaze of dissipation altogether, and have succeeded (I think) in knocking the remembrance of my work out." Shortly afterward, Hard Times appeared in hardcover, published by the house of Bradbury and Evans and dedicated to another critic of British culture, Thomas Carlyle.
Plot and Major CharactersA schoolmaster at a utilitarian private school in industrial Coketown, Thomas Gradgrind insists that his students learn empirical facts alone; humor, music, and imagination are banished from his classroom and from the lives of his children. The five Gradgrind children embody their father's philosophy, which was widely discussed and praised in early- to mid-nineteenth-century Britain. One day after school, Gradgrind is disturbed to discover his two eldest children, Tom and Louisa, attempting to peek through the walls of a circus tent; his displeasure increases when the two are unapologetic about this offense against the principles by which they have been raised. Puzzled by their behavior and determined to correct it, Gradgrind consults with a friend, Josiah Bounderby, a manufacturer and banker, who advises him that the children have been corrupted by a schoolmate, Cecilia ("Sissy") Jupe, the daughter of a circus rider. Before he can remove Sissy from his school and from his life, Gradgrind discovers that the girl's father has deserted her; moved by compassion and against the warnings of Bounderby and his own philosophy, he decides to raise Sissy in his own home and to allow her to continue attending his school. Years pass, the children grow up, and Bounderby sets his cap for Louisa, who agrees to marry this wealthy financier, thirty years her senior, to please her brother Tom, who has grown into a dissolute young man and now works at Bounderby's bank. The marriage rankles Bounderby's elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, who mistrusts and begins spying on Louisa.
Meanwhile, Gradgrind, now in London as a member of Parliament, sends a young associate, James Harthouse, to Coketown to gather data on British economic and social life. Harthouse is directed to Bounderby's household, and while he finds Bounderby himself a self-aggrandizing blowhard, full of expansive talk about being a self-made man, he is smitten by pretty Louisa and sets about wooing her away from her husband and loveless marriage. He is successful, and soon he and Louisa are making plans to run away together—unaware that watchful Mrs. Sparsit is aware of their intent. Meanwhile, to the amazement of all, Bounderby's bank is robbed, and the authorities name one of Bounderby's employees, Stephen Blackpool, as their prime suspect. Blackpool, who had been mistreated by Bounderby, had been seen loitering in front of the bank shortly before it was robbed, in the company of an old woman known as Mrs. Pegler. The climax of the novel is reached when Louisa, having agreed to elope with Harthouse, chooses instead to return to her father's household; Mrs. Sparsit informs on Louisa and Harthouse, causing Bounderby to demand that Louisa return to him, which she does; Blackpool is cleared of all wrongdoing, Tom is found to be the real bankrobber; and Mrs. Sparsit, seeking to further ingratiate herself with Bounderby, tracks down Mrs. Pegler, who is revealed as Bounderby's own mother—who proceeds to publicly deflate Bounderby's claims of a Horatio-Algeresque career. Harthouse disappears. With the help of Sissy, Tom escapes Bounderby's vengeance, and Mrs. Sparsit is released by Bounderby for her meddle-someness. Bounderby dies a few years later, and the Gradgrinds, bereft of all that makes life meaningful and pleasant, face long lives of boredom and misery.
Like the novels that preceded it—notably Dombey and Son and Bleak House—Hard Times is concerned with industrial society, but, as Edgar Johnson has written, "it is not so much a picture of its ramifications as a presentation of its underlying principles. It is an analysis and a condemnation of the ethos of industrialism." Rife with symbolism, the novel focuses upon characters not as human types but as products of the industrial age. Throughout the novel there is a tight, airless atmosphere informed by the utilitarian ethic; English life is no longer organic and whole but lived according to a poisonous theory which allows the rich and powerful to exert their will upon their employees and upon nature itself. The industrial city of Coketown is itself begrimed into colorlessness, shrouded in fumes and the unending plumes of reek arising from its many chimneys. The characters, with the exception of Sissy Jupe and members of the circus troupe, act less like human beings than like automata, programmed to respond to life and to each other by standards of measurable expediency alone. Freedom, humor, and art are symbolized by the circus performers; in glimpses of them (and thus, into the lives of characteristically humorous Dickensian characters), Dickens contrasts the life of imagination with the life of utility.
Reviews of Hard Times marked it as a rare failure by Dickens. Critics found it variously misguided in its politics (Lord Macaulay found little but "sullen socialism" in the novel), largely humorless, hamhanded in plotting, marred by overdone caricatures, satirically off-target, divided in interest, and philosophically muddled. By the middle of 1855, less than a year after its appearance between hard covers, Hard Times lagged in sales far behind the three Dickens novels that immediately preceded it, trailing as well the author's minor Child's History of England (1852-54). The work's single critical accolade, met with widespread derision for a half century, appeared in 1860 in an article by John Ruskin, who wrote that he considered Hard Times, of all Dickens's works, "the greatest he has written." Numerous scholars, beginning with David Masson in his British Novelist and Their Styles (1859) and extending through Eleanor Graham's Story of Charles Dickens (1952) simply ignored Hard Times altogether in their discussions of Dickens, with others mentioning the novel in brief, sometimes chronologically inaccurate, asides. In the midst of its perpetual critical drubbing, Ruskin's remark was recurrently held up for curious examination, receiving no support until Bernard Shaw, in his preface to a 1913 edition, used Ruskin's comment as a springboard from which to find in Hard Times an "enormous" increase in Dickens's strength and intensity as a writer, adding that "the power that indicts a nation so terribly is much more impressive than that which ridicules individuals." Aside from this assessment, many critics during the first half of the twentieth century viewed Hard Times in a manner summarized by Stephen Leacock: that it "has no other interest in the history of letters than that of its failure." But a watershed in the critical history of Hard Times was reached in 1947 with F. R. Leavis's seminal essay "The Novel as Poem (I): Hard Times" in his periodical Scrutiny; this essay was reprinted with slight revisions as "Hard Times: An Analytic Note" the following year in Leavis's The Great Tradition, gaining wide attention. In this lengthy essay, Leavis sided with Ruskin and Shaw in writing that he considered the novel a "masterpiece" which, "of all Dickens's works . . . is the one that has all the strength of his genius, together with a strength no other of them can show—that of a completely serious work of art." By virtue of his critical stature as both a literary scholar in general and a Dickens scholar in particular, Leavis produced an essay that could not be ignored by subsequent commentators upon Hard Times. During the decades following the appearance of Leavis's "Analytic Note," scholars have scrutinized Hard Times through less jaundiced eyes, with several critics finding merit in the work (though not finding it Dickens's masterpiece, as had Leavis), while others—notably John Holloway and David H. Hirsch—attacking Leavis's position with thoroughgoing incisiveness, with Hirsch asking in conclusion, "For what, after all, can be more harmful to a genuinely great author's reputation than to insist that one of his dullest and least successful works is one of his greatest?" Critical essays of the 1970s through the 1990s have often moved beyond Leavis's essay and its critics to focus upon issues of gender, labor-capital relations, and politics in Hard Times.