Last Updated January 12, 2023.
Charles Dickens released Hard Times in serial format in the periodical Household Words through the spring and summer of 1854. This was a time when England had become highly industrialized, and working conditions had become almost unbearable in some places, with long hours, low wages, and unsafe conditions that led to injuries and deaths. Dickens wanted to expose these and other social issues through his novel, in which he employs a combination of satire and tragedy.
Satire uses exaggeration, ridicule, irony, and even humor to throw a light on social problems and individual vices, foibles, and foolishness of all kinds. In this novel, Dickens satirizes industrial cities like Coketown by sarcastically referring to the factories as “fairy palaces” and describing the coils of smoke as serpents. He ridicules mill owners who take pride in being self-made men. His Mr. Bounderby is an exaggeration of such claims, and herein lies the satire, but Dickens also points out the unfairness of the owners and their lack of respect for their workers in Mr. Bounderby’s treatment of the innocent Stephen.
Satire also appears in Dickens’s portrayal of Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy of education. Here the author targets Utilitarianism. This movement focused on facts and judged just about everything on the basis of its practical usefulness. The novel reflects such ideas in the focus on facts under Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. M’Choakumchild and on the insistence by Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind that horses do not belong on wallpaper nor flowers on carpet because they do not reflect reality and serve no useful purpose. There is exaggeration in this, of course, but that is part of the satire. Dickens’s critique of the ideas is clear.
The novel’s tragedy appears in the plight of the workers, especially Stephen, Rachael, and Rachael’s younger sister. Dickens exposes the powerlessness of the workers. Stephen has no recourse when Mr. Bounderby fires him. There is nowhere he can turn for help. In fact, his name is so blackened that he must change it to find work anywhere. Rachael’s younger sister appears to have died due to poor working conditions. Yet the way the workers are attempting to change their lot is also subject to the author’s criticism. The orator Slackbridge is an outsider who claims to want to unite the workers but actually sows division among them as he ridicules Stephen’s common-sense caution.
Stephen, in fact, presents the author’s ideas about how to solve at least some, if not most, of the social issues of the day. If only people would treat each other with kindness and respect, as real human beings, and if they would come together and try to understand each other, then perhaps things would change for the better. Stephen becomes part of the tragedy, but he leaves readers plenty of ideas for reflection.
Dickens uses a great deal of symbolism throughout Hard Times as he builds the satire and tragedy of his plot and characters. The novel is divided into three sections, each of which has a symbolic title. The first section, “Sowing,” lays the foundations of satire and tragedy up through the marriage of Louisa and Mr. Bounderby. This section plants the metaphoric seeds that are already starting to bloom. The Gradgrind children’s upbringing in facts alone has shaped their characters negatively. Tom is selfish and sulky. Louisa is apathetic and almost despairing. Stephen and Rachael are struggling in their situations. The next section is “Reaping,” and the characters now reap what they have sown and what has been sown for them. Louisa is miserable in her marriage and unable to deal with Mr. Harthouse’s...
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advances. Tom is deeply in debt and desperate. Mr. Bounderby fires Stephen for causing the trouble the latter was trying to prevent. In the final section, “Garnering,” the full consequences of the characters’ personalities and actions are harvested and threshed. Many things are set to right in the process. Mr. Gradgrind realizes his error. Mr. Bounderby’s lies are exposed. Stephen is cleared even though he loses his life. Louisa discovers a life beyond and better than what she has known.
Dickens also makes good use of symbolism in his characters’ names, which often suggest some trait or quality of the individual. Mr. Gradgrind’s name, for instance, suggests the “grind” that his educational system and philosophy become for his children and for himself. These suck the interest out of life by removing all imagination and sentiment. Mr. Bounderby’s name hints that he wants to leave behind all boundaries to become the man he desires to be. Yet he does so by bounding over morality and into lies. Mrs. Sparsit is “sparse” in her personality. She is bitter and tight, lacking in compassion and generosity. Stephen Blackpool presents a depth of character that may suggest a still pool, yet his situation becomes “black” through no fault of his own. James Harthouse springs like a hart, or deer, from place to place, house to house. He can never settle at anything.
Finally, Hard Times is a study in contrasts. Dickens deliberately sets up contrasts between people to emphasize both their differences and, eventually, their shared humanity. Louisa and Sissy, for instance, are a prime example of this study in contrasts. Louisa has been raised on facts her whole life, and it has left her half of a human being in many ways. She is not capable of interacting with people on the level of the heart or of imagining any way to do so. Sissy, on the other hand, displays a proper balance of heart and head. While she does not take to facts alone, she shows a common-sense approach to life that she combines with a deep compassion and love. Sissy is determined to find the best in people. Louisa often sees the worst. Other sharp contrasts in the novel occur between Mr. Bounderby and Stephen (who look at the world and its troubles from very different perspectives), Mrs. Sparsit and Mrs. Pegler (who exhibit completely different attitudes toward Mr. Bounderby), Rachael and Stephen’s wife (who reveal two highly distinct fates of working women), and Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Sleary (who value decidedly different aspects of humanity). Yet all of these individuals are fully human with positive and negative qualities that make them characters whom Dickens intends to set up as mirrors for his readers and his own society.